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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Scot of the South Seas: Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa

Story of author's time with his family in the island nation details a political awakening.

A contemporary once saw Louis and Fanny Stevenson, with Fanny’s son Lloyd, strolling barefoot along a Samoan beach. With their shawls and shells, floppy hats, pyjama suits and banjo, they could have been 1960s hippies. Indeed, the writer mistook the trio for wandering players. But Stevenson was already the famous author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He was wealthy, too. An only child, he had recently inherited from his father, despite the elder Stevenson’s alarm at his son’s lifestyle and choice of spouse: the older, divorced mother of three, Frances Van de Grift Osbourne.

As is well known, Stevenson settled in Samoa, surrounded by what we might now call a “blended” family. Even his mother joined in, travelling from the douce Victorian Edinburgh, tolerating the Samoan sun in her heavy skirts and widow’s cap.

That was in 1890. Samoa was in the midst of a grievous colonial push and shove. Because of its strategic position in the South Pacific, the UK, Germany and the US all maintained an aggressive interest in the archipelago. Joseph Farrell writes in his account of the writer’s four years on the island:

The 1880s were a decade of war and rumours of war, the raising of banners, the gathering of forces, the issuing of indignant notes, the summoning of assemblies and councils on Samoa, and of exchanges of diplomatic missives between Washington, London and Berlin.

In 1885, Samoan chiefs asked to become part of the British empire, to the Germans’ annoyance, but the request was declined. Gunboats were a common sight in Samoan harbours. Sometimes they fired at villages. Despite, or because of pressures from without, Samoan society was descending into inter-clan war.

As a rich white man, Stevenson surely benefited from the imperial adventure. Sailing by, he liked what he saw and decided to return, buy land, build a home and hire servants. Having done that, he could have remained aloof, but instead he soon came to identify with the Samoan people and their cause. He became a champion and activist. It is this change that primarily interests Farrell, and his book examines the effect that Samoa had on Stevenson the writer in the few short years he had left to live. Farrell explores how he responded to the politics of empire-building, as he witnessed it at the sharp end.

To their colonial meddlers, the Samoans were backward savages, inhabiting an imagined utopia of fruitful nudity and ease. But Stevenson soon felt his way into Samoan culture. Even his acknowledgement that they had a culture at all set him at an angle to the imperialists. He found the Samoan people admirable. He wrote, “They are easy, merry, and pleasure-loving” – but also given to warfare.

Having decided to integrate, Stevenson set about learning the Samoan language and, as a way of understanding the situation he encountered on the island, he identified parallels with Scotland. Stevenson may have been a Lowlander and a conservative but, like many Scots, he was seduced by the romance of the Jacobites, and the Scottish Highlands fuelled his imagination. He could feel for the situation in Samoa by referring to the Highlands after the failure of the Jacobite Risings. Both societies had clan systems. In both cases, the indigenous people faced the occupation of their land and suppression of their culture. But the Jacobite times were over and romanticised, not least by Stevenson, and the Samoan situation was happening in front of his eyes.

Taking the Samoan name “Tusitala” – “writer of tales” – Stevenson sought out local stories (chieftains and their families became guests at his house), but he could give as good as he got. He not only recorded Samoan legends, as an anthropologist might, but he offered Scottish stories in return. Farrell writes that he used weird tales of brownies, kelpies and the like to win Samoan friends. The story that became “The Bottle Imp” was told to him in the South Seas.

As Stevenson’s knowledge of Samoa and its problems grew, Farrell identifies in him a new frustration as a writer. It was no longer sufficient to be a romancer. He experienced a desire to address and influence political issues, right from the hot spot. He quickly became the annoying activist, lecturer, reporter and agitator, firing off letters to the Times, ambivalent about missionaries, a friend to Samoan chieftains. As well as championing the islanders abroad, he apparently felt himself “entitled to plunge head-first on arrival into the political affairs of Samoa”.

Farrell clearly believes that the writer’s interventions were right, even heroic. “Injustices casually perpetrated in Samoa, like similar acts of oppression on native peoples in far-off lands, would have passed unobserved… had they not aroused the indignation of this man.” Stevenson’s A Footnote to History appeared in 1892. It’s a poor title, but the subtitle – “Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa” – sets out its intention. In today’s parlance, it is a micro-history. Though the book is little known now, Farrell believes that Footnote can take its place alongside Heart of Darkness as “a radical, deeply felt critique of foreign intrusion and dominance”.

Farrell believes that had Stevenson known the term “racist”, he would have employed it, as it was “an attitude RLS abominated instinctively”. Nonetheless, he felt able to lecture the Samoans, too. Pyjama suits notwithstanding, Stevenson was a Calvinist to the last. Although Samoa had been settled for 3,000 years, at a public meeting he told the Samoans that he deplored their “indolence” and that the remedy to the loss of their land and dignity lay in “hard work”.

Stevenson wrote an estimated 700,000 words during his years on Samoa. He may have become engagé (Farrell’s word) but his imagination still resided in Scotland: it was there he wrote Catriona and began Weir of Hermiston. Although his routine was constantly disrupted by visitors, events and ill health (his own and Fanny’s), his mornings were spent writing in bed, with afternoons and evenings a never-ending round of parties, visits, horse rides, dressing for dinner and good wines. Farrell is careful to explain Samoan political complexities that Stevenson despaired of expressing; the glimpses of domestic life at
Vailima offer light relief.

It came to a sudden end. A note on the effect of Stevenson’s early death on his family and household, especially Fanny, would have been welcome, but these topics are well covered in other books. As it is, the book closes with the cerebral haemorrhage that killed him and the bearing of his body to its hilltop grave.

Farrell declines to speculate how Stevenson might have developed had he lived another 20 years on Samoa. We might remember a different kind of writer: fewer tales and old-time romances, more investigative journalism. Or perhaps he might have combined both by developing a more realistic fiction. He had embarked on that direction by completing “The Beach of Falesà”, which, Farrell writes, “exposes exploitative behaviour… The villains are white, their behaviour towards the islanders reprehensible and contemptible.” Stevenson called it “the first realistic South Sea story”, the first to tell it like it was.

Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa
Joseph Farrell
MacLehose Press, 352pp, £20

Kathleen Jamie’s poetry collections include “The Bonniest Companie” (Picador)

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