The literature of polar exploration

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The literature of polar exploration

Post  eddie on Sat Jun 11, 2011 9:39 pm

The Man Who Ate His Boots by Anthony Brandt – review

The tragic history of the Northwest Passage is still chilling

Jenny Diski The Guardian, Saturday 11 June 2011


The HMS Investigator, abandoned in the ice in 1853, was lost in the search for the Franklin expedition. Photograph: AP

Before Roald Amundsen sailed through the Northwest Passage in 1906, British expeditions had been struggling, dying and failing to find a navigable way from the northern Atlantic to the Pacific ocean for over 300 years. Martin Frobisher made the first attempt in 1576, but even by 1600, when the East India Company was set up and sailed around the Cape of Good Hope to India and the spice islands, the Northwest Passage was no longer an essential trade route for British merchants. Nevertheless, the discovery of a northern passage became a quest – it was "an object peculiarly British", said John Barrow, second secretary to the Admiralty for most of the first half of the 19th century. The persistent search for the Northwest Passage was due to Barrow's longevity at the Admiralty, his unshakeable belief in the need for the British navy to find it, as well as a lifelong and incorrect conviction that the polar sea, if it could only be reached through the labyrinthine Canadian archipelago, never froze, because there was no such thing as sea ice. Anthony Brandt's exhaustive, elegant history of the quest is as much concerned with Barrow and British delusion as it is with the earlier explorers, Sir John Franklin's complete disappearance in the 1840s, and the 10 long years spent looking for him.


The Man Who Ate His Boots: Sir John Franklin and the Tragic History of the Northwest Passage by Anthony Brandt

Brandt's detailing of centuries of expeditions is necessarily repetitious, but reading it with attention has the advantage of giving the armchair explorer a faint sense of the dogged endurance required to make an actual journey. This is hardly Brandt's fault. Though ice has many forms and the names of the heroes change somewhat from year to year, in the end, every expedition sails through icy seas, looks out on desolate, heart-sinking isolation, drags ships by hand through opening-then-closing leads in the frozen water, hauls 200lb sledges over great hummocks and pointy shards of ice that make feet bleed. Each hero and his crew, time after time, suffer from scurvy, frostbite and hunger. And they are all always very cold indeed. In 1819, when a man in Edward Parry's expedition turned up with frozen hands, the ship's surgeon, who plunged them into water to defrost them, succeeded only in freezing the water in the bowl.

Reading about stoic men suffering in appalling conditions while searching for a pole or the source of a river or a lost missionary is a favourite British pastime. Tell us how cold it was (-56 degrees; fish froze as they were brought to the surface) and how hungry they were (pounded fat and Indian hair was "thought to be a great luxury after three days of starvation"; Franklin boiled and ate his leather boots), and we settle down happily with a shiver of empathy and a virtuous sense of having endured a little of the dreadfulness ourselves. Having spent a night in a tent (unwillingly) at -40C, during which every miserable moment was filled with a sense of outrage at how cold I was and wishing I wasn't where I was, I know that reading about physical suffering is good exercise for the imagination, but no substitute for the misery. However much I read of these explorers, I will never understand how it is that, having starved and frozen for two or three years for nothing very much – a mark on a map, a lost foot – they get home, half-dead, and then agree to go back again: for honour, glory or plain Britishness.

Brandt describes Franklin as "having the emotional depth of a puddle", and it may be that sheer lack of imagination is one answer. My bafflement is an admission of my complete lack of resilience; other people seem to find their staggering sense of duty perfectly reasonable. I'd do better to take Franklin's wife, Lady Jane, a passionate, compulsive traveller, as my study. She roamed freely, embodying an indefatigable desire to know the world for what it was far better than most of the upright naval gentlemen who fulfilled their duty. But even she, like virtually everyone else, continued to deny all the evidence that eventually turned up of necessitous cannibalism among Franklin's starving crew. Englishmen simply didn't do that, she insisted, and the Times and the Athenaeum rumbled, even though sawn human bones made it clear that, entirely reasonably, they had.

Five years after becoming the first to sail the Northwest Passage, Amundsen beat Scott to the South Pole. He succeeded where so many British attempts had failed because he knew and respected the terrain, and did not overburden his expeditions with grandeur and a sense of righteous entitlement, as did the British, who refused to consider learning about Arctic survival from the Inuit, whom they mostly berated for bad table manners.

Yet although Amundsen got there first, north and south, with little fuss and no fatalities, it was those who failed and died who have been acclaimed heroes and exemplars. Scott, latterly, has had his detractors, but Franklin, lost along with all 126 of his crew, despite a dozen or more fruitless rescue expeditions costing vast amounts of money, has remained England's own role model. Perhaps this is changing. Brandt finishes his book on a surprisingly reproachful note: "We can admire the courage, even the persistence of the quest. But if we respect history at all we must temper whatever admiration we may feel with the image of pieces of human arms and legs cooking in a kettle while starving men stare with deadened eyes at the ultimate consequences of this spectacular piece of folly."

Jenny Diski's What I Don't Know About Animals is published by Virago.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011

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Re: The literature of polar exploration

Post  eddie on Sat Jun 11, 2011 9:48 pm

This is a great book about the doomed Franklin expedition:



November 8, 2009

Frozen in Time, by Owen Beattie and John Geiger

Subtitled: Unlocking the Secrets of the Franklin Expedition

Review from the bookgaga website:


This slim volume offers revelations and surprises for anyone interested in the modern investigation into the ill-fated 1845 expedition of Sir John Franklin and crew to discover the Northwest Passage. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is that distilling the story down to forensic data and clinical examination and testing does not rob the Franklin expedition of any of its historic and mythic resonance. Indeed, these new details add a poignant human dimension to the Franklin legend, including some cautionary reflection on man's ongoing quest to push exploration and technological boundaries.

Most powerful in this account is the sensitivity with which the modern men of science connect across more than a century with the three men whose ravaged bodies revealed significant reasons for why the Franklin expedition met with calamity and death. Considerable emotion colours the descriptions of the exhumation and examination of the bodies of 20-year-old leading stoker John Torrington, 25-year-old able seaman John Hartnell and 36-year-old Royal Marines private William Braine, as presented by lead investigator Dr. Owen Beattie, assisted by journalist John Geiger. Because the three bodies were extremely well preserved in the Arctic permafrost, both as described and hauntingly captured by photographs included in the book, Dr. Beattie and his team were inescapably drawn into feeling very powerfully that they were dealing with almost living human beings in their investigation. In fact, Beattie describes tenderly lifting Torrington's body from his coffin and feeling like the young man was merely unconscious, not dead for 140 years. The respect with which the investigators returned the men to their graves, and the awe with which Beattie ponders how the men helped in explorations undoubtedly beyond their wildest dreams, is very moving.

