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.

Birdy Bowers, as he prepared to set out on the final polar journey, wrote that he was Scott’s man, that ‘we all have confidence in our leader and I am sure he will pull it through if any man will’; and he assured his mother, in a farewell letter found in the tent where he died with Scott and Wilson, that although for her sake he would like to have lived, ‘it is splendid to pass however with such companions.’ But Bowers is the only member of the Scott expeditions who is entirely unequivocal about him. Lieutenant Royds noted that his captain on the Discovery voyage was ‘continually on the panic’. Captain Lawrence Oates wrote to his mother from the Terra Nova journey that he disliked Scott intensely and that ‘the fact of the matter is he is not straight, it is himself first and when he has got all he can out of you it is shift for yourself.’ Apsley Cherry-Garrard, the myopic boy who grew up during that trip, said of Scott that he never met a man who cried so easily; later, in The Worst Journey in the World, he wrote, with stunning clarity: ‘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.’ And even the saintly Edward Wilson, who once told Clements Markham that there was not a crevasse that he would not be prepared to fall through with Scott, warned Cherry-Garrard: ‘I know Scott intimately . . . I believe in him so firmly that I am often sorry when he lays himself open to misunderstanding. I am sure that you will come to know him and believe in him as I do, and none the less because he is sometimes difficult.’

Like St Thérèse of Lisieux, who appears to have been sanctified for her ability to put up with the irritations imposed by her fellow nuns, Wilson turns out to be more properly described as saintly than simply good. Crane quotes passages from Wilson’s journal written while over-wintering in the icy dark on board a static ship: ‘God knows it is just about as much as I can stand at times, and there is absolutely no escape. I have never had my temper tried as it is every day now, but I don’t intend to give way.’ (I’m not sure if this makes Wilson more or less insufferably virtuous, but then I’ve never been much drawn to St Thérèse either.) Just as Crane notes Wilson’s usually concealed human frailty – as a rule he is described as otherworldly – he finally decides, like Cherry-Garrard, that Scott’s greatness, if that is the word, lies in his overcoming his quite serious limitations rather than being a leader, a hero or whatever it is he is supposed to be in his very bones. Crane doesn’t try to hide Scott’s flaws, but to see them in the context of the life and also of the death.

What is most notable about the early life of Robert Scott (which is much of it, since he died at 43) is that there is very little notable about him. He appears from the evidence to have been the ‘little man’ of Trevor Griffiths’s play. He was an average scholar and sailor, though he did have a way with words, which played a vital part in creating his myth once his journal arrived back in England along with the news of his death. Scott was born into a family that had become country gentry by way of owning a brewery but was by then gently going downhill. His father – from whom Scott said he inherited his idleness – married an heiress whose fortune was used up by the time Scott was in his early twenties. Class being destiny, the young man – much more suited to the law, Crane suggests – did what was expected of him and decided on a naval career. At naval college and as a young officer Scott was undistinguished but adequate. The late Victorian navy did nothing to bring him out. It was festering with regulations and inclined to promote the sons of aristocracy rather than develop talent or independent thought in its trainees. Scott’s main concern was to get on and build a career for himself against the odds of his average ability and undistinguished background.

He was an obscure young officer when Clements Markham, the president of the Royal Geographical Society, chose him to head the Discovery expedition to reach the South Pole in 1901. The ship was his first command, and he knew nothing at all about exploration or the techniques of surviving the extremes of polar journeys. Crane suggests that Markham’s homosexuality and Scott’s charm and good looks may have had something to do with the decision, but Markham’s main interest was in keeping the expedition an enterprise under the control of the Royal Navy. He added on scientific study in order to get funding, but the real purpose was to achieve glory for the British navy by being first to reach the Pole. For Markham and his chosen captain, the new techniques of polar exploration pioneered by Peary and Nansen were forms of cheating. What got you to the ends of the earth (though, it turned out finally, not back from them) were the well-known British qualities of endurance, courage, discipline and duty. The decent English way was man-haulage, not using dogs and killing them on the way for food. And if Nansen showed how to travel warmly and efficiently and survive in arctic temperatures, it wasn’t the British way not to suffer. Bowers, a Jehovah’s Witness with a hatred of all things foreign, rejoiced on the final journey in the idea of man-haulage ‘in these days of the supposed decadence of the British race’.

