The Polar Press: a century of Australian Antarctic ‘newspapers'

For a continent that is frequently likened to an enormous blank page, Antarctica generates an inordinate amount of writing. This takes the form of published material, including expedition accounts, scientific articles, explorer biographies and travel narratives; unpublished but systematic records, such as station reports and logs; and also more personal, ephemeral responses which may never have more than a few readers. People who visit the continent, even those who rarely pick up a pen back ‘home’, seem seized by the urge to express themselves in the extraordinary environment of the far south. In the ‘Heroic Era’ this usually took the form of handwritten diary entries, but more recently options have proliferated, with websites, blogs and tweets providing ways to broadcast individual impressions and experiences to a community outside the Antarctic station.

One genre of polar writing sits intriguingly on the borderline between private reflection and public record, and between the personal and the group response: the polar ‘newspaper’. The scare-quotes are required not only because the concept of a ‘newspaper’ produced by a handful of isolated expeditioners who are already all too aware of each other’s ‘news’ is, on the face of it, a ludicrous one, but also because the publications that can be classed under this term are often hybrid forms — part magazine, part literary anthology, part report, part mock-newspaper. Their explicit or implicit claim to the title of ‘newspaper’ is always parodic — they deliberately mimic the wording and format of a newspaper specifically to highlight the incongruity of this idea in an Antarctic context. But polar newspapers — and there have been many over the years — also serve a number of serious functions. At their best, they occupy leisure time, both in their production and consumption; allow self-expression and creativity; foster a sense of group identity and cohesion; create a sense of temporal regularity in a place where time can seem highly homogenous; and memorialise expeditions and communities.

The polar newspaper had its beginnings in the Arctic, rather than the Antarctic. The earliest known example was produced by a British expedition led by William Edward Parry in 1819–20 — the first time a ship deliberately overwintered in the polar regions. As he relates in his published journal of the expedition, Parry considered ‘want of employment’ to be among the ‘worst evils’ his men could face, and to combat it launched the New Georgia Gazette, along with regular theatrical performances, as a source of diversion and amusement. Multiple hand-written copies were produced, featuring items such as accounts of activities onboard, reviews, poetry, letters, mock-advertisements and announcements. Later Arctic expeditions, including those searching for the lost Franklin expedition, took up the idea. Towards the end of the century, Fritjof Nansen, attempting to reach the North Pole, encouraged the men of his ship the Fram to produce a newspaper, printing excerpts from it in his account of the expedition, Farthest North. When exploration turned towards the far south, so did the newspaper tradition, with Robert F. Scott’s two expeditions producing the well-known South Polar Times, as well as two other short-lived publications – the Blizzard and the Adélie Mail & Cape Adare Times; Ernest Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition turning out a shipboard number, the Antarctic Petrel, in addition to the Aurora Australis, the first book ‘published’ in the continent; and Erich von Drygalski’s German South Polar Expedition issuing Das antaktische Intelligenzblatt.

The last but by no means the least of the Heroic Era Antarctic newspapers was The Adélie Blizzard, produced by the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) main base in the winter of 1913 (the Western Base men had their own publication, The Glacier Tongue, but unfortunately this does not seem to have survived). The AAE newspaper had been initiated the previous year, but delayed by preparations for the summer sledging season. As it turned out, this season was far more eventful — and traumatic — than anticipated: two expeditioners, Xavier Mertz and Belgrave Ninnis, died during a sledging journey, with the remaining member of the party, AAE leader Douglas Mawson, arriving at the base close to death. By this time, most of the men had departed on the relief ship, with six (including one newcomer to the tight-knit group) left in wait for the delayed sledgers. Thus the winter of 1913 saw only seven men in the hut, with no preparations for another season needed, and their leader debilitated by his experiences. In such circumstances the threat of ‘polar depression’ loomed. While most of the men kept diaries, the primary function of these (in addition to the keeping of a record) was to provide a place of privacy where the individual could escape from the group, vent frustrations and express personal fears, desires and pleasures. A newspaper, produced and read by the whole community, met quite a different need, and was a welcome morale-booster when the winter drew near. The first of five issues — 26 foolscap pages long — was released not long after the autumnal equinox.

Mawson, who had acted as editor in the winter of 1912, was in no shape to continue this duty in 1913. Even the task of making a start on the official account of the AAE (the book that became The Home of the Blizzard) was proving trying. The editorship was taken over by the chief physician, Archie McLean, who held an arts degree as well as medical qualifications. In his first editorial, McLean announced the purpose of the newspaper as he saw it: ‘the crystallisation of our ideas, an additional means of social enjoyment, and, incidentally we hope, to voice the spirit of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition.’

The Adélie Blizzard was produced on a typewriter, with occasional hand-drawn illustrations and decorations. Only one copy was produced; this would be read aloud on its release, and then passed around the men. All contributions — which included some left over from 1912 — were anonymous. The content was diverse, including historical and scientific articles, comic illustrations and jokes, book reviews, editorials, meteorological reports, accounts (often amusing) of events and people on base, poetry, short stories, play scripts and, unusually, news.

