My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Last year my partner and I took a trip to Northumberland. On our return to London we whiled away several hours in a magical antique book store in Alnwick called Barter Books. (http://www.barterbooks.co.uk) I got lost in almanacs, girl’s coming of age tales, African adventures, poetry, biographies and many literary jewels. Once I’d swamped myself behind a book tower, The Man chucked me a disapproving look of ‘we’ll never get all those in the boot’ and I began the job of narrowing down what I was allowed to take home with me.
Scott’s Last Expedition in two volumes gifted with love from Dorothy to Herbert in 1954, according to the beautifully penned inscription, was my prize.
I began reading Scott’s diary of the Terra Nova Antarctic expedition last July. It became my bible. I journeyed on an overladen ship that left New Zealand on 29th November 1910 and I stayed with Captain Scott until his last journal entry on 29th March 1912.
Even when I wasn’t reading it, the old, blue book sat on the bedside table and the sights and sounds of the expedition lived with me. In the bright white, ice crystals bit my fingers and my eyes were dazzled and then snow blindness would cure and I could see the Soldier cajoling a wilful pony called Chris into a harness. The dogs barked excitedly before Meares mushed them across a glacier. Skuas shrieked and emperor penguins gabbled. I tasted Clissold’s seal soup. I marvelled at moonlit Mount Erebus. I watched the aurora dance in front of the Owner and I walked hundreds of miles through freezing blizzards of bleak, long white.
Funnily enough, I have never taken the slightest bit of interest in adventurers and expeditions and man’s races to be the first or the pioneers of the world. But I was drawn in by RF Scott’s appealing, personable and beautifully prose-filled descriptions of Antarctica. I fell head over heels in love with the place and the people and the excitement and optimism.
Scott’s portrayal of the expedition is remarkably revealing in what it tries to conceal. He presents an impression of a team of courageous, intrepid, altogether good sorts doing sterling work and following his own flawless planning and command without even the slightest disagreement, in the name of King and Country. But this is a hard task to maintain and he cannot hide his anxieties entirely so when they are revealed there is a poignant intimacy that the author of this wonderful journal is lowering his guard and speaking to you.
Scott’s unerring outward denial of responsibility and lack of expressed doubt regarding the efficacy of his planning, serves to intensify the tragic quality of the final throes.
This is a beautiful book. It is not a novel. It contains wind directions, gale force strengths, temperatures, coordinates and geographical features. It is a physical description as much, if not more, than anything else. It cannot be read in one go.
It is a man’s life and should be digested slowly so that day by day, Antarctica seeps into your bones and you live the adventure. If you read this fascinating man’s journal, you will spot blue whales from the Terra Nova with Edward Wilson. You will pass a wall of blue ice in a small row boat, as it crashes into the Ross Sea. You will get to know the vital and brilliant men of one of the most controversial, daring and infamous adventures in history and in the last moments you will see the South Pole with Captain Robert Falcon Scott.
Scott’s Last Expedition is one of my greatest treasures. I cannot praise it enough. I love it dearly. I urge you to read it. Be patient with it. Savour it and share the adventure.
Image: Photo: MASONS NEWS SERVICE, sourced here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/8979966/Captain-Scotts-team-ate-curried-horsemeat-for-Christmas.html