What Does the Antarctic Mean? – British Library

Exhibition banner

I went to a fascinating talk at the British Library, entitled What Does the Antarctic Mean?, part of the Cook’s voyages exhibition season. The talk was chaired by journalist Julia Wheeler, who has written books on both the Antarctic and the Arctic, and featured Jane Francis (Director of the British Antarctic Survey), Damon Stanwell-Smith (Executive Director of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators), Jane Rumble (Head of the Polar Regions at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office) and Klaus Dodds (Royal Holloway University of London).

The talk began with a discussion on the significance of Antarctica. Jane Francis emphasised the importance of Antarctica to science, and explained how the continent influences the world: the climate, sea level rises and tides. Klaus Dodds said that 200 years ago, people tended to see as ice as sublime, awesome, terrifying, and now that relationship has been flipped on its head as we have become aware of the human power over ice. He also talked about the imaginative aspect of Antarctica, and mentioned the Antarctic Treaty, which inspired other treaties including those involving space.

Jane Rumble pointed out that 200 years ago no one knew Antarctica existed: its importance has increased in a very short space of time. It is the only place in the world with no wars, no territorial claims. Damon Stanwell-Smith confessed to amazement that a continent larger than North America hasn’t been colonised, and talked about how Antarctica is something you feel – there is nothing like being there.

The group then discussed the Antarctic Treaty. Dodds explained that this treaty was negotiated over 6 weeks in 1959, and involved the 12 parties who had participated in the International Geophysical Year 1957-58. This was during the middle of the Cold War – there was a worry that such collaboration would not continue.

There were many issues. The UK, Argentina and Chile claimed the same territory – could they come to blows? The Australian president was convinced that Russian communists wanted to establish bases in Antarctica, while the USA had seriously considered nuclear testing. The treaty nearly didn’t happen – especially thanks to Australia, France and Argentina. The treaty would only happen if all 12 countries passed it; there was a deliberate decision to avoid mention of mineral resources or there would have been no agreement.

Rumble then discussed the UK’s territorial claims in more detail, starting with the 1908 claim to the Antarctic peninsula region. There was some discussion on whether the UK should claim the whole thing; in the end they didn’t, but they did cajole the Commonwealth nations Australia and new Zealand to claim. France joined in, then Germany tried in the 1930s, following which the British supported Norway’s rival claim. As a Norwegian, Roald Amundsen, was first to the South Pole, that country’s claim should really have been considered earlier, but at the time Norway was a small newly-independent nation and nobody really took them seriously.

Chile and Argentina placed their own claims during World War II. In 1943 the UK set up the first permanent presence in Antarctica – Operation Tabarin. The US put their base at the South Pole, while Russia put theirs in the Australian bit and refused to move. Despite all this, there is still one unclaimed sector, the most remote.

Rumble discussed the huge amounts of scientific collaboration taking place in Antarctica among scientists, who tend to ignore politics. Shared science programmes abound, including a new joint UK/US project investigating a glacier. If it melts, there will be a sea level rise of over 5 metres. Francis pointed out that when the climate changes, it changes at the Poles first, so Antarctica is the perfect place for this research.

Stanwell-Smith talked about the sometimes-controversial business of modern commercial tourism. This began in the late 1960s and has gone from strength to strength ever since. Most visitors are from North America and other anglophone countries, but there has been an increase in Chinese visitors. In the last year there have been more than 50,000 visitors (of whom 9,000 were on cruises – and did not get off the ship), a rise of 17% from the previous year.

Stanwell-Smith argued that allowing visitors is important, albeit in an appropriate way. Most people who visit have a fascination with Antarctica; perhaps they are older and have a long-held ambition to go. Visiting Antarctica also allows the importance of the continent to be emphasised. Francis pointed out that far more than these visitors, the main problem is people who treat the continent like an adventure playground: such as Guirec Soudee, a French man who is travelling around the world with his pet chicken, Monique. It sounds like a fun story, but there was a very real risk that the chicken could have passed on avian flu to the native penguin population.

Dodds spoke about the challenging relationship between tourists and scientists: some scientists see tourists as a distraction, but public outreach is now recognised as an important part of a scientist’s role. Dodds also pointed out that Antarctica still has a very small number of visitors for such a large place.

Finally, Rumble was asked about the most important aspect of Antarctica to the UK government, and responded, ‘Peace and stability.’ A strong treaty system is very important and science is a clear priority.

I really enjoyed this fascinating talk.

Happy Birthday Charlotte – British Library

Charlotte Brontë has to be my all-time favourite author. Jane Eyre was the first ‘classic’ that I ever read, and it is still my favourite book: I find something new in it every time I read it, and I adore Charlotte’s vivid prose.

