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Book Review: Antarctic Destinies: Gentlemen rivals

Published: The Scotsman (Critique) 05 Apr 2008

Antarctic Destinies by Stephanie Barczewski, Continuum, 390pp, GBP 25

ON 2 NOVEMBER 1902, THREE men – Robert Falcon Scott, Ernest Shackleton and Edward Wilson – set off from the base of the Discovery Expedition at McMurdo Sound, Antarctica, with the aim of reaching the South Pole. Things did not go according to plan. After some initial success, their attempts to use sled-dogs to pull their supplies went awry and they ended up hauling the heavy loads themselves. By mid-November they were averaging just one mile per day and suffering from scurvy and acute hunger.

Gentlemen explorers of the period weren’t expected to lose their tempers with each other – the etiquette of the time demanded a stiff upper lip – but there is an account, albeit a disputed one, of a barny on the ice.

According to Albert Armitage, Scott’s second-in-command on the expedition, both Shackleton and Wilson later told him of an incident in which Scott, packing up camp one morning, had shouted “Come over here, you bloody fool!” Surprised, Wilson asked Scott if he was referring to him. Scott replied that he was not. “Then it must have been me,” said Shackleton. “Right. You are the worst bloody fool of the lot, and every time you dare speak to me like that you will get it back.”

Apart from the rather charming detail that the worst insult these freezing, starving Edwardian chaps could think of was “bloody fool”, this little exchange – if it took place at all – is significant for being the first recorded argument involving the two most celebrated British Polar explorers of all time.

The pair came to blows later and much more publicly in the build-up to Shackleton’s Nimrod Expedition of 1907-09. Shackleton announced that he was going to attempt to land at McMurdo Sound before marching on the Pole. Scott felt that, as he had previously used it for his base of operations, McMurdo was “his patch” and therefore off-limits to others. In the end, Shackleton agreed not to use McMurdo but when the time came he found he had no choice and used it anyway. He didn’t make it to the Pole but it didn’t matter – Scott never forgave him for what he saw as a monumental breach of trust.

Just as Scott and Shackleton were rivals in life, so they have continued to compete in death. Antarctic Destinies, a painstakingly researched and hugely readable book by Stephanie Barczewski, charts the rise and fall of their reputations in the hundred years or so after their greatest achievements: Scott’s tragic trek to the Pole at the head of the Terra Nova expedition of 1910-12 and Shackleton’s miraculous escape from the Anatarctic with the Endurance expedition of 1914-16.

Scott enjoyed an early lead in the popularity stakes. When news of his death eventually reached Britain in 1913, it dominated the press “not just in Britain, but in America and throughout the western world, for weeks to come”. Indeed, Barczewski claims that the press coverage exceeded the amount devoted to the Titanic disaster in April of the previous year (and she should know – she has written a book on that subject). Scott may have been a failure, but he was a noble British failure – a man who had done his duty and was therefore considered a suitable subject for statues, poetic tributes and sugary children’s stories written to inspire the sons and daughters of the British Empire to similar feats of colonial derring-do.

By contrast, Shackleton’s timing was more than a little off. In 1916, news of his incredible escape arrived just as the British Navy had become involved in the Battle of Jutland. Another little disagreement with the Germans called the Somme Offensive was also going on at the time. Understandably, the Great British public were rather more concerned with how many thousand lives were being lost in France every day than they were with the safe return of a few beardy explorers. When Shackleton and his men arrived at the Falklands, one of the locals summed up the prevailing sentiment when he said of Shackleton: “‘E ought ter ‘ave been at the war long ago instead of messing about on icebergs”.

But then came the 1960s. The romantic ideal of the dutiful hero became something to be mocked, as in Monty Python’s “Scott of the Antarctic” sketch. A new breed of hero, personified by James Bond – opportunistic, amoral and quite prepared to bend the rules for the greater good – was in vogue. Slowly but surely, the tide started to turn.

In 1979, Roland Huntford published his controversial biography Scott and Amundsen, in which he set out to paint Scott as a “heroic bungler” and made a series of damaging claims against him – including, notably, that he had encouraged Lawrence Oates to leave the tent for the sake of the others, and that he invented his famous line “I am just going outside and may be some time” for literary ends.

In 2002, the film Shackleton, starring Kenneth Branagh, was aired on Channel 4, attracting 3.6 million viewers. Before long, the explorer was even the subject of management books. It’s hardly surprising that when the BBC conducted their “Greatest Britons” poll in 2002, Shackleton came 11th and Scott a lowly 54th.

Recently, Barczewski notes, cracks have appeared in the Shackleton myth, and Scott’s reputation has started to revive, thanks in part to Sir Ranulph Fiennes’s 2004 biography of him. She is right, of course, that such shifts are more due to changing attitudes to heroism than to the heroes themselves.

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