Profile for John Brain > Reviews

Personal Profile

Content by John Brain
Top Reviewer Ranking: 1,553
Helpful Votes: 280

Learn more about Your Profile.

Reviews Written by
John Brain (Cardiff)

Show:  
Page: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11-14
pixel
Scott And Amundsen: The Last Place on Earth
Scott And Amundsen: The Last Place on Earth
by Roland Huntford
Edition: Paperback
Price: £16.99

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Erudite journalese, 6 Jan. 2013
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
I have been meaning to read 'Scott and Amundsen' (The Last Place on Earth) for some time, and have finally got round to it. And I have to say, that despite all its innaccuracies, omissions and one-sided appraisal, I enjoyed it as a book. I found it well written and researched.

It is however written by a journalist and its writing style is more reminiscent of a popular newspaper, than even-handed research. However it should be remembered that it was first published in 1979. At that time, Robert Falcon Scott's achievement in reaching the South Pole in 1912 was still being viewed relatively uncritically. And Amundsen's achievement was relatively unheralded. Huntford was the first to seriously challenge the received wisdom of the Scott/Amundsen expeditions to the Pole. He clearly started with a view that Scott was an inept bungler and by contrast Amundsen was a supremely competent polar explorer, and he set about to put the record straight, as he saw it. In doing so, he went to great lengths to castigate Scott's planning, his methods and his character by means of selective assertions, at every opportunity. So much so, that I as a reader became irritated at the constant repetition. I was less concerned about his views on Amundsen, who I would agree was a great man whose multiple achievements have not always received the acclaim they richly deserve. But even there, Huntford deploys the journalistic style of conveniently omitting any evidence which runs counter to his central assertion. And he virtually invents some of Scott's motivations. And though Huntford certainly went to great lengths to research his material, I was somewhat disappointed that he omitted specific references to his sources.

Having read a large number of accounts by those who accompanied Scott - Cherry-Garrard, Evans, Wilson, Debenham, Simpson etc. I am forced to conclude that Huntford's view of Scott's character is extremely skewed. Despite his faults, Scott was clearly a much admired leader by many of his team. But Huntford does do us a service by raising key questions about Scott's methods. I have read Susan Solomon's appraisal of the relative climatic conditions in 1911/12 (The Coldest March), where she challenges Huntford's assertion that Scott did not encounter unpredictable cold conditions. I found her argument convincing. I have also read Sir Ranulph Fiennes defence of Scott (Captain Scott). And I too found a number of his points very convincing. But without wishing to take away from Scott a jot of what he achieved, especially in the new science which he championed, there remain some fundamental issues about his methods - especially his means of travel and his planning, and I am grateful to Huntford for at least initiating a debate.

In conclusion, I enjoyed the book. But it should be read in context. It makes some very valid points. But it also maligns a man, who clearly achieved more than any of us will ever achieve.


Death on the Ice
Death on the Ice
by Robert Ryan
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Well worth a read, 26 Nov. 2012
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Death on the Ice (Paperback)
I have to admit that I approached this book with more than a little trepidation. 'Death on the Ice' is a novel - a novel based on Ryan's extensive research of the numerous primary and secondary sources which are freely available and which relate to Robert Falcon Scott's Antarctic expeditions in the early 20th century. My trepidation was based on the fact that I worry that such a genre has the potential to distort and misrepresent the life of a person who actually lived relatively recently and who is no longer able to defend himself. But I can now say that any such fears that I might have had, were totally unfounded.

Having read many of the sources myself, I can only say that I felt that Ryan did his utmost to be fair, and to faithfully represent a balanced version of what is likely to have actually happened. More than that, his descriptive skills and his ability to get inside the characters of the principal persona of the story, were a powerful means of enhancing my own understanding of what those with Scott actually experienced a century ago.

I also very much appreciated the way the author structured the story. For those who know the saga, and certainly the inevitable outcome, the novel could have been a somewhat tedious repeat of events in serial order. Instead Ryan uses relatively short chapters (each, an average of 6 pages), to provide 'glimpses' of the action in various places and times - London - the Barrier - Cape Evans - Berlin etc. and this effectively gives the story pace and drive. In addition, he focuses on particular characters. I especially enjoyed his portrayals of Titus Oates, Kathleen Scott and Tryggve Gran and felt that I got to know them more than ever before.

