In search of the thrill factor

Frank McLynn delves into the British penchant for exploration in frozen wastes
I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination by Francis Spufford, Faber, pounds 15.99

The golden age of British polar exploration dates roughly from 1845 to 1916. All four major expeditions sent out to the Arctic and the Antarctic in this era came to grief. Sir George Strong Nares failed abysmally in his Arctic venture in 1875-76, as did Shackleton in Antarctica in 1914-16. The Franklin expedition to find the North-West Passage in 1845- 47 ended tragically, as did Scott's bid to reach the South Pole in 1910- 12.

Yet these people were treated as heroes by the Victorian and Edwardian publics, and to some extent this tradition still lives on today. We are dealing with a peculiarly British cult of noble failure which some have connected in turn with the cult of the amateur and the alarming downward spiral of decline of a once proud imperial nation. How is this to be explained? And why did men venture into these icy wastes? Explorers of the Pacific, Africa and South America could compensate for the hardships with a permissive sexual code unknown at home, and there was the prospect of making a killing from silver, gold, precious metals, ivory - everything from El Dorado to King Solomon's mines. None of this obtained in the polar regions.

Taking his title from Captain Oates' famous (and probably apocryphal) remark as he walked into the snow to his death on Scott's last expedition, Francis Spufford has fashioned not a history of polar exploration, but a series of essays on what might be called meta-exploration, investigating the beliefs, symbols, myths, values and cultures associated with the icy quest. His fascinating book contains some blemishes,but this is more than offset by a stunning series of bright ideas. The essential weakness of the book is that the ten chapters are discrete and strung together on a very loose thematic peg. Spufford works almost entirely by association of ideas, and when one can follow the linkages the juxtaposition of ideas is often very exciting. But sometimes he veers into a quasi-Freudian "free association" where it is difficult to see how one part of his argument connects with another. As well as being too allusive and grasshopper-like, Spufford is occasionally ungenerous: towards the greatest student of polar exploration in our time, Roland Huntford, his attitude seems gratuitously snide, and he also ignores Huntford's findings in areas which would have shed important light on his arguments.

On the other hand, Spufford's recreation of the mentalite of the Edwardian era is brilliant and he has the makings of a quite outstanding cultural historian, with a "green fingers" feel for subtle ideological nuances. There is a masterly biographical sketch of the eminence grise of British polar exploration, Sir Clements Markham, Scott's backer and a dreadful martinet. Even if all the notions Spufford throws at us are not wholly original, he has a marvellous gift of synthesis and the ability to gush out an endless stream of intriguing ideas. His self-confidence is such that in the final chapter he even switches to historical novel mode to imagine the final thoughts of the dying Captain Scott. He does not make the mistake of retelling the Scott story, but in a few broad brush strokes he makes us aware of the extreme oddity of the famous five who perished on the return from the Pole in 1912: Wilson, the pious Christian living with his wife as Joseph with Mary Scott, dominated by the hoydenish virago Kathleen; Evand, ditto with his wife; Oates, an out-and-out misogynist; Bowers, a religious maniac.

The main cause of the debacle on the Franklin and Scott expeditions was imperial arrogance: Franklin could have survived if he had learned elementary lessons from the despised Inuit (Eskimo), as could Scott if he had approached his task professionally, as Amundsen did. All this is well known, but Spufford underlines the depths of Victorian and Edwardian arrogance. He is especially good on the Victorian attitude to death, the differences between the Victorian and Edwardian eras, the Romantic horror of whiteness as "not-being", the fascination for women of polar exploration, and the sexual politics mixed up in the process of rewriting history as triumphalist myth.

Enlivened by an en passant study of the influence of polar exploration on the work of Poe, Coleridge, Mary Shelley, Charlotte Bronte, Jules Verne, Hans Andersen, Tennyson, Dickens, Conrad and, above all, Melville, this book - for all its angular corners - deserves to win a niche as a little classic of interdisciplinary study.