A highly readable, enjoyable account of one man’s year serving as a doctor at Halley Research Station, the British Antarctic Survey’s base on the Brunt Ice Shelf.
Francis (True North: Travels in Arctic Europe, 2009) was looking for space, solitude and silence—and a chance to get close to emperor penguins—when he signed on with the survey’s medical unit. His job taking care of the men and women on the isolated base was undemanding, giving him time to read, gaze out his window, ski around the base, and help other crew members with their daily chores of keeping the base and its equipment operational and monitoring its research projects. Francis fills his account with many stories of early polar explorers and their ordeals in bitter weather and isolation, lacking as they did the benefits of modern technology that keep today’s polar crews in relative comfort and safety. A keen observer of his surroundings, the author writes vividly of auroras, clouds, stars, sunlight, darkness, ice and snow. Who but a doctor would describe a patch of pink-stained snow as “melting down like gently deflating lungs”? Francis is focused not on his companions but on what lies outside their shelter; although he profiles them briefly, readers do not get to know them well. The author makes clear that, on the base, rules of conduct are enforced, and there are a few hints of strife: He smuggled penguin eggs inside the base but was forced to get rid of them, and he was not allowed to dissect an adult bird. In one chapter, Francis discusses the psychological effects of isolated confinement; at the end of his year, his pleasure at his release into a green and fragrant world is clear. What gets surprisingly short shrift here is the emperor penguin, featured in the subtitle but out of reach for much of the author’s stay in Antarctica.
A literate, stylish memoir of personal adventure rich in history, geography and science.