Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Scott of the Antarctic

Like many British children of my generation, I was brought up on the exploits of those men who we were informed were our national heroes.

One individual who fascinated me during my childhood was Captain Robert Falcon Scott, and I remember reading much about his ultimately tragic expedition to the South Pole in 1910-12.  Of course, when we are young we are not fully capable of critical analysis of such things, and tend to accept the "official" version, or the myths and legends expounded by our elders and betters.

Only recently, after studying more material about the ill-fated expedition, did I grasp the sheer dimensions of what those pioneer explorers attempted and achieved, and the human qualities which they exhibited whilst doing so.

What has really been brought home to me is the geographical magnitude of these endeavours, which were of course undertaken with what by 21st century standards was negligible and primitive technology and equipment.  The sacrifices made, and fortitude shown, by the men on Scott's expedition, and other adventures of the same period, are quite humbling to me, and have helped to place some of my mundane everyday concerns into greater perspective.....

Of course, there has been criticism of Scott from some quarters, with accusations of incompetent planning and decision-making.  Be that as it may, for me it does not really detract from the old-fashioned nobility and honour which was displayed, especially in adversity.

Some of the literature which I was exposed to as a child seemed in retrospect to direct mild "hostility" towards Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer who "beat" Scott's team in the race to the Pole.  I can see now that this was an absurd stance to adopt. Although Scott and his men will have been disappointed to "lose" the race, it does not unduly affect my appraisal of events. Amundsen seems to have achieved his triumph via a combination of sound judgement, audacity and also some good fortune.

These days, the nationalities of the protagonists is pretty much immaterial to me, anyway, and the achievements, and attributes, of the people involved is an often inspiring example of the capabilities and potential of the human race in general.  A study of man's curiosity, endurance, courage and wanderlust.

One of the fascinating aspects of the expeditions in the early 20th century is that they represented the last embers of an entire age, before the relentless march of mechanisation and technology.  This is in no way to demean the achievements of those who followed, by the way, and the phrases "romantic age" and "heroic era" are a touch trite.  More than their successors, though, Amundsen, Scott, Shackleton et al, were operating without a net.

The most heart-rending parts of the Scott story are of course the events which occurred on the return journey from the Pole. The stoicism of the party, the self-sacrifice of Lawrence Oates and the apparent dignity with which the remaining men confronted their fate. Revisiting these elements of the story certainly brought a tear to my eye.....

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