Tuesday, 26 June 2012

White nights at the Terminus

My week begins at the Institute for Social Anthropology of the University of Bergen; a two day indulgence in my KnowSeas research. It’s ‘white nights’ in Bergen, briefly getting ‘sort of’ dark about one or two in the morning. Bergen is incredibly busy in summer and it was difficult to find a hotel room. Eventually my Norwegian colleague Stale booked me into the Terminus: a historic mid-town railway hotel.

Have you have ever had the experience of returning to a special place after a very long absence? I last stayed at the Terminus 33 years ago in 1979. I was twenty eight; a young Brit given the extraordinary responsibility for the construction of Mexico’s first ocean-going research vessel, the $6 million 1000 ton ‘El Puma’. We had a year from design to presentation to the Mexican President in the Caribbean port of Cozumel and I worked with a British-trained Mexican naval architect and a retired Spanish shipbuilder who had built Mexico’s first tuna boats. The specialist family shipbuilder Mjellem and Karlsen won the contract and our job was to design the superstructure, internal layout and arrangements, procure all scientific equipment, conduct sea trials and get the ship over the Atlantic to Cozumel, and eventually though the Panama canal to her home port of Mazatlan. During my many visits to Bergen, I came to know and admire the extraordinarily skilful, warm spirited and adaptable team at the shipyard. Their management system has been an inspiration in my later career. The Norwegian crew during sea trials were the design team that we had worked with ten months earlier. As head of the team, Anders Grimstad switched from the drawing board to overalls as the Chief Engineer. “I like to see my designs working”, he said.

Bergen today is very different from that of 30 years past. Sadly, the shipyard, which operated from 1891, was replaced with a modern office block following closure in 2002. It suffered the same fate as most shipbuilding in Europe. But Bergen and the whole of Norway are hugely prosperous. There is a buzz of positive energy in the air and I do not see the wearied and burdened looks on people’s faces that characterise many cities across Europe. Norwegians have embraced change without trashing their culture and heritage and enjoy their leisure as well. But there are game changers: down near the fish market, some of the same restaurants that were around in 1979 are still open, some still selling whale steaks, but the prices of all seafood are astronomical. It wasn’t like that then. Norwegians pay more for their fish but set high standards in sustainable fishing, are world leaders in aquaculture and have a coherent network of protected areas that puts us to shame. And Norwegians are marketing the sustainability image. On the flight over from Aberdeen, I spotted a quarter page ad in The Observer with smiling Norwegian fishermen reminding us that they had enforced a ban on discards since 1987 (see my last blog). The slogan ‘Fisk Førever’ with the Norwegian flag attached says it all.

I am not identifying Bergen as Shangri La (the uncomfortable business about the whale steaks certainly rules that out!) but there are many lessons to learn. For a start, Norwegians did not hand the ‘family silver’ - their oilfields - over to international private companies. They used the revenues very wisely, maintaining a tough tax regime but investing funds into public works, education and industrial development. A fixed proportion was spent on research to maintain a competitive edge. Norwegians are quite circumspect about their achievements and there is much introspection about the tragedy surrounding the Brevik massacre and its social meaning.

Back to the Terminus. It is a carefully preserved 1920s hotel that is the backdrop for a nearly forgotten tragedy. The story unfolded exactly seventy four years ago, on 17 June 1928. A few weeks earlier, the Italian polar explorer, airship-builder Umberto Nobile had passed through Bergen on an expedition to the North Pole on his new craft, the Italia. On reaching Svalbard in foul conditions, the airship smashed into a rock with most of the crew, including Nobile, left on a Glacier in the smashed gondola and six members swept away on the balloon, never to be seen again. A number of uncoordinated rescue parties set off to find the stranded expedition members. One of them was the famous polar explorer Roald Amundsen who had beaten Scott to the South Pole and, in 1926, led the first expeditionary flight to the North Pole in the Norge, another airship designed and piloted by Nobile.

For the rescue, Amundsen had recruited the services of the French naval command and a Latham 47 flying boat from the factory in Rouen. The Latham, a steel, wood and canvas affair, was quite a powerful machine but wildly inappropriate for an Arctic expedition. It couldn’t land on ice and there was an expectation that enough clear water would be found for a safe landing. Amundsen agreed to rendezvous with the French crew in Bergen and booked them all into the Terminus on the 16th. Amundsen arrived next day and dined with the crew but was eager to push on with the mission; his bed at the Terminus was unused. They set off for Tromsø, travelling all night and arriving safely next day with just enough time to refuel, have food and a smoke and then set off again for Ny-Ålesund (Kings Bay) on Svalbard. But they never arrived, no trace of Amundsen was found, only pieces of wreckage from the Latham. Nobile and the survivors from his expedition were picked up a few days later.

The story of Amundsen reminded me of how much things had changed in recent history. It’s an easy matter to take a commercial flight to Svalbard nowadays. SAMS is a consortium partner of the international Kings Bay Marine Laboratory in Ny Ålesund. Our undergraduate students can take an optional year of Arctic Studies at the University Centre in Svalbard opened in 1993, a facility that has recently expanded into a modern teaching and research establishment. This year, five of our undergraduates will take the trip to Svalbard to join Norwegian and international students in this exciting adventure in the polar landscape. Nobile spent his latter years as a University lecturer, lived to old age, passing away in 1978 but even he could not have imagined anything like this!

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