Scott of the Antarctic: A Life of Courage and Tragedy in the Extreme South

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9780007150687: Scott of the Antarctic: A Life of Courage and Tragedy in the Extreme South

This is the definitive biography of Captain Scott – the pivotal figure in pre-First World War Antarctic exploration. Crane’s beautifully written and illustrated book re-examines the courage and tragedy of Scott’s expedition and reasserts his position in the pantheon of British heroes.

‘It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more…For God's sake look after our people.’

These were the final words written in Scott's diary on 29 March 1912, as he lay dying in his tent with Birdie Bowers and Edward Wilson. Oates had taken himself into a blizzard a few days before, and the fifth member of the Polar party, Edgar Evans had died some ten days previously, worn out by the cold and physical effort of the journey across Antarctica.

Since then Scott has been the subject of many books – many hagiographical, others dismissive and scathing. Yet in all the pages that have been written about him, the personality behind the legend has been forgotten or distorted beyond all recognition.

David Crane's magisterial biography, based on years of close and detailed research with the original documents, redresses this completely. By reassessing Scott's life and his substantial scientific achievements, Crane is able to provide a fresh and exciting perspective on both the Discovery expedition of 1901-4 and the Terra Nova expedition of 1910-12. The courage and tragedy of Scott's last journey are only one part of the process, for the scientific enquiry that led up to it transformed the whole nature and ambition of Antarctic exploration.

Scott's own voice echoes through the pages. His descriptions of the monumental landscape of Antarctica in all its fatal and icy beauty are breathtaking; his honest, heartfelt letters and diaries give the reader an unforgettable account of the challenges he faced both in his personal life and as a superlative leader of men in possibly the harshest environment on the planet.

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Review:

‘Moving … a balanced and gripping account … David Crane has written a fine biography of Scott, the flawed but timeless hero, and I read it all with pleasure.’ Guardian

‘He [Crane] has freed himself from the tyranny of the card index to let Scott live again as a man.’ Daily Telegraph

‘Compelling … impressive … moving’ Sunday Telegraph

‘Crane’s exhilarating biography avoids the excesses of either approach, humanising the man without diminishing his epic endeavour. As the end nears, Crane turns to the men’s dignified accounts of their ordeal. It is as Scott prophesied: no heart could remain unstirred.’ Observer

‘The most balanced biography yet. Like Scott’s own writings, Crane’s stylish prose is a sheer pleasure.’ New York Times

From the Author:

Q and A with David Crane
How did you feel when you visited the Antarctic?
I was adamant that I didnít go down to the Antarctic until I had been working on the book for a couple of years. I had been up to the Arctic the previous summer to get some experience of ice travel, but logistics and finance meant that the only way of getting to McMurdo Sound was courtesy of a Russian ice-breaker, which goes down twice a year as a cruise ship. Itís a curious mixture of unreconstructed Soviet technology and aesthetics with extraordinary five-star cuisine. It was wonderful in lots of ways but, at the same time, felt slightly obscene being down there on those terms. Itís a curious paradox Ė youíre going to what is probably the least-visited place in the world and you happen to be there on the same day as a hundred other people. And because you are also ruthlessly chaperoned every inch in case you go down a tiny crack in the ice, you end up thinking you could have had a more dangerous time in Oxford Street. I got slightly mutinous about the whole thing, which detracted from the pleasure of seeing the historic huts. Clearly they do touch people profoundly, but I was surprised to find that they didnít move me in the way I had expected.

In terms of writing the book, though, I actually found the trip that three of us made to the Arctic much more useful. We flew up to the north of Baffin Island and just took off across the sea ice with skidoos and a sledge for four or five hundred miles, and if that hardly constitutes a Scott-like experience, it was a lot closer to it than a cruise ship and Viennese cooking in McMurdo Sound.
Scott said he never tired of the Antarctic landscape. Could you see what he meant?
Yes, Antarctic or Arctic, what is immensely impressive is the absence of any human scale by which to judge height or distance. Itís astonishing. No matter how many times youíve read about it, you canít grasp it until you realise you are looking at one mountain in one direction and another in the other and they might be 250 miles apart.

