It was like a large black diamond, about two inches across and each of its seven or eight facets had been carved and smoothed by aeons of icy wind and weather. It looked and felt like a precious stone. It was. It had been smuggled out from the Antartic, where no one is allowed to take anything from that pristine wilderness.
A friend had brought it out for us. For years I carried it from house to house, and on the last move it disappeared. I regret it more than anything else that I’ve ever lost or broken or damaged. Eight years later, I still feel sad to no longer have that irreplaceable, potent black stone sitting on my table among other treasures. It was the treasure of treasures.
But I still have my shelves of books on that mysterious continent, and the extraordinary men who couldn’t stay away from it. Captain Scott’s expedition is the one that still reverberates among the English… a bit like Dunkirk, his heroic failure somehow thrilled them more than if he had achieved his goal of getting to the South Pole first. Poor Amundsen who did, is hardly rated by Scott afficionadoes. He made it look easy, while Scott and his men laboured mightily.
Yet men who were quite ordinary have become legends since their snowy deaths back then – men like Captain Oates stepping outside the tent into a blizzard with his :’ I am just going outside and may be some time’, and heading off to die… his portrait entitled: “A very gallant gentleman” still proudly hangs in his old cavalry regiment’s mess. He knew his frostbitten feet were going to make the difference between Scott and the other two getting back to safety, or being held up by him and never making it. But it was too late by then anyway, with the unexpectedly terrible weather making impossible the last few miles of the journey to safety.
Oates, who in spite of being taciturn, was a potent presence and a penetrating observer, was unimpressed by Captain Scott, and spent a great deal of his time before the expedition started, trying to cosset his Mongolian ponies, crouching with them in their freezing stalls, coaxing them to eat their in-edible rations, or rescuing harness, headstalls and any other object which the bored and ravenous animals were tempted to devour.
His cronies who shared one side of the cramped hut which was their home while wintering at Cape Evans, consisted of Bowers, Cherry-Garrard, Atkinson and Meares, who were known as The Tenement Dwellers, anti-feminist, anti-scientist, conservative and spartan – and, one has to add, narrow-minded and philistine.
The other side of the twenty-five foot wide hut were the scientists, who made a dainty attempt at home-making, mocked by Oates who called their space The Opium Den. They draped a curtain, scrounged from photographer Ponting, across their bunks to give themselves privacy. One added a branch acetylene light, another stained everything stainable with Condy’s fluid, making it a uniform red brown, the Norwegian, Gran, put red borders made from photographers’ material on their shelves, and another adorned his bunk with a piece of dark blue material which had started life as part of a Sunday altar cloth.
Yet all sixteen men relied on each other for company and comfort, succour and safety. They knew that their survival depended on each other, and perhaps in this way discovered for themselves the truth of the ideal society in which all life and all things and all men are connected to each other. No-one is separate from the whole, a truth which our civilisation as a whole, seems to have forgotten.
Writing of the expedition to Cape Crozier he made with Bowers and Wilson on their ‘worst journey in the world’, (the title of his book) Cherry Garrard said: ‘ And we DID stick it… we did not forget the Please and Thank you, which mean much in such circumstances, and all the little links with decent civilisation which we could still keep going. I’ll swear there was still a grace about us as we staggered in. And we kept our tempers – even with God.’ A bond of mysticism carried these three men through.
Tactful Dr Bill Wilson, secret disciple of St Francis, and known as Uncle Bill, was the advisor, peace-maker and comforter in this tiny society. Birdie Bowers, bachelor, tiger for punishment, endlessly strong and tireless long after everyone else was fainting with exhaustion, was the other closet mystic in the party – ” The purpose of life,” he wrote “… is to make a great decision – to choose between the material and the spiritual, and if we choose the spiritual we must work out our choice, and then it will run like a silver thread through the material… nothing that happens to our bodies really matters.”
And it’s this which is what makes Scott’s expedition so continuously fascinating, that they were people, who at the extremity of their strength, dying of starvation, continued to be kind and considerate to each other, and never did forget the pleases and thank you’s, the courtesies and the deeper meanings of civilisation. Because they cared about their animals they didn’t kill and eat their dogs like Amundsen did, and Scott also refused to eat the ponies on their journey, which ultimately sealed their fate.
So though they failed to achieve their purpose, they remain inspirational. They were ordinary men stretched to the limits of their endurance, and they never lost their decency, and goodness and humanity. This is why their story is so enduring. They were true to themselves and to their code of honour. They remind me that simple human decencies are actually what make men and women great and that these qualities are the bedrock of our civilisation.
Food for Threadbare Gourmets
A weekend lunch party at a friend’s house, seated on her veranda overlooking a turquoise sea, and embellished with sunshine, laughter, lots of rose to drink and delicious food, ending with summer pudding – what else on a perfect summer’s day? Here’s how to make this delicious and easy classic English pudding.
You need about two pounds of a mix of summer fruit and berries. Keep strawberries separate from the rest. In a pan melt 175 gms of sugar with three tblspns of water. Then add the prepared fruit except the strawberries. Gently cook for a few minutes to soften. Line a pudding bowl with thinly cut slices of bread, no crusts, all fitted and slotted into each other so there are no cracks.
Pour the fruit into a sieve to strain off the juice. Fill the bowl with the fruit, adding the strawberries if you have them, in different layers. Soak slices of bread in some of the juice, and fit them over the top. Weight the top with a plate and some heavy tins, and leave in the fridge overnight for at least six to seven hours. Turn out this wonderful looking pink pudding, and serve with lots of cream to eight delighted people.
Food for Thought
Always do your best: Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstances, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgement, self-abuse, and regret.
Don Miguel Ruiz. ‘The Four Agreements’