Jan Morris on Travels in
Not many books can claim to be entirely unique, but one of them is undoubtedly Charles Montague Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta, which he wrote in 1888 when he was 45 years old. It is unique in its subject matter – the first book to be written, in any language, about wide tracts of the
Except, perhaps, in parody, for Doughty’s literary style was itself a sort of inspired pastiche of far older forms. He believed that, by his time, the English language had become decadent, and he was dedicated to restoring its ancient glories. Chaucer and Spenser were his inspirations, and his own interpretation of their splendours was lyrical, high-flown and stately. He had already spent 10 years writing an enormous blank-verse epic about the origins of
Some readers find his convoluted cadences and idioms too demanding. Others, like me, have learnt over the years to think of it as music, grandly lyrical and rhythmic. And such is the extraordinary nature of the book that others have found its style perfectly redolent of its subject – the magnificent mysteries of the empty desert. TE Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, declared that the book would always remain peerless as “the indispensable foundation of all true understanding of the desert”.
So, whether for the strange beauty of its language, its record of a tremendous adventure, or its accurate evocation of a landscape and a civilisation, Arabia Deserta is truly one of a kind. For a long answer to that old friend’s question, expressed in a prose that is one of the esoteric glories of English literature, read the book, dear reader, read the book.
(I think this is the next book I’m going to read!)
The Worst Journey in the World Apsley Cherry-Garrard
Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised. It is the only form of adventure in which you put on your clothes at Michaelmas and keep them on untilChristmas, and, save for a layer of the natural grease of the body, findthem as clean as though they were new. It is more lonely than London,more secluded than any monastery, and the post comes but once a year. Asmen will compare the hardships of France, Palestine, or Mesopotamia, so it would be interesting to contrast the rival claims of the Antarctic asa medium of discomfort. A member of Campbell’s party tells me that thetrenches at Ypres were a comparative picnic. But until somebody canevolve a standard of endurance I am unable to see how it can be done.Take it all in all, I do not believe anybody on earth has a worse timethan an Emperor penguin.
Even now the Antarctic is to the rest of the earth as the Abode of the Gods was to the ancient Chaldees, a precipitous and mammoth land lying far beyond the seas which encircled man’s habitation, and nothing is morestriking about the exploration of the Southern Polar regions than its absence, for when King Alfred reigned in England the Vikings were navigating the ice-fields of the North; yet when Wellington fought the battle of Waterloo there was still an undiscovered continent in the South.
Cherry-Garrard’s wide learning and sense of humour were one of the reasons he survived Antarctica. You need grit of character as well as physical endurance!
The Worst Journey in the World is a memoir of the 1910-1913 British Antarctic Expedition led by Robert Falcon Scott. It was written and published in 1922 by a survivor of the expedition, Apsley Cherry-Garrard,
In 1910, Cherry-Garrard and his fellow explorers traveled by sailing vessel, the Terra Nova, from Cardiff to McMurdo Sound, Antarctica. ‘Cherry’ was teased at first by some of the other members of this expedition because of his lack of Antarctic experience, his lack of specialized credentials for the position of ‘assistant zoologist‘ to which he had been named, and persistent suspicions among some of his comrades that he had in fact bought his way on board by contributing £1,000 to the expedition’s troubled funds.
Cherry-Garrard responded to these taunts with modesty, a self-sacrificial ability to work hard, and acute observational skills. He was also, according to novelist, biographer and socialite Nancy Mitford, the only intellectual amongst the crew. These traits were to serve him well when it came time for him to write down his memories of the expedition. They also caught the eye of the expedition’s second-in-command, Dr Edward ‘Bill’ Wilson, who adopted Cherry-Garrard as a protégé.
Dr Wilson’s personal goal in Antarctica was to recover eggs of the Emperor penguin for scientific study. It was thought at the time that the flightless (and “primitive”) penguin might shed light on an evolutionary link between reptiles and birds through its embryo. As the bird nests during the Antarctic winter, it was necessary to mount a special expedition in July 1911 from the expedition’s base at Cape Evans to the penguins’ rookery at Cape Crozier. Wilson chose Cherry-Garrard to accompany him and ‘Birdie’ Bowers across the Ross Ice Shelf under conditions of complete darkness and temperatures of -40 and below. It was this “Winter Journey”, not the later expedition to the South Pole, that Cherry-Garrard later described as The Worst Journey in the World.
All three men, barely alive, returned from Cape Crozier with their egg specimens, which were stored as the expedition swung into preparations for a march from Cape Evans to the as-yet-undiscovered South Pole. This second and much longer march, in contrast with the Worst Journey, was to be done during the Antarctic summer in 1911-1912.
The men not chosen to go on to the Pole reassembled at the base camp at Cape Evans and waited there through 1912 for Scott and four companions to rejoin them, but the expedition’s leader never returned. In 1912-1913 Cherry-Garrard and other survivors once again marched southward, this time to try to find traces of their lost comrades. Cherry-Garrard’s description of the frozen tent that contained three of them is one of the most dramatic sections of the book. Inside the tent were the remains of Scott and Cherry-Garrard’s two companions on the Worst Journey, Bowers and Wilson.
Cherry-Garrard’s description of the closing scenes of the expedition, based on lengthy excerpts from his own journal, transitions first into a gentle and empathetic description of Scott’s mistakes, and then into a written meditation on the themes of self-sacrifice and heroism.
Although The Worst Journey in the World was published only nine years after the end of the Scott expedition, that short length of time had made clear that new technology, particularly caterpillar-tread vehicles and airplanes, would revolutionize future work in the Antarctic and make much of the suffering endured by Scott and his men unnecessary.
The Worst Journey in the World asks, but does not answer, the question of whether this suffering was futile, or whether it would inspire future human beings facing very different challenges.
The Winter Journey eventually became a case study on how a paradigm shift in scientific methodology can devalue data that had begun to be gathered before the shift. At the time the Terra Nova expedition sailed, many biologists believed in recapitulation theory. They believed that examining the embroyos of key species, such as the Emperor penguin, would show how the species – and, by extension, how the family of birds as a whole – had evolved. The expedition’s scientists determined to try to collect specimens based upon this theory.
As the suvivors of the Terra Nova returned to England several years later, recapitulation theory had begun to be discredited. The egg specimens were turned over to embryologists at London’s Natural History Museum, who were largely uninterested in the donation.! Cherry-Garrard describes how he was told that the retrieved eggs had added little to their knowledge of penguin embryology, nor to scientific knowledge as a whole.!
Thank you, Wikipedia!
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