John Harrison

In Conversation with John Harrison

John Harrison is an award-winning writer and adventurer. His short stories are widely published and he reviews for a variety of publications as well as critiquing manuscripts for Britain’s premier literary advice agency TLC. In twelve years, Harrison, author of Cloud Road and Where the Earth Ends, has visited Antarctica over forty times and spends months there each year guiding and lecturing on adventure cruise ships. In Forgotten Footprints, a Wales Book of the Year winner, he recounts the stories of the merchantmen, navy men, sealers, whalers, and aviators who, with scientists and adventurers, drew the first ghostly maps of the white continent.


Carl Griffin: When it comes to biographies and travel books about Antarctica, why is it that some of the exploration pioneers are not yet household names?

John Harrison: Popular histories tell the stories people already know. In the idiot world of big publishing companies, marketing people often veto books because they would not know how to sell them. Surprisingly this does not lead to the sacking of the marketing department, but if they can only sell books that sell themselves, why are they employed? The only way they know to market a lesser known or unknown name is to put on the hack strap-line ‘How one man…’ etc.

There is a real problem too, the big name stories of Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen are first class stories, powerful, intriguing, character-led, and ultimately tragic, if they are British-Irish, or quietly triumphant, if they are Scandinavian. Why read lesser stories? A third factor is that Scott was taken up for the two war generations as the epitome of self-sacrifice, and Shackleton was later foregrounded more because of his man-management skills, in a generation obsessed with management over technical skills. They are also known public symbols, like Henry VIII or Queen Elizabeth, and easier to weave stories around.

Can you share a few characters worth discovering?

Some explorers – the Scotsman, William Speirs Bruce is the prime example – were revolted by the attention seekers, and made sure they stayed as low profile as they could. One of his men wrote of him, ‘he was also acknowledged to be the highest authority on polar exploration of his time. It was only his intense dislike of publicity and his natural shyness that prevented him becoming one of the outstanding personalities of his generation.’ Bruce slyly remarked that a great deal of other people’s adventures could have been avoided by better planning. He was thinking of Scott and Shackleton.

Other people who deserve a better press are Charcot, a flamboyant and slightly reckless Frenchman who took his butler and quantities of champagne. His work on penguin populations is still being used today to plot changing environmental conditions and shifting territories of different species.

Is it true that the real discoverer of Antarctica was English?

Yes. My favourite unknown of all is poor William Smith, a merchantman from Northumberland who in 1819 was avoiding a storm south of Cape Horn when he discovered the islands off the Antarctic Peninsula. He could not land because of the storm, but found his way back there when he next came through. He was not an explorer, just a merchant captain with a part-share in a small vessel. When he got home from his final voyage his partners had gone bust and he was in debt. He worked on the Thames for a while, then his health broke down. He received little recognition and died in almshouses in the East End of London. He was the last person to discover a continent, and he is unknown. The various maritime places that might have held records of his life were places in the City of London which were hit in the Blitz. There isn’t enough information on him to write a biography; if there were, I would rush to it.

It is just over one hundred years since the death of Edgar Evans, one of Robert Falcon Scott’s ‘Polar Party’ which made an ill-fated expedition to the South Pole. Was the Welshman a heroic explorer or a good example of what happens to explorers who do not take expeditions of this nature seriously enough?

None of the famous British expeditions took Antarctica seriously enough. Scott had read little or nothing about it and admitted so. Amundsen’s men put on weight during the trip, Scott and his men starved and died of scurvy and exposure, something effectively covered up for many years because scurvy was well understood and betrayed poor planning. Edgar Evans from Middleton, on the Gower, was an interesting case. Scott was impressed by his size and physique, and overlooked a lack of discipline in him; after the voyage out he fell off the gangway in New Zealand, drunk. Scott could not judge personality, being over reliant on outward appearance, and was stubborn. Officers close to him tried to persuade him not to take Evans on the Pole expedition – only five went. But until his last collapse he was always meticulous about his work caring for the sledges and kit. One reason Evans suffered first is that he was the largest man in the group, but they all received the same rations so he was starving more acutely than the others. Scurvy destroys the body’s ability to create and maintain strong tissue, and probably stopped his wounded hand healing, and may have led to his falls causing a slow haemorrhage around his brain; his personality became strange in the last days, and the others were afraid of him. Of the four other tent-mates only Scott liked Evans, which must have added to the tensions.

Are there any other Welsh connections with Antarctica?

The geologist Edgeworth David came from St Fagans where his father was rector, and aged fifty joined Shackleton on the Nimrod expedition, where Shackleton got within a hundred miles of the South Pole. Because he was then resident in Australia his Welshness came as a surprise to me. He took part in the first ascent of the volcano Mount Erebus, and discovered, in 1909, the South Magnetic Pole. He nearly died and lost his mind on that trip, but was tough as nails and lived to be seventy-six. On that trip they sledged 1260 miles with no outside support, a record which lasted until the 1980s.