Itís also witlessly beautiful, if you see it under the right climatic conditions. Itís interesting that because of Ponting and Hurley we see the heroic age of polar expeditions in black and white, but actually it was the colour that seduced the explorers. The variations seem infinite. Hitting the pack for the first time is possibly the only boundary left on the planet Ė that absolute sense that you are entering a different world Ė and the colour is so exciting. I donít think you could ever get blasé about that. What really impressed me about Scott, after Iíd seen it for myself, was his ability to convey what an Antarctic landscape looked and felt like. He had this curious mixture of sensibility and scientific accuracy, which is so rare. Go up Observation Hill even now and youíll see things through Scottís eyes.
Did you in any way identify with Scott?
Absolutely not. I would rather saw off my foot than go to the South Pole. The only bits that donít interest me are the bloody marches to the Pole Ė itís one damn foot after another. On that Arctic journey I mentioned I was with two experienced sailors and it was fascinating to see at first hand just how essential all those skills I lacked are for survival on the ice. If I had been tempted by any kind of identification with Scott, a day with those sailors out on the ice was enough to make me realise that, if I was going to identify with anyone, it would have to be with the complete idiots who messed up everything. I went very badly snowblind for days and had to abandon my skidoo. I was brought back on one of their sledges in absolute agony. It was quite instructive in that sense. Ten minutes of that soon disabuses you of any vainglorious ideas that you might have been there with Scott and Shackleton, or that they might have wanted to have you.
What was the most moving moment in your research?
Oh, thatís a very easy answer. It was late in the afternoon at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge. It was ten minutes before it closed and I knew I didnít have time for a big file of letters so I asked to see Wilsonís prayer book. I gave whatever the catalogue number was and this folder arrived. In it was the volume given to Wilson by his wife. It had lain with his body until the search party found him and brought it back. Itís a small, black book with beautifully neat pencil marks in the faintest, smallest hand. There are Wilsonís notes and annotations, certain passages of the psalms underlined, and lines in the margin. It is one of those unbearable documents. Itís very, very moving. At the beginning heís written Ė I canít remember the exact words, but good Protestant theology Ė that because Christ has died for us there is nothing more we need to do. That is the faith in which he died and by which he lived. To have in your hand the physical evidence of that faith is wonderfully touching. The literature of polar exploration is so dominated by either the Boysí Own angle or questions of science that this offers an important corrective. Wilsonís prayer book wakes you up to a different culture, a different world, a different concept of humanity.
I like the way your book is peppered with references to English literature. Was this a self-conscious decision or do they just crop up?
Itís utterly un-self-conscious. I donít go looking for a literary parallel, but donít seem to be able to avoid them. It makes me realise how much one mediates oneís apprehension of the outside world through literature. That seems, at least, to be how I think, though probably itís just laziness. Itís interesting too, that you hear literary echoes with Scott all the time. Take his Voyage of the ĎDiscoveryí, when heís talking about the last sight of their families in England as they say farewell. Itís a beautifully gradated passage, but you know damn well Ė whether he does or not Ė that itís a Captain Harville talking in Persuasion that lies behind it. You can tell, in fact, from day to day what Scottís reading, whether itís Shakespeare or Wordsworth. Little phrases keep creeping through. In his love letters to Kathleen he talks of being in the suburbs of her love. This is either a memory of reading Julius Caesar when he was twelve or he has just re-read it. Englandís literary tradition is clearly there in everything he writes.
If you were to meet Scott and could ask him one question, what would it be?
You know what they wrote when the news came of Shelleyís death? ĎNow the atheist Shelley knows whether or not there is a God.í There must be some such big question one ought to be able to ask Scott. He said in his last letter to his wife that he regretted nothing, but I suppose I would like to ask him whether, if heíd known the cost Ė not to himself, but to the four men who died with him Ė would he have pushed on? I suspect the answer would be yes. There are two kinds of explorers: the one who comes back a day early and the other who pushes on a half-day more, and Scott distinctly belonged to the second category. He should have been all right too, but his luck was seriously out. Itís curious that the only sense you ever get of any foreboding is the way in which he seems to erase himself from his sonís future. Even before heís reached the Antarctic, his letters have that tenor, as if he never actually sees himself as part of his sonís life. But I think once he was in the South his self-confidence returned. A supplementary question would be: ĎWhen did you first realise you werenít going to get back?í I suspect he knew early on the return journey from the Pole that things were going to be pretty parlous.

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