That Mordecai Richler went on to cite Frozen in Time as a valuable resource in his brilliant novel Solomon Gursky Was Here is testament to the power of both the Franklin story and how well it is told here.

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Re: The literature of polar exploration

Post  eddie on Sun Jun 12, 2011 4:12 am



Wiki:

Roland Huntford (born 1927) is an author, principally of biographies of Polar explorers. He lives in Cambridge, and was formerly Scandinavian correspondent of The Observer, also acting as their winter sports correspondent. He was the 1986-87 Alistair Horne Fellow at St Antony's College, Oxford.

He has written biographies of Robert Falcon Scott, Ernest Shackleton and Nobel Peace Prize winner Fridtjof Nansen. Huntford's controversial The Last Place on Earth (originally titled Scott and Amundsen) had a tremendous impact on public interest in Polar matters.

Huntford put forth the point of view that Roald Amundsen's success in reaching the South Pole was abetted by much superior planning, whereas errors by Scott (notably including the reliance on man-hauling instead of sled dogs) ultimately resulted in the death of Scott and his companions.

Defenders of Scott's actions, notably Ranulph Fiennes, assert that Huntford, who lacks direct experience of Polar travel and man-hauling, is not qualified to draw the conclusions he does on Scott's alleged technical deficiencies. In his biography of Captain Scott, Fiennes offers a rebuttal of some of Huntford's assertions of Scott's deficiencies. The Coldest March (2001) by Susan Solomon disputes many of Huntford's conclusions on Scott's leadership and skill by analysing scientific and particularly meteorological data.

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Re: The literature of polar exploration

Post  eddie on Sun Jun 12, 2011 4:15 am

Review of Roland Huntford's The Last Place on Earth (aka Scott and Amundsen):

Michelle Fram-Cohen
Forum: The Objectivist Forum, 1987

Two rival explorers separately embark on a torturous 1500-mile trek across a desert of ice and snow, each striving to be first to stand at the bottom of the world—the South Pole. One man reaches the Pole and returns safely with his crew. The other arrives more than a month later and never returns; his body and the bodies of his crewmen are found ten miles short of the safety of their supply depot. The loser is made into a hero and the winner is accused of stealing his victory and contributing to the disastrous end of the loser's expedition.

This is a synopsis of the race to the South Pole in 1911 between the Norwegian Roald Amundsen and the Englishman Robert Falcon Scott.

For more than seventy years commentators on this event have explained Amundsen's victory over Scott in terms of accidental factors such as weather differences and Scott's anxiety over the prospect of losing the race. But the dual biography of these explorers, The Last Place on Earth, sets the record straight. Author Roland Huntford shows that the outcome of the race was the culmination of lifelong differences in the moral character of the two men—dif­ferences, in effect, in their opposed philosophical premises. It was the manner in which each wrestled with the natural elements, not the elements themselves, which accounted for his fate. Each man was responsible for his own success—or failure.

Huntford traces the personal development of Amundsen and Scott from childhood through adult life. We see Amundsen, an avid skier from early childhood, deciding to become an explorer despite his family's disapproval. We see Scott, a mediocre cadet and incompetent torpedo lieutenant in the Royal Navy, a career chosen for him by his father, wondering, at the age of thirty, what he should do with his life. We see Amundsen begin long-range preparations for his future expeditions by studying the subject and training himself in the necessary skills; we see him join his first Antarctic expedition at the age of 25 and achieve the first successful crossing of the Northwest Passage (north of Canada) at the age of 35. We see Scott, worried about his promotion, seizing upon exploration as the means of advancing in rank, a familiar practice in the British navy at that time. We see Amundsen choose, as his idol and mentor, Fridjof Nansen, the renowned Arctic explorer who was the first to cross Greenland—while Scott chooses, as his patron and strings-puller, Sir Clemens Markham, the President of the Royal Geographical Society, "a typical moribund stronghold of institutionalized mediocrity," who had participated in but one Arctic expedition fifty years before.

When they raced to the South Pole, the two men were about the same age: Amundsen was 39 and Scott was 43. Amundsen had behind him the progressive mastering of Polar exploration techniques and years of Polar experience. Scott had behind him only the dreary routine of military regulations and one Antarctic expedition that had ended in near-disaster.

The contrast between Amundsen's and Scott's attitudes toward exploration is similar to the contrast between Howard Roark's and Peter Keating's attitudes toward architecture: a lifelong vocation motivated by love of the field versus an arbitrary selection of what happened to be admired by others; ambition for genuine original achievements versus a manipulation of the secondary benefits. In Huntford's words, "Amundsen was the supreme exponent of Polar tech­nique. He towered above his rivals; he brought an intellectual approach to exploration." On the other hand, "Scott smoldered with ambition. It was not, however, the kind directed to a particular goal... He possessed an inchoate passion to get on without any definite aim."

Huntford stresses another significant difference between Amundsen and Scott: their opposite views on the nature of Polar exploration. Amundsen regarded its hardships as the necessary cost of achieving his goal—a cost which was to be reduced whenever possible. He believed that an expedition, with all its difficulties and discomforts, could be enjoyable if morale was huge. The essence of exploration was, for Amundsen, learning how to do things better, faster, easier.

For Scott, however, hardships were the essence of exploration, and suffering was its meaning. His attitude reflected the popular view in England at that time: the Byronic view of existence as a doomed struggle against impossible odds with endurance of pain as the ultimate test of heroism. Scott, like any second-hander, was consumed by the desire for public acclaim. He wished to be thought of as a hero. Thus, while Amundsen trained himself and his men in dog driving and relieved his party of the burden of carrying their supplies, Scott resorted to man hauling, exhausting his men to the point of collapse. After his first Antarctic expedition, Scott stated his reason for pre­ferring man hauling:

No journey ever made with dogs can approach the height of that fine conception which is realized when a party of men go forth to face hardships, dangers, and difficulties with their own unaided efforts, and by days and weeks of hard physical labor succeed in solving some problems of the great unknown.

Each man's attitude toward hardships was reflected in the way he dealt with the Polar environment. Amundsen followed the rule "Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed" and devised ways to master the environment. He made constant improvements in food, clothing, shelter, dog driving, and skiing techniques—and applied painstakingly what he learned from the Eskimos, with whom he lived for several months during his Northwest Passage expedi­tion. Scott, on the other hand, intended to attack Nature by brute force and let the stronger side win. He expected his men to endure whatever calamities Nature had in store and did not bother to learn how to overcome them. When Scott tried to improve his chances for success on his second journey, it was by taking with him Siberian ponies and motor sledges—a shot in the dark which proved fatally inappropriate for the Antarctic conditions.

