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

The Romantics took up Burke’s notion and endorsed it. Spufford focuses on Frankenstein, in which Mary Shelley made the Antarctic, the white empty space where no one had been, the setting for the struggle between what was and was not human, a battle between flesh and ice. Cook’s crossing of the Antarctic Circle in 1773 and his exploration of Alaska in 1778 would enable the writing of The Ancient Mariner, but the later Arctic voyages of Ross and Parry in 1818-19 caused Coleridge to contemplate the making of a poem in which ‘I would allegorise myself, as a Rock with its summit just raised above the surface of some bay or strait in the Arctic Sea ... all around me fixed and firm, methought as my own Substance, and near me lofty Masses, that might have seemed to “hold the Moon and Stars in fee” ’. The Romantic imagination took up the Far North and South, its impossibilities, its auroras, its uncanny stillness, its palatial icebergs, and turned them into dreamstuff. When Ishmael, in a kind of homage to The Ancient Mariner, looks into the ‘inexpressible, strange’ eyes of an albatross caught on the deck of the Pequod, he believes, ‘I peeped to secrets which took hold of God.’

The actual Arctic experience of Parry’s men was in fact excessively cold and tedious despite the morale-building activities – theatrical performances, newspapers, dances, lectures, grog – but this did not deter those back home from romancing the wonderful indifference of nature and its heroic explorers. Indeed, the loss of Sir John Franklin and his party during his search for the Northwest Passage in the 1840s only further fuelled the imaginative drama of the ice. Lady Jane Franklin, reminding the nation of her husband’s heroism with her own heroic bearing, whipped up sympathy and money for years of searching which finally located the bodies of the party – though not the remains of Franklin himself. But the drama of reality had its limits. Lady Jane and the rest of England, ably assisted by an enraged Charles Dickens, were having none of the suggestion that the party might have been nibbling on itself in the throes of starvation. It implied that in extremis Englishmen might lose the very treasure they took with them to plant in the wilderness: their moral fortitude. Without that, the deaths by cold and starvation became just an unhappy event, and the expedition the failure which, in fact, it was.

By then, the struggle to reach the North and South Poles had become completely gratuitous: it was clear that if a Northwest Passage existed it would lie too far north to provide any trading advantage, while in the South there was no rich territory to be claimed. Nothing practical was to be gained by reaching either Pole – as far as the English could see there was nothing there. In fact, things were different in the North and the South. The North was teeming with animal life, as it was with Inuit, who were skilled in living off it. But to the English explorers the North was as vacant as the South. The Inuit considered themselves to be surrounded by abundance, but what the English saw was the challenge of empty landscape. By then, Spufford believes, the very unnecessariness of the project of getting to the Poles was what gave it the purity of a perfect quest. It was soul food, good for the men who made the journeys, bracing for those who watched from the comfort of their drawing-rooms, and inspirational for the younger generation.

It is this conflation over time of the imaginary and the actual meanings of the world of ice that, Spufford suggests, accounts for the disaster that was Scott’s bid for the Pole. The folk memory of a buccaneering Elizabethan past; a love of boyish wildness (J.M. Barrie was a close friend of Scott) and amateur adventure; the belief, voiced by Sir Clements Markham and endorsed by Scott, that real Englishmen walked to the Pole rather than slid on effete Norwegian skis; that real Englishmen loved animals and to take dogs was cruel when the man-hauling of sledges ‘has been handed down for all time as the pattern to be followed in Polar exploration’ – all had their place in the fiasco. Markham, President of the sponsoring Royal Geographic Society, insisted that ‘the fatal mistake in selecting Commanders for former Polar expeditions, has been to seek for experience instead of youth ... The inexperience and haste in decision of young leaders are disadvantages which sometimes accompany their youthful energy, but they alone have the qualities which ensure success.’

The youthful and inexperienced naval officer Robert Scott was taken up by Markham and eventually given the job of reaching the Pole ahead of the suspiciously efficient Norwegian, Amundsen. There was talk of science to seal the legitimacy of the enterprise – meteorology, geomagnetism and mapping – but for Markham science was just a way of attracting funds for the expedition. The main thing, as the Marquis of Lothian explained, was that ‘the work of Antarctic research should be done by Englishmen.’ Pour a wash of empire imagination over the already fevered brows of the Edwardian English, and the placing of the Union Jack at the South Pole becomes the quintessence of birthright and civilisation’s struggle to overcome the alien.

