BOOK REVIEW / Frozen toes in search of worlds to conquer: The myth of the explorer - Beau Riffenburgh: Belhaven, pounds 17.95

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THE RECENT exploits of Rebecca Stephens on Everest again raise the question: what is the point of exploring? To pay the bills? To impress women (or men) at parties? Just for the hell of it? Those were some reasons given by explorers recently.

Similar motives doubtless drove explorers of the past, but then - unlike now - the explorer-hero ventured into what he (almost never, until last week, she) saw as blank spaces on the globe, to conquer new lands. In the days of Columbus, Cook, Livingstone and Scott, acts of heroism, romance and adventure were to do with conquest and empire and pushing out frontiers. That, presumably, was why the public found it all so exciting.

Sir Ranulf Fiennes and Michael Stroud crossed the Antarctic without vehicles or dogs. Erling Kagge skied alone to the South Pole. By such feats - personal challenges rather than acts of exploration - they tried to return to a more heroic age and a grander tradition of exploration.

But Riffenburgh argues that the myth of the explorer often shrouded an iceberg of illusions. You may think Sir Ranulf is off his trolley for freezing his toes to no good purpose, but most explorer-heroes seem to have been a few stock-cubes short of a full polar ration.

Riffenburgh's interesting book shows how the feats of Livingstone and Stanley, Nansen, Amundsen and Scott were seized upon by newspapers exploring the art of sensationalist reporting. He shows how the ambitions of press impresarios such as James Gordon Bennett, Joseph Pulitzer and Viscount Northcliffe were as grandiose as those of the explorers they raised up and cast down.

Riffenburgh examines the fruitful relationship between the explorers, the Victorian press barons and an increasingly literate public. 'Those involved in the business of exploration knew it often bore little resemblance to accounts that were presented to the public,' he says. But the embroidered stories suited the newspapers and the explorers so well and were so popular with the public that they rarely altered.

Take the 1909 conquest of the North Pole by the American explorer-hero Robert Peary. 'Peary . . . was perhaps the most self-serving, paranoid, arrogant and mean-spirited of all the 19th-century explorers . . . suspicious and hateful to those he considered his rivals . . . condescending and insensitive to his subordinates . . . and ingratiating and servile to those he felt could help his quest for personal glory.' These traits stemmed from the explorer's obsession with celebrity, says the author; he cites a letter from Peary to his mother: 'I must have fame . . . now.'

Peary's race was not just against time and the frozen wastes, but also against his long-term rival Frederick Cook who was, by contrast, 'courteous, charming and impulsive'. To Peary's horror, Cook reached the Pole first, and on 2 September Bennett's New York Herald ran the front-page headline: 'The North Pole is discovered by Frederick A Cook who cables to the Herald an exclusive account of how he set the American flag on the world's top.'

Four days later Peary reached his goal, and Bennett's rivals led a campaign of mud- slinging in which Cook was accused of being a liar, a faker and insane. A backlash against Peary left the reputation of both men in tatters; doubts remain about whether either of them ever reached the Pole.

Earlier, the opening up of Africa by Livingstone and others had a clear purpose: to chart those 'blank' spaces, wrest them from Arab slavers, establish them as pink bits in the atlas and secure them for trade.

The dash for the Pole and the scramble for Africa were important because of the need to stake a claim. They satisfied a nation's lust for both adventure and territory. Riffenburgh says it was not just the achievements, rather the struggle and the excitement, that were keys to the myth of the explorer. But the achievements were a major part of it. These days, when adventurers peel off digits into frozen socks, the only object is self-discovery.

The First World War killed off the myth of the explorer. The exploits of Fiennes and Stephens, no matter how patriotic and brave, cannot invent new lands to conquer or rekindle the confidence of an imperial age.

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