Of all the early polar newspapers, The Adélie Blizzard came closest to actually being a newspaper. The innovative — if intermittent — use of wireless technology, relayed via Macquarie Island, meant that the men could receive information from the outside world, which they printed alongside items of local interest in a segment entitled ‘Statics and Antarctics’. Mawson also used the wireless to promote The Adélie Blizzard. Maintaining the spirit of parody, he sent a message to Australia in 1913 announcing the publication of the ‘first real newspaper’ in Antarctica, and asking for honorary membership of the press association – a request that was readily granted. Going along with the charade, a liquor company inquired whether an advertisements for their schnapps could be placed in the newspaper, but were rebuffed due to lack of payment.

Not all of Mawson’s men were keen to contribute. One of the 1913 expeditioners, Frank Bickerton, was hounded so much by McLean that he finally wrote an article (‘Cornered!’) about that very experience. And by the time the final issue appeared, in October 1913, all including McLean were having trouble summoning the enthusiasm to write. But on the whole the newspaper seems to have brought much pleasure to the AAE men.

Several earlier polar newspapers, including Parry’s Gazette and Scott’s South Polar Times, had been published on the expedition’s return. The Adélie Blizzard was conceived with the same aim in mind: several diary entries of 1912 mention this idea, and in June of 1913, Mawson and McLean had signed an agreement outlining future publication plans. But a number of factors, including the declaration of war, prevented them turning to this task until mid-1916, by which time both were heavily involved in the war effort. With Mawson in Liverpool working for the British Ministry of Munitions, and McLean in London on leave from his post as a medic in France, the two men worked to edit the newspaper (a process begun in Adélie Land), cutting out and inserting content, adding illustrations (by the marine artist J. van Waterschoot van der Gracht), removing obscure or potentially offensive references, and evening out the lengths of the issues. They were soon ready to approach London publishers. While Mawson favoured William Heinemann, McLean objected to his German birth, and instead submitted a fair copy of the newspaper to Smith, Elder & Co., who had published the South Polar Times. They politely rejected The Adélie Blizzard, observing that the AAE had not captured the public imagination in the manner of Scott’s more glamorous expedition. Turning to another publisher, Andrew Melrose, in November 1916, McLean was informed that any AAE publication would be overshadowed by the just-returning men of Shackleton’s remarkable Endurance expedition. At this point, understandably, he gave up. Nonetheless, in a letter to Mawson, he expressed his confidence that if the newspaper were not published at this time, it would be ‘some day’.

While The Adélie Blizzard languished in Mawson’s personal papers, eventually becoming part of the archives held by the Mawson Collection at the South Australian Museum, the tradition of the Australian Antarctic ‘newspaper’ did not stop with the AAE. Over half a dozen periodical publications sprang up in Australian bases in the early ANARE years.

It is difficult to pinpoint the first ANARE newspaper, because these informal documents may not always have been deposited in the records of the Australian Antarctic Division. One candidate is Hardships: The Macquarie Island Paper, ‘incorporating’ the Buckles Bay Times, which began in early 1957. It believed itself to be ‘the paper with the world’s smallest circulation’ (although The Adélie Blizzard has a far better claim). Noting that ‘[t]he first issue of an Antarctic newspaper is little short of momentous,’ the opening editorial encourages all members of the community to contribute, ‘be it in humour, verse, story, limerick or what-have-you’. In this way, the editor (O.I.C. Harry Black) predicts, the ‘hardships’ of Macquarie Island will ‘hold greater interest for us and for our families and friends when each issue is avidly scanned upon the return of our expedition to Australia’. The first item is a poem ‘About the Title’, listing alternative suggestions for the paper’s name: Time and Tide, Mercury, Alcohol Thermometer, Picnic Papers, Southern Lights, Macquarie Blood. The issues – produced on typewriter with hand-drawn cartoons, decorative titles and the occasional photograph – are not very different in content or tone from The Adélie Blizzard. Items include poetry, sports reports, ‘News and Views’, advertisements (‘For sore feet after hiking try Seal Wallow Balm’), book reviews, regular columns, and letters to the editor. Although the newspaper, according to its opening editorial, had ‘its tongue in its cheek’, it nonetheless included serious articles on medical, scientific, historical and topical issues. Unlike the AAE men, however, the ANARE expeditioners had the technology to print numerous copies of their newspapers, rather than only one. Seven issues of Hardship were produced in 1957 – all only a handful of pages long – and another eight issues, considerably longer, appeared in 1960.

