Sydpolarfarer

Chauncey Loomis

Most of Tryggve Gran’s Antarctic diary is dull reading, but the fault is not altogether Gran’s. An airline pilot once said that flying is months of sheer boredom, moments of sheer terror, and the same can be said of expeditions. Much time on expeditions is spent waiting: waiting for the weather to change, for the expedition leader to make up his mind, for the other party to arrive, for supplies, for the ship, the airplane or the helicopter; when it isn’t waiting, it’s plodding, climbing, sailing or paddling in great discomfort, often with all sense of purpose gone. At one point in his diary Gran remarks: ‘It is difficult to keep a diary. This life is of little interest; one day is just as monotonous as the next.’ He did have moments of terror, however, and after falling through ice into the waters of McMurdo Sound, he exclaims almost with relief: ‘There is something to write about for once!’ Indeed he does write effectively about crises, but he had neither the verbal craftsmanship nor the quick sensibility necessary to transform the stuff of tedium into something interesting.

Editor Geoffrey Hattersley-Smith has put flesh on the rather bare bones of the diary by editorial insertions. Throughout the text he has scattered passages from Gran’s own memoir Fra tjuagutt til sydpolarfarer, written many years after the expedition, and from writings by Gran’s colleagues on the expedition. He has also added a retrospect in which he and Basil Greenhill recall a lecture tour made by Gran in 1974 at the age of 85 and recount the old man’s spoken memories. These devices help to fill gaps and provide substance where there is thinness. But an individual’s diary is just that: it is not the same thing as someone else’s diary, nor is it the same thing as a memoir, written or spoken. Of course a diary involves retrospection, but it should be a retrospection of hours or days rather than years. In a diary, one expects some immediacy, some spontaneous emotional and intellectual reaction that has been only partly processed by self-conscious rationalisation. As Gran himself comments, with the passage of time ‘the memory of the hardship fades to leave the adventure bright and clear.’ A good diary should offer more than just ‘the adventure bright and clear’.

One reason for dullness in Gran’s diary is that there is little of the meditation or self-revelation that we look for in such a work. And where there is little self-revelation, there is likely to be little revelation of others. Reading the diary, we wonder how much this young man failed to perceive, and how much he deliberately ignored or repressed. None of his fellow explorers is vivid in these pages; we read about what they did, but that is all we learn about them. He writes almost nothing about the tensions that inevitably developed on the expedition, and nothing at all about the antagonism that at times should have dominated his awareness: that of Robert Falcon Scott towards Gran himself. Perhaps during the expedition Gran unconsciously censored that awareness, or perhaps in his youthful naivety he did not even have it.

Gran at 21 was the youngest man to join the expedition. The great polar traveller Fridtjof Nansen introduced him to Scott early in 1910 when Scott came to Norway to test motor sledges north of Oslo. In a country passionate for skiing, Gran was one of the best. At the time he met Scott he was planning an Antarctic expedition of his own, but when Scott saw him ski and offered him a place on the British expedition, Gran gave up his own plans to accept the offer. A few days later Gran tried to arrange a meeting between Scott and Amundsen in Oslo, but Amundsen proved elusive. It is obvious that Amundsen deliberately avoided meeting Scott. After Peary’s supposed conquest of the North Pole, he had secretly decided to convert his projected North Polar expedition to a South Polar expedition: intensely competitive, he had no wish to meet his future rival.

Amundsen’s decision to go south rather than north later gave Gran some uncomfortable moments in Antarctica. When the men of the Scott expedition heard that Amundsen had landed on the other side of the Ross Ice Shelf from them, they talked about little else. Gran noted in his diary: ‘They are still discussing Amundsen. I can say nothing. God knows I am in a difficult position ... I really don’t want to compete with my compatriots.’ When Scott’s party set out for the Pole, Gran was trapped by what he calls ‘an irony of fate’: they had forgotten to take the Union Jack, and Gran found himself pursuing them, a Norwegian carrying the British flag towards the Pole.

Some remarks made in writing by his comrades that are not included in Hattersley-Smith’s insertions make it evident that they considered Gran an arrogant boy, rather likeable but too brash. He did embody a combination that could spoil anyone: he was young, athletic, handsome and wealthy. Perhaps this combination made him somewhat thick-skinned and insensitive. Even his occasional self-consciousness about being a Norwegian on a British expedition seems token, and in his diary he does not even mention an encounter with Oates that he recalled many years later when he wrote Fra tjuagutt. In that memoir he recalls that ‘I did not find grace in his [Oates’s] eyes.’ One day Oates turned on Gran and ‘told me straight out that what he had against me was not personal; it was just that I was a foreigner. With all his heart he hated all foreigners, because all foreigners hated England.’ This rather shocking display of ill-temper and insularity on the part of Oates also demonstrates naivety on the part of Gran: according to Gran, he and Oates ended up by shaking hands, and ‘Oates and I became the best of friends.’ One doubts that the bumptious Gran and the morose Oates could ever be friends, especially after such a scene. Gran dismisses the episode too easily; even in his memoir he avoids facing unpleasant human relations.

