The Birthday Boys (Beryl Bainbridge)

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Statue of Robert Scott by his wife, Kathleen Bruce

Deadlines have intervened, and even though I’ve been reading fairly steadily, I note sheepishly that I haven’t posted for a very long time. Because time has distanced me from the text, this will likely be a short post.

But then, it was a short book.

The Birthday Boys is about the eerily fascinating last Antarctic mission of Captain Robert Scott. Like the Titanic disaster of the same year (the next month, in fact, and isn’t THAT weird?), there is something utterly compelling about Scott’s doomed Terra Nova expedition. And Bainbridge’s book is good in that it invokes and inspires — it certainly had me wikipedia-ing all over the place, finding out some really interesting facts and factoids, fer instance:

  • Did you know that Scott’s widow, Kathleen Bruce, was an artist who ran with a rather avante garde crowd, including Isadora Duncan and Pablo Picasso?  And that she studied under Rodin?
  • Or that their son Peter grew up to be one of the founders of the World Wildlife Fund?
  • And in those absolutely wild twists that convince you that England is just one big old neighborhood where everybody knows everybody, that Peter’s godfather was (of course) J.M. Barrie?  And that Kathleen’s granddaughter by her second husband is noted British sculptress Emily Young, for whom (again of course) Pink Floyd’s Sid Barrett wrote a song, “See Emily Play”?

But I digress, which is (again of course) the nature of wikipedia-ing.

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The birthday boys - Wilson, Scott, Oates, Bowers, Evans

Anyway. Bainbridge tells the story of the expedition in five short chapters, each in the voice and manner of a different member of the expedition, none of whom come home. And the device is interesting, in that you know things that the chapter’s author does not, and the insights of the particular author throw a new perspective on things you already know. But ultimately, it doesn’t work and it isn’t enough. For one thing, from what I’ve read since, there has been further revisionism at work — Scott was first viewed by chroniclers as a hero, a martyr. Then, and this is the framework within which Bainbridge is working, he was an ill-prepared, short-sighted, class-bound, stubborn product of his times. Since then, however, the pendulum has shifted in Scott’s favor again, and he is now seen as maybe not such an administrative disaster, but the victim of really unforeseeable bad luck and timing, hitting the Antarctic at a particularly terrible juncture.

What would have been very helpful would have been an afterword, or a foreword, that spelled out some of the main points of the expedition, its logic and organization. As written, the book assumes massive familiarity, and I must confess I had absolutely no idea why they were in the places they were: Cardiff, Madeira, South Trinidad Island; and where Scott was all this time, and what the hell they were all up to.

Most mystifying of all, and I wish someone could shed some light on this: The book has a hand-drawn map of the expedition’s Antarctic leg for a frontispiece. The map is neatly marked with bone-chilling captions like “The ponies are shot.” “Evans dies.” interspersed with more normal designations like “Ross Island,” “The Great Ice Barrier,” and “Plateau.”  (Although even those, in their simplicity, give a sense of the stark vastness of the terrain.)  But the most interesting marking on the map of all is this “Fourth Form. Harrington House. 1915. Map drawn by Doreen Murphy. Sept. 1915.” 

Who is Doreen Murphy? Why did she draw this map? Is it accurate?  And what does the little inset in the upper left of a pony with the notation “Pony Christopher donated by Merchant Taylor’s School, Crosby, Liverpool, 1910” mean? I found this more fascinating than anything in the text proper. Very macabre and unsettling: the neat school girl writing quietly demarcating death sites. Shame on Carroll & Graf Publishers (1991) for not in any way crediting or contextualizing this graphic.  (The publishers also did the book’s appearance something of a disservice by practically abolishing hyphenation, leading to some very weird line spacing and lots of trapped white space.)

Ultimately, the book led me back to the wonderful one-man play we saw two summers ago in New York: Tom Crean—Antarctic Explorer. Talk about evocative! This one-man show (http://www.tomcrean.co.uk/index.html) played in August heat and humidity, and I tell you, we were shivering, chilled to the bone as this man spun yarns that froze the heart, so narrow were the escapes, so grueling the conquests. Now there was a recreation of adventure and heroism and tragedy! Bainbridge’s pales in comparison. It was just too little, too small scoped, too narrowly focused.

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