Gaining the title "First to the South Pole" was important to both men, but when Amundsen encountered a temperature of minus 43 degrees Fahrenheit on his way to the Pole, he and his party returned to their base in order to wait for warmer weather. In contrast, when Scott's ponies died and his motor sledges broke down, he had no scruples about returning to man-hauling, even knowing that his supplies and the skiing ability of his men were hopelessly inadequate for this grueling type of travel.

The inadequacies of Scott's expedition are more astonishing in view of the fact that it was his second attempt to conquer Antarctica. He refused to learn from his first failure, blaming it on natural conditions beyond his control. For example, one of the worst problems facing Polar explorers was scurvy, a potentially fatal disease. The cause of scurvy, Vitamin C deficiency, was as yet unknown. Amundsen had experienced the horrors of scurvy on his first Antarctic expedition, and resolved to find a way to prevent its recurrence. Later, on his Northwest Passage expedition, Amundsen followed the advice of his associate Dr. Cook who had observed, in a previous Arctic expedition, that the local Eskimos had not suffered from scurvy. Accordingly, Amundsen had his men stick to the Eskimo diet, and the problem of scurvy was eliminated. On Scott's first Antarctic expedition his party too was ravaged by scurvy, but Scott was not very concerned about it; he even took pride in the fact that their caloric intake was the lowest of any expedition since 1820. Scott did not improve the diet on his second journey, and his party was again plagued by scurvy (and malnutrition). Yet even when Scott and his crewmen lay dying, Scott wrote in his diary: "The causes of the disaster are not due to faulty organization but to misfortune." Huntford's exhaustively researched analysis amply proves the contrary: the outcome of the race was not a matter of luck but was the logical result of each explorer's character and actions. And he aptly passes his verdict on each man.

Huntford integrates the actions of each explorer by relating them to each explorer's values and view of himself, others, Nature, reality. For example, Scott insisted on subjecting his crewmen to military discipline and hierarchy even though some of them were civilians and the entire expedition was sponsored by the Royal Geographic Society, not the Navy. Huntford relates this conduct to Scott's values: Scott regarded people as titles and ranks, not as individuals, and he longed for higher ranks, not the achievements they stood for; he could feel in control only when he had the authority of rank. Amundsen, in contrast, was single-mindedly devoted to building his knowledge and exper­tise. He selected his men by their ability, and demanded loyalty, not blind obedience. His values and outlook are best described by an entry in his diary from his Northwest Passage expedition:

After my own experience, I decided as far as possible to use a system of freedom on board. Let everybody have the feeling of being indepen­dent within his own sphere. In that way there arises—amongst sensible people—a spontaneous and voluntary discipline, which is worth far more than compulsion. Every man thereby has the consciousness of being a human being; he is treated as a rational being, not as a machine... The will to do work is many times greater, and thereby, the work itself. We were all working towards a common goal and gladly shared all work.

Thus the contrast between the two men becomes, in effect, a contrast between two philosophies. It is a contrast between the desire to achieve and the desire to be considered an achiever; between long-range planning and range-of-the-moment improvisation; between self-reliance and dependence; be­tween responsibility and recklessness; between dealing with men and Nature by reason and by brute force; between love of life and this world and a death-wish-like evasion of reality; between benevolent and malevolent world­views.

The Last Place on Earth also shows how Scott, the failure, became a hero and Amundsen, who succeeded, was almost forgotten. Scott's doomed expe­dition became the romanticized subject of numerous books, a movie, and a play, even a musical symphony. What could turn an incompetent bungler into a hero? The ideas that man is helpless before the unpredictable forces of Nature and that the hero is the man who battles the fates even though he cannot escape them. These were the Byronic ideas that motivated Scott and his contemporaries, but they emanated from a wider philosophical context in which Scott could figure as a hero. Huntford points out that Scott:

has been accepted as an orthodox martyr figure even among Marxists in the grotesquely alien surroundings of the Soviet Union where, in the words of one author, he has been sent as the personification of "A fight to the death with the forces of fate [like] the tractor man driving his machine into a wheat field which is on fire.
What could possibly be in common between Byronic Romanticism and Marxism? Huntford only implies the answer, but it is obviously the glorification of self-sacrifice—in one case to prove one's "heroism," in the other to benefit the Collective—and in both cases with a malevolent world-view as its base. It was appropriate that Scott and his crewmen were eulogized in a sermon for "the reminder they bring us of... the glory of self-sacrifice, the blessing of failure."

Amundsen did not enjoy any legend. His achievement was evaluated in technical, not moral, terms. His performance was derogated as merely "pro­fessional"—as if a calculated, realistic, successful expedition were unromantic. The public reaction to Amundsen was ambivalent. He was criticized for push­ing himself ahead of Scott and for succeeding "over Scott's dead body." The general feeling was that, if it had not been for Amundsen, Scott would have been first to the South Pole, and his judgment would not have been clouded by having to compete with Amundsen [!]. Scott's diary, a subjective outpouring of sentimentality about his expedition's martyrdom, became a best seller. Amundsen's writings, a precise, perceptive account of facts, did not appeal to the public taste. It is interesting that when, seventeen years later, Amundsen perished in a plane crash near the North Pole in an attempt to rescue an Italian explorer, he was not made into a martyr. He did not have the personality of a martyr and most certainly did not wish to become one.

The Last Place on Earth is an unusual combination of adventure, psycho­logical drama, and ideas. Although Huntford's terminology is not always accurate (he often uses the terms "heroic" and "romantic" in their Byronic, irrational sense), it is rewarding to read an author who traces actions and events back to ideas. His admiration for Amundsen's rationality, talent, and individuality and his contempt for Scott's irrationality and conventional mediocrity are the leitmotif of the book.

The Last Place on Earth is a dramatization of the contrast between good and evil—for once in their proper moral sense. On the side of evil are negative impulses: "Fear was at the head; fear of professional failure... the mentality of escape, and thinking by reaction, which means dangerous emotionalism and rashness." On the side of the good are "the positive force of undiluted ambition... a search for fulfillment instead of avoidance of what might be worse, the goal ahead instead of the goad behind."

© Michelle Fram-Cohen, 1987, 2000

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Re: The literature of polar exploration

Post  eddie on Sun Jun 12, 2011 4:25 am


The Worst Journey in the Worls- Apsley Cherry-Garrard.

Review from The Open Critic website:

The Worst Journey in the World, Apsley Cherry Garrard

This is the book acclaimed by those who do the acclaiming as the bar-none most compelling tale of people having a bad time, ever told. Paul Theroux describes it as the best example of Adventure Literature he’s ever read. Couple that with the perennial appearances on the ‘best this’ and ‘best that’ lists and it becomes clear that it deserves considerable consideration by those wishing to be well-read.

There is no doubt Garrard had a horrible time of it. Nor can it be argued that this narrative is anything but compelling; or that the quality of the prose is less than stellar. None-the-less, the accolades given this book lead one to ask, what is it that makes a book the best adventure book ever written? And is this it?

