Tom Crean: Antarctic Explorer

Aidan Dooley’s Tom Crean: Antarctic Explorer
Thursday 27 March 2014, Christchurch

When Ireland and Antarctica converged in Christchurch in late March, one man stole the night: Tom Crean, as played by Aidan Dooley. The three polar pyramid tents outside the Heaton School auditorium set the scene for an icy adventure, but belied the body heat generated by a sell out crowd.  We were going on a journey to Antarctica, but parkas were best left at he door.

The play, which premiered at the Medway Fuse Festival in 2003, tells the tale of Tom Crean, a lad from Kerry who served on three Antarctic expeditions under both Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton. Crean is one of the many men from the Heroic Era who simply did his job and then faded into history, eclipsed by the Heroes that gave the age its name.  Thanks to Dooley, there has been renewed interest in Crean in recent years. His little known story is now one of the most famous adventure tales in Ireland, where the play has gained something of a cult following. Sell out crowds are usual, while the first question many Irish nationals have following any lecture on Shackleton’s Endurance expedition is ‘what about Tom Crean?’

If anyone in Thursday’s audience was wondering the same thing, they were in the right place.  Dooley spins a yarn that takes the audience to the ends of the earth, transporting us back to the sepia days of Antarctic Exploration. Act One sees us following him South on the Discovery and Terra Nova expeditions, recounting his disappointment at being sent back home as Scott and four others pushed on to the Pole. Through a combination of pub-style storytelling and exhausting reenactments of the slog, we learn of the hardship encountered, the sledding used to descend from great heights down a glacier, and Crean’s astonishment at finally making it back to the hut alive. Dooley has a way of getting under the skin of his characters and really capturing what makes them tick. He seamlessly weaves elements of the older Crean, who was publican of ‘The South Pole,’ with flashbacks of his younger self, and peppers his performance with local Irish references and questions for the crowd. This is no ‘sit back and relax’ tale, but a raucous performance full of energy and banter.

Act Two sees Crean return to Antarctica on board the Endurance, under Ernest Shackleton. We hear the story of the ship becoming trapped in the ice and slowly sinking, but it is the details that make this version come alive – the way the lights in the ship flashed on and off, on and off as she slipped below the water, as if to wave farewell. Dooley’s first person account of the boat trip from Elephant Island to South Georgia also brings home the human side of the famous feat of endurance: a particularly lively impression of Worsley attempting to take a sighting of the sun in the midst of heaving seas has the audience clinging to their seats for dear life.

Dooley was first drawn to Crean’s story when he learnt the explorer had been awarded the Albert medal for bravery following Shackleton’s Endurance expedition, and the play grew from there. These days it is a full-blown theatrical sensation. The play may be called Tom Crean: Antarctic Explorer, but it is written and performed by Aidan Dooley, Master Storyteller: he deserved every one of the ovations he received at the close of the show. It was a warm night, but with images of the Ross Ice Shelf and Patience Camp in mind, the polar pyramid tents outsides elicited a shiver as we passed them on our way back home.

  •       The Christchurch performance of Tom Crean: Antarctic Explorer was hosted by the Antarctic Heritage Trust.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

On Penguins and Polar Bears

people

New Zealand, or ‘Godzone’, is often characterized by its plusses: rivers, forests, beaches and birdlife. It can also be defined by its lacks: no snakes, bears or hungry predators out to get you every time you head bush. There is no bush to speak of in Antarctica, but it shares some similar traits: provided you don’t freeze to death, fall down a crevasse, or get on the wrong side of a hungry leopard seal, it is fairly safe as well.

Penguins are the epitome of the benign wildlife of the south. Dressed like little waiters and sporting the IQ of your average chicken, they are synonymous with the South Pole and have been used to promote everything from open source software to salt and vinegar ships. We encountered several varieties on our trip, each with their own quirks and customs.

