28th March 1959: Beastie and the timer up the shoot nobody has the correct time

People are required to man the machine.

Radio waves in pulses sound the universe:
their journeys timed
show distance through delay –
figures plotted on graphs, photographic traces
record the movements of the upper atmosphere.

Like Eudoxus
constructing amodel of concentric
rings he describes the layers:
troposphere, ionosphere (F1,F2,D and E)

When there isn’t a sun to irradiate, there isn’t
an ionosphere (as such)
off which
they can transmit our messages



BeastieThere is something owl-like about this machine, with its two wide-eyed brass dials.  Behind the protective panels are thousands of resistors, hundreds of capacitors, tens of thermionic valves, relays and switches …and three bicycle chains; this is a place where technology, improvisation and the domestic cheerfully rub along, and as if to prove the point, tucked neatly underneath is a pair of shoes.  Meet Beastie, the Union Mark II ionosonde machine.

For thirty years Beastie sent radio waves into the upper atmosphere, transmitting regular pulsed radio waves into the ionosphere (between 70km and 700km above the surface of the Earth) and measuring the delay before the reflected signal was received and recorded.  People have been using machines to gather data for as long as they have been going to the Antarctic: measuring depth and creating charts, gathering samples from the sea bed, collecting rocks, keeping detailed records of meteorological conditions.  We have magnetometers, spectrographs, echo sounders, seismometers, hydrophones and magnetic resonance imaging.  Even the earliest photos have as a theme men bending over their recording instruments, experiencing considerable discomfort to gather data which cannot be fully appreciated in the short term. “It is a cold business as you can’t move for fear of moving the Barrow dip circle,” remarked Murray Levick, one of the men in Scott’s Northern party, talking of magnetic observation.  “I had to squat, half sitting in the snow at the side of the tent.  After an hour…I could have sat on a spiked iron railing and never felt it!”

The relationship between people and their machines, between ‘Beastiemen’ and ‘Beastie’,  is one of use and service, but the way the machine is named, adapted, tended, as well as the use to which it is put, is a testimony to the ingenuity, resilience and adaptability of  the human spirit in the face of extreme environmental conditions.  And for those who might feel that the obligation of extracting data is suffocating, there is plenty of evidence of creativity, too.  The same Murray Levick had a habit of missing his night-time shift.  His colleague Browning invented the Carusophone, to be activated by the person taking the midnight obs.  A candle burnt down to a thread, snapping it and releasing a bamboo cane which pulled a catch off the gramophone.  The Flower Song from Carmen plays – in the Antarctic – and Levick wakes; the observation continues.

Calling the Antarctic


‘Calling the Antarctic’ was a programme, started in 1955, recorded by the BBC for those members of the Falkland Islands Dependency Survey who, like my father, were overwintering in the Antarctic.  Personal messages from family members were broadcast to a different man each week as part of the weekly programme, providing a brief sound of home at a time when the sun did not rise, and the ships could not bring mail.  In itself, the carefully organised pile of correspondence which I found between my grandmother and various members of the BBC was a poignant testimony of how important this contact was for those at home; for three months arrangements were made for Dad’s family to meet in London to record their two minute message.  A script was sent in advance, annotated and returned; news had to be carefully chosen and brevity was essential.  Even so, it is noticeable that what everyone tried to preserve were the familiar turns of phrase which would make this carefully regulated communication personal. In another pile of letters I found my dad’s response.  When his turn had come to receive a broadcast, he had been unable to hear through static and interruptions in Spanish from South America.  “All we can do is to record it and play it back again and again each time picking out a bit more.”  The painstaking way in which he tried to recover his message underlines the enormity of the gulf that separated these men from home.

The poem I have attached is half way to becoming a script.  In its original form, the different voices are shown not just through their position on the page; the words of the BBC are cut and pasted strips of text from original letters.

 Calling the Antarctic

Dear Mrs Lewis

                She smoothes her coat, checks the mirror,		        
In March	
                traces age lines on her face.  Picks a hat.

explaining our plans for a series of weekly broadcasts

                Still complements her eyes. 
				   Are you ready?

An invitation from the BBC


to call the Antarctic.

                For a second time, she clips the letter (proposing coffee) 
                and amended script

local news lends colour and interest

                into a neat black bag, just right for London, 

the time allocated to each family group is two minutes
                                     We don’t want to miss the train.
At the end of June

                breathes in deeply, out again, joins her husband 
                at the door,

                her daughters at the station, 
                and at Bush House, Strand, WC2,

11am (our time)

                will record a message to her son.
                                              ‘Hullo George this is

Base A

George skiing

George skiing

There he was, leaning forwards, knees bent, skiing out of a whirl of snow right into my head, landing there like memory.  The background of the photo, on P.13 of a guide to Port Lockroy produced by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust, is grainy black and white; the other photographs on the page are in colour, one of them showing his black skis leaning in the base porch, where they are now.

