Why I wrote ‘Frozen Planet’: on Oates, Barrie and Britishness

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There are a number of things that define a certain idea of ‘Britishness’, and for an adopted Briton they are surrounded with a halo of mystery. One of them must be Captain Oates’s famous last words: ‘I am just going outside and may be some time’, perhaps allowing the others of his expedition the chance to live a tiny bit longer, sacrificing himself to the elements. A few years ago I read The Worst Journey in The World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard. To him I owe my vocabulary: sastrugi, nunatak. The levels of endurance of that journey are incomprehensible for us. I have written about Scott’s expedition before, in my cycle-novel Memoria de la nieve, and I guess I will write about it again. These men were ‘gentlemen’ in the most old-fashioned sense of the word. I was interested in reproducing this mind-set in a scenario taking place further in the future. When will we need to launch these ill-conceived expeditions again, when will our resources as human beings have to fight again with the unknown matching their bravery and obstinacy? Perhaps when we move further into the stars.

A week after I married, my entrepreneurial husband accepted a grant for multilingual students to go for a year to live in Iceland and study Icelandic, while I stayed behind in Oxford. I was happy teaching Spanish part-time in Royal Holloway, one of the most beautiful colleges of London University, and we simply couldn’t afford to live together in Iceland on his grant, or in England on my salary. So, a week after my marriage, I took my husband to Heathrow Airport and waved him goodbye. Staying behind was strange, fulfilling: I had a nice flatmate in a nice Victorian terraced house, liked my life and enjoyed my job immensely. So that was that! In our family, this became known as one of the the things that fell under the wording ‘men who go to do silly things’. In no way I mean to say that the greatest explorers in British history can be labelled in such a manner; but there was certainly an element of bloody-mindedness in the idea of these men heading out to do things, and not always succeeding, simply because of the challenge they posed. An attitude summed up in the reply of an explorer of a slightly later generation, George Mallory, when asked why he was going to attempt to climb Everest: ‘Because it’s there’. These men willingly left their home behind; my story tries to address that sadness and melancholy for the place they thought they wanted to flee. They dream of home, the imagined home, but something has made them go beyond what they should normally be asked to endure.

My story ‘Frozen Planet‘, published in Apex #76 today, is about men, yes. It is about men because it used to be call ‘The Lost Boys’, as a reference to Peter Pan. J.M. Barrie and Scott were friends, and one of the last letters that Scott wrote (and never sent) was addressed to him. The story also contained a different quote, one from Peter Pan: ‘We hope our sons will die like English gentlemen’. I am not sure what kind of aspiration this could possibly be, especially for small children; but it certainly addresses an ideal that I hope is now behind us; if nothing else to help us stop history repeating itself. I lost that quote in this last version of the story, and the references to Barrie, as the imagery of the story was already too baroque: I preferred to concentrate on a few elements. The beast, the hallucinations, the will to survive.

I was born in Andalusia; I write, mostly, stories set elsewhere. I’ve studied English, comparative literature, some Russian. I’ve lived abroad, I’ve come back home and I’m glad to be here now. But I do not feel I truly belong anywhere, or I ought to write about any place. I am a Spaniard writing novels set in Oxford because I have suffered Oxford fully. I still try to write stories set in Andalusia; I still find it impossibly hard.

I have sold three stories since Clarion; all three have male protagonists. I have a number of stories with female characters I would also like to see in print. I am sure it has only been a matter of chance; but this small sample has left me… if not worried, then at least thoughtful. I am still fascinated by these men, and by what other men have achieved in history. But I think their time has passed, and the time for these ideals as well. I hope my story shows this, a tiny bit at least.

*endnote* This story would not exist if it weren’t for the encouragement and help from my Clarion classmates, the best beta readers any writer may wish for. It is dedicated to all of you.

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