Yearning for Polar Seas

James Hamilton-Paterson

  • The Ice Museum: In Search of the Lost Land of Thule by Joanna Kavenna
    Viking, 334 pp, £16.99, February 2005, ISBN 0 670 91395 2
  • The Idea of North by Peter Davidson
    Reaktion, 271 pp, £16.95, January 2005, ISBN 1 86189 230 6

My father was born in China and no doubt I caught from him his own boyhood tingle at the idea of ships and their Empire routes, especially long ocean voyages by P&O liner. Excitement, homesickness, the magic of the word ‘Orient’: to a child growing up in South-East England in the 1940s and 1950s, such elements blended early into a near-poetry of longing for a vertical sun. By the time I was ten I had devoured shelves of adventure books set in the mysterious East. They were full of the clichés of the Raj: flying fish, lascar seamen, coolies, amahs, syces, green-eyed idols and fiendish poisons leached from tropical plants unknown to European science. At 11 I embarked on my first love affair, falling hopelessly for Kim. Never have I yearned so much to inhabit someone else’s skin as I did Kim’s. Even now, past sixty, I can catch him flitting through some dappled interior and feel again an urge to be up and lurking in hot bazaars, fluent in many languages, chewing betel nut with street vendors and taking tea with governors. At some moment in my first decade my inner compass was irretrievably set. Like Auden, who was never not thinking of Iceland, I have never not faced the Orient.

Joanna Kavenna’s inner compass also seems to have been set early, but hers pointed north. Even as a child in Suffolk she loved the cold: ‘Winters were never cold enough, even when the snows fell and blocked the roads.’ I, too, can still be thrilled by the reflected light of overnight snow blanching the bedroom ceiling in the morning, the new hush and the sharp, faintly sooty smell. But these are sensory pleasures vaguely coloured with nostalgia. They don’t engage my imagination. Even as a child, though I read about polar explorers and enjoyed the mise-en-scène of polar bears, white-outs, ice floes and the rest, the word ‘north’ exercised over me little of the magic it has for so many others, including Kavenna and Peter Davidson.

‘The Idea of North’ was the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould’s phrase and the title of a radio documentary he made. ‘I have an enormous compulsion to look upon the polar seas,’ he wrote to a friend in 1965, ‘and I find that this is growing apace each year, so that I really must get it out of my system somehow.’ Although the North was a perpetual hulking presence in Canada’s unconscious, it was scarcely fashionable at the time. The Inuit were still known indiscriminately as Eskimos, and it would be decades before they were given their own territory to administer. But a northward urge has always been detectable in Canadian history and a facile parallel has often been drawn with the westward urge of settlers in the United States. But this is to obscure a fundamental difference. As the historian R.A.J. Phillips observed in Canada’s North: ‘The ferment that led explorers to the Canadian frontier did not begin in the 15th-century courts of Lisbon and Madrid, or in the counting-houses of London and Bristol. It started much earlier, in Scandinavia.’ Half a millennium earlier, actually, when Erik the Red and his Vikings landed in Greenland and from there began to settle Newfoundland. Northern Europe’s connections with Northern America were well established centuries before Columbus was born. Glenn Gould was intensely aware of his mother’s Highland Scottish ancestry; and Florence Greig used to claim distant kinship with Edvard Grieg, based on the fact that both families were descended from the MacGregors.

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