Bringing Dead Men To Life
( I met Richard via Twitter and we got talking about all sorts of things, and when I heard about his new book Dead Men I was totally hooked. I’m a bit of a Boys’ Own sort of girl and any tale of heroism gets me interested. But the tragic tale of Captain Scott’s last days has always moved me to tears so I am looking forward to reading Richard’s take on the story when the book is released. I’m always fascinated too by what brings a book to the light of day and I asked Richard to explain this one. This is the result. Over to Richard. )
And I tell you, if you have the desire for knowledge and the power to give it physical expression, go out and explore. If you are a brave man you will do nothing; if you are fearful you may do much, for none but cowards have the need to prove their bravery.
Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World
All that we experience we are. No biographer, no researcher, no novelist, painter or poet can or should be divorced from his or her experience, his or her life. It is what makes us, and we cannot stand in isolation from that which has shaped us. It informs our view of others, and others’ views of us. Biographers and historians especially should have to share their motives for covering their subjects. It might explain a lot. Interpretation doesn’t just creep up on us; we make it.
When I was a boy, an English boy in Germany, the text book I had to read to relearn English had a chapter in it about Captain Scott. It focused not only on Oates leaving the tent on the way back from the South Pole with the immortal quote I’m just going outside; I may be some time. It reprinted in whole Scott’s last, desperate scrawl, 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 any more. For God’s sake look after our people. For a boy struggling against his peers’ insistence that Messerschmitts were better than Spitfires, this seemingly magnificent act of heroism was an ideal way of standing up for a country he couldn’t even remember, to show how Englishmen had to be better than Germans, and that, anyway, we’d beaten them in two wars. How odd our childish defences are.
Almost forty years later, I was back to Scott, and Wilson, and Bowers, and Oates, and Evans. They had got under my skin, then, in the early Seventies, in a throwaway schoolboy fascination type of way, and burrowed their way into the core of me, but just sat there, unmoving, with no effect on my life, with no recollection of them on my part, even, because I never dreamed of following them, never thought of the Antarctic as a place I might go. And there were so many other things to distract me, growing up being only one of them.
We moved back to England when I was fourteen, and I made, at my father’s expense, very occasional trips to London. On one of those trips, I did find my way to the British Museum, and, by then fascinated by beauty and mystery, made sure I stared at Nefertiti’s bust for longer than I stared at the final page of Scott’s diary, though I bought postcards of both. And then I fell in love more often than I should care to recount, and forgot all about Scott and his men, all about Amundsen and his men, all about the imagined race for the South Pole that took place just two years after my father was born.
But I kept travelling, kept moving from one place to the other, not because of my parents any more, who, by now, were settled, but because some sort of restlessness drove me, in search of money and love, from England to Germany, to France, to the US, and back to my parents when my heart was broken too often for me to bear. On all those travels, there was one constant: the Olivetti portable typewriter my father had bought me when I was seven, because I’d always wanted to be a writer.
Fast forward twenty years, and I fell in love with a Norwegian, married her, had four children, and a year after the fourth was born, decided to move to Norway. Neither Scott nor Amundsen resurfaced, even then. Nor did they fight their way into my waking conscience when I drove past the Fram Museum on my way to fencing training in Bygdø. I was more interested in working my way up the Norwegian epee rankings than in history I’d forgotten. Shortly after that, my Norwegian wife decided she didn’t, after all, like Norway very much, and that we should move back to England. I, by then, was in love with Norway, and tried many subterfuges, none of which included Amundsen or Scott, to stay in our gorgeous wooden house near Fredrikstad. We left in April 2006, over a metre of snow still on the ground.
Settling back into England was heavy going, and the Antarctic was further from my mind than ever in my homesickness for the -28C of my first Christmas in Norway, my missing of the mountains and the sea I used to pass on my almost-daily run, my longing to roll the Norwegian words round my mouth again and talk to my friends in their farm garages, surrounded by half-built tractors and oily work benches. And then Sir Edmund Hillary hit the headlines, with his criticism of the lack of British support for the preservation of Captain Scott’s expedition base at Cape Evans on Ross Island, and the rest is history, history that means the world to me. Because I was lucky enough to be asked to spend some time in the Antarctic, and to help with the work on Scott’s Hut.
That’s when the reading started. Anything I could get my hands on. The first book on Antarctica I read wasn’t even about Scott’s expedition; it was Kelly Tyler-Lewis’s The Lost Men, sent to me by the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust, all about Shackleton’s Ross Sea Party who were supposed to lay depots for Shackleton’s Imperial Transantarctic Expedition in 1914, the ten men left stranded on Ross Island after the Aurora broke free of her moorings in a gale and was carried back out into the pack ice. Three men of the party were lost (contrary to the popular misbelief that Shackleton lost none of his men on that expedition), and the other seven lived what they afterwards called the “life of troglodytes”, mainly in Scott’s 1901-1904 expedition hut in McMurdo Sound. It opened my eyes to the sufferings of all those who ventured south during what is now so easily called the Heroic Age of Exploration, to the unsung heroism of those whose names all but a few polar historians had forgotten.