Black 'Head' skis

Black ‘Head’ skis, Port Lockroy

I remember these skis – how long they felt when I was allowed to stand on them – and recall a day, preceding this photograph for me, but still to come for my father, when he could slip into his old life, put a rucksack on his back, and, freed by an unusually heavy fall of snow from the limitations of sagging fences, ski over their tops, out of a snowbound valley, across the hills to Lerwick to bring us home the food we could not otherwise buy.

So often in this project I have felt as though I have been inhabiting someone else’s memory – reading letters, looking at photographs, visiting the Antarctic on the back of other people’s words, an invisible observer in a past I didn’t know myself.  Time as we live through it is linear.  In the mind, however, in memory and imagination, time is fluid, layered, permeable; a shape-shifter.

The sequence of poems which will follow this post start in Base A, the first permanent base to be established on the Antarctic Peninsula.

BAS-011 Peso at Lockroy

BAS-011 Peso at Lockroy

It is winter of 1959, and there are only five men living in the hut.  The ship has left, and there is only limited contact with the outside world, thousands of miles away.

Base A (Lockroy)

The blizzard sounds on glass
like streaming sand, a spitting rage
which rushes round
and over,
				hits the ground
and runs.
Inside, he's hunkered down and tuning in.

As if to coax
a signal from the needle's flicker,

his fingers turn.



 BAS 159 The Way Up - Brunt Ice Shelf

BAS 159 The Way Up – Brunt Ice Shelf

Even the radio operator who is normally virtually confined to his radio shack by his work is frequently seen underneath a huge crate as he carries it up a steep icy slope to the base.

A School Introduction to Antarctica

You describe yourself
sitting on a coal sack in the snow
hoping for tea
and one of those splendid rock cakes;

not to walk on ice,
but the snow
where you can dig your boot
and get a foothold;

how to hold a coalsack, horizontal
under the arm, with your hand on your hip;

how to improvise a path of sacks,
to carry bottles to the store,
before their liquid freezes,
and expanding
breaks the glass.

Two and a half years packed in pieces,
spare parts for generators, sledges,
boats and men,
supplies of fuel and food,
coal and pilchards and walnut whips
and mail,
paper kisses,
all the way from home.

Time stretches –
ship-shifted, man-lifted,
arterial flow –
and stops for an instant,
for a man tired
on a coal sack
in the snow.

Water Sky

The ship edges its way along the crack, slowly widening it and scattering the remaining few inquisitive penguins. At the end of the lead is another ice floe. The floe has been painted a bright red on one side…Could it be that we have been here before?

A School Introduction to Antarctica by A.G.Lewis

The captain is searching the sky.
It is summer and the ice is heading north
360 degrees of textured white
which is not white, but yellow-white, or green-white, or blue-white
…or red on a floe from the wides of the ship.

The captain is searching the sky.
In such an uncertainty of semi-solid water
forwards is backwards.
The red-stained floe returns in an incomprehensible soundscape
of groans and crackings, pipings and sighs.

You remember her face, the way she looks at you, and wonder.
Ice jostles ice.
On the underbelly of cloud, like a smoke signal, reflected darkness
promises open water, a lead ahead.
The captain steers south.

Do you…? Hold the bright flower up
and find the answer in the glow on her skin.

Calculating Risk

‘You are never to do that again,’ the Corporal said
when the men returned from the back of Dumer – 
	you and your colleague – 
				entering this hut
after a safe return from the ski field by sea –
			and a rift opens
between the spitting of your anger 
       and the fire by which I read.

I know your tone, as indignation licks back across the years  – 
          its defiance,
          in the bedrock of my childhood.

You will not heed such a stupid order,
but, Father, you will obey 
               the laws which govern 
               the fall of ice,
               and the displacement of water,
               the motion of waves,
               and what make them still.

Once again, you travel out to ski - but this time you walk.
You have done your calculations: 

               sea ice 2 feet deep/a man needs 2-3 inches for walking
               and little cracks can be stepped across 
           			     	or bridged by skis.

Only the toppling of the nearby ice-cliffs could cause a break-up.

               You have noted wave velocity, and know
               from cliff to crossing is 2 minutes long;
               40 yards from land (ice resting on ground above sea-level)
               works out as 10-15 seconds’ walk –
and so you know you’re safe to go.


