Posts Tagged ‘Aurora Australis’

Nick Smith reviews ‘The Shackleton Letters’ in Bookdealer magazine, November 2009 edition

November 5, 2009

Yours faithfully, Ernest Shackleton

Nick Smith reviews

The Shackleton Letters: Behind the Scenes of the Nimrod Expedition

By Regina W Daly, Erskine Press, HB, £27.50

The trouble with history of course is that it’s not really very good at telling you what happened. It creates reputations and myths that so often seem to have so little to do with the facts. When it comes to the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration we are traditionally served up two protagonists – Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton – and as the wheel goes around one takes the ascendancy at the other’s expense. At the moment Scott is in the doghouse and Shackleton is in the firmament, and if you had only read Regina Daly’s The Shackleton Letters you would have no difficulty in seeing why. Whether by accident or design, the way it falls out portrays the Boss, or ‘Shackles’ as he often signs off, as a decent bloke in love with his men, his ship and his wife (in that order), while an imperious (and I think misunderstood) Scott comes across, in the argot of the day, as a thundering ass. Of course, these letters were written a hundred years ago, when people wrote letters and didn’t have phones to shout down, but on the other hand there isn’t and never was any compulsion to write with such vaunting self-aggrandizement as Scott does.

There had always been a history between the merchant seaman and the naval officer. As far back as 1902 Scott is supposed to have called Shackleton a ‘bloody fool’ to which the Irishman retorted: ‘You are the worst bloody fool of the lot, and every time you dare to speak to me like that you will get it back.’ This was on the Discovery (‘National Antarctic’) Expedition 1901-4, where Scott was the leader and Shackleton was his third lieutenant. It seems that this extraordinary insubordination – if it ever took place – was soon overlooked, because by Christmas they were lying in their sleeping bags reading Darwin’s On the Origin of Species to each other (not ‘Origin of the Species’, as Daly erroneously calls it). By the time Shackleton was scouting around drumming up funds for an expedition of his own, their relationship was under strain again due to a conflict over rights to an existing expedition base in Antarctica. Scott’s letters are arch and seem to accuse Shackleton of upstartishness, while Shackleton, who feels more sinned against than sinning, never once loses his thoroughly infectious charm (‘My Dear Captain Scott, To make everything clear as regards our arrangements… I am following your suggestion and writing it down.’) Incidents like this have lead commentators – especially Roland Huntford – to surmise that each man was the antithesis of the other. If only it were this convenient and it were true that Scott was an iconoclast and Shackleton a loveable rogue punching above his weight, how much easier our lives would be. But, the truth is that they were both fallible human beings whose passions for the Polar Regions informed their extraordinary lives and dramatic ends.

Another area where history seems to get Polar exploration all wrong is in its insistence that we remember Shackleton above all else for his impossibly romantic Endurance (‘Imperial Transantarctic’) expedition, 1914-17. This was the one in which he lost his ship in the ice and famously (although not strictly true) never lost a man. With a handful of men, Shackleton set forth in the plucky little whaler – the James Caird – across the seas of the world to fetch relief for his crew. Although this is without doubt one of the greatest stories ever told, we must remember that it was a rescue mission, and that Endurance in essence achieved nothing. As with Dunkirk, the British heart has never been so proud of something that shouldn’t have happened. But on the other hand the earlier Nimrod (‘British Antarctica’) Expedition 1907-1909 – the subject of The Shackleton Letters – was a triumph. Among its many successes were the first ascent of Mount Erebus, the attainment of the South Magnetic Pole and the publication of the first book on the White Continent, Aurora Australis.

