On Blue Ice – A Not Very Brave Journey to Antarctica
Random House, $26.95,
Travels with my Mother
The most memorable travel books don’t merely transport you to foreign parts, they take you on a tour of the writer’s mental landscape. You get to see the world through the author’s eyes and to glimpse what’s going on behind them too. The view isn’t necessarily pretty. It isn’t even always truthful. Nor are these the travelling companions – at least as they appear on the page – whom you might choose in real life.
You’d go out of your way to avoid being cooped up in hotel rooms with the curmudgeonly Paul Theroux, or having to buy a train ticket with Jenny Diski, dedicated smoker and depressive. Even Bill Bryson’s unstoppable good humour might wear thin on a drive across the continental US. And if Jonathan Raban were navigating one of the most intimidating sea passages in the world with you on board, you’d hope like hell he wasn’t too preoccupied by the state of his marriage.
Such books are best read in the comfort and predictability of your own home, with only a mild commute in your foreseeable future. It’s the other sort you slip into an already over-loaded suitcase – the kind that tells you where to go, how to get there, where to stay and what to look at. And although the distinction is far from strict – listen to those opinionated voices in Let’s Go and Lonely Planet – when departure day dawns, we know which kind of book to pack.
If I were off to Antarctica (and one day I’d like to be) I’d take Kim Griggs’ On Blue Ice, having already raced through it once. Griggs is a journalist by profession and well-trained in telling readers what they want to know and not letting them wander about with unanswered questions. She subtitles her book A Not Very Brave Journey, but the truth is that these days you don’t need a great deal of that commodity when venturing near the South Pole.
Antarctica has iconic significance for New Zealanders (when did you last murmur jokingly, “I’m just going outside and I may be some time”?) Perhaps it’s the pole’s proximity – Scott Base is only a couple of hours more flying time away than Sydney – coupled with what is for most of us the impossibility of ever getting there. It gleams in our collective imagination – its purity and splendour, its icy disregard for human life. It promises a glimpse of the sublime, an antidote to urban daily life that in The Art of Travel Alain de Botton tracks back to Wordsworth’s nature worship. We expect to be enlarged and deepened by an Antarctica experience.
So the biggest disappointment may well be that our encounter will always be mediated by someone or something; you won’t be alone outside for a second. The visitor is instructed, kitted out, and shepherded at every frozen step. It’s never just you and the icy wastes: it’s you, your fellow visitors and minders; you muffled by layers of high-tech clothing; you trying to build a snow shelter that your life will depend on should your minders contrive to lose you; it’s you wanting to take a pee in the great outdoors.
Yes, bet you hadn’t thought of that. But Griggs does. And immediately you’re avid to know how. Readers of a delicate nature, skip this bit. You see, women can’t bare their bums and squat in the usual manner when it’s 20 below, so you’re given, and instructed in the use of, the Freshette 4-2-P. This comprises a pink trough and a white extension tube that allows you to open your fly and – with some practice – urinate like a bloke. But only at designated spots. They don’t want all that lovely white sullied by nasty random yellow bits.
Griggs’ breezy account of her seven days on the ice is plainly written, cheerful and honest: she writes of the boredom and discomfort of the flight south, of dodging dishwasher-loading duty on the base and having to share sleeping quarters. You get potted ripping yarns of Antarctic exploration, geo-political and ecological rundowns, and a close-up of communal base life. There are also simple maps, and photographs. It is, in short, a handbook for those heading south.
Peter Calder is a journalist, too, but Travels with my Mother falls towards the other end of the travel writing spectrum, being at least as much about the inner journey as the outer, and more literary in tone. Calder proves himself the exception to the rule that most of us would hesitate to set foot beyond the house with this kind of writer. While travel is usually a break for the perimeter fence of real life, this decent son took real life with him in the form of his aging mother. His loving care for her recommends him as a travelling companion, and is measured – not negated – by his recurring exasperation.
His mother grew up regarding herself “less as a New Zealander than as an Englishwoman marooned in an alien land.” So when his uncle, author of two self-published family histories, left his sister $15,000 for a trip Home and Calder realised she was too nervous to go alone, he decided to take her, to lead her “through the hard bits, just as she once led me through the hard bits, holding her steady to stop her falling as she walked through a dangerous world, just as she once did for me.” He travelled as “babysitter and tour guide, driver and luggage carrier. I was adult; she was child.”
The trouble with this hard-won perspective on our parents is that they often refuse to share it: they are, like Calder’s Mum, inclined to think they are still the grown up, they’re in charge and they know best. The two struggle for control, and Calder cringes like an adolescent when his mother unwittingly disturbs fellow air passengers, makes cheerfully racist remarks that are audible to their subjects, tells yet another total stranger that mother and son have come “all the way from New Zealand”, and loses her passport for the tenth time.
But his mother’s tolerance – physical and emotional – is impressive too. Freshly discharged from hospital, she has angina and a scarcely broken-in new hip, as well as 80 years behind her. And having survived if not exactly relished following in her ancestors’ footsteps around Cornwall, she then had to get through her son’s version of it: “even when moved to scrawl ‘This is rubbish’ in the margins of the manuscript, she never lost sight of the fact that this wasn’t necessarily what happened; it was just what I wrote.”
The middle-aged Calder is typical of generations of Pakeha reared here on English food, English poetry, English history; who call New Zealand home but the United Kingdom Home; to whom the pilgrimage to London and beyond was always more than seeing the world, it was discovering where your world came from. Some of the most engaging passages in this well-written book are side-journeys into Calder’s euro-centric past (and anyone who doubts the wisdom of abolishing corporal punishment in schools should read his chilling account of how things were done at his expensive – read “British” – prep school).
It’s all too little too late for his mother: “I still wish I’d been born there because that’s where my blood is, where my heart is … I’m a New Zealander, but I’m an English New Zealander.” The point of the trip – and the book – for Calder, though, is that it confirms his New Zealandness: “ The landscape through which I drive back from the Bay of Plenty is indisputably mine. It touches my heart in a way England’s green and pleasant land never did … I feel at last more here than before I went away.”
Jane Westaway is co-editor of New Zealand Books. It Looks Better on You – New Zealand Women Writers on their Friendships, co-edited with Tessa Copland, is reviewed on p6.