Sunday, January 25, 2009

Scott’s miscellany - Ringo37

The helmets-for-goalposts kickarounds of Der Kleine Frieden – the ‘little peace’ that broke out along the Western Front on Christmas Day 1914 – have been well-documented, and represent perhaps the best-known examples of sport played in the greatest extremity. Less celebrated, though, is a game – or, rather, a series of games – that took place in an even less hospitable environment three years earlier. These games were conducted at -20°C, in winds of up to 30mph; to glance at the opposing line-ups gives a fresh meaning to the term ‘journeymen footballers’. These were the games played by the crew of the Terra Nova at Cape Evans, Antarctica, in the autumn of 1911: wearing the skipper’s armband for one side was Captain Robert Falcon Scott.

The members of Scott’s ill-fated last expedition were keen to take exercise whenever they could, and football was a popular pastime. To picture these men hoofing the ball around the ice-sheets is to conjure an image familiar from Sunday morning park pitches, complete with the usual personnel: the enforcer (hard-as-nails Irish seaman Tom Crean bore a passing resemblance to late-period Roy Keane), the ringer (skiing ace Tryggve Gran had played for the Norwegian international side) and the quavering rookie (young Russian pony-groom Anton Omelchenko had never even seen a football before arriving at Cape Evans).

But there is surely more to our appreciation of these knockabouts on the edge of hell than home-from-home sentimentality. The story of the Terra Nova expedition is a story of heroes, and, particularly, of an ensemble heroism that will be fondly familiar to the British sports fan.

British sporting culture has had its individuals, of course, from Shackleton to Boycott, from ’Enry to Henman, but precious few of these have won over the British public as completely as have the country’s greatest sporting teams. Why? Is it simply that these ensembles – the thirteen of Sydney 2003, say, or Ramsey’s 1966 eleven – offer something for everyone (allergic to Botham? Try a Brearley...)?

I prefer to think, instead, that we appreciate these motley crews not because they have something to offer everyone, but because every one of them has something to offer. This may be why, for instance, the identikit beanpoles of basketball – or, for that matter, what Nick Hornby has called the ‘interchangeable physiques’ of our present-day Premiership ‘elite’ – fail to entirely charm the majority of British sports fans; why we’re more comfortable throwing in our lots with the ill-assorted likes of a European Ryder Cup outfit or a medley of touring Baa-baa mavericks.

This affection for the ragtag mob, with all its varieties of appearance, class, age, race and size, can certainly be found in the Antarctic histories. It can be found, too, in the clichés of the sports pages, and at any number of points in between, from the Beano’s Bash Street Kids to The Great Escape. Sports fans have a tendency to succumb easily, it’s true, to the cult of the individual, the icon, The Greatest, The Special One. But surely our enthusiasm for the team ­­– the place where even an oddball can find an oddball-shaped hole – says more about the importance of individuality than such hero-worship ever could.


beyond the pale said...


Nice piece. A special affection here for Scott's party, of long standing--some members had been at the College I attended, and their photos, in the ice and snow, were on the Library walls. As you know there's been much written about the expedition, but my favourite piece is the essay by Nancy Mitford. Nancy confirms your point about the group spirit: "Their loyalty to each other was fantastic--there was no jealousy, bickering, bullying or unkindness. Reading between the lines of their diaries and records it is impossible to guess whether anybody disliked anybody else. As for The Owner, as they called Scott, they all worshipped and blindly followed him." (To their death as it happened, of course, but still...)

ringo37 said...

Thanks BtP. Think anyone who's read the grumbler Oates' letters home might have something to say about Mitford's comments - but, as Ranulph Fiennes explains persuasively in his Scott biography, that's the nature of such expeditions, and, when it really came to it, Oates, of course, wasn't found wanting.

Corrections and clarifications: "Thirteen of Sydney 2003"? What was I thinking? I meant fifteen, of course.

beyond the pale said...

Ah me, Titus Oates. Mitford later confessed she'd made herself cry twice during the writing of her piece, once at the inscription on Oates' grave-marker.

Two further brief bits from her essay:

"A month later, the party was again delayed, by Oates' illness: he was in terrible pain from frostbitten feet. He bravely committed suicide, but too late to save the others. Scott wrote: 'Oates' last thoughts were of his mother, but immediately before he took pride in thinking that his regiment would be pleased at the bold way in which he met his death... He was a brave soul. He slept through the night, hoping not to wake; but he woke in the morning, yesterday. It was blowing a blizzard. He said 'I am just going outside and it may be some time."'"

. . .

"They were now prepared for another winter in the Hut, the sadness of which can be imagined. Long, long after they knew all hope was gone they used to think they heard their friends coming in, or saw shadowy forms that seemed to be theirs. They mourned them and missed their company. Scott, Wilson and Bowers had been the most dynamic of them all, while 'Titus' or 'Farmer Hayseed' (Oates) was a dear, good-natured fellow whom everybody loved to tease. The weather was unimaginably awful. It seemed impossible that the Hut could stand up to the tempests which raged outside for weeks on end and the men quite expected that it might collapse at any time..."

ringo37 said...

I think dear Nancy may have watched Scott Of The Antarctic a few too many times...

Mac Millings said...

Good piece, Ringo.

Sporting support of the kind that teams get is much rarer for an individual to receive. Boxers can get it. In the UK, British tennis players get it (for less than two weeks) at Wimbledon. Golfers tend not to, I'd say.

I certainly have a soft spot for 'ragtag mobs', but I think that at least part of the general affection for these teams (Ryder Cup team, etc.) is that they represent a broad range of people, whereas Premier League teams' appeal is much narrower.

