‘A Start on Such a Night is Full of Promise’

In 1888 Nansen and other brave Danish fellows took it into their heads to walk over the Greenland icecap, from East to West. Far far more dangerous than a trip to the moon in a tin can in the 1970s. Musician Tom Adams came across an English translation of Nansen’s diary and composed a musical account of this extraordinary achievement: A Start On Such A Night Is Full Of Promise. The music plots their steps from optimistic tone setting out to, the long slog over the ice-cap, the hospitality of Greenlanders on the West coast who put up these unexpected guests through a long winter, and finally the brassy conclusion upon meeting with a Danish ship the following spring.

The lecture room of the Scott Polar Research Institute was a perfect setting last wednesday for a performance, with its wall dressings of East German schoolroom maps of the Polar regions and Polar bear skins as wall dressings. Tom Adams, the Mountaineering Club Orchestra and actors provided a really wonderful combination of words, music and photographic images. And a few minutes getting into the icy frame of mind in the fabulous Polar Museum beforehand to boot.

The evening sent me reaching for Nansen’s account of his expedition of 1897 on the Arctic sea ice. Another feat of extraordinary bravery. He and his crew voluntarily gave themselves up to some of the most powerful forces of nature by locking their ship – the Fram – in the Arctic ice and allowed themselves to be carried by the flow of the ice across a year in order to better understand its movement. He describes on one page – apparently nonchalantly – night watches for Polar bear, and the terrifying sound of the ice floes squeezing the hull with enormous pressure:

‘The ice… is trying its very utmost to grind the Fram into powder. But here we sit quite tranquil, not even going up to look at all the hurly-burly, but just chatting and laughing as usual.’ (64)

They are a very long way from home. That must be the reason for the lingering accounts of familiar comforts, with description of dinner and post prandial musical fun sounding much like a Copenhagen gentlemen’s club. After dinner:

‘one or other of us might go to the organ, and, with the assistance of the crank-handle, perform some of our beautiful pieces, or Johansen would bring out the accordion and play many a fine tune. His crowning efforts were ‘Oh, Susanna!’ and ‘Napoleon’s March Across teh Alps in an Open Boat.’ (62).

Go to http://themountaineeringclub.co.uk/orchestra to get a taste of Tom and co’s music and follow the link to buy it.

Nansen quotes from: Elizabeth Kolbert (ed.) (2007) The Arctic, Granta

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