As we celebrate Nimrod’s centenary, Daly’s new book couldn’t be better timed or more welcome, especially as the true significance of the expedition seems to have been lost on some sectors of today’s exploration community. In terms of the range and diversity of the material assembled, both written and photographic, it’s hard to see how this anthology could have been any better, although the stickler might complain that it could have been better named. After all, many of the 165 letters, reports and telegrams collected here aren’t by, or to, Shackleton (although in fairness to Daly, they perfectly satisfy the book’s sub-title – ‘Behind the Scenes of the Nimrod Expedition’). In the section of Letters called ‘Kudos, Criticism and Rumours of a New Expedition’ there are epistles from Charles Dorman to Emily Shackleton, from Roald Amundsen to J Scott Keltie, from Robert Scott to Major Leonard Darwin, from Clements Markham to Keltie, from Markham to Darwin, from Fridtjof Nansen to Emily, from Nansen to Darwin, from Markham to H.W.Feilden and even a report from Markham to the Royal Geographical Society (‘letter’ 124). But there is very little either to or from the Boss himself, and while this all makes for interesting – compelling even – background material, it is hardly sufficient to allow for the title The Shackleton Letters. The counter-stickler might argue that this isn’t the first time a book has set sail under the wrong flag, and that to judge a book by its title might be only one step away from judging it by its cover. But titles and covers set up expectations, and here sadly it’s all gone a little bit awry.

For all these niggles, The Shackleton Letters should be on the shelf of anyone interested in the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. This is the first time this collection of documents has appeared between one set of boards, arranged thematically, specifically to deal with the Nimrod expedition, and so it will prove useful to the scholar and the historian for years to come (especially if a second edition is graced with an index). Daly has done a good job tracking down and compiling the material and her historical sketches that set the papers in context are superb distillations of some of the classic Shackleton analyses by the likes of Hugh Robert Mill, Margery and James Fisher, Roland Huntford and Beau Riffenburgh.

Above all The Shackleton Letters is important because it gives the Nimrod expedition the credibility and attention that it so richly deserves, allowing us into the methodology, planning and execution of a grand scale expedition the way it used to be. And it’s quite comforting to realise how little has changed. Behind the scenes there is still the same mad scramble for sponsorship and patronage, the begging letters, the broken agreements, lonely wives and expectant public. Perhaps even more reassuringly, in the wings the cast of explorers still comprises the same unsung geniuses and braying bigheads, dignified elder statesmen and chancy upstarts, men of iron and posturing fraudsters as it did in the Heroic Age. And there’s not a damned thing history can do about that.

Nick Smith is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a Contributing Editor on the Explorers Journal, the magazine of the Explorers Club in New York

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Nick Smith’s feature on ‘Nimrod Centenary’ for Explorers Journal, Summer 2009

July 6, 2009

The mighty Nimrod – a century on

This year sees the centenary of the British Antarctic Expedition 1907–1909, otherwise known as Nimrod, after the ship on which Ernest Shackleton and his men travelled to the White Continent. Explorers Journal Contributing Editor Nick Smith discussed the significance of the Sir Ernest’s first major expedition as leader with his only granddaughter, the Honourable Alexandra Shackleton.

The story of Nimrod, the first major expedition to be led by Sir Ernest Shackleton, is one of the great tales of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. Admiral Sir Edward Evans – who had been on Captain Scott’s Discovery expedition of 1902–1904 with Shackleton – described it as ‘a good, sound, scientific programme’.

But the British Antarctic Expedition 1907–1909, to name it correctly, has been overshadowed by other events in the Polar Regions, including the failure of Scott’s Terra Nova expedition and Shackleton’s heroic rescue mission of the crew of the Endurance. So well known are these later expeditions that it is easy to forget the real impact of Nimrod, the stout little sealer that departed London on 20th July 1907. Having been tugged from New Zealand to the limits of the Antarctic ice, the vessel, overloaded with coal, had a steaming radius that would allow its captain to explore as far as the Bay of Whales, before settling on Cape Royds as the expedition’s shore base.

From this historic hut – where Shackleton wintered in 1908 – a party of four men set out on one of the greatest sledge journeys in history. After passing Scott’s ‘farthest South’, every new feature became Shackleton’s own discovery. His expedition attained the South Geomagnetic Pole, made the first ascent of the White Continent’s highest mountain, discovered coal and fossils, experimented with motorised transport and made an heroic attempt on the Geographical Pole. Despite the many brushes with death, Nimrod was, as Evans later wrote, an ‘eminently successful expedition.’

On 4th March 1909 Nimrod departed the Antarctic ice edge on the home leg of the British Antarctic Expedition. And although the expedition had not succeeded in its ultimate goal ­– the attainment of the South Pole – it was arguably the most important and significant excursion to Antarctica up until that date. Every one of Ernest Shackleton’s heroic band of men returned to safety.

