You may have noticed that some of the photos that I use are credited to Munro Sievwright – and there might be more to come. Who is he, and why am I using those? Starting with the second question, there are three answers: they are a large collection, they are available to me, and in many cases they are better than mine (partly because he tended to use a better brand of film than I did, but also because he was simply a better photographer). So who was this fellow?
Like me, Munro was stationed at Halley Bay for the years of 1964 and 65; he was one of the rather diverse Geophysical department. Another aspect we had in common was that neither was able to start work immediately on reaching Halley Bay. I was a geologist three hundred miles from the nearest rocks; Munro was there to observe the aurora and we arrived in 24-hour daylight.
I remember many incidents and tales involving him but here I’ll give just two, a long one and a short. The first concerns the contests in various games that were arranged during the winter. Of these, the one that probably took the most arranging was the bridge tournament, and it was Munro who planned and organised it. There were enough entries for him to set up five or six tables around the lounge. Pairs were drawn randomly, and I found myself with Ian Buckler. He was a reasonable player and I was one of the weaker ones, so we spent only a moment in agreeing tactics. “Natural bids, then, and Four No Trumps to ask for aces? Right, that should do.” This was in fact the normal agreement when two players came together for the first time.
The four hands from a different deal were laid out on each table, each hand in the correct position. As we played each trick we had to take care not to pick up and mix the cards as we did in normal play. Each person had to keep his played cards by his side so that as soon as those four had finished, the cards for each hand could easily be gathered together and left in proper order for the next two pairs.
With so many people and so many hands to play it wasn’t long before someone forgot and a cry went up of “Munro! We’ve mixed up our cards!” Munro had prepared for this and had lists ready, showing the cards for each hand so that things could be quickly set right. After each deal had been played the North-South pairs moved around the room in one direction while East-West circulated in the other.
Munro later revealed that he had selected the deals from books in our little library so that anyone who later wanted to read what the experts made of some particular hand could follow it up. These deals in textbooks tended to be “interesting” ones, which meant that there was a larger proportion offering the potential for high scores than we would run into with normal play. The random pairings meant that our best players didn’t always have matching partners, and on many of the deals that clearly had the potential for a big contract there were more close misses than wins by the successful bidder.
At the end we realised that the top positions had been decided not by boldness and making the most high scores but by which cautious or even ignorant pairings had made the fewest big losses. That explained how Ian and I turned out to be the overall winners. We received some small prize but the true hero of the evening was Munro.
Not all Munro’s indoor games projects received the same degree of interest and support. A month or so later he produced a mahjong set and tried to get people interested; he had plenty of beginners but none keen enough to keep it going.
The second tale took place in the autumn of 1965, with Munro now the Deputy Base Leader. When Base Leader Phil Cotton was away for some weeks, leading a field trip, it was up to Munro to keep the many autumn tasks going. By this time the dark nights had not only arrived but were crowding in on the afternoon working hours. Thus Munro decided that daylight saving was needed, and advanced the clocks by two hours. A few days later four of us arrived there from our months in the field and were surprised to find that we had to reset our watches. Come bedtime, we were still wide awake. Jet lag from dog sledging? That was certainly a new one on me.
Back in Britain, Munro continued to work for BAS although early onset dementia brought a sad end to his work and other activities. Some years later, going through my own collection of colour slides, I recalled Munro’s and so I made a request to his wife Stella. I was buying a top-of-the-range scanner for my own slides; might I scan Munro’s, too? She agreed, and I received several boxes holding over six hundred slides. There were benefits for both sides: for Stella and her family, I was one of the few who had been there at the same time as Munro, and could provide captions for them in addition to the scans. For myself, there might be pictures of scenes that I had failed to capture with my own camera.
The task took several years (there was a break for a house move), but for me the results were breathtaking. First, the quality was better than many of my own slides (partly film type, but that’s another story in itself), and second, the new sights that I saw. It was like being able to travel back in time and space, to visit a far-off place that no longer exists; to see the sights again from a different angle, or events that I had missed completely. Munro died in 2017 but his legacy lives on, not least with his photographs which give such a clear view of those days that were closer in time to Scott and Shackleton than to the present day.