Belfast Telegraph

Why valour of polar explorers seems frozen in time

By Mike Gilson

I stumbled across a book the other day called The Worst Journey in the World. I can't put it down. It's written by the gloriously named Apsley George Benet Cherry-Garrard, sensibly known as Cherry to his friends.

Cherry, as you might imagine, was as true an English blue blood from aristocratic stock and inherited wealth as you could find.

Until his early-20s, most things came pretty easy to old Cherry. But, despite the background, he's a new hero of mine.

He died in 1959, broken-hearted and suffering from severe clinical depression, haunted that he might have done more to save his friends.

Those mates were Bill Wilson, Birdy Bowers and Robert Falcon Scott. Cherry was the one who found them dead in their tent in the Antarctic just a few miles from the safety of base camp.

The three had been hit by a blizzard on the way back from the South Pole, a depressing march from a scene of defeat, having been beaten in the race to be first by the Norwegian Amundsen.

Titus Oates had made one of the most famous walks in history out of that tent some weeks before.

You'd think there was nothing new to learn about Captain Scott's Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole from 1910 to 1913. The glorious British failure, the heroism and all that.

But Cherry's book, published in 1922, has been described by the New York Review of Books as a masterpiece comparable to War and Peace and I'm not going to disagree. Here's why. I really do think it is about more than one of the most exhilarating expeditions in history.

It is about things that we may have lost, or are in danger of losing.

It's about profound friendship, teamwork, self-sacrifice, the pursuit of knowledge, the eschewing of personal gratification, the subsuming of ego.

In the most dramatic of all circumstances, it is about the distaste of drama. It is about getting the job done without thought of reward.

Page after page of this remarkable book filled with Boy's Own thrills and spills of men standing on the edge of the world shines through with modesty and forbearance.

In fact, the only hyperbole is found in the title, which was suggested to Cherry by his friend George Bernard Shaw.

Make no mistake: what Cherry and the rest of Scott's team had to put up with during the four years of the expedition would have broken most men.

Months of total darkness in temperatures of minus-77 degrees, constant frostbite, soaking wet sleeping bags, the stink of seal blubber fires to keep warm, the many times they lay down struggling to stop themselves welcoming in death.

Most of Cherry's teeth actually shattered, so hard did they chatter in the cold. He would have painful dental treatment for the rest of his life.

And, yet, on no page of the book is there complaint. Not even when he, Wilson and Bowers march 60 miles in darkness to secure an unhatched Emperor penguin egg to bring back for research, getting caught in a blizzard that rips away their tent and leaves them singing hymns in the snow drift as they wait for death.

This is all described as if a minor inconvenience at a Sunday picnic and makes the book all the more powerful for that.

Not one man in the crew whinges about his lot. Cherry describes them all as "first class fellows", or "salt of the earth". Scott describes Cherry as a "real brick".

Nowadays, we might, in our cynical, modern way, laugh at such language.

But the men of Scott's voyage thought only of the task in hand, the scientific experiments that might better mankind. And they had a profound love for each other.

Now, when the only sort of "journey" we seem to hear about involves kids overcoming minor inconveniences in life to reach the final of the X Factor, does not The Worst Journey in the World stand as a warning to us?

Some have said that the generations grown up after the world wars, particularly men, have lost a sense of common purpose, of the notion of servitude for a greater cause, and, while no-one would suggest another world war to rectify this, there may be something in it.

For a venal, self-regarding spirit, an unearned sense of entitlement is becoming more and more evident in modern life. Birdy, Scott and Cherry would hardly recognise the place.

We don't need to go to the ends of the earth to rediscover our spirit of endeavour, perhaps. The stiff upper lips of 1913 were not just a result of the frostbite.

Apsley George Benet Cherry-Garrard and his friends still have something to teach us from their frozen end of time.

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