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The deep interest of those who are living and must die is the permanent source for the effectiveness of myth.

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We die along with Scott and Oates and the others on the return from the pole; then we find that we have survived the experience. So it touches fundamentals. And the stories do survive; Scott's story in particular survives. Like any successful myth, it provides a skeleton ready to be dressed over and over in the different flesh different decades feel to be appropriate.

It has changed many times over in the course of its transmission from to the present. In the postwar anomie of the s, Apsley Cherry-Garrard published his memoir of the expedition, The Worst Journey in the World, as a lament for 'an age in geological time, so many hundreds of years ago, when we were artistic Christians'; already the decade-long gap, the geological shift represented by the First World War, was a presence in the story, a source of astringency and sorrow.

The s saw the expedition's concern with natural history fashioned into something congruent with Tarka the Otter, and rambling in shorts. The film Scott of the Antarctic, with John Mills as Scott, shaped it as a postwar fable of class integration, apt for the austerity era. The myth had a quiescent period in the s and s, when it held a secure if shrunken position as a perfectly typical subject for a Ladybird book for children. But it metamorphosed, rather than died, on the publication of Roland Huntford's debunking biography Scott and Amundsen in It survived even Huntford's devastating evidence of blundering.

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Even if you allow that the reverses on the homeward journey from the South Pole that killed Scott's party were mostly his own fault, rather than tragic bad luck, still they occupy the place in this kind of story reserved for inevitabilities, whatever their cause; they come in as downward turns of events that seem almost stipulated by the story's structure; while at the same time as you feel the approaching deaths to be inevitable, the perpetual present tense in which the story happens every time keeps hope helplessly alive.

Nor was the debunked version any less open to new cultural colouring. Huntford denounced Scott from the New Right, as an example of the sclerotic official personality; the playwright Trevor Griffiths, adapting Huntford's book as a TV drama, attacked Scott from the Left as a representative of privilege and the Establishment bested by a rather democratic, workmanlike set of Scandinavians.


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It would be perfectly possible, in other words, to assemble a history of all the things that the Scott myth has meant in Britain in the twentieth century. But if we want to understand why, and how, real, historical Edwardian men participated in the Antarctic adventure, we need to know what they thought their exploring meant.

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Myths, Roland Barthes pointed out, are a special kind of 'sign' in that they are not constructed from whole cloth, but from a set of elements that are already packed with meaning and association. As well as beginning a history, Scott's expeditions -- and Shackleton's -- consummated and effectively ended a much older tradition of British polar activity. We need to ask what that history, beginning a century and more before Scott sailed in , did to load meaning into the ways of seeing, ways of being brave, and ways of being in company that later became the elements of myth. First stumbling block: most of them knew nothing about polar exploration when they set out to do it.

The English were uniquely unprepared for the job. Other nationalities, less friendly to amateurism, chose experts who, for example, knew what skis were before they travelled to the polar regions. Having accepted, wishing to seize the kind of chance to distinguish himself that the peacetime Navy was unlikely to offer, he then read up on the achievements of previous explorers: Cook and Franklin, Ross and Nansen, Bellingshausen and the rest.

He gave himself a technical education in the subject. And polar history, as it is usually written, is technical history. It recounts a sequence of expeditions.

There is a degree of variety in the chosen starting point -- does it begin with the semi-legendary classical navigator who first saw the sea turn stiff with cold, or with the Elizabethan venturers in search of the North-East Passage to China? The different explorers form a chain of discovery. They map the fringes of the world, learn the proper techniques of ice-navigation and sledge-travel. Their achievement is measured easily by the distance they leave untravelled to the two poles: a sort of geographical determinism informs this history, causing judgements of failure and success to spring from, not hindsight, but an eerily perfect rationality.

Gradually, gradually, the lines on the map representing the different expeditions -- sometimes coloured, sometimes broken into different combinations of dots and dashes, making an urgent polar morse -- push towards the goal. But there is a second kind of polar history, largely uncharted; an intangible history of assumptions, responses to landscape, cultural fascinations, aesthetic attraction to the cold regions.