Meanwhile, at Mawson station, expeditioners were hard at work on the Antarctic News and Rumdoodle Exposés, which after just one issue was rechristened the Katabatic. Its issues were short (two to seven pages) but regular, appearing monthly from April 1960 to January 1961. This organ prided itself on its frankness: ‘No secrets — we tell all — if you see your name this issue, use your friends’ next issue.’ Two years later the station community produced a 50 page ‘scrapbook’ featuring cartoons, poems and photographs ‘to record all the humerous [sic] and gruesome events that here occur’, but no paper; and two years after that the Mawson Anabatic appeared – a single long publication, but still adopting the newspaper or magazine format, and featuring similar content to earlier publications. It included ‘Mawson’s What’s What’ 1964, a series of reports on people and activities on station designed for expeditioners to draw on when, after their return, they are ‘plagued by requests’ to go on world tours, recounting their ‘stirring stories of courage and of the invincibility of the spirit of man’. Sentiments that might have been used seriously in The Adélie Blizzard were by this time the source of self-deprecating humour.

Davis’s first periodical was the Midnight Sun, which ceased after only three issues in the first half of 1963. Its front page boasted a circulation of nine men, fifteen dogs and five pups, its ‘Honoured Patron’ was a dog called Blizzard, and it was ‘Wholy [sic] set up and Printed at Number 3 Bilgewater Lane, Davis (Opposite the Glacier)’. Wilkes station was remarkably productive given its relatively short lifetime as an Australian Antarctic base. The Windmill — a ‘quixotic magazine grinding out a lot of corn’ — was launched in March 1960, joining a ‘select and unique brotherhood’ of earlier Antarctic newspapers. It continued monthly until December, treating its readers to gossip columns, sporting reports, poetry (including an ‘Ode to Alcohol’) and discussion of controversial issues such as ‘the question of women in the Antarctic’. The following year produced the Wilkes Hard Times, which was based on the Windmill; it was nominally a monthly publication, but only one issue appears to have been produced in 1961. Bernadette Hince’s Antarctic Dictionary references a 1963 issue, which does not appear to have been deposited in the Australian Antarctic Division’s archives. Casey’s first newspaper is likely to have been The Antarctic Waste, incorporating Drift Magazine, which appeared late on the scene in April 1970, presenting itself as ‘the official newsmedia of Casey station’, announcing its intent to ‘lampoon certain aspects of ANARE’, and advising expeditioners past, present and future not to take offence. The ‘Casey Publishing Company’ was soon ‘swamped’ with contributions. The editorship of the Antarctic Waste was passed on between issues, which appeared quarterly. This Casey newspaper had its tabloid elements: ‘Auntie Floe’s Personal Problem Page’ was a regular feature, and the second issue boasted a ‘Full Page, Lift Out, Unclad Female Sex Symbol’ – although the centrefold is not quite what the description leads its readers to believe.

During the 1970s, the Antarctic newspaper disappeared – or rather it evolved into a related genre, the station yearbook. Again, the genre had no precise beginning, with several one-off publications in the 1950s and 1960s having elements of the yearbook. According to the Antarctic Division’s collection, the earliest self-identifying yearbooks began appearing in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and have continued semi-regularly ever since at the four Australian stations. They are linked to the earlier ANARE newspapers by their similar content: editorials, lists of personnel (with nicknames and photographs), historical and scientific reports, insights into the various tasks undertaken on station, cartoons and jokes, reviews, poetry, accounts of midwinter activities, maps and charts of wind, temperature and/or day-length. They also share with the newspapers the many hours of voluntary labour necessary for their production.

In their layout, the yearbooks have altered along with developing technology. Typewriters were replaced by word processors, which are now giving way to online software that enables copies to be printed professionally outside Antarctica. But, despite significant changes in availability and modes of communication — from the telexes (or ‘WYSSAs’) and short, unreliable, expensive telephone calls of the 1970s and ’80s sent by high-frequency radio, to today’s easy access to email and social-networking websites — the station yearbook tradition has stayed strong. The purposes it serves are not made redundant by the availability of cheap, instantaneous communication. The primary purpose of the yearbook stated in editorials and forewords is little different to that of the earlier newspaper: as the editor of the Davis yearbook of 1993 asserts, they are “both an aide-mémoire for ourselves as well as a stimulus to the interest of our friends and families.” But, as with the newspaper, it is easy to think of other uses of the yearbook: to provide a pleasant, creative leisure activity in the latter months of winter — one which potentially involves all on station; and to establish a community identity, by sharing experiences, events and interests, including in-jokes and pen-names that only fellow expeditioners will appreciate. While private diaries and public blogs serve particular functions for the individual, the yearbook asserts the station community as a cohesive group.

In a fitting end to the 100 year history of the Australian Antarctic newspaper, Archie McLean’s prediction for The Adélie Blizzard — that posterity would rectify its neglect by British publishers — has proved accurate. In 2010, the Friends of the State Library of South Australia published the AAE newspaper in facsimile form, and it is now available for the enjoyment of a readership very different from the one its original contributors anticipated (copies can be ordered through Australiana Publications). McLean was confident that The Adélie Blizzard would one day be published, but it achieved more than this: it established a cultural tradition in Australian Antarctic bases that, a century later, shows no sign of abating.

Elizabeth Leane
School of English, Journalism and European Languages, University of Tasmania