South VII: Five pirates

Double Entendre of the Day:
“I need to move back so I can fit it all in.”
Rosie takes a photo.


Everyone has their names on their doors, and this is my favourite door on the ship. The one with the aforementioned Mark Hastie-Oldland / Lucinda Strickland-Skailes combo was pretty good too, but Coop takes the cake. Coop is the most Aussie guy I’ve ever met, the physical incarnation of that annoying old cliché about loveable knockabout larrikins. He is so Aussie that his name is Coop Cooper. Who needs first names?

We have to make our own fun on this boat, and a few of us band together for the duration. John and I argue over whether cyclists in Lycra are totally lame (I’ve already told you my thoughts here) and then make up over Tenacious D. “This is not the greatest song in the world – this is only a tribute.” The Fox played a ripping (and ripped) cover of that song in BA back in November, at about 5 a.m. after the kind of epic smoking session I hadn’t experienced since I was seventeen. “I was really stoned after that third joint,” he said the next day, “so the twelfth one was probably unnecessary.”

John’s wife Monika is from the Czech Republic, and has one of those completely endearing accents that makes everything she says sound charming. “The government wants you to have more babies,” I tell her after reading a newspaper article. “Vatever government vant,” she says in her best Eastern Bloc monotone. The rest of the time she’s far from monotone, being possibly the happiest person I’ve ever met. We had a teacher at school called Ms Thompson who was as irritating as a bathtub full of fleas, always going around saying “Wonderful! Marvellous! Two thumbs up!” But Monika’s is a different, non-annoying type of enthusiasm. “Zat’s fantastic,” is her catchphrase. The difference, I suppose, is that she seems completely sincere, and is bold enough to seek out things that actually are fantastic. The two of them quickly become my main troublemaking companions.

Daniela the Argentine, on the other hand, is well-behaved and nice to everybody, and says this compensates for my general standard of behaviour. Between the two of us we achieve balance; without us the universe may spin off its axis. Rosie is English, wandering around with a giant furry microphone that looks like a captive badger, recording things for the BBC. Her door provides great amusement too, given that between herself (Rosanna Wynn-Williams) and her cabinmate (Jo Hart), we have the longest and shortest names on the ship on the one label. “Jo Hart!” I take to bellowing in a staccato tone. “Jo Hart, no messing about! Straight to the point, two syllables, who needs more, what are you, French? Jo Hart!” Fortunately Jo Hart doesn’t seem to mind.

“Guys!” Monika says whenever we are together. “Ve are five pirates!” I’m not sure why, aside from being on a ship, but eventually the appellation starts to fit, a self-fulfilling prophecy, as we join Coop in getting up the noses of various staff members. They have a tendency to treat everyone like ten-year-olds, and people like us don’t respond to that very well. As some of the group come and go from a room, Monika sings: “Ve used to be five pirates, but not anymore. Now ve are three pirates…” It’s amazing what will entertain you at sea. My favourite line is when she’s asking me about spoken word. “So,” she says, “you are like a stand-by comedian?”


Traditional pirate ensemble

Rosie is here to follow up on family history. Her father David was a microbiologist who undertook ten separate research trips to the Antarctic. He was the expedition leader of the 1990s mission investigating whether bacteria living in rocks in the McMurdo Dry Valleys could indicate that there had been life on Mars, and whether it could be the source of life here. The story made big news, and I remember being intrigued by it at the time. Strange how things circle back around in life. The most fascinating bit for mine is that he was using a Raman spectrometer to (get this) scan rock for microscopic pigment traces that would indicate the presence of fossilised bacteria up to three billion years old. The fact that this is possible just blows my mind. He was also working with NASA to develop a miniature spctrometer to attach to the Mars Rover and look for bacteria on Mars. Sadly he died young eight years ago, but what he achieved was remarkable. You can read more about him here.

It’s an interesting bunch. Aside from the pirates, I also get along well with an older English couple who turn out to be Liam Watson’s parents (the ToeRag Studios chap who produced The White Stripes’ Elephant).  They stand out among the otherwise inoffensive and gormless British retirees. After dinner tonight there are two lines of people coming from opposite directions merging to get up the stairs. One of the most English of the lot, Gerard, is craning his neck back at a map of the world on the hallway wall. “That must be an Australian map,” he says in an intensely posh accent. “I’ve never seen one like that before. Look at that. Ha! It’s got Australia in the middle!” He chuckles condescendingly, then turns around and almost headbutts  Coop, coming from the other direction, who has positioned himself firmly in Gerard’s way and drawn himself up to his full five-foot-six. “What was that, mate?” says Coop.


Here’s a poem for you, about the last leg of our getting-to-Antarctica voyage.

Elephant Island Fog

It’s like being in a snowdome, he says
and as much as we can’t speak Russian
we can speak the language of shrugged shoulders
and the unstated obvious.

The boatman’s overalls move independently
despite the wind
which doesn’t.  The rattling sound
is descent and crescendo in one

and when the anchor chain hits green water
it exhales rust
in the shape of a jellyfish.

In this absence of sound
and this fluctuating radius
it’s not clear why the elephants hang back
why the islands are hesitant.

But still the day is the second word of this stanza
and the sun is a story we remember;
there is only the chain, umbilical, one hand upon it
and a shout from the bow that will never bounce back.

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5 Responses to South VII: Five pirates

  1. rabbi says:

    What about Coop “Cooper” Cooper. Because it’s his nickname…

  2. Simo says:

    God I love fun/funny eastern euros…big chunk of the reason I want to go back there.
    Turns out the Botany labs at uni used to send Masters kids to Antarctica but funding dried up…guess I showed up a few years too late.
    Jealous of you and the ever increasing fun times that ship life seems to be providing.

  3. Geoff Lemon says:

    Stay tuned, Simo! Only five more Antarctic posts to go. And the fun gets funner. I’m relieved we’re nearing the end. It’s been like writing a novel.

  4. Pingback: » Madwomen and Malaysian pyjama ghosts heathen scripture

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