“It was, of course, always a fantasy that the polar regions are qualitatively different from the rest of the world, as anyone who has lived and worked within the Arctic Circle can confirm. It is space like any other, inhabited by human beings like any other and being destroyed by human beings like everywhere else on Earth.”
Last year I harboured a desperate desire to read more by Sarah Moss, having been initially ambivalent to, then overwhelmingly moved by, her novel Bodies of Light. But my enthusiasms are rarely long-lived or rather easily overwhelmed by other, stronger enthusiasms and my plan to read more Moss was set aside in favour of first Siri Hustvedt (which I do not regret) and now my commitment to read less which has made me more selective about what I want to spend my limited reading time. As it happens, my current enthusiasm involves reading the books on polar exploration I’ve gathered (it’s not a massive collection, but significant enough to warrant attention) and as it also happens that one of those books is Sarah Moss’s The Frozen Ship, her first book and one written long before her highly successful move into fiction. All this creates a happy confluence of circumstance which allows me to fulfil both desires simultaneously. Bless the mysterious workings of happenstance!
The Frozen Ship is not your average book about polar exploration. Whilst the subject is superficially about those explorers who set out to reach one or other of the poles, many of which inevitably failed, Moss’s focus is on the writing about or by the explorers. This is the ‘frozen ship’ of the title, a perfectly preserved capsule which provides insight into the experiences of those thus preserved, and through the book she explores the depth of available literature and why there is such an appetite for polar narratives as well as how the mythmaking around the subject propelled many to an untimely and unpleasant death. As Moss explains:
“Enormous numbers of readers like the Arctic and Antarctic to be places adorned by dead bodies in dress uniform and no shoes (eaten when the sealskin, or alternatively the colleagues, ran out). These great white spaces at the top and bottom of the world are where people went to die for us, both for our edification as readers and for our greater glory as Britons or Americans or, less commonly, Norwegian or Swedes. At its height this Anglo-American cultural investment in the poles as spaces of absence, of death and disappearance, was so great that survival was seen as positively inappropriate. Amundsen had no business reaching the South pole and living on stolidly to tell the tale when Scott died so beautifully in failing, and Nansens’ comfort on the Fram and competence on the ice were almost offensive. Shackleton might have saved his crew with his extraordinary bravery and seamanship, but he was no gentleman.”
It’s an interesting observation, one which strangely parallels with the current obsession with lurid crime fiction and perhaps is explained in a similar fashion. Whilst many guzzle down books and TV shows in which murder – often involving the naked, abused corpses of women being meticulously picked over to uncover the intimate horror of their brutal death – figures in all its bloody glory yet few people would, in reality, like to be faced with an actual corpse or attempt to track down the killer or, mores the point, become the corpse themselves. There’s a sense that there’s something noble about being the detective, many of which are emotionally damaged and isolated or flawed in some fundamental way, in the same way that the polar explorer was seen as noble, setting aside family and the safety of an oft privileged life to risk it all for country and honour in a largely futile push to reach a vague spot, unmarked and uninteresting, somewhere at the extreme top or bottom of the world. Which is essentially bonkers when you think about it, which is exactly what Moss does here. She examines the writings of those who embarked on these insane enterprises, or rather the writings of those who organised the enterprises as the support acts – the salaried sailors, the help – often had no voice in the enterprise at all, a point which Moss is at pains to point out.
Moss explores both the chronology of polar exploration, beginning with the writings in the Norse Sagas, through to those of Scott and Franklin as well as Richard Byrd at the southerly pole; as well as the types of people and expeditions including women who either volunteered to head to the Arctic or fled there or accompanied their husbands. There are marked differences in the attitudes of those that explored the poles, ranging from the dry, pedestrian voyages of Parry to the doomed ‘have-a-go-heroics’ of Scott. The contrast between the two is marked, and it’s clear on whom Moss believes the praise should be heaped, as this quote demonstrates:
“Parry’s prose reflects his aloofness from the traditional cultures of polar exploration. His determination that all should be seen to be well, and under control, on all occasions, precluded any heroic rhetoric about striving to overcome great obstacles or succeeding against all odds or persisting bravely in the face of danger. Great obstacles ought to have been foreseen and avoided; it would not be sensible to attempt something that was more likely to fail than not, and no responsible captain led his men into danger. It is an attitude that should be immensely sympathetic after volume after volume of nineteenth-century upper-class gentlemen merrily setting off across the ice in tweed with a small hamper from Fortnum and Mason and a suicidal readiness to die in the national interest, but the lack of excitement that made Parry a cautious and responsible leader also makes him dull to read.”