A more important example of Gran’s insensitivity to his relations with others was his apparent failure to recognise Scott’s antagonism towards him. This antagonism may have been rooted in the fact that Gran was Norwegian. Before Amundsen announced his intention to sail south, Gran’s being Norwegian was little problem, but after Amundsen’s famous, brutally terse telegram reached Scott in Melbourne, it was a different story. On receiving the telegram, Scott immediately called Gran into his cabin aboard the Terra Nova, thrust it at him, and asked: ‘What do you make of this?’ Gran could only suggest that he cable Nansen for more information. A few months later Scott’s growing distrust of Gran surfaced. Hauling a sledge, Gran suffered a leg cramp; he managed to struggle back to the camp, but was disabled for several days. For no apparent reason, Scott decided that Gran was malingering and ordered Atkinson and Wilson to examine him. Gran refers only vaguely to this in his diary (‘I have had a medical examination’), but he must have known that Scott had ordered the examination: Scott had given him hell in front of the men, accusing him to his face of malingering. In his diary (at least as it is now published) Gran skims over the incident, making no mention of Scott’s role, but Scott in his diary indulges in a petulant attack on Gran: ‘It was a terrible mistake to bring him but now he is here he must work and I shall see he does so. But for all practical purposes he is useless to the Expedition and all that remains is to rid oneself as far as possible of the nuisance of his presence.’ For some reason, Geoffrey Hattersley-Smith, although he briefly discusses this incident in his introduction, does not insert the relevant passages from Scott’s diary into Gran’s diary.

In general, Scott plays only a small part in Gran’s diary, and it will add little fuel to the fire of controversy about Scott as a man and a leader. Gran does comment that Scott’s plan to reach the Pole was complicated, implying that it was too complicated: ‘My goodness, it is an involved proposition. The thought behind it is no doubt marvellous, if only he can carry it out.’ Gran is not a man prone to irony, but if the translation is correct there may be an ironic edge to ‘my goodness’ and ‘no doubt’. Gran also takes note of Scott’s ambition: ‘Scott is clearly very ambitious; this is natural, but he tries to hide it.’ This passing remark is cryptic: is ambition, always an ambiguous quality, good or bad here? And is hiding it good or bad? The ambiguity is increased in context. Gran makes the remark immediately after a single sentence: ‘After supper we spoke of Amundsen.’ Given that context, would ‘competitive’ be a more accurate word than ‘ambitious’?

The most telling incident involving Scott appears not in the diary itself but typically in one of the inserts from Gran’s memoir. During the first long sledge journey to establish One Ton Depot, the horse ‘Weary Willie’ weakened so badly that Oates suggested to Scott that the animal be killed so they could push on more rapidly. When Scott refused, Oates spoke boldly to him. ‘Sir, I’m afraid you’ll come to regret not taking my advice.’ Scott replied: ‘Regret it or not, I have made my decision as a Christian gentleman.’ Roland Huntford makes effective use of this incident in Scott and Amundsen. It clearly reveals one of Scott’s fatal weaknesses, a weakness that in other circumstances could be considered a strength – his inability to be brutal to animals. For Huntford, who takes an artificially hard-headed and simplistic approach convenient for him in his remorseless attack on Scott, this quality is simply one aspect of Scott’s stubborn, middle-class stupidity; for David Thomson, who in Scott’s Men is as critical of Scott as Huntford but who also is more humane and less simplistic, it is a strength that is made a weakness only by artificial and cruel circumstances – a pointless race to a useless place, a race that demanded callousness in those who would succeed.

In most of Gran’s diary, Scott is merely a faint background figure, and perhaps this suggests some subtle absence of his authoritative presence on the expedition; Amundsen, in fact, is a more commanding presence in the diary than Scott, even though he was hundreds of miles away. Scott did not mix with his men, partly because he observed naval hierarchy, partly because of his own nature. In his brooding inner insecurity, Scott isolated himself from all but Wilson. One reason that Huntford’s attack on Scott is so offensive is that we sense that Scott was, among other things, a suffering human being. His incompetence may have been as murderous as Huntford claims it was, but he should still be allowed the dignity of suffering.

Gran was one of the party who found Scott’s tent at the last camp, and he achieves a simple eloquence in his description of what they saw:

Captain Scott lay in the middle, half out of his sleeping bag, Bowers on his right, and Wilson on his left but twisted round with his head and upper body up against the tent pole. Wilson and Bowers were right inside their sleeping-bags. The cold had turned their skin yellow and glassy, and there were masses of marks of frost-bite. Scott seemed to have fought hard in the moment of death, but the others gave the impression of having passed away in their sleep.

In this hushed moment, Scott at last becomes vivid to Gran, and to us. Significantly, he becomes vivid only in death. Roland Huntford probably has a point when he argues that Scott could fulfil himself only in death – that death was the only possible triumph for him after defeat. And paradoxically, the triumph had to consist both of death itself and also of the last moments fighting it. Much as he yearned for it, Scott could not ‘go gentle into that good night’: he had to fight it even as he courted it. Gran remembers Scott best in death, and so do we.