Yesterday, 21 April 2016, marked the 200th anniversary of Charlotte’s birth, and to celebrate the British Library hosted an event with some guest speakers. Facilitated by Xanthe Arvanitakis, curator at the Soane Museum (where an exhibition about Charlotte’s time in London is currently taking place), it featured Charlotte Cory, Ann Dinsdale and Dame Jacqueline Wilson.


Charlotte Cory is an artist whose series, Charlotte Brontë in Babylon, was recently broadcast on BBC Radio 4. She is the curator of the aforementioned Charlotte Brontë at the Soane exhibition, which sounds fascinating (Charlotte B never visited the Soane, but it was certainly around when she visited London – and hasn’t changed much since – and Charlotte C has tried to present a “what if?” scenario, giving her in a way the chance to visit after her death). Ann Dinsdale is the Collections Manager at the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth: she has worked for the Brontë Society for over 25 years and has written many books on the Brontës and Haworth. Dame Jacqueline Wilson is a bestselling children’s author, and was appointed Ambassador for Charlotte by the Brontë Society recently.

It was lovely to be in a room full of people who are as enthusiastic about Jane Eyre and Charlotte Brontë as I am. In particular I had no idea that Jacqueline Wilson – whose books I read as a child – was such a big fan. Ann Dinsdale and Charlotte Cory also love the book and it was interesting to hear them compare notes about their first introduction to Jane Eyre. All seemed to agree that it was the opening chapters of the novel featuring the young Jane that initially attracted them to the book, which is something that rings true with my own experience.

Even more fascinating if possible were the anecdotes which all of the speakers regaled us with. Charlotte Cory told us a ghost story about a friend who travelled back to London with the manuscript of Jane Eyre (usually kept in the British Library), which had been lent to Haworth for an exhibition. On getting out of the taxi at the British Museum (where the Library was then housed), the taxi driver insisted that there was another passenger in the cab with them: a small woman, who had inexplicably vanished. I also liked the story of the same friend telling off Princess Margaret for turning the pages of the fragile manuscript!

We got to hear about Charlotte’s time in London, in which she spent lots of time visiting tourist sites as well as some time visiting Bedlam – about which she was, uncharacteristically, silent. We were treated to a performance of the “Hippapotamus Polka” which was a popular work at the time, inspired by a hippo which had recently been introduced to London Zoo.

Afterwards, we were treated to a G&T and a slice of birthday cake to celebrate the 200th anniversary of my favourite author.

2016_0421CharlotteBronte04 2016_0421CharlotteBronte03

Don Quixote in Words Pictures and Film – British Library

2016 not only marks 400 years since the death of England’s national poet Shakespeare, but also 400 years since the death of Spain’s national writer Miguel de Cervantes. On April Fool’s Day I attended an event at the British Library exploring the impact of Cervantes’ Don Quixote across four centuries. Don Quixote in Words Pictures and Film featured broadcaster and art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon, Oxford University academic Edwin Williamson, and University of Birmingham academic Rob Stone (it was also supposed to feature graphic novelist Rob Davis, but he was ill).

Andrew Graham-Dixon spoke about the character of Don Quixote, remarking that he is one of the greatest comic characters in literature. He also talked about the character’s influence on later writers and artists, including Picasso, Dali and possibly Jane Austen (Northanger Abbey is a novel in which the protagonist is heavily influenced by a fictional fantasy world). Don Quixote is apparently the second most illustrated book in the world, after the Bible.

Edwin Williamson explored how the novel was created and its impact on literature. It has been regarded as the first modern novel, and has had a huge influence on subsequent fiction. As a Catholic in the Spain of the Inquisition, Cervantes was taking a risk writing the novel, but the madness and delusion of the central character helped him to get away with it.

Cervantes wrote the novel as a parody and a burlesque in order to criticise books of chivalry. His target was not the original books, which gained popularity during the medieval period, but later sixteenth century versions, which were extremely popular in Cervantes’ time and which were simplistic and poorly written. While the first book, in which Don Quixote goes in search of adventure after reading dozens of books of chivalry, was a superb achievement, the second, written several years later, was even better: as Don Quixote journeys on he meets several characters who have read the original book, an interesting twist which takes the story to another level.

