These Old Bones

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A few days before my birth my father returned from an Arctic expedition. He’d been away for several months on Svalbard – a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, halfway between continental Norway and the North Pole – exploring the glaciers, fjords and mountains east of Ny-Alesund, earth’s most northerly civilian settlement at 78° 55’ N. It was night and raining hard when he got back. From Svalbard he’d flown down to Tromsø, then Luton, then caught several trains and finally a bus to Penclawdd, a village in south Wales. My mother, sitting by the window, saw him walking up the shining road, pack on his back. Once home he was amazed to see how pregnant she was, how round her belly.

Next morning he unpacked his bag and from deep inside the stuffed mix of wool and down he drew out a most amazing object, a polar bear pelvis he’d found on the glacier of Kongsfjorden: abstract, sculptural, bleached. A strange find from another world. I trace my love of travel to parts unknown, my interest in landscapes and the stories they hold back to that pelvis.

The polar bear bone lived in the study of our various houses throughout my childhood. It looked so pure and supernaturally white, and it was heavier than one might expect. It enthralled me; an almost feathered line of peaks ran over the sacrum and coccyx; the broken ends of the flaring hips revealed a coral interior. The hollow eyes of the femur cups, the sinuous lines of the iliac crest, its conch shell-like fissures, cracks and apertures – all these tactile features thrilled and intrigued. The idea of my father having discovered it on a glacier, in an impossibly far-flung landscape of mythical beasts, caught my imagination. To hold it was to think of my father as a young man in that great silence, tramping about in the realm of polar bears, and feel my horizons expand.

Thirty-five years on from that rainy Penclawdd night I too set off for Svalbard. I was writing a book about the human outp

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A few days before my birth my father returned from an Arctic expedition. He’d been away for several months on Svalbard – a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, halfway between continental Norway and the North Pole – exploring the glaciers, fjords and mountains east of Ny-Alesund, earth’s most northerly civilian settlement at 78° 55’ N. It was night and raining hard when he got back. From Svalbard he’d flown down to Tromsø, then Luton, then caught several trains and finally a bus to Penclawdd, a village in south Wales. My mother, sitting by the window, saw him walking up the shining road, pack on his back. Once home he was amazed to see how pregnant she was, how round her belly.

Next morning he unpacked his bag and from deep inside the stuffed mix of wool and down he drew out a most amazing object, a polar bear pelvis he’d found on the glacier of Kongsfjorden: abstract, sculptural, bleached. A strange find from another world. I trace my love of travel to parts unknown, my interest in landscapes and the stories they hold back to that pelvis.

The polar bear bone lived in the study of our various houses throughout my childhood. It looked so pure and supernaturally white, and it was heavier than one might expect. It enthralled me; an almost feathered line of peaks ran over the sacrum and coccyx; the broken ends of the flaring hips revealed a coral interior. The hollow eyes of the femur cups, the sinuous lines of the iliac crest, its conch shell-like fissures, cracks and apertures – all these tactile features thrilled and intrigued. The idea of my father having discovered it on a glacier, in an impossibly far-flung landscape of mythical beasts, caught my imagination. To hold it was to think of my father as a young man in that great silence, tramping about in the realm of polar bears, and feel my horizons expand.

Thirty-five years on from that rainy Penclawdd night I too set off for Svalbard. I was writing a book about the human outposts to be found at the wild ends of the Earth, and the Arctic camps and cabins of my father’s expedition were on my list of outliers to visit, along with a multitude of mountain bothies, desert stations, forest lookouts and sea beacons – all in light of the pelvis: totem, heirloom, embodiment of the urge for going; symbol of the fact that however far one journeys in any direction there’s always history and mystery still to be discovered.

Many writers keep similar objects close by them to spur flights of fancy and creative connections. Roald Dahl had a whole table of marvellous curios beside his writing chair. A heavy silver ball of foil sweet wrappers jostled with a rock from Babylon, an opal from Australia and the orb of his own hip joint presented by the surgeon who’d replaced it.

On a similarly osteo-note, Robert Macfarlane writes in his recent book Underland of a whalebone owl made by the sculptor Steve Dilworth, ‘a potent creation of Ice Age simplicity’ which he often carried while underground ‘to help me see in the dark’.

Max Porter tells me that the poet Alice Oswald has become heir to Ted Hughes’s badger pelt, maybe that of the ‘Beautiful, warm, secret beast’ he wrote of finding on the road in ‘Coming down through Somerset’. Perhaps it helped inspire Oswald’s similarly brilliant brock poem ‘Body’: ‘hard at work/ With the living shovel of himself’. The badger lives on.

The travel writer Horatio Clare, meanwhile, treasures a lump of basaltic rock from the Skeleton Coast of Namibia that is over a billion years old. Philip Hoare picks up telescopic hag stones after small hours swims in Southampton Sound, while Max Porter’s writing touchstone is a piece of church pew – a half-carved foliate end, unfinished, the work paused, the craftsmen having set down their tools to go to war, never to return.

Writers’ tools also take on meaning and significance – Philip Pullman recently rediscovered the green leather case containing a most important pen; a loss and return recorded on Twitter:

Lost: a green leather pen case, containing a Montblanc ballpoint pen and an ordinary pencil. I’m particularly attached to the pen, because I wrote His Dark Materials with it. If anyone finds it, I’d appreciate a tweet.

7:57 p.m., 25 Sept. 2018

Today I wore a jacket I hadn’t worn for two years. In the pocket I found my green leather pen case containing the pen that wrote His Dark Materials . . . I knew it would come back to me.

8:10 p.m., 26 June 2019

And while Alan Bennett, who famously writes on anything he has to hand (‘I’ve no time for those – what are they called, Moleskine notebooks? No time for that at all’), might pooh-pooh the idea of getting hung up on stationery, many writers return to a proven combination of pens, paper and ink time after time. Repetition comforts, calms and spurs. Process manifests manuscripts.

Neil Gaiman writes his first drafts with a fountain pen – either a LAMY 2000 or a Namiki – in inks either red or blue/green. Virginia Woolf wrote in green, blue and purple, the last reserved for her letters. Lewis Carroll was also partial to purple ink and, like Woolf, wrote standing up. Like John Steinbeck, Roald Dahl began his writing day by laboriously sharpening a set of particular pencils – ‘the kind with rubbers on one end. I have these sent from America by the gross, I don’t know why except they are what I started with and it would worry me enormously to change the colour after 30 years.’

Alexander Dumas wrote all his fiction on blue paper, his poetry on yellow, and his articles on pink. Lawrence Norfolk, in an essay on writers’ notebooks titled ‘A Junkyard of the Mind’, mentions that Franz Kafka wrote always in quarto-sized notebooks before trading down to octavo near the end of his life, while Jean-Jacques Rousseau would scrawl on playing cards when walking – jottings that were later written up to form Reveries of a Solitary Walker.

Some rubrics are more reactive than ritual. Dr Seuss kept ‘an immense collection of 300 hats’ to don if beset by writer’s block while the musician Thom Yorke buys a ticket and gets on a train . . . day return as periapt – titfer talisman – magic bullets all.

For my part, having been to Svalbard and seen the polar bear’s habitat, I feel a deeper connection with my father’s adventures and the wild Arctic he encountered, so diminished in my lifetime. The trip brought home how found and fashioned objects are animated by narrative and history. None of the totems mentioned above are truly dead, archival relics. Instead, they’re teachers and witnesses – prisms and provocations to further acts. There’s life in the old bones yet.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 68 © Dan Richards 2020


About the contributor

Dan Richards’s Outpost: A Journey to the Wild Ends of the Earth is published by Canongate.

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