Every Friday, in Brushing off the Dust, I revisit one of the many older book reviews written before I founded this blog. Here, I try to prioritise those titles that have really stayed with with me, or which have shaped the course of my subsequent reading adventures in a significant way.
First published: 1922 (Vintage digital edition 2010)
My copy: bought on Kindle
First read and reviewed by me: August 2011
Memorable quote: “The temperature that night was -75.8, and I will not pretend that it did not convince me Dante was right when he placed the circles of ice below the circles of fire. Still, we slept sometimes… Again and again Bill asked us how about going back, and we always said no.”
General knowledge of Scott’s Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole seems to have descended into cliché: most us know that Scott made it to the pole, but only after Amundsen; that he and his companions did not survive the journey back, and most of us are able to quote or misquote something about Oates self-sacrificially leaving the tent in a blizzard and warning that he “may be quite some time.” If, as I did, you want to get past these common-places and learn more about the expedition as a whole then this is the book for you since, Apsley Cherry-Garrard (affectionately known as Cherry) was one of the survivors. More than that, he is a deeply sensitive and eloquent narrator. The primary goal of the Terra Nova mission, Cherry claims, was science, and from this perspective the expedition was far from being a failure. The attainment of the pole was also a key objective and, more than that, a key ingredient to in the recipe to win public support, but the race element that has so captured the subsequent national consciousness only evolved later; the expedition was already well under way when Amundsen’s intentions became known.
With a background in Classics, and having made a considerable donation to the expedition’s coffers, Cherry was taken onboard Terra Nova as a “willing helper,” not especially qualified but supremely willing to learn and to assist with everything from preserving zoological specimens to swabbing the decks. Such enthusiasm for learning, along with Cherry’s acknowledged agenda of highlighting the expedition’s scientific foundations does allow his narrative, at times, to descend into rather dry lists of facts, weights, temperatures and number crunching. But it’s easy to persevere through these sections since overall, although it highlights the importance of science to the daily lives of the men, this is not a scientific account; it is overwhelmingly an emotional one. As Sara Wheeler’s biographical introduction explains, Cherry was a sensitive soul. He suffered from anxiety and was incredibly short sighted too (I can related to this), a considerable handicap amidst snow-glare. Why anyone so ill-suited would willingly buy their way onto such an expedition seemed beyond me at first, but the story does much to reveal what men like Cherry were seeking – and also what they may have been avoiding – when they signed up for such experiences.
The book chronicles the whole of the expedition, from setting sail, to the survivors’ return but the stand out chapter is The Worst Journey… referred to in the title. This is not, as many might imagine, the polar expedition, but a rather a journey undertaken by Cherry and his two closest companions, Dr Wilson and “Birdie” Bowers to secure some Emperor penguin eggs for study (in an attempt to prove an evolutionary theory that turned out to be wrong). Most travel is undertaken in the warmer summer months but Emperors breed only the depths of the Antarctic winter, so the men had to haul sledges at temperatures of -75 and more, so cold that their necks froze in position every time they headed out: “They talk of chattering teeth: but when your whole body chatters you may call yourself cold.” This chapter makes for truly inspiring reading, and is an interesting study of friendship in adversity as well as providing some stunning descriptions of the bleakness and beauty of the penguins’ world.
Cherry-Garrard’s tone captures something of the claustrophobia of the explorer’s world which made me feel really close to the characters he describes. In places the book reads like an exercise in self-therapy. He was haunted by the idea that if he’d disobeyed orders and taken his dog sled further on (sacrificing the dogs to do so) he might just have found Scott’s team before it was too late, and this notion surfaces time and again in his narrative. Sometimes he dismisses it with logic, but other times he regretfully embraces the what ifs, which makes for sombre but fascinating reading. If I have any criticism of Cherry’s book it is that at times he is too self-effacing. He frequently draws on diary entries and extracts of reports from other party members. It’s clear he does this in the interests of fairness and to let his companions speak for themselves but it’s frustrating too because nobody else speaks with the eloquence and depth of feeling of Cherry himself. There’s no doubt this is the work of a fascinating man – and in his fragility far more fascinating, perhaps, than many of the expeditions more famously acknowledged heroes – in one of the most fascinating environments on earth.
This narrative, the only book Cherry-Garrard ever published, is frequently hailed, not just as a classic work of polar exploration but of travel literature in general, a reputation that is richly deserved. On a more personal note, this is the book that really sparked my enduring interest in all things Antarctic. Since I first read it and wrote the above, two years ago, I have found myself haunted by this man, his experiences and his words, and have been drawn back to Cherry’s powerful narrative time countless times since then, an interest that culminated in March 2012 when I was able to attend the Scott’s Last Expedition exhibition at Natural History Museum in London, and see for myself many of the artefacts related to the ‘Worst Journey’ including Cherry’s balaclava and one of the hard, futilely won penguin’s eggs. I knew seeing these items first-hand would be a powerful experience, but as I wrote in my personal journal at the time:
What I didn’t expect was that seeing these things actually made me cry. I surprised myself with that, I guess it shows the depth of my psychological investment in these men and in this fascinating topic. The balaclava just looked so worn, so lived in, I could really imagine him there right before me, and the egg was so much smaller than I’d expected. It seemed such a little thing for three men to have suffered and sacrificed so much to obtain. I think like my life has been enriched for sharing, through his incredible writing, Cherry’s experiences and his emotional insights which were as profound as his suffering.
The Worst Journey in the World really has it all: adventure, humour, tragedy, amazing descriptions of an almost alien landscape and soul-searching psychology. The expedition both redeemed and destroyed Cherry, teaching him the value of love and friendship in adversity and then wrenching those friends away from him in the space of a few short months – a loss that would torture him for the rest of his life. And it’s all the more powerful because it’s a true story. You should read it.