The Book Guild Ltd. 23 High Street, Lewes, East Sussex BN7 21 U, England.
Price GB £22, US S33.
This book proved to be a pleasure to read but not easy to put into any category. History it certainly is. A tale of adventure? Yes. A political statement? it could be. Perhaps it shines as an observation of the Russian approach to the Antarctic and to its attitude to life itself.
Charles Swithinbank, a British exchange scientist, joins the Soviet 1964-65 Antarctic programme, the first British scientist to do so.
For an insight to the thinking of the Russians at that time a better choice in Charles Swithinbank could not have been made. He quickly joins in all the activities, tractor driving, discharging ships and all chores associated with a polar expedition on ship or on shore. He has a knack of getting expedition members to talk freely of themselves, their life at home, their ambitions and even their political views, and this, the time of the cold war, was something very rarely done.
To get to his base at Novolazarevskaya, Swithinbank travels in the Soviet ships, Estonia and Ob, and flies in Lisunovs of various classes.
The reader is quickly made aware of the flexible safety standards applying then, and the often reckless tractor journeys undertaken with little regard to simple precautions.
Throughout the book it is the personnel that Swithinbank gets to respect profoundly, men with long experience in the Arctic whose skills often turn a situation of concern into a moment of joy.
Perhaps this is best illustrated by a passage taken from the text.".. One of the 20 tonne sledges had become frozen to the snow and could not be moved. Liosha put several sticks of dynamite under one runner and lit a length of quarry fuse.
We retreated some distance before a colossal explosion shattered the runner and tossed heavy shards of steel high into the air. Many pieces fell among us. Glancing around first to check that nobody was injured, our little group collapsed in fits of laughter. The sledge however, was now unusable."
In the course of his journey Swithinbank visits Mirny and Molodezhnaya stations noting much of interest at both. He records the various standards of food on the ships and at the bases, the ships coming a poor second.
Through it all he teaches English where possible and learns Russian in return. His ability to 'loin in" makes him a popular figure among the base staff who quickly warm to him and his sense of humour. The British were well served by this man at the time.
The endless ability of the Russians to make alcohol, sometimes from sources not normally thought of having that ability continues to interest him.
The consumption of such is astounding. A group of doctors produced a drink and apologised for it being only 40% alcohol.
This is a rollicking good yarn and a must for anyone who has a smidgen of interest in the Antarctic of the past and its political situation which has shaped the scene today. When approached to review this book, I was not enthused, thinking it would be dry political claptrap. Instead it proved to be anything but, and once I started to read, I found it hard to put the book down.