Today’s guest brit is author Sara Wheeler. After I read Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s stunning account of the South Polar treks of 1912 in ‘The Worst Journey in the World,’ I wanted to ‘meet’ him you might say. The only effective way to do that outside of his own words is in Sara Wheeler’s biography of him.
Wheeler recognizes that the quintessential element of British wit and prose is irony, and she uses it liberally. Her Wikipedia entry sums it up pretty well–
“Sara Wheeler was brought up in Bristol and studied Classics and Modern Languages at Brasenose College. After writing about her travels on the Greek island of Euboea and in Chile, she was accepted by the US National Science Foundation as their first female writer-in-residence at the South Pole, and spent seven months in Antarctica. She successfully claimed the cost of a mandatory syphilis test against tax. In her resultant book Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica, she mentioned sleeping in the captain’s bunk in Scott’s Hut. Whilst in Antarctica she read The Worst Journey in the World, an account of the Terra Nova Expedition, and she later wrote a biography of its author Apsley Cherry-Garrard“.
She appreciates Cherry’s sophistication and notes how difficult it must have been for him to communicate with those whose sense of irony was not as developed as his own. Reading ‘Cherry ‘ rounds out the obsession that started when I picked up Beryl Bainbridge’s ‘The Birthday Boys.’ The one book I’ve had a hard time coming to: Captain Scott’s own journal. The centennial of his death is this week, March 29. We know that date because Scott wrote in his log until he could no longer hold the pen. I’ve feared reading its last words and knowing what they mean–the tragic nothingness that follows. But through Wheeler’s book, you see that the real pain is for the survivor.
Today’s Brit is another hero from the centenary of South Pole exploration. Another member of the team that died with Scott in late March 1912, Edward Adrian Wilson was a self-taught artist, a physician, and head scientist and zoologist of the expedition. Wilson led the infamous 130-mile Winter Journey from the base camp to the breeding grounds of the Emperor penguin in the complete dark and terrifying cold of the Antarctic winter. The Holy Grail he sought was a freshly laid egg of an Emperor penguin, hypothesized to hold evidence of the missing evolutionary link between reptiles and birds. As seen above, Wilson would sketch in sub-zero temperatures by day and transform his notes and sketches into full watercolor paintings in the warmth of the group hut by evening.
Today’s Brit is a true hero, a newly discovered hero to me, who furthered science, literature, and the human spirit considerably. He is Apsley Cherry-Garrard, a member of Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition to Antarctica from 1910 to 1913. The end of this month marks the 100th anniversary of the tragic end to Scott’s quest for the South Pole–all 5 of the party who trekked to the pole died on the return journey from cold, starvation and exhaustion. Cherry-Garrard was not among them and, hence, lived to tell the tale in the form of his wonderful book, ‘The Worst Journey in the World.’ Twenty-something Cherry survived Antarctica, but he was haunted by the loss of his close friends for the rest of his life. In a world that had not yet recognized nor labelled conditions like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or Survivor’s Guilt, Cherry suffered tremendously from depression. One can only hope that he found catharsis in writing–his book is so thorough, so thoughtful and descriptive, it is known as the definitive account of that expedition, and as such makes a perfectly annotated companion to Scott’s own words, his journal, published as ‘Scott’s Last Expedition’ which Cherry quotes at length.
One hundred years ago today, Scott’s party returning from the Pole were already pretty certain that they would not survive–we know this from their diaries. But the men who waited for them at the main camp did not know this with any certainty at all. They undertook a search for what they then knew would be their remains 10 months later when the winter weather broke. Reading Cherry’s description of that sad mission is evocative enough to make you feel like you are there–and possesses the spirituality to make you feel like Cherry is there holding your hand.
Next up on my reading list: Sarah Wheeler’s biography of Apsley Cherry-Garrard.
I just finished reading Beryl Bainbridge’s novel, The Birthday Boys, an account of Robert Falcon Scott’s tragic march to the South Pole told in turns from the point of view of the five men who died there. Here is an excerpt from the final section, the words of Captain Titus Oates as Bainbridge imagines them–
And of course that black flag told them that Roald Amundsen and his party of Norwegian explorers had beaten them to the Pole.
The photo of Scott in his Antarctic expedition hut can be opened in another window and examined for incredible detail. My god, you can almost smell the penguins!
By the by, Beryl Bainbridge was an incredibly talented but unsung author. She died last year at only 77 of cancer. Send up some love to her spirit some time by reading one of her books, this one for example, or perhaps An Awfully Big Adventure.