Ein Brief von Nancy Campbell

Nancy Campbell has held residencies with several polar museums, which are described in her memoir, The Library of Ice, and a poetry collection Disko Bay. In 2018 Nancy was appointed Canal Laureate for the UK and during 2019/20 she was Literature Fellow at Internationales Künstlerhaus Villa Concordia, Bamberg.

Sunday, 5 April 2020 


Dear Alicia Kopf,

It’s a fine spring day. From my window, I can see a pair of red kites riding the thermals in a sky free of contrails. The birds’ graceful, careless loops remind me of the sea plane in your short film Germà de Gel, which kicked off our event at Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona exactly a month ago. Over lunch in a little Italian restaurant on Carrer dels Àngels, you explained why you’d chosen it to introduce our conversation. It’s derived from S.O.S. Eisberg, an old black-and-white movie in which an aviator played by Leni Riefenstahl crashes during an attempt to rescue some lost polar explorers. You took the original film apart, queering the narrative by removing all the doomed male characters and doubling the heroine. Now explorer Leni stands on the pinnacle of an iceberg, waving at aviator Leni, who banks the seaplane towards her. 

You caption the film: »It’s much easier to get to the Arctic than to reach certain areas of one’s self.« 

As we wolfed coffees and tiramisu, we were unaware that within weeks it would be easier to reach any area of one’s self, actually, because real journeys have become impossible on the grounds of conscience and, even if one were utterly devoid of a conscience, free movement isn’t allowed. The Arctic is harder to reach than ever: airports close runways and airlines ground their fleets; borders within Europe are closing, and military personnel guard the approaches to major bridges. Everyone’s freedom to travel has been reduced until now just being allowed to step outside for thirty minutes a day and see the magnolia blooming gives us a giddy feeling. Communal areas in cities we took for granted have become inaccessible: my partner, who needs treatment, isn’t allowed across a hospital threshold, so this apartment has become a small, shambolic ward, run without any drugs or medical expertise. To ensure our survival I need more self-reliance than I ever did in the polar regions. 

I want to ask you about the mood in Barcelona, now the restaurants are empty, the theatres have gone dark. Your country has been so cruelly affected by Coronavirus. Today it was announced that the number of infections in Spain has overtaken those in Italy, with 124,870 confirmed cases. You may be surprised to learn I think about you every day, and also my Spanish publishers Ático de los Libros, who gave me such a gift this spring, spiriting me and my words across the border at a time when Brexit threatens to cut short many such international collaborations and conversations. The traveller relishes everything, knowing the moment won’t return, but the latest terrible shift in circumstances makes those encounters in Barcelona last month seem even more precious. I remember the tramps drinking spirits in the alcoves under the orange trees outside the National Library of Catalonia at eleven o’clock in the morning. I remember the old taxi drivers filling their cabs with disco hits and classic love songs, the baristas, the curators, and the well-informed journalists. I think of my editor Claudia Casanova, and the wonderful team at Ático de los Libros, working from home offices now. I think of the readers whose books I could sign without concern that I might pass on anything worse than my ideas. 

Writers spend a lot of time in isolation, making all the more vital those opportunities for discussion like ours that afternoon on how we might forge new forms of language for new, dark times. You compare a writer’s work travelling across the blank white page to the labour of the lone explorer. Both involve »instability, confusion, cold… determination« (translation by Mara Faye Lethem). In Brother in Ice, you wanted to write »a new epic, without foes or enemies; and epic involving oneself and an idea.« It surely feels like time for new epics now – one telling the trials of the human body, the race for a vaccine? Or the quest for a new world order? 

The most isolated period in my life was the winter I spent in a cabin on the island of Upernavik, a few miles off the north-west coast of Greenland. My window looked out over the dark ocean, where icebergs groaned and turned, and in my loneliness these seemed to me like dreaming sleepers. The familiar world of book launches and exhibition openings continued back in London, but it seemed far away and with minimal internet I soon stopped trying to keep up. The island was surrounded by shore-fast ice and floes which should have provided a bridge for the islanders to reach their traditional hunting grounds. But the border the ice formed between land and sea was increasingly unpredictable. I watched the indistinct figures of fishermen step carefully, pausing often, and testing the ice with their chisels before putting any weight on it. They had to be adept at interpreting patterns and sounds, which told them where to step to avoid falling into the freezing water. Every step could be their last. For centuries weather and the forces of nature have meant that one cannot take survival into tomorrow for granted in the Arctic. Greenlanders still don’t like to plan too far ahead, and are suspicious of the future tense. Still, I knew the date when the Twin Otter plane would come and I would leave the island.

Yesterday the UK government suggested this lockdown might continue until May. I have given up attending to such predictions. You write of »the epic of remaining in the place where we are and enduring what life has dealt us. Yes, that is also epic: not fleeing but staying put.« And so we are all learning to stop travelling, since the most selfless act is to stay still. I go back to the routines I relied on during my confinement on Upernavik. Ensure the day starts with good coffee. Go for the longest walk possible. Sleep when you must. Read when you can’t sleep. In the late afternoon, take comfort in biscuits or in blankets if you need to, but don’t stop working. When the ideas dry up – dance, make soup, write letters to friends. Thankfully it is easier to keep in touch in the Coronavirus era than it once was to deliver messages from the Arctic. Is this strange semi-isolation we know where everyone is – in their homes – and even if we can’t meet our friends for coffee on the corner, we can zoom into their lives. 

Alicia, you know as well as I do that all explorers spend as much time in stasis as they do sailing and sledding. Ships were frozen into the ice for months in the Northwest Passage. Teams crossing the icecap were trapped in their tents for days by blizzards. Six men from Scott’s British Antarctic Expedition survived the winter of 1912 in an ice cave on Inexpressible Island, not knowing whether a rescue ship would come in spring. What courage that must have required. They had to ration their supplies – seal brains and seaweed and mustard powder, a mug of tea once a week, and a supplement of 25 raisins each month, with extra on birthdays. They read a copy of David Copperfield over and over. Their journals do not mention what they used for toilet roll. 

The necessity of reading is a recurrent theme in explorer’s journals. Many expedition ships had printing presses on board, the creation of a newspaper during months without news just a ruse to prevent the crew mutinying or fighting in the close confinement of the cabin. Bearing witness to lockdown is important, as Twitter proves. Polar explorers wrote letters to their loved ones, letters which often could not be delivered, or would not be delivered until they themselves reached home; Scott’s letters to his wife Kathleen were discovered along with his body. Those explorers who were fortunate enough to return alive published bestselling memoirs: readers who would never endure such duress first-hand were hungry for their stories. 

Unlike those explorers who made arduous journeys to resolve ›empty‹ spaces on the periphery of their maps, instead of a blank chart I stare at a blank calendar, from which all engagements have been erased. In a time when barely any areas of the planet are unknown to us, the new horror vacui on the horizon is the future. But I can see the speck of a small plane in the distance, and I have climbed to the top of my iceberg, and I am waving to you. 

Go well, dear Alicia, and stay healthy. 

Your sister in ice,

For Alicia Kopf’s film please go to: https://vimeo.com/160741516

Alicia Kopf’s COVID-19 letter in response to Nancy Campbell: www.andotherstories.org