Friday, 24 January 2014

Farthest North and Farthest South #6: 'Men with frozen beards'

My recent North/South Pole binge started with Gavin Francis's Empire Antarctica, continued to Sara Wheeler's Terra Incognita, and finished with Sarah Moss's The Frozen Ship. Reading these three books alongside each other was more illuminating than I had initially expected. Both the Francis and Wheeler are memoirs of travelling and living in Antarctica, whereas the Moss takes an entirely different tack, examining our fascination with the Arctic and Antarctic since the early days of exploration. Francis and Wheeler reminded me of the importance of voice in a memoir. Although you of course do not 'get to know' the author through a memoir, you 'get to know' the fictional self that they have chosen to present to a reader, and it's hugely important whether that self is likeable or not. Indeed, I think I could cope with a narrator I didn't like in a novel much more easily than an objectionable narrator in a memoir - probably because the sense is that you are meant to like them. Fortunately, both Francis and Wheeler are good company, with Francis coming off as less judgemental and more easy-going, while Wheeler is the superior writer.

Francis worked as a doctor on a British base, Halley, wintering over with a small group of people while he watches the nearby colony of emperor penguins. While his memoir was a little too penguin-heavy for my liking, ice and silence get a good innings as well, and the image of Francis braving the cold to lie in the snow and watch the aurora has already stayed with me for some time. In contrast, Wheeler did not winter over in Antarctica, but supported by a grant from the US National Science Foundation's Antarctic Artists' and Writers' Program, she travelled about the continent, staying on a wide array of international bases and sleeping in Captain Scott's hut. Both Francis's and Wheeler's accounts are full of the idiosyncratic detail that is one of the things that most appeals to me about accounts of the farthest south. Francis recounts his attempts to mitigate the effect of constant darkness on the sleep cycles of Halley's staff, using white and blue lighting, but despite this, 'a couple of people started free-running onto a new, internally determined body clock of their own', dealing with a night a quarter of a year long. Wheeler's asides are usually lighter; she describes the secret Corner Bar on McMurdo Sound, which drew 'any reprobate who arrived on the ice' towards itself 'like an iron filing to a magnet.' The bar, 'presided over by a hyperactive carpenter called Mike, ran on goodwill' and held a range of paraphernalia, including 'a life-sized model penguin with the concentric circles of a shooting target painted on its chest.'

After reading both Francis and Wheeler, however, I felt bombarded with descriptions of snow, cold, and eccentric behaviour, and this is where Moss's text comes in. Rather than a memoir - Moss has never been to the Arctic or Antarctic - this text takes a more academic angle, examining how narratives of polar exploration have been constructed since the earliest accounts of Greenland in Norse sagas. In many ways, this was easily the best of the three books, but in others, I found it horribly frustrating. This is becoming a familiar response for me when I read Moss's work. With both her fictional Night Waking and her non-fictional memoir Names for the Sea I felt frequently enraged by one thing or another while impressed by the originality and intelligence of her writing, and this book is no exception. It's certainly a text I'd recommend to anyone interested in the history of the exploration of the Arctic or Antarctic; it effectively contextualises famous explorers such as Sir John Franklin while highlighting lesser-known expeditions such as Salomon Andree's attempt to reach the North Pole by hot air balloon in 1897. However, I did feel frustrated by her lack of academic distance, which was especially highlighted for me by her treatment of Scott, although other explorers are certainly not exempt from her barbs. Her uncritical use of Roland Huntford's (in)famous hatchet job, Scott and Amundsen, is concerning enough in itself, especially as her bibliography indicates she has read later correctives such as Max Jones's The Last Great Quest. Alongside this, however, her own readings of Scott's journal seem to me to be distorted and malicious. Scott writes, trapped in a blizzard on the way to the Pole, 'It is very evil to sit here in a wet sleeping-bag and think of the pity of it… Surely few situations could be more exasperating than this forced inactivity when every day and indeed every moment counts.' Scott was concerned because 'We have this morning started  our Summit Rations' which meant the success of the expedition was being jeopardised. Whatever one might think of Scott's methods, I found his worry at this point very understandable. Moss, however, emphasises 'his petulant tone and the continuing emphasis on his conviction that he deserves to succeed, that the Antarctic owes him good weather.'

I don't wish to come across as a Scott apologist (I loved Wheeler's description of Antarctica as 'a testing-ground for men with frozen beards to see how dead they could get') but Moss's close readings of Scott's writings are extremely unsatisfying, and do seem to be forcing a certain interpretation on to his words. I also found her assessment of why Scott has remained a national myth to be lacking. She feels that 'the British treasuring of Scott' is seen by other nations to be both 'typical and incomprehensible' and explains it by stereotypically summarising the Edwardian mindset, a mindset that she claims was swept away by the First World War, and so Scott became 'an emblem of all that was lost.' Recent historiography would not agree with Moss's description of the pace of social and political change after the war; indeed, the current emphasis has been on continuity and conservatism. Also, as Max Jones points out, while glorifying failure has been viewed as a peculiarly British characteristic, this is not actually accurate, and other national myths other than the British possess similar features. Personally, it seems to be that if a hero from the 'Golden Age' of Antarctic exploration is still unnecessarily glorified today, it's Shackleton, not Scott. Scott's reputation has continually suffered from the 'debunking' that the British do also seem to love indulging in, but there ought to be some more debunking of Shackleton as well, who was at least as prone to reckless, dangerous decisions as Scott, if not more so. However, Moss passes over him uncritically. For these reasons, I found her account both fascinating and unreliable.

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