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A Magnificent Failure

The Worst Journey in the World

by Apsley Cherry-Garrard
Carroll and Graf, 607 pp., $16.95 (paper)

In the second half of this century, the great unknown for explorers has been space. But the exploration of space is a highly technical project and, forty years after it began, we still don’t know much about it back on earth because NASA has yet to find room on a spacecraft for anyone who is able to put his experience into words. The astronauts have videotaped fragments of life in space and Hollywood has glamorized it, but The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe’s imaginative recreation of what it might have been like, is as near as we get to the thing itself. We still don’t know how it really feels to be blasted off beyond the pull of gravity, or how you live weightless and apparently in slow motion while the capsule circles at an insane speed in that huge darkness. We don’t even properly know what our planet looks like from out there in space. The astronauts are too busy with their scientific chores to bother with anything else. Even if they knew how it was done, writing about the experience is not one of their concerns. As they report it, life in space sounds not much different from a spell in a Best Western motel in Topeka, Kansas.

Antarctica, which was the great unknown at the beginning of this century, has been lucky in comparison. Robert Falcon Scott justified his two expeditions—launched in 1901 and 1910—and helped finance them, as scientific research. He even shortened the odds against his own survival by refusing to dump the thirty pounds of rocks he and his four companions were dragging from the South Pole on their sledges before they all died. “We travelled for Science,” Apsley Cherry-Garrard, a member of the search party that discovered Scott’s frozen body, wrote in The Worst Journey in the World. He insisted that for them, the race for the South Pole was a minor consideration and denied the charge that Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian who beat them to it by one month,

was perfectly right in refusing to allow science to use up the forces of his men, or to interfere for a moment with his single business of getting to the Pole and back again. No doubt he was; but we were not out for a single business: we were out for everything we could add to the world’s store of knowledge about the Antarctic.

A large proportion of the men who joined Scott’s second polar expedition in 1910 were scientists, but in those days education was less specialized than it is now and even scientists had the classics beaten into them at school. They knew Shakespeare and Milton and the other great English poets as well as Latin and Greek, and, along with their technical books, the authors they took with them included Dickens, Thackeray, Charlotte Brontë, Hardy, Tennyson, Browning, Charles Darwin, and historians like Napier and Herbert Paul. Not only did they love reading, they put a high price on clear, expository prose and used it in the journals they kept faithfully even in the most appalling conditions.

Cherry-Garrard was not a scientist, although he was officially listed as “assistant zoologist” to Dr. Wilson, the expedition’s Chief of Scientific Staff. He had read Classics and Modern History at Oxford, and his colleagues joked that Scott had taken him on because he knew a lot of Latin and Greek. Cherry-Garrard himself couldn’t believe his luck. The doctors in London had wanted to turn him down because he was so nearsighted that, as he said, “I could only see the people across the road as vague blobs walking.” He was also the baby of the party: he was twenty-four when the Terra Nova sailed from Cardiff, and the cabin he shared with two other young assistants was called “the Nursery.” But he was strong, fit, cheerful, and willing, and he had something to prove. His father, an army general who married late and died while Cherry-Garrard was still at Oxford, was described by Field Marshal Lord Wolseley as “the bravest man I have ever seen.” His son made no secret of being often scared, but the trials he endured and the style with which he endured them would have put even his father to shame.

What Scott wasn’t to know when he picked Bill Wilson’s myopic young friend was that he was taking on an extraordinarily gifted writer. Cherry-Garrard took nine years to complete The Worst Journey in the World* and in that time he became friends not just with like-minded adventurers such as Mallory of Everest and Lawrence of Arabia, but also with some of the country’s most illustrious writers: Shaw, Galsworthy, Barrie, Wells, and Arnold Bennett. Maybe they or their example egged him on, but I doubt it. He writes better than any of them and the gift was there from the start. This, for example, is how he describes the Midwinter Night celebrations at Cape Evans in his diary:

A hard night: clear, with a blue sky so deep that it looks black: the stars are steel points: the glaciers burnished silver. The snow rings and thuds to your footfall. The ice is cracking to the falling temperature and the tide crack groans as the water rises. And over all, wave upon wave, fold upon fold, there hangs the curtain of the aurora. As you watch, it fades away, and then quite suddenly a great beam flashes up and rushes to the zenith, an arch of palest green and orange, a tail of flaming gold. Again it falls, fading away into great searchlight beams which rise behind the smoking crater of Mount Erebus. And again the spiritual veil is drawn—

Here at the roaring loom of Time I ply
And weave for God the garment thou seest him by.