The Worst Journey in the World was written a decade after the fated 1911 Scott expedition to the South Pole. It is a compendium of Garrard’s reminiscences and diary entries, as well as the diary entries of Scott, Lashy and others. For the most part it’s a clear-heading accounting of the expedition that is both realistic of the hardships encountered and of the team’s strengths and shortcomings. Granted, there is certain amount of romance in the telling, but for the most part it avoids the late century gosh-gee-whiz-let’s-add-an-adjective school of story telling which ruins so many contemporary tales.

The Worst Journey in the World: How Good is it?

That said, how good is the book?

If the first criteria is the note-worthiness of the adventure itself, rest assured that Garrard’s account qualifies. That Scott was runner-up in the race to the pole is reason enough to record the event. The fact that he did so in such miserable, and by all accounts unusually harsh conditions makes it even more so. Cherry-Garrard’s winter expedition to collect eggs of from the previously unstudied Emperor penguins was downright awful, and a pre curser to the year ahead …

” … a trip so appalling, so horrendous, so absolute in its misery and its danger that you cannot think a man could endure it for a day, much less for five weeks”

In an era where falling into a crevice just once is seen as a cheating death, Cherry and crew impress with their daily, sometimes hourly plunges through rotted snow bridges. As do their accounts of floundering snow blind through mazes of impassable pressure ridges. Temperature as low as -60 and -70 degrees were common. Every morning the team would prop open the mouths of their sleeping bags so that they would be able to climb back into the frozen bags the subsequent evening. Horrendous hardly seems to be the appropriate epitaph. The fact they survived is beyond comprehending.

As odd as it to say, Scott’s return journey from the pole replete with spectacularly frigid conditions, depleted supplies and eventual stormbound death seems almost manageable. Not that his journey was easier than Garrard’s, but rather quieter and more in the norm of what you and I might expect to be overcome by …

… blizzard bad as ever — Wilson and Bowers unable to start — tomorrow last chance — no fuel and only one or two days of food left — must be near the end. Have decided it shall be natural — we shall march for the depot with or without our effects and die in our tracks.

Thursday, March 29th. Since the 21st we have had a continuous gale from W.S.W and S.W. We had fuel to make two cups of tea apiece and bare food for two days on the 20th. Every day we have been ready to start for our depot 11 miles away, but outside the door of the tent it remains a scene of whirling drift. I do not think we can hope for any better things now. We shall stick it out to the end but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far.

It seems a pity but I do not think I can write more.

R.Scott

There is something familiar about the end; proof perhaps that we are mortal, that we are decent, and that there is an intrinsic worth in attempting the unlikely.

There is never any queston that the adventure itself (if one can call it an adventure … Garrard certainly wouldn’t object) is eponymous; it records one of the great endeavours of the modern era. As an adventure in-and-of-itself, however, it’s hardly possible to rate it as greater or lessor on some arbitrary scale against F.A. Worsley’s, Endurance. It’s quite the tale; I’d be a fool to say otherwise. I’d also be a fool to claim it was the greatest of all and so, remain agnostic.

Which leads then to criterium number two; apart from the subject, is the narrative compelling? Well … it isn’t a page turner like Touching the Void is a page turner, but it was written in a different era. And while it doesn’t plod, it is true to its intent and records the expedition as fully as Garrard thought possible. What this means is that everything from zoological observations to crew manifests are recorded, along with the joys and tribulations of the event.

Nor is Garrard interested in leaving the reader hanging at the end of each chapter; he was NOT negotiating a film deal in the background and the story proceeds accordingly … everyone knows the ending and we get there eventually. What will surprise is how quickly it comes and how quickly the 550 pages disappear. Is it the most compelling narrative ever … ? Not really, but it is good. And if one were to take readers’ reactions from consumer sites into account the over-arching opinion has it that it’s very good.

An adventure, no matter how worthy, coupled with a narrative superbly paced does not make a good book if the telling of the tale gets in the way. Common to much recently written Adventure Literature is a quality of over-enthusiasm … a seeming need by the author to convince a reader of the awesomeness of the events; adjectives multiply, perspective seems lost and we’re left wondering why the author needs to try so hard.

What will strike a reader is how unassuming Cherry-Garrard is, and how he under-states what the expedition was faced with. His is the precise opposite of a typical over-written, over hyped post millenial account. Stiff-upper-lipped-Britness explains it partially. Eric Newby does the same thing in A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush where hardships are downplayed and collegiality reigns. It may be last-gasp-of-the-empire mentality, but the Brits of that class had class. And it shows. It’s this quality exactly that has endeared the account to readers for the last century … and I suspect it’s what readers and editors are responding to when they call it the best adventure book ever.

It is good. It is very good. The best, however … ? Geez, I’m going to weasel on this … for it to be the best, it has to feel the best and somehow … somehow … somehow …suffice it to say that Cherry Garrard’s, The Worst Journey in the World is more compelling than most, better paced than most, and better written than almost all else. It will impress.



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Re: The literature of polar exploration

Post  eddie on Sun Jun 12, 2011 4:36 am

More on Apsley Cherry-Garrard here:


The nice man cometh

Sara Wheeler brings her Antarctic experience to bear on her biography of the reserved but passionate polar explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard

Lucy Moore The Observer, Sunday 4 November 2001


Cherry: A Life of Apsley Cherry-Garrard
Sara Wheeler
Jonathan Cape £17.99, pp354

When Apsley Cherry-Garrard, one of Captain Scott's companions on his doomed polar expedition in 1912, fell in love aged 50, his lovemaking followed an unusual pattern. He met 20-year-old Angela Turner on a Norwegian cruise in 1937. He was alone, she with her parents and brother.

One day, the boat docked and Angela and Cherry slipped off for a walk on their own. They sat on a bench where Cherry picked up a small piece of quartz and offered it to Angela. 'Years later, when she had become an Antarctic expert, Angela discovered that the courtship ritual of the penguin centres around stone-giving, stones being a vital commodity for the construction of the nest.'

This story illuminates the reserved, passionate Cherry-Garrard (always known, except to his mother, as Cherry) in several ways. At that time, almost no one in the world would have known such an intimate detail about penguin lovemaking, but Cherry had made 'the worst journey in the world' to collect penguin eggs and always retained a deep affection for the comical, determined birds he had nearly given his life to see.

He was also chronically shy and afflicted by bouts of dark depression which made expressing his emotions painful for him. This type of non-verbal communication was the perfect solution for a man who felt things deeply but had terrible trouble talking about them.

Apsley Cherry-Garrard was born in 1886, the eldest son of a typically Victorian upper-middle-class household. The Cherry-Garrards were rich and young Apsley, after Winchester and Oxford, floated purposelessly between London and the family estate in Hertfordshire. But he never wanted to be a dissolute young man of fashion; Cherry sought meaning and direction. He found both when he met the inspirational scientist, Bill Wilson, through whom he obtained a place on Scott's expedition.