Adelies look like they have had five cups of coffee too many, constantly darting left and right with a slightly crazed look in their glassy eyes. These are the downtown commuters of the ice, making their way to the edge of the bergs in packs that resemble crowds on a railway platform, then spilling into ocean en mass, mirroring the five pm office exodus.

Gentoo penguins are somewhat larger, with white patches over their eyes that resemble chic noise-cancelling headphones. They could do with such accessories too, as their call has the timbre of braying donkeys. During the summer months much of the cacophony comes from the chicks, triangular fluffballs with bottomless stomachs that are constantly pestering their parents for a feed.

You can see the penguins, you can hear the penguins, but what the postcards and nature documentaries don’t tell you is that the birds could do with an industrial-scale drenching in coco chanel. In short, they stink. The guano combination of fish and krill that coats the rocks throughout the rookeries can be seen from afar and smelt from even further.

This aroma did not deter early scientists from getting up close and personal with the wee waddlers. The ‘Fit for a FID’ cookbook details researchers’ recipes from the 1950s, and has a whole section dedicated to penguins. The author prefaces the section with the admission that ‘when cooking penguin, I have an awful feeling inside of me that I am cooking little men who are just that little too curious and stupid.’ These days penguin is off the menu, and we photograph penguin nests instead of devouring penguin breasts. Nevertheless, some people come up with interesting new ways of communing with the colonies. Turning around to find two human-sized penguins posing with their Lilliputian relatives was a surprise, to say the least.

Antarctica is much more than penguins and photo opportunities, but no trip south would be complete without a mention of both. Sure, if you lie still photographing the penguins for long enough a southern giant petrel may decide you resemble a tasty snack, but at least there are no roaming polar bears to finish you off. In that respect, it’s just like home after all.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

La Chascona: A poet’s eyes

1781745_10152355355449758_115579974_o

Ok, it’s now official: I am a literary groupie. Visiting Berlin to take in the sights from Theodor Fontane’s novels, I felt my heart speed up at the sight of the Liebesinsel and the (obscured) Grunewaldsee. That was just the beginning, inspiring a week-long Günter Grass Poland trip to take in the alleyways and history of Gdansk. It should not come as any surprise then that, finding myself on an overnight stopover in the capital of Chile, I am at it again. Today I made the trip through the bustling streets of Santiago to a small oasis perched on the side of a leafy hill, to explore the inner sanctum of Pablo Neruda’s ‘La Chascona’ abode.

Born Neftali Ricardo Reyes Basoalto, Pablo Neruda is Chile’s most celebrated poet. Renowned for his sensuous poems, he also led a sensuous life: ‘La Chascona’ is named for his mistress – and later wife – Mathilde Urrutia, and was built as a sanctuary for her to live in and him to escape to. It is appropriate then that when it came to his house he chose to focus on the intimate interior rather than a showy façade. The white walls betray none of the inside details: courtyards overlook each other like Juliet balconies sheltered by grape vines, while twisting staircases inhabit secret passageways.

The artworks tell the story of a man who loved the ocean, with the walls adorned with galleons tossed upon wild seas. This love is evident from the first room, known as ‘The Captain’s Bar.’ The poet had a close affinity with the Ocean, calling himself a ‘Land Captain’ and filling his homes with maritime paraphernalia such as a theodolite and nautical charts. This collection also tells a personal story, and Diego Riviera’s portrait of Mathilde with two heads is fitting. The two faces hint at Neruda and Mathilde’s affair and later marriage, depicting what is seen and what is not. Those who look closely will also find Neruda’s profile painted in the waves of Mathilde’s hair.

La Chascona demonstrates the two sides of Neruda as well, with the rooms revealing insights into both the poet and the politician. While it is well known that he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1971, the importance of Neruda’s Marxist motivation is often overlooked. The numerous civic awards on display in the library serve as reminders of his successful diplomatic career. Neruda’s political interests remained strong right up until his death in 1973, which was attributed partly to stress over Salvador Allende’s loss of power following Pinochet’s military coup.