That cliff did fall – 
and from 100% safety you and your colleague watched 
the biggest ice movement in years
unleash an urgent wave, toss 
thousands of tons of broken sea ice 
          into the air,
heard this cacophony of ending
as if you yourselves were vibrating 
within the cranium of sky.

And hoped that someone back at base had taken photos.
Had they hell!
The Corporal said, ‘You do know there is a boat,’
and you wrote 
              to your mother 
                           a dinghy in this case
would have been sunk like an open cigarette tin in a storm.

Your misdemeanour was not recorded in the log book,
though the ice fall was noted.
You continued to ski.
I told your story to my children:

Grandpa George takes a Calculated Risk.

BAS 093  Ice Cliffs Lockroy

BAS 093 Ice Cliffs Lockroy

Living under the Snow

‘Close to you are several chimneys just sticking out through the snow and many feet below these is an enormous hut 120ft long. This is home. There is no front door…just a hatch cover flush with the snow. You slide back the hatch and peer into what looks like a bottomless pit…At the bottom… is a front door after all…The door is open and the sound of voices from deep down inside the hut can be heard. There is a smell of wood, of warmth and a hint of coffee in the air.’
A School Introduction to Antarctica (unpublished) by A.G.Lewis

BAS 128 Halley midnight sun
BAS 128 Halley midnight sun

Dad’s photos of Halley Bay in 1960 show rippled expanses of snow, aerial masts and chimneys – all that remained visible of the first hut erected there, buried deep in the snow and ice. A more recent photo on display at the British Antarctic Survey shows one of its walls waiting to fall from an ice cliff, having moved through the ice-stream to the sea, and the relentless accumulation of snow has led to the building of no less than six bases at Halley since the first in 1956. The final, space age creation is on jackable legs with skis and the base will by these means escape an icy burial.

Dad’s description of the moment he saw the place where he would live for a year conveys both its strangeness and also his relish for the small comforts which made it like home. Overwintering in Halley meant experiencing a kind of double darkness – living underground without windows as well as the darkness of the polar night – and treats, as well as an ability to appreciate them, were necessary.

On 17th February 1912, on the Northern coast of Antarctica at Cape Evans, six men from Scott’s Northern Party- PO George Abbott, Able Seaman Harry Dickason, PO Frank Browning, Raymond Priestley, Lt Victor Campbell and Dr Murray Levick – were waiting for a ship to pick them up, and it did not come. They had insufficient rations to see them through the winter, flimsy tents, and worn clothing. And yet they survived. They dug themselves an igloo under the snow and made it into home. They divided themselves into three ‘firms’ and took turns to prepare and cook seal meat and maintain their blubber stove; they protected one another’s personal space, even though there was not much room for more than their six sleeping bags;they read to one another, and wrote in their journals. On special occasions, they counted out twenty five raisins each, and relished every atom of sweetness.

BAS 113 Halley Shaft - this ladder led to the shaft opening onto the surface of the snow.

BAS 113 Halley Shaft – this ladder led to the shaft opening onto the surface of the snow.

Having read Dad’s accounts of living under the snow, I was struck not just by a sense of awe when I read this extraordinary story of survival,but also by a kind of familiarity:digging into the snow (or being buried by it it) and making a home there;the need for rituals and routines; the extraordinary ability of people to adapt, to work together and to survive.

Hell with a Capital H – an Epic Story of Antarctic Survival by Katherine Lambert tells the full, astonishing story of the Northern party.

Tricks of the Light

Looking back you see yourself,
eager, expectant, curious,
alone on top of a volcano,
if the temperature is so,
and the pressure remains so,
then the sun for which you wait
will come.

I see an act of faith.
After 119 days of darkness
the sun might rise today
– if the conditions are right.
So you climb to the top of an extinct volcano
and wait.

Slowly the sun tints the edges of Erebus gold
and then rises, bright above the horizon.
The tips of all the mountains shine to the north;
your very bones,
are touched by light.

After only half an hour, the sun sets quickly,
but you do not darken.
Half an hour later, the sun hurls up again,
One half hurtles into itself and explodes,
The refractive index of the air has given you
these two sunrises.

Back at base, you stick your skis in the snow:
two markers, definite, before the world whites out
in the scattering of a billion ice crystals.

When snow and air separate,
you meet with other scientists,
and in your comings and goings,
find you have seen the same things
from different places.

BAS 188 Colin Johnson on Skis

BAS 188 Colin Johnson on Skis