That first year, life on board the Terra Nova was all he had dreamed it would be. 'I really have never seen anyone with such a constant expression of "this is what I have been looking for" on his face,' Wilson wrote. All his crewmates testified to the pluck, charm and unflagging enthusiasm that led to Cherry's nickname, Cheery.

But the best of times were also the worst of times. Cherry, Wilson and Birdie Bowers hauled 750 pounds of equipment 67 miles each way through the dark Antarctic winter to obtain emperor penguin embryos, never before seen by anyone except the penguins themselves. They nearly died in temperatures dropping to minus 76, sometimes marching as little as a mile and a half in a day (if a day in which the sun never shines can really be called a day) through blinding storms and across deadly crevasses.

In Cherry's eyes, this journey was redeemed by the profound faith that permeated Wilson's leadership and the depth of the three men's friendship and support for one another. Although it had been a time of unspeakable horror, 'I'll swear there was still a grace about us when we staggered in,' Cherry wrote. 'And we kept our tempers - even with God.'

Writing about the poles is not an easy task, but an audience (especially given recent interest in Scott and Shackleton) is virtually assured. Where Sara Wheeler excels in this first biography of Cherry-Garrard is in illuminating his life before and after the epoch-making polar expedition. She makes of his struggle to work out and write the truth about those years a narrative almost as exciting as the journey itself.

This is Wheeler's first biography and it is a wonderful match of author to subject. Her last book, Terra Incognita, told of the time she spent in Antarctica. Having lived there, she understands the South Pole's intense draw (as well as the horrors its beauty conceals) and she brilliantly communicates the icy spell that holds her, and held Cherry, in its frozen grip.

'Then, and now,' she writes, 'it would be impossible, looking out at the incandescent band of purply blue light that lies between ice and sky on an Antarctic horizon, not to think about forces beyond the human plane. From the fecund coast to the sterile interior, the dignity of the landscape shines a light on to a corner of the human psyche that is rarely lit among the gas bills and rain-splattered streets of home.'

Illuminating this aspect of the soul is what Cherry did so unforgettably in The Worst Journey in the World. In Cherry, Wheeler has produced a companion volume that richly lives up to its inspiration.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011

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Re: The literature of polar exploration

Post  eddie on Sun Jun 12, 2011 4:46 am

This is a great read: the story of Scott and Shackleton's indestructible Irish coxswain, Tom Crean.



Review from the Novelista website:

Friday, May 28, 2010

Review: An Unsung Hero: Tom Crean- Antartic Survivor by Michael Smith

Collins Press

Anyone who knows me, knows of my love of the Dingle Peninsula off the Southwest coast of Ireland in my favorite county, Kerry. I spend a lot of time(but not nearly as much as I like) in a place called Inch beach- with unparalleled beauty and where the movie, Ryan's Daughter was filmed. A stone's throw from Inch is a little village called Anascaul- a place I've been several times. There's a little pub- unremarkable despite its bright blue and pebble dash exterior, called The South Pole Inn. The pub's former owner was Tom Crean, who made, not 1 but 3 trips to the Antarctic at the turn of the last century in the race to the South Pole.

I could not put this book down. Initially, I was afraid that it would be one of those dry books that make you dread opening it. Not this. It's written in an easy style and examines the personalities of the leaders, Scott and his disastrous expedition to the Pole in 1909 and then Ernest Shackleton's adventure during the outbreak of World War I when their ship, The Endurance became trapped in ice in the Antarctic and eventually lost to the sea, leaving all 28 men stranded on an ice floe and cut off from civilization.

But this man, from Kerry, Tom Crean, is truly remarkable. During his second trip to the Antarctic with the tragic Scott expedition, he walked- walked- 35 miles in 18 hours to save the life of another man despite the fact that he himself was starving and despite the fact that it was sub freezing temps.

The photos in the book are fantastic and one can't help but fall a little in love with the mythical figure of Tom Crean. Both Scott and Shackleton wanted him on their expeditions. He's handsome in a rugged way- in a 'come to my Antarctic tent' kind of way.

The first 2 trips are Scott's attempts to be the first one to reach the South Pole. They had to abandon that goal on the first trip. On the second trek, it was a Norwegian who beat them to the Pole, Scott made it eventually only to die along with his comrades in their sleeping bags in a tent on the way back due to blizzard conditions. The third trip with Ernest Shackleton was not so much to reach the South Pole but to walk across Antarctic itself. That goal was soon abandoned once Endurance was lost to the ice right at the beginning of the journey and they had no contact with civilization. It became a journey of survival and it took them almost 2 years to make it back to civilization. It's a gripping, entertaining read and it's miraculous that they survived at all.

But on all three treks, Crean comes across as mentally resilient, unafraid of any task and an even keeled kind of fella. Just the type you'd want around in a crisis.


Posted by Michele at 8:19 PM

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Re: The literature of polar exploration

Post  eddie on Sun Jun 12, 2011 4:53 am


Shackleton- Roland Huntford.

Review from the Antarctic Connection website:

Pub: Carroll & Graf
Paperback: 774 pages

In 1915, while the Great War embroiled Europe, the world waited for news of the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton's latest expedition but had given him up for lost. Shackleton's near-miraculous survival for nine months on the ice-packed Antarctic seas - capped with an open boat journey across more than 700 miles of the most dangerous weather in the South Atlantic - has made him synonymous with courage and endurance.

Roland Huntford, acclaimed biographer of Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen, masterfully chronicles the life of one of the last great Edwardian heroes, from his Anglo-Irish childhood to his rivalry with Scott and Amundsen in the quest for the pole. Although Shackleton was knighted for having reached "Farthest South," a hundred miles from his goal, in 1909, he was as much a social adventurer as an explorer, not to mention an inverterate womanizer and dubious financier. Whatever the mix of hero and rogue in his character, as one of his colleagues summed him up, "When you are in a hopeless situation, when there seems no way out, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton."


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Re: The literature of polar exploration

Post  eddie on Sun Jun 12, 2011 5:01 am

Roland Huntford interview:

Out in the cold

Interview by John Crace The Guardian, Saturday 27 December 2008

However much Roland Huntford's new book, Two Planks and a Passion: The Dramatic History of Skiing, may appear to be intellectually located in the Norse sagas, Norwegian nationalism and the emergence of the Nordic and Alpine traditions, its emotional energy is to be found at 90 degrees south. The opening paragraph tells of how Roald Amundsen, when he raised the Norwegian colours at the south pole, "was careful to record that 'the skiing has been partly good, partly bad'. They saw themselves not as explorers but as skiers. Nor did they feel particularly heroic. They had simply sped over 740 miles and won the longest ski race in the world."


Two Planks and a Passion : The dramatic history of skiing by Roland Huntford

Two Planks and a Passion thus reads less as a stand-alone volume and more as a companion to Huntford's cycle of books about polar exploration, which began with Scott and Amundsen in 1979, continued with Shackleton six years later and ended with Nansen in 1997. Huntford acknowledges that his history of skiing was always part of the grand plan - "I first started making notes for it while I was writing Scott and Amundsen". While Amundsen's achievements were largely ignored or denigrated in Britain - he got lucky with the weather, he cheated by using skis and dogs, he hadn't told anyone he was going to the south pole - Scott became a national hero by coming second and dying along with the rest of his team on the return journey.

After his death in 1912, his legend became untouchable: Scott was the archetypal Brit, a throwback to a golden age of empire when self-sacrifice was its own reward. By the mid-1970s, a few chinks had begun to appear. "A couple of historians had mentioned that Scott had changed his plans along the way, by deciding to include Bowers in the polar party," says Huntford, "but no one had bothered to follow up with the obvious conclusions. So the myth remained intact." The Scott family and the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) in Cambridge happily opened up their archives to Huntford during his research, never suspecting that anything critical would be written.

At the institute, Huntford had a run-in with a senior academic. "They were reframing Wilson's last letter and we found some instructions in pencil from Bowers on the back," he says. "The implication of this was clear: it was Bowers, not Scott, who was the last to die. The academic's response to this was to say 'This is the sort of thing that should be locked away in a bank vault and not revealed for 50 years.' Facts should not be allowed to injure a national hero. After that, I learnt to be discreet about what I was doing."

When the first proofs of the book appeared, a few members of the Scott circle were sanguine about the reaction to it. "I got one letter that said, 'I fear for Scott's feet of clay'." But Scott's close family was anything but, and engaged Peter Carter-Ruck to sue Huntford for libel by implication."I had thanked Peter Scott in the acknowledgments for allowing me to use his archives," Huntford explains, "and he claimed that this implied he agreed with the opinions held about his father in the body of the text. But the publisher called their bluff. No facts were actually being contested and what the family really wanted was to get an interlocutory injunction banning the book indefinitely. So we pleaded justification and we did a deal with the family to put in a disclaimer absolving Peter Scott of any implication in the discrediting of a national hero."

The Scott family were right to be concerned about publication. Huntford had been ruthless in his research and Scott's dithering, his failure to pick the right men for the job, his suspicions of dogs and skis, his decision to include a fifth member of the polar party when he only had provisions for four, his failure to mark adequately the supply cairns for the return journey - all exposed a man who was at best incompetent and at worst reckless with his own and other people's lives.

More damning still was Huntford's suggestion that Scott had come to understand that his failings would be revealed were they to get home and had contrived to persuade the remaining members of the polar party that, by remaining in their tent where their bodies might later be found, they could achieve in death the fame that had eluded them in life.

Scott did not go undefended, but Huntford's version rapidly became the new polar orthodoxy. From 1979 onwards, anyone writing about the conquest of the south pole was defined in relation to their take on Huntford.

It was almost inevitable, however, that sooner or later the anti-Huntford backlash would begin. And far from being destroyed, Scott's reputation has gone a long way towards being rehabilitated in recent years. In 2003, a biography by the explorer Ranulph Fiennes reclaimed the Scott legend and dismissed Huntford on the grounds that he had never been to the pole and was therefore unqualified to write about it. In the same year Susan Solomon's The Coldest March argued that Scott had been unusually unlucky with the weather. Earlier this year Stephanie Barczewski's Antarctic Destinies was notable for the personal nature of its attacks on Huntford.

He has often been described as a radical leftist whose agenda in demythologising Scott was politically motivated by contempt for the British empire. Huntford happily owns up to being a natural contrarian, but he insists that his detractors have rather missed the point and fallen victim to the same disease of Anglocentrism that has dogged the Scott story from the beginning. "My starting point was always to observe the Aristotelian principle of letting the facts tell the story," he says. "In as much as I had an agenda, it wasn't to run down Scott; rather, it was to rehabilitate Amundsen, who I felt had never been given the credit he deserved outside Norway. No previous English-language biographer had even worked from the original Norwegian sources. It was only when I started reading both Scott and Amundsen's diaries that I became aware of the discrepancies. I found Scott almost incomprehensible, while Amundsen spoke a language to which I could relate. But then I've long felt an affinity with the Scandinavian psyche."

How someone who was born in Cape Town in 1927 came to develop a Nordic mentality is a story in itself. Huntford's father was both a soldier and a farmer, while his mother was a Ukrainian exile who had escaped the Bolshevik revolution. Huntford came to London after the second world war to study physics at Imperial College, but lasted only two years before he was asked to leave - "not a high point in my education" - and he disappeared to the continent to do nothing gracefully. "I felt my mind had been deformed by science in the UK," he says. "Over here scientists seemed to have a tunnel vision, whereas the ones I met abroad had a wide range of interests and were happy to discuss Italian literature.

"To be honest, I was a drifter, and probably still am in some ways. I ended up in Florence where I hung out with the other would-be artists, fraudulent or otherwise, that gathered there. I don't know if I had a good time, but one would need to have had a heart of stone not to be affected by its atmosphere, its Renaissance painters and writers: to this day, Dante remains my favourite poet."

He moved back to London in the late 50s, found digs in Chelsea and met a Danish communist double agent who was to change his life. "He was obsessed with Ibsen," Huntford said, "and ordered me not to read him in translation. So I started to learn Norwegian and found the language came to me naturally." On the back of his newly acquired passion for Ibsen, Huntford moved to Scandinavia, spending time in Denmark, Sweden and Norway, and though the provincialism sometimes got to him, he loved the landscape, the winter darkness and, most of all, the snow.

"I'd first gone skiing in Switzerland to escape the gloom of postwar Britain," he says, "but it was Nordic skiing that captured my imagination. It's a way of entering nature; technique is unobtrusive and simply a means to an end. I spent many days out on the frozen Baltic or up in the northern forests travelling with a dog and a sledge and sleeping out in the snow and, even at my modest level, it had brought me in contact with the Lapps and the circumpolar world of northern Scandinavia. Most importantly, it was a window into the mind of the Norwegian explorers. They wanted conspicuous achievement, as elegantly and comfortably as possible; the British sought, and still seek, heroic struggle."

Huntford earned a few bob writing articles for local papers and translating, but says he was fuelled primarily by what Ibsen calls "the life lie" in The Wild Duck. "This is the self-delusion that buoys up hope," he explains, "and I think this describes me adequately at the time. I had this idea of myself as an unpublished author and it was this vision that allowed me to bluff my way into working for the PR department of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Geneva in 1957."