But still, in 1911, the world was old. The cultural assumptions and imaginings of the English had not yet been tested by the cataclysm of the First World War, which in Spufford’s view was to usher in the modern era and disillusion. Apsley Cherry-Garrard was one of the babies of the expedition, an eager, hero-worshipping boy with no call to go to the South Pole other than his longing for adventure. After the war and in middle and old age, Cherry-Garrard declined into disappointment, guilt and recurrent despair. Yet of all the accounts of that expedition, his, The Worst Journey in the World, most clearly spans the two universes of pre and postwar England. It was written seven years after the event, when he had returned and recuperated from soldiering in Flanders. He freely voices the boyish derring-do, the camaraderie, the testing nature of the expedition, and his remorse for the lost age of just seven years before: ‘an age in geological time, so many hundreds of years ago, when we were artistic Christians’. He never felt so happy as when he, Wilson and Bowers nearly died on their astonishing five-week winter journey to collect Emperor Penguin eggs. In temperatures of 70 below, with their tent blown away, in the pitch dark, and buried in the snow, they sang songs, remembered to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and no one uttered a single profanity. Even so, this romantic traveller and unquestioning participant in the expedition remembers and puts on record that Scott ‘cried more easily than any man I have ever known’. And if he comes to a respectably Edwardian positive final assessment of his dead leader, he does so in a most roundabout and remarkably clear-eyed way: ‘he had moods and depressions which might last for weeks ... he had ... little sense of humour, and he was a bad judge of men ... Naturally so peevish, highly strung, irritable, depressed and moody. Practically such a conquest of himself.’

His final judgment on the death of his comrades comes directly from the remade postwar world which he was to inhabit as a near-solitary and depressive. ‘I now see very plainly that though we achieved a first-rate tragedy, which will never be forgotten just because it was a tragedy, tragedy was not our business.’ This sounds so modern that you can practically see a new sensibility arriving, taken up later by the reassessments from both the New Right (Roland Huntford) and the Left (Trevor Griffiths), which finally replaced the old reverence with repugnance for the ineptitude and waste of life. Or perhaps it is something else, something more interesting than people just being of their times. Cherry-Garrard understands the wasteful tragedy in 1919; but in 1938, long after the disillusioning watershed of the First World War, though with the next one looming, Lieutenant Teddy Evans (by then Admiral Sir), a member of that last expedition, wrote an account of it, South with Scott: ‘the object of this book is to keep alive the interest of English-speaking people in the story of Scott and his little band of sailor-adventurers, scientific explorers and companions. It is written more particularly for Britain’s younger generation.’

Cherry-Garrard represents the gradual transition from one cultural moment to another. Spufford gives a nod to the idea that all times are transitional (‘Scott seems to inhabit 1911 only forty years on from the 1870s, Amundsen’s 1911 seems only forty years in advance of the fifties’), but he allows very little intellectual autonomy to the individuals who inhabited the past and is unable to concede that originality of thought or a distinctive perception of reality might exist, not comfortably, but in a complex way, in the most attuned man of his time. This is discouraging. It makes it difficult to see how we can trust ourselves, locked in our own time, to investigate and gain any understanding of the past. We must ourselves be looking through a skewed lens. It is also slightly ugly in its supposition that our skewed lens is better skewed than those of the past.

