I was amazed while reading this book when two people asked me who Scott of the Antarctic was, as I’d assumed the story was something everyone was aware of. I remember hearing it as a child, but I think I was lucky in that my parents are well educated and were always keen to teach my sisters and me stuff. Its something I hope to be able to do if I ever become a dad.
For those who don’t know, Scott of the Antarctic was Captain Robert Falcon Scott who in 1911 lead an attempt to be first to reach the South Pole.
Scott, however was defeated by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. It seems all to obvious that Amundsen would win, having more experience and realising the advantage that dog teams would give, while Scott was unconvinced by dogs. Also, Amundsen rocked some quality facial hair that suggests awesomness.
After discovering their defeat Scott’s five man team headed home, but all members of the group fell prey to the conditions.
Scott became an odd sort of British hero, a noble failure and a testimony of gentlemanly conduct, stoicism and the old fashioned “stiff upper lip” attitude.
This makes it a really tough book to read and review.
Scott no doubt kept a journal with a view of publishing a book later, but must’ve envisioned it as a record of his triumph. And while edited before publication you wonder what Scott himself might have wanted to omit.
Its also a tough read due to the fact it begins with the arrival at the Antarctic, over a year before Scott’s death and I found myself guiltily wanting to rush on to the parts of the story I knew (the discovery of Amundsen’s victory, Oates’ sacrifice, the hard, doomed slog back).
And the opening chapters are hard going, but they do paint a good picture of the surroundings and give us a sense of what kind of man Scott was.
There’s this wonderful enthusiasm he has for the whole trip, and a sense of wonder at the beauty around him and a fascination with the scientific side of his mission.
Scott appears to be an intellegent, decent chap who shows genuine love and respect for his team, praising their skills and character repeatedly.
And he’s shown to be incredibly human, there are little gripes here and there, and in his diaries he reveals his doubts and concerns, showing how heavily the responsibility of the dangerous expedition weighed on him.
I found myself warming to him slowly, and while some of the book is stuffy and dense it still packs a punch emotionally.
The keen disappointment when they find that the Norwegians beat them is heartbreaking and the increasing dread on the return journey is almost suffocating as conditions worsen, food runs low and injuries are sustained.
All the parts I knew were there and you can see why Scott became myth, there’s an admirable restraint throughout. They keep pushing on, broken and frost-bitten, trying to remain positive and not complaining.
Oates’ death is gut wrenchingly sad, the injured man leaving to his doom, aware that he will hinder his companions as they would not leave him. Its a simple, quiet act of decency and sacrifice.
It ends with the last words Scott wrote, a touching plea for the group’s families to be cared for, showing that even in death he retained his decency
“for God’s sake, look after our people“
Verdict: At times a bit of a slog, but is also a fascinating account of the mission, and of quiet dignity and grace in the face of adversity. But, hand on heart I must admit I skimmed parts of it and can’t really say I enjoyed it all that much 6/10
Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO