Scott of the Antarctic


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I go looking for an analogy and discover a very moving story.

You can read Scott’s complete diary online here:
Episode text:
Well, I’ve picked a an entry for the public radio talent quest. I went with the St Patrick’s Day Episode. A great many of you gave interesting reasons to go with other episodes, but the St. Paddy’s day episode seemed to meet their critereon best. If you’ve got a spare moment, you can cast a vote in support of my entry. Just go theseanachai website there’s a blog post that tells you all about it.
In other news, I’ve launched yet another website and podcast. (As if I didn’t have enough to do.) My new website is devoted to clear expository writing and is the web component of the writing classes I’ve started teaching. You can check it out at It’s not complete — what website ever is — let’s just call it a good public beta.
And one of my central ideas about writing is that we have been taught that writing is supposed to be hard. There is effort involved in writing well, that I will accept — but even classes and books designed to teach writing you can find the idea that writing is hard. Damn nigh, Herculean, if you care to believe a few sources.
I take exception to this idea. Writing is not hard. Not like climbing Everest. Not like going to the moon or building the Hoover Dam. Brave people do not die in the revision process.
On I’m doing my best to de-mystify good, clear expository writing. I’m finding new ways to teach old concepts — because clearly, something in our educational system is very, very broken. One of these new ways to teach writing is the rewrite podcast – its a screencast of me rewriting a sentence and talking through the process. I’m trying to teach away to think about language. As far as I know, nobody has done this kind of thing before. I’m pretty proud of it.
Writing comes easily to some people, not so easily to others. But one thing I am sure of — thinking that it’s hard is no way to make it easier.
To make this very point, I’ve been researching a true story that I think serves as a wonderful analogy. The race to the South Pole between the English explorer Scott and the Norwegian explorer Amundsen. And even though Amundsen was the first man to the South Pole, you probably recognize the name Scott of the Antarctic.
I do think that Scott’s appelation is fitting. Amundsen planted a flag and came home. Scott and his men reached the pole but died on the return trip. But why did one man succeed and the other fail. It’s a complicated question. But I believe it boils down to the fact that Amundsen took the time to learn about Arctic survival from the Inuit. He adopted their manner of dress and their use of dogsleds. He also took advantage of skies.
When Amundsen made the trip to the pole it took him 99 days. One less than he estimated. He made it look easy. In fact, he made every preparation so that the task would be easy. Here’s what he wrote –
“I may say that this is the greatest factor — the way in which the expedition is equipped — the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it. Victory awaits him who has everything in order — luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck.”
By contrast, Scott and had dogs and skies and Mongolian Horses, but did not know how to handle them. And after the horses and dogs went under, Scott and his team seemed to take a particularly perverse and English pleasure in hauling heavy sledges while trudging through the snow. They made it hard.
What a wonderful story. What a clear example of useless stupidity – or so I thought. Yes, Scott made his task harder than it needed to be. But his team got hammered by the weather. Unseasonably cold weather that Amudsen had avoided by being off the ice. The same conditons might have killed Amundsen. But we have no way of knowing.
But what we do know what Scott and his men went through. Because Scott kept a journal. In fact, it’s in the public domain. You can find it on the gutenberg project. And the text of his journal includes a number of letter, he wrote before he died.
TO VICE-ADMIRAL SIR FRANCIS CHARLES BRIDGEMAN, K.C.V.O., K.C.B. MY DEAR SIR FRANCIS, I fear we have shipped up; a close shave; I am writing a few letters which I hope will be delivered some day. I want to thank you for the friendship you gave me of late years, and to tell you how extraordinarily pleasant I found it to serve under you. I want to tell you that I was not too old for this job. It was the younger men that went under first… After all we are setting a good example to our countrymen, if not by getting into a tight place, by facing it like men when we were there. We could have come through had we neglected the sick. Good-bye, and good-bye to dear Lady Bridgeman. Yours ever, R. SCOTT. Excuse writing–it is -40°, and has been for nigh a month.
This moves me deeply. I think the first time it was the apology for the bad handwriting that got me. But upon reflection, “we could have come through had we neglected the sick” is what does it. And he’s talking about a man named Titus Oates. A soldier who’s feet became so severely frostbitten on the return march that he couldn’t walk. Towards the end, they wound up dragging him as well. Until this entry.
