Book Review: The Antarctic: An Anthology Edited by Francis Spufford.

Book Review: The Antarctic: An Anthology Edited by Francis Spufford.


The Arctic has my heart and always will, but that doesn’t mean Antarctica doesn’t fascinate me. I will freely admit I have something of a crazy obsession with Lawrence ‘Titus’ Oates and the disastrous Terra Nova Expedition. Like its sister book, Arctic: An Anthology, The Antarctic is a slim volume, with a good amount of muscle. And the variety…well, don’t get me started! I’ll give you one word: phenomenal. Below is a section taken from the introduction. If that doesn’t make you suck in your cheeks and shiver, I don’t know what will.

‘Sensations to look forward to included having the pus in your blisters turn to ice and expand, having wounds ten years old reopen, and having the soles of your feet removed.’

Antarctica is not a place to take lightly, and on that note, I found myself raising an eyebrow whilst reading Roald Amundsen’s piece ‘Tospy Turvey.’ Amundsen made everything sound too, well, simple. The editor made a point of mentioning this in the short introduction to the piece.

It was the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen’s misfortune as a writer that he tended to make his adventures sound, perversely, a little too easy.

Though he can’t take all the blame. Scott did place much, much more emphasis on getting his experiences down on paper than Amundsen.

I’ll say it now. There are moments when I was reading this, that I fucked sobbed my heart out. In a piece titled ‘Tragedy all along the line’ by Scott, he describes the demise of one of the expedition members, Edgar Evans.

I was the first to reach the poor man and shocked at his appearance; he was on his knees with clothing disarranged, hands uncovered and frostbitten, and a wild look in his eyes. Asked what was the matter, he replied with a slow speech that he didn’t know, but thought he must have fainted. We got him on his feet, but after two or three steps he sank down again. he showed ever sign of complete collapse. Wilson, Bowers and I went back for the sledge, while Oates remained with him. When we returned he was practically unconscious, and when we got him into the tent quite comatose. He died quietly at 12.30am.

If you can read that and not weep, I’m sorry, but you have no soul.

There’s a line which chilled me to the bone. Again, from ‘Tragedy all along the line.’

Titus Oates is very near the end, one feels. What we or he will do, God only knows.

There is an extract from I may be some time by Francis Spufford, which is a fascinating fictional piece imagining Scott’s last hours.

Scott kicks out suddenly, like an insomniac angry with the bedclothes. Yes, alright, but quickly then, without thinking. He pulls open the sleeping bag as far down as he can reach, wrenches his coat right open too, lays his arm deliberately around the cold lump of the body of his friend Edward Wilson (who is not sleeping, no, but dead) and holds tight. It is forty below in the tent. The cold comes into him. Oh how it hurts. His skin, which was the frontier of him this whole long time past, is breached: he is no longer whole: the ice is inside his chest, a spearing and dreadful presence turning the cavities of him to blue glass. His lips pull back from his teeth in an enormous snarl; but Scott has left the surface of his face, and does not know. I may be some time’ by Francis Spufford

Haunting, isn’t it.

‘White Lanterns’ from ‘The Moon by Whale Light’ written by Diane Ackerman in 1991 is almost a relief.  She writes about perhaps the hardiest creature on earth – the penguin.

According to one saying, ‘There are two kinds of penguins in the Antarctic, the white ones coming towards you, and the black ones going away from you.’ All penguins are essentially black and white on their bodies, a feature known as countershading. Their white bellies and chins blend in with the shimmery light filtering through the water, so they’re less likely to be spotted from blow when they’re in the ocean. That makes hunting fish easier, as well as escaping leopard seals. Their black backs also make them less visible from above as they fly through the murky waters. To the krill, the white belly of the penguin looks like a pale orb, harmless as the sky. To the leopard seal, the black back of the penguin looks like a shadow on the ocean floor, unpalatable.

I have at least twenty post it notes scattered in this book, and this review could go on forever, so I just want to leave you with what I’ve put here. This book is profound and hugely moving. It isn’t a book which you will read then put aside, never to think of again. Oh no. This one gets deep, deep under your soul. You will find yourself craving for just the one trip to the great white place…just the one.