Book Review: The Mammoth Book of Antarctic Journeys Edited by Jon E. Lewis ( Robinson, 2012)

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Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to afford to shop regularly in Waterstones, (I’d like to do a survey actually, and see who really can.) but recently I found myself in possession of a gift card, and so treated myself to a lengthy visit. However – as you’ll be aware – book prices have skyrocketed and it was virtually impossible to find something which I could afford. Practically every book in the ‘Reference’ section (this happens to be where the creative writing manuals are) was ignificantly more expensive than other books in the store. I noticed a fair few with little stickers on them, covering the original price and bumping it up a fiver or so. Little slips of books, barely 100 pages are marketed down as for sale at £12 and over. Stupid money really.

Anyway, I trudged through stores up and down the country, (no exaggeration) determined to find a book which I could get with my card, a book which might even leave me with a penny change. When I eventually found it, fuck, it was like I’d struck gold. The book I’m talking about is ‘The Mammoth Book of Antarctic Journeys’ edited by Jon E. Lewis. Now, I know what you’re thinking, ‘Mammoth book…?! What is she mad?’ but just take a look at the photo below.

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It indicates just how much I enjoyed it…and all the parts which I just had to talk about in a review. I loved this book. I really loved this book. So Let me tell you a bit about it. Oh, wait! The price. You need to know the price after all that palaver in the begining. It was £7.99. That’s right. £7.99 for 443 glorious pages. Happy? Me? Very. I honestly couldn’t believe my luck. A book for under £10 in Waterstones. Who would have thought it?! But enough about money. What about the words?

Now, there are many, many great things about this book. The first being that there are 32 first-hand accounts of men and women encountering Antarctica, the earliest account dating back to 1772. Most of the pages have been handed over to the early explorers – which was, admittedly, to be expected – but it would have been nice to have a little bit more contemporary input, as many of the accounts from the 50’s onwards happen be cut very short. I have read a fair bit about Scott, Shackleton and Amundsun and was eager to read about the contemporary adventurers.

‘Dog Days’ by Robert F Scott is a monumental report of Scot’s southwards journey. There is a particularly fascinating description of what it was like to march through every changing temperatures and conditions ‘The air temperature has gone up to +27, and it feels hot and stuffy; the snow surface is +22. It would be difficult to convey any idea of what marching is like under present conditions. The heel of the advanced foot is never planted beyond the toe of the other, and of this small gain with each pace, two or three inches are lost by back-slipping as the weight is brought forward. When we come to any particularly soft patch we do little more than mark time.’  You can’t argue the fact that Scott was a true master of the pen. Amundsen on the other hand…he might have been the better explorer, beating Scott to the pole after an eight week dash, but his writing is monotonous. It lacks the expressiveness which comes through in Scott’s words.

There’s a paragraph in ‘Dog Days’ where Scott talks fondly of Edward Wilson, and his absolute determination to sketch the landscape. ‘Wilson is the most indefatigable person. When it is fine and clear, at the end of our fatiguing days he will spend two or three hours seated at the door of the tent sketching every detail of the splendid mountainous coast-scene to the west. His sketches are most astonishingly accurate; I have tested his proportions by actual angular measurement and found them correct.’ This perseverance did have a downside – Wilson’s eyes. He suffered more bouts of snow-blindness than any other of the team members, and one some occasions was left ‘writhing in agony.’

On its own, ‘Dog Days’ is a powerful piece of history, and a remarkable work of literature, one which I have gone back to time and again, and which never fails to make my jaw drop.

There is no shortage of moments in this book which made me feel somewhat uncomfortable. I had to shake my head and remember the often horrendous circumstances these men were under. A particular moment is captured in ‘South with Scott’ by Edward Evans, who wrote about encountering penguins on a sea voyage. ‘Concerning the penguins, the frequently came and inspected the ship. One day Wilson and I chased some, but they continually just kept out of our reach; then uncle Bill lay down on the snow, and when one, out of curiosity, came up to him he grabbed it by the leg and brought it to the ship, protesting violently, for all the world like a little old man in a dinner jacket.’  