It comes into view in a passage of a memoir of her famous brother written by Grace Scott, in which she tries to reconstruct the range of his motives for accepting Markham's offer. RFS had no urge towards snow, ice, or that kind of adventure, but he did realise that such an expedition could give the leader great interests and expansion of life with new experiences; a fact that was immediately apparent when the appointment came, for at once he came into contact with men of the big world, all sorts of experiences and interests.

In addition, he felt in himself keenly the call of the vast empty spaces; silence; the beauty of untrodden snow; liberty of thought and action; the wonder of the snow and seeming infinitude of its uninhabited regions whose secrets man had not then pierced, and the hoped-for conquest of raging elements. Grace Scott clearly did not think this was a surprising thing to write. She evidently saw no contradiction between Scott having 'no urge' towards exploration, and his feeling 'keenly' this very specific appetite for the romance of snow.

Some part of the tone of the last sentence may derive from the hindsight with which she wrote her memoir, the posthumous glory of 'RFS' colouring her presentation of his early life; yet she is, after all, making a fundamentally un-glorious point. Scott was not destined to be an explorer.


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  • His recruitment resulted, at least in some measure, from accident. He was not connected, by ancestry, by vocation, or by early influence, with the practical history of exploration. His 'additional' feelings, then, so strangely developed, so full a little agenda of romantic responses to the prospect of snowy places, represent a sensitivity of another kind. If he possessed them without an active 'urge', it seems unlikely that they were in a strict sense personal feelings.

    I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination

    Grace Scott seems confident that she is naming well-known, indeed conventional stimuli to feeling when she mentions 'the call of the vast empty spaces', 'the beauty of untrodden snow' my italics. If she had thought there were any chance of them not being recognised, she would not have said 'the'. We see here, I think, the accepted influence of polar material on the collective imagination at the turn of the century. A history of this second kind -- an imaginative history of polar exploration -- would have to explain where Scott's feelings came from, how they got there and how they got to be too obvious to require comment or to elicit surprise.

    It would need a genealogy different from the simple chronological chain of events recorded by the first sort. It would require demonstrating, not that knowledge grew, or that one impression was succeeded by another, but that the means existed to make of the data of polar discovery a stuff of conventional imagination. While it is easy to uncover particular nineteenth-century manifestations of imaginative interest in polar matters -- like, for example, the huge Arctic diorama created in the Vauxhall pleasure gardens in the summer of , to give the public a topical thrill at the height of the search for the missing explorer Sir John Franklin -- it is far harder to trace a line of influence on from them.

    But by the same token, it does not have to be proved that for example Scott was himself aware of particular books, plays, or fashionable enthusiasms, so long as the styles of feeling they gave currency to survived, and flourished, without marks of origin, in the repertoire of the obvious. This book is an attempt to construct an outline of such a history. Implicit in it is the assumption that ideas lose their form when they decay, yet do not necessarily lose their place in the mentality of an age.

    They turn to imaginative compost. Complex reasoning lives on, perhaps, as a couple of self-evident maxims. A taste it took a book to establish, and many more to justify, becomes the single word 'attractive' in a tourist guide. Schools of thought, life's-works, artistic endeavours, all find their ultimate destination in a habit of vision scarcely worth discussion.

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    So each chapter is intended to correspond to a particular area of unattributed, unexamined thought in the minds of those who, like Oates in Delhi, could perhaps scarcely say why exploration 'is most suitable to my tastes'. Each chapter is an archaeology of one aspect of the hazy love affair between the ice and the English.

    As Apsley Cherry-Garrard said of a book by a fellow veteran about the life of penguins, 'It is all quite true': except that in the next-to-last section of the final chapter, which pieces back together the story of Scott, I had to describe events for which there can be by definition no written evidence. That section is pure invention. Before going into the thick detail of exploration's imaginative history, let me give one instance of it -- an unusual one, because it allows the passage of a single, very powerful imaginative impression to be traced the whole way from the obscurity of a factual appendix, to the collective consciousness of an age, via a famous novel.

    This particular contribution to polar sensibility has to do with seabirds; or at least it did in the beginning, in the first decades of the nineteenth century. The British whale-fishery off Greenland was then reaching the peak of its productivity. At the same time the Admiralty, largely at the suggestion of an activist Secretary, Sir John Barrow, who had served as an apprentice on a whaler as a boy, was starting to use the manpower left spare after the Napoleonic wars to mount naval expeditions to the Arctic.

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