Friday, 8 November 2013

Farthest North and Farthest South, #5: 'the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time'

It would be easy to consider the highlight of this book, as of the Cambridge Scott Polar Museum itself, where I bought it from, to be the intensely memorable excerpts from Captain Scott's last letters which Apsley Cherry-Garrard quotes near the end of his long text. From Scott's 'Message to the Public', a quotation from which appears on the wall next to the entrance of the Polar Museum, Cherry-Garrard quotes: 'Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale, but surely, surely a great rich country like ours will see that those who are dependent on us are properly provided for.' In more scattered language, but conveying almost precisely the same message, Scott pens his last diary entry: '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. For God's sake, look after our people.' However, powerful as these excerpts are, it seems to me that they only acquire their true power when the reader is able to look at them outside pre-conceptions of Edwardian bombast and heroism, outside 'the myth of Scott', most recently dissected by Max Jones in The Last Great Quest (2004), and to recognise the truth of what Scott is saying about the qualities these men possessed. It is easy to read a quotation on a wall and believe that it is false, but after the long attrition of the details Cherry-Garrard provides about the true horror of the polar journey and his own 'worst journey in the world', 'the winter journey' to collect the eggs of Emperor penguins, it is harder not to be moved by Scott's words, and to feel much more able to relate to his experience that to that of a faceless imperial hero.

The key quality, of course, that Cherry-Garrard possesses, apart from his first-hand knowledge of the polar expedition, is the ability to write, but the success of this account is not his alone. It relies heavily on excerpts from diaries kept by the other men, most notably, Henry Bowers, who accompanied Scott to the Pole. I find it astonishing that in such conditions Bowers, Scott and Cherry-Garrard himself, who utilises his own field notes, were able to write such lucid and engaging prose, especially as none of them were 'literary' men, and wonder how far this was typical of the nineteenth-century elite. The pressures of travel mean that few of the diaries indulge in the more formal style adopted by Scott in his 'Message to the Public', and instead, get straight to the point, as when Cherry-Garrard writes after their tent is blown from them and recovered, 'When we had lost our tent, and there was a very great balance of probability that we should never find it again, and we were lying out the blizzard in our bags, I saw that we were face to face with a long fight against cold which we could not have survived. I cannot write how helpless I believed we were to help ourselves…' It is the same clarity that Cherry-Garrard preserves throughout his more composed account, beginning with the famous line, 'Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised.' 

Unlikely heroes also emerge; after the first half of this book, I felt possibly closer to the ponies, the devilish Christopher, the strong Nobby and the long-suffering and brilliantly-named Jimmy Pigg, than most of the men, especially after Cherry-Garrard describes how walls were built in the snow each night for the ponies to shelter behind, although often they would promptly kick them down. Worse is to come for several of the poor ponies, though, when three are swept away on an ice floe: 'They were moving west fast,' writes Bowers, 'but they saw me, and remained huddled together not the least disturbed, or trusting that we would bring them their breakfast nosebags as usual in the eying. Poor trustful creatures! If I could have done it then, I would gladly have killed them rather than picture them starving on that floe out on the Ross Sea…' Only Nobby survives. Detailed descriptions of food also suffuse the book, giving a vivid sense of how significant it became to men who had little else to look forward to; particularly memorable is Cherry-Garrard's slavering over his own invention, 'chocolate hooch', which comprised pemmican, cocoa, arrowroot, sugar and raisins. Scott's remark to his friend upon eating this delicacy was: 'You are going far to earn my undying gratitude', although, Cherry-Garrard notes, 'I am afraid he had indigestion the next morning.'

The patchwork approach to this account, with Cherry-Garrard cobbling together bits and pieces from other members of the expedition linked by his own narrative, means that far from becoming the stoic hero, he virtually disappears from the narrative for much of the time. Obviously, he was not present on the final polar journey, and so has to rely on the second-hand accounts of the dead men, but even in journeys where he was conspicuously present, such as the 'winter journey' with Bowers and Bill Wilson, he rarely speaks about himself. Compounding this, Cherry-Garrard rarely clearly marks when he is using a long quotation from his own diary or from somebody else's, so the voices of the explorers seem to meld into one chorus, with only Scott standing alone. All this is to say that it is not what you might expect from a 1922 text on the polar expedition - even the hagiography of Scott is rather muted - and that this very subtlety adds to its intensity.

N.B. My first Mr B's Reading Year book has arrived! It's The Concert Ticket by Olga Grushin, a genuine surprise as although I was tipped off about the author, I thought it would be her earlier and better-known novel The Dream Life of Sukhanov. I'm really excited about reading something I genuinely hadn't heard of before, and will hopefully be reviewing it next week as the first of a series covering my Mr B's books.

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