Captain Robert Scott’s reputation took a severe trashing in the 70’s and 80’s when there was a fad for taking iconic figures, from John Lennon to Winston Churchill and systematically de-constructing their characters based on not very much.
This is largely due to the obsession with celebrity culture and our Society’s unhealthy interest in the minutiae of some self-selecting group of people. George Orwell predicted this in “1984” when he suggested that future ruling classes would control their citizens via distraction tactics involving binge drinking, manufactured pop music and celebrity gossip. When you read about the lives of the Proles in Orwell’s great work it seems amazing that one man could have such insight into future trends.
In common with many small boys back in the day, I devoured the whole Antarctic adventure stuff with gusto. The challenge of working as a team but with individual acts of heroism weaved in to achieve something amazing is something that really appeals to me. The example of Scott and his team can inspire us not to give up on things as being impossible. From striving to cure illnesses to building a Socialist Society we should never give up just because the knockers say it’s not viable. Getting out of your comfort zone and trying to change the world is a great attitude to have in life. As for those who say Scott was self indulgent, what would happen if people in Society never had implausible dreams? We’d never succeed at anything.
Scott, Shackleton and indeed Fiennes himself come from privilege. So what? Tony Benn, Michael Foot, Eleanor Rathbone and Clement Attlee hardly came from the back streets; yet all went on to make a massive contribution to bettering the lot of others, and especially the poor and downtrodden. The explorers may not have been motivated by the same values, but their sheer bloody mindedness and determination not to listen to reason in pursuit of their goals can provide a template for modern day struggles against poverty and the crushing consequences of Capitalism.
Fiennes’ motivation for writing this book is very clear, and should be borne in mind by the reader; his aim is to de bunk the de bunkers of Scott and to fully rehabilitate the explorer’s reputation. Thus there is very little criticism of Scott’s approach or his decision-making, especially regarding the ill-fated journey to the Pole.
The book concentrates on the day-to-day activities of Scott’s two major stays in Antarctica and thankfully doesn’t dwell on the private lives and peccadilloes of those involved, something that is much in vogue amongst modern day writers. Fiennes’ own experiences bring credibility to the descriptions of life in the freezer, and he analyses Scott’s reasoning for doing things the way that he did from the position of someone who really does know what he’s talking about.
Three myths are expunged. Firstly there was little to no bad blood between Scott and his Irish colleague Ernest Shackleton, Titus Oates may not have been everything he has been cracked up to be, and finally it was terrible luck and not poor decision making that ultimately caused the tragedy which cost Scott and his companions their lives.
Of those who perished it is perhaps Henry Bowers who comes out as the unsung hero; selfless, loyal and willing to do whatever it took for his comrades with not a joy of complaint.
Overall this is a cracking read whether or not you just like the story, or you are searching for the more existential angle.