Sledge dogs and Englishmen

I MAY BE SOME TIME: Ice and the English Imagination by Francis Spufford, Faber pounds 15.99
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
When three skeletal shadows of Englishmen wandered into Stromness whaling station on South Georgia, the puzzled manager, Mr Sorlle, asked them not unreasonably what their business was there, frightening the children of the settlement. The exhausted Ernest Shackleton, who with his companions Worsley and Crean had been marooned without news or contact in the Antarctic for two years, managed to crackle out the question: "When was the war over?" It was 1916.

The distance between Edwardian summer and shellshock fall of 1914 is generally regarded as the great gulf of our century, into which a whole generation tumbled, modes of living vanished forever, the imperial castle fell to ruin and lazy historians traced the exact footprint of the future. Its only conceivable rival is the clear pink morning Enola Gay flew in out of the sunrise. The Holocaust or the Cultural Revolution, Dealey Plaza or the Berlin Wall, any of these may be equally significant to the monstrous regiment of summarisers waiting on the year 2000, but none of them has that gone-in-a-morning spinal chill, none has slammed past us with quite such bewildering speed, leaving the landscape so terminally clear.

What both events, 1914 and 1945, have in common is the acceleration of technological advance at a rate that surges beyond Man's understanding of its implications. Those who blinked - like Shackleton in the polar silence, like the generals who sent cavalry against the guns - were doomed. As Francis Spufford suggests, by 1916 Shackleton and his companions were "probably the last Europeans on the planet still inhabiting the lost paradigm". The stunned explorers heard of "nations in arms, of deathless courage and unimagined slaughter ... of vast red battlefields in grimmest contrast to the frigid whiteness we had left behind us". It was as if these three starving revenants who, as the dying Scott had scrawled in his diary four years earlier, "should have had a tale to tell", had stumbled on a world that had a tale to tell them, and that their experience was as nothing, was still, empty, pointless whiteness.

This telling incident is about the only one in Spufford's fascinating and finely written book that post-dates the death of Scott, which is likely to remain forever exploration's Calvary. (It would take a born writer stuck without fuel on Pluto to reprise or surpass Scott's turn on the world stage, and if College America can't produce a decent young poet, fat chance NASA has.) But everything in the book spirals down towards that tiny tent in a blizzard, just 11 miles from safety: Bowers scribbling a consoling note to his mum, Wilson clasping his hands on his chest to go like a crusader, Scott hearing their breath turn ragged and end, while he wrote on in what must have been about the most abominable loneliness known to a human being. This is where Nature wiped out an old kind of Englishman but - in its stupid cold indifference - saved their English for all time.

The overriding importance Spufford affords to the Scott expedition, both pinnacle and nadir of a certain kind of effort, gives him a sterling structure for the book, which steadily follows strands - the Romantic sublime, the English attitude to polar peoples, the highways and byways of science, the cold as metaphor in literature - towards that familiar and awesome debacle. The much-covered final countdown he tells in a novelistic present- tense diary that works excellently, given unaccustomed imaginative and historical depth by what has preceded it. Once again, one is forced to love them, their hooch and their music-hall songs, their appalling understatement, their insufferable courage, their eccentricities - Wilson sketching the sky at five in the morning, Oates the sullen outsider with his wretched horses in the fo'c'sle, the awe of the photographer Ponting, Cherry-Garrard's misery at not being picked for the first, last, immortal five.

Spufford makes a convincing case that, along with the English explorer's arrogance and sentimentality (plus his catastrophic squeamishness about animal cruelty) solemnly handed down to Scott by Sir Clements Markham, the real problem with 20th-century British polar exploration was that it had stopped. Nothing had been attempted since the failure of Sir George Nares' expedition in 1875-76. The continuity of intelligent education in Antarctic reality - as displayed by the Norwegians Nansen and later Scott's nemesis Amundsen, who both tried and learnt to live as the Greenland Inuit did - was broken. When Markham thawed out the dream of conquest it had taken on an unreally noble, romantic dimension, and it was this storybook sense of it that funnelled solely through Markham and solely to Scott. In equipping Scott's ship, for example, "Markham had effectively restricted the equipment the Discovery might use in the Antarctic to that he remembered from boyhood", and Markham grew up in the 1830s.

The English sense of polar adventure was still bound up with the perceived heroism of earlier icons: Sir John Ross (after whom Emily Bronte named a toy soldier, much to Charlotte's displeasure), Sir William Parry (whom Byron put in "The Vision of Judgement") and above all Sir John Franklin, whose North-West Passage-seeking party vanished in 1845 and were not proved dead for 15 years - though they had perished after two - giving rise to one of history's most spectacular and energetic exploitations of grieving widowhood. Lady Jane Franklin's public lamentations, stoked by Dickens, struck a national chord, and her heroic lost husband entered the dreamlife of the nation's women. (Spufford anatomises the Franklin marriage brilliantly, as he does both Parry's and Scott's.)

What the Victorian and Edwardian imagination was too dazzled to grasp about Franklin, though, was that he had failed unnecessarily, through almost wilful ignorance. The Canadian explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson would wonder aloud in 1939 "how Sir John Franklin and his party of more than a hundred contrived to die to the last man, apparently from hunger and malnutrition, in a district where several hundred Eskimos had been living for generations, bringing up their children, and taking care of their aged". Give or take the numbers and the Eskimos, this could have been Amundsen on Scott, more than half a century after Franklin's failure.

The victims in Spufford's superb history may all be brave and foolish Englishmen, but the villain is not Ice but one of the other nouns in his title: Time. It's Time, clinical like Amundsen and his dog-drawn chariots, that overhauls them as they drag their starving selves along in a dream of glory, illuminated by the past. Time did for Franklin and Scott, made wraiths of Shackleton and the rest as they staggered into the world at war, left them behind on the cigarette-cards of the eternal Edwardian summer. And, back in 1916, it caught up with the 85-year-old Sir Clements Markham, whose bed caught fire and killed him. He was reading by candlelight because he hated electricity.

'Moon Country', Glyn Maxwell's book about Iceland co-authored with Simon Armitage, will be published in November.