Much of the trouble on the Discovery voyage was caused by the naval officers demanding rigid discipline and imposing inappropriate regulation on a non-naval crew, and the contrast with men such as Shackleton, decidedly not navy, who dealt with the ship’s company with a more companionable form of leadership. It didn’t help that they set out to sail in the world’s worst seas in a specially designed and built ship that turned out to leak. Lack of experience also showed. Scott brought the wrong food for the dogs, who sickened and had to be killed, though not by the squeamish Scott. Provisions were trial and error, so that on the failed polar journey rations were insufficient and Shackleton suffered from scurvy. Scott sent him home on health grounds when the supply ship arrived. Crane says that there is no reason to suppose that jealousy of Shackleton’s popularity was the real motive, as Scott’s detractors have it. But he can find no excuse for Scott’s behaviour back in England. He kept secret his vague plan for a second polar expedition. When Shackleton announced that he would try for the Pole and planned to over-winter at McMurdo Sound, Scott threw a tantrum, writing to him and anyone else who might be interested to say that since his expedition had used McMurdo as its base, it was his alone, and that Shackleton was a back-stabber. ‘I cannot but look upon this as my area until I signify my intention to desert it.’ He described Shackleton as ‘not straight’, the phrase that would later be used by Oates of him.

This episode was a watershed, according to Crane. Something had changed in Scott since his return to England. He had been ‘a man of ambition without direction, of aspirations without vision, of will without conscience, of charm without kindness, of character without centre’. Now, having returned initially in some disgrace from the Discovery trip and then been lionised around the country, he became focused, but also self-important, pompous and petulant. Crane, always wanting to find in favour of Scott, admits to his ‘first real sense of disappointment’ in him. Perhaps he had found a sense of purpose at last – he speaks for the first time of polar exploration as ‘his life’s work’ – but his secret plan for a new journey came after it was clear that there were no real prospects of advancement for him in the navy if he remained in England. Another trip to the Pole was the only way to get on. It was, as much as anything, a career move.

For all his amateurishness, on the Discovery expedition Scott made bold and inventive plans and took a vital interest in the meteorological and physiographical experiments that were being made. His involvement was total. But Crane concedes with almost palpable pain that the Scott of the Terra Nova expedition was a different kind of man. His singular focus on ‘pole bagging’ gave the best men, animals and supplies to the polar journey rather than other more important explorations of the region. The race for the South in 1911 was meaningless. Shackleton had made it to within 90 miles of the Pole two years previously and there was, Crane says, ‘nothing on a southern journey more intellectually or imaginatively interesting to look forward to than the brute satisfactions of sledging and the scraps of another man’s “failure”’. There was real work to be done in the east and west but Scott put his best mental and physical resources into the race against Amundsen, a race that was lost before the polar party set out.

Crane is continually having to acknowledge Scott’s weaknesses and failures of character and understanding: all of which were ordinary enough in themselves but which in the extreme circumstances of a desperate dash to the South Pole gradually added up to the fact of four men dead of cold and starvation just 11 miles from the safety of One Ton Depot. Scott blamed the weather – and the weather was exceptionally bad – but it was as if he expected the weather to conform to type, to side with him against the upstarts Shackleton and Amundsen. ‘It makes me feel a little bitter,’ he wrote, ‘to contrast such weather with that experienced by our predecessors.’ He had used weather information in Frank Wild’s diary from Shackleton’s expedition to plan the polar trip, extrapolating from a single year to work out how much food and fuel would be necessary for his own journey. He made no allowance for exceptional bad weather because he wasn’t expecting it, though you might think that when life and death depend on it exceptional bad weather ought to be thought of as a feature of the southern wilderness. Moreover, giving himself even less leeway, he took a fifth man without recalculating the extra food needed nor the extra fuel required for cooking. This was an Englishman hoping for the best, supposing that it was only right for the weather to be normal and give a man a level playing-field, a fair break. He was like a gambler convinced that lady luck will be on his side, depending on a profound misunderstanding of the nature of probability. Crane calls his planning ‘brinkmanship’. Scott blamed ‘Providence’, a curious Edwardian compromise between a Victorian God who manages the affairs of men with an eye to justice and blank Darwinian nature.

Facing death, Scott writes grandly, making the deaths a heroic activity rather than a muddled, premature end to five lives: ‘How much better it has been than lounging about in too great comfort at home.’ Crane’s biography of an ordinary man has to conclude that the final words in the journal are the real Scott, the facts notwithstanding: ‘It is easy enough to argue that the Scott of “myth” bore only a passing resemblance to the living man, but the more central truth is that it was only in his written legacy that the values to which he aspired stood shorn of those accidents of character and temper that always came between him and his ideals.’ Which is to say that those of us who stay lounging at home are fortunate not to have our values tested in the field. Robert Falcon Scott, on close examination, turns out to be literature, not life. The unnecessary, deadly and incompetent journey had to be made, not to reach the Pole or beat Johnny Foreigner, or even just because it was there, but in order for the final journal entries to be written. ‘Had we lived’ – that brilliant, prematurely retrospective phrase – ‘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.’ The very last entry:

I do not think we can hope for any better thing now. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far.

It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more.

R. Scott

For God’s sake look after our people.

But had they lived, they would have become just another item in a history of polar exploration. Without that ‘had we lived’, without the failure and death, the written testimony left behind and the complex cultural and political response to it over so many decades, we should certainly have been the poorer.