Magazine article The Spectator

'North Pole: Nature and Culture', by Michael Bravo - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'North Pole: Nature and Culture', by Michael Bravo - Review

Article excerpt

Having spent too much of my life at both poles (writing, not sledge-pulling), I know the spells those places cast. Michael Bravo promises to reveal something of that enigma, claiming at the outset of his book: 'I will treat the mysterious power and allure of the North Pole in a way you will not have seen before.'

The volume is one of an interesting series on the cultural history of natural phenomena, that includes a title on Fire, and another on Swamp. Bravo structures his book around the struggle of navigators and philosophers to make sense of the strange powers of the North Pole, beginning with the ancients of Greece, Egypt, India and Persia. For many centuries nobody knew that the Antarctic is land surrounded by water and the Arctic is water surrounded by land (many folk still don't grasp this). Bravo diligently tracks discoveries, notably that of magnetism, drawing in the ideas and mythologies of Inuit peoples indigenous to the region. He reveals the planet yielding its secrets. Individuals emerge in the process as he conjures their achievements and theories. William Gilbert, for example, Elizabeth I's doctor, was a brilliant inventor in the field of magnetism ('Gilbert was a radical and strident anti-Aristotelian in his practice of both medicine and natural philosophy').

Bravo draws on primary and secondary sources, many not published before. 'Since early modern times,' he writes, 'the pole had always been about hidden forces, celestial harmonies, viewing the earth from the heavens or transformations deep inside the earth's interior.' He is most interested in the role the North Pole has played in the public imagination down the ages, especially in the history of geographical perception and the pole's place in 'the cosmographical relationship between the heavens and earth', notably how that perception shifted, for example in the period of expanding European global empires.

Utopians and fantasists get a look in, as does Madame Blavatsky, who seems to crop up everywhere -- a shame, as all her ideas were terrible. Characteristically of North Pole: Nature and Culture, the Blavatskian thesis is clumsily expressed:

For Madame Blavatsky, the continent Hyperborea occupied a different immaterial and less literal metaphysical space and therefore couldn't be grasped or claimed by imperial conquest.

A few pages cover fiction writers, such as Mary Shelley and A. A. Milne (surely you remember Christopher Robin leading an 'expotition' to the North Pole? …

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