There were countless instances when I was reading, when I would put the book down, lean back and just breathe ‘fucking wow fuck how…? Jeeeeez.’ or something similar.  ‘The Winter Journey’ by Apsley Cherry-Garrard is a sound example of why we should have nothing but respect for these daring souls. ‘The trouble is sweat and breath. I never knew before how much of the body’s waste comes out through the pores of the skin. On the most bitter days, when we had to camp before we had done a four-hour march in order to nurse back our frozen feet, it seemed that we must be sweating. And all of this sweat, instead of passing away through the porous wool of our clothing and gradually drying off us, froze and accumulated. It passed just away from the flesh and became ice: we shook plenty of snow and ice down from inside our trousers every time we changed our foot-gear, and we could have shaken it from our vests and from between our vests and shirts, but of course we could not strip to that extent.’

Though I have never been bowled over by Amundsen’s writing, I do have a significant amount of admiration for the man. However, there is a moment in ‘Pole Position’ where he writes about the fate of one of the sled dogs, and it brings up this peculiar swell of emotion within me. ‘Helge has been an uncommonly useful and good-natured dog; without making any fuss he had pulled from morning to night, and had been a shining example to our team. But during the last week he had quite fallen away, and on our arrival at the Pole there was only a shadow of the old Helge left. He was only a drag on the others, and did absolutely no work. One blow to the skull, and Helge had ceased to live. “What is death to one is food to another” is a saying that can scarcely find a better application than these dog meals. Helge was portioned out on the spot, and within a couple of hours there was nothing left of him but his teeth and the tuft at the end of his tail.’

There is a moment in ‘The Loss of Endurance’ by Ernest Shackleton which shed some light heartedness on the whole sorry affair (Shackleton’s ship, The Endurance was being pulverised by the freezing sea and temperatures and the men had to abandon ship and set up camp on ice floes). It involves something so quintessentially British it makes me smile just thinking about it. ‘The cook got the blubber stove going, and a little later, when I was sitting round the corner of the stove, I heard one man say “Cook, I like my tea strong.” Another joined in, “Cook, I like mine week.” It was pleasant to know that their minds were untroubled, but I thought the time opportune to mention that the tea would be the same for all hands and that we would be fortunate if two months later we had any tea at all.’ 

The sea scares me. But I have a phenomenal amount of respect for it and its inhabitants, none more so than the whale. ‘Leviathan’ by a scientific officer called FD Ommanney had me close to bawling, as he described the slaughter of one titan of the ocean. ‘Then began a thrashing disturbance in the water a mile away to starboard. The terrible, lonely and titanic death struggle began. Dark against the lashed smother of foam there wheeled and thrashed now a forked tail, now a pointed head still grinning; now a ribbed belly showed, now a pointed flipper, raised on high, smacking down upon the water. The a red fountain burst upwards and another. He was sprouting blood. It meant the end.”  He also observed two killer whales chasing the whale carcasses, which is too interesting and unnerving not to mention. ‘They made one or two swift sweeps towards the mouths of the dead whales from which their tongues lolled out. There was something terrible and sinister in the rush they made, the tigers of the sea.’

Pemmican was a staple for polar explorers and there is an excellent description of what it actually is in ‘Storms and Wonders’ by W. Ellery Anderson. Anderson was a former army officer who joined an expedition to Hope Bay (which was then the least known parts of Antarctica.) in 1954. ‘Our basic diet was pemmican, a beef extract made by Bovril which came in pound blocks, each packaged in an air-tight plastic bag. It was a hard, dark-brown stuff that had to be scraped off the block into the cooking pot. Boiling water was poured on top, dehydrated onions and potatoes added and it was allowed to simmer. We ate it with thickly buttered biscuits, washing it down with cocoa or tea.’ Anderson, like Ommanney had an unnerving experience with a sea inhabitant, only this time it was a  leopard seal. ‘I jumped down and faced it as it hissed again and went down on its flippers. It bared its teeth and began swaying its head from side to side. Twice I went forward and struck at its head with my ice-axe, but missed each time…a leopard uses its flippers alternately to propel itself with a quick snake-like movement.’

Cape Adare by David Lewis, the first person to sail single-handedly to Antarctic is one of the final accounts in the book and there’s a moment which hammered a smile on my face, where Lewis talks about getting ‘attacked by a penguin chick. ‘The last was delightful. After intently watching its elder, the chick waddled up to me with a comical air of bravado. Having delivered its token peck against my heavily quilted thigh, it swaggered back to its parent, so obviously preening itself at its daring as to leave us helpless with laughter.’

I had a smidgen of doubt about how much I would enjoy this book when I first bought it. I’ve had a few misses with ‘Mammoth books’ in the past, but this publication really was an absolute delight, and it is a truly excellent edition to my polar library.

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