Sarah Sands: Captain Scott – romantic, wrong, but a winner in the end

Sunday 02 October 2011 00:00 BST

Sitting by a fire with a view of the Andes last week, I leafed through a sepia book of exploration photographs. The most arresting, of course, was the picture of an unsmiling Captain Scott and his team with the Union Jack at the South Pole, a month too late, in January 1912. The pity of it.

The culmination of the centenary year of the great race to the South Pole should be Roald Amundsen's victory on 15 December, 1911, but our hearts are not with the successful Norwegian. Instead a British voice echoes: "Great God! This is an awful place... Now for the run home... I wonder if we can do it."

The sentimental attachment to heroic failure over success drives the Amundsenites mad. The biographer Roland Huntford has made a career out of bringing the British to their senses. He now publishes The Expedition Diaries, which proves in the rival explorers' own words the virtues of a professional Norwegian over a British amateur. Huntford concludes that Scott was "an incompetent loser who battled nature rather than tried to understand it".

The facts are bleak. Scott assembled a team of amateur enthusiasts and scientists rather than professionals. He used horses rather than dogs, from a doomed chivalric code that thought horses the more manly option. He tried a new form of mechanised sledge, which broke down. And he wasted time collecting specimens.

Amundsen was single-minded and empirical. Dress it up as you wish, but there was only one winner. As Amundsen sneered crushingly: "Victory awaits him who has everything in order – luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time. This is called bad luck."

The irony for Amundsen is that it is Scott who has the legacy. For a start, Amundsen was too committed to take more than a couple of photographs, so we lack images of him. Then, the plants and rocks that Scott's men wasted time collecting, proved to be enduringly interesting. The use of technology was refined because of Scott's trials. Most of all, Scott wrote so movingly about the tribulations, that his diary entries have the power of Shakespeare. Amundsen's successful and uneventful journey lacks the power of language. Poetry tends to lie in the struggle rather than the achievement.

Compare "so we arrived and were able to plant our flag at the geographical South Pole. God be thanked" with "had we lived I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman".

What is lovable is not the failure, but courage in the face of hopeless odds. Captain Oates "did not – would not – give up hope til the very end".

We wail about the British lack of killer instinct in sports such as tennis, and jeer about political losers, but winning is a narrow aim. The right-wing columnist Peter Oborne jolted convention last week by praising the "brilliant" former Labour leader Michael Foot, despite his loss at the polls. The point was that he was greater than his political ambition.

Amundsen planted his flag, but there was no human resonance. He lacked the moral charisma of an Edmund Hillary. Without romance and honour, success can seem mechanistic. The best way to test this is to face death. This is why the end of Scott and his men means more: 15 December 1911 is not the end of the story.

Sarah Sands is deputy editor of the 'London Evening Standard'

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