Sitting on Penguins: Australia and the Antarctic.

The author went as a highly critical “ministerial observer” to visit Australian bases in Antarctica and as a journalist reporting on his 1985-86 trip, “a testimony to the spectacular beauty of the region and an indictment of our treatment of it.”

p. 23: You could read, of course, but there wasn’t much of a ship’s library [aboard the Icebird].

p. 58, describes the tunnel of Mawson’s Hut (1911-14): And then into the cave of the Ice Queen. Angela is there, holding up the light: rows of bunks, shelves with old tins and jars, a line of open boxes with flour and other foods, all looking perfectly edible, a shelf of the paperbacks of Mawson’s day—Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, The Greatest Gift, On Tour with Troodles, To Pleasure Madame, William Le Queux’s The Mysterious Mr Miller. Old newspapers, too. A row of pharmaceuticals, labelled poison, and with them a bottle of Heinz India Relish.

p. 78: Reading Phil Law’s Antarctic Odyssey. It’s a good book. Very Phil—he wants to make sure you appreciate his role. But then, as Patrick Quilty says, his role was a great one, and he has never received his deserts.

p. 142: And as we looked out, far into the mists on the starboard bow, we saw a phantasmagorical solid taking shape, an Antarctic mountain range appearing through the dark clouds—I thought of A Midsummer’s Night Dream and “hot ice and wondrous strange snow.” It was a terrifying iceberg.

p. 148: The captain’s table again, and some good stories from Peter Gormly and Ewald Brune on their medical adventures at sea: emergency deliveries, dead bodies found in cabins, and the like, Peter reminds us that the Ship’s Captains’ Medical Guide very sensibly ends with the prayer for the Burial of the Dead at Sea. A similar book is available in German, and Ewald writes down the resounding title for me: Gesundheitzpflege auf Kauffahrt-seisschiffen.

p. 154: I seek a solitary midnight supper of tea and toast—with the exception of breakfast, meals here never seem to happen when you’re hungry. I take Morley’s Pictures from the Water Trade with me, a witty study of the interactions of the author and the Japanese which, rather to my surprise, I find much to my taste.

p. 161, one bit of Antarctic slang was jafa—just another fucking academic.

p. 182, on new living quarters at Davis Base: A small, camp library, mainly paperbacks and hardly any Antarctic books. A film theatre, with racks of videos and old films.

p. 199: Someone on board today finished Power without Glory, and Peter Gormly has read the recent Buzo novel and doesn’t think much of it. And no doubt I’m being quite unjust to the many on board who read a lot in their own time and own way—Gormly, for instance, takes the London Sunday Times and, he tells me, buys a lot of books. Others are, judging by the noise from below, interested in such areas as bush music.

p. 200, Peter Kerr quoted on the Australian bases and their cultural desert: No books, no collections of Antarctic experiences, no station magazines come out of our bases. These products used to be a staple of polar expeditions. Think of the delight, later on, to those who wrote them. Think of the Antarctic Division’s encouraging the publication of periodic anthologies of Antarctic writing from the bases. We don’t have these things because our educational system has brought us to a point where there is no-one capable of writing down what they think or experience any more. And if they did there (?? would be no one) who would or could read it.

p. 206: I decided to keep out of the way, and spent a profitable day on the bridge, reading Lyall Watson’s marvelous book Whales of the World, full of fascinating ‘incidentals’: the dolphin calf which, when a man puffed smoke against an underwater window, went and got a mouthful of mother’s milk and puffed back; the way dolphins can determine the sex of men and women in the water; the fact that killer whales never kill humans, even when the humans are in seal-like wetsuits.

p. 206-8, on Jan.1, 1986 at Davis Station: Today a very useful day ashore. A delightful morning in the sun, perfectly comfortable in cords and a jumper. A most pleasant lunch in the living quarters with Rob Easther, a man I should like to stay in touch with. A talk to Gillian Deakin about the base library, which is in charge of. We were rather at cross purposes, in fact, I was very critical of the library, as I was of the library at Casey, though at least Casey had some books on Antarctica. (To be fair, books on Antarctica tend to be stolen, and such valuable ones as remain on the bases, Mawson’s The Home of the Blizzard, for instance, are kept under lock and key.) The Davis library mainly consists of paperbacks discarded by previous expeditioners. It would seem to me to be the easiest thing in the world for the Antarctic Division to ask a small committee of qualified people to nominate, say, the ten best Australian novels of the year, the ten best Australian non-fiction books, and the ten most suitable overseas books, sets of each to be sent to our four permanent bases. But this would entail attention to the People Principle [morale issues] I have talked about. There is no regular or substantial subsidy, books arrive from the Antarctic Division on a hit-or-miss basis and, above all, there is no basic library of Antarcticana, locked up or not, in any station. Australian mindlessness in action.

Gillian was defensive, and kept insisting on the right of people to read what they wanted to read at the same time as she emphasized the wide literary tastes to be met with among expeditioners. I couldn’t make her see that I believed in both. No doubt she already saw me, though she’s only been here a few months herself, as an interfering outsider. Fair enough, I suppose, but I’d been asked to look at the ‘cultural’ facilities on the bases, and I still think the libraries a disgrace. Odd to think of the amount of money spent on the buildings, and the contemptuous attitude to the cultural artefacts within them. There’s more to all this than meets the eye. I shall write a special piece on it later.

p. 209, same day when he says he’s a little depressed: Nor has Phyllis Rose’s Parallel Lives helped. In its examination of the lives of the illustrious of a century ago, the book suggests something sinister in the strategies of marriage and family, So, does the consciousness I have of achievements here—including my own achievement, whatever that might be—hide the dishonesties and exploitations, primarily male, so common in those Victorian marriages.

p. 237, Murray-Smith returns to the library issue in the last paragraph of his Afterword: Increased attention is…being paid to Antarctic libraries, and especially to the supply of Antarctic books. I remain unconvinced, however, that enough attention and money is being devoted to the provision of general books, let alone to quality fiction and the like which remain ignored.