The Noorderlicht

A Boot Room in The Frozen North

By Ian McEwan

So, we have come to this ship in a frozen fjord to think about the ways we might communicate our concerns about climate change to a wider public; we will think about the heady demands of our respective art forms, and we will consider the necessity of good science, and shall immerse ourselves in the stupendous responsibilities that flow from our stewardship of the planet, and the idealism and selflessness demanded of us as we subordinate our present needs to the welfare of unborn generations who will inherit the earth and thrive in it and love it - we hope - as we do. But first, we must remove our wet boots. Stepping out of minus 30 degrees, craving the warmth of the boat that is our home, we are obliged by our hosts to pause in a cramped and crowded space below the ship's wheel, and in near darkness, try to bend over in our thick Arctic clothing to loosen our laces with numbed fingers. Then we must stand on a drenched cold floor in our socks and hang up our 'skidoo suits' - they resemble a toddler's splash suit - along with our helmets, and all the while keep track of our gloves, and the liners of our gloves, and our frosted goggles and frozen-mouthed balaclavas that gape at us from the floor in astonishment; we must do this against a flow of our fellows coming out of the boat, intent on putting all these items on, for it is our collective fate, to be going in and out all day. Naturally, we do all this with good cheer.

The whole world's population is to the south of us, and up here we are our species' representatives, making in the wilderness, a temporary society, a social microcosm in the vastness of the Arctic. We are the beneficiaries and victims of our nature (social primates, evolved through time like wind-sculpted rock) merry and venal, co-operative and selfish; and as it happens in this pure air and sunlit beauty, we find ourselves in a state of near constant euphoria. When did you ever hear such shouts of laughter at breakfast? We are all so immensely tolerable. We potter about in the day with our little projects like contented infants in a day-care nursery. And it is because we are gloriously imperfect, expelled from Eden, longing to return, that it will happen that on the second day, when you venture out into what I shall call the boot room, in your socks, in a hurry because your companions are waiting outside by the belching skidoos, ready to set off on yet another face-peeling punishment ride (oh God, seven more kilometres - when will it end?) across the cement-like floor of the fjord, that you will find that someone has made off with your splash suit, or your helmet, or your boots, or your goggles, or all four. This person has his own stuff, but he has ruthlessly, or mistakenly, taken yours. In a moment's extravagance of self-pity, you might think all of history's narrative and all injustice is enacted here - this is how some people end up with three goats and nine hens while others have none. The history books tell of little else - the filching of the neighbour's land, water, chattels or cattle, and in reaction, war, revolutions, genocides.

Well, what are you going to do? Your impatient companions are stamping their feet on the ice. You might reflect that it is not evil that undoes the world, but small errors prompting tiny weaknesses - let's not call them dishonesty - gathering in rivulets, then cascades of consequences. In the golden age of yesterday, the boot room had finite resources, equally shared - these were the initial conditions, the paradise we are about to lose, the conditions before the Fall we visitors are bound to re-enact. It could go something like this: the owner of size 43 boots left them last night in a remote corner he has already forgotten about. He comes out this morning, sees to hand another pair of 43s and puts them on. Half an hour later, their true owner comes out into the gloom of the boot room, cannot see his own boots, cannot see the 43s obscurely stowed, and empowered by a sense of victimhood, does exactly what you are doing now: reaching for the nearest 44s. 'Of Man's first disobedience', Milton blindly wrote, 'and the fruit of that forbidden tree...' - now you yourself are about try that 'mortal taste' that 'brought death into the world and all our woe, with loss of Eden...'. Ten minutes later, there comes the owner of those size 44 boots. He's a good man, a decent man, but he must now take what is not his own. With the eighth Commandment broken, the social contract is ruptured too. No one is behaving particularly badly, and certainly everybody is being, in the immediate circumstances, entirely rational, but by the third day, the boot room is a wasteland of broken dreams. Who could be wearing five splash suits when they weigh twenty pounds each? Who needs more than one helmet? And where are the grown-ups to advise us that our boot room needs a system; or as Hobbes put it, we need a Common Power in which we might stand in awe. As things are, this is Chaos, just as Haydn conceived it, and tomorrow morning it will make us miserable. Meanwhile, as Arctic night gathers tightly around Tempelfjord, inside the toasty warmth of our Ark, elevated by the Vin de Pays, we discuss our plans to save a planet many times larger than our boot room.

We must not be too hard on ourselves. If you were banished to another galaxy tomorrow, you would soon be fatally homesick for your brothers and sisters and all their flaws: somewhat co-operative, somewhat selfish, and very funny. But we will not rescue the earth from our own depredations until we understand ourselves a little more, even if we accept that we can never really change our natures. All boot rooms need good systems so that flawed creatures can use them well. Good science will serve us well, but only good rules will save the boot room. Leave nothing to idealism or outrage, or even good art. (We know in our hearts that the very best art is entirely and splendidly useless). On our last morning, when all the packing has been done and the last reluctant skidoo had been started up, and as the pure northern air is rent by the howls and stink of our machines, our tirelessly tolerant hosts (as forgiving as God has not yet learned to be ) come down the gang plank and set down on the ice a vast plastic sack with all the recovered gear found in every corner of the ship. A few of us gather around this treasure, and poke about in it, not ashamed or even faintly embarrassed, but innocently amazed. Here's our stuff! Where's it been hiding all this time? We barely know ourselves, and our collective nature is still a source of wonder - why else write fiction? We haven't stopped surprising ourselves yet, and the fate of all our boot rooms hangs in the balance.

Ian McEwan,
Copyright 2005

A Boot Room in The Frozen North was written by author Ian McEwan following his experience on Cape Farewell's 2005 art/science expedition. The expedition took place in March 2005 onboard the Noorderlicht, locked in ice at Tempelfjorden, Spitsbergen, just north of the 79th parallel. For six days twenty artists, scientists and journalists experienced the arctic environment in extreme temperatures of -30°C.