Oh What a Great Adventure!

Self is still in the Dr. Edward Wilson section of The Birthday Boys. For some reason, she is having difficulty getting out of it.

Dr. Wilson continues to document the youthful derring-do of the group. Such as, on p. 73, when Cherry-Garard (whose book, The Worst Journey in the World, self has read, btw) tries “to harpoon a sea-snake in one of the pools. It was about five feet in length, of a grey colour striped with yellow, and once speared it twisted and bucked so violently that Cherry (that is how Dr. Wilson refers to the lad, because who has the time to write Cherry-Garard in the pages of a journal?) almost lost it.”

Self is throwing in an illlustration by the tremendous artist and naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian (1647 -1717)

Erythrolampus aesculapi (false coral snake), from the collection of watercolours in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle, London

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

Code of Manhood

Very evident in Dr. Wilson’s chapter. Self is nowhere near the end of the chapter, but there have already been three “crew horsing around and getting nekkid” scenes (which were not present at all in Edgar ‘Taff’ Evans’ chapter, which is why self brings it up). The crew horsing around naked is not exactly what you’d expect during a polar exhibition. But it is reminiscent of a kind of pre-World War I / English schoolboy innocence. Another instance of foreshadowing? We’ve already had one “Dr. Wilson gets a chill premonition” earlier, when the good doctor has a vision of a half-man, half-bird creature skimming its wicked talons across the waves.

Still in the doctor’s point of view, the crew arrive on South Trinidad Island and — what a contrast to the horsing around — they stumble across a bay “littered with the wreckage of ships; planks, hencoops, barrels, empty gin bottles, and the picked haunches of a pig.”

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

Dr. Edward Wilson, July 1910

Self recognizes this name. His and Robert Falcon Scott are the two names she remembers most clearly from her earlier reading. And she likes him. Ugh, she hates getting attached to doomed characters.

The second chapter of The Birthday Boys is Wilson’s:

  • Lord knows what I should do if the crow’s nest wasn’t available to me. Quite apart from its being the best vantage point from which to work, it also enables me to be solitary. Constant companionship exhausts me, and but for my lonely hours up against the sky I would find the boisterous evenings unbearable. I’m something of a dull fish, and although I’m flattered when one or other of the chaps come to me with their grievances — and sooner or later they all do — I’m much afraid that my reputation for patience and impartiality stems more from lassitude than involvement. Better to say nothing than to condemn, and to laugh with than to criticise, and so much happier.

It is to Wilson that Bainbridge grants a vision. It’s just one sentence.

  • I was seeing the mission-room in my mind’s eye, those rows of shaven heads illuminated in a slant of sunlight writhing with dust, when by some trick of the early light in the sky above me, the sea below broke into a thousand glittering fragments, and in that heavenly dazzle I clearly saw a creature, half man, half bird, soaring above the waves.

Bainbridge’s writing is so beautiful: so elegant and exact.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

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).

To Move from James D. Hornfischer to Beryl Bainbridge

It’s a somewhat surreal experience. Here are two excellent writers, both at the top of their game, both writing about the sea. She swears there are times when she’s reading Beryl Bainbridge’s first person narrative and she can almost imagine the character as a member of the crew on the ill-fated Hoel.

Both writers love detail. (Self loves detail, too. It’s all about verisimilitude)

Here is Bainbridge’s Petty Officer Edgar (Taff) Evans on p. 19:

  • The Owner’s paid 100 pounds out of expedition funds to have the Terra Nova registered as a yacht. This enables us to fly the White Ensign; more to the point, it means we can dodge the attentions of Board of Trade officials who would most certainly declare her an ill-founded ship within the meaning of the Act, seeing she’s wallowing so low in the water it was a waste of time to smudge out the Plimsoll line. Fresh painted lamp-black, with a funnel yellow as a buttercup and a neat white line all around her bows, she’s now as pretty as a picture. There’s one thing worries Lashly: she’s going to be the very devil when it comes to consuming coal.

Both writers, alas, are no longer with us. Hornfischer passed just this year, Bainbridge in 2010 (but dear blog readers will meet Hornfischer again, and soon. She’s added Ship of Ghosts to her reading list.)

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

Quote of the Day: Petty Officer Edgar (Taff) Evans, June 1910

There’s a trick to holding attention, to keeping interest at full pitch, and I learnt it as a boy from Idris Williams, the preacher in the chapel at the bottom of Glamorgan Street. It’s a matter of knowing which way the wind blows and of trimming sails accordingly. All the same, I’ve never found it necessary to alter my description of the cold, or of the ice flowers that bloomed in winter along the edges of the sea.

The Birthday Boys, p. 8

Farewell, The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors; Hello, The Birthday Boys

Opening Sentence:

  • We left West India Dock for Cardiff on the first day of June.

2nd Day in the Water

The first ship that came anywhere close to the survivors in the water came at night. It was too dark for the survivors to make out the shape of the ship, but they threw caution to the wind and began shouting, until the boat came closer and they suddenly realized it was a Japanese ship, searching for their own survivors. The ship passed quietly by the Americans, who were praying softly in the water.

