It is true that I have a bit of a thing about ice and snow, which I’m told indicates an introverted personality trait. That’s fine with me; I am mesmerised by endless white landscapes devoid of humanity, and am untiringly fascinated by the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. When I tell people where I would spend my dream holiday, they look at me askance and say things like ‘But Why? There’s nothing there!”
Exactly. Pristine. Wilderness. My kind of place.
I’ve been reading some really good books recently in preparation for my dream holiday, but more about that another time. Of course, I have already read the obvious books; Scott’s Last Expedition, the polar diaries of Captain Robert Falcon Scott. South by Ernest Shackleton, The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, Shackleton’s Forgotten Men by Lennard Bickel, not to mention many others stories of snow, ice, altitude and frequent disaster.
So in this three part review, I am looking at the following books;
- Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing. First published in 1959
- Tom Crean – An Unsung Hero by Michael Smith published in 2001
- The North Water by Ian McGuire, published in 2016 and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016.
Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage,
by Alfred Lansing.
First published in 1959
When Sir Ernest Shackleton published his account of his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, 1914-1917 in 1919, he had made sure to secure all publishing rights to this incredible story, which was told in his own words. In 1959, American journalist Alfred Lansing, obsessed with the Shackleton expedition, decided it was time to rewrite the story without any of the ‘excesses and histrionics’ that had accompanied the original. In the 1950’s, Lansing was able to interview several surviving members of the original crew of The Endurance, and was given access to expedition log books, diaries and an assortment of documents which he described as being ‘variously wrinkled by seawater, and smudged with soot from blubber stoves.’
The story of Endurance has been described as something taken straight from the The Boy’s Own Magazine, and if you don’t know it already, you should definitely get a copy of this book.
Dismayed by the failure of Scott’s expedition to be the first men to reach the South Pole, Shackleton decided he would become one of the first men to cross the Antarctic continent from coast to coast, on foot, via the South Pole. Their ship, The Endurance, became trapped by ice, and was eventually crushed and sank. The men made their escape, carrying as many provisions as possible, and spent five months camping on moving ice floes, until, breaking up in the summer thaw, the 28 men climbed into the three lifeboats they had salvaged from the ship. After a grueling five days at sea they arrived at the uninhabited Elephant Island and were able to set up camp. There was no hope of a chance rescue by passing boats, so Shackleton, accompanied by five of his men, once again took to the lifeboat they named after a major sponsor of the expedition, The James Caird . They spent two weeks in the little boat, battling storms,
adverse winds, and dangerous rocks, but miraculously they arrived at the island of South Georgia and were able to land. But their struggle was still not over. They had reached the uninhabited southern side of the island, and rather than put to sea again, risking the lives of all six men, Shackleton accompanied by, Worsley and Crean, set off on foot to climb the previously uncrossed mountainous spine of the island, armed only with 50ft of rope, a carpenters adze, and with some brass nails from the boat driven into the soles of their boots to act as crampons, a journey which took some 36 hours. When they finally arrived, they were unrecognizable to the Norwegian whalers who they had stayed with only months before. It was to be some time, and several attempts before Shackleton could find a boat seaworthy enough to rescue the men from Elephant Island, but in August 1916 all hands were rescued and returned to civilization.
Shackleton has long been held up as an exemplar of good leadership and man-management, and his death in 1922 marked the end of the Heroic age of Antarctic Exploration. He was buried in South Georgia.
It is an incredible story, and it is amazing to think that this book is based to a large extent on first hand accounts of the terrible experiences the men encountered. We know from the outset that every man survived, but that does not lessen the tension on every page.
Tom Crean- An Unsung Hero by Michael Smith
published in 2001
If you have read anything at all about the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, you will have noticed the name Tom Crean cropping up time and time again. In this book, Michael Smith has pieced together the details of the extraordinary adventures of a modest man summarising his life and the part he played in three of the most famous expeditions of the age. This is an exhausting book to read. No sooner is one expedition saved from the brink of disaster on the ice, than we are plunged into the next adventure with a new captain and crew.
Tom Crean was born in Ireland in 1877, and joined the Royal Navy at the age of 15. In 1903, he was in Lyttleton Harbour, New Zealand as Scott’s ship Discovery was preparing to set sail, and volunteered to take the place of an Able Seaman who had deserted the ship after striking a Petty Officer. The Discovery voyage was primarily one of scientific exploration, but Scott also wanted to achieve the record for reaching farthest point south. Crean proved himself invaluable on sledging parties, being strong, even tempered and having a good sense of humour. Discovery became ice bound in 1902, and the crew were unable to free her that summer, forcing them to stay an extra year on the ice. Crean stayed with the ship until it was finally freed in February 1904.
When Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition to the South Pole failed in 1909, Scott began planning his famous Terra Nova expedition, and Crean was one of the first to be recruited to the crew. Once again, Crean proved himself a valuable team member, not only man hauling sledges, but helping to take care of the ponies who pulled the sledges. He was one of the last support party to accompany Scott before the five man polar team set off for their last journey south, and when Officer Teddy Evans became debilitated by scurvy on their return to Hut Point, Crean set off alone with only a few biscuits, covering 35 miles in an 18 hour hour solo trek to fetch help, thus saving Evans’ life. This expedition ended tragically, as we all know, but Crean as part of the search party the following year, was one of the first to spot the final resting place of Scott, Wilson and Bowers, and helped to build a snow cairn over their bodies.
In 1916, Shackleton was ready for another trip to Antarctica, aboard Endurance and again Crean was high on the list of recruits. It was another difficult voyage, and Crean was again at the centre of the action, He was in charge of a dog sled team, and raised a litter of pups that were born to one of the dogs early in the expedition.
Crean was one of the five men who accompanied Shackleton aboard The James Caird on the journey from Elephant Island to South Georgia, and then one of only three men who managed to traverse the bleak mountain range and glaciers that block the centre of the island to the safety of the Norwegian Whaling Station in Grytviken in order to rescue the 22 men stranded there, and sheltering under the makeshift hut of two upturned lifeboats. No men had ever made the journey before, and when they arrived, no one could believe they had succeeded. This was great praise indeed from the hardened Norwegian whalers who inhabited South Georgia at the time.
Crean, was a true Antarctic hero. He spent more time in Antarctica than either Scott or Shackleton, and managed to survive them both. Having had little formal education, Crean never kept diaries of his own, so the account’s of his skills on the ice are chiefly taken from the diaries and records kept by other members of the expedition. It is clear that on each of his expeditions south, Crean was heavily relied on, for his strength, reliability, resourcefulness and cheerfulness.
Tom Crean eventually retired from adventure, bought a pub in Annascaul, Co Kerry, Ireland, married and settled down. According to his daughter Eileen, he never told them his stories, but “put his medals and his sword in a box … and that was that. He was a very humble man”.
He died in 1938.
Tom Crean is commemorated in Victoria Land, on the Western Side of the Ross Sea where Mount Crean rises to 2,630m, and in the Crean Glacier on South Georgia.
The North Water by Ian McGuire,
published in 2016
and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016.
How I wish I could write a book like this.
Set in the Arctic, I think you could be forgiven for thinking that a lot of inspiration has come from the Heroic Era Antarctic tales, with a sprinkling of Herman Melvill’s Moby Dick thrown in for good measure.
It’s crude and punchy from the outset, with bad language, bad behaviour and the damp, cold backdrop of the Hull docks in the 1850’s, as a Greenland Whaling ship, The Volunteer, prepares to set sail. Drax, the harpooner has stolen, murdered and raped a young boy within the first few pages; he is bound to be the villain of the piece. Sex, violence, and corruption weave their thread throughout the book, which seems a vivid reflection of life on a whaler. Brutish men, capable of tackling a polar bear, flaying a whale, surviving the storms and ice floes of the Arctic seas are trapped together on their ship when it becomes ice bound.
The mysterious background of the ship’s doctor, Sumner, in the British Army in India, is slowly revealed in flashbacks during his opium addicted ramblings. Sumner becomes a reluctant detective in this story as the whaling industry draws to a close following an era of over exploitation. The corrupt owner Baxter, and master of the ship Brownlee, concoct a plan to claim insurance money by deliberately steering the ship into the icy North Water ostensibly in search of whales. The Volunteer is crushed to matchwood, leaving the crew stranded on the ice. While Drax and Captain Brownlee make plans to escape with the Inuit traders who come to investigate the wreckage, Drax murders once again, takes the sledges and furs, and abandons the men, to their fate on the ice. Only Sumner remains level headed enough to survive, eventually making his way back to Hull, where the book reaches a very satisfactory conclusion as Sumner wreaks his revenge on Baxter.
Great writing, a great story, and a great homage to my Antarctic hero’s.