The twenty-sixth of May, 2011: a penguin’s egg

A chilling draught of tragedy, as Clutterbuck’s Liars’ League Leeds-inspired North & South theme goes boomeranging southwards again.

I tell you, if you have the desire for knowledge and the power to give it physical expression, go out and explore. If you are a brave man you will do nothing: if you are fearful you may do much, for none but cowards have need to prove their bravery. Some will tell you that you are mad, and nearly all will say, ‘What is the use?’ For we are a nation of shopkeepers, and no shopkeeper will look at research which does not promise him a financial return within a year. And so you will sledge nearly alone, but those with whom you sledge will not be shopkeepers: that is worth a good deal. If you march your Winter Journeys you you will have your reward, so long as all you want is a penguin’s egg.

That’s the conclusion of the cripplingly sad last chapter of Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey In The World, an account of travelling to the Antarctic with Scott’s last expedition (the title refers not to Scott’s doomed polar journey but to the nightmarish trek through the polar winter taken by Cherry-Garrard, Edward Wilson and Henry ‘Birdie’ Bowers  to reach the nesting grounds of Antarctica’s emperor penguins – and to bring back penguin eggs).

To me, Cherry-Garrard is the most tragic of all of Scott’s 1912 party (Oates notwithstanding – and it’s worth noting (as Ranulph Fiennes has pointed out) that, when Oates stumbled out into the blizzard, his frostbitten hands would have been useless; the other men in the tent (Scott, Bowers and Wilson) would have had to unlace the tent door for him – and, heartbreakingly, lace it up after him after he had gone).

Cherry Garrard lived to an old age, bedevilled by survivor’s guilt and physical and mental frailty. He also lived next door to the appalling George Bernard-Shaw and his dreadful wife, which can’t have helped at all.

Mark Gatiss made a typically brilliant job of bringing The Worst Journey In The World to the screen for BBC4 in 2007.


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