Felicity Aston: "My life so far has been quite woven up with Antarctica"

Caroline Crampton talks to the polar explorer and climate scientist Felicity Aston, who in 2012 became the first woman to ski alone across Antarctica.

Can you be homesick for a place that is nobody’s home? The polar explorer and climate scientist Felicity Aston is sure that you can. In the same way as you or I might yearn for the house we grew up in or the town where our school was, Aston hankers for the frozen wastes of Antarctica. When she was 23, she got her first “proper job”, as a meteorologist at the Rothera Research Station on Adelaide Island, near the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, and spent three years working there. It changed her.
 
More than ten years later, the place still has a powerful hold over her. “You see the good weather, the bad weather; you see it in darkness, in light, in moonlight, in sunshine; you see it on days when you love it and days when you hate it,” she explains. “I know it’s a bit of a cheek to try to call Antarctica your home but it is somewhere that I have just endless fondness for.”
 
In 2012, Aston became the first woman to ski alone across Antarctica – a fact she says she found out only later, when a journalist pointed it out to her. “Firsts are important because they give you the platform . . . But for me, the motivation was not necessarily to stamp a ‘first’ on my forehead. It was all about the journey – my life so far has been quite woven up with Antarctica.”
 
Sasatrugi, formed by wind erosion, on the Antarctic ice. Felicity's tent can be seen in the background. Photograph: Felicity Aston
 
As an experienced explorer – she had previously raced to the South Pole and across Arctic Canada – she knew the physical challenges of the expedition. What took her completely by surprise was her emotional reaction to the perpetual solitude out on the ice. She cried – and not just as she watched the plane that had dropped her off disappear over the horizon. She blubbed, sobbed and wailed her way across crevasses, up glaciers and through mountain passes. As someone who had always enjoyed her own company, she was scared by the way she reacted. “At first, I was physically shaking, my heart was going, I was out of breath – and yet I knew I had to get over it somehow.”
 
Even finding the motivation to leave the tent each morning was an emotionally draining experience. “One minute, I’d just be focusing on making my coffee; the next minute, I’d be bursting into tears and talking to myself, then I’d be angry with myself.”
 
She wept so much on her journey that when it came to writing about it afterwards she was worried that she sounded like “some kind of hysterical, melodramatic woman” (the only other explorers to make solo journeys across Antarctica are two Norwegian men).
 
Explorers often give the impression that they are always looking for something more extreme to conquer – a higher peak to scale or a bigger desert to cross. Yet Aston feels satisfied that she has reached her limit.
 
“I’ve felt a certain amount of freedom since coming back,” she says. “I could keep pushing; I could do something twice as long, or twice as difficult. But for me there would be little point, because I’ve got the answers I wanted.” 
 

Alone in Antarctica by Felicity Aston is out now (Summersdale, £8.99)

 

A sunny evening - Felicity on her solo expedition in 2012. Photo: Felicity Aston

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear