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A bit of reality for the armchair explorers

On Antarctica, by Len Airey, reviewed by Emily Slatten

Like many polargeeks, I have long wanted to visit Antarctica. To this end, I once applied for a job at Raytheon, one of the many companies that supplies workers to the many base camps on the continent, confident of my ability to handle the weather and the work. However, Len Airey's On Antarctica has caused me to reconsider my disappointment in not getting a job there.

Len Airey worked as an ionosphericist at the British Antarctic Surveys camp at Faraday for 2 years. On Antarctica is a series of loosely related vignettes from his time there. I am thankful that this book has been written, because nowhere else have I seen the realities of living and working in Antarctica outlined so brutally and honestly.

In 1981, the year Len landed in Antarctica, Faraday and its sister bases were manned by, well, men. And so a common thread throughout most of his stories is that of foulmouthed and foultempered testosterone machines drinking themselves stupid and starting fights. But peppered amongst the perhaps overly-quoted expletives and descriptive scenes of vomit and lust are some fantastic accounts of the work one would actually have to do there, the cramped conditions of the bases, the flora and fauna living there and the reality of being incredibly isolated in one of the coldest places on Earth.

Len was in Antarctica during some incredible events: five of his friends and coworkers were lost in two separate incidents. The Falkland Islands turned from a land dispute to a full scale war. He outlines these events and more in a fairly engaging, if not always stylish, prose. We meet the men he worked with, we hear of their foibles and their triumphs. We accompany Len on several outings to Antarctic Mountains, BAS outposts and visiting ships.

Yes, sometimes he uses acronyms and phrases never properly explained; and Yes, it does take most of the book to associate the right name with the right job description and character traits; and Yes, it is sometimes tiring to wade through the litany of profanities on every page, only to realize that this exchange adds little to the movement of the story, such as it is.

But beyond that we, at least for a moment, feel like we have a taste, just a little vicarious taste, of what it must be like down there. And I thank Len for that.

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