christopher james

Poems and prattle

Tag: scott

Scott of the Antarctic

One hundred years ago this evening, Captain Scott lay half out of his reindeer sleeping bag, Bowers on his right and the scientist, Wilson on his left. Both of Scott’s comrades had already drifted into ‘a kind of sleep’ according to Trygge Gran, one of the rescue party. In some accounts, Scott had his arm around Wilson. This then, was the final scene in Scott’s extraordinary life – in which achieving the South Pole had been the last frontier. Their suffering had been extraordinary: blizzards, temperatures below minus 40 F, an inexplicable lack of fuel in their depots and shortage of food. And yet Scott kept up his diary to the end – and his last harrowing entry: ‘For God’s sake look after our people.’   


Having just read Edward Evans South with Scott (gritty, elegantly written and totally loyal to Scott) I am in nothing but awe of the men that joined Scott on his Terra Nova expedition. They were to a man, the most cheerful, patriotic, cultured and loyal bunch you could ever imagine, and remained so in the most desperate of circumstances. The flickering images of the Polar party cheerfully sharing Fry’s cocoa before heading south was not just for the benefit of Ponting’s camera.  

What stands out in Evan’s account is not just the heroism; it is the commitment to art and especially to science. Less than a month from their death, the Polar party were still collecting geological specimens and hauled 35lb of scientific samples back with them on the sledge, despite their suffering. The Terra Nova expedition was not a mad dash for the pole (how much happier for them if it had been). Rather it was a considered, meticulously planned expedition, with the noblest of aims: to claim the pole for king and country; to further scientific knowledge and in the writings and images to create a poetic account of their voyage. They succeeded in all but one of their goals.

The Natural History Museum are currently staging a fine tribute to these gentlemen explorers. They have recreated the expedition hut, assembled much of the original paraphenalia including their gramaphone, supplies and skis; they have even marked out their bunks on the ground.  But quite rightly they have placed the emphasis on the scientific legacy of the expedition – the Emperor penguin eggs Cherry-Garrard and co fought suffered so much to retrive and countless other specimens. Visit the exhibition, read some of the other tributes written today and saltute these fine men still lying out there somewhere in the snow.



‘On the outside grows the furside;

on the inside grows the skinside.’

      Herbert Ponting, Antarctic photographer


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. 


See also

A very gallant gentleman

‘I am just going outside and may be sometime.’

With this classic piece of Great British understatement, Captain Oates bade farewell to his colleagues on Scott’s ill fated Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole.

It was exactly one hundred year’s ago today, that Captain Lawrence Oates, (‘the soldier,’ as they called him) with cripping frostbite uttered these words before stepping barefoot into a blizzard and -40°C. His body was never found.

Lawrence Oates

Captain Lawrence 'Titus' Oates

Already saddled with the disappointment of being pipped to the post by Norwegian Roald Amudnsen, by March the return journey had become a nightmare, with the death of Edgar Evans in February. The party struggled on, making slow progress. Knowing he was a hindrence to the party, Oates made his sacrifice ultimately in vain as Scott, Bowers and Wilson were to perish too less than two weeks later – and only eleven miles from their food and fuel depot.

Oates himself was a polymath – a veteran of the Boer War, sailor and Etonian – but it was his expertise and empathy with horses that made him such a valuable member of the party.

In South with Scott, a first hand account of the expedition, Edward Evans remembers Oates’ extraordinary care for the ponies and his insatiable work ethic. The Terra Nova was caught in a storm and the animals were suffering in the wind and freezing rain on the deck: 

‘He was a fine and powerful man, and on occasions he seemed to be actually lifting the poor little ponies to their feet as the ship as the ship lurched heavily to leeward . . . One felt that Oates’ very strength itself inspired his animals with confidence.’

Whatever you think of the decisions taken by Scott and others on the expedition, the bravery and hardships these chaps put themselves through in the name of exploration continues to astonish and impress.

New Zealand's tribute to Captain Oates

New Zealand's tribute to Captain Oates

So let’s salute a Great British hero and perhaps it’s also a good time to remeber Derek Mahon’s fine poem Antarctica. Click on ‘the soldier’ to read it.