Nick Smith: How did the Nimrod expedition come about?

Alexandra Shackleton: Nimrod was Shackleton’s first expedition as leader. He went South originally with Captain Scott on the Discovery expedition. He was part of Scott’s Southern Party that got to within a few hundred miles of the Pole. But he regarded the Pole as unfinished business. And so he put together the Nimrod expedition. There were scientific objectives as well as those of exploration, but in fact what he really wanted was the Pole.

NS: What do you think that Nimrod achieved?

AS: Nimrod did achieve a lot: The first ascent of Mount Erebus as well as the publication of the first book in the Antarctic, Aurora Australis. Lots of valuable scientific work was undertaken. Coal was discovered and the South Magnetic Pole was reached. It sounds quite simple to reach the magnetic pole, but in fact it moves about according to the angle of the earth’s magnetic field. After an epic trek of 1,260 miles unsupported ­– a record that stood for 80 years – the expedition managed to achieve that. But it wasn’t all success. The first motorcar was taken and that didn’t work out.

NS: But your grandfather didn’t get to the South Pole?

AS: Ernest Shackleton did not get what he most wanted from the Nimrod expedition. He did not get to the Pole. He got 366 miles nearer than the Discovery expedition, but at 97 miles from the Pole he took the decision to turn back. They were all in a bad state physically. The altitude of the Polar Plateau was affecting them badly as well as the lack of food. He could possibly have struggled on to the Pole, but he knew it was unlikely that he would bring his men back alive. So he decided to turn back: a decision that has been described as one of the great decisions in polar history, one of which I am extremely proud. To turn his back on glory for the sake of life – it really defined him as a leader and it defined his priorities. We are all defined by our priorities. His priorities were quite simply his men. Afterwards he said to my grandmother: ‘I thought you’d rather have a live donkey than a dead lion.’

NS: The British Antarctic Expedition 1907–09 is more commonly known after the ship Nimrod. What can you tell me about the ship itself?

AS: The ship was a very small, forty-year old sealer, originally called Bjorn. Small and tatty. All my grandfather’s ships were secondhand. In fact, the only purpose-built polar ship of the time was Scott’s Discovery, which cost Scott as much as the entire Nimrod expedition. Nimrod set sail from London, but in fact Ernest Shackleton joined the ship in New Zealand. In order to save coal Nimrod was then towed ­­– the longest tow for a very long time – down to the Antarctic Circle. Nightmare tow, nightmare weather. The Koonya was the tug that carried out the tow and at one stage the weather was so bad the ships could only just see the tops of each other’s masts. It was an incredible feat of seamanship that the line was kept as it should have been. And Nimrod was quite overloaded with supplies for winter. My grandfather said that the ship looked like a reluctant schoolboy being dragged to school.

NS: In the context of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, Nimrod is not the best known of expeditions, but perhaps is one of the most important. Why do you think it has been overshadowed?

AS: It’s not Shackleton’s best-known expedition, but I think it was as important as the others, quite honestly. Of course, with the Endurance expedition there was an epic rescue involving the James Caird, not quite 23-foot, 800 miles across the stormy seas of the world, with the men waiting on Elephant Island and the rescue party climbing the unclimbed peaks of South Georgia.

NS: In 1908 Nimrod returned to New Zealand and then in 1909 it arrived back in Antarctica to collect the expedition team…

AS: Every single man returned. That’s why when I recently went to visit my Grandfather’s Nimrod expedition base hut at Cape Royds – beautifully conserved by the Antarctica Heritage Trust – it looked as if they had just stepped out. It was an incredible experience. First you notice the smell of wood and leather, and then you notice that it’s lit by natural light. And then you notice the hams hanging up and the socks and the clothes and the Mrs Sam stove. I felt a great wave of grief because I’m looking at the past, and the past as the cliché has it, won’t come again. But afterwards, after I had processed the experience, I decided that the hut itself is not a sad place because everyone came back alive.

NS: The point of your recent voyage to Antarctica to visit your grandfather’s hut?

AS: Yes. A documentary was being made about me by a New Zealand filmmaker called Mary-Jo Tohill to record the visit to my grandfather’s hut for the very first time in the Nimrod year. It’s a long voyage. The Ross Sea is a very long way away. The ice was extremely bad and we couldn’t get to all the places we wanted to get to, even in a powerful icebreaker. But we did get to Cape Royds and it was an astonishing experience, for which I’m very grateful. All my life I wanted to visit it.

