The White North Has Thy Bones: Ice stations, submarines & the woman who swam the North West Passage

FRANKLIN ICE SHIPHere’s a programme to listen to huddled by the fire, like Jane Eyre with her book of polar wildlife as the wind howls outside. Producer Kevin Dawson came up with the idea of our latest Something Understood  programme about the North. You can listen to the music on the Spotify list I’ve compiled with some atmospheric extras

The icy North of the Arctic was the inspiration and he suggested the title  “The White North has thy bones” from the Tennyson epigraph to the Victorian explorer Sir John Franklin at his memorial in Westminster Abbey. Franklin never returned from a mission to find the North West passage via Canada to Asia. And the North West Passage ended up a constant obsession in our journey. I added some Hammer horror music, images from my lifelong obsession with and haunted dreams about submarines under icebergs – yes, I regularly dream about being trapped under icebergs in a Russian submarine – and we had the makings of this very romantic adventure for these cold midwinter nights.

Still from "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" 1994 (Kenneth Branagh)

Still from “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” 1994 (Kenneth Branagh)

The programme features reading from Jane Eyre and Frankenstein and the mysterious, thrilling title poem of Philip Larkin’s first published collection The North Ship, which I still remember reading, mesmerised, cover to cover as a student at exactly this time on the cusp of the year in the winter of 1987-8.

NORTH THE NORTH SHIP LARKINThe James Taylor song, The Frozen Man was inspired by the discovery of a body from Franklin’s voyage in the ice. Jules Verne’s Captain Hatteras – obsessed with retracing Franklin’s steps – offers a glimpse of polar madness. Kevin Dawson had recently interviewed Inupiat tribesmen in the far north of Canada about the impact of whalers and empire on their communities and the interviews he did in the programme are a powerful balance to the imperial drive of western explorers.

Ice station zebra

Ice Station Zebra film poster

I drew on my memories of climbing aboard a German World War Two U-boat captured intact and now on display at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. Though it didn’t make the final edit, this extract from Alistair Maclean’s novel of Ice Station Zebra captures the magical romance of the ice cap:

It was a landscape–if such a bleak, barren, and, featureless desolation could be called a landscape–from another and ancient world, weird and strange and oddly frightening. There were no clouds in the sky, but there were no stars, either: this I could not understand. Low on the southern horizon a milky, misty moon shed its mysterious light over the dark lifelessness of the polar ice cap. Dark, not white. One would have expected moonlit ice to shine and sparkle and glitter with the light of a million crystal chandeliers: but it was dark. The moon was so low in the sky that the dominating color on the ice cap came from the blackness of the long shadows cast by the fantastically ridged and hummocked ice; and where the moon did strike directly, the ice had been so scoured and abraded by the assaults of a thousand ice storms that it had lost almost all its ability to reflect light of any kind.

This ridged and hummocked ice cap had a strange quality of elusiveness, of  impermanence, of evanescence: one moment there, definitively hard and harsh and repellent in its coldly contrasting blacks and whites; the next, ghost-like, blurring coalescing and finally vanishing like a shimmering mirage fading and dying in some ice-bound desert. But this was no trick of the eye or imagination; it was the result of a ground-level ice storm that rose and swirled and subsided at the dictates of an icy wind that was never less than strong and sometimes gusted up to gale force, a wind that drove before it a swirling rushing fog of billions of needle-pointed ice spicules.

Rawlings and I stamped our feet, flailed our arms across our chests, shivered non-stop, took what little shelter we could from the canvas wind-break, rubbed our goggles constantly to keep them clear, and never once, except when the ice spicules drove into our faces, stopped examining every quarter of the horizon.

Somewhere out there on those frozen wastes was a lost and dying group of men whose lives might depend upon so little a thing as the momentary misting-up of our goggles. We stared out over those shifting ice sands until our eyes ached.

But that was all we had for it: just aching eyes. We saw nothing, nothing at all. The ice cap remained empty of all signs of life. Dead.

I was lucky to have interviewed Jude Law about his film Black Sea, who spoke with such passion about the camaraderie that keeps alive a submarine crew under the ice. Our submarine adventure features my favourite track from David Arnold’s magnificent Shaken Not Stirred James Bond remix album, the sonar ping-tinged version of From Russia With Love. Even better than the original, I think.

Lynne Cox

Lynne Cox

But the real star of our programme is the endurance swimmer Lynne Cox, who helped thaw the Cold War with her open water ambition. I’d remembered hearing her interviewed about 20 years ago on the radio about swimming the Bering Strait from Alaska to Russia in the 1980s in just a swim suit and goggles. I traced her thanks to Simon Watts, a colleague on the BBC World Service, and she was generous with her time down the line from her home in California to recount the amazing story of how she did it and why. Ice maiden Jane Eyre narrates our opening, but Lynne Cox is the ice maiden who ends the journey. She’s a remarkable, warm hearted woman.

The White North Has Thy Bones: Something Understood is on Radio 4 Sunday January 6th 6am and 1130pm and iplayer for 30 days after.

Further reading/listening

My Spotify list of music from this programme. I’ve added a couple of great Hammer Horror Frankenstein film cues and Vaughan Williams’ music for Scott of the Antarctic, which is of course NOT about the North Pole, just as it’s so wonderfully atmospheric. It’s not in the programme.

Franklin memorial at the Royal Naval Hospital, Greenwich

Lynne Cox: Swim that broke Cold War ice curtain (BBC News)

U-505: The German WW2 submarine I described visiting in Chicago


About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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4 Responses to The White North Has Thy Bones: Ice stations, submarines & the woman who swam the North West Passage

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  3. Simon McFadden says:

    Hi, just writing to say how much I enjoyed your The White North Has Thy Bones (and most of your work over the years!), hearing it again prompted me to message you about Peter Davidson’s book The Idea of North, if you don’t know it I think you may really enjoy it. I am the publishers designer but this is simply a personal recommendation. Best regards Simon

    • samiraahmed says:

      Thanks so much,Simon. Of course I’d heard of the book, but now seems the perfect time to read it. I shall look into it.

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