Pole Dance by Tom Avery

pole dance

Published: 2004 by Orion Books
My copy: Borrowed from the Library where I work

Memorable quote: “Although I can partially relate to how Shackleton felt about his own performance, I find it astonishing that he managed to hold himself together. I have the luxury of knowing that rescue is just a phone call away, whereas this indomitable man had no choice but to keep on marching.”

Almost exactly 100 years after Scott, Shackleton and Wilson recorded their “Furthest South” record on the Discovery expedition. 27 year old Tom Avery became the youngest and fastest Briton to reach the South Pole. Largely written in diary form, Pole Dance is his account of the trip, from the interminable wrangling for funding and sponsorship – which  seems to have become even more arduous as the continent itself has become more accessible – through the preparations and finally the journey itself. For me, modern polar expeditions don’t exert the lure of the historic ones, possibly because there isn’t – there simply can’t be – the same sense of discovery and danger. The firsts now have to be qualified: youngest, oldest, quickest, first to the pole via space hopper (OK so I might have made that one up). So although modern accounts of time spent in the polar stations still fascinate me, up to now I haven’t been particularly drawn to recent expedition narratives.

Crassly laddish and clearly hailing from a very privileged background, I’ll admit I picked up this book fully expecting to dislike its narrator. But there’s something very honest and down to earth about Avery’s voice. His team set out from their base at the same time as another group containing a man who had courted the same company for precious sponsorship. Although not directly in competition, it is inevitable that a certain rivalry would develop and it is a testament to Avery’s likeability as a narrator that I was surprised by how much I found myself rooting for him to reach the pole first! Although any polar trek remains a tremendous feat of endurance, and there are still moments of real danger for Avery’s four man team,  he admits that rescue is always just a phone call away and never tries to align himself with the pioneers of the historic age. Instead Avery’s trip is more personal: a physical challenge and a mental one too. How does a sociable young man from the connected internet generation deal with the isolation of the ice-scape? The fact that limited communication is possible creates some interesting contrasts and I quite liked the sense of disjuncture in scenes such as the one in which Avery, despondent after a poor days progress, finds his mood further lowered by news of the poor performance of his beloved football team. Much as he misses his home he seems to struggle to make sense of the contact he is allowed in the same way that the fictional Freya does in The Nature of Ice.

Avery also talks about how his polar experiences give him a deeper understanding and connection to the trials of Scott and co although he’s careful never to out himself on the same pedestal (his modesty is quite disarming actually: he often sees himself as the “weakest link” in his team). Avery’s narrative is interspersed with some descriptive passages detailing the earlier Furthest South quest. Most polar fans won’t learn anything new about The Discovery expedition from these rather rudimentary insertions but Avery’s laddish honesty does shed light on some of the cruder aspects of polar experience that are only hinted at in the more gentlemanly narratives of earlier times. How do you go to the toilet in Antartica? Avery shares all the cringeworthy details -“snow wedgie,” anyone?

I would hardly rank this alongside the greats of the genre. Avery is no Cherry-Garrard, and his account never soars to the sublime heights this landscape inspires in others. But his open, earthy tone and attention to the everyday details of life on a modern polar journey has a certain crude charm – rather like that punning and completely inappropriate title he chose. Borrow it perhaps, rather than buying, but Pole Dance is worth at least a “cheeky peek.”

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