The Spectrum of Selection

It was May 31st, 2018 that I submitted my application to the Antarctic Artists & Writers Program.

The automatic confirmation of receipt said that it would be a few months before I heard anything. That was all right. I had lots to do. That summer I was busy writing the script, designing characters, and assembling a mental model of the Terra Nova from photographs, shipwrights’ plans, written records, and the model of the ship at SPRI, none of which quite agreed with each other. In September I took off to visit the Discovery in Dundee, to get a working knowledge of the interior of a polar ship of that period, for which scant record of the Terra Nova survives.

November I was teaching; December I finally started thumbnailing page layouts. On December 21st, Antarctic Midsummer, I got an email telling me that my proposal was ‘highly competitive’ and I was shortlisted for the AAW’s 2019/20 season.

The next day, the US government shut down.

The first time I had looked into the Antarctic Artists & Writers was 2009. I had read Sara Wheeler’s Terra Incognita, a travel book largely consisting of her time with the USAP on said programme in the ‘90s, and I looked up what it would take to get into it myself. But this was the height of the financial crisis, and austerity was biting deep into government spending; the AAW website said the programme was on hiatus, with no indication of when, or if, it would return.

Now here we were again, with the whole US Antarctic Program waylaid by politics. As the shutdown dragged on into January with no sign of resolution in sight, I began to wonder if the AAW would be happening at all this year. But, as the snowdrops in England began to bloom, the crossed stars over Washington aligned, and a little while after government business resumed, I got another email from the USAP asking to arrange a video conference. Things were back on track.

Somehow, despite never getting an explicit announcement that I’d made the cut – and indeed several insistent messages that nothing said hereunto constituted a commitment on the part of the USAP – we began to proceed as though I were going South. I once again outlined the scope of my project, what I was bringing and what locations I needed to visit. One long teleconference saw an enormous packet of resource requests filled out – again, the sort of thing geared towards scientists, but I put in requests for everything from crampons to helicopter hours. I applied for a permit to visit the protected historical sites. This was all shepherded by my most able and indefatigable point of contact with the Antarctic administration in Colorado. I’m pretty sure she never took time off.

All this paperwork was contingent on passing the infamous Physical Qualification; having the forms and applications filled out in advance meant that, once that was approved, everything could slot into place and hit the ground running. I would not be officially added to the USAP’s season roster, however, until I had PQ’d.

The medical packet arrived in April; the saga of fulfilling it to the satisfaction of the medical board deserves a post all of its own.