Cool It

Jenny Diski

  • I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination by Francis Spufford
    Faber, 356 pp, £15.99, June 1996, ISBN 0 571 14487 X

Snow is cold. Some more information I am prepared to accept as plain fact: near 90° South if you take your gloves off for more than a few moments, your fingers die; at its edge, the 5.5 million square mile ice-cap (twice that size in winter) calves bergs, some as big as London, the largest recorded 60 miles long, which drift through the most turbulent seas in the world; no land-based vertebrate inhabits the southernmost continent, because nothing can live on it apart from breeding penguins and seals; the seas freeze into great shifting platelets of ice which can crush to toothpicks a ship caught in their grip.

Yet as the unadorned details emerge, so too do images and memories, and before you know where you are, meaning (isolation, desolation, hardship, challenge) has sidled into your transparent pile of data and thickened it into a story. Though scientists, in dogmatic mode, might shake their heads in disapproval, it’s another plain fact that we explore ideas as readily as we do the physical geography of the planet, and neither kind of exploration is untainted by the other. Francis Spufford describes the history of this interaction and examines its consequences. He makes the claim with his title (I May Be Some Time) and subtitle (‘Ice and the English Imagination’) that the mythic status of Captain Oates’s fruitless self-sacrifice is the direct result of the accretion of meaning around the idea of the snowy wastes.

To the cultural historian, just to call Oates’s walk into the snow ‘fruitless’ is to declare oneself a member of the postwar generation. Until the Fifties or Sixties, this view states, Oates was regarded as having made a great death, a model death to be, as it were, lived up to. Three of the four other Edwardians who made up the doomed Polar party died with equal public aplomb. In his farewell letter to his mother, Bowers apologises for his ‘short scribble’, but assures her that ‘it will be splendid ... to pass with such companions as I have.’ Dr Wilson, according to his obituary in the Times, ‘beautifully lit up the wastes’, and Scott, in his last message, found in the tent with the three bodies, declared: ‘We are weak, writing is difficult, but for my own sake, I do not regret this journey, which has shown that Englishmen can endure hardships, help one another, and meet death with as great a fortitude as ever in the past.’ Only Edgar Evans died a rather commonplace death – at the foot of the Beardmore Glacier, of concussion after a fall. ‘He died a natural death,’ was all Scott could manage by way of an epitaph for him in the last message, but then Evans was only a petty officer, not a gentleman like the rest, and had slept on the wrong side of the packing-case wall dividing the officers from the men in the over-wintering hut.

The England of 1912 indulged in an orgy of admiration for the manner of these deaths, seeing, as Scott intended them to see, the spirit triumphant rising out of mere physical annihilation. According to Spufford, it could not have been otherwise. He traces the history of English responses to men’s attempts at overcoming wild nature, as well as the developing nature of the English over time, in order to account for the Edwardian reaction to what we understand to be a débâcle. For Spufford, attitudes to the barren world of ice and to the meaning of exploration had built up since the mid-18th century, when the schoolboy Edmund Burke, watching the Liffey overflow its banks into the streets of Dublin, began to define the feelings it evoked as the Sublime: the terrible but inspiring otherness of nature out of control, the voice of this otherness calling to the soul and making men like Cook pit themselves against an inhuman landscape. By the time of Scott, both to conquer the elements and to be conquered by them had nobility and moral worth. To die with beautiful resignation in a place inimical to life itself, to be able to say as Scott did, ‘We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last,’ was quite as much to be applauded as an arrival and safe return

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