Saturday, February 28, 2009


On New Year’s Eve in 1911 five men sat talking in their tent on the Antarctic Plateau for over four hours. They were Robert Falcon Scott and his fellow-officers. In the nearby tent the Petty Officers kept their own company. A naval officer, Scott stuck to the rules of the class system within which he had grown up. Teddy Evans, the only man in the tent to get back alive to Base Camp describes the camaraderie of that evening. At the end Scott reached across and squeezed the arm of Oates, who’d been reminiscing about his childhood, teasing the soldier about coming out of his shell. Oates had a reputation as being taciturn. They had reasons to be content. They were on schedule. They had seen no sign of the Norwegian party for they wrongly assumed Amundsen would use the Beardmore Glacier, the route the English had pioneered. Little did they realise he’d found an alternative route, reached the South Pole and was already returning north. Unlike his group Scott’s party did not survive the assault on the Pole. Unfortunately for them they were destined to face one of the coldest autumns the continent has experienced.

Captain Scott is part of my mental folklore. I have never been to Antarctica but during my formative years the Little River public library and Akaroa District High School library held many books about Scott and Shackleton’s expeditions. I devoured them all. Names like Bowers, Crean and Ponting were part of my mental furniture. There was no reality TV then. My entertainment was books about these and other similar epic journeys. Bowers and Cherry-Garrard’s valiant efforts to save the ponies trapped on floating ice floes and surrounded by killer whales is an example. Oates saying "I am just going outside and may be some time," sacrificing himself in an effort to ensure the other three got through And then the final tragedy – Scott and his two companions dying in a tent – gentlemen to the end, courageous and decent. Throughout my adult life I’ve continued to read new books about their exploits.

Recently I read Ranulph Fiennes’s Captain Scott. When I was young, Scott was extolled as a hero, indeed an imperial role-model. Then there was a debunking period – the foolish leader whose enterprise was a disaster waiting to happen. Now the pendulum has swung back. Fiennes manhandled a sledge through the same territory. He feels entitled to make judgements about Scott – on the whole favourable. A few years ago I read a similar book, Canadian meteorologist, Susan Solomon’s The Coldest March. She argues from the scientific evidence that Scott’s returning polar group struck one of the coldest recorded autumns. Temperatures plummeted as the final assault party returned – undoubtedly dispirited at finding the Norwegians had beaten them. Solomon also made a point I had not grasped. If Wilson and Bowers had left Scott alone and pressed on they had a good chance of making One Ton Depot, picking up supplies and maybe – a very big maybe - rescuing him. We have turned full circle and returned to the heroic age. Her theory was that being the men they were, Wilson and Bowers chose to stay and die with their leader. Fiennes is less sanguine about their prospects. But he agrees with the heroic re-assessment of Scott.

That legend was part of my childhood. Dying, Wilson wrote to his wife. "The Barrier has beaten us – though we got to the Pole." Scott penned a ‘Message to the Public". "Had we lived, 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."

At school, teachers had us copy out that final message. In Christchurch, Mum pointed out his statue sculpted by his wife on the banks of the Avon. "She didn’t finish it you know." One of the first books I personally bought was the Penguin Ashley Gerrard-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World. I still have it, battered, marmite-stained and dog-eared. Scott sailed both times from Lyttleton – our port. People I knew had seen his ships set off. Relics from his huts were in the Christchurch musuem. Later, the Globemaster planes servicing the American and Kiwi bases at McMurdo Sound left Harewood aerodrome for the long trip south and their noisy flight as they lumbered south echoed up Okuti valley where my stepfather and mother farmed.

That early hero-worship was under-cut to the extent that most people were critical of Scott’s decision to take four others instead of the planned three. But the brave way he faced defeat and death was held up as a virtue to be emulated. The Second World War was happening. Bravery was in demand. Sacrifice was needed. The connection between the virtues Scott and his colleagues practised and the carnage of the First World War was rarely made. Gallipoli, Dunkirk, the British are at their best when their backs are to the wall. That was the message our teachers gave us. My reading reinforced the message. Of course Mallory and Norton got to the top of Everest. Like Scott they’d challenged the elements and lost, but bravely. That’s what men did.
Once I was in the bath listening to the radio. The late news came on. The Argentineans had landed on South Georgia claimin it was no longer British. I felt a surge of completely unexpected imperialism. In my mind that desolate little spot was associated with Shackleton and British pluck and daring. I recalled that Akaroa primary class listening with attention as I told of the story of Shackleton and his four crew men sailing the James Caird, an open boat, from Elephant Island to the south coast of South Georgia through the stormy south Atlantic ocean, and then climbing over unexplored mountains to get aid at the Norwegian whaling station. They had to get through to bring help to their marooned comrades. I was never a fan of Margaret Thatcher’s. But I cheered when her troops ‘liberated’ South Georgia.

Reading Scott’s diaries I am struck by how confident he was about the British Empire. He was a loyal naval officer in that Empire. His career reflected its zenith. His death was during my childhood used as one of the definitions of that Empire. The words glory and duty hovered round his story. There is an irony in that the British were not the first to reach either Pole. Would he have been such a hero if he’d survived – after all he’d come second. Scott’s valour, loyalty to his companions, diligent planning were all held out as role models. His bravery at the onset of death was the very model of appropriate behaviour. Did he bully Oates into crawling outside? Such a question was unthinkable then.

For the flip side of the myth of Scott is that the various manifestations of "stiff upper lip" helped create the carnage of the First World War. Discipline meant that orders were not questioned – or disobeyed. The English class system still prevailed. Being British meant muddling through. Right equals might and thus will succeed. The fall of Singapore was a shattering blow to my elder’s myths of Empire. The old claims suddenly began to ring hollow. ‘The whole British navy couldn’t fit into Akaroa Harbour’, "The sun always shines somewhere on the Empire." So it was no surprise that a period of debunking set in. It pleases me that Fiennes restored some balance.
But the hierarchical symbols of the two tents still rankles. It clashes with some deep semse of Kiwi fairness.

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