Friday, April 17, 2020


Re-reading a masterpiece of lockdown literature

When you think about it, you could spend months in self-isolation – let’s hope it won’t come to that – just reading the literature of lockdown. Many are the classics written in prison – The Consolation of Philosophy, Don Quixote – or about prison (too many Russian novels to list). Among mountain masterpieces too, more than one has been penned, as it were, behind the barbed wire.

Rear-Admiral Byrd revisits the site of his winter sojourn in 1947
But when it comes to the literature of extreme lockdown, then Richard E Byrd’s Alone is hard to beat.  For this is a book that shows you just how much worse things could get. Commander Byrd, as he was then, spent most of an Antarctic winter buried in the snowdrifts of the Ross Ice Shelf. Solitary in his one-man hut, he was the most southerly human on the planet for almost five months in 1934.

Ostensibly, he was there to make weather and auroral observations. Byrd also admits to some personal motivations: “time to catch up, to study and think and listen to the phonograph”. Then he adds that “perhaps, the desire was also in my mind to try a more rigorous existence than any I had known”.

Always, one should be careful what one wishes for. During his stay, Byrd trapped himself outside the hut in a blizzard, fell into a crevasse and absent-mindedly lost his way on the trackless icecap. Yet these incidents paled beside the main hazard – the oil fumes from his stove that slowly started to kill him. In the end, a rescue party came out from the main base, driving their snow tractors more than a hundred miles through the dark. They arrived just in time.

Self-isolationists have much to learn from Commander Byrd. Obviously, they will keep their stoves and flue pipes in good order. They will stick to a schedule: “From the beginning, I had recognized that an orderly, harmonious routine was the only lasting defence against my special circumstances … I tried to keep my days crowded; and yet, at the same time, I … endeavoured to be systematic.”

And they should read good books at meals. Byrd’s library verged on the highbrow, including Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, Santayana’s Soliloquies in England, Yule’s Travels of Marco Polo, Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class, and Héloïse and Abelard, “a story I have always loved”. But he lays aside Ben Ames Williams’s All the Brothers Were Valiant, although this may have been due to the carbon monoxide poisoning.

Self-isolationists will certainly bring a good music collection. And they will appreciate their surroundings, however forbidding these may be. They may even combine these diversions. Here is the Commander taking the air on a midwinter night, while playing Beethoven’s Fifth on his “Victrola”:

Presently I began to have the illusion that what I was seeing was also what I was hearing, so perfectly did the music seem to blend with what was happening in the sky. As the notes swelled, the dull aurora on the horizon pulsed and quickened and draped itself into arches and fanning beams which reached across the sky until at my zenith the display attained its crescendo. The music and the night became one; and I told myself that all beauty was akin and sprang from the same substance. I recalled a gallant, unselfish act that was of the same essence as the music and the aurora.

To write well, they say, you first have to read well. On the evidence of his library, Commander Byrd certainly aimed high in his writing. At least in this book. For, strange to say, the other title by which he is remembered today falls short of what one might expect from the author of Alone.

On the face of it, Skyward, an account of Byrd's flying adventures, draws on much more swashbuckling material than a solitary Antarctic sojourn. Yet the treatment is somehow perfunctory. Perhaps the book was written in haste. Or was there another reason for this sketchiness? The author may have faked the flight that made his name, turning back well short of the North Pole - this alone would be a good reason to avoid possibly self-incriminating detail.

In the end, Richard Byrd remains an enigma of an explorer - an aviation pioneer who, by his own account, was none too fond of flying. Yet his expeditions to Antarctica were the real thing. They put the continent back on the map, after decades of neglect. And, during his stay at the Bolling Advance Base Camp, he not only survived an Antarctic winter solo - to this day a rare, possibly unique feat - but bequeathed to us a classic of lockdown literature.


Richard E Byrd, Alone, Putnam & Co, 1939

Richard E Byrd, Skyward: Man's Mastery of the Air, Penguin Putnam, 2000


David Lowe said...

Also brings to mind the days before lighthouses were automated. Take Sule Skerry lighthouse the most remote manned lighthouse in Great Britain (until its automation in 1982) some 40 miles off the Orkney archipelago. A desolate rocky island that would have surely tested the mettle of even the most ardent of lighthouse keepers. I don't think we have too much to complain about being 'locked down' for a month or two.

Project Hyakumeizan said...

Thanks for reading, David, and for extending the field of lockdown literature to lighthouse keepers - yes, indeed, this must be a rich vein of material. Surely some of them wrote books. Almost incredibly, Commander Byrd was not the only person to overwinter solo in the polar regions in the name of meteorological research. There was also Augustine Courtauld, who spent the winter of 1930/31 alone at a weather station on the Greenland icecap, being rescued just before he ran out of fuel and food. But, if he wrote a book about the experience, it hasn't come my way ...