Monday, April 12, 2010

Scott's word

Here we go again. In today’s paper, a news item about
the screening of film taken on the Scott and Amundsen
expeditions to the South Pole in 1911–12. It recalls how
Scott’s diaries recorded the ‘famous last words of
comrade Lawrence Oates, who stepped outside his tent
with the words "I may be some time".’ Well, maybe.
Only earlier today I was reading a review by Max
Hastings in the New York Review of Books in which he
expresses scepticism about what he calls the ‘modern
cult of oral history.’ Reasonably enough, Hastings points
out that human memory is wildly selective, yet compilers
and editors ‘decline to mar the vividness of eyewitness
narratives by identifying errors.’ So what is remembered
by people many years later, especially if they lived
through dramatic or dangerous times, is often treated as
if it must be true. Similarly with diaries: we have
absolutely no way of knowing whether what Scott wrote
in his last diary, on that terrible return from the Pole, is
true, embellished or even a pack of lies.

Naturally the imperial British establishment of the day
had a keen interest in treating it as gospel truth, as it
made Scott and his men look like heroes and obscured
the fact that their deaths could have been avoided, had
more common sense prevailed in the planning of the
polar trip (as it did with Scott’s successful rival
Amundsen). The extraordinary thing is that most of us,
to this day, still prefer to believe the official version,
based on the diary found in the tent that was the last
resting-place for Scott, Wilson and Bowers. I have no
doubt that most of it is true, and have no wish to sit here
in my comfortable chair and mock these men who for
weeks in the ice and snow endured hardships that would
do for me in hours, if that. But will we honour the past—
with all its irksome shades of grey—or not? I take my cue
again from Hastings, a veteran writer on military matters,
who says: ‘No US or British regimental war diary that I
have ever seen explicitly admits that soldiers fled in panic,
as of course they sometimes do.’ By the same token,
brutal as it may be to say, we have only Scott’s word for it
—the word of a failed leader striving to put his doomed
expedition in the best possible light—that Oates behaved
as gallantly as he did, sacrificing his life by walking out
into the blizzard because, so frostbitten he could hardly
walk, he knew that he was holding the others back. It
could equally be that he went mad and started attacking
his companions, and had to be killed, or ran out
screaming rather than nobly (and perhaps a touch too
perfectly) announcing ‘I am just going out and may be
some time.’

I’m not saying he did or didn’t, but neither can anyone
say that Scott’s version is the unvarnished truth. And
we now know that Oates, whom Scott called an ‘English
gentleman,’ got a girl of 12 pregnant before he left
England—not, one would think, the act of a gentleman
of any nationality. As Hastings says, reviewing a book by
Margaret MacMillan called Dangerous Games: The Uses
and Abuses of History
, most people cherish their
national myths ‘too much to want mere facts, or even
assertions of historical doubt, to besmirch them. They
prefer a nursery view of their past to an adult one.’
Perhaps, then, it’s time to make a maturer view of the
Scott expedition and accept that, while we will never
know what really happened as those poor frozen Brits,
those mad men of an earlier generation, dragged their
way back across the Barrier, it’s na├»ve to believe that it
necessarily happened the way a dying man said it did.

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