Writing from Halley

It’s a been a busy day by Halley standards. We’ve had just a mere glimpse

of the speed of things back home and are retreating back into our shell. To

plot. It’s a nice shell, it’s safe and warm and has lots of laughter all the

time reverberating off walls. It’s our place, our home. There are two places

at the moment: here, and not here. You are not here. I am here. It’s very, very


But we also like to communicate with the world out there. Some people use

the phone a lot, justifying the huge bills each month as their way of staying

in touch with friends and family. Other people write emails. I write blogs.

I sometimes forget why I do and then one of you nice folk out there, not here,

writes and reminds me. It’s not just about telling you, but also about reminding

me. And a way to make me open my eyes to where I am. I would hate to have this

incredible opportunity and find upon looking back that I can’t really remember

anything at all.

But I’m not writing for the future either – it’s very much about now.

Here and now. The present that I’m experiencing that I’ll never, never be able

to describe so well as in this moment. Ask me now about the journey down on

the ship and already I muddle things up. It would be catastrophic, but I might

forget completely to mention phosphorescence or flying fish!

There’s a third reason for writing these blogs that I discovered upon my return

to Blighty last year. You’ve heard the stories, you’ve seen some pictures, you’ve

tried to travel with me. When we meet, your questions are sincere and interesting.

I answer without even realising that I’m talking about It again.

When I got back to London, Felix had to hold my hand crossing Tottenham Court

Road, he saved me a number of times from impending crashes with cars, he veered

my eyes away from the tops of buildings (did you know there were gargoyles up

there?) towards pavements and tube entrances. He did his best to find a route

through greenery and spacious bars but still I felt overwhelmed. And I’d only

been gone for four months. Phones and keys and dates to be in places… it was

all so unnecessarily exhausting.

I found myself planning delightful days, entire days, with friends instead

of the usual hurried meetings between meetings squeezed into a schedule you’ll

never be able to keep to. Friends who had been reading my scrawl would say,-

those ice crystals sounded amazing, or, what do penguins smell like? Other friends

hadn’t read anything but it didn’t matter, we just sat still and allowed experiences

from both sides to slowly unravel. Both of these were delightful. The hard ones

were with strangers or acquaintances who’d heard ‘she’s been to Antarctica’

and would target me like that car at Piccadilly Circus. What was it like? Is

it cold? Why did you go? What do you do? What are penguins like? What do you

eat? Didn’t you get bored? AAAAAAAAAAaaaaaaaaaaa!

If I was lucky, Felix or one my friends nearby would see the fear on my face

and jump to my rescue. But sometimes I just had to go it alone. "Cold,

white, flat." was my usual response. And then I’d feel bad for being a

bitch. How do you describe this place in the midst of that bustle? How can you

possibly squeeze even an idea of it into the soundbite of, what, 30 seconds,

that your interrogator has scheduled in for an answer? So to them I could say,

well, I wrote about stuff while I was there and if you’re really interested,

you can read that. If you’re not, that’s fine too: if I was you I probably wouldn’t

bother. It’s true, I know me and I never research anything, I rarely read about

adventures or follow stories, and I don’t mind in the slightest if you don’t

follow these. This is my adventure and you’re welcome to join me or not.

What prompted this? Ah yes. Our Busy Day. Well, in my last entry I mentioned

that I’d been working on the Halley webpage. Today it finally got hosted,

but looked different from bits that I’d sent. (We don’t have internet access

down here so I only know this because I asked Felix to send me the text.) I

wrote to the guy in Cambridge and it now looks a lot more similar. So thank-you,

friend in Cambridge.

It got edited in order to conform with the BAS corporate image. I understand

even if I was a bit disappointed. Photos were removed and shrunk so the page

would load up quicker, text was changed so it would seem as though we were working

more and partying less. Millions of exclamation marks were added to the end

of my sentences to ensure that everyone could tell which bits were meant to

be tongue-in-cheek. It lost some of its charm perhaps but already I don’t mind

so much.

What I minded was not being asked to do the editing myself and, more importantly,

not even being told that the changes had been made. I guess we have no idea

what our past pages look like either. It’s a time like this that I realise,

a little sadly, that we are still the puppets of the organisation that we work

for. On the whole, I think they’re ok people to work for and I understand most

of their decisions even if I don’t always agree with them.

In the summer, I wrote a piece trying to describe the incompatibility of this

beautiful vast continent with the industrial site that it becomes when the ship

arrives, riddled with noise, politics, gossip and unnappeciative punters. In

the winter, we love the peace, it’s the best time of year. We’d like to think

that once the ship leaves, They can’t touch us. "What are they gonna do,

fire you?!" is a common joke around here.

But on the whole we follow the rules. We write risk assessments for every possible

activity, we fill in accident, incident and near miss forms every time something

doesn’t happen, we phone Cambridge if a field party is delayed due to bad weather

and have regular email contact and phone calls with line management. We go to

work every day. We could, it’s true, go on strike. But we won’t.

There have been years in the past that are infamous for their post-winter cliqueism

– the classic was the catapult built one year to greet the ship’s arrival.

I think any good wintering team will necessarrily have a hard time when the

new faces arrive; we are a team, but we’re not deliberately antagonistic. We

like to think we have power but in fact BAS owns us – we depend on them

for food, clothing, heat, mail, and communication. They even prescribe how much

alcohol we are allowed for the year and sell it to us.

