Inverness Book Festival: Gavin Francis
by Margaret Chrystall
THERE were many poetic descriptions from writer, doctor and temporary Antarctica resident Gavin Francis about that icy world – though "snoticles" wasn’t one of them.
He also told his Inverness Book Festival audience to try not to touch the furry backs of the special gloves he handed round – that’s what you wipe your snoticles on in Antarctica.
But like the big bulky "mukluk" boots that keep your toes toastie at -50 and the emperor Penguin egg that was passed through the crowd, Gavin, used lots of ways to make you feel closer to the faraway world with slides, a wide-ranging talk followed by his answers to probing and imaginative questions from fellow outdoors enthusiast and writer John Davidson and the crowd.
Having spent 14 months at the edge of the continent’s research station Halley as doctor, Gavin had time to take amazing pictures (shared as slides), spend time observing at a nearby emperor penguin colony and writing emails which eventually became his book Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence And Emperor Penguins.The book became last year’s Scottish Book Of The Year.
Interviewer John Davidson asked Gavin if his plan to use the ice as a blank canvas, the time to clear his mind, had worked out that way in practice.
"What did the ice represent for you?"
Gavin explained that he’d originally gone to Antarctica – because he had been fascinated by the extreme environment – but also to take a break from the years of intensive medical training that had seen him qualify and work as a junior doctor.
"Though the ice constrained you, it also offered this wonderful freedom in the sense of time," Gavin said. "There were few tasks to do so you could spend a week in the library if you wanted to or go out to the emperor penguin colony quite close by – there was a hut there where you could spend a few days."
It also gave Gavin time to finish his book on the Arctic, True North: Travels In Arctic Europe.
Having undergone special training on top of A& E experience, Gavin spent two and a half months getting to Halley and arrived on Christmas Eve.
In a session packed with unforgettable images of a world most of us will never see, Gavin recalled where the Atlantic meets the Polar Sea, an actual line in the water where the difference in temperature of each causes the sea to bubble up. He revealed that you navigate your way through icebergs by seeing where the clouds appear darker, signalling gaps in the ice below. He shared descriptions of the landscape where at night the ice makes moon halos or pillars of light, the days when it’s bright for 24 hours a day and the light is lavender.
"Breath has a sound there – it rustles and tinkles."
But the harshness of the environment was emphasised too in Gavin’s short history of the exploration of the area and the attempts to be first to the South Pole.
Asked later by a member of the public how Gavin viewed the contrasting approaches of Scott – who died trying – and Norwegian Amundsen, who was successful, his analysis was thorough.
Scott was more accurate on the temperatures he and his men would face, based on Shackleton’s earlier account – but he didn’t build in enough food contingency if his expedition should face worse conditions. And it did. Amundsen’s temperature estimates were out, but he took more food. Amundson did no scientific research as he went, Scott’s party did a lot.
"Even now, there is still data from Scott’s expedition to be looked at properly," Gavin told us.
And when Scott’s party’s bodies were found, it was with 35 pounds of rocks that they had found and continued to drag along with them because the geological make-up proved that Antarctica had once been tropical.
Gavin confirmed that even in the winter months – "the really beautiful time for me" – he tried to get outside on his cross-country skis and go round the station perimeter.
"I went out without fail on the days when the wind was less than 100 knots."
Earlier, Gavin had said that he had wanted the continent itself to be the central character of his book. And there was a sense of a strange kind of intimacy between writer and landscape when Gavin answered the question about how he enjoyed his three and a half months in the darkness.
"It was wonderful, to go out in the dark, snap on my skis and with everyone else in the base, I would have the whole continent to myself with our nearest neighbours 1000 kilometres away."
Gavin – now working part-time as a GP back in Scotland - would love to return to Antarctica in the future.
"I’d love to, but I’ve got three little kids and it’s just about all I can do to get them to nursery!"
But at least a dad’s role in Scotland is not quite as testing as the emperor penguin dads Gavin frequently visited. They stand through the worst winds and storms of an Antarctic winter, grouped together against the wind, to protect the egg they incubate on their feet while the females are away. After producing the egg, they leave to feed, fatten up and return to take over after the males’ four-month fast and vigil.
"Through the darkness their brains go into a slow-wave hypnotic state and they’re semi-hibernating. But they are the only creatures that can survive out in those temperatures," a clearly-smitten Gavin told us.
Keeping warm with barrels of kerosene for heating used at Halley – plus the journey there by boat – meant Gavin felt he "probably had the biggest carbon footprint of anyone here".
But as the discussion moved to climate change, he reminded there were lessons on acting together.
"The hole in the ozone layer is disappearing, thanks to the world acting swiftly to ban CFCs.
"It shows you can do it when everyone puts their heads together."
Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence And Emperor Penguins (Chatto & Windus). For more: www.gavinfrancis