The Last Act of These Men’s Lives

Still on Birdie’s section. It has been a hard, unrelenting slog: nothing but ice, and trying to keep going, and the sunless dark, for sixteen days straight. What’s amazing is how Beryl Bainbridge recreates it all. The human spirit is simply unfathomable, the way it just keeps going. All gratitude to Bainbridge for writing such a brutal, honest, and unflinching narrative!

  • We rose at three the next morning, into moonlight misty with fog. It’s at Cape Evans that the barrier, that great wall of ice which extends 400 miles south and east, meets the land, and we could just make out the tumultuous shapes of the pressure fields jostling the smudged edge of the frozen sea. On Bill’s reckoning it was four miles to the cliffs, and he wanted to get there by midday so as to have the benefit of the twilight hour. Blubber for the stove was now a more urgent priority than Emperor eggs; we were a quarter of the way through the fifth of those six precious tins of oil the Owner had so begrudged our taking.

So yes, dear blog readers, it looks like this is going to be a dreadful slog through to the bitter end, we are going to have to struggle along with these men until they take their last breaths. Self did not much care for Robert Falcon Scott’s section, but Birdie’s, now! There’s a point of view to get lost in.

The horror is unrelenting: they come across a colony of Emperor penguins and start slaughtering like mad! For the penguins’ blubber. And those penguins are too stupid to try and evade the knife. They just stand there, waiting. The men save five eggs to take back to camp, and drop two on the way. God, this is super-depressing. If they ever make a movie about this expedition, self will not watch it.

What makes an author absolutely want to push the reader’s face in it, self wonders. Is it the feeling of being almost god-like, manipulating the reader’s emotions at will? Does she want to show that a woman is just as capable of imagining horror as a man? Ugh, will Bainbridge just HURRY UP AND GET IT OVER WITH.

The last part of Birdie’s section is dreams, dreams, dreams. Snow keeps falling on them, ugh ugh ugh. Self describes it all for dear blog readers so that they can decide for themselves if the beauty of Bainbridge’s prose is worth suffering through such pointless dying. It’s like Joyce Carol Oates, only historical.

The last section is Oates’s. Of course we have to see every inch of his gangrenous foot.

Today’s weather was vastly different from yesterday’s. Yesterday was glorious! Today was cold. Thank goodness self discovered the chocolate shop next to Dick’s Place (bar). What does chocolate have to do with anything? She got three truffles this afternoon and they were really yum, and the weather seemed far less cold after.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

Headlands Coffeehouse, Fort Bragg

Well, hellooooo, old friend. There’s another coffeeshop just around the corner from Mendocino Hotel, but as she was headed there, a car pulled up and a woman stuck her head out and said, “Do you know any place that you can get breakfast in, around here?” Self told her, “Lansing Street” and she said, “We’ve just been, and all they have is outdoor seating, and it’s too cold!” So self said, “Fort Bragg,” and then self decided that she would head to Fort Bragg, herself.

Whoa, the drive there. This is what she remembers: IMPATIENT TRUCKS. And it was spitting rain. She passed the Mendocino Coast Botanical Garden, and Nit’s Café, and the Depot, but everything seemed closed. Then she made a right on Laurel and saw: YAY! People going in and out of Headlands Coffeehouse! She found a parking spot and went in and ordered a cappucino.

Not 10 minutes later, she heard someone saying, “Oh, hi!” and she looked up. It was the same woman who had spoken to her in Mendocino! And she said, “We just followed you here!” The woman and her husband had driven up from Santa Rosa and were staying at Little River Inn. For some reason, the woman thought self was a local, but self told her she was just visiting. “I used to teach at Mendocino Art Center,” though, self said. The woman asked if self was an artist, and rather than get into it, self said yes.

Anyhoo, that is not the real point of this post. The real point is: as she sat in Headlands, sipping her cappucino, she got to a part of The Birthday Boys (p. 138) that made her say: Holy Cow, I am so glad I persevered through all the earlier chapters. Because it’s Lt. Bowers’s chapter (Birdie) and here’s where the real suffering unfolds.

It’s all very well for Robert Falcon Scott to lament his sad fate (being beaten to the South Pole by Amundsen), but he is not the one hauling ass. He is not the one getting frostbite. It is Birdie and Dr. Wilson and the young whippersnapper Cherry-Garard who have to trek the frozen, sunless wasteland, to perform an experiment on DIET that Robert Falcon Scott ordered them to execute. This Robert Falcon Scott was definitely crazes, while the three men have spent six nights in a howling desert of ice.

Finally, the three debate whether or not to continue.

Birdie (p. 139):

“I happen to believe we can stick it.” I was speaking no more than the truth, having always found that willpower overcomes all adversities. One just has to believe that it’s within one’s spiritual domain to conquer difficulties. That is not to say that I don’t recognise there has to be a time to submit, possibly a time to die, merely that I’ve never yet been taken to the brink.

Bill (Wilson) cheered up after this and waxed on about the penguins. I must say they lead terrible lives, in that their undoubted maternal instinct leads more to infanticide than nurturing.

Self ordered squash soup for take-out, so she could enjoy it in the privacy of her room. Holy Smokes, the car was filled with such a delicious smell, she literally floored it from Fort Bragg to Mendocino, she just couldn’t wait to have this soup!

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

Epitaph for an Explorer

“I’ve been five times round the world, and Bill quite as far in his mind, yet we still thought this an awfully big adventure.”

  • Lt. Henry Robertson (Birdie) Bowers, The Birthday Boys, p. 135. Bowers died with the other members of Robert Scott Franklin’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole, 1911

Self Just Can’t Seem to Quit This Book

Self returns to the slowest read in forever. This morning, she’s on p. 106 (about halfway), Robert Falcon Scott’s meditation on the futility of his quest to the South Pole (He already knows Amundsen, with his “one hundred dogs,” has beaten him, but the Englishman in him tells him to stiff-upper-lip it and continue):

  • It’s to be regretted that the best part of me, the part that recognises both the horror and beauty of destiny, remains submerged. When things go wrong — and God knows they do that with unfailing regularity — while outwardly I exhibit all the signs of a man in the grip of a bad temper, underneath I’m actually going through a healing, if melancholy, acceptance of forces beyond my control. However, the process is so debilitating that I’m forced to assume a reserve I’m far from feeling, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to function.

Captain Robert Falcon (Con) Scott, Leader of the Expedition

Inactivity always leads to introspection, and I’m simply no good when I’m not doing something. It will be splendid to fall asleep utterly exhausted from a long, strenuous slog.

The Birthday Boys, p. 91

Self is surprised that Bainbridge chose to make Scott only the third chapter (aren’t there two more to go?). She thought that Bainbridge would give the leader of the expedition, Scott, the place of honor, usually the end. Apparently not!

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.

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