A close friend says that being in Alcoholics Anonymous is like observing Lent all year round: denial, meditation, confession, repentance. She tells me this because, each year, I think about giving up wine for Lent, but never do. She, who has given up wine for life, believes that denial needs a framework. ‘Like Lenten complines, an evening a week with others. Otherwise sacrifice gets lost in private dailyness.’ This year, I embarked on an equally difficult programme of denial, a vow not to buy anything unnecessary. Not the flowery linen skirt that spoke to me of spring, nor the divine taupe shoes. Not even the tempting catalogue to the Americans in Paris exhibition.
As Lent was originally only three days, I gave myself a mid-way reprieve during our few days in Scotland the pay off to a promise we’d made to Sam: do well in your GCSEs, and two-days’ fishing on the Tay will be yours. And my reward: a pilgrimage to the Watermill in Aberfeldy, the bookshop/gallery/music-and-coffee shop that is my personal Compostela. I negotiated my slot of time at the Watermill as carefully as Sam organised his ghillie, and I arrived at the same pitch of excitement that he feels on a salmon river.
But before I reached the shelves, I saw a notice for the exhibition in the gallery on the top floor of the bookshop. ‘Ice and Light: Antarctica’. My heart stopped. My fascination for Antarctica began on Putney Heath. For four years, I lived in a first-floor flat at 7, Heathview Gardens. Although no blue plaque identified the house, this was the London home of Ernest Shackleton, and the week I moved in (December 1981), a snow storm transformed the Heath into a polar wonderland.
My neighbour, a mountaineering lawyer named John Harding, loaned me his copy of South, Shackleton’s account of his crew’s struggle for survival after their ship was crushed, leaving them stranded on ice floes in the Weddell Sea. Although I knew the harrowing stories of Scott’s expedition, I’d barely heard of Shackleton. After reading South, I tracked down everything I could find about Scott, Oates, Shackleton and Frank Hurley, whose photographs and diary of Shackleton’s 1914 voyage to Antarctica are the most beautiful and haunting images in my mind’s visual museum. Until, that is, I stood in the small gallery in Aberfeldy and looked at the paintings by Malize McBride.
The artist’s fascination with Antarctica began with her father’s copy of Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s book The Worst Journey in the World, the indescribably sad account by the youngest member on Scott’s journey to the South Pole. That book was the beginning of a longing to see Antarctica, a desire weighed down by guilt: the pressure on that fragile environment from tourism is huge. Only when McBride was reassured by the severe limits on access, did she go there herself in January 2004.
I arrived on the last day of the exhibition. A few pictures were unsold, including the largest, some 8ft wide, called Last Iceberg. Majestic, silent, contemplative, it spoke of those explorers; brave, optimistic, bookish men, eating stewed penguin and reading Tennyson. And, inevitably, of how the well-being of our planet depends on these skyscrapers of ice. In a few days, Last Iceberg will hang in my house. Not in keeping with vows, but a Lenten meditation on what the men who encountered these ice mountains knew: Fortune gives us nothing which we can really own.
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on April 13, 2006.