‘Birdie’ Bowers of the Antarctic by George Seaver

Birdie Bowers seaver

Published: 1938 by John Murray
My copy: Borrowed from the Library where I work

Memorable quote: “I simply revel in the life for its own sake. The delicious feeling of having earned one’s meals and rest – no worry now – only marching, observing, navigating, grooming, cooking, etc – living out one’s full allowance of time under conditions that fulfil one’s ideas of manliness… You may be sure of one thing, that though I may not get to the Pole, I shall do much towards the object in hand and the honour of my Mother who deserves to have something better than a rolling-stone for a son.” (Birdie Bowers)

There’s a brand new biography of Birdie by Anne Strathie scheduled for release this Summer. I’m looking forward to getting it but I thought I ought to read the (very) old biography first by way of comparison. First published in 1938, Seaver’s biography of Henry Robertson Bowers – one of the men who went on to perish with Captain Scott on the way back from the Pole – does feel rather dated and doesn’t do much to probe beyond the established facts or speculate about Birdie’s inner feelings and psychology. I hope the new biography will do more of this. But that isn’t to say Seaver’s efforts aren’t worth a look. I enjoyed learning about Birdie’s childhood and his naval appointments before Terra Nova which were mostly in very hot climates, India and Burma, and couldn’t have provided a starker contrast to the ice. Reading with full knowledge of Birdie’s fate there seems a grim inevitability to his path: his letters home from Burma (extensively quoted) frequently lament the heat and state how he longs for colder weather: “Snow! How I would wallow in it if I could! If ever you find me preferring heat to cold, please hit me with the nearest thing handy.” There was also an allegedly an incident where he attends a dinner party and has his palm read but the fortune-teller is shocked by what she sees and has to be coaxed into telling him that his life-line is so short she’s amazed he’s even standing before her. This was just a few months before he got recruited on to the expedition.

Seaver draws very heavily on Birdie’s diaries and letters and while he’s no literary genius they were a joy to read because Birdie had this tremendous zest for life that really comes across in his words. If Apsley Cherry-Garrard was the chronicler of the South and scientist/artist Bill Wilson was the observer, Birdie was simply the doer and it seemed he was never happier than when in the thick of the action, just quietly pushing himself and getting on with what needed to be done. There’s much to admire in his stoicism.

Having read a lot of Polar biographies now, I’ve been thinking about the art of biography in more general terms. When do you think is the optimum time to write one? I guess it depends on the subject but with Antarctic stuff, I find that those which were written too soon after the event feel very censored. The authors don’t probe – and daren’t criticise – out of respect for the living and still grieving relatives of the men involved, but on the other hand, leave it too late and you risk losing all those first-hand reminiscences that can really enliven the story. I think Sarah Wheeler’s biography of Cherry is perfectly timed because it’s about 20 years after Cherry himself died – time enough to reflect and form an honest appraisal, but Cherry’s widow was still alive then (though aged) so it was her last chance to share information about her first husband’s later life as well as a lot of private photos that later biographers may not have had access to. Anyway, now I’ve read Seaver’s work, it’ll be interesting to compare it to the new biography coming out in August. I hope the new one will be much more probing. But there’s one way it can’t compete with Seaver’s and again that’s in respect to drawing on first-hand reminiscences. The introduction to ‘Birdie’ Bowers of the Antarctic is written by someone who not only knew the man in question, but also shared much of what he went through in Antarctica. Yes, Cherry wrote it and honestly I have never read a more heartfelt or moving tribute to anyone, it’s beautiful and the tears were streaming down my face before I finished it. Nothing in the subsequent biography matched that intensity, but wow what an introduction.

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