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The Last Lamppost in the World

October 1, 2013 by Bill Manhire

New Zealand's official involvement in Antarctica began in 1923, when the British government took possession of the territory now known as the Ross Dependency and entrusted its administration to New Zealand. Scott Base was constructed in the territory in 1957 and has been the permanent base of operations for New Zealand ever since. Over the years, thousands of international explorers and scientists have passed through New Zealand on their way to and from Antarctica, inspiring a widespread fascination with the frozen expanse.

In 1996, after an official review concluded that Antarctica is "strategically important to New Zealand as a Southern Hemisphere nation," the government established Antarctica New Zealand. One year later the Artists to Antarctica program was introduced. It awards annual fellowships to writers and artists of all disciplines to visit the continent and explore it in their work. Poet Bill Manhire was one of the inaugural fellows. He later compiled and edited The Wide White Page, an anthology of imaginative writing about Antarctica.

How did you become interested in Antarctica?

Well, I was born in Invercargill--called by Rudyard Kipling "the last lamppost in the world"--so I grew up knowing that if I got in a small boat and rowed south for a very long time, I would eventually bump into an iceberg. But my sense of Antarctica was probably shaped by the heroic explorers. I saw the John Mills movie Scott of the Antarctic when I was about ten. And Scott and Shackleton both passed through New Zealand; Port Chalmers was Scott's final landfall before he headed down towards the pole. So the explorers were part of the local mythology. I also remember when I was at high school in Dunedin that the streets were full of American sailors who were all part of Operation Deep Freeze--all coming and going from the ice. If you're from the south of New Zealand, you probably have the same relationship to Antarctica as many Australians have to the desert interior: you may never go there, but it's part of your psychic geography.

Operation Deep Freeze? That sounds rather sinister…

My guess is it just comes out of the American military’s need for sexy names for their different campaigns and operations. It all came out of the International Geophysical Year, 1957-1958. That’s when the U.S. set up McMurdo Station, while New Zealand started Scott Base, just over the hill from McMurdo. Operation Deep Freeze still exists, at least as a name for access logistics, only now it’s airborne, out of Christchurch.

I wonder if the little girls of southern New Zealand were similarly interested in all things Antarctic?

I doubt it. Their function was to admire the sailors. It’s only fairly recently that girls have been allowed inside the polar tents alongside the boys. That’s why Ursula Le Guin’s famous story “Sur,” which purports to be the journal of an all-female South Polar expedition, has such a huge masculine history to play against. And though it sounds ridiculous, Antarctic writing is full of brave, masterful men who are busy penetrating the virginal interior. Try Admiral Byrd on this: “At the bottom of this planet is an enchanted continent in the sky, pale like a sleeping princess. Sinister and beautiful, she lies in frozen slumber.” Well, guess who’s coming to wake her…

It sounds like perfect fodder for a slightly racy Boy’s Own adventure story. Did you have a favorite Antarctic hero?

I think I admired Oates. That’s pretty predictable. Oates is the one who famously walked out of the tent into the blizzard during the return from the pole—one of the celebrated instances of self-sacrifice. He was thirty-two. There are some very well-known words: “I am just going outside, and may be some time.” It would be hard to find a better exit line, unless it was somewhere in the Icelandic sagas. I don’t think it occurred to me that Scott might have been trying for days to encourage Oates to leave the tent, as some later writers have suggested. And now it strikes me as odd that we’re supposed to either admire Scott in all the old heroic ways, or see him as an incompetent fool who made inept mistakes at every point. I don’t see why he can’t be a hero and a mistake-making creature at one and the same time. There’s a story that the last words in his journal are not the famous, somewhat theatrical ones—“For God’s sake, look after our people” or “Had we lived I should have had a tale to tell”—but a sort of petulant scrawl: “Don’t believe a thing Evans tells you.” Too good to check, of course, but I like the possibility of a man who might have felt and written both things. There’s a wonderful villanelle by Derek Mahon that picks up on that heroic/unheroic possibility in terms of Oates’s final words. The poem’s repeat lines are:

I am just going outside and may be some time.

At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.

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