January 19, 2004

The Worst Journey: recommendation

ANTARCTICA: Literature

"Gentlemen, let us keep our language noble: for we still have heroes to commemorate!" -- Arthur Quiller-Couch, from On the Art of Writing

Quiller-Couch wrote that when the cabled news of the gallant deaths of Scott's Polar Party first came in. It's fitting that the heroes themselves were capable of noble language as well as great deeds.

There was Titus Otes, who on staggering out in a blizzard in hopes his companions could save themselves if not held up by his gangrenous frostbitten feet, said calmly, "I am just going outside and may be some time." There was Dr. Bill Wilson, who in his dedication to science, never cared that his party was beaten to the Pole, so long as they brought back new knowledge. There was Scott himself, whose last written words were "For God's sake, look after our people!". His diary makes it clear he knew he was doomed days before the actual end and yet there is no complaint, fear, or letting up of standards.

(Of course, it's also fairly clear to a dispassionate later reader that it was Scott's own decisions that killed him, Wilson, Bowers, Oates and Evans, and that put so many of his other men through such hell. However, not only he himself but all of his expedition members either never realized it or never admitted that fact. Scott was courageous and interesting and very much a gentleman, but if I were on an expedition I'd much prefer Amundsen to lead it.)

And then there is Apsley Cherry-Garrard, whose account of Scott's second and final Polar Expedition is titled The Worst Journey in the World. (Properly speaking, the Worst Journey was not the fatal Polar one but a trek made in the middle of winter by ACG, Bowers, and Wilson. They went through the coldest rings of Purgatory for months and retrieved their goal ..... three Emperor penguin eggs.) He was the youngest member of the expedition; was in the First Return Party to come back on the trek to the Pole; was on the Winter Journey that encountered temperatures down to -77F ("That was the day I discovered records are not worth keeping.") and was in the group that found Scott and his companions 11 miles from a depot that had the food and fuel that would have saved them. (They knew they were that close, but they were stuck in a blizaard.) ACG was not only a veritable hero but was one of the best writers I have ever come across, without exaggeration. He is never flowery, but there are so many lines worth quoting that my book is festooned with markers.

I'm not what Anne Fadiman calls "a carnal lover of books"; my college texts are
entirely highlighter-free and though I may read my paperbacks to death, their
pages are virginal and unmarked until the day they fall from the binding. Because unfortunately I couldn't find my tin of href="http://www.levenger.com/PAGETEMPLATES/PRODUCT/PRODIDPG.ASP?Level=2-3-3&PageID=289-1508-302&Category=293-294-
17&special=search&C=17&L=3&ID=SearchClicked&i=0">Page Points
, the pages of my copy of Worst Journey are fluttering with Post-It flags and even -- near sacrilege -- marked with drylighters for some of the most indispensible passages. (Don't worry, they're erasable.)

Before reading, I thought the blurb on the cover calling Worst Journey the "War and Peace of travel writing" was fairly stupid. I still think it's a bit of a silly comparison. But it is not exaggerated. It's probably best to take CHerry-Garrard's own advice, and read this and other books on polar exploration when you're not in similar circumstances; you up there in the Northeast might want to hold off a couple of months.

Posted by dichroic at January 19, 2004 12:05 PM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?