The lounge where Neruda’s wake was held is now open for visitors. The mountainous vista and eclectic collection of artworks, furniture and polished stones are welcoming, but their appearance masks a turbulent past. This is the same room in which Mathilde simultaneously mourned her husband and made a political stand, surrounded by friends and diplomats who had all picked their way across wooden beams to cross the flooded courtyard. The flooding was the result of vandalism, carried out by Neruda’s political opponents following General Augusto Pinochet’s takeover. When the people of Chile took to the streets to mourn him, they did so against direct orders, and knowing they were being watched by the brutal Pinochet regime.

Eyes still watch over the courtyard, but these days they are black and white drawings that hang from a branch and toss gently in the wind, winking over the landscape from many different angles. Having just come from Antarctica, my eyes are tuned in to relics of the Southern continent. Upstairs in the ‘French Room,’ an early map of Antarctica and a painting of a French Antarctic Expedition adorn the walls. The room is so called because it housed Neruda’s extensive collection of French poetry and literary works. It is also an insight into the poet’s unique attitude towards architecture: the room was built specifically to house Neruda’s favourite chair next to a well placed window and a picture he liked. Rather than starting with a space and filling it with details, he instead started with the details and built to accommodate them.

The result is a tangling maze of architectural moments, each its own work and, like a poem, suited to its own specific occasion. From the summer bar with its Single Malt Whisky sign, Fornasetti stools and giant pair of shoes through to the secret passageway between the dining room and Mathilde’s rooms upstairs, the house has many moods. It also inspires many moods in the visitors who come to explore, including curiosity and contemplation. I’ve come away from this excursion with a book of love poems, a better understanding of Chilean history and a definite track record for stalking literary greats.

South and South-er

Screen shot 2014-03-06 at 4.20.50 PM

This week I find myself writing from a location that is far further south than I ever bargained for when I moved to the Mainland. Forget Canterbury’s balmy 43 degree latitude:  these days I have become intimately acquainted with the Antarctic Circle, thanks to a summer stint lecturing on a cruise ship that is South Pole bound.

Now, I’m no stranger to sea air. Auckland is the city of sails, with harbours and islands galore, and the one thing I have missed most whilst living in Methven is the ocean. Getting on board a ship that spends four out of ten days out of sight of any land appears to be the perfect antidote to any salty cravings I may have experienced whilst living in the mountains.

Nevertheless, living in a ski resort town has primed me well for Antarctica in several regards. First, the snow. Winters in Methven have toughened me up enough to be able to face icebergs with pluck and only one pair of gloves, purchased from Four Square at the end of the ski season. It’s been great to get up and personal with the kind of tabular icebergs on which our local ovine hero Shrek was shorn some years back. Not even sub zero temperatures can detract from the delight I gain from seeing guests’ faces when I tell them this anecdote from my homeland.

Secondly, wide open spaces. Both Antarctica and the South Island are renowned for their photogenic nature and their wide uninhabited expanses. Down here there is a distinct lack of sheep, famous or not, but the glacial valleys are reminiscent of an icier version of the Milford Sounds. The seals that lounge around their fringes more than make up for any woolly deficit: with several million such seals to a human population that numbers in the thousands, they far outdo the efforts of their four legged friends in the mammal to man ratio.

Thirdly, living in a small community. When I first moved down from Auckland I could not have imagined living in a town of 1000 people. Working on board a ship with just over 100 staff, a four digit population count starts to sound like the busiest of bustling metropolises. Having visited several Antarctic Bases where the tour of duty exceeds two years and the population count barely makes double figures, I have come to appreciate the new blood that floods into our area with each new ski season. Our small town will never seem small in quite the same way again.

I’ve swapped sheep for shags and pigs for penguins as I get up close and personal with the source of our biting southerly winds, but I would not swap this experience for the world. There are so many new sights and sounds to experience every day, from breaching humpback whales to the unmistakably fishy smell of penguin guano. Heading south off the map to a place where the sea and the mountains come together under snow has put life back home in perspective and made me appreciate both latitudes all the more.

Originally published in The Ashburton Guardian