Look more closely at the revered Oates and you discover that he himself was not a party to reverential thinking on the subject of inexperience and worthwhile death in the snow. He did not want to go to the Pole, knowing the ponies he was in charge of were not suitable for the environment, and believing that Scott’s idea of man-hauling the sledges through the final stages was wrong-headed: Scott ‘should buy a shilling book about transport’. In his diary he wrote that Scott had direct responsibility for the imminent deaths of the Polar party through his incompetence and bad leadership. Earlier he had written, ‘Scott has always been very civil to me ... but the fact of the matter is he is not straight, it is himself first and the rest nowhere and when he has got all he can out of you it is shift for yourself.’ Even this was a guarded criticism. When Oates’s mother tried to find out the truth about her son’s death, she wrote of her meeting with Dr Atkinson, one of the surviving members of the expedition, that she had discovered that her son Laurie ‘was a good deal worried about the way things were done ... Neither Dr Atkinson nor Laurie had ever been accustomed to such treatment from their superior officers ... I asked Dr Atkinson point blank if he thought Laurie had ever regretted going on the expedition. He hesitated before answering and said that there were times when Laurie did.’ Another member of the party, Meares, told her there was ‘great trouble and unhappiness. Captain Scott would swear all day at Evans and others. Laurie said it was shocking – and the worst was it was not possible to get away from the rows.’ Though Mrs Oates wanted to publicise this, it was hushed up so that the heroic version of the deaths could serve as grand propaganda for the forthcoming war. So was the fact that Oates left his final walk too late to be of any use to the Polar party. Had he acknowledged that his hopelessly frost-bitten feet were incurable just two days earlier and taken his leave then, there is a chance that the others could have sat out the blizzard with sufficient food to get to the depot just 11 miles away from their final camp. Scott – who incomprehensibly had taken an extra fifth man to share a four-man tent and rations – had been complaining to Wilson for days that it was time Oates made the final gesture. Oates, apparently not feeling all that Edwardian about it, was by no means keen to give up his life while there was even the remotest possibility that he might survive. By the time he took a walk, he was pretty sure that none of the others would try very vigorously to stop him. Somehow, once you know this, ‘I am just going outside and may be some time,’ begins to take on an ironic note. You can hear in your mind’s ear more than one tone of voice in which the resonating phrase might be said. Oates was a man of his times, but also of ours, it seems – inevitably since the changes the times have undergone do not account for everything.

Equally, it is not impossible, even with Scott thoroughly debunked in the way we do best, to find something in his thinking that accords with our own. The first men walking on the moon was still an event the most cynical paid attention to. Had the South Pole never been reached, we would not find it odd that someone should attempt it. Yet it is very hard to get excited about Ranulph Fiennes crossing the great white continent with atomic sledges, Internet and satellite communications and a computerised mobile igloo with facilities. The idea of testing the physical and mental boundaries of endurance in very difficult circumstances has not gone away. People still wonder how they would cope with adversity. There is a moral, interior component to exploration. And even without the Romantics flinging themselves about, there are still people who imagine themselves as rocks in the Arctic Sea. At least, I hope there are.

Shackleton gets rather little attention in Spufford’s book, but he makes an interesting parallel to Scott. His Endurance expedition, at the start of the First World War, failed hopelessly in the attempt to make a trans-Antarctic crossing. They never made landfall; the ship was crushed after over-wintering in the ice. The 26-man party was marooned for eight months on a series of diminishing ice-floes and finally took refuge on Elephant Island in the South Shetlands. No one knew where they were and there was no chance of rescue, so Shackleton and five men made an 850-mile journey through the worst sea in the world in a 20-foot open boat to the whaling station of South Georgia. Improbably, they made it, more dead than alive, though to the wrong, uninhabited side: so Shackleton and two others crossed the uncharted mountains and glaciers of South Georgia without even a sleeping-bag, to reach Stromness and find help for the stranded men on Elephant Island. Since the Falklands War, the Army, fully equipped for mountaineering, has tried three times to repeat the crossing of the island, and failed. Not one man died on the Endurance expedition. The failure of the aims of the expedition and of Shackleton’s previous attempt on the Pole, were largely down to a lack of know-how similar to Scott’s. But Shackleton, Edwardian though he was, did not think that dying in the confrontation between individuals and nature was de rigueur. ‘Better a live donkey than a dead lion,’ he announced when he turned back just 97miles from the Pole, realising that to go on would jeopardise their food supplies, even though there was just a chance they might make it. Shackleton and Scott were contemporaries, yet the imaginative value of life and death to each could hardly have been more different.

Spufford’s elegant narrative builds like layers of snow on the ice-cap, yet the expectation it incites doesn’t finally lead to somewhere new. The ice, as ever, has the power to excite richly imagined visions: ‘the ship sometimes floated at the centre of a depthless white globe of mist, was sometimes reflected upside down in the air off the bow, was assailed by phantom shapes of all descriptions, refractions of the already peculiar ice and peaks and horizons.’ These images and the feelings they evoke must, as Spufford suggests, be subject to the accumulation of past imaginings, but it’s very likely that such extreme landscape would provoke wonder and terror – those emotions we’ve always allowed to thrill us whatever the era – in anyone, then, now or in ten thousand years to come.