Inside the hut are orgies. We are very merry—and indeed why not? The sun turns to come back to us tonight, and such a day comes only once a year….

Titus [Oates] got three things which pleased him immensely, a sponge, a whistle, and a pop-gun which went off when he pressed the butt. For the rest of the evening he went round asking whether you were sweating. “No.” “Yes, you are,” he said, and wiped your face with the sponge. “If you want to please me very much you will fall down when I shoot you,” he said to me, and then he went round shooting everybody. At intervals he blew the whistle….

As we turned in he said, “Cherry, are you responsible for your actions?” and when I said Yes, he blew loudly on his whistle, and the last thing I remembered was that he woke up Meares to ask him whether he was fancy free.

It was a magnificent bust.

This is perfect prose: lucid, vivid, bone-simple, and full of feeling, both for the beauty of the scene and the silliness of his friends, a perfect balance of precision and pleasure. The two lines of verse seem, in comparison, pale and inflated. Cherry-Garrard may even have sensed this because there are almost no literary allusions in the finished narrative, although he loved poetry and relied on it to keep him going when things were bad.

Scott’s heroic death ensured him a place in British history, and the fact that he died a good loser, having been beaten to the Pole by the businesslike Amundsen, made his immortality doubly secure for his countrymen. That story is told in Scott’s journal, which formed the basis of the book Scott’s Last Expedition. It is a sad and powerful document, but Cherry-Garrard gave Scott and his companions a different kind of immortality by making them the occasion for a literary masterpiece. The Worst Journey in the World is to travel writing what War and Peace is to the novel or Herzen’s Memoirs are to autobiography: the book by which all the rest are measured.

Apart from his natural talent and love of clear language, it may be that Cherry-Garrard wrote as well as he did because he made the same demands on himself as a writer as he had as a member of the expedition. He had been through something extraordinary and he did not wish to falsify the experience. He did not go all the way to the Pole; at the top of the Beardmore Glacier, Scott had to decide between him and Oates for the final push and chose Oates—a great disappointment for the younger man but a blessing for literature. Cherry-Garrard tells that story in his book, but “the worst journey” itself was different from the search for the South Pole and, although no one died on it, even grimmer. Scott called it “the hardest journey ever made.”

It started from the expedition’s base at Cape Evans on June 27, 1911, ended on August 1, exactly three months before Scott set out for the Pole, and it involved just three people: Bill Wilson, “Birdie” Bowers, and Cherry-Garrard. Needless to say, it was made in the name of science: Wilson wanted to collect the eggs of the Emperor penguin in the hope that the embryology of that primitive creature might shed some light on the link between birds and reptiles. During Scott’s first Antarctic expedition ten years earlier, Wilson had discovered one of the Emperors’ breeding grounds at Cape Crozier, but that was in the spring and by then the chicks were already hatched. And this was the problem: the Emperor penguin lays its eggs in June and July, the middle of the Antarctic winter, and no one had ever sledged at that dead season. It was, Cherry-Garrard wrote, “the weirdest bird’s-nesting expedition that has ever been or ever will be.”

There were two things against the expedition: darkness and cold. The sun had gone below the horizon months earlier and the explorers’ only light was that of the moon or, when the moon was down and there were no clouds, of the stars. This was in 1911, so of course they had no electric torches. To read the compass they used matches, which mostly wouldn’t strike, and sometimes they lit a candle: “We carried a naked lighted candle back with us when we went to find our second sledge. It was the weirdest kind of procession, three frozen men and a little pool of light. Generally we steered by Jupiter, and I never see him now without recalling his friendship in those days.” Cherry-Garrard was less bothered by the darkness than his companions were: it was too cold to wear glasses and, without them, he was so myopic that he could scarcely see beyond the end of his nose, even in daylight. Even so, the darkness was claustrophobic and frustrating; it weighed on them and made even the simplest chores difficult and slow.

  1. *

    It was first published in 1922 and has remained in print in England ever since. Carroll and Graf has now reissued in the US the paperback edition first published in 1989.

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