(Photograph taken by my father in Antarctica, where he worked for a year when he was about 23.)
My father and I were watching the first half of Shackleton last night, the miniseries with Kenneth Branagh as Shackleton. I have always enjoyed stories of Antarctic expeditions, probably because of hearing my own father’s stories, but sometimes they do strike me as a little pointless – this struggle to be first, to be the fastest, to take the longest route.
And of course, with Shackleton’s story, you know how it ends, a failed expedition.
“The man went towards the manager’s house and we followed him. I learned afterwards that he said to Mr Sorlle: ‘There are three funny-looking men outside, who say they have come over the island and they know you. I have left them outside.’ A vey necessary precaution from his point of view.
Mr Sorlle came to the door and said, ‘Well?’
‘Don’t you know me?’ I said.
‘I know your voice,’ he said doubtfully, ‘You’re the mate of the Daisy.’
‘My name is Shackleton,’ I said.
Immediately he put out his hand and said, ‘Come in. Come in.’
‘Tell me, when was the war over?’ I asked.
‘The war is not over,’ he answered. ‘Millions are being killed. Europe is mad. The world is mad.'”
(from “South” by Ernest Shackleton)
I have always rather liked the story of Lawrence Oates (probably because of the noble self-sacrifice idea), and particularly after I read Geraldine McCaughrean’s book The White Darkness, which features the ghost of Lawrence Oates as one of the characters. I know that sounds odd, but it’s the most wonderful book – a little traumatic, but wonderful.
“Tragedy all along the line. At lunch, the day before yesterday, poor Titus Oates said he couldn’t go on; he proposed we should leave him in his sleeping-bag. That we could not do, and induced him to come on, on the afternoon march. In spite of its awful nature for him he struggled on and we made a few miles. At night he was worse and we knew the end had come.
Should this be found I want these facts recorded. Oates’ last thoughts were of his Mother, but immediately before he took pride in thinking that his regiment would be pleased with the bold way in which he met his death. We can testify to his bravery. He has borne intense suffering for weeks without complaint, and to the very last was able and willing to discuss outside subjects. He did not–would not–give up hope to the very end. He was a brave soul. This was the end. He slept through the night before last, hoping not to wake; but he woke in the morning–yesterday. It was blowing a blizzard. He said, ‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’ He went out into the blizzard and we have not seen him since.”
(Robert Falcon Scott)