I have one small niggle towards the end. Nobody will ever know the mind of Titus Oates when he left the tent for his own oblivion. But Ryan spent a page and a half guessing and relating as fact those last innermost thoughts. Clearly he was trying to bring the novel to a fitting climax. But for me, this moment would have achieved greater poignancy if those thoughts had been left unsaid. But let such a niggle not detract from what I felt was a fine novel and I am so pleased I chose to read it.


Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica
Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica
by Sara Wheeler
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not my cup of tea., 10 Nov. 2012
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Sarah Wheeler's 'Terra Incognita' is the account of the writer's relatively recent travels in Antarctica.

I decided to read the book because I was so impressed by Ms wheeler's biography 'Cherry' - an account of the life of Apsley Cherry-Garrard. (see my review) However, I have to say I was rather disappointed with this book which was written in a quite different style - indeed, if I had not known the authors were one and the same person, I could not have guessed it.

But I note that I am in a minority. Judging by the many very positive other reviews of the book, most really enjoyed it - so in the end it must just be down to personal perceptions and taste.

Can I say from the start that I certainly admire Ms Wheeler's writing ability. There are within the book some beautiful descriptive pieces which evoke the mood and the majesty of the Antarctic continent. What niggled me though was the apparent pointlessness of the journeying. If there was a purpose, other than a rather unusual holiday, it escaped me. Additionally, the narrative flitted rapidly from one location to another, seemingly randomly. Characters were introduced at a rate of knots, and quickly disappeared. I never felt I got to know any of them very well. Interspersed with the overall narrative, were snippets of historical episodes - Scott - Shackleton etc. But for me, none of these added insights to the heroic deeds of those pioneers of old and I could not work out why each snippet was placed in the particular place in the narrative that it was. And it may be a generational issue, but I became intensely bored by the 1001 references to the trivia of daily happenings, but more especially the banal conversations of the many characters whom Ms Wheeler met on her travels - surely there was much more to the various scientists et al who featured than the lavatorial humour which appeared to permeate their every thought.

But then again, I am clearly swimming against the tide of praise from other reviewers. In my defence, can I repeat, there were parts of the book I really enjoyed -but overall - not my cup of tea.


The White
The White

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An interesting and novel approach to 'biography', 26 Oct. 2012
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: The White (Kindle Edition)
This is a story of two halves. The one story of Robert Falcon Scott'e epic journey to the South Pole in 1911/12. And the lesser known story of the Australian Douglas Mawson's expedition to the Antarctic in 1912/13. Despite (or perhaps because of) his 'heroic' death, Scott was later immortalised. Though Mawson survived, and was indeed knighted, yet his name is relatively little known a century later. The two men knew one another, only in passing, yet there were many similarities in the immense hardships they faced and the difficulties and challenges of mounting expeditions a century ago.

To be fair to Adrian Caesar, his tales of the two men are not strictly biographical but rather "imaginative recreations" (as he himself describes them). The diaries of both Scott and Mawson are selectively quoted, but there are few other references to sources. Instead Caesar uses his knowledge derived from the writings of others, to imagine the motivations, moods, musings and innermost thoughts of the two men.

I have to say that I learnt very little that was new to me about the two major journeys described in the book - that of Scott and his team to the Pole, and Mawson and his in Adelie Land. For me, the style of 'imaginative recreation' worked in part, much more so for Mawson than for Scott. I became a little irritated with Caesar's apparent acceptance of the modernist view that Scott was a bumbler and self-seeker - his 'imaginings' certainly reflected such an outlook. (On the cover blurb, Ranulph Fiennes describes the book as a 'magnificent re-telling' - a curious plaudit given Fiennes own antipathy to negative interpretations of Scott's achievements.)

But what I really did enjoy about the book was the courage that Caesar displays in formulating this really novel approach to retelling such inspiring tales of the past. His skilful use of language paints pictures in the mind which really do help the reader to feel for the protagonists and to personally participate in the story being told.


The Last Place On Earth [DVD]
The Last Place On Earth [DVD]
Dvd ~ Martin Shaw
Price: £14.20

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Ponderous, prejudicial and poorly cast., 21 Oct. 2012
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This is the mini series made in the 1980s which tells the stories of Scott and Amundsen's 1912 expeditions to Antarctica and more especially, their treks to the South Pole. It is based on Roland Huntford's analysis of the respective merits of the two explorers, as related in his book 'Scott and Amundsen' and faithfully reflects his view that Amundsen was the 'creme de la creme' and Scott was 'damaged goods'. If anything, the film portrays that interpretation even more forcefully than does the book.

