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April 17, 2005

Comments

Anna

Ootteko huomanneet, että postaukseen ei ole vähään aikaan tullut tuota "posted by" kohtaa?

Nyt pitää arvailla, kummalla teistä on asioita liittyen yliopiston pääsykokeisiin?

Have you noticed that the "posted by" function isn't there anymore?

now I just have to guess which one of you has something to do with uni entrance exams.

Sari

Ups, korjasin asian :-)

Mekku

I have picked as my second life-changing book one that fits Sari’s general themes of endurance, trauma and comradeship (and one which got me into winter hiking): Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s *The Worst Journey in the World*. The book, an account of Captain Scott’s 1911-1913 expedition to the Antarctic, is an absolute classic among travel books not only because it tells the famous story of Scott and ‘I-may-be-some-time’ Oates, but also because it is written in a style that is unadorned yet shatteringly moving. Describing his own five-week man-hauling journey through the Antarctic winter in order to obtain some Emperor penguin’s eggs for research Cherry writes: ‘Antarctic exploration is seldom as bad as you imagine, seldom as bad as it sounds. But this journey had beggared our language: no words could express its horror.’

Cherry-Garrad, a near-sighted son of a landed English gentleman, had to talk his way into being accepted as the second youngest member of Scott’s expedition, and even then was only taken onboard as an ‘assistant zoologist’ because the expedition doctor Bill Wilson was a family friend. Despite all this, Cherry turned out to be one of the hardest-working and most popular members of the entire expedition, clocking in more sledging miles than anyone else, with the exceptions of Scott, Wilson and Birdie Bowers, who all perished on their way back from the pole. Despite his pluck, he was to spend most of his life battling crushing periods of depression, blaming himself for the deaths of his friends on the ice. Acting according to Scott’s own pre-laid plan, he had dog-driven extra rations to a depot laid along the route to the pole and waited there for some days for the return of the polar party. When his dog-food ran out, he returned to the expedition hut. However, only a few days later the last survivors of Scott’s party came to a final halt just eleven miles from where Cherry had been waiting for them.

Written during his convalescence after being invalided home from Belgium in the First World War, *The Worst Journey in the World* is Cherry’s outlet for the feelings of guilt felt by so many of his contemporaries; the desperate need to understand why they, and not their comrades, survived. Ironically, for Cherry the experiences and comradeship offered by the war paled against what he had already lived through: ‘Talk of ex-soldiers’, he once wrote, ‘give me ex-antarcticists, unsoured and with their ideals intact: they could sweep the world.’

What makes Cherry’s account of the expedition so compelling is the combination of idealism and self-doubt that comes through in his writing. He reveals his willingness to go to any lenghts to know and understand life in all of its complexity, yet shows absolute despair at the callous and violent purposes to which that knowledge can be put. He portrays the life of the explorers as an almost impossibly harmonious domestic existence in the middle of a fantasically hostile environment (‘We did not forget the Please and Thank You, which mean so much in such circumstances […]. I’ll swear there was still a grace about us when we staggered in [to the hut]. And we kept our tempers – even with God’.), yet at the same time he is openly critical about the (still at that time) revered figure of Captain Scott himself. In Cherry’s eyes, Scott’s failings were as a man, rather than as an organiser of expeditions, and he would never agree with later detractors who have portrayed the entire expedition as an amateurish shambles. (Some authoritative contemporary experts have agreed with Cherry – see for example Sir Ranulph Fiennes’s excellent Captain Scott [2003]). Rather, Scott’s fault was in a way similar to Cherry’s own: that he was too sensitive to everything around him to lead with confidence. ‘The man with the nerves gets things done, but sometimes he has a terrible time in doing them’. Despite the faults, however, Cherry’s final judgement of his former leader is a balanced one: Scott’s achievements as an explorer were not his greatest triumph. ‘Surely the greatest was that by which he conquered his weaker self, and became the strong leader whom we went to follow and came to love’.

As for his own reasons for voluntarily placing himself in the quietly lethal environment of Antarctica, they come across crystal-clear in the book. He is, first of all, of the school of thought that believes people reveal their true character under pressure, and wanted to test himself to see whether he could, perhaps, start trusting in his own worth. What he wrote about his friend T. E. Lawrence (‘of Arabia’) was equally true of himself: ‘The fact that in the eyes of the world Lawrence lived the bravest of lives did not help him prove to himself that he was no coward.’ Secondly, he was by nature not attracted to the adrenalin rushes of dangerous speed, but more to the quiet perseverance and simplicity of polar plodding. A man who occupies his own mind as intensely as Cherry clearly did, will find a state of mental clarity and focus during the long, slow physical work of manhauling across endless, white landscapes. Thirdly, he was much attracted to the idea of unknown becoming known. Though his own formal education was in Classics and Modern History, he was fascinated by the discoveries his natural scientist colleagues were making about the movement of ice, the weather patterns of Antarctica, and its various life forms. ‘Exploration,’ he writes, ‘is the physical expression of the Intellectual Passion’.

And if I may be forgiven a little rant of my own here (no to mention a ridiculously bold comparison), what Cherry says about the purposes of such exploration should be compulsory reading for Treasury officials and University administrators today:
‘Some will tell you that you are mad, and nearly all will say, “What is the use?” For we are a nation of shopkeepers, and no shopkeeper will look at research which does not promise him a financial return within a year. Ans so you will sledge nearly alone, but those with whom you sledge will not be shopkeepers: that is worth a good deal. If you march your Winter Journeys you will have your reward, so long as all you want is a penguin’s egg.’

So, all in all a book which first of all, revealed for me a whole new genre of polar traver books which has become a passion, and secondly, it made me want to go and plod through fields of snow - which can be so much more satisfying than dashing.

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