Like teenagers trying to rebel, we want to have our own voice. The webpage

is one small, but very important, part of that. It’s a place we direct our friends

and family to, a place with lots of photos that we can’t afford to send on our

1MB/month email allowance. It’s a way of trying to describe to you out there

what we’re experiencing down here. If it’s tongue-in-cheek, well, maybe that’s

a reflection of how we’re feeling at the moment. So for the friends and family

of everyone down here, click here

for the original webpage. (If you don’t understand the "on fire"

reference at the end, try clicking on one of the photos…)

11 thoughts on “Writing from Halley

  1. I’m on to you, Rhian. I’ve long suspected that you’re not holed up in the Antarctic but on some sound studio on the outskirts of London, owned by BAS, who long ago decided it was a lot cheaper to “manufacture” antarctic expeditions than to actually have them. Makes sense too, in this time of budget cuts.

    Of course, as you are all supposedely so far away, you only have access to “a little bandwidth” to tell us how things are. How convenient! Make for very low production values, don’t you think? Not at all like the Americans and their Apollo Moon production.

    And those little details that you pepper your prose with, to try to add an air of authenticity! Orion setting in the Northwest in the afternoon (true enough, I checked, but you could have looked that up in an almanac); dilute sulphuric acid not freezing instantly if there is sufficient amounts (I almost got you there), pictures of comets that could have been taken by BAS operatives in NZ and emailed over to HQ, and finally, “the base”, which is a TV set if every I saw one. You can clealry see the director’s hand intruding on several of the party shots.

    My proof is inconclusive still, but the truth will out eventually. Meanwhile, I challenge you, in this age of photoshopping, to provide us with clear, incontrovertible proof that you are where you say you are…

  2. Stefan,

    You could be completely correct: the photos, the stories, the penguin feathers, postcards and presents that Felix can show you if you care, the project, the people, the lot… all fictitious. In fact, I believed the same when I first set sail but rather hoped they’d hide us on a tropical island and not London suburb. What dissapoints me most is that you obviously think so little of me to believe that I’d waste two years of my life making up stories from Croydon and that I care so little for my friends and family that I could be so close and not visit them once. I, however, have not lost my respect for you and in the manner you obviously have for me and still believe you to be a pedant, cynic and atheist of the highest order. I won’t walk into your trap,- what proof would you accept?

  3. Au contraire, anybody could report what they see from the Antarctic; it’s making it all up that is the sign of true creative genius, which is why you most likely were selected by BAS.

    And asking me what would suffice — very clever, I bet your superiors asked you to write that: not unlike Chalabi asking the Americans what kind of intelligence they needed to support an argument for war. If I tell you what kind of proof I want, you will know the limits of my capabilities, and I can’t let BAS know that.

  4. Excellent idea! This would definitely appease me. Does anyone have a spare $30,000? Rhian, you’re not exactly spending your salary these days are you?

  5. A couple of days ago I was asked if I would be prepared to do an interview for RIBA journal that is covering the architectural competition to design the next Halley Station. I have just been sent the answers, deadline for BAS is tomorrow and so they want me to reply by return of email. They (BAS) sent me some answers as well!

    My favourite is:

    Q: Do you ever watch tapes of Big Brother, and if so, is it with a sense of recognition?

    A: I’ve seen Big Brother and can say it’s nothing like living and working here at Halley. We have a very definite sense of purpose. (expand as you wish but do not empathise with this show!)

  6. Wow, that’s crazy. RIBA sent the questions to BAS, and then BAS sent the questions on to you, complete with suggested answers??!!? And then you have to reply to BAS, not RIBA, so that they can edit your answers as they wish before they make their way on to RIBA??? Wow…

  7. Wait, so you are being told to say that the show Big Brother is nothing like being instructed how to reply to emails and to have your interactions with the outside world edited for PR purposes?

  8. Treat this as a compliment. They are part of the Civil Service and treating you like a Minister. So you have to be warned of all the difficult questions and how you might answer them without giving hostages to fortune. Presumably these are the same people who suggested you as an interviewee? and either they are completely incompetent (unlikely) or they understand that you are not their patsy and are unlikely to do precisely what you are told unless you think it makes sense.

    So respond like a Minister. Tell them how much you appreciate being warned that you might get asked such a question and reassure them that you never watch Big Brother and will answer to that effect. And then you can tell them all about the special features that you think the new base should have (a high-sulphur hot tub to help manage dehydration and general health?) and which you look forward to mentioning in response to difficult questions.

    PS do you have tapes of Yes Minister at Halley?

  9. ..or perhaps Rhian is in a place similar to that in “The Prisioner” t.v. show circa 1960’s in which the protagonist is in an island unaware he is being held…. all with weather ballons that track down escapees and such.;)

    Knowledge is power

  10. Dear Rhian,

    Sorry it has been so long since I wrote. I’ve been distracted by exams, and my dad moving and enjoying Liam’s company. It is good, as always, to read your news. I’d like to write you a proper letter, but I have not got your email address (an annoying by-product of using my mother’s email system is that when I access it from work, I don’t have an address book.) So, please could you email me and I’ll write you a letter back.

    lots of love,

    Kathy xxx

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