What is life like for permanent residents of Antarctica, including the scientists overwintering and the staff of the modern bases? How long can individual people safely stay in Antarctica?

I think only an overwinterer knows. It is a club which protects its own, precisely because no one who has not been through it can fairly judge people who have. Some bases are large and well appointed, with landing strips, and can receive flights during the winter if conditions are good. There will be beautiful calm days when you can ski and walk, but there may be weeks when the only person to leave the building will be the person releasing the weather balloons. Most bases slim down to core staff or evacuate completely. It would be pointless for some scientists, such as biologists, to stay, because their animals have bred and gone.

As for length of stay, different regimes apply in different bases, for different people. The British Antarctic Survey, the official Government body, tried a period of psychological profiling to select people and concluded it was no better than experienced people interviewing candidates and saying I think so, or no! At one Russian base, a man is widely supposed to have killed another with an axe in an argument over a game of chess. An Argentine base was certainly burned down because their doctor could not face a second overwintering, imposed against his will when his replacement could not come. A common term of duty is eighteen months: a summer to learn the ropes, over-winter, then a summer to hand over the reins and go home.

There is a church at the Russian Bellingshausen Station manned all-year round, and even the priests are rotated every year. Have you been to this church?

At Bellingshausen Station I met a man who did not mind overwintering because his base was warmer than where he lived in Siberia! I have met several priests from that church, and two recently married crew members received a blessing there, and total immersion in the sea. This may also be a form of contraception. The priests have all been earnest young men, Russian Orthodox, and love the church, which I saw being finished off over several seasons, and is built from Siberian pine, the interior still rich with the smell of pine resin mingling with incense.

Are there people native to Antarctica?

There were never any native Antarcticans, except fossil animals, when, due to continental drift, east Antarctica was in sub-tropical latitudes. Just a few people have been born there, as stunts to support sovereignty claims. The first was on 7 January 1978 when baby Emilio Marcos de Palma was born to mother Silvia and father Captain Jorge at Argentina’s Esperanza Base. The heavily pregnant mother was flown in with doctors, gave birth, took a photo-call and flew home. Chile followed suit in, appropriately enough, 1984, at a time when its base didn’t even have a laboratory, which betrays some shabby priorities. For the families who are brought down to work, it is exciting at first, and the internet has made them less isolated, but it would not work for me beyond a summer.

How has the role of women developed in terms of exploration in Antarctica?

For a long time this was an all-male society. Despite women being physiologically better adapted to withstand exposure, traditional views of gender in universities and institutions were slow to change. Wives accompanied husbands long before anyone employed them in their own right. The first women in Antarctica were the Americans Jenni Darlington and Edith, known as ‘Jackie’, Ronne, in 1946, who accompanied their husbands on the expedition of 1946-48 led by Finn Ronne which overwintered on Stonington Island. The Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf and Edith Ronne Land are the cartographical bequests of this trip.

Contrary to its image as a macho society, Australia began employing women in 1976, when a female doctor over-wintered at Macquarie Island, and Britain began soon after. For Forgotten Footprints, Wendy Pyper of the Australian Antarctic Division kindly provided me the following statement about their staffing:

Although the Australian Antarctic Division makes a conscious effort to encourage more women to apply for jobs in Antarctica, the ratio of wintering men to women remains at about eight to one and the profile of an average Australian expeditioner is still male, white and aged between 29 and 32. Many occupations, particularly the trade and technical positions, are fields traditionally dominated by men in the Australian community, and so it seems likely that the participation rate of women, particularly in wintering groups, will not increase dramatically unless the jobs change and women can take their children.

Other countries, such as the Ukraine, tried using women, and when there was friction, decided they would not bring women, instead of sorting out the men causing the problems. In a closed environment it must be very difficult if sexual jealousies arise.

Whole families are brought down to the Argentine Esperanza base which I know well, but this is a political exercise, posturing that there is a normal settlement there, with an eye on reviving future territorial claims: something they have promised, in signing the Antarctic Treaty, they will not do.

Are sledge dogs still used in Antarctica now that technology has improved to a reliable level ? If not, what are the views of experienced explorers on this? What kind of impact did dogs have, or might have had, on native animals and plant life?

I am never sure which is better; ‘sledging’ now reminds me of abuse in cricket. Dogs were first taken there in 1899, and removed before a deadline of 1 April 1994. They were versatile, and hugely good for morale of men getting no other physical comfort than fussing dogs. I vividly remember visiting a Danish base in north Greenland which still had dogs. I had been away from home over a month, and wrestling with a friendly husky, and being climbed on by a pyramid of puppies when I was photographing an Arctic poppy, cheered me up no end.

In Antarctica, fears naturally arose about their droppings spreading parasites and disease, and altering the soil chemistry round bases. From 1963 British breeding was restricted to the Halley Bay site, and from the 1970s no more were imported, to prevent new problems being introduced. There had been an epidemic of fatal seal distemper, and although no link was ever shown, there was fear that diseases to which the wildlife had no resistance could run riot. I have met many men who worked with dogs and in their eyes, being in Antarctica was never the same again. Who enjoys cuddling a caterpillar-tracked tractor?

