Friday, June 03, 2011

Book Review - I May be Some Time. Francis Spufford.

Captain Oates' famous words provide an apt title for this cultural history. Certainly for Britons of my generation and earlier, where the story of the doomed Scott expedition was frequently repeated. Personally I think that it was probably from either primary school or Blue Peter on TV that I first heard it and that would be a similar experience for many others. Strangely Shackleton's expedition, which may have had less success in reaching the pole but was far better at preserving the lives of its team was less heavily discussed in the media. I also remember being at a school where the different houses were called things like Parry; Ross; Franklin and other names of British explorers showing their memory stretching into the 1970s.

Spufford provides a certain amount of potted history of the efforts at polar exploration, with the early searching for the North West Passage and the loss of the Franklin Expedition in the Georgian and Victorian eras followed by Antarctic exploration by Edwardian explorers. The exploration of the North and South Poles created a fashion in British intellectual life for images of the icy wastes in literature, theatre and art.

Scott's doomed expedition to the South Pole is given a prominent place fitting how strongly it became part of 20th Century British culture. This includes looking at the expeditions life from diary entries and examining how even from its outset there was a strong creation of myths around the explorers and their task. This mythologisation of the Edwardian polar expeditions owed much to Clements Markham, but also to the work of Kathleen Scott  in helping to promote her husband's interests at the Admiralty and in preserving his memory.

Spufford examines the fictional representations and imagery of the Artic and Antartic in works, such as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and The Water Babies. This includes American writers like Poe and Jeremiah Reynolds, who created a hollow earth theory with entrances at the poles. This hollow Earth idea was taken up by UFOlogists like Brinsley Le PoerTrench, 8th Earl of Clancarty. Hans Christian Anderson's Ice Queen is also discussed as an image of the ice being appealing.

Spufford has created an interesting work here and I would say this is well worth reading as it does have insights into British views of heroism in the 20th Century (and indeed in contemporary culture). Highly recommended.

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