Nansenâs charm, lurked something more complex. Nansen asked what progress meant, what this surge of explorers struggling towards the north might mean for the old sense of mystery and wonder.
Standing beneath the boat again, I gazed at the gentle sides of Fram . A beautiful bow-legged bison of a boat, she sat squatly, surrounded by the ranks of stuffed animals. In the glass cabinets, the relics gathered dust; the discarded trappings of the early struggle for the North Pole.
Outside, dusk had fallen, a three oâclock dusk spreading darkness over a cold shore. Stumbling across the ice, through the twilight, I cast a glance across the fjord towards the city. The lights of Oslo twinkled blissfully up the mountainside. There were no ferries across the fjord, so I waited for the bus, which rambled through the evening streets back to the National Theatre. The bus passed a statue of Henrik Ibsen, jowly with huge whiskers, staring towards the Stortingâthe parliament building. The main street, Karl Johans Gate, curved upwards like a ski-jump, flying towards a modest palace. There was an outdoor ice rink, with skaters performing tentative turns, the occasional expert turning centrifugally, arms outstretched, a leg raised. In the shops along the street, people were buying hot dogs spread with luminous sauces, which they were eating with gloved hands. I stepped off the bus and turned the corner towards my hotel on Rosenkrantz Gate, not far from the Grand Hotel, where Ibsen used to dine. One of the many photographs on the walls of Fram was of Rosenkrantz Gate in September 1896, decked in flags, thousands of people streaming along the street saluting Nansen and his crew, who had just returned from their voyage. The faces of the celebrants are cast in shadow, but the buildingsâlarge, solid blocks, in white and yellow stoneâare gaudy with bunting and flags.
It was a clear, cold night, and the streets were full of shrouded figures, moving along the ice pavements. The bells from the Town Hall clock chimed, atonally. The town spread up the mountainsides, casting a haze of streetlights into the forest. In the hotel I sat in the polished bar, watching a table of Norwegians toast themselves through the evening, huddled round a fire. They had been skiing in the mountains above the city, I heard them saying. Great conditions. Wonderful snow. Their skis were propped by the door, bleeding ice onto the wooden floor.
The barman passed me a glass of aquavit, which I drank slowly, sitting outside the circle of light from the fire. I found I was thinking about the past, about my childhood fascination with polar explorers, and the simple sense I had of things at the time. As a child I merely loved the cold; winters were never cold enough, even when the snows fell and blocked the roads, and there was sledging on the low hills of Suffolk. Sometimes the river at Flatford was crusted with ice; the church at East Bergholt surrounded by whitened graves. When it snowed the morning was muffled, footfalls faded into the whiteness outside, cars slid along the roads. It was a time when car engines failed in the cold mornings; the rising street was a chorus of spluttering seventiesâ cars, struggling to hit the high note, when the engine would spark to life. A series of emphysemic coughs came from each drive, with the contrapuntal sound of rising frustration, keys jangling in the ignition, the slam of the door. The windows were patterned with hieratic displays of ice, crystals glistening on the other side of the glass.
These earliest memories were focused around small noveltiesâthe spectral phenomenon of visible air, as I breathed out on a cold day, the sharp sensation of chilled oxygen entering my lungs. The infant games, the fresh snow like a blank page, waiting for the imprint of child shoes, the crisp whiteness cold and damp in my hands. In the snow branches were beautiful, like the ghosts of trees, haunting the edges of the