_Friday, March_ 16 _or Saturday_ 17.–Lost track of dates, but think the last correct. Tragedy all along the line. At lunch, the day before yesterday, poor Titus Oates said he couldn’t go on; he proposed we should leave him in his sleeping-bag. That we could not do, and induced him to come on, on the afternoon march. In spite of its awful nature for him he struggled on and we made a few miles. At night he was worse and we knew the end had come. Should this be found I want these facts recorded. Oates’ last thoughts were of his Mother, but immediately before he took pride in thinking that his regiment would be pleased with the bold way in which he met his death. We can testify to his bravery. He has borne intense suffering for weeks without complaint, and to the very last was able and willing to discuss outside subjects. He did not–would not–give up hope to the very end. He was a brave soul. This was the end. He slept through the night before last, hoping not to wake; but he woke in the morning–yesterday. It was blowing a blizzard. He said, ‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’ He went out into the blizzard and we have not seen him since. I take this opportunity of saying that we have stuck to our sick companions to the last. In case of Edgar Evans, when absolutely out of food and he lay insensible, the safety of the remainder seemed to demand his abandonment, but Providence mercifully removed him at this critical moment. He died a natural death, and we did not leave him till two hours after his death. We knew that poor Oates was walking to his death, but though we tried to dissuade him, we knew it was the act of a brave man and an English gentleman. We all hope to meet the end with a similar spirit, and assuredly the end is not far. I can only write at lunch and then only occasionally. The cold is intense, -40° at midday. My companions are unendingly cheerful, but we are all on the verge of serious frostbites, and though we constantly talk of fetching through I don’t think anyone of us believes it in his heart. We are cold on the march now, and at all times except meals. Yesterday we had to lay up for a blizzard and to-day we move dreadfully slowly. We are at No. 14 pony camp, only two pony marches from One Ton Depôt. We leave here our theodolite, a camera, and Oates’ sleeping-bags. Diaries, &c., and geological specimens carried at Wilson’s special request, will be found with us or on our sledge.
Another letter
TO SIR J. M. BARRIE MY DEAR BARRIE, We are pegging out in a very comfortless spot. Hoping this letter may be found and sent to you, I write a word of farewell. … More practically I want you to help my widow and my boy–your godson. We are showing that Englishmen can still die with a bold spirit, fighting it out to the end. It will be known that we have accomplished our object in reaching the Pole, and that we have done everything possible, even to sacrificing ourselves in order to save sick companions. I think this makes an example for Englishmen of the future, and that the country ought to help those who are left behind to mourn us. I leave my poor girl and your godson, Wilson leaves a widow, and Edgar Evans also a widow in humble circumstances. Do what you can to get their claims recognised. Goodbye. I am not at all afraid of the end, but sad to miss many a humble pleasure which I had planned for the future on our long marches. I may not have proved a great explorer, but we have done the greatest march ever made and come very near to great success. Goodbye, my dear friend, Yours ever, R. SCOTT. We are in a desperate state, feet frozen, &c. No fuel and a long way from food, but it would do your heart good to be in our tent, to hear our songs and the cheery conversation as to what we will do when we get to Hut Point. _Later_.–We are very near the end, but have not and will not lose our good cheer. We have four days of storm in our tent and nowhere’s food or fuel. We did intend to finish ourselves when things proved like this, but we have decided to die naturally in the track. As a dying man, my dear friend, be good to my wife and child. Give the boy a chance in life if the State won’t do it. He ought to have good stuff in him. … I never met a man in my life whom I admired and loved more than you, but I never could show you how much your friendship meant to me, for you had much to give and I nothing.
Honestly, when I dipped into this story I was just looking for a good analogy. But I found so much more. I read into it everything I find important — and much that is lacking in our postmodern world.
We could have come through had we neglected the sick – it’s the crux of it. That there are things more important than mere survival. Which I think is the idea that all civilization rests upon.
I don’t know what possible good planting a flag at the South Pole can do for the human race. But the record that Scott left behind. The actions of he and his men. The fact that they didn’t knuckle under in the face of certain death. That’s worth something. I suspect that it may be worth everything.
It’s more than courage. It’s knowing, in your very bones, that the way life is lived is more important than the length of it.

