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  The Chatter Box : Travel
The Times article 29/12/03 by Louise on 13 January 2004 3:03am
Sailing under the Pole and into history
By Michael Palin

The Royal Geographical Society's "Unlocking the Archives" campaign, which aims to open up one of the world's most significant geographical collections of photographs, maps, books, objects, recordings and documents, is being supported by The Times Christmas Charity Appeal. Our writer talks about his favourite item in the collection

THE very first entry I made in my notebook when filming began on the television series Pole to Pole was: "3 August 1958 - USS Nautilus crossed under the North Pole."
This was undoubtedly one of the great moments of exploration history. I did not realise it then, but a commercial record of the submarine`s journey had been made, a copy of which now lives at the Royal Geographical Society.

What a little piece of history it is, being not only a chronicle of what happened but also a commentary on the social attitudes of the day.

Recorded only 44 years ago, when the Cold War was at its height, it is a stirring, tub-thumping, patriotic record. "This is the log of an epic voyage," are the opening words, above the rumbling of the submarine`s engine and the muffled pings of the sonar. "Here, from the ship`s tape recorder, are the actual sounds and voices of one of the greatest navigational feats in history. A voyage that cut 5,000 miles off the sea route from Asia to Europe and gave the United States and her allies the naval supremacy of the top of the world."

USS Nautilus was the world`s first nuclear-powered submarine. It was named after Captain Nemo`s underwater vessel in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, which, with an endless supply of energy, was able to remain submerged indefinitely. It seemed that Jules Verne`s vision of the future had been turned into reality. Nuclear power had finally arrived and was the great hope for the future.

We thought about travelling to the North Pole in a submarine for the Pole to Pole series, but it was too complex an operation and we eventually went by aircraft. In the Fifties many people believed that submarines, rather than aircraft, would become the main mode of long-distance transport. In the record, this belief is unquestioned: "The voyage of the Nautilus marks the way for cargo and passenger submarines cruising under the Pole and peacefully beneath the storms of the oceans."

There is a sort of innocence to the way it is presented - all the music and fine rhetoric - which you do not find any more and which I rather miss.

Having said that, the mixture of chauvinism and showbiz is pretty awful. But I would love to have the record. I have never come across anything like it. There are many great moments of exploration, but very few of them have been recorded in this way and, though we might think it fearfully over the top, we have to be grateful for the fact they thought it was worthy of this kind of treatment.

The Times is supporting the Royal Geographical Society`s work of preserving its Polar Archive, which contains the Nautilus recording. Please give generously.


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