Memoir

Through Darkness and Light

Exhuming the ghosts of war in England and Greenland

One night when I was sixteen, we stole a car and escaped from the city, driving north to the coast, to a secret place few of us believed really existed.

Like most teenagers, the driver drove to impress: the corners of the tight and bending English roads taken with barely controlled bravado;hedges, colourless in the headlights, speeding past with merry-go-round swiftness.

I sat in the back, packed tight with boys and girls, rocking, laughing, smoking, chattering, feeling the excitement of adventure and the press of the opposite sex, speaking loud, trying to show we weren’t concerned about the speed, arms slipped through seat belts but never fastened.

We were dizzy with the excitement of what the night might bring, what sights and dangers this adventure could hold, the sense of possibility palpable. In 1980s Britain, possibility was in short supply and only came to those who fought hard to find it.

The car stopped with the handbrake on, a show-off skid finding us in a small, isolated car park, lights and engine switching off quickly so as to hide us from passing traffic.

The night and the silence came as a shock. It was proper dark: fresh, unsaturated, and boundless, countryside dark, only the faint glow of a nearby town to spoil it. We were silent — for a moment — then before we could become too moved, someone broke the spell with a faked scream and we fell laughing into the night. It wasn’t cool to be moved by anything but music.

I walked to the edge of the hard surface and had a piss to show I wasn’t intimidated by the darkness. The wind was blowing in from the sea, and you could hear it bumping hard against the chalk cliffs not far away — the highest in the north, they said. The coastline here was battered by history, both real and fictional, a place of smugglers, sunken German U-boats, even Count Dracula’s ghost ship.

I’d always been afraid of the sea. It swallowed things up — people, boats, around here even whole villages — and nibbled away at the soft cliffs, taking bigger bites on stormy days, walls, houses, graveyards; it was never satisfied and always hungry. I suppose I was afraid of the emptiness just as some are afraid of the dark.

I went back to the others, who stood around talking, arms stiff and pushed into pockets against the cold, shivering a little with excitement as candles were handed out to be lit later on. Ricky, the one who was leading us to the secret, set off first across a plowed field, and we followed, slipping and cursing at the countryside as only city kids can, until finally we joined a path along the edge of the cliffs, its boundary marked by an old fence. A lone sign told tourists the names of the birds that lived on the tufty ledges below — white ones and black ones, huge colonies you could imagine squawking and shrieking on stormy days, every ledge covered in decades of stinky, fishy seabird crap.

Someone kicked the sign down and, picking it up, threw it with a spin into the night beyond the fence.

Leaving the path, we moved up a hill, the blacker black of a large, squat building standing out against the night. You could make out other, smaller structures sticking out of the ground, spotted across the hill like a Stonehenge of bricks.

Even in the dark, you could tell the wind blew through the empty roof and glassless windows, and that there would be a door, rusting and buckled.

We squeezed inside, the smashed tiles and brick grinding as we all slipped in. It smelled like damp cardboard and piss — like the concrete air raid shelters we used to play in as kids, places where giant insects grew and waited for children.

Everywhere you went there were signs of the war. Not far from here was a small bunker, another secret we had been told of, a tiny door hidden at the edge of a field where men were meant to go when the Nazis came. The identity of these men was known only to the local policeman. Their first task when the invasion came: to kill him and so assure their survival. Their job: to fight a guerrilla war. Standing in a tiny brick bunker, I’d wondered what the purpose was of fighting, apart from exacting some tiny measure of revenge. But then I was a child of Thatcher, and we’d probably be much more pragmatic about such things.

A farmer lived close by, so Ricky told us to be quiet. We followed him as he shuffled toward a space in the floor that was blacker than the rest. Slowly he began to descend, and we followed, tapping out the way on rubble-strewn steps that spiralled downward.

We stood at the bottom of the stairs and lit our candles and found we were in a wide tunnel that sloped away from us at a shallow angle, its walls covered in soot and graffiti. With the light came the questions: “How far does it go?” “Where does it lead?” and “Is it safe?” Ricky kept quiet and instead smiled and set off down the stairs, holding his candle like a butler leading his guests into a haunted house.

We followed as fast as our flickering candles would let us, the sound of our footsteps magnified, reflected, echoing down the tunnel and back again. Without warning, Ricky let out a roar that was meant to scare us. So we screamed to show we weren’t terrified, when in fact we were.

After a hundred metres, the tunnel turned to the left and ended at a set of thick blast doors, the entrance to the bunker. Rooms appeared to the left and right, littered with rusty furniture, bunk beds, a desk, a chair, the false ceilings tumbling in on the rooms like old skin. We shuffled around, peering in but sticking together like cowards, excited to be there.

