I never liked that whole thing of bringing your music along. It can be funny, listening to James Brown while driving through the Jordanian desert, but I always thought it was a con. You’re just giving yourself a bogus lifeline in the turmoil of travel, setting one movie in your head against another, like they’re real. Better to feel the dislocation. Let the ideas of the place you’re in infiltrate.
Our ship left Cape Town yesterday, bound for the British Antarctic Survey’s research station Halley, where I’m making a radio programme. Until we get there, in two weeks’ time, there’s not much to do. Lying on my bunk yesterday evening, as the ship rolls and pitches in a Force 7 gale, I tap on Nigel Kennedy’s Four Seasons.
I’ve loved it ever since I heard it as a teenager in the 80s. It’s a shouty, teenage thing, Kennedy self-consciously shoving a firecracker up the backside of Vivaldi as phone-hold music, screeching and sawing as he drives it all onwards. No hanging about. He’s trying to reclaim ground once thought lost to older, wiser heads.
Unexpectedly, the screechings help me see more clearly, like the Blue Danube in Kubrick’s 2001.
Antarctica is absence. Absence from loved ones, gaps in children’s lives. It is darkless, then lightless. It has no colour, no water, no people. No smell. It is rock, unyielding, or touchless powder. Comfort is there, but not of this world. It has no stories – or, rather, its stories are silent to us, played out in geology and atmospheric chemistry and indifferent forces of magnetism.
In other wildernesses you tread through people’s lives. The Sahara is a human place. Notwithstanding the bleak poetics of outsiders, purportedly empty Arabia rings with humanity. Arizona and Australia and the Gobi and Siberia have always nurtured human purpose.
But not Antarctica. The Greeks and the Romans guessed at the existence of some southern continent – it had to be there, they reasoned, to balance the great lumps of land they knew about in the north. Books have been written about the idea of Antarctica as an unknowable, unreachable presence at the farthest edge of consciousness.
And it’s only in the last fifty-odd years that visiting Antarctica has become anything like routine – for science chiefly, though there is tourism, now, too. It’s like the oldest country in the world, and the newest. But nobody owns it. It is unclaimable territory, with no permanent population, No person lives there who could reclaim the place from the bearded ghost-explorers of the Heroic Age, a hundred years ago. The names of their imperial benefactors live on unchallenged, in the capes and the coasts and the ice shelves.
Like a teenager, I want to scribble them out sometimes, and write in my own.
Shadows lie long in Antarctica. Men go there, predominantly. White men, overwhelmingly. Former colonisers and the once-colonised are just starting to jockey for position there. Perhaps, I think on my bunk as Kennedy screeches, it, too, could do with a few firecrackers. What do we want this place far away to be? What are the movies it should play in our heads?