Wednesday, October 07, 2009

It's cold outside

“'A fool always wants to shorten space and time; a wise man wants to lengthen both.'
John Ruskin – who had never tried to walk to the South Pole – quoted with some irony in Wilson's sledging journal, 11 December 1902”

David Crane, Scott of the Antarctic, p. 217

I bought David Crane's Scott of the Antarctic three years ago, when I visited Scott's ship Discovery in Dundee. Have finally got round to reading it.

Robert Falcon Scott's two trips to the Antarctic – first in 1901-04, then in 1910-12 – are remarkable Boy's Own adventures from an age of imperial confidence and conquest just a breath before the First World War. Constantly we're reminded that those who survived the trips South were then to face the trenches. Scott, like the Titanic which sank a month after his death, seems to prefigure the Great War as a bookend to the triumphant Victorian era. For Scott's sometime-friend JM Barrie, Scott seemed to embody the heroism of the day. Why, though, does he still resonate today?

Crane has access to diaries, letters and naval accounts, as well as the slew of books written by Scott himself and those who knew him. He provides an authoritative account that strives to paint Scott neither as hero nor villain, and addresses criticisms from those that have.

It's full of choice details, too. We know, for example, that in 1891, Nelson's Victory was moored on the Thames (p. 47). Or there's the way Scott's party adapted Mrs Beeton's Cookery Book.
“Recipes for the cooking of beef were used for the seal and those for duck and goose for skua and penguin.”

Ibid., p. 197n.

A letter from Scott's wife Kathleen while he's out stumbling toward the South Pole shows that tabloid tactics have not changed in the last 98 years.
“19 November [1911], Kathleen's [letter]:I worked all morning. Then a 'Daily Mirror' man came to see me and upset my greatly. He said if I would allow a photograph of the infant writing a letter asking for money for you to appear in the 'Mirror' he was convinced he could get four thousand pounds ... My dear, I do humbly beg your pardon if I have done wrong, but I said no. Not only can I not bear my weeny being bandied about in the half-penny press, but also I doubt greatly that any sum approaching four thousand pounds would be got. Dearest, I do hope you approve. I couldn't bear it, though.”

Ibid., p. 516.

That letter is given in an eerie, three-page sequence intercutting Scott's last diary entries with the letters his wife was still sending from England. The domestic worries contrast with the ordeal out in the snow, and Kathleen natters about friends she's had dinner with, no suggestion that Scott's not coming back. Scott himself, as Crane says, seems to have written himself out of the future of their son.

We, of course, know Scott's not going to make it; even if we didn't, Crane makes the reaction to Scott's death the subject of his first chapter. It's the same trick as in David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia; the legend first, then the real man. (Lawrence and Scott were near contemporaries and might well a good comparative study.)

There is, then, a peculiar, morbid tone to Scott's story, counting down the days to that last diary entry where Scott signs off, “It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more.”

A decade before that penultimate sentence, Scott made his first journey to the Antarctic on Discovery, the people of Cape Town came out to see them.
“'Heard an amusing yarn of lady being asked why she was coming on board this ship,' Royds [Scott's First Lieutentant] noted, 'replied that in case of any disaster think how interesting it would be to know that she had actually spoken to and seen the officers!! Nice way of looking at things and not very bright for us.'”

Ibid., p. 128.

It's as if every move that Scott makes is moving him closer to death, as if it's all been destined. That's a danger with biography; in retrospect, where we end up is out starting point so of course the route to it makes perfect sense. But living through it, we're faced with choices and chances whose outcomes we cannot predict.

There are still plenty of gaps in our knowledge about Scott. Little is known about his early life. There are a few instances of his name in school registers and log books, some surviving notes to his mother. Crane assumes this means young Scott did little good or bad to distinguish himself from his generation – otherwise there'd be a record. Instead, Crane explains what's known of a typical life in the navy as a rough guide to the molding of Scott.

We've an insight into the Scott of 22 when he writes home in 1890, on the Amphion as it makes its way back from Honolulu. Scott and his bored shipmates have had a race to grow beards:
“'I was a bad last – a brilliant idea struck me that checking my hair proper, would help to “force” the beard, so I had my back cut with one of those patent horse-clipping arrangements; it didn't seem to do the least much good, but it gave me a very weird appearance.'”

Ibid., pp. 43-44.

There's something telling here in the bold plan, the fearless of embarrassment or failure, and the plan then not working. Later, there's little but teasing rumours about Scott's love life prior to his meeting his wife. Crane holds back from theorising, and admits:
“Biography can confidently offer profounder insights [into any life] only by pretending to a knowledge that it does not possess.”

Ibid., p. 348.

Again there are telling details in what we do know. Scott wanted a simple wedding, not in naval uniform. He seems to have feared any kind of bother on the day; a simple, straight-forward marriage attended by “enough admirals to stock the world's fleets” (p. 374) and a telegram from the king.Scott's letters to Kathleen – before and after the marriage – seem desperate to assure her of his feelings. This, I thought, suggested he either came across as cold or that she needed constant assurance. Kathleen's character is not the subject of the book, but I found the moments Crane devotes to her fascinating. She's tough, resourceful and independent. Other explorers – like Nansen – take her for dinner in Paris. And other women cannot stand her.

Scott himself says little in his diaries of the squabbles between the explorer's wives on their second journey south – the wives making the trip as far as New Zealand. Perhaps he's too polite to mention such things, perhaps he didn't even notice. There's a sense of a bullishly single-minded leader, striking out to his doom.