Taking my penknife out, I did what humans have no doubt done ever since we could make our mark: I scraped my name into the concrete near the door, leaving behind a trace of myself, a little piece of immortality.

Laughing and pushing, we made our way to the final room, a giant concrete void, the drop below the doorway of uncertain depth, the light of our candles unable to penetrate far. It smelled of damp black rot. People had once sat in here and watched for an attack from Germany — Battle of Britain stuff, wooden models of planes being pushed backwards by our grandmas, hair tied in buns, glamorous in their blue uniforms, while Spitfires and Messerschmitts fought in the sky overhead.

Someone suggested we blow out the candles and see how dark it was, and so, blow by blow, the darkness came back, blacker than any other we had ever experienced. We were city kids, used to streetlights; the darkest places we knew were where the lights were broken or vandalized, easily done by shimmying up the pole and unscrewing the fuse on top. Darkness brought a little wild space in the tower blocks, a little fear — the biggest kick there is — and perhaps even the vague sense of possibility. We lived at night, but the sheer nothingness of the dark in that place overcame us, and we were silent. This time no one wanted to be the first to break the spell. We lived closed and confined lives, and for most of us, the future would be no different, but for a moment we stood in awe at the centre of our universe, opening and closing our eyes and seeing no more, no less.

It was white. It was always white. But today there was something else.

I sat on my pulk under a sun that had not set for weeks, slowly munching on tired peanuts and staring at the horizon. I removed my sunglasses and squinted at a thing between my heaven and earth, a separation that had grown, in the last three weeks, no more distinct than an old fracture in a frozen lake. It was only a bubble, a speck, a thing. But at last it was something.

For 300 kilometres, I had skied across Greenland’s ice cap, sometimes under a bluebird sky, other times into cloud and storm, but always in a straight laser line dictated by gps, east to west, my horizon always infertile, until now.

For the first two days, the lack of visual reference had been exciting. After all, it’s a rare thing in these modern times for your eyes to become unemployed, and at the start I was able to look back over my shoulder at the coastal mountains for comfort as they retreated. But soon there was nothing. Just unending white, day and night.

In thirty-five years, my mind had become accustomed to “things” — colour, shape, noise — and now what had once filled it drained away, leaving me with only the sanctuary of “things” remembered and, soon, “things” I had forgotten.

It’s advised never to run your car until the gas tank’s empty, as the silt and debris are said to enter and damage your engine. I suppose the same applies to the mind. I began collating every memory I had ever had, beginning with the technicolour, high-definition memories and working down to the faded fragments, found like pieces of paper in old trousers. The more I thought, the more I tried not to think. It was solitary un-confinement, the sun never setting on me or my thoughts as I skied on.

I tried to take my mind off my mind by focusing on the planes that passed overhead from time to time, watched over hours as their trails were slowly pulled apart by the jet stream like cotton wool, cooling the air as they filtered out the sun, testament to global dimming. I formulated that they were both the partial cause and partial protector of the melting ice cap, but soon my environmental thoughts turned to daydreams about airline catering, fantasies about small packets of pretzels and miniature cans of Coca-Cola.

But now, at last, there was my something to think about.

Since waking, I had sensed it was there, like a speck of dirt that drifts through your eye, then something more defined, at the edge of my vision, only seen when not looked at directly. Finally I saw it, a slight bump on the horizon, its scale and size obvious, still over a day away, a secret place I’d taken a detour to find, a place of mystery few had ever visited.

I could hardly control myself as I skied quickly toward the surreal structure, which stood like a gloomy, multi-storey spacecraft, supported on eight giant legs that penetrated the ice cap, its huge white dome the only hint of its purpose. It towered over me, pure James Bond, a radar station that no doubt accounted for a large chunk of the trillions of defence dollars spent since World War II, part of the US Distant Early Warning (dew) Line, which hugged the Arctic and watched for Soviet attack. It was a monster, abandoned since 1988 in the middle of nowhere, a monument to war and pointless human waste. After so long with nothing, it was a rush. I fell in love.

I slipped off my skis at the edge of the ice crater it now stood in, slowly sinking into the ice cap, its empty black windows looking down at me, ghost-ship portholes, daring me to find a way in and see what they saw. I slipped down on my bum to look for a way in.

Underneath, the snow that had melted on the dark metal shell of the station had refrozen to form an ice lake, the cab of a submerged yellow tractor just visible. In the centre stood a single metal chair. It looked strangely sinister, reminding me of other secret places the Americans now used for their wars and what they did to others in our name.

