IT IS difficult to read this engaging memoir without a smile on one’s face, such is the author’s enthusiasm for the world’s southernmost continent and its endemic penguin species, the Emperor. “Empire Antarctica”, which was published in Britain at the end of last year and has just come out in America, tells the story of Gavin Francis’s time as a doctor at the Halley Research Station, a British Antarctic Survey base formerly known as Ice Station Zebra.
His 14-month role as “Zdoc” comes at the perfect time for Mr Francis. After attending medical school in Edinburgh, he finds himself increasingly discomfited by the promise of a high-achieving career and a life of obligations and responsibilities. Eager for mental freedom, he sees Antarctica as the place to work out what he plans to do for the rest of his life.
In many ways this “empire of ice and of isolation” fulfils its promise, but the peace he seeks is at times hard to find. His responsibilities include not only medically treating his 13 base colleagues and training them in first aid, but also helping out with base chores: collecting and packaging waste, cutting tunnels for plumbing and wiring, and shovelling snow to be melted for drinking water.
This busyness, combined with communal meals and endless socialising, turned the base camp into a “paradoxical space that liberated as it imprisoned”. In search of solitude, he finds he must escape the camp’s day-to-day interactions and calls on his time. He does so by skiing the same route every day, drawing comfort and calm from the fresh air and this “binary world of ice and sky”. His days simplify into a life of routine with few choices. His mind, deprived of distractions, begins to settle.
For Mr Francis, winter isolation and the space it gives him is a great gift. This makes for a sharp contrast with the harsh experiences of the Antarctic explorers—Apsley Cherry-Garrard, Edward Wilson, Scott and Shackleton among them—whose feet trod the continent before his and whose moving stories he interweaves with his own.
And then there are the author’s beloved Emperor penguins, the world’s largest penguin species and the only bird to breed on sea ice. These “masters of endurance” have fascinated the author since childhood, when he saw his first penguin on a trip to Edinburgh Zoo. Not only do they live through storms of hurricane-force winds in temperatures as low as -70 degrees Celsius, but also they are thought to enter a sleep-like state for much of their winter, their metabolism slowing to a chug so that they can survive the cold months.
One of the world’s largest breeding grounds of these penguins is just 20km from Halley. Mr Francis’s descriptions of his visits to this spot, where 60,000 Emperors live in a “great penguin jamboree”, add moments of sheer joy to this mesmerising and memorable book.
From the print edition: Books and arts