June 2019

The Nation Reviewed

At home in the Antarctic

By Ceridwen Dovey
The screenwriters living with the crew of Mawson station

No murders and no monsters. This was the rule that writers Jane Allen and Jesse Blackadder set for themselves as they plotted out a TV drama set at Mawson station in Antarctica, where they’ve just spent three months as Australian Antarctic Arts Fellows. Much of the storytelling inspired by other extreme environments – such as the Arctic – relies on “contagion, beasts or government conspiracy”, they told me. “But why would you have to manufacture drama where there’s so much psychological, emotional stuff going on as it is? A group of people forced to live for many months in close quarters. And nobody can leave.”

Allen and Blackadder now know firsthand how that feels. The fortnight-long journey from Hobart aboard the Aurora Australis as it rammed its way through the pack ice helped transition them to a simpler way of life: lingering over meals, nightly rounds of board games. A group of around 70 was headed to Davis station, another of the permanent Australian outposts; from there, the smaller Mawson crew was transported in groups by light plane, over the ice plateau, to the edge of Horseshoe Harbour.

When they arrived at Mawson’s “Red Shed”, Allen and Blackadder could sense how jarring it was for the 13 people who’d been living together for nine months to have “this boxful of exuberant puppies” joining them. There were minor issues as they all adapted: the newcomers soon became aware how loud they seemed to the winterers, who at first kept mainly to themselves; the use of a favourite armchair had to be renegotiated. They quickly learnt to avoid letting the heavy fire doors slam shut – a pet peeve of Mawson veterans.

In the 29-person team of summer residents there were 21 tradespeople – carpenters, plumbers, diesel mechanics, electricians – because keeping the station running and powered is such a huge task. Allen and Blackadder expected more scientists but much of the science at Mawson is done remotely. Only seven of the team were women, among them the chef, the doctor, the station leader and one of the two scientists there to study the Adélie penguins. The group was skewed towards early middle age; most were in their 30s and 40s, with a few (like Allen and Blackadder) in their 50s. Everybody had their own bedroom, but bathrooms were shared; cleaning duties were rostered. There was a microbrewery and a bar, a mess for meals, a living area for evening darts or card games, and a small cinema where each Tuesday night they’d watch episodes of The Americans.

Though it’s the windiest continent on the planet, Allen and Blackadder could look outside – onto a pale-blue ice cliff, the frozen harbour, icebergs dotted on the horizon – and see not a thing moving. “Just a sense of this great big timeless place, and stillness.” But the 24-hour sunlight was disorientating; everybody sleeps badly in summer.

Soon the new arrivals were initiated into the most joyful aspects of station life: the warmth and pageantry of the social gatherings. At the welcome barbecue, held outdoors, there was lamb on a spit, beers chilling in the ice, a badminton tournament, and people (ill-advisedly) wearing shorts.

Another surprise was the food. The chef was up at 3.30am daily, baking fresh bread. She created delicious dishes like vegetarian risotto and profiteroles in spite of the challenges: no resupplies for the whole season, and the need to store certain foods such as potatoes, which spoil if frozen, in a special fridge to warm them up.

A few weeks in, there was a fancy dinner, which guests attended in formal dress and shoes. (Usually they all wandered the living quarters in the same Australian government–issued, blue-and-white-speckled wool socks – this also made it tricky to sort the laundry.) The dinner was a turning point for the group. Something about getting dressed up and having candles and napkins “really changed the vibe, and created a sense of camaraderie”. From there on in, the group was “outrageously harmonious”.

The only downside of this conviviality was that any open conflict in Allen and Blackadder’s TV script had to be invented (or inspired by the more drama-prone Russian Antarctic research station, where somebody was reportedly stabbed by a workmate for revealing – of all things – the end of a novel). They drew on colourful stories about cohorts in seasons past. There’s a known phenomenon, for instance, that if a single woman arrives on the station she becomes the “Queen”, and the single men competing for her affections become her faithful “corgis”. According to the Australian Antarctic Division’s Expeditioner’s Handbook, anyone who gets involved in a relationship “should be sensitive to the potential impact of indiscreet behaviour on others who are separated from their loved ones”.

Even when the going is good, things can go wrong fast. This is known colloquially as “the A factor”, a sort of Antarctic Murphy’s Law, and is the working title of their TV show. Once, a power outage had tradies sprinting to fix it, because after just 20 minutes the pipes would begin to freeze. If somebody didn’t turn up for a meal, someone would always check on them. The relentless companionship could itself take a toll. “What does it mean,” Allen mused, “to see the same people for three meals a day, and at the bar, and on a Sunday, and special occasions, and on your birthday, and when you’re having a hard time and don’t want to talk to anybody – but if you get your cornflakes and take them back to your room, everybody notices?”

An organisational psychologist was available for remote sessions, which Blackadder was grateful for when she found herself briefly in a low place midway through their stay. “All the things that made me feel stable and secure as a person had melted or crumbled,” she said. “The ice was literally melting around me, everything was cracking under my feet, and that’s how I felt too. Who am I here?”

There’s a famous sign at the end of the headland: IT’S HOME IT’S MAWSON. This is a sentiment widely shared; apparently there’s a high rate of “recidivism” among Mawsonites. No matter the hardships, many will do whatever it takes to come back next season, seeking to return to a wonderland where there’s no cash, no need to lock anything, no traffic; where all meals are eaten communally and the washing-up is equitably shared. It’s a dangerous, thrilling place where residents face real challenges doing their daily work, but where it’s also socially acceptable to spend evenings wearing matching socks while doing group crosswords or learning to knit (and this goes for the tradies, too).

Re-entering normal life is not easy after such an experience. The Division shares advice with expeditioners on separating from, and returning to, partners in the outside world. It recommends meeting, after a long absence, in neutral territory. Partners are also eligible for psychological support services, in acknowledgement of the burdens they carry. Both Allen and Blackadder said that, in the days after their return, they found speeding traffic and being surrounded by a sea of strange faces in a cityscape almost unbearable. When they’d first arrived in Antarctica, it had felt like “landing on an alien planet”. Now, however, they find themselves sometimes longing for Mawson. For home.

Ceridwen Dovey

Ceridwen Dovey is the author of Blood Kin, Only the Animals and In the Garden of the Fugitives. Her latest book is Writers on Writers: Ceridwen Dovey on J.M. Coetzee.

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