The Explorer's Eye eds Fergus Fleming & Annabel Merullo

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The Independent Culture

Some two decades on, how much harder it is for the budding travel writer. The world is so much more trampled and observed; surely, all the great journeys have now been done. Indeed, surely all the great anthologies of these journeys have been done. God knows, writers have tried every approach: there's The Whimsical Collection - the benchmark being A Book of Traveller's Tales by Eric Newby; there's the Musing Literary, the best of them perhaps A Taste for Travel by John Julius Norwich. Or how about The Ernest and Stolid Overview (Hanbury-Tenison's Oxford Book of Exploration); then there are anthologies of all the women travellers missed out by all the men - Mary Russell's The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt or The Virago Book of Women Travellers. We even have the explorer's perspective on the whole business, such as Bonington's Quest for Adventure and - hey, this is no time for modesty - The Faber Book of Exploration, edited by the excellent Benedict Allen. To this lot was added last year Tales of Endurance by Fergus Fleming, classic stories of tenacity retold rather well by the author.

And now the very same man has gone and published another collection of tales - by an almost identical list of adventurers. So the question is this: does Fleming need a kindly family friend to ask him, "Fergus, is your travel anthology necessary?"

There are only so many great names in exploration, and the reading public demands at least a good smattering of these old favourites in an anthology. Yet some of these heroes can't write, and others are, frankly, dullards. Fleming's task was to bring us the usual suspects: Stanley, Livingstone, Thor Heyerdahl, Shackleton (inevitably), Mungo Park and Piccard, and yet inject vigour into what is, I'm afraid, a tired list.

Somewhat to my surprise, with this illustrated anthology Fleming pulls it off. Those who've encountered his Barrow's Boys, the story of how the ill-fated Franklin and others were enthusiastically dispatched hither and thither by the Admiralty after the Napoleonic war, will remember the author's eye for the hitherto overlooked detail. Here we have more of the same, but accompanying stories a great many more of us thought familiar - and often added as captions to photos that even the most expert armchair traveller will find new. Fleming is also master of the telling anecdote - we learn that before the flamboyant Italian Nobile took a Zeppelin over the North Pole, he instructed Amundsen to keep weight to a minimum - but once at the appropriate spot unfurled a huge Italian tricolour through his porthole. The exasperated Amundsen commented that his own little Norwegian flag looked like a handkerchief in comparison.

Fleming is also good at unearthing the appropriate snappy quote. We hear, for example, of the eugenic theories of Admiral Peary (that unbearable American who undertook numerous vainglorious bids to the North Pole) and in particular his alarming suggestion that white men father as many children as possible upon Eskimos: "Such a race would surely reach the Pole if their fathers did not succeed in doing it."

Much of the book's success comes from his ease at working around the subjects he knows so well. However, The Explorer's Eye is the story of exploration through the protagonists' illustrations as well as words, and the pleasure of it is that these match the text in their ingenuity and originality. I particularly enjoyed the photo from Abruzzi's voyage north, of two polar bears snoozing on top of an ice shelter, right beside an unfortunately left-behind firearm; and there's room for one of Peary's dodgy portraits of a nude and curvaceous young Eskimo. Here, even familiar photos seem refreshing - I'm thinking of poor Oates photographed aboard ship beside his adored ponies, and Scott at work on his diary in his cramped hut, the doomed man even then (Fleming suggests) consciously writing an epic of Odyssean scale for posterity.

This is an absorbing, stirring and altogether welcome addition to my overcrowded shelves of traveller's tales. I recommend every armchair traveller (and any one else in need of inspiration) to find space for their own copy.