The Longest Winter: Scott’s Other Heroes by Meredith Hooper

The longest winter

First Published: 2011 by John Murray
My copy: Bought on Kindle

Memorable quote: Levick was growing a beard, but being here wasn’t like being in other places. There were no windows to see your reflection in, no shiny surfaces to catch your image, not even the still water of a pool. None of the visual self-regarding and checking that are part of living in houses, of walking down a street.”

Another week, another Antarctic exploration biography, but please bear with me because oh I am enjoying these so much, and every one is so different. Hooper’s tells the story of Scott’s Terra Nova expedition but focuses on the often overlooked exploits of the six men in the Eastern party: Campbell, Levick, Priestley, Abbott, Browning and Dickason. It’s unsurprising, really, that most accounts of the expedition are drawn to the grand tragedy of the polar trek, but to overlook the Eastern Party is to overlook one of the greatest survival stories of all time. The six men were dropped off by Terra Nova to explore a section of Antarctic coastline and then, when conditions prevented them being picked up again, they were forced to spend a harsh winter living in an ice-cave they had hollowed out, and – since they only had provisions for about five weeks – surviving on whatever meat they could kill.  It’s an incredible story and Hooper tells it well. Just as she seeks to redress the balance of expedition narratives away from Scott’s party, so she is equally attuned to the class biases within standard polar narratives and her research strives to ensure that the lower class voices and experiences of Abbott, Browning and Dickason are not overshadowed by those of the privileged officers and gentlemen. This balanced approach compliments well the experience of the men themselves who struggle to maintain the class divisions they were born into amidst the enforced intimacy and hardship of life in the igloo. Hooper has also travelled within Antarctica herself, experience that shines through in the bleak beauty of her descriptions.

In short, this is an engaging and enjoyable adventure/survival tale that combines rigorous research with some lively passages imagining the experiences and emotions that the men left out of their diaries. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and it’s given me a new appreciation for some of the Terra Novans who have been unfairly relegated to the category of supporting cast in other expedition narratives. If I have any criticisms of The Longest Winter it’s that the narrative ends too quickly. The book ends when Terra Nova returns to collect the survivors but I would really like to have learned more about the post-expedition lives of the Eastern party, particularly of the lower class men whose lives have not been so readily documented. Secondly – no pictures! It seemed a huge oversight that this volume didn’t include a single photograph when there are some amazing ones of the party in existence. I read this on Kindle, so perhaps there is a photo-section in the hard copy but if not it’s a tremendous oversight.

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