With its views of Mont Blanc and a regular break for elevenses among the peacocks, life at the Palais des Nations had its compensations, but after a couple of years he found his way into writing through a job in journalism. "There had been some trouble at the office in Geneva," he says, "and we were all given a three-week break over Christmas and New Year. So I thought I'd go back to London and see if I could make some money doing some ski reporting. I called the Observer, met Chris Brasher, the sports editor, and was given an 800-word commission for the following week."

Not long afterwards, Huntford left the UN and asked the Observer if he could become its Scandinavian correspondent. The editor, David Astor, asked him if he found writing easy. Huntford said: "Far from it; every piece is a struggle", to which Astor replied: "Good, I don't want any facile writing on the Observer", and gave him the job. For the next 15 years or so, Huntford was happy dividing his time between cold-war politics and winter sports, and also wrote a couple of books, The New Totalitarians - "an analysis of the Swedish political system . . . it was a youthful indiscretion written with far too much emotion" - and a novel, The Sea of Darkness, based on the idea that Columbus knew what he was going to find. "The British Museum had authenticated the Vinland map, which suggested the Norsemen had got to America first," he smiles, "so it seemed a good idea at the time. It has since turned out to be a fake, but the novel was quite well received and sold out two small editions."

By the mid-70s, though, Huntford began to suspect his star was on the wane at the Observer and started to look for a way out. He got lucky. "I did an interview with Tryggve Gran, the only Norwegian to be part of Scott's last expedition for the colour magazine," he says, "and the editor phoned me to say he thought there was probably a book in it. I agreed with him and was astonished to find that when the piece was published he had added a footnote saying I was working on a new biography of Scott and Amundsen. So that sort of settled things." Huntford moved back to England with his family and settled just outside Cambridge to be close to the university library and the SPRI. He's lived there ever since.

After the publication of Scott and Amundsen, he was keen to start work on a biography of Nansen, but his publisher, Hodder & Stoughton, insisted he wrote Shackleton first as it was a far more commercial proposition. Huntford reluctantly agreed, but was then forced to down tools for a while after Scott's supporters managed to get him temporarily banned from both the university library and the SPRI. "Many academics were appalled by this censorship," he says, "and the situation was resolved only when I was made a senior member of Wolfson College and was awarded the Alistair Horne fellowship."

After the fireworks of Scott and Amundsen, many, including Shackleton's surviving family, wondered whether Shackleton might be in for similar treatment. Quite the reverse. While never overlooking the explorer's shortcomings - "He may have got all his men out alive from a desperate situation, but he did get them into trouble in the first place" - Huntford's book gave Shackleton the role of national hero that Scott himself had once held. "It wasn't a deliberate attempt to have another go at Scott," Huntford says, "though some read it that way. I just went where the facts took me and was as surprised as anyone at how much readers warmed to Shackleton."

Huntford was now free to tackle Nansen. Though the explorer came with no real baggage in England, he had a saint-like status in Norway, and Huntford was forced to tread carefully. "I didn't endear myself with some of my observations," he says. "Unlike the Scott family, who had denied my claim in Scott and Amundsen that Scott's wife, Kathleen, had had an affair with Nansen while her husband was at the south pole, the Nansen family were quite happy to accept the affair had taken place but just didn't want me to mention it again in public."

Huntford is now editing a book for the Fram museum (named after Amundsen and Nansen's ship) in Norway, and he's contemplating a book on Sweden and the winter war between Finland and the Soviet Union in 1939. But whatever else he does, it will be for his polar cycle that he is best remembered. So how will he feel if his history of skiing, the final piece in the jigsaw, doesn't see off the Scott faction for good?

"I take comfort from Dr Stockman, the hero of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People," he says. "Like him, I feel that I have defied 'the compact majority', and therefore have to pay for it. I feel a certain affinity with him in his last line in the play - 'The strongest is he who is most alone'. I would have been seriously concerned only if 'the compact majority' had agreed with me. So if I am irritated by a particular attack, I tend to reread the play - in the original Norwegian, of course - and all is well again."

Huntford on Huntford

"So now, we have attained the goal of our desires, and the great thing is that we are here as the first men, no English flag waves, but a three- coloured Norwegian. We have now eaten and drunk our fill of what we can manage; seal steak and biscuits and pemmican and chocolate. Yes, if only you knew mother, and you Susanna and T and Svein and Helga and Hans, that now I'm sitting here at the south pole, you'd celebrate for me. Here it's as flat as the lake at Morgedal and the skiing is good."
[Olav Bjaaland in his diary] from Two Planks and a Passion

I have always felt that it is a great pity that Bjaaland and Captain Oates never met. Although from different backgrounds - Bjaaland a Norwegian peasant farmer from the winning side, and Oates, one of the losers, an English captain of dragoons - they would have got on famously. They had much in common. Both were natural aristocrats. Each was down to earth and treated everybody in the same way. Neither had any respect for petty social rank, and they shared a deadpan sense of humour. Oates, alas, was led to his death by Captain Scott, a lesser man than he. Amundsen delivered Bjaaland home safe and sound.

With his skill and humour and winning touch whether on the ski track or at the ends of the earth, Bjaaland remains my favourite character in polar exploration; and elsewhere too. To this day, I also feel a twinge of envy. Bjaaland's diary is like an echo of the old Norse sagas. In a few words, he artlessly conveys action, character and the workings of his mind.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011

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Re: The literature of polar exploration

Post  eddie on Sun Jun 12, 2011 5:08 am

The third of Roland Huntford's polar biographies:



Review:

Roland Huntford has produced the first full-scale biography of Fridtjof Nansen. It's likely to be the definitive one for a long time to come. The book is thoroughly researched, extremely well written and, in the main, very convincing.

Huntford portrays Nansen as a moody, restless and "strangely unfulfilled" man. This image of our true Viking may come as a surprise, but the author makes it very credible by extensively quoting from correspondence and various diaries.

Unfortunately, Huntford is a little bit too fond of sweeping generalizations like "Norwegians are generally slow to anger and accustomed to isolation, ..." (page 206). His evident dislike of Russians in general, and Communists in particular, leads to a very unfavourable description of Nansen's work on, for instance, famine relief.

Nevertheless, this book is a major achievement. Highly recommended.


English edition
Ronald Huntford, Nansen, London, Duckworth, 1997.






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Re: The literature of polar exploration

Post  eddie on Sun Jun 12, 2011 5:24 am

Huntford believes that Scott was at heart more of a scientific polulariser than an explorer. Whatever his faults, Scott wrote well:


Scott's last expedition diary- RFS.


Scott's party at the South Pole, 18 January 1912. L to R: (standing) Wilson, Scott, Oates; (seated) Bowers, Edgar Evans.


The routes to the South Pole taken by Scott (green) and Amundsen (red), 1911–1912.


Map of route taken to the South Pole showing supply stops and significant events. Scott was found frozen to death with Wilson and Bowers, south of the One Ton Supply depot, in the spot marked "Tent" on the map.