I have a somewhat different view of the respective merits of the two men and I suppose therefore I can be accused of commenting from a rather biased starting point. However my main criticisms of this visual portrayal are not of the story told, but of the film itself. To be positive, the scenery was magnificent, but there, its merits end for me. In particular, I found the characters poorly cast. Despite the fact that the blurb on the DVD jacket describes the main actors' performances as 'outstanding'. I found them anything but. Martin Shaw's portrayal of Scott as mean-spirited and nasty simply did not accord with the complex character revealed by those many of his contemporaries in their writings. Wilson was portrayed as being diffident and wishy-washy, rather than the much-admired cornerstone which many expedition members found him. An actor I much admire, Bill Nighy, played Meares as an out and out rebel, a characterisation which has a doubtful basis in fact. And the portrayals of Oates and Bowers too, fell far short of the magnificent characters which they undoubtedly were. I had less trouble with the depiction of PO Evans, and to be fair, Sverre Anker Ousdal played Amundsen himself very well indeed. I was left wondering whether the actors had actually done any research themselves into the characters they were portraying, or did they simply accept direction unquestioningly.

Without wishing to be too negative, I also found the storyline, especially in the pre-expedition build-ups, slow and ponderous. And the music too was dreary - falling far short of the magnificent scores which have been written for so many films over the past 30 years.

So I was disappointed. No doubt the series has its many admirers. But I am in the detractor camp.


The Coldest March: Scott's Fatal Antarctic Expedition
The Coldest March: Scott's Fatal Antarctic Expedition
by Susan Solomon
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Coldest and boldest March, 13 Oct. 2012
I found this to be a superb book, written by a gifted scientist, yet in a style which was absorbing and eminently readable by those of us with few scientific pretensions.

In her book, which focuses on Robert Falcon Scott's fatal expedition to the South Pole, Sue Solomon analyses in great detail the contemporaneous records of Scott, Bowers, Wilson, Cherry-Garrard, and especially Simpson the meteorologist, and on the basis of their writings, strongly suggests that a number of possible key reasons commonly proposed for the demise of the polar party are likely to be erroneous. She convincingly demonstrates that, amongst other things, lack of planning, lack of food and scurvy were NOT in themselves the primary cause for the loss of the party. Instead, she concludes that the historic weather data, combined with that collected by modern weather stations, shows there was in March 1911 an unpredictable bout of severe cold weather, which not only rendered Scott immobile with frostbite, but which had a profound effect on the nature of the surface the party were pulling their sledges over. And that such weather did NOT beset Scott's contemporary, Amundsen. She also demonstrates that Scott was likely mistaken for believing that the blizzard which kept him at his final camp, lasted for 11 days, and, based on the evidence, suggests other convincing reasons why Wilson and Bowers decided not to set off to One Ton Camp to fetch essential supplies.

There were a number of features which I particulary liked about the book. Firstly, though her conclusions contradict those of Roland Huntford, she does not attack him. Instead, she quietly allows the evidence to speak for itself, and indeed includes his books in her bibliography. Secondly, each chapter is headed by a fictional account of the experience of a modern visitor to Antarctica. This she uses to very effectively demonstrate what those pioneers of a century ago were really up against. And thirdly, she chooses a very clever title for the book, with its play on the word 'March' - a play which in 3 words sums up her argument.

Yes - in my view - a very good piece of writing.


The Great White South
The Great White South
Price: £4.54

5.0 out of 5 stars Pioneering Photography, but much more, 7 Oct. 2012
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Those who are fascinated with all things relating to the heroic Age of exploration in Antarctica will know that Herbert Ponting was the official photographer on Scott's Last Expedition. His photographic masterpieces were recently shown to great effect at an exhibition at the Queen's Gallery and reprinted, alongside those of Hurley of Shackleton's Trans-antarctic expedition in the accompanying publication 'The Heart of the Great Alone'.