Can humans too have a negative impact?

The direct human impact on Antarctica has been small, but everything that lives there ultimately relies on the ocean for food, and the world’s seas are all connected. Those round Antarctica are partly protected by currents but studies of seals’ teeth, for instance, have shown rare metals like vanadium starting to appear, showing that industrial pollution is getting into the food chain, if only in small quantities.

Scientific stations were big local polluters, because taking refuse out was difficult, sometimes dangerous if the weather was changing, and always expensive. Oddly, it was the advent of politicians visiting American bases that prompted their big clean up. Most are now extremely conscientious, but some countries with low environmental standards at home, do not meet other nations’ standards in Antarctica. I have seen things I was not impressed by at China’s Great Wall station, and at Argentine bases that they struggle to maintain after their service vessel caught fire some years ago. There is good co-operation, when the Soviet Union collapsed and funding for bases shrivelled, other countries later helped Russia sort out the backlog of maintenance and garbage removal.

How does tourism impact on Antarctica?

Almost all tourism is conducted from small and medium sized cruise ships, so the impacts arise from the detail, and from accidents. Occasionally alien plants are found growing in corners where tourists have brought seeds stuck in Velcro or on their boots, but they don’t last long. Tourists alter the behaviour of wildlife in small ways. Any impact on breeding is usually because their proximity disturbs predatory birds like skuas and large nesting birds like the albatross-sized southern giant petrels. The penguins do just as well or better at the prime tourist spots. At the busiest, the historic British base at Port Lockroy, you will often see gentoo penguins nesting next to or under the ramp leading to the front door. But you cannot be complacent. One animal is still rare down here compared with the era when the continent was discovered: the whale. Stocks of most species have never recovered from commercial whaling, which did not stop until the modern era.

Both science and tourism can create maritime accidents. The worst by far in environmental terms was an Argentine supply vessel with fuel on board, ignoring instructions from a US base and coming in on poor Argentine charts, hitting a rock and spilling fuel. The veteran cruise ship Explorer sank when I was down there, but all passengers and crew were saved and the ship sank in very deep water with no wider impact to date.

An international treaty regulates behaviour strictly, and there is a moratorium on mining and commercial activity. The crucial time will come when technology improves to make mining more profitable in this hostile environment. One could picture a scenario where some rare metals needed for hi-tech uses are cornered on world markets, a strategy China is pursuing, and Antarctica looks like the easy option for cheap ore. Who would back Russia or China to forego the opportunity to plunder a faraway shore no one sees, or back the USA’s powerful mineral exploitation lobbies to stand by and watch?

Tourists may prove valuable in future lobbying, they are the most numerous category of people who know it and feel protective towards it.

Now that your book on Antarctica has been completed and published, do you still visit?

I plan to work in Antarctica again in the coming southern summer. About four cruises would do, they vary between a dozen to nineteen days each. With its purity, simplicity and extremes, it is a place like no other, but the cruise work is also a paying job, and income directly from writing is very sporadic, so the financial stability lecturing and boat driving brings makes the economics less worrisome. I spend next to nothing when I am away, and come home able to write without financial distractions for months.

Where has your latest book taken you?

The working title is 1519: A Journey to the End of Time. I have just come back from four months in Mexico, following the route of the Conquistador Cortés. It was tough going as I was still not eating properly after brutal treatment for throat cancer a year ago, which seems to have done its job. Cortés’s expedition was the first extended contact between the continental natives and Europe, and is a pivotal moment in world history. Mexico City was the largest and best run city in the world, until the Spanish got hold of it. At my computer I daydream about something else, the Maya jungle sites. I was able to visit over half a dozen. There is a magic about walking through history while howler monkeys in the trees above make the valley ring, and leaving in a launch past huge crocodiles basking on sand banks.

How was it a journey to the ‘end of time’?

I followed the 1519 route of Cortes along the Gulf coast of Mexico from Yucatan to Veracruz and then overland to Mexico City. It is a travel book structured around the nature of the contact between New and Old Worlds – this was the first contact that was more than casual – and the way each side perceived the other and attempted to deal with a clash of cultures with no previous knowledge of each other. Each side had a millenarian streak in their philosophies, and both sides thought the world was heading for destruction in the unstable last phase of earth history. The Mesoamerican calendars saw us as living in cycles of time, with highly unstable changeovers between them. The Aztecs thought that come what may this ‘sun’ was the last. Columbus thought the world would end in 1650 when all the heathens were converted.

After the Mexico book, I am, rarely for me, uncertain. A year ago I was not sure I was going to be around to go anywhere. I think going outside Latin America would refresh me. An idea relating to the tea or spice trades and the Orient might do it.

 original illustration by Dean Lewis