Tuesday, January 10, 2012


The bits and bobs of Antarctic exploration

Mick O'Hare, production editor
P2005_5_0517.jpg(Image: Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge)

Back in the sweltering British summer of 1976, the residents in my West Yorkshire home town might have been bemused by the sight of five kids dressed in parkas, gloves and boots dragging a wooden sledge around the neighbourhood. Fortunately they couldn't see the tent set up in our backyard, with planks of wood propped vertically to represent skis standing in the snow.
I'd been inspired by the 1948 movie Scott of the Antarctic and had been bought the Ladybird children's series book Captain Scott, and I was obsessed by the exploits of the Terra Nova expedition of 1910-13 throughout that long summer.
Influenced by the book's illustrations, some school friends and I kitted ourselves out in the warmest garments we possessed to recreate the roles of Robert Scott, Edgar Evans, Edward Wilson, Henry (Birdie) Bowers and Lawrence Oates. So outfitted, we dragged our sledge over baking asphalt, obviously unaware of the irony that death by hyperthermia might offer.
Since those days, my fascination with the legend of Scott has endured his fall from grace as his tale was revised, and he was cast as a stubborn buffoon chasing a flawed imperial dream. More recently, the legend has been rehabilitated via Susan Solomon's The Coldest March and Ranulph Fiennes's biography Captain Scott. Both have gone a considerable way towards re-establishing his reputation, highlighting his dreadful luck as appalling and unprecedented weather overcame the return journey from the South Pole.
Now, thanks to a new exhibition at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, UK, those now grown-up kids from Yorkshire can make a repeat expedition - perhaps more appropriately dressed for the temperature. For the first time, the institute has gathered together in one place the actual diaries and papers of all the members of the ill-fated quest. The title of the small but comprehensive exhibition, These Rough Notes, is taken from the last entry in Scott's diary, which is on display.
As the exhibition reminds you, with a wealth of geological, meteorological and zoological material on display, this was, first and foremost, a scientific expedition. It is astonishing to learn that the dead explorers' sledge contained kilos of geological samples, which easily could have been discarded to save weight. It only became a race to the pole when Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen entered the fray at a late stage.
Among the other significant items on display are the diaries of those who perished on the return journey from the pole, as well as the journals and papers of those who undertook what explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard described as the "worst journey in the world", when he and his team set out on the Antarctic winter's first-ever sledge journey to collect emperor penguin eggs. The exhibition also includes Edward Wilson's sketches of Amundsen's tent, and - quite astoundingly - a newspaper produced by six of the the explorers. The team of six had trekked north to carry out research and became stranded for 21 months due to heavy pack ice. They only survived by digging their own ice cave. They really did take a typewriter with them.
Perhaps because of the incomprehensible scale of Antarctica and its lethal environment, in the end it is items that suggest daily human life - which elsewhere would be considered mundane - that most capture the imagination. It is a remarkable sight having all these priceless documents on show together for the first time, but ultimately, it's the bits and bobs of everyday life that define the people: a photo of the team drinking tea with a teddy bear on their table, gift labels from their midwinter celebration, a doodle in a diary margin, a tin of pea soup.
More than 70 years after their journey ended, when our group of Yorkshire kids was lugging a sledge across the soft asphalt, we took no note of the little details. Their endeavour seemed grander than that, and we saw only the big picture. We never would have thought to lug a typewriter with us.


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