But ' The Great White South' is Ponting's own account of his time with Scott, written in 1921, some 10 years after his return from the Antarctic. To my mind, it shows that Ponting was not only a great photographer, but also had considerable literary ability. It is written in the style of typical Edwardian deference, reminding me of Edward Evan's account of the expedition, as told in his 'South with Scott' also published in 1921. There is little trace of the controversies which have since surrounded the true nature of Scott's achievement. Ponting was clearly a very great admirer of Scott and his account is full of fulsome praise. A central emphasis is on the scientific nature of the expedition, and he certainly downplays any claim that Scott was somehow in a race with Amundsen to be the first to reach the South Pole.

After Scott left for the Pole, Evans remained at base camp and spent his time photographing the landscape as well as the seals, penguins and other sea and bird life of the Cape Evans area. He also experimented with early 'kinematograph', with a mind to showing his film on return to raise funds to pay for the expedition. There is a long section in his book on this aspect, which, far from detracting from the overall narrative, I found absolutely fascinating. His method of describing the nature and habits of the Emperor and Adelie penguins and the scavenger Skua gulls, was to ascribe to them human characteristics, oddly reminding me of the anthropomorphous leanings of his contemporary, Beatrix Potter. Possibly not to modern taste, but designed very much to appeal to the audience of that day.

My only misgiving, is that the 2001 Cooper Press version of the book (though not the Kindle version) includes a somewhat alien 'Introduction' (by Roland Huntford) which once again peddles what many regard as its author's prejudices, maligning Scott and unfavourably contrasting him with Ponting - sentiments which anyone who has read Ponting or watched his film - will surely conclude that Ponting himself, would strongly disagree with.

But back to Ponting. Contemporaries of his describe him as an extremely likeable man, and that certainly comes across in his account. Those who wish to know more of the man and his work could well purchase the excellent remastered DVD, 'The Great White Silence' which includes his movie film and commentary as well as an introductory 'conversation' between him and Evans - fascinating stuff.

What a man. And what an enjoyable publication.


In the Footsteps of Scott
In the Footsteps of Scott
by Roger Mear
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars Remarkable Polar Journey, 19 Sept. 2012
This is the account of a journey made by 3 men in 1985-86, which sought to replicate the outward journey to the South Pole by Robert Falcon Scott some 70+ years previously. It had long been the ambition of Robert Swan, the leader of the expedition, to make this journey. Despite having the backing of patrons such as Vivian Fuchs, Peter Scott and Lord Shackleton, the 'Footsteps' enterprise was opposed by the United States who occupied large bases at the Pole and McMurdo Sound, and whose official policy was to oppose private expeditions to the Antarctic continent.

The journey itself, as told by the second expedition member Roger Mear, was quite remarkable. However, it cannot easily be compared to Scott's original journey. It was meticulously planned and also benefitted from modern technology; clothing, tents, sledges etc. were far superior, though navigation relied, as of old, on the compass and sextant, and its aim was to be unsupported. All equipment, food etc. was man-hauled. Radios were not taken. No food depots were laid, as the journey was one-way. Mindful of environmental issues, all expedition debris was to be carried to the Pole. The plan was for the party to be flown back from the Pole in a private Cessna, but at the last minute, this was thwarted by the sudden sinking of the expedition ship, the Southern Quest, resulting in the Americans 'rescuing' the 3 polar travellers, those back at base at McMurdo (Mike Stroud and John Tolson) and the ship's crew. The result was much animosity - which Roger Mear relates with some force.

The journey was made, (as was Scott's) over the Antarctic summer, though I was struck by the relatively better weather the expedition seemed to 'enjoy'. As with Scott, a hut was built at Cape Evans and the expedition members over-wintered, and replicated the Wilson/Bowers/Cherry-Garrard winter outing to Cape Crozier, before proceeding on the journey to the Pole. But on the Beardmore, the party met a team of American geologists (with helicopter), thus removing the goal of a completely unsupported journey. Certainly the trek was completed in 70 days compared with Scott's 76, and there was a food surplus, when the party reached the Pole. However the author was extremely frank about the severe disagreements between the party members on the walk, clearly initiated by the stresses involved. Over the years we have come to learn of tensions within Scott's party, but I have to say these do not appear to have been as acute as those of this modern 'Footsteps' expedition.