That first night, Robert Billie of the Johnston, who’d been wounded, was tied to an unwounded shipmate who held his face above the water. That kept him alive.

On the second morning in the ocean, the skipper of the Johnston, Bob Copeland, instructed the forty or so men who were clinging to one life raft to come up one by one and receive their morning’s rations: three malted milk tablets. Self wants to cry.

Shark!

1000 survivors from the sinking of the Johnston, the Roberts, the Hoel, and various others are in the water after being told to abandon ship. Most of them are in the water because their life rafts were full of holes. Admiral Halsey, obtuse as ever, cannot seem to locate the ships’ proper coordinates and keeps sending rescue ships out — to the wrong location. Also, he does not send planes to accompany the ships, which would have made finding the men easier. Next thing you know, on p. 376 . . .

  • Drifting toward a fatal sleep, the men decided to fasten themselves together with their inflatable life belts, assigned each other numbers, and counted off at intervals to indicate their physical and mental presence. Clint Carter had just finished securing himself to Chuck Campbell when someone said, “Shark!” and the men started climbing atop one another toward the stars. In the zero-sum equation of salt-water buoyancy, one man’s success was another man’s sudden dunking. Something bumped Carter heavily in the back, and he felt a wrenching force. He screamed, put both hands on Campbell’s shoulders, and lifted himself out of the water as a shark’s bear-trap jaws tore away a chunk of his life vest, along with a small bloody piece of his side. As Carter rose up, his weight plunged Campbell under. The shark let go of Carter, Carter let go of Campbell, and Campbell surfaced spluttering and gasping. Then the shark tasted Carter again, and once more he dunked Campbell in his bid for the raft. The shark let go of Carter, Campbell surfaced and, regaining his breath, he helped lay Carter, bleeding badly, into the raft.

Self sincerely hopes Admiral Halsey received a demotion — he, and not the Japanese, seems to be the real villain of this book. He left his carriers undefended to go chasing after a decoy Japanese battalion. When he got the telegram from the US President, telling him in no uncertain terms to go to the assistance of Taffy 3, Admiral Halsey became upset, threw his hat on the deck, and only calmed down when an aide told him: “Pull yourself together! What is wrong with you!” And then, his rescue operation — waow, probably a second grader could have done it and it would have had the same result.

This (excruciating) chapter (Forty-nine) should likely contain a trigger warning. It traces the fate of particular men, which was absolutely the right decision; it is very gripping. Again, hats off to author James D. Hornfischer for making the right authorial decisions, every step of the way throughout this book.

Chapter Fifty focuses on the survivors of the Samuel B. Roberts. In the middle of the night, they heard a shout:

  • The voice sounded American . . . He called hoarsely in reply and, echoing one another, ranging by sound, the source of the shouting finally found them. It was a man, swimming alone.

This was Howard Cayo, a former circus acrobat. He had been clinging to a wooden scaffolding with about sixty other men when it was attacked by sharks. After hearing his story, the survivors of the Roberts decided to make a determined effort to swim toward land, a distance they estimated to be around thirty miles.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

The US Carrier St. Lo: “A Red Streak”

Tom Van Brunt from the carrier St. Lo was “circling the carrier at a distance, watching other planes land, when a red streak flew past his greenhouse canopy. The startling appearance of a Japanese insignia painted on a wide white wing was Van Brunt’s first indication that enemy aircraft were near. He almost collided with the Japanese plane as it descended toward the St. Lo.

Shortly before eleven a.m. Taffy 3 came under wholesale kamikaze attack. The Japanese Army Air Corps had debuted this horrific new mode of warfare earlier that morning, when six imperial planes took off from bases on Davao and attacked Thomas Sprague’s Taffy 1 task unit. (There are two Spragues in this theater of war: very confusing! Ziggy Sprague is the commander of Taffy 3; Thomas Sprague is the commander of Taffy 1, which was providing cover for MacArthur’s landing. And these two are NOT RELATED) One struck the escort carrier Santee, starting a huge blaze that raged in the hangar deck for about ten minutes. Only the expert marksmanship of gunners aboard the Suwannee, the Sangamon, and the Petrof Bay let them avoid similar hits.

At 10:50 five more aircraft flying from airdromes on Luzon arrived over Taffy 3 and plummeted like osprey . . .

A Zero, a bomb under each wing, rose up, nosed over, and plunged into the flight deck. One or both bombs went off” just as eight planes were being reloaded. Piled around them was “enough weaponry to blow a small town out of existence: eight torpedoes, six depth charges, fifteen 500-lb. bombs, forty 100-pounders, and some 1,400 rounds of .50-caliber ammunition.

The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors, p. 351

It took only one Japanese plane, but the aim of that pilot was true: straight into the bridge. And the St. Lo went down.

That reminds self of another set of planes . . .

Once again, stellar stellar writing from James D. Hornfischer. There is no reason he needed to summon imagery for the red streaks. Nevertheless, “plummeted like osprey” is a hell of a metaphor, just sayin’

And the list of ammunition, instead of just saying: the whole hangar went up in flames.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

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