After skating around comically for a while, I found a snow-choked stairwell leading up to an iron door — pasted with warning signs of danger and death — that stood slightly ajar. The base had been abandoned back in 1988, when it was thought it might collapse; some said the Americans just didn’t want to pay to clean it up when they knew the Cold War was over. But nearly twenty years later it was still here, and having come so far I thought it would be a shame not to go inside. Digging out a slot, I slipped in.

Snowdrifts had half-filled the main entrance, where a guard had no doubt once sat, m-16 in hand, the most thankless and pointless job on the planet, waiting for Ivan to knock. Beyond, a long corridor disappeared into darkness, the floor littered with trash. The wind was growling somewhere deep inside. I suddenly remembered that other bunker twenty years ago, and that other me, and what was to be found in dark places. I switched on my head torch and walked on.

The base had been a time capsule for a long time, until an ice road allowed people to drive here from the coast to loot the place; overnight it went from dye2 to diy-mart. I’d heard there had been a tank full of frozen fish until someone, or cold weather, had smashed it.

Now much of the station was trashed, with litter and once-top-secret files now covering the floor. Even so, there were signs of what it was like before the ransacking: a polystyrene cup beside a half-smoked cigarette, a vacation scheduler on the wall marked with the rota of men long gone, a single Post-it note stuck beside it indicating a defective heater in the hallway. In another room, dozens of Coca-Cola cans lay twisted, left behind and exploded by the first unmitigated Greenlandic winter, each one commemorating the forthcoming Seoul Olympics. A poster warned of the dangers of aids, while another warned of spies — both of limited threat out here.

The rooms where dozens of men once slept looked out onto nothing but a silent screen of white, their walls decorated with images appropriate to rank: tiny porno images cut from magazines for the lower orders, wall-sized images of mountains for the officers.

Even after so many years, the building still smelled of America, of that strange aroma of elevators and airports — stern, unfriendly, businesslike, one that always reminds me why I want to leave as soon as I arrive.

I wandered around and picked my way through the building, room by room, floor by floor, until I reached the top, where I climbed slowly up into the huge dome. This was where the dead radar lived, olive green, purposeful, useless, its wide, wing-like arms cast out. It seemed strange that something that had been designed to search so well and spent so long seeing didn’t know I was there.

I walked around it, my footsteps echoing back at me from the jigsaw of fibreglass panels that made the dome. It was greenhouse-warm, with grubby glass greenhouse light, brown and dappled, as if the outside were criss-crossed with creepers.

Everything below was dead, but here there still seemed to be some energy. Many thousands of men, many billions of dollars, had been lavished on this thing, once a god of seeing, protecting humanity by assuring mutual Armageddon, now abandoned. As when walking through a cathedral or abbey, I felt compelled to whisper, to say something to this god that had once meant so much, to say a little atheist’s prayer out of respect. In the end I just said “hello,” the word bouncing back in reply.

I walked over to one of the panels and, for only the second time in my life, began to scrape my name with my old penknife, then stopped, suddenly aware that this was vandalism. I caught the thought the instant it rose and pitched it back, the ridiculousness that you could ever vandalize such a place, a giant turd on a spotless altar of ice. I finished scraping.

I stood back and looked at my name. I was a little drunk with imagery, and I began to visualize the station sinking into the ice, inch by inch, down to the bottom of the ice cap, maybe taking a thousand or so years until it settled on the bedrock. Would someone or something find my sign in a millennium or two, a piece of fibreglass set on a hillside of a half-submerged world? Maybe they would find the other mark in that other bunker, long sealed with concrete, and great minds would spend lifetimes debating their significance.

I laughed out loud at my imaginings, the reality being that the fibreglass and everything here would become a discoloured streak of dust on some glacial moraine, the other bunker long since fallen into the eroding sea and turned back to sand. Both sandcastles washed completely away by the tide of time.

Opening a small door and crouching down, I stepped outside onto a narrow viewing platform that circled the dome. The change was startling — the dull greenhouse light, the smell of slow but steady decay giving way to the familiar light. I squinted and shielded my eyes, fumbling in pockets for the sunglasses I’d left in the building.

I opened my eyes and blinked; the light filled me again. I thought about the subtle Arctic Braille of sastrugi standing proud of the snow, the freezer-box hoar that sparkled rainbow colours in the afternoon, the simple nomadic life I had become used to on the ice. I suddenly got it. I was the luckiest man alive.

I closed my eyes and felt the wind blow on my skin, through my greasy hair and beard. I could feel the space below me, standing high above the ice, feeling like the captain of an icebreaker, the ice cap an ocean, moving with imperceptible speed and fury, tides moving out, waves and whirlpools forming, all at the speed of lichen. I was once afraid of the sea, but now I understood its possibility, thought back to that child who wanted to see new things and what he would have made of all this.

I opened my eyes. I could see nothing. I could see everything.