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13 November 2019

The irresistible story of Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen

As a radio doc on the BBC World Service reveals, Nansen was both an explorer and activist who won the Nobel Prize for his work with refugees.

By Antonia Quirke

An irresistible instalment of The Forum on the BBC World Service described (14 November, 9am) described the Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen. In 1888, aged just 27 (with a vast blonde moustache and a little coat of squirrel skin), he crossed the Greenland ice cap on skis, learning from the Inuit how to carve snow-goggles from wood. Later, he championed Norwegian independence. And fought for the repatriation

of starving First World War prisoners, winning the Nobel Prize for his work with refugees. In his thirties, attempting to reach the North Pole, he brought back a “treasure trove” (says presenter Rajan Datar) of meteorological and magnetic scientific data confirming the theory of polar drift, after being locked in ice on his ship, Fram. Crucially, to Nansen “polar exploration without science was egotism, vanity and the cheapest form of nationalist flag-waving”. A third of Oslo turned up to cheer him when he returned.

You could say they’re still reeling. In an Oslo museum I once came across a young woman considering a pair of Nansen’s frayed salopettes in a glass case, and saw that her face was drenched in tears. I remember (jealously) thinking – when was the last time anybody felt like that! The 1970s? The 1930s? These days, when an “explorer” gets dysentery in Papua New Guinea, we just roll our eyes. Their labours seem so self-aggrandising, so willed. Just as we no longer automatically assume that American novelists have important things to say, or European directors are going to describe for us human consciousness, we intrinsically doubt the sacrifice of the modern explorer. (Not to be too 21st-century about it: the map has been filled in.)

In a field stuffed with eccentric and mind-staggeringly arduous late Victorians, Nansen alone appears to have also been morally rich, and deep. There was a (melancholy) thrum throughout the programme of each contributor basically saying: isn’t this story incredible? Wasn’t this person simply amazing? How did Nansen come to be? And why? Could any conditions (politically propitious, unpropitious, or otherwise) obtain when we might think of a person again as this heroic? Perhaps the answer is as simple, and frustratingly random, as this: sometimes, a genius just turns up. 

The Forum
BBC World Service

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This article appears in the 13 Nov 2019 issue of the New Statesman, How Britain was sold