Tom Griffiths stands outside a hut in Antarctica
Tom Griffiths

Tom Griffiths travelled to Antarctica during the 02/03 summer. Tom is the W K Hancock Professor of History at the Australian National University, a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, and a prize-winning author of many books and essays. In 2001 he was convenor of the Centenary of Federation conference at the National Museum of Australia on Australians in Antarctica.

Tom’s Arts Fellowship proposal was to write a book about the history of Antarctica with an emphasis on the Australian experience in an international context, and on the history of ideas, science and policy in the post-Mawson era. His book, Slicing the Silence: Voyaging to Antarctica (UNSW Press) was published in May 2007 and won the Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History, the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction, and the Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.

In 2011 he and Marcus Haward of the University of Tasmania edited a book entitled Australia and the Antarctic Treaty System: 50 Years of Influence (UNSW Press) which was joint winner of the Best Tertiary Scholarly Resource in the Australian Educational Publishing Awards for 2012.

In January 2012, Tom was invited to join the centennial voyage to Mawson’s Huts, where the centenary of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition was commemorated.

Antarctic impression

In his book, Slicing the Silence, Tom wrote a series of historical essays, drawing on diaries and archives, and also on the experience of his roundtrip voyage on the Polar Bird to Casey Station. He finished his book with this reflection:

‘No one on this ship is sane’, the doctor told Stephen Murray-Smith as they sighted Tasmania and home in early 1986. It happened to be ‘Doctor Death’ [Peter Gormly] who was dispensing this further happy advice, the same doctor who had tried to scare us all into the tropics at the start of our journey. He continued to tell Stephen: ‘Those with us who have been away their fourteen or sixteen months are certainly not sane; but even you, by the time you’ve been on this ship in these waters two or three weeks, are not sane either.’

Returning has always been a dangerous moment for polar explorers. In Antarctica they glimpsed, perhaps, a kind of perfection. Last night we discussed insanity over farewell drinks. Three experienced expeditioners explained to me the isolation of the returning winterer. You are finally reunited with family and friends, but you know little of their conversation. Things have changed, people have moved on, a couple has broken up … you know nothing! So you listen as they talk, as if to another language. And gradually they notice that you are not joining in and they ask you: ‘Well, what is it like down there in Antarctica?’ And you think, where do I start and what can I say? They know nothing! In any case, you suspect they are asking out of politeness so you don’t say very much. People begin to comment on your reticence: ‘Oh Antarctica has changed you! You’ve got quieter.’ But you’re not quieter; you just don’t know what they’re talking about. After all, you sailed off the planet for a year. And now, for a little while, you have brought the silence back.