A Very Gallant Gentleman.

This is Bernacchi’s hagiographic biography of Capt. Lawrence Oates, who died with Scott on the 1912 South Pole expedition [“I may be some time”], recalled more than 20 years later. Bernacchi, who was aboard the first Scott expedition on Discovery, idealized Scott “a leader with no desire for publicity or cheap notoriety. A man of high ideals…, The new expedition was no mere dash to the Pole to snatch priority from rival explorers, though the hope of this laurel leaf in the crown of adventure was an added spur to natural ambition” (p. 50).

Despite the lavish praise, there is some candour:

p. 25: After Eton, Oates returned to the ministrations of a private tutor and a crammer, the Rev. H. E. Scott, of South Lynn, Eastbourne. But he was not a bookish boy. He was even slow at his lessons. He could not interest himself in abstractions, and foreign languages were a closed book to him. His interest lay in an active life, and he could never get over the conviction that reading was a waste of time, unless, of course, one read books that told of action, of real things and real people, books about wars, books about soldiers, and books like the ‘Cruise of the Cacholot,’ and ‘The Falcon in the Baltic,’ which were always great favourites. One of the ambitions he did not live to realize, was a Baltic cruise, following the course of the Falcon.

p. 57, Oates comments that during the first month or so of the trip on Terra Nova: I have only read two books since leaving Cardiff, so you see I am left pretty busy.

p. 99, describing Scott’s Hut near Mt Erebus as winter begins: around the room the bunks were ranged, one above the other; mere wooden frames to hold the mattresses; down its length the table, at which they ate, wrote, read, played backgammon or chess, or just sat; at one end the bookshelves that held their varied library, the piano and the gramophone, and the one mirror which the expedition boasted, hung on the bulkhead of Captain Scott’s cubicle.

p. 112: On Sunday mornings Captain Scott held Divine Service, reading the usual Morning Prayer with the special Antarctic Collect, after which his congregation sang two hymns, though the hymns were rather a difficulty, for while they had quantities of hymn books, they were of the words only type, and the Hut were not in accord as to tune and time.

p. 115, Winter 1911: In the Hut routine life went on. The quieter non-working hours were spent in games and reading. Backgammon and chess were favourites, but for some unknown reason not a single game of cards was played during the whole winter.

All sorts of books were read for all sorts of reasons. Tastes in literature were as varied as the members of the expedition themselves. Scott read poetry and fiction. The scientists read fiction, but with so many specialists a mere author came in for a difficult time. Simpson objected to Merriman because of his meteorological errors. Griffith Taylor could not enjoy ‘Soldiers of Fortune’ because of the author’s weird geological descriptions. The whole expedition condemned ‘The Fighting Chance’ because the hero kissed a girl under water. And neither Scott nor Seaman Evans found Kipling’s sea stories at all convincing, Evans explaining that ‘Things isn’t so concentrated-like in the Navy.’

Oates, as became a Soldier, read little else but Napier’s ‘Peninsular War.’ There were volumes of it, and he never finished it, perhaps because he so often abandoned it for the company of the ponies. Occasionally he would dip into a novel, but he looked on such literature as trifling, and soon returned to his beloved Napier.

One of the most vivid pictures of winter life at Cape Evans shows Titus Oates, pipe in mouth and arms on the wardroom table, poring over the ‘Peninsular War.’

Remainder of this book is a retelling of the Scott/Amundsen South Pole race and its eventual outcome, in somewhat purplish prose: The names of Scott and his comrades will shine as examples of that endurance which is the highest form of courage, and as noble evidence of the qualities of Englishmen. Scott’s last expedition was tragic and glorious in its attainments and its failure.

p. 220ff., Ends with his description of the attractions of Antarctica: l) fascination of the unknown—400 square miles of it; 2) uninhabited, contrasted to complex civilization; 3) it is inspiring “Hero-worship is universal, and Antarctic History is the story of the noble achievements of famous explorers. To read of their courage, determination and endurance amid the stresses of cold, hunger, and danger is to catch a glimpse of another world, inhabited by men, brave and strong, free from the pettiness and deceits of civilization. No finer inspiration exists than the history of polar exploration, a record of great deeds nobly done” (p. 231).