Rob Stone discussed the films which have been made about Don Quixote, of which there have been around fifty: the book is a compelling and retellable story, and it is impressive how many different kinds of films have been made all over the world, including a Western version, Don Quickshot of the Rio Grande, a soft porn musical version, and a recent Chinese version with incredible special effects. I was intrigued by how many Russian films have been made, reshaping the Quixote tale into different aspects of Russian culture. The Russian equivalent of Spitting Image even portrayed Boris Yeltsin as an alcoholic Quixote. Some of the most fascinating Don Quixote films are the ones that never got made: we were shown the one surviving scene from the unfinished Orson Welles version, and heard about Terry Gilliam’s more recent failed version.

I really enjoyed the evening and it’s left me with the desire to read Don Quixote again: I originally read it over a decade ago, so I’d like to give it another go and see if I feel any differently about it.

The Search for Franklin’s Lost Ships – British Library

‘HMS Assistance and Pioneer in Winter Quarters’ [Shelfmark: 1781.a.23] – See more at: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/americas/2014/08/coming-up-lines-in-the-ice.html#sthash.vtgbSXaQ.dpuf

Recently I attended a talk at the British Library, The Search for Franklin’s Lost Ships, an event designed to coincide with the current exhibition Lines in the Ice: Seeking the Northwest Passage which runs until 29 March 2015. The talk involved Ryan Harris, a marine archaeologist, in conversation with Robin McKie from The Observer: the original subject of the talk was the search itself, but after the talk was scheduled, it emerged that one of the ships had actually been found – tremendously exciting news. Harris actually introduced his presentation by apologising for the slight change in tack – though I don’t suppose for a minute that anyone actually minded!

HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, under the command of explorer and Royal Navy officer Captain Sir John Franklin, left Greenhithe on 19 May 1845, setting sail for Canada in a bid to find the last stretch of the fabled Northwest Passage. Both ships became trapped in ice in Victoria Strait near King William Island, in the Canadian Arctic. The entire crew was lost, and their ultimate fate became one of the Victorian age’s greatest mysteries. Franklin’s wife, Jane, and others launched numerous expeditions to try and find out what had happened to them, but none were successful, though rumours of cannibalism, poisoning and scurvy abounded. Oral history and Inuit testimony was collected during the nineteenth century, suggesting that at least one ship had sunk, but their testimony was distrusted.

HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, as they appeared in Illustrated London News. Source: Getty Images via BBC News

Earlier this year, the Canadian Government initiated the biggest search yet to find the lost ships. As Canada has the largest coastline in the world, this would be no light undertaking. A previous “Project Franklin” run by the Department of National Defence ended in failure in 1967 when the divers performing the search had to be evacuated owing to hypothermia. However, modern technology has enabled new methods of searching.

Marine archeologist Ryan Harris, who took part in the search, explained how the ship – later determined to be HMS Erebus – was found. On 1 September, a piece of iron and a piece of wood were found: cross-section plans of Erebus provided by the National Maritime Museum proved that these artefacts came from that ship. Erebus itself was discovered with sonar imaging, relatively intact on the sea floor: it was possible to match up the plan of the ship with the undersea image to prove it was what they were looking for. Exciting as the discovery was, it was kept under wraps for a while so the “right” people could be informed first – the Canadian and British governments, for instance. The find was formally announced on 9 September.

The most exciting part of Harris’s talk was hearing about, and seeing pictures of, dives to the near-intact ship. Despite the covering of kelp, archaeologists were able to find cannons, anchors, decking and beams, and a table leg that, judging by a picture of Franklin’s cabin published in the Illustrated London News, came from a table belonging to Franklin himself. Particularly exciting was the discovery of the ship’s bell, still with the year ‘1845’ embossed on it. The plan is for the bell, probably made at the Whitechapel foundry, to be conserved and displayed publicly while further archaeological work continues at the site.

Further examination of the ship could lead to some important questions being answered. For instance, who were the last survivors of the crew, and when did discipline break down? How was the ship rigged – for sail, or for steam propulsion? The discovery should prompt a re-examination of the Inuit testimony which was distrusted at the time, and could shed new light on the technology of nineteenth-century British polar exploration.

A question and answer session at the end of the talk offered further insight into what might happen with the ship in the future. It seems certain that the project will go on for years, uncovering further details about the ship and the expedition as a whole. In reply to one question, Harris said that they are “optimistic” about finding some documents on board – linen-based paper can survive for centuries underwater, and it is possible that records may be found inside. The aim is to get into the middle of the ship: it is possible that it could be raised, as although it is generally preferred to leave things in situ, the significance of this one could mean that it is removed from the water at some point. Artefacts will be removed from the wreck so that they can be conserved and learned from, and in the meantime, the search for the other ship, HMS Terror, will continue.

I thoroughly enjoyed this fascinating talk and intend to keep an eye out for more news relating to the search and the Franklin expedition. I also intend to visit the exhibition at the British Library early next year.