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: 2001 (Vintage digital ed. 2010)
My copy: bought on Kindle
First read and reviewed by me: September 2011
Memorable quote: “Through his story Cherry reached out to something universal: the eclipse of youth, and the realm of abandoned dreams and narrowing choices that is the future.”
I never particularly thought of myself as the sort of person who reads biographies just for fun, but it turns out that was only because I simply hadn’t tackled the right biographies before. This was the work that re-educated me. Apsley Cherry-Garrard was one of the survivors of Scott’s ill-fated Terra Nova Antarctic expedition – a physical survivor at least: reading The Worst Journey in the World, Cherry’s superbly affecting account of the experience, left me feeling that, emotionally, some part of him remained behind on the ice, along with the corpses of the midwinter travelling companions for whom he came to care so deeply. It’s a view that Wheeler echoes in this illuminating account of his life – a life and a retelling that certainly rivals most novels in terms of being a well-written and emotionally engaging. I suppose it helps that the subject is something on which I’m particularly hooked, but this biography goes far beyond polar exploration. Indeed I don’t think you even need to be an Antarctic obsessive to enjoy it. Apsley was born in the late years of the nineteenth century, and he died in 1959, so in many ways his story is that of the twentieth-century: fascinating and brutal, taking in two earth-shattering wars, and the unstoppable march of progress. The polar expedition, and particularly his winter journey to Cape Crozier, in search of penguins’ eggs with Edward “Bill” Wilson and “Birdie” Bowers, becomes the lens that gives focus to everything else in his rather melancholy life.
Wheeler describes the winter trek, Cherry’s titular “Worst Journey,” as the experience that both “redeemed and destroyed” him. Her account of Cherry’s privileged early years shows him boarding the Terra Nova in a quest for meaning and self-definition, caught up in the nebulous reactionism that I’ve always felt is one of the most fascinating aspects of the brief Edwardian age. The old imperial and religious certainties of his father’s Victorian generation did not fully convince young Cherry, but neither had he found an adequate replacement for the void in his life left by their absence. Drawing closely on Cherry’s own writing, as well as accounts of him by polar comrades, friends and relatives – including interviews with his widow – Wheeler shows how he finally found that meaning in comradeship through adversity and through the close bond he developed with Bill and Birdie. This is apparent from Cherry’s own book but Wheeler expands the notion in fascinating ways. Cherry: A Life of Apsley-Cherry Garrard draws on records and anecdotes of his childhood to mark the beginnings of its subject’s quest, then chronicles in detail his post-expedition years, showing how his polar experiences defined, ennobled and finally, tormented him. Less than a year after the winter journey that brought them together, both Bill and Birdie were dead.
Sara Wheeler clearly has huge affection for her subject, but neither is she blind to his faults. Her narrative does not neglect either the less appealing, increasingly curmudgeonly, side of Cherry’s character or the uncomfortable prejudices of his class, and of his era in general. Such ugliness is balanced here in the same way as it is – less consciously – in Cherry’s own work: through the sheer beauty of the prose and the descriptions. Having visited and stayed in Antarctica herself, Wheeler is well-equipped to evoke both the beauty and the danger of the icy environment that Cherry and his comrades had to negotiate.
This is a brilliant companion volume to The Worst Journey in the World. Wheeler’s embellishments, both imaginative and scholarly, really draw out some of Cherry’s references, exploring his fascinating psyche, and also narrating some aspects – such as the women in his life – that are conspicuously absent from his own carefully edited recollections. Visually, this is also a satisfying volume, augmented as it is by an appendix of well-chosen photographs. Here we see Apsley as a baby; picnicking as a young man; dashingly uniformed during the war; and dressing-gown clad in his twilight years. Such images add a valuable wider context to Cherry’s story but even here it is Herbert Ponting’s iconic polar photographs that dominate (these can also now be viewed online thanks to the superb Freeze Frame gallery). These powerful polar images linger on in the mind long after the book is closed (or in my case, Kindle switched off), just as the beauty, danger, love and loss of his brief Antarctic years came to dominate the rest of its subject’s haunted life.
Reading The Worst Journey in the World left me enthralled but also frustrated in places that the author hid so much behind the words of his companions, repeatedly quoting from the letters and diaries of other men when his own words were always so much more more eloquent and moving. Wheeler expounds this as an issue of respect, but also of confidence. There were two Apsley Cherry-Garrards, she reminds her readers: the survivor, doer, explorer and the man who suffered from crippling anxiety. “Know yourself,” he wrote. “Accept yourself, be yourself. That seems a good rule. But which self? Even the simplest of us are complicated enough.” There is an important lesson about self-hood here for everyone. Hopefully we do not all need to endure the horrors of a midwinter trek to Cape Crozier to acknowledge it.