Book review: Empire Antartica: Ice, Silence and Emperor Penguins by Gavin Francis

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THERE’S an odd dichotomy at the heart of this fascinating book by Edinburgh doctor Gavin Francis.

Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence And Emperor Penguins

By Gavin Francis

Chatto & Windus, 260pp, £16.99

On the face of it, Empire Antarctica sounds as if it’s going to be (yet) another tale of derring-do from the Great White continent: as base doctor at Halley, an impossibly remote British research station on Antarctica’s Caird Coast, Francis lived for 14 months in one of the harshest environments on the planet – a place where even relatively minor mishaps can have deadly consequences.

Yet, thanks to the wonders of modern technology and the all-pervasive nature of Health and Safety regulations, Halley is also a place where it’s very unlikely anything will actually go wrong, and a place where an overwintering party of 14 scientists and technicians can survive howling gales and temperatures as low as -60C in relative comfort.

In a sense then, although Empire Antarctica’s setting would seem to suggest that it might have a lot common with the writings of Scott and Shackleton – and indeed, it quotes from both – in fact, it is more akin to Xavier de Maistre’s A Journey Around My Room.

Thanks to the fact that it has the word “Antarctica” in the title, book shops will doubtless file it away in their “travel” or “adventure” sections, but in truth this is a valuable addition to the Literature of Confinement. The few physical journeys Francis makes are only of limited scope and interest, but the intellectual voyage of discovery he is able to undertake, thanks to the very specific circumstances of his voluntary imprisonment, is nothing short of epic.

Francis writes: “I wanted to throw myself into an extended stay somewhere remote, a place where for weeks and months I would have few responsibilities and unlimited mental space. Antarctica seemed like the only place that could offer me that time, space and silence, while still ostensibly working as a doctor.” That “ostensibly” turns out to be about right. Apart from a little light dentistry, Francis’s skills as a physician are never really tested during his time at Halley. There are no broken bones, no life-threatening illnesses, no heroic tales of life-saving surgery performed at the bottom of the planet, with the nearest hospital thousands of miles away.

And so, blessed with a singularly undemanding day job, Francis is free to take his mind for an extended wander. At the beginning of the book, the author’s intellectual aims sound a little prosaic: “I hoped that having so much time to think might make it clearer to me what path to take in my own future; whether to aim for a life of travel and expeditions, or commit to a profession and put down roots.”

But don’t worry: Francis gains a good deal more insight about the human condition than the typical gap year student.

Whether he’s writing about the workings of group dynamics in extreme environments, the way the indigenous peoples of the High Arctic discuss the phenomena they see in the night sky, or the surprising degree of comfort he is able to find in the against-the-odds survival of a nearby colony of emperor penguins, there is often an uncommon depth of thought behind his words.

You get the distinct feeling many of the things he writes about have been mulled over at great length during his many months in the dark, and that the words on the page are only the tips of much larger icebergs, hidden from view.