13 replies on “Scott of the Antarctic”

  1. Let me be the first to say thanks for the new episode, with one minor quibble: the Norwegian explorer’s name was AMUNDSEN, not ADMUNDSEN. Seems a pretty petty thing for me to pick up on, but hell – I’m a proofreader by trade, and these things just stand out to me like a thumb that’s just been hammered.

    Need a proofreader?

    (I love the podcasts, and I’m looking forward eagerly to future incarnations of ‘How to Succeed in Evil’)

  2. Beautiful episode, Patrick. If writing that clear and concise an beautiful can be written while freezing, knowingly, to one’s death, then surely the rest of us cannot complain that writing is hard.


  3. Wow. This one really got me. There’s something about the last words of a dying man who faces the end bravely … the words hang in the air after they’re read. Excellent job with this one, P.

    Oh, and it’s “Antarctic,” from “anti” + “arktikos” (land of the bear, i.e. Ursa Major).

    Keep up the good work!

  4. Land of the Bear. That’s awesome, I had no idea.

    As for the typos, well, I’m trying to adhere to my rigrous standard of semi-professionalism. 😉

  5. Dave,

    I really do appreciate the attention to detail. But I did say Amundsen.

    Record yourself saying Amundsen. See if you can say it without any hint of the ‘d’ creeping in there. I think it’s an artifact of the way the mouth closes to say the ‘m’

    It’s similar to ‘this year’ becoming ‘thishear’. Another example is “Wriggleworth” vs. “Wrigglesworth” The second is easier to say because of the way your mouth moves.

    Anyway, I was trying not to say the nonexistent ‘d’ (notice, the name is spelled correctly in the post) but I suspect it’s kind of impossible. Seriously, I’ve been sitting here saying ‘Amundsen’ to myself for 10 minutes now.

  6. Hi Patrick,

    Excellent podcast, I very much enjoyed it.

    Also, I love the new (old?) website! The best of luck with the endeavor!


  7. At the risk of dwelling on a secondary point … you’re so right: something’s wrong with how we’re taught writing (how I was, at any rate). Up through high school, I couldn’t write. My head was filled with “paragraph transitions” and structures and rules, but I couldn’t write. Worse, when I slaved to follow the rules I was given, I could never understand what my teachers were saying, as they obliterated my pages with comments.

    Then, in college, I desperately took (yet) another writing class, and this time the prof began “first, you need something to say.” I was thunderstruck! It seems incredible now, but no one had ever told me that writing was about conveying meaning, that all these rules and techniques are tools for clarity, that “what you have to say” is the thing you must think of first.

    So, thanks for having so many things worth saying!

  8. love the stories, but i thought the horses that Scott took with him were Mancurian, not Mongolian!

    Must check it out, maybe they are the same??

  9. The notion that Scott encountered “unseasonably” cold weather has now been put to question by new scientific proof. They claim the blizzard didn’t last for more than the usual two-four days, and not ten as Scott writes. And as every attempt to recereate the race has shown, the Norwegians win every time! In crushing style! And remember, Scott used clothing which had already proved faulty on previous missions. And as you write yourself, Amundsen learned what to wear from the experts, the inuits. Amundsen’s type of clothing is still used as a model in these dire elements today. Now, who are you gonna trust in a blizzard? The amateur or the true explorer? Scott wrote frequently about his team freezing, Amundsen didn’t mention the cold with one word!

    The BBC series “The Great Race”, which is one of those later reacreations of the race, follows a Norwegian and British team battling it out on Greenland (as it’s not longer possible to bring dogs to the Antarctic). Now, what is the Norwegians doing the evening before the race starts? They check up on their equipment to make sure everything works and nothing it left to chance. The Brits? They go to the local bar! I almost laughed my ass off, in such a comical way the series managed to tell the simple difference in mentality between two nations, in reality the same as it was one hundred years ago:

    The efficient, simple, and ultimately slightly boring Norwegians/Scandinavians, against the arrogant, dreamy Britons with their slightly perverse approach to heroism still intact.

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