NS: What is the hut like?

AS: It’s about 30 by 15 feet. Fifteen men wintered in it, and other expeditions used it too. It’s a permanent building in that it’s still there, but it was prefabricated in England, taken apart and re-erected there. The packing cases were taken apart and used for things like furniture, and of course the covers of Aurora Australis. Two members of the expedition took a short course and they were lent a small press. But of course it was incredibly difficult because there was all the volcanic dust – the scoria – that one walks through because Erebus, a live volcano, is nearby. And the ink would freeze and you’d drop a plate and you’d have to start all over again. It was painstaking and a huge achievement of very high standard. You would not think that they had not printed before.

NS: Do you think Aurora Australis tells us much about the Nimrod expedition?

AS: Aurora Australis is effectively a Nimrod anthology. The subjects range from science to fantasy, from humour to poetry. Ernest Shackleton contributed two of his poems. The humour has changed a bit – some of the things they thought funny we don’t think quite so funny today. And of course generously illustrated too. We don’t know exactly how many were produced – probably not more than a hundred. One was discovered recently in a barn in Northumberland. I think it was sold for about £56,000 (around $100,000 dollars) and I think that was the top price. Obviously, condition makes a difference and whether Shackleton or any of the others had signed it. I think Aurora not only throws light on the members of the expedition and how they thought a hundred years ago, but also on the leader who chose these men. They are like this, and he chose these people.

NS: What do you think s the legacy of Nimrod?

AS: The significance of Nimrod is that it defined Ernest Shackleton as a leader. There has been a great upsurge of interest in him over the past ten years for one reason: Leadership.

Nimrod expedition in cold, hard facts

Party of 15 men wintered at Cape Royds on Ross Island; climbed Mount Erebus (3794 m), 10 March 1908; Shackleton and 3 others (Jameson Boyd Adams, Eric Stewart Marshall, and John Robert Francis [Frank] Wild), discovered and sledged up the Beardmore Glacier to the farthest south of 88 • 38º S (01 • 62º [180km] from the South Pole) where Shackleton took possession of the Polar Plateau for King Edward VII, 9 January 1909; insufficient supplies necessitated their return; discovered nearly 500km of the Transantarctic Mountains flanking the Ross Ice Shelf; discovered coal at Mount Buckley. Tannatt William Edgeworth David leading a party of three reached the region of the South Magnetic Pole (72 • 42 º S, 155 • 27 º E) and took possession for Britain of Victoria Land there, 16 January 1909, and at Cape Bernacchi, 17 October 1908. Dogs and ponies used for some sledge hauling. Visited Macquarie Island, searched for ‘Dougherty’s Island’. First experiments in motor transport in Antarctica, an Arrol Johnston motor car was used with limited success; ciné photographs of penguins and seals were made. The expedition use New Zealand postage stamps specially overprinted ‘King Edward VII Land’ and an expedition canceller; Shackleton was appointed Post-Master. Book Aurora Australis, printed at Cape Royds, 90 copies made. [To conserve coal, in January 1908, Nimrod was towed 2700km from Lyttleton to the ice edge by Koonya (reached 66 • 52º S) which visited Campbell Island during the return voyage. The hut at Cape Royds is now protected as a ‘historic site’.]

Extracted with permission from A Chronology of Antarctic Exploration: a Synopsis of Events and Activities from the Earliest Times until the International Polar Years, 2007-09, by Robert Keith Headland

Feature on ‘Nimrod Centenary’ for Explorers Journal, by Nick Smith May 2009]

‘Shortcut for the armchair traveller’ feature article in Times Higher Education Supplement by Nick Smith

April 27, 2009

Researching a feature on Ernest Shackleton earlier today I came across an article I wrote about print on demand in 2006 for the Times Higher Education Supplement.

Shortcut for the Armchair traveller

Nick Smith unearths a publisher who can supply rare or out-of-print travel books at the click of a mouse

As you read this, someone somewhere is tearing out their hair.

