On summer evenings, life at Scott Base revolves around the bar. The sun, while never setting, lowers in the sky, sending sunshine cascading across the floor of The Tatty Flag. The name is only nominal; I only ever heard it called “the bar.”
Scott Base has a capacity of 85, and on a busy night 25 people – scientists, writers, students, artists, journalists – could be sitting around the rectangular-shaped room, chatting. The base is maintained by 30 staff – chefs, mechanics, engineers, cleaners – of whom 10 will stay year round, with the rest just there for the summer months.
In the bar, people gather around the pool table or wait for the early evening news to begin on TV. The newly arrived tend to lean against the bar itself, and the question, “So, what brings you here?” hangs in the air. Others appear in the same clothes they have been wearing for the past four days – the unfortunates whose bags have left, but whose flights haven’t. Those who’ve returned from the field lift glasses of Glenlivet to chapped lips, beards and peeling noses. They sit around – touchingly, I think – in the groups with which they have spent a week, a month, or even three, out on the ice.
An arterial corridor runs through Scott Base, with almost every room extending off it. It feels rather like a sprawling backpackers’ hostel, and the bar, which is roughly central and divided from the dining hall by a sliding plastic partition, is like the common area. It is small and slightly airless, the carpet is stained, and the furniture is not so much arranged as left where it ended up the night before.
The bar is well stocked with beer, spirits and wine – from a one-eyed selection of New Zealand vineyards – with supplies arriving by ship once at the end of every summer. It is all duty free and you can sip on an 80-cent Heineken or a glass of wine ($2.45 a glass or $16.35 a bottle) as you escape the claustrophobia of the bar by taking in the view from the south-facing window.
On a clear summer’s day – and Antarctica’s cloudless days are clear in a way that is impossible to express – the Ross Ice Shelf extends far beyond the horizon. You can lose yourself in that view: in the foreground, fat Weddell seals lie unmoving around aqua melt pools that extend along the ice. The pools change daily as the weather warms, and red and green flags map safe routes between them for the human inhabitants.
There is no middle distance. Your eyes trace upwards and you suddenly have no conception of how far away they are focusing. The mass of the permanent ice shelf is broken only by White Island and Black Island, both named – in the wonderfully adjectival way of the early explorers – by their predominant colors. Sometimes visible between them is Minna Bluff, a spit that protrudes from the mainland out onto the ice, its tip reaching southwards towards the latitude of Captain Robert Scott’s final camp.
The landscape is cold, white, sparse. Almost featureless, it is nothingness on a scale that makes mountains tiny and great distances seem a short stroll. The Ross Ice Shelf is the size of France and this is just a tiny fraction of it. Despite the beer or wine in one’s hand, it is a sobering view.
It is the company that, as always, enhances the shared bottle at day’s end. And at Scott Base – between the bar opening at 5:30 p.m. and closing at a disconcertingly sunny 10 p.m. – the people and the topics of conversation are varied and fascinating. An American scientist talks about the shrinking numbers of Antarctic toothfish, an Italian expert about excavating Adélie penguin rookeries to track their evolutionary past. Captain Scott’s visiting grandson talks of his emotional connection with the continent, and a poet discusses the difficulty of finding the words to describe it all.
Everywhere humans have conversed, alcohol has eased the process, and so it was in the early days of Antarctic exploration. On June 6, 1911, Captain Robert Scott recorded his 43rd (and final) birthday in his diary. To wash down the “seal soup, roast mutton and red currant jelly, fruit salad, asparagus and chocolate”, the team drank “cider cup ... some sherry and a liqueur.” After this “luxurious meal,” he reported, “everyone was very festive and amiably argumentative. As I write, there is a group in the dark room discussing political progress ... another at one corner of the dinner table airing its views on the origin of matter and the probability of its ultimate discovery, and yet another debating military problems.”
Scott added: “Perhaps these arguments are practically unprofitable, but they give a great deal of pleasure to the participants. They are boys, all of them, but such excellent good-natured ones.”
A century later, the same atmosphere prevails. On Friday evenings, when the door to the balcony is opened, cool air relieves the stuffiness and sun steals across the full bar, multitudes of human endeavor intersect; minds meet incredible minds and inform each other’s perceptions of an incredible place. A glass or two loosens tongues while disciplines cross-pollinate; biologists talk to physicists, science historians to glaciologists.
New Zealand poet Alice Miller, who spent two weeks at Scott Base, also frequented the bar. “It’s a bleak place, so drinking is a good idea," she says. However, for Miller, drinking in a place where the sun never goes down was a curious experience: “That was crushing. You walk out and it’s the middle of the day; that just felt completely wrong.”
As a poet, Miller found Antarctica "the hardest thing to describe and the hardest thing to write about.” She was fond of quoting Wallace Stevens to illustrate the difficulties involved. “One must have a mind of winter / to regard the frost,” wrote Stevens in his short poem "The Snow Man." Which, for me, came to mean, one must have been there to understand.
That poem came to define my perceptions of Antarctica, but it is a connection I wouldn’t have made, had it not been for idle conversations about poetry over a bottle of wine in that bar smelling of stale beer at the bottom of the world.
Just as others’ insights were influenced by their conversations, by the time I left it was impossible for me to look out across the ice without Stevens' poem rising in my mind, feeling very much “the listener, who listens in the snow / And, nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”