Sunday, March 18, 2007

Roland Huntford – ‘Shackleton’

The Discovery todayS. regarded this without too much interest, saying, ‘Oh, a boys’ book.’ She was right, of course, there’s nothing feminine here; nothing, almost, that even relates to everyday life, except via grandly staged metaphor. In it, Ernest Shackleton, merchant sailor from a young age and then, for the remainder of his life, intrepid explorer, explores the Antarctic on three separate occasions. This is the bulk of the book, the Discovery expedition providing 88 pages, the Nimrod 135 and the Endurance 285. 189 pages remain for the in-between bits, in which Shackleton dashes hither and thither trying to make a quick buck, keeps several mistresses and a wife on the go, and raises funds for his expeditions. A scant 30 pages are given to his pre-Discovery life, and the remaining 159 pages spent in the civilised world (for want of a better phrase - the First World War was in mid flight when Shackleton returned from the Endurance trip) make for infuriating reading. Great explorer though he may have been, put him in society and he fell apart. Constitutionally unable to settle with his wife and children, he instead pursued many ridiculous schemes for making money (‘Hungarian mines’ is one chapter title), always imagining that his fortune was around the corner, never able to understand that application may be required for this, as well as fast talking. He was too naïve for this kind of pursuit, never understanding that vested interests caused people to lie to him. His brother Frank took this get-rich-quick attitude a stage or two further, and was strongly suspected of having stolen the Irish crown jewels.

Huntford sums up Shackleton’s character as the book nears its conclusion:

Shackleton was ruthless and ambitious, and sought personal fulfilment. All this, however, withered before the flame of leadership which burned within him. He had the indefinable ability to make things happen. After all, with no money of his own, he somehow organised three expeditions.

Shackleton’s tragedy was that he lacked the winning touch. Technical deficiency was the only bar to his success [...] Mental sloth was Shackleton’s fatal flaw. (p. 692)
These are points he has been making all along, with much evidence to back them up. The lack of preparation for the four expeditions (the fourth being the Quest expedition, on which Shackleton died before the Antarctic had been reached; the first was organised by Scott) is staggering, and Huntford reaches fever pitch in his remonstrances all through the Discovery and Nimrod sections that the polar travellers refuse either to use skis (or ‘ski’, as Huntford has it), or to get the most out of the dogs who pulled Scott’s sledges of supplies. Learning from the dogs’ poor performance, Shackleton used ponies on his own expedition, and in return gets a torrent of statistics from Huntford explaining why this was exactly the wrong thing to do. He points to the examples of Amundsen and Nansen, who were experts with skis and dogs, emphasising that it is not hindsight which makes him criticise Shackleton and Scott, but rather their own lack of foresight. They may have been trying to get to places no human had been before, but there was still a precedent for travel in similar conditions.

Huntford believes they ignored this precedent because it was not the done thing for the British to follow the example of a foreigner. A combination of conceit, ignorance and pride led both explorers into making their respective trips on foot: walking in deep snow may be very much harder than skiing over it, but doesn’t that in itself make it perfect for displaying the British bulldog spirit? Better to be dead and second to the pole on foot (Scott), than first and alive on skis (Amundsen). Huntford shakes his head at the idiocy of this, and it is hard to disagree. He hates Scott, he really does. For sacrificing his men, for the myth that built up around his purposeless death, for the pretence that scurvy had had no hand in it. What redeems Shackleton, who is very similar in terms of personal ambition (neither man cared about the scientific import of their expeditions, they just wanted to Get There First), is the aforementioned ‘flame of leadership’. Useless at preparation, he was nevertheless terrific at leading his men once his expeditions were under way. Of the men under his direct command, not one died (although many came close). Unlike Scott, he turned back when only 100 miles from the pole because he knew it would mean death to go on. It would have meant glory too, but saving his men was more important. The Endurance crew spent two years waiting, from the point when the ship got stuck in the ice, to the point when Shackleton, having made his epic open boat journey to South Georgia, returned to rescue those who had stayed behind on Elephant Island. It takes a special kind of leader to keep men going, and sane, through this kind of uncertain torment, and it is this for which Huntford chiefly celebrates Shackleton: he brought ‘character and humour to a pursuit often cursed by excessive high-mindedness and lacklustre overseers’ (p. 691). I can see this, but personally I had grown tired of this ‘boys’ book’ by the time of the Endurance expedition. The Nimrod journey into the heart of Antarctica I found thrilling, and could see the point of; the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (Endurance) seemed mere macho chest beating by comparison. I started to feel the lack of imagination that can only see the biggest, tallest, first, furthest.

Perhaps this is my failure, though, for Shackleton has an answer to it. The following was recorded by an officer in Murmansk, where Shackleton went as part of the war effort in 1918. Overhearing him reciting poetry, he asks him about it:
‘You don’t know who said that,’ [Shackleton] affirmed.
‘No. I don’t know who said that.’
‘Well, Shackleton said it.’
‘That explorer-man?’ I asked. ‘He must be a man of many parts. I never knew he was a poet!’
Again he turned on me. ‘Then why the devil do you think he became an explorer?’
I can’t remember when my eyes were more completely opened. (p. 669)

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