Under the Pole Star: The Oxford University Expedition, 1935-6.

A British expedition to North East Land of Spitsbergen, with a mixture of English and Norwegian crew, scientists and sailors. Glen was the expedition leader and wrote this account with a debonair and detached style. The assignment was to survey the north east region of the archipelago. Obviously this was a bookish group who did a good deal of reading but seldom reporting on what they were reading. The author himself seems prone to boredom and speaks of it fairly often.

p. 20: For a whole day I was pursued by a pansy who had misinterpreted my morals and Archie’s flowing hair.

p. 35, enroute from Tromso to Spitsbergen: I tried reading Liddell Hart’s Lawrence, hoping vainly to forget my sorrows in the stillness and warmth of an Arabian Desert. I then sought escape in imagining voluptuous pleasures, but however hard I tried to believe myself elsewhere, I was always recalled by the stench of oil and carrots. So weak is mind; had I had the power of a Steiner I should have escaped my body’s failings. Finally I abandoned all effort; the only thing I desired was land. I thought out the days it would take us to reach Spitsbergen and multiplied them into hours. Time, thus expressed, seemed intelligible; for I could subtract each hour as it passed. Days savoured of eternity. Sometimes I cheated, subtracting the hour when only three-quarters had gone. Soon this palled too; only one thing happened, and that regularly. [seasickness]

p. 62, on delays in setting up their bases: Sir Thomas Brown may be an egregious old bore, but he is right in saying ‘Festination may prove precipitation; deliberating delay may be wise cunctation, and slowness no slothfulness.’ Past experience had drummed into me the truth of this platitude, but I made a bad error in tactics by not appearing concerned at the waste of time. Andrew was impatient to begin travelling [sledging], Robert to start work on his station; both interpreted my cheerfulness as lack of interest, and both were annoyed.

p. 64, on summer travel by motor-boat: Storms are occasional, but they add the motif of danger which keeps lazy appreciation distinct from boredom.

p. 84, thoughts on books: A journey, if it were prolonged enough, might have a result rather similar to the products of the Scottish Manse during the first half of the nineteenth century. That famous race of men, bigoted and domineering as they were, put much strength of spine and brilliance of brain into a sound proportion of young Scots of the period. Their education must have been largely responsible for their thorough if intolerant character. There was no wide uncontrolled reading, but a necessarily narrow, discriminate choice, every book of which had to be absorbed to the last word. It was fewness of books, in fact, and not quantity, upon which their brains were trained. It is the same on a journey, when there may be perhaps three or four books, and, more important, sometimes only one companion. These are the only two sources of information, the only two objects of criticism. They may be limited and narrow, but as far as they go, they can be entirely absorbed.

Therein lie both the difficulties and the possibilities of the situation. Both books and companion are studied unceasingly, until every one of their characteristics are fully understood. The strain of maintaining really good relations is thus considerable. For, under such conditions, one’s appreciation of others is dependent upon their real and not their apparent characters. But this truth does not entail the destruction of the conventions of civilized life. On the contrary: good manners and consideration are as important then as ever. There must be frankness, but with it, tolerance.

p. 127, winter on the ice-cap: This was one of the advantages of having changes in the personnel of the station, for after a week or two, one was bound to fall victim to the petit mal—ice-cap lethargy. Considering that

he was to be continually at the station for ten months, Robert retained a surprising amount of energy, but it was of a barometric kind. After reading a book on glaciology, he would suddenly announce that he was going to do some work. For a few days there would be feverish activity. A week later he would declare that he was longing to return to England, because he had so many unpaid bills that he would certainly be sent to jail. That would be heaven compared with this present existence; no snow, no instruments, no tunneling, and someone else to cook the porridge.

p. 130, passages on boredom, and monotony [Robert] was beginning to make the discovery that boredom is incompatible with peace of mind. If only education could inculcate the same outlook, how many social and moral problems would disappear! [what does that mean?]

p. 143, Christmas period at ice-cap: Robert was entirely alone for the next three weeks. Daniel had left some military books, which he started to read in order to learn how to become a soldier. He was so dismayed, however, by the discovery of the word “embussment’, used by the authorities to describe the process of getting men into motor-bus, that he turned his interest back to German lessons.

p. 151, of Robert Moss at end of ice-cap isolation after ten months: June brought his last month on the ice-cap. Spring and summer had sped, minimizing his longing for new books. The only ones that were at all attractive were those on arctic exploration; others made their own parts of the world so much worse than this that the effect was invariably depressing.

p. 156, at the Northern Ice-Cap Station which had a few more people: Conversations varied in accordance with the books we read. Some were wholly interesting, others provocative, while a few were merely boring.

Opp. p. 190: excellent photo of four shelves of books plus Singer sewing machine.