Scott and his men at Amundsen's base, Polheim, at the South Pole. Left to right: Scott, Bowers, Wilson, and PO Evans. Picture taken by Lawrence Oates.

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Re: The literature of polar exploration

Post  eddie on Sun Jun 12, 2011 5:37 am

Lacking Scott's literary gifts- and with one eye on the publicity required to generate enough book sales to meet the Endurance expedition debts- Sir Ernest came up with a story about "The Fourth Presence" (i.e. Jesus) who (he claimed) appeared to accompany himself, Worsley and Crean during their crossing of the South Georgia glacier:


South- Sir Ernest Shackleton's account of the Endurance expedition.

TS Eliot adapted the tale for some famous lines in The Wasteland:

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
—But who is that on the other side of you?

The riddle of "The Fourth Presence" was the subject of a popular- though now apparently irrecoverable- ATUI thread.

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Re: The literature of polar exploration

Post  eddie on Fri Jun 17, 2011 4:35 pm


The tiny James Caird which Shackleton, Worsley and Crean navigated from Elephant Island to South Georgia through the most turbulent ocean in the world.


The James Caird nearing South Georgia.


Voyage of the James Caird.

...and the whole extraordinary tale is in here:


Shackleton's Boat Journey- Frank A. Worsley


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Re: The literature of polar exploration

Post  eddie on Tue Oct 04, 2011 5:52 am

Enjoying this:

The Man Who Ate His Boots by Anthony Brandt – review

The tragic history of the Northwest Passage is still chilling

Jenny Diski
The Guardian, Saturday 11 June 2011


Before Roald Amundsen sailed through the Northwest Passage in 1906, British expeditions had been struggling, dying and failing to find a navigable way from the northern Atlantic to the Pacific ocean for over 300 years. Martin Frobisher made the first attempt in 1576, but even by 1600, when the East India Company was set up and sailed around the Cape of Good Hope to India and the spice islands, the Northwest Passage was no longer an essential trade route for British merchants. Nevertheless, the discovery of a northern passage became a quest – it was "an object peculiarly British", said John Barrow, second secretary to the Admiralty for most of the first half of the 19th century. The persistent search for the Northwest Passage was due to Barrow's longevity at the Admiralty, his unshakeable belief in the need for the British navy to find it, as well as a lifelong and incorrect conviction that the polar sea, if it could only be reached through the labyrinthine Canadian archipelago, never froze, because there was no such thing as sea ice. Anthony Brandt's exhaustive, elegant history of the quest is as much concerned with Barrow and British delusion as it is with the earlier explorers, Sir John Franklin's complete disappearance in the 1840s, and the 10 long years spent looking for him.

Brandt's detailing of centuries of expeditions is necessarily repetitious, but reading it with attention has the advantage of giving the armchair explorer a faint sense of the dogged endurance required to make an actual journey. This is hardly Brandt's fault. Though ice has many forms and the names of the heroes change somewhat from year to year, in the end, every expedition sails through icy seas, looks out on desolate, heart-sinking isolation, drags ships by hand through opening-then-closing leads in the frozen water, hauls 200lb sledges over great hummocks and pointy shards of ice that make feet bleed. Each hero and his crew, time after time, suffer from scurvy, frostbite and hunger. And they are all always very cold indeed. In 1819, when a man in Edward Parry's expedition turned up with frozen hands, the ship's surgeon, who plunged them into water to defrost them, succeeded only in freezing the water in the bowl.

Reading about stoic men suffering in appalling conditions while searching for a pole or the source of a river or a lost missionary is a favourite British pastime. Tell us how cold it was (-56 degrees; fish froze as they were brought to the surface) and how hungry they were (pounded fat and Indian hair was "thought to be a great luxury after three days of starvation"; Franklin boiled and ate his leather boots), and we settle down happily with a shiver of empathy and a virtuous sense of having endured a little of the dreadfulness ourselves. Having spent a night in a tent (unwillingly) at -40C, during which every miserable moment was filled with a sense of outrage at how cold I was and wishing I wasn't where I was, I know that reading about physical suffering is good exercise for the imagination, but no substitute for the misery. However much I read of these explorers, I will never understand how it is that, having starved and frozen for two or three years for nothing very much – a mark on a map, a lost foot – they get home, half-dead, and then agree to go back again: for honour, glory or plain Britishness.

Brandt describes Franklin as "having the emotional depth of a puddle", and it may be that sheer lack of imagination is one answer. My bafflement is an admission of my complete lack of resilience; other people seem to find their staggering sense of duty perfectly reasonable. I'd do better to take Franklin's wife, Lady Jane, a passionate, compulsive traveller, as my study. She roamed freely, embodying an indefatigable desire to know the world for what it was far better than most of the upright naval gentlemen who fulfilled their duty. But even she, like virtually everyone else, continued to deny all the evidence that eventually turned up of necessitous cannibalism among Franklin's starving crew. Englishmen simply didn't do that, she insisted, and the Times and the Athenaeum rumbled, even though sawn human bones made it clear that, entirely reasonably, they had.

Five years after becoming the first to sail the Northwest Passage, Amundsen beat Scott to the South Pole. He succeeded where so many British attempts had failed because he knew and respected the terrain, and did not overburden his expeditions with grandeur and a sense of righteous entitlement, as did the British, who refused to consider learning about Arctic survival from the Inuit, whom they mostly berated for bad table manners.

Yet although Amundsen got there first, north and south, with little fuss and no fatalities, it was those who failed and died who have been acclaimed heroes and exemplars. Scott, latterly, has had his detractors, but Franklin, lost along with all 126 of his crew, despite a dozen or more fruitless rescue expeditions costing vast amounts of money, has remained England's own role model. Perhaps this is changing. Brandt finishes his book on a surprisingly reproachful note: "We can admire the courage, even the persistence of the quest. But if we respect history at all we must temper whatever admiration we may feel with the image of pieces of human arms and legs cooking in a kettle while starving men stare with deadened eyes at the ultimate consequences of this spectacular piece of folly."

Jenny Diski's What I Don't Know About Animals is published by Virago.

© 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.


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Re: The literature of polar exploration

Post  eddie on Fri Oct 07, 2011 9:54 pm

The Lost Photographs of Captain Scott

Captain Scott perished with four of his fellow explorers while returning from the South Pole in March 1912. Until now, the legend of the fatal expedition has been based on diaries and sketches and the celebrated photographs of the expedition's professional photographer, Herbert Ponting. What has not been recognised is that the principal visual record intended to be left to posterity was provided by Scott himself through his own photography. These photographs were fought over, neglected and then lost for more than half a century. Now they can be seen in a new book by the great-nephew of expedition party member Dr Edward Wilson. Here are some highlights

See below.

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