Thursday, 28 March 2013

Scott of the Antarctic, or why Tom Daley isn't the Greatest Janner...

It’s July 2011 and I’m happily minding my own business, wondering what book to read next, when I come across this:


Up until this point I’d had no real interest in Captain Robert Scott, even though he’s a hometown boy, but the book looked fairly interesting and would help plug up the gaps in my knowledge just in case I ever happen to appear on Pointless. I had no idea what was about to happen to me.

At the tender age of 24, Apsley Cherry-Garard became a member of Scott’s ill-fated Terra Nova expedition (though not of the last dash to the pole). The Worst Journey in the World (WJITW) is his comprehensive and compelling account of the trip, painstakingly compiled not only from his diaries and remembrances but also through those of the other men, from letters home and the many, meticulous scientific records of the journey. He certainly wasn’t lying with that title, but what it doesn’t tell you is that it’s the most incredible journey too, and one of the most incredible books I’ve ever read.

Garrard does a truly fantastic job of immersing you in his material, not only giving you all of the detail surrounding the expedition down to temperatures, wind directions, logistics, etc but also painting a vivid picture of their lives there. Alongside the hardships there are moments of wonder and joy; in the beauty of their surroundings, of their discoveries and studies and in the way Garrard writes of the personalities of the animals and men (I adored the indomitable Bowers). Sitting alongside is unhistrionic documentation of the most unimaginably inhospitable environments and acts of incredible endurance, bravery and generosity that I don't think I'll be ever able to forget (Crean's solitary journey of 35 miles, on foot and with no equipment, to raise help for a dying man, completely awes me). Waking afloat on a patch of floating sea ice, teeth splitting due to the cold, frostbite, hourly drops into crevasses and the terrible blindness of blizzards are just some of the other horrors within. I can't even begin to imagine what a temperature of -75 feels like, but if I ever whinge at a festival that my clothes are damp again, you have my permission to slap me. Throughout Garrard fully presses home the ideal that these men strove to uphold even in the face of certain death - to shine a little light on the darkest, most inhospitable corners of the world and bring forth a little more knowledge, laying a foundation for those who came after to build upon.
I finished the book and wrote a glowing review on Goodreads– and that’s where things would usually end. But not this time.

Soon I was ordering huge coffee table books full of Antarctic photography. Next I was hunting down The Great White Silence – the documentary footage compiled during the expedition by Herbert Ponting. Then it was Captain Scott’s Journals (this time, knowing what the outcome would be made for incredibly heartbreaking reading, particularly when the party was at its most optimistic. It was so easy to get swept along and almost start hoping for a different outcome, only to have my hopes dashed as time went on. This was particularly so whenever it came to Bowers. I’d developed a rather serious case of hero worship of the man during WJITW, and so I roller-coastered back and forth between feeling immensely pleased that Scott found him so impressive, to the point of adding him at the last minute to the party making the last dash and being horror-struck at knowing that his awesomeness would mean his untimely demise). I found myself scouring the internet for the expedition’s photographs in the hope of catching a glimpse of Bowers’ extraordinary nose (that's him on the far right).

I got a tattoo:

I went to a museum exhibit with a friend (who I’d since made read WJITW) and cried when I saw their sleds. We went to visit Captain Scott’s memorial on the anniversary of his death and cried again. I’m still busy trying to make everybody else I know read the books too, or at the very least listen to me while I bang on about them.

So I was thrilled when readers of our local newspaper voted Tom Daley the Greatest Plymothian, and even more so when a columnist noted that Scott hadn’t been a likely contender due to ‘the taint of failure that surrounds him’. So a boy that is, admittedly, quite good at keeping his toes pointed while smashing into water in tiny pants, beats Scott? Seriously?

Sure, Scott failed to reach the Pole first and yes, a lot of mistakes were made on the expedition. That tends to happen when you’re one of the first people to try something. We all know now became of Scott's last expedition and it's very easy to look at it with the benefit of hindsight and point out mistakes. I spent quite a lot of time cursing the horrific distances between depots and there were plenty of shortcomings and miscalculations as well as plain rotten luck experienced by the party. But having read these books, and feeling like I've come through the journey with them, I find it hard to condemn any of their actions and am instead struck with a feeling of awe at what was accomplished and endured, and what a debt we owe to all of the people who have gone out and discovered all of the wonderful things we know about the world. 

I can’t imagine the courage it must take to try something so audacious and I certainly can’t imagine the courage with which Scott and his men faced certain death. Scott took the time as he lay dying, when lesser men would have been in the foetal position, weeping uncontrollable tears of self-pity, to write to the relatives of his comrades offering comfort and endeavouring to see that their families would be taken care of. Those letters were some of the most beautiful I have ever had the privilege of reading, and speak volumes of his character.

In his 'Message to the Public', discovered with his body, Scott wrote:

"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..."

Even if it's just in one tiny corner of his hometown, this Englishwoman's heart was well and truly stirred and my soul captured by their tale, and though they're now long gone Scott and his comrades will never be forgotten for as long as I live.

You can keep Tom Daley. This is the Greatest Janner:

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