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Good Reads  Natural History  Biography, Exploration & Travel

A Polar Affair Antarctica's Forgotten Hero and the Secret Love Lives of Penguins

Out of Print
By: Lloyd Spencer Davis(Author)
382 pages, 24 plates with colour & b/w photos and b/w illustrations
Publisher: Pegasus Books
A Polar Affair is an unusual and colourful book of polar exploration, penguins, and perversion.
A Polar Affair
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  • A Polar Affair ISBN: 9781643136028 Paperback Nov 2020 Out of Print #249912
  • A Polar Affair ISBN: 9781643131252 Hardback Oct 2019 Out of Print #245730
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About this book

A captivating blend of true adventure and natural history by one of today's leading penguin experts and Antarctic explorers.

George Murray Levick was the physician on Robert Falcon Scott's tragic Antarctic expedition of 1910. Marooned for an Antarctic winter, Levick passed the time by becoming the first man to study penguins up close. His findings were so shocking to Victorian morals that they were quickly suppressed and seemingly lost to history.

A century later, Lloyd Spencer Davis rediscovers Levick and his findings during the course of his own scientific adventures in Antarctica. Levick's long-suppressed manuscript reveals not only an incredible survival story, but one that will change our understanding of an entire species.

A Polar Affair reveals the last untold tale from the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. It is perhaps the greatest of all of those stories but why was it hidden to begin with? The ever-fascinating and charming penguin holds the key. Moving deftly between both Levick's and Davis's explorations, observations and comparisons in biology over the course of a century, A Polar Affair reveals cutting-edge findings about ornithology, in which the sex lives of penguins are the jumping-off point for major new insights into the underpinnings of evolutionary biology itself.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Unusual and colourful book
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 20 Feb 2020 Written for Hardback

    This has to be a story worthy of the name “scoop of the century”. Penguin biologist Lloyd Spencer Davis has been studying mating behaviour in Adelie penguins since 1977, carefully documenting how penguins are far from the paragons of monogamy that they were long held to be. That is until 2012 when an unpublished manuscript comes to light showing that somebody beat him to the punch... by more than six decades! A certain George Murray Levick carefully documented the same penguin antics that Davis would later build his career on. But who was this Levick? And why did he never publish his observations? Join Davis for a most unlikely story of polar exploration, penguins, and perversion.

    George Murray Levick was part of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s doomed 1910-1913 expedition to reach the South Pole. While Scott’s team was racing the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen to be the first to plant a flag at the bottom of the world, Levick was part of a team that stayed behind at their base camp at the edge of Antarctica. To while away the long, cold days he started observing the Adelie penguins with whom they shared the spit of ice-free land, quite by accident becoming the world’s first penguin biologist. Much like Davis would do decades later, he observed that especially males are far from monogamous; they engage in homosexual behaviour, hump dead bodies, and molest females. But females are no angels either, dumping males when they do not return from sea in a timely fashion to feed their chick, or trading sex for stones to build their nests with. As Davis explains, given the short breeding season these are all behaviours for which there are sensible biological explanations.

    Levick would write up his findings in the 1914 book Antarctic Penguin: A Study of Their Social Habits with which Davis is intimately familiar. What Davis did not know is that Levick left out his most salacious observations, which were instead written down in a short unpublished manuscript that was considered too offensive to Victorian morals. A small print run of 100 copies, labelled “not for publication”, was printed for internal circulation at the British Museum of Natural History but quickly forgotten. Until, that is, 2012 when a librarian at the museum finds a copy and publishes it with a commentary in the journal Polar Record.

    This unlikely chain of events forms the starting point of A Polar Affair where we accompany Davis as he tries to learn all he can about Levick and his observations, leading him to Levick’s original notebook containing passages furtively written in secret code. But the book is about much more than just Levick and horny penguins – we do not actually get to these until page 160. Davis describes at length all the other people who are part of the grand adventure in which Levick took part: the infamous race for the South Pole between Scott and Amundsen and the people who in turn inspired them, including explorers such as Ernest Shackleton, Fridtjof Nansen, and Robert Peary.

    I was already familiar with some of these people; Shackleton’s expeditions came up in my review of Erebus while the recently reviewed The Ice at the End of the World introduced me to Nansen, Peary and other Greenland explorers. Ironically, I was less familiar with the better-publicised stories of Scott and Amundsen. Since the 2011-2012 centenary of the race to the South Pole you could fill a small library with books about these two. And this is on top of all the books that the various people participating in these expeditions wrote upon their return.

    Davis intertwines all these storylines, chronicling the extraordinary hardships on the ice, the triumph of Amundsen’s party arriving first, the tragedy of Scott’s party arriving second and then succumbing to cold and hunger on their return journey, and the astonishing feat of survival when a side-quest by Levick and five others goes awry and results in them having to overwinter on the Antarctic ice sheet for nine months with virtually no food reserves or suitable gear. He furthermore mixes in anecdotes of his own penguin research over the decades with the story of Levick’s observations, which make for fascinating reading.

    The resulting patchwork becomes a bit chaotic in places, as Davis keeps switching between storylines and time periods within each chapter. Some memory aids in the form of a map with all the locations and routes, a timeline, or short biographies of the main actors would have been helpful. Nevertheless, the story is so darn fascinating and unlikely that I could not stop reading.

    Davis is outspoken, explicit in his description of penguin sexual behaviour, and does not avoid strong language. I personally do not mind and thought he was hilariously crass in places, especially when talking penguin biology. But he similarly gleefully draws parallels between the penguins and the explorers, showing that the latter were not necessarily upstanding characters either, many having affairs at every turn. His description of Amundsen and Sigrid Castberg’s first tryst more than reeks of a bit of artistic license but, again, cracked me up.

    I was more shocked by his frustration with Levick post-expedition. Levick never looked back on his time in Antarctica, and Davis admits that he so badly wanted him to be more of an inspiration that he judges Levick rather harshly for his choices, at one point even admonishing him for his lack of empathy when writing a stiff, formal note to go on a funerary wreath with a brusque: “for f***’s sake Levick, is that the best you can do?“

    I am sure that some biologists will cringe at Davis’s liberal use of anthropomorphising terms such as “divorce”, “rape”, and “prostitution”, though he lampoons the multisyllabic alternatives biologists use. With everything else going on, the book is also rather thin on factual information on penguins. Readers might want to turn to Davis’s book Professor Penguin for more on his research (or to Strycker’s similar book Among Penguins), an introductory book such as Penguins: The Animal Answer Guide, the more serious Poyser monograph The Penguins that Davis co-authored, or the recent Penguins: Natural History and Conservation.

    Despite the above, A Polar Affair is an engrossing book. The details of the race for the pole are extraordinary by themselves, but the penguin subplot gives it a further twist, even if Davis can never quite work out whether Levick was muzzled upon return or chose to censor himself. An unusual and colourful page-turner that is recommended if you enjoyed provocative books such as The Myth of Monogamy or Sex at Dawn. It had me in stitches more than once.
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Out of Print
By: Lloyd Spencer Davis(Author)
382 pages, 24 plates with colour & b/w photos and b/w illustrations
Publisher: Pegasus Books
A Polar Affair is an unusual and colourful book of polar exploration, penguins, and perversion.
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