The tale of the doomed 1911-12 quest for the South Pole has been told many times in print and I’ve read a great many of these. Without doubt the most balanced and purely readable account is Diane Preston, s “A First Rate Tragedy”. She eschews the iconoclastic approach taken by Roland Huntford in his book “Scott and Amundsen”, and doesn’t fall into the trap of immediately assuming Scott was a fated hero, an innocent victim of fickle fate.
There is no doubt that many of the reasons for the death of the polar party lay at the hands of Scott and these are all acknowledged in the book. His insistence on ponies instead of dogs when all evidence suggested that dogs were the way forward…literally in this case. His baffling choice of Meares instead of Oates on the pony selection trip which lumbered them with a load of “Old crocks“. His stubborn insistence on debilitating man-hauling and his sentimentality towards the animals. Contrast this with Amundsens cold hard logical approach to his dogs. This sentimentality also played a part in his bizarre selection of personnel for the final push to the pole. He added an extra man to this party at the last minute placing strain on their already meagre rations. Oates was clearly struggling with frostbite and Edgar Evans was patently a spent force but Scott mistakenly believed his bulky frame would get him through. Also notable was his failure to press on with the depot laying party, despite the imploring of Oates who told him “You’ll regret it sir”., only to be answered:” Regret it or not my dear Oates, i,ve made up my mind like a Christian.” Scott’s reply may well have haunted him as he lay dying in his tent.
As Preston points out, Scott’s expedition was primarily a scientific one, while Amundsen, s was a straight dash for the pole. Their destitute and time consuming failure with the motor sledges, Wilson’s , Bower’s and Cherry Gerard’s nearly catastrophic trek to collect Emperor penguin eggs, brilliantly chronicled by the latter in his book “The Worst Journey in the World”, plus the numerous diversions to collect samples on their way to and from the pole all took their toll. Might they have made it to One Ton Depot without these?
The emotion and gut wrenching adversity of their demise is conveyed with out cliché or gross sentimentality ,although this is helped considerably by extracts from Scott’s eloquent journal .Oate,s death is particularly movingly described, but any decent hack should be able to pull off the job of describing this most noble act of self sacrifice.
Ignore the one star grump ,this is a well researched account of Scott’s expedition, and it comes to the conclusion that although Scott was culpable for much of the troubles that befell his party, bad luck played as big a part as anything. Research carried out recently of that Antarctic summer has shown it to be one of freakishly extreme temperatures. You can adopt a stance either way where Scott’s concerned, but as ever the truth lies somewhere inbetween..Diane Preston has realised that. A great read, a first rate telling of this most enduring of tragedies.
on 17 March 1999
With the benefit of hindsight and a modern understanding of science (explorers of Scott's era didn't even know how to prevent scurvy) it is very easy to heap criticism onto Scott's methods, decisions and plans. After dismantling Scott's credibility entirely, Diana Preston manages to somehow restore his leadership, reputation and achievements. Preston hints that Scott's expedition was primarily for scientific means, with reaching the South Pole (for his country more than personal reasons) as more of a secondary goal. I really believe this was the case, and with the arrival of Amundsen, Scott was forced into a race he was clearly not prepared for. What Preston does exceeding well is to tell a familiar story in the context of the time - Victoria was dead, Britain's empire was crumbling and war was looming. What the British people needed more than ever was a great achievement and Scott realised this entirely. What they got was the loss of the Pole, the death of their foremost explorer in tragic circumstances, the sinking of the greatest ship ever built and five years of barbaric and crippling war. It is hardly surprising that Scott was held in such high regard. An excellent read.
on 24 March 1999
One thing I found interesting about this book was how the author used the experiences of present-day explorers to help explain Scott and party's emotional responses to prolonged contact with each other in difficult conditions. Another example: Scott was fixated on man-hauling, something which the author shows has come back into fashion with the same romantic fervor about it. This brings some balance into a situation in which previous authors have reacted with disproportionate scorn towards Scott's flaws -- Huntsford's dual biography is a classic example, Huntsford is obsessed with putting a (very) negative interpretation on everything Scott did. Explaining Scott and trying to understand him is not being an apologist.
on 28 February 1999
Last month we had a vicious snow storm which dumped 2 feet of snow on Illinois with sub-zero temperature and howling winds. While spending all day scooping snow I kept thinking about early polar explorers. I, like many, had seen the old black and white 50's movie about the Scott party and the PBS series on Scott and Amundsen several years ago. So, I decided to learn more about Robert Scott and ordered the book. I was not disappointed. It was a fascinating character study of the early explorers at the turn of the century. The mental and physical isolation and hardships which Scott and his crew endured is a tale that still haunts me.
on 24 May 2001
What a biased load of baloney! Typical British attitude that because he was British, he was the better man even though he screwed up everything he touched, AND was beaten to the pole by Amundsen. Apparently, Amundsen's sins included planning his whole trip with an actual clue about what he was doing, unlike Scott. I don't believe I have ever read a book based on a more ridiculous or indefensible premise. Do yourself a favor, read one of the other accounts of this trip, or even one about Shackleton and the Endurance.