Scott, Shackleton and the emperors of the ice
In the weekend news it was marvellous to see the charmingly amateurish drawings of penguins by Captain Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton. Saved from a skip in 2007, they have been acquired and preserved by the redoubtable Scott Polar Research Institute.
Sketched in chalk during public lectures in Manchester, Scott’s effort (1904) is slightly more accomplished than Shackleton’s (1906) revealing the latter was perhaps a better leader than artist. Scott, whose wife was the acclaimed sculptor, Kathleen Scott, meanwhile reveals a light comic touch. His penguin has a knowing look; a certain guileless savoir faire. Shackleton’s penguin appears to be trying to bring up a belch having consumed one herring too many. It is contemplating its tummy with something approaching self-reproach.
Penguins, of course, were the object of one of the expeditions most notorious episodes: the magnificent folly of Winter Journey. Even now, commentators question what possessed Scott to permit Bowers, Cherry-Garrard and Wilson to head into the depths of the Antarctic Winter to collect Emperor Penguin eggs from Cape Crozier. Thought to contain vital evolutionary evidence, the trio endured temperatures of minus 70 during to find the eggs. Their safe return, with the specimens, albeit as emaciated scarecrows, is one of the great tales of survival.
i.m. Apsley Cherry-Garrard
Like the Magi, the three of you followed
the bright eye of Jupiter. Pitching in the dark,
chipping open your sleeping bags, you were
the suffering scribe. In your spectacles, still
clutching your diary, Cherry, you lay awake,
listening to Bowers snore and Wilson pray.
This was your winter journey, your biggest test,
to Cape Crozier to trace the origins of life.
Lost In the pressure, where the frozen sea
buckled up against the shore, you almost gave in.
Then you saw them: the penguins holding their
winter vigil on the ice. You stashed their eggs
in your mittens only for the tent to be swept away,
leaving the three of you singing hymns in the snow.
The penguin sketches, preserved only in chalk dust, are magical connections to the heroic age of polar exploration. Their playfulness also reminds us of the good humour and wide-eyed optimism that lay at the heart of their great enterprises, a fact which is often eclipsed by po-faced post mortems and ceaseless raking over of tragedy on the ice.
I have a singular interest in the story in that I recently published a collection of 65 sonnets about Captain Scott’s final expedition. The Penguin Diaries tells the whole story of expedition with one poem dedicated to each of the men on the Terra Nova Expedition.
Penguins were a constant feature of the frozen odyssey, appearing at the men’s side during scientific work as well as on their dinner plates.
Portly, standing to attention on the ice,
you walked through the wrong door
and stepped onto the deck of history.
But who could forget your penguin stew?
The birds were freshly stolen from the floe,
each one, like you, a retired waiter
in the wrong place at the wrong time. Still,
years later, they would talk of that Christmas,
nineteen-ten, The Terra Nova held fast
in the pack, sledge flags hung like bunting
above the table. You served up mutton,
asparagus, plum pudding; more penguin.
Later, Fry’s chocolate on your chin,
you sang them All Aboard for Blanket Bay.
Herbert Ponting, the talented photographer found them the perfect subject for his superb compositions, capturing such iconic moments as the penguin inspecting tins of Golden Syrup.
i.m. Herbert Ponting
You made them ghosts before their time
silver figures on the pack ice, like chess men
scattered across a tabletop; that year
you banished rainbows, your lens like a moonstone
impressing their spirits on the glass.
You established your aesthetic in a soft hat,
goggles and frozen moustache. Yours was
the all-seeing eye, the Terra Nova in the distance,
the dog in the mouth of a gramophone
and Scott in his study, plotting his fate.
You watched their prints disappear south
and would not look up at the copper moon.
In the darkroom, you printed the blankness
of midnight across the great white silence.
The discovery of the penguin sketches is on a par with the 2014 unearthing of the George Murray Levick’s one-hundred-year-lost notebook. Levick was a surgeon, zoologist and photographer on Scott’s final expedition. The fragile notebook found near the expedition hut during a unusually widespread thaw, recorded the exposure details for his images, principally of penguins. He was among the first to observe and record the ‘astonishing depravity’ of some Adelie penguins, some of whose romantic inclinations were considered so shocking they were excised from his paper, Natural History of the Adelie Penguin which he published on his return.
THE PENGUIN DIARIES
i.m. George Murray Levick
They found your notebook bound with ice,
lost the day it slipped from your pocket
by the hut at Cape Evans. No bigger than a pack
of cards, each page was bitten with frost.
Inside, were your doctor’s hieroglyphs, your
poor spelling and the jottings of artist’s mind.
How long did you search for it; mourn the loss
of the exposure times and your notes
on the ungentlemanly conduct of penguins?
Did you ask the others to pace the snow,
retrace your steps to your bunk or accuse
Mears of a practical joke? Or did you wonder
whether it was stolen by a sea bird, removed to
a rookery, it’s pages fed one by one to sea?
Today I paid a visit to the Scott Polar Research Institute where alongside the men’s moving letters are the frayed laces from Scott’s Finnesko snowboots. He dipped them in a paraffin and used them as a wick so he could continue writing with a little light and heat.
It’s an astonishing, but oft repeated fact that the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers are still locked in the ice somewhere, perfectly preserved beneath their collapsed tent. Someday the ice will break off from Antarctica and drift across the ocean. Until then, they wait, watched over by the great wooden cross on the hill above McMurdo Station, for their journey to resume.
i.m. Francis E. C. Davies
We might have guessed that in the end
you would be carpenter of the cross
on Observation Hill. Nine feet of
Jarrah wood, impervious to the wind
you left it as a guard to watch over them
staring out to the Great Ice Barrier.
You measured and chiselled, slotted
and riveted it together, carving the words
chosen by Cherry. But then how to get it there?
It took two days to sledge it up that frozen
Calgary; you were Simon of Cyrene, shouldering
the cross before planting it deep in the rock
and leaving it standing proud, their memory
printed forever on the white Antarctic moon.