Had we lived …

Jenny Diski

  • Scott of the Antarctic: A Life of Courage and Tragedy in the Extreme South by David Crane
    HarperCollins, 637 pp, £25.00, November 2005, ISBN 0 00 715068 7

On 9 February, an exhibition of remarkable new photographs by Josef Hoflehner opens at the Atlas Gallery in London. The pictures show interiors of the base camp huts built and lived in between 1901 and 1912 by Scott’s and Shackleton’s polar expeditions. The huts and their contents have been preserved intact, and the photographs show intensely close details of things long left behind: ragged shirts and socks hanging up on lines, wooden cases forming a wall, a jar of fruit salts, bottled redcurrants and gooseberries, tins of dried onions and parsnips, reams of unused paper on a shelf, a small open book with curled pages next to a cut end of rope, a view of the main dining-table and chairs that echoes the famous picture of the same table with Scott and his men sitting around it celebrating Christmas.

Under the extreme light conditions of an Antarctic summer, Hoflehner worked without artificial light, using a specially adapted camera to produce pictures in hallucinatory black and white. The objects in the photographs possess a powerful absence of narrative, a timelessness that speaks of how much time they have been there, objects minus users. Without their known historical context the photographs would be beautiful, stark images: with it, they flirt dangerously with nostalgia, but are saved from sentimentality by the way Hoflehner frames and fragments the objects into almost abstract compositions. This teetering vision of the contrast between the practical ordinariness of the items seen by the lens and the idea of what lies behind them parallels the way in which Scott has been imagined since his final bid for the South Pole.

From 1913, when the news arrived of his death in the snow, until the late 1970s, Robert Falcon Scott’s reputation was frozen as the apotheosis of duty, Britishness and the selfless, good death. Then, just in time for the arrival of Margaret Thatcher’s brash, commercial vision of what ‘British’ was supposed to mean, Roland Huntford announced a radical new verdict on Scott: as gravely inefficient, a hopeless incompetent, a victim of the exhaustion of empire. Later, in the 1980s, Trevor Griffiths endorsed the judgment from the left. On what is beginning to look like a roughly ten-year cycle, another assessment came due in 1996 and the old material was viewed by Francis Spufford in his eloquent I May Be Some Time with less animus and a more historically minded cultural analysis, mellowing the harshness of the previous ruling. Scott was perhaps a child of the Romantics, a son of the Sublime, a victim of the need for a large, empty metaphor to redeem the disaster of the Boer War and to serve for the catastrophe to come. All sides maintain that he was a man of his time: for better he’s a hero, for worse he’s an incompetent villain, for the relativist he was what he could only be and no political or moral judgment applies. Scott pops in and out of view, a cultural cuckoo clock, indicating everything or nothing or whatever lies in between about Britishness, heroism and the purpose of exploration.

Now, another ten years on, David Crane has produced a huge new biography, five years in the researching, no document left unexamined, which aims to reassess the achievements and failures of Captain Scott. Crane wants to lose the underlying political motivations of Huntford’s and Griffiths’s judgments. His focus is set more particularly on the developing individual: the overall pattern of the man’s life. A proper old-fashioned biography, you might say. Who exactly was this man before he came to the end which meant so much to people for so long? It appears at the beginning that Crane seeks to redeem his subject, but Scott-in-his-period, us-in-ours and the extraordinarily contradictory nature of the evidence makes the new book, like Spufford’s, a more complicated and textured examination than just another round in the ding-dong battle of Scottophiles and Scottophobes.

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