Much against the wishes of the Americans, Gareth Wood, the 3rd expedition member, despite having endured the ardours of the trek to the Pole, remained at the base at Mcmurdo with 2 more crew members for a further winter, thus allowing the expedition, true to its environmental credentials, to eventually remove all traces of the expedition hut and paraphernalia.

Because of the criticism of the expedition by the Americans, a good deal of the book is written by way of apologia, countering such criticism. The major element which I was left sceptical about was the sinking of the 'Southern Quest'. It happened extremely quickly, and one is left wondering whether its captain and crew were somehow negligent, given the knowledge acquired over the years of the vulnerability of ships in the ice-pack. Mears seems not to have addressed this possibility in his book. However, on the face of it, the American's attitude to the expedition was pretty unreasonable, though I was left with the thought that we had maybe not heard their side of the story. Notwithstanding this, the journey itself was so remarkable that in my view, no apology was needed.

As to the book itself, one of its great strengths is the superb descriptive writing, evocative of the best that Scott and others have left us. I so admire men with the courage and tenacity of Swan and his compatriots. My research shows they have gone on to do great things. But I am puzzled by the fact that there appear to be no other reviews of the book written over 20 years ago and readily and cheaply available on the internet. Please read it, and offer your views. I note also, for those who are interested, expedition footage is available via youtube.


The Race
The Race
by Kare Holt
Edition: Hardcover

3.0 out of 5 stars Gripping story but not a lot more, 6 Sept. 2012
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: The Race (Hardcover)
'The Race' is a documentary novel which features the duel between Scott and Amundsen to be the first to reach the South Pole. In its favour, it is certainly gripping. The author devotes alternate chapters to the two protagonists and successfully strives to build up tension and suspense, hampered somewhat by the fact that most readers will know the outcome.

But it has to be remembered that this is a novel. In no way should it be regarded as providing accurate accounts of the two explorers journeys to the Pole. As a novel, there are no references to sources, and whilst most incidents are based on a germ of truth, they are liberally preceded by the words 'perhaps' or 'it may be that' with the author elaborating a personal interpretation which is likely to be rather wide of the mark. In fact, as the novel proceeds, these precursive phrases are more often than not omitted, giving the false impression that 'truth' is being alluded to. This is particularly the case where the personalities of the party members are being weaved into the story. But at least, Holt is even-handed with her descriptions. Her picture of Amundsen is certainly not as complementary as was Roland Huntford in his infamous comparative account.

There are some odd aspects to the novel. In places, especially in the early chapters, the translation from the original Norwegian to English seems a little stilted. In a contextual chapter on Scott, there are very odd references to Queen Victoria and her Empire, as though she personally orchestrated the actions of each and every one of her subjects.. And there are factual errors. For instance,none of the original sources suggest that Scott always intended to take a party of 5 to the Pole, as Holt certainly does. Poetic licence? I wonder.

But even with its shortcomings, I feel 'The Race' is certainly worth a read. It's different anyway!


The Last Great Quest: Captain Scott's Antarctic Sacrifice
The Last Great Quest: Captain Scott's Antarctic Sacrifice
by Max Jones
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.99

4.0 out of 5 stars New twist on an old story, 23 Aug. 2012
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
A plethora of books have been written on the heroic age of exploration and in particular, the exploits of Captain Robert Falcon Scott. But this book has a rather unusual angle. Its major focus is not the stories of Scott's two major expeditions to the Antarctic, (though these are covered), but rather it seeks to describe and account for the extraordinary public response to Scott and his death with four companions on his 'Last Expedition'. Through extensive research of contemporary newspaper articles and editorials, diaries, letters, films, books etc. Max Jones describes an Edwardian England which is beginning to come to terms with the loss of Empire yet which still craves for heroes to inspire a new generation. Hence the public adulation.

A rich seam within the book is the 50 plus photographs and illustrations, many of which have been little seen before. Though I found the thread of the book fascinating, I felt its writing style, and certainly its use of language, more like an academic thesis than some of the other excellent books on Scott, and, for me, this detracted from its overall impact. More judicious editing of some of the detail might have made it more palatable. And like many other books based on original research, the convention adopted for notes was irritating, requiring the reader to turn to the back of the book every time he or she wished to know the source of a particular quotation (which for me was frequently).

But these are minor issues. Overall, I found this relatively original slant on Scott very refreshing and very well worth the read.


Page: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11-14