The LMJ Nostalgia Pages


ANTARCTICA

Munro Sievwright

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?

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Munro Sievwright at the Halley Bay Base site. The structures in the background are mainly supports for feeder cables to the big aerials, for our radio communications with Stanley. Photo: W M Sievwright.

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.

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Aurora seen from the Halley Bay Base. The vertical lines are cracks in the film emulsion, not uncommon at temperatures around -40°C with the long exposures needed for such photos (probably several seconds at least). Photo: W M Sievwright.

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.

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Mahjong in the Halley Bay lounge. L to R, Laurie Dicken, Bill Bellchambers (hidden), Andy Champness, David George. Photo: W M Sievwright.

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.

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Munro had an eye for a good picture. This shows the sea ice below the cliffs near Halley Bay. Photo: W M Sievwright.

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.

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Something I missed completely, at the time (I was out in the field). Smoko on the roof of the new hut, probably December 1964. It could be very pleasant outside in still, sunny weather despite the fact that temperatures above zero Celsius were extremely rare at Halley Bay. The top of an aerial structure behind the hut, on the right, can also be seen in the photo of an aurora elsewhere on this page. That photo was probably taken from the top of the wooden shaft on the left in this shot. During the winter, Munro worked in a cubicle inside the hut with a dim light so that his eyes were always dark-adapted. Every fifteen minutes he would use his master switch to turn off all the outside lights, step through a door into the shaft, climb a ladder there, open a hatch and make his auroral observations. Photo: W M Sievwright.

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.




A few more examples of Munro’s photos

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We sailed from Southampton on 5th December 1963 and with a speed of 12 knots we didn’t reach Halley Bay until 27th January 1964. The passage through the tropics was a welcome change from wintry Britain, and here Munro catches some rays. Photo: W M Sievwright.

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The distant ice cliffs show the importance of the ramp at Halley Bay in giving access to the top of the ice shelf. Unloading of the Kista Dan is under way (and from the way the ship is sitting high in the water, probably nearly finished), and the cargo can be unloaded on to the low-lying bay ice. Two of the four tractors are visible, as they shuttle the loads a mile “inland” to the Base itself. Photo: W M Sievwright.

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In 1964 the ship delivered the components of a new hut and we began to assemble them. The steel roof beams were heavy but with two tractor winches and a bipod they were easily hoisted and placed in position. Fid improvisation! Photo: W M Sievwright.

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The outer shell of the new hut is nearly completed. That was done before February was out, and then we left the internal work until the winter. Photo: W M Sievwright.

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New hut in January 1966, with two years of snow accumulation around it and a windscoop on the upwind side, nearest to the camera. The original entrance, a door into a porch on the far side, is buried by snow and so entry is now by a ladder (visible) through a hatch in the top of the porch. A boxy shaft has been constructed around it, and a pulley system for lowering goods in. The “tower” on this gable end is Munro’s auroral shaft, and at the far end is the aerial feeder shaft above the “radio shack”. The sturdy pylons carry the feeders to the large communication aerials. Photo: W M Sievwright.

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The new hut needed to be connected to the generator shed, and here a team is digging a trench for the power cable. Beyond them is the combined garage/gennie shed, almost buried by the steady rise of the snow level so that only the roof ridge is now visible. The generator exhaust stacks, on the right, are welded 45-gallon drums. The garage is beneath the left-hand section of the roof, with a ramp for tractor access (outside the picture, on the left). The iceberg on the horizon is refracted by the still air to well above its normal position, and the open sea is also just visible. The little building beyond the garage is the ozone hut, where the physicists made their measurements. Photo: W M Sievwright.

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Munro skiing near the Second Chippantodd Creek. There were no slopes where one could ski near the Base area so for that we had to go to one of the creeks or bays. These breaks in the ice cliffs had slopes leading down to the sea ice, here seen stretching away on the left with scattered icebergs in the distance. I think that the two dark patches (one partly behind Munro’s legs and the other close to the left-hand edge) are the emperor penguin colony at the Third Chip. Photo: W M Sievwright.

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During the winters of 1964 and 65 the emperor penguins chose the Third Chippantodd Creek as their breeding area. As this view from the top of the ice cliffs shows, the sea ice can become quite stained by their droppings. (Recently this phenomenon has been used to identify previously unknown colonies by study of satellite images.) Photo: W M Sievwright.

12/5/20.



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