Off topic - I threw this

together a couple of days ago, and sent it in to an MBM. However, our esteemed correspondent decided not to post it, so, having failed to inflict it on the wider (?) GU MBM audience, I am left with no option but to inflict it, my dear fellow Pseud, on you.

Please note, at least a passing acquaintance with both our friend MouthoftheMersey and Public Enemy's Greatest Hits might help.

Apologies if it's bad form to use a comment thread to send people elsewhere!

beyond the pale said...


Not to flog a dead expedition-pony with the lash of the truth unduly, but the story of Scott and his unfortunate endeavour had, as she explains, made "a tremendous impression" upon Nancy Mitford as a little girl, in 1912; and she remained interested thereafter, ultimately recording, in print, her reactions to many documents about the Polar journey, including Scott's Last Expedition, Cherry-Garrard's The Worst Journey in the World (which she reviewed quite movingly in 1962), E.R. Evans' South With Scott (and this is not to mention the related evidences-- Amundsen's My Life as an Explorer, etc.-- which she also drew upon as sources for her writing on the subject). In short, she was not as uninformed as you appear to suggest. Not that the "well done chaps, at least you tried" message of the film would have been one she rejected; just that to imply it was her only source, and that her essay is some sort of weak emotional response to it, informed by no other historical study, is to unfairly derogate a wonderful (and very careful) writer. And perhaps one whom you may not have read? (Oh, a wonderful ENGLISH writer I should have said.)

ringo37 said...

Steady on, BtP, I didn't quite say that.

I wouldn't say that Mitford's a great writer, but that's by the by; I would say that some of what she says in the excerpts you provide is simply not true, but then I'd also acknowledge that much of the primary evidence regarding the expedition was perhaps not available to her (and I'd also admit that I incline more towards her positive interpretation of the evidence than towards the obnoxious and gratuitous revisionism of, say, Roland Huntford).

The Worst Journey In The World is one of the most wonderful and terrible books 've ever read.

Zeph said...

Thanks, ringo, very good piece. The ragtag mob myth is all about reassurance, isn't it - you too may be an oddball and misfit, but cometh the hour and you could be a hero like these guys (cf dozens of war movies, innumerable tales going back to the dawn of time about a group of unlikely allies going on a quest, etc etc).

So I think it goes deep, it's a story human beings like to be told.

Mac, you are very naughty. Don't you know that all over the world students are doing dissertations on Dungeons and Dragons and using Wikipedia as their primary source?:)

beyond the pale said...

The Black Spot (Scott After the Pole)

Had I but strength to stand, I'd walk out
Upon the ice and show you the strange sights
That glow within the black lights of the Pole.
Natural science cannot explain these lights.
Where nothing living breathes the personal
Must also hold its breath. The stirrings of the men
In restless sleep, their labored breathing.
I must write Wilson's mother a note, deceive
Her if I'm able as to the horror
Of his end. I'll tell her of his courage,
His selflessness, his loyalty to the men.
She'll have no need for the truth, no more
Than did we to be undeceived. Not till
Our bones are found will they find my letter.
"29th March. My dear Mrs. Wilson.
If this reaches you, Bill and I will have gone
Out together. We are very near it now
And I should like you to know how splendid
He was at the end. Everlastingly
Cheerful and ready to sacrifice
Himself for others, never a word of blame
To me for leading him into this mess.
He suffers only mild discomforts.
His eyes have a colorful blue look of hope
And his mind is peaceful with his faith.
My whole heart goes out to you in pity."
Can't see my marks yet still can grip this stub
And make it move across the page. Black spots
In the dark, marking what cannot be shown.
Black spots blur on white paper: what can
Be shown cannot be said. The hour grows late
For these meandering trains of thought
Represented by blurred spots on white paper.
Connect the dots and the limits of my world
Will grow apparent to you. Where in it am I?
This riddle does not exist as problem
In your life, where the light of the personal
Shines. The solution of the problem
Of life is the vanishing of the problem.
I am the microcosm, thought Scott
At the last, in the dark, as night closed in
Over permafrost. A black spot now his world
Growing to fill the whole vast snowbound landscape.

ringo37 said...

I like it, BtP. The repetition of "white paper" works particularly well. And Scott's own words have a poetry all of their own.

I imagine you know Derek Mahon's poem on a similar theme (I'm reminded of it by Scott's "deceit" in your poem): 'I am just going outside and may be some time'./The others nod, pretending not to know./ At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.

You might be interested in a little (unfinished) piece on a similar theme that I've posted here:

offsideintahiti said...

I refuse to even read about cold stuff.

Anonymous said...

Amidst the sea of text I greet thee Professor Oates. lol. Hey Mr. Oates, it's me, Robert Michael Crofoot. I've thought of you many times over the years, & just wish to yap at ya. Listen, I know how funny you are about maintaining good records, so I was hoping that you still had copies of my poetry/short stories that you could send to me Sir. I miss them dearly, and thanks if you can. My contact info = 5130 N. 37th St. , Omaha, NE., 68111. You can email me anytime at Hope all is well & good with you buddy, always. I'll never forget some of the 1st useage of Music Therapy in your Classes, listening to Windham Hills record(s). It was awesome. Excuse the amidst please; just kidding around, in the eloquence associated generally- speaking, with scholars of the highest caliber, such as yourself and the rest of our trusted & esteemed colleagues whom write sir. Love always, Robert Michael Crofoot, GOD. lol.

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