He had to be single-minded. The book reminded my of the Dr's study of archaeological adventures, where egos, national politics and luck are all as important reasons for going as the scientific needs. Scott's constantly weighed down by his own personal circumstances, and the need to provide for his mother, sisters and wife. Perhaps that explains his need to escape into an icy cold but all-male endeavour.

In fact, for trip two, the scientific needs get chucked over the shoulder as Scott discovers midway to the south that his old rival Amundsen is heading for the ice as well. You can practically hear the fiendish Norwegian twirling his moustache.

I can't help feeling that if Scott had been the one to suddenly announce he was also heading South that Crane and history would remember him for his wily pluck. Amundsen was better equipped, experienced and knows how to use his skis. I'm hardly betraying my country to say so.

In fact, the paucity of knowledge about what Scott was facing comes as quite a shock.
“On the eve of Discovery's voyage it was a commonplace that the world knew more of Mars than it did of Antarctica.”

Ibid., p. 315.

It's not just the cartography. Scott is woefully, dangerously ignorant of the value of dogs and mules in pulling sledges. The motorised equipped has not been properly tested, and the English don't know how to ski. Their knowledge of nutrition ultimately ruins the second expedition, and greatly imperils the first. Crane is good at explaining exactly what the cold did to the explorer's bodies. It's not for the squeamish.

Even for those in the crew not attempting the Pole, the rations were not adequate. Scott's diaries from the first trip South include his anguish at the “evil” of scurvy. As Crane explains:
“Behind this prickliness lay centuries of ignorant prejudice and an association in the popular and scientific mind with venereal diseases that time had done little to lessen. The irony of it was that for all practical purposes, science had left Scott in a worse position for combating scurvy than it had his predecessors a hundred years earlier. As early as the 1740s the young Scottish surgeon James Lind had demonstrated the curative powers of lemon juice, but after the virtual elimination of scurvy from Royal Navy ships, a shift from the use of lemon to the less effective West Indian lime had combined with the confusing evidence of polar expeditions to leave Lind and his remedy discredited.

The cause of scurvy is, in fact, a vitamin C deficiency, resulting in an inability of the body to produce collagen, a connective tissue that binds muscle and other structures together. Three years after Discovery's return Alex Holst and Theodor Frolich were close enough to an understanding to demonstrate that scurvy was a dietary problem with a dietary solution, and yet even then prejudice, professional jealousies and institutional resistance – those classic symptoms of scurvy's medical history – meant that there was still nothing like a consensus on its causes. 'I understand that scurvy is now believed to be ptomaine poisoning,' Scott could still write in 1905.”

Ibid., pp. 195-6.

Despite – perhaps because of – these fearsome shortcomings, this is a story of great heroism. Scott and Crane are both keen to underline the good qualities of the men, over any petty squabbles in their own accounts.
“It is a measure of the man that Royds – and Cherry, too – go on with it in spite of his fears, but the age that gave us the White Feather and shot men with shell shock had little time for such sensitivities.”

Ibid., p. 169.

There have also been criticisms of Scott's ultimate achievement, and though the second trip might have been overshadowed by Amundsen reaching the pole first, and then Scott's death, Crane is keen to bolster Scott's scientific achievements. Yes, science was secondary to the race for the pole, but Scott died with important rock samples on him, and he'd kept notes and observations till the end. His first journey is also of massive importance to Crane's case:
“The massive volumes of results and observations that came out under the auspices of the British Museum and the Royal Society over the next nine years are the unarguable legacy of Discovery's scientific work.”

Ibid., p. 308.

But none of this is what makes Scott such a hero, that makes him still a hero today when all the attitudes and world-view he was part of and stood for have long since gone their way. What makes Scott a hero is his death – and the way he and his men met it. The death of Oates, walking out into a blizzard with a dryly delivered quip worthy of James Bond, is all the more moving in context.

More than that, Scott's a hero because he failed. That, as George Orwell argued, is a uniquely British kind of heroism.
“English literature, like other literatures, is full of battle-poems, but it is worth noticing that the ones that have won for themselves a kind of popularity are always a tale of disasters and retreats. There is no popular poem about Trafalgar or Waterloo, for instance. Sir John Moore’s army at Corunna, fighting a desperate rearguard action before escaping overseas (just like Dunkirk!) has more appeal than a brilliant victory. The most stirring battle-poem in English is about a brigade of cavalry which charged in the wrong direction. And of the last war, the four names which have really engraved themselves on the popular memory are Mons, Ypres, Gallipoli and Passchendaele, every time a disaster. The names of the great battles that finally broke the German armies are simply unknown to the general public.”

George Orwell, “The Lion and the Unicorn”, Essays, pp. 142-143.

Scott might be a Victorian explorer, but what his adventures most made me think of were the Apollo missions to the Moon, just a half-century later. At least after reading this account, the lunar landings seem so much less risky compared to the journey's south, where the ice tore through the crew and their equipment and ship, slowly eating them away.

I've seen President Nixon's pre-recorded TV address had Armstrong and Aldrin not made it back off the lunar surface. Would they have been bigger heroes in the national and global consciousness for that failure? Or would they have quietly brushed under the carpet?

1 comment:

Le Mc said...

The Swansea connection to Scott is Edgar Evans:

I've seen his memorial in the church in Rhossili and there's a statue of him in the museum where I work. Also he went to school in Sandfields where I used to go to choir rehearsals!

Tesco (!) released a brand of strong tea based, supposedly, on the kind of tea taking on the Scott expeditions. It's good tea, but what a way to bring it full circle!