Yet in the mythmaking, the hero-worship driven form of literature, it is the doomed Scott who is memorable, who is the ‘fallen-hero’, the one about whom movies are made, who forms the stuff of boys’ heroic volumes. Moss pauses to question why that is, considering how flawed Scott’s mission was and how poor his approach to planning. Was the war the key influence in why we remember Scott much more viscerally than Parry?
“War marked the “end of an era” in a way that nothing else could, and made a space for yearning. There was so much grief for so many men that perhaps Scott, dying far from the bloody brutality of war and dying in innocence of the wholesale slaughter of an entire European generation, became an emblem of all that was lost. If he died partly because he insisted on regarding polar exploration as a mythic quest rather than a matter of warm shoes and good engineering, perhaps he is mourned because of rather than despite his romanticism. Others of his generation also thought themselves as capable of things that mattered, and their ambitions and personal achievements counted for nothing in front of the bayonets and guns in the trenches. Scott’s death is not an obliteration, and so he can stand for those who had no chance of an idiosyncratic end.”
It’s a view with great merit, and interesting in these strange times when so many seem drawn by flawed but decisive action as opposed to the plodding, tedious planning and quibbling concern for human life which might deliver a slower but more successful result. Scott’s mission, whilst revered by many, is subject to a quite acid scorn on the part of Moss which makes it a fun but sobering read, and it’s hard to avoid the glaring parallels with our current political situation when Moss describes Scott’s flawed approach to the claiming of the Antarctic pole in such familiar, but troubling terms:
“Scott was already perceived as a difficult leader even by those who were closest to him, and the conduct of the first season confirmed that view. He was secretive and insecure, inclined to change plans and then panic and change them again, and given to including and excluding people from particular duties on expeditions on the basis of how they seemed to feel about him. This time was supposed to be spent preparing for and rehearsing the journey to the Pole, but Scott’s uncertainty meant that no one knew quite what to expect or how they were meant to prepare for it. He was extremely anxious about Amundsen and clearly did regard the two expeditions as racing to the Pole, whatever he said publicly about the vulgarity of such ideas and his own pure commitment to science and exploration for its own sake. The men attempted to build igloos, thinking they might be a useful backup or alternative to tents, and enjoyed some arguing over the best way of doing so. If Scott had done some research before leaving, he would already have known.”
Thus an autocratic leader heads out on an expedition for which he was not properly prepared without regard for the sanctity of his own life or of others, in which he believed he ‘deserved’ to succeed not on account of his thorough and detailed preparation but because he was ‘honourable’ and made an effort and the endeavour was a difficult one. Coupled with a time in which there is space for ‘yearning’ it creates a powerful and dangerous combination. It’s hard not to recognise the worrying parallel and one might hope that our world is not led to its end in a similarly tragic manner. More worrying still that men were prepared to follow him despite these misgivings, and that he may, as Moss, suggests, have been encouraging Oates, famed for his ‘heroic’ suicide, to end his life even earlier in the attempt to return in order not to slow Scott down which, if true, presents the heroic Scott in an even less favourable, but perhaps truer, light.
The Frozen Ship is an excellent read, summarising and examining many of the famous polar expeditions in a very humanistic and considered light. Moss makes it clear that there are so many voices unheard in these narratives – the navvies, the paid help, the Inuit to whom the compulsion to stamp a name on the Pole and the many lives expended in the course of it must have seemed incomprehensible – that we must read them with a critical eye and a pinch of salt. That many explorers expected never to make it home, but similarly expected that their remains and papers would be found must make us wary of being coerced into reading what they want us to read and missing the reality – the lost lives, the dubious motivations, the lack of preparedness and profligacy with the lives of others which typified these expeditions. The book makes for an interesting counterpoint of my recent readings, reminding me that even looking into the silence and darkness of the Arctic it is not possible to avoid the actions of our fellow human beings, and however ‘pure’ an environment seems to be it is in our hands to spoil it and spoil it we do. So perhaps it is better to make a dignified life where we are, with all its incumbent difficulties, in the manner of Parry: slow, plodding, a bit dry and disinteresting but with respect and care for the lives of others centred firmly at its heart. It’s not the stuff of heroic narratives, but perhaps it should be.
The Frozen Ship: The Histories and Tales of Polar Exploration is published by Blue Bridge Books.