The Birthday Boys, p. 49

Beryl Bainbridge chooses to tell the story of Robert Falcon Scott’s doomed expedition to the south pole in first person, and places each chapter in the mind of a different crew member. Self thinks/remembers that the whole lot die, so this is quite a depressing book to be reading right now. She read it for the first time about 20 years ago, and it’s only now that bits and pieces are coming back to her. Such as: the farewell letters written by the men as they were dying on the ice. The diary of Robert Falcon Scott.

Chapter One (June 1910) is narrated by Petty Officer Edgar (Taff) Evans, whose voice has a certain air of stoicism. Evans describes things like how low the boat, the Terra Nova, sits in the water. How the boat was procured (on the cheap). How the expedition received extravagant attention from the press (Oh the irony). How the voyage is projected to take three years. How the Petty Officer knows not all the crew will make it.

The general impression left by Chapter One is that Scott cut corners. Most of Chapter One is engaged with Scott’s fundraising efforts, and how the amount raised didn’t seem to be quite enough. All these details will no doubt have tragic consequences. Scott was charismatic, but he was talking through his arse, the boat was pretty rickety, etc He’d already made one expedition to the Antarctic, which only made him more ambitious.

Chapter Two is related by Dr. Edward (Uncle Bill) Wilson, who is given to detached observation. For example:

  • The scenery was magnificent; abrupt precipices, wooded hills and crags, tumbling waters and a paradise of mosses, ferns and pink belladonna lilies. One moment the air was polluted with the odour of the black til (Oreodaphne foetens), so named because of its awful smell, and the next filled with the delicious scent of the beautiful lilly of the valley tree (Clethra arborea).

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