I inhaled the Antarctic, through research on the net, through the accumulation of what became a considerable Antarctic library. I have always been more of a fiction man than one who easily reads biographies and non-fiction narrative, but my heart and my mind were captured by these books, by these men (and their women at home), by the incredible bravery of facing the dangers not just of sea and mountain, but of tooth-breakingly cold temperatures, of crevasses and the madness of cabin fever.
And then I bought a copy of The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, and lost my heart to it. It is written in such achingly perfect prose, with such soul and compassion, with such blinding clarity, that it must be the greatest travel book ever written. When I was a child, I always wondered how people could read books which had no pictures in them, and, even as an adult, I marvel at the strength of our human imagination, to be able to see pictures in books with nothing but words from cover to cover. And here was the perfect example. Cherry’s descriptions of his inner life and the outer scenery and dramas are nothing less than addictive, wondrously elegant and eloquent. The lines of his quoted at the beginning of this piece, lines I copied into the front of journal I started to keep for the whole of my Antarctic journey, made me cry, left an indelible mark, because he put his finger on a universal truth, that, deep down, we cowards can all be heroes. Just as he was.
In November 2007, I flew down to Christchurch, New Zealand, with great expectations and not a little trepidation. I left an envelope with a friend, with a letter in it for my wife, just in case something happened to me. For, even if I was to be not much more than a glorified tourist, the Antarctic was, and remains, a dangerous place, a part of the world not to be trifled with, one which will kill you off as soon as welcome you. I saw some wonderful things in Christchurch, including Canterbury Museum’s Antarctic Collection (which includes Frank Worsley’s logbook from the Endurance and that trip from Elephant Island to South Georgia, and Frederick Hooper’s diary which contains the harrowing description of the discovery of the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers). I went to Lyttelton Museum and sat on a saloon bench from Terra Nova, Scott’s ship which came back without him, and which was scuttled years after the ill-fated South Pole expedition. I stood on the hill that Lyttelton sits on and looked across Lyttelton Harbour to Quail Island in its centre, where Scott is said to have trained his dogs and ponies. Much of the countryside and buildings I saw here was destroyed in the February 2011 earthquake, which makes me miss it even more keenly.
And so the story of Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his men began to unfold in front of me before I’d even set foot on the Antarctic. I learned more about him, his comrades, and their quests than I could have if I’d done no more than read the books. But this unfurling of the tapestry of history was borne also from great frustration; day after day after day we were what they call “bumped”, our flight south put off by bad weather, including extremely poor visibility and wind gusting at well over 60 knots. Night after night I’d look at the forecasts and the webcam images from Ross Island, crossing my fingers and everything else that it would improve and we’d get out there. It wasn’t to be, and after a week we had to admit defeat and return to England.
Other things I saw in that week in Christchurch were the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust’s store rooms, including the freezers in which they keep those artefacts that have been found in the Ross Sea huts and around them, and which are too fragile to defrost, but too valuable to leave to the vagaries of the weather out there, influenced more and more by global warming, a weather of extremes with warmer summers and colder winters, a signalling to the rest of the world that the abuse of the world cannot go on, that it must stop soon, for it threatens not only the blue planet’s heritage, it threatens its future, too. In one of those freezers there’s a reindeer sleeping bag, which may or may not be Cherry’s. I hope it is.
It was in that November that the mystery of Scott’s last ten days first scraped at my consciousness. It was not something I’d ever been aware of. How much do we learn at school of real history? That’s another question, because we can only ever scratch the surface of events we’ve not lived, and of their implications and outcomes. But it was only then I learned that science has shown that Antarctic blizzards can last no longer than about three days, that they normally raise the temperature, and that they are normally followed by a period of calm. My poet’s mind latched on to this, but even more so the tragedy of men dying far away from their wives in a time when there was no instant communication, when news took months to travel from remote regions to the populated reaches of the Earth, when wireless transmission was in its infancy. Scott could not, as he lay dying, make a satellite phone call to his wife to tell her one last time he loved her, before the last of his life was snatched from him by the cold. Such calls have been made in recent times, from the summit of Everest and elsewhere, and who knows what comfort they have given, and who knows what mysteries they have solved. If Scott had had a satellite phone, there would be no mystery, and hundreds of books would have remained unwritten.
But there’s more to this story than just that. On the second day of January 2008, I was on my way again. Because the trains from Suffolk to London had suffered yet another irretrievable breakdown, I drove across to Cambridge, caught the train down to London from there, and made my plane with a few minutes to spare. That was the only hiccough. From there, I arrived in Christchurch, to be met by the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage folks, ready with the bags I’d packed in November 2007, and walked from International Arrivals straight into a USAF briefing about flying to Antarctica. I listened while getting changed, and, before I knew it (and after having managed one cigarette after a 36-hour trip), was on a bus headed for one of the far-flung corners of Christchurch Airport, on course to board a C-17 Globemaster for the very first time. Six hours later, I landed on McMurdo Sound, on a few feet of sea ice, was driven from there to Scott Base, a modern man retracing the story of the Heroic Age of Exploration.