This person is a biographer of the early 20th-century explorer Ernest Shackleton, and the cause of all this frustration and despair is the difficulty of getting hold of a first edition of the great man’s book Aurora . You could try a copyright library, or you could go to a book fair in New York, where for $100,000 (£54,000) a dealer will be only too pleased to track down one of the five or six copies that are circulating in the commercial world of antiquarian book collecting.

But imagine that you could, at the click of your mouse, order the printed text or even a facsimile of the first edition of Aurora , neatly bound and delivered to your door within 24 hours for under £20.

Now imagine that virtually any out-of-print, rare or collectible travel book could be accessed that way. Enter CuChullaine O’Reilly, who describes himself as a “literary archaeologist”. He is one half of the US-based husband-and-wife publishing team that will bring Aurora to the masses.

Their Classic Travel Book company will publish it on demand, book by book, so that not a single copy will be pulped. The process will ensure that researchers and academics – who are among the O’Reillys’ main customers – will be granted unprecedented access to valuable primary source material at an affordable price.

Many great 19th and 20th-century travel texts are out of print, and mainstream publishers cannot or will not do anything about it. The problem in the past has always been lack of a large market for such books. But, argues O’Reilly, most books serve a limited market. More than half of those published in the UK sell fewer than 250 copies a year, so the traditional publishers’ objection that “the book won’t sell” simply doesn’t hold water.

“It just doesn’t make sense that so much great literature is out of print,” he says. He believes that the combination of herd mentality and lack of vision in publishing is the main reason for bookshops being awash with works of “polished mediocrity”.

According to a study commissioned by the British Library, 90 per cent of newly published work will soon be available digitally. O’Reilly thinks this might help to “ensure that financial considerations are no longer the sole motivating factor in publishing and library sciences”.

The Classic Travel Book company was born of the O’Reillys’ love of long-distance equestrian travel. They are the original Long Riders, founders of an international guild of horsemen dedicated to the traditions and philosophy of geographical exploration on horseback. The Long Riders’ Guild is also dedicated to the preservation of equestrian literature, for which there is a limited market. The guild established a publishing arm that was gradually overtaken by the more generalist Classic Travel Book imprint, which has more than 200 titles on its growing list. It contains works from long-forgotten explorers such as John Duncan and George Younghusband, as well as the less famous works of big names such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Leonard Woolf and, of course, Shackleton.

“Any book selling fewer than 500 copies a year is a good candidate for making available on demand,” says Suzanne Wilson-Higgins, commercial director of Lightning Source, a Milton Keynes-based company specialising in printing, binding and distributing on-demand books.

And while their traditional clients are academic, professional and scientific publishers, business is increasingly coming from specialist trade publishers and imprints such as The Classic Travel Book company. They have also brought into print a wide spectrum of what Wilson-Higgins calls “non-traditional” publishers. These include old-fashioned vanity self-publishers as well as database publishers, the so-called “content aggregators” who source digital collections of books or even scan out-of-copyright titles, rework the covers and sell them (quite legally) over the web. As Wilson-Higgins says: “No warehouse, no stock, less risk.”

And no waste. “To fell forests and then pulp books is not a responsible act,” O’Reilly says. “Our mission to preserve rare and important travel knowledge is tempered by the realisation of our ecological duties as publishers.” He believes he has a moral duty to share the profits he makes with the academic institutions, scholarly societies and charities associated with travel writers, past and present, featured on the Classic Travel Book list. For example, he is working with author Glynn Christian – the profits from Christian’s book will help create a community library on remote Pitcairn Island.

Mike Berry, an independent antiquarian bookseller and owner of Somerset-based Rare Books and Berry, believes print-on-demand will enhance his traditional business. “I can supply books to customers where previously the rarity and cost made this impossible, so the reader wins. It will not affect the sale of first editions, as this is a collectors’ market,” he says.

Berry thinks that collectors will even go for print-to-order books. “I am happy to make these available – people want to use bookshops as well as the web.”

The reader may be considered the winner in all this, but the writer is not doing too badly either. Robin Hanbury-Tenison, described by The Sunday Times as “one of the greatest explorers of the 20th century”, has more than a dozen of his books on the Classic Travel Book list and sells them via his website.

Hanbury-Tenison, who, as editor of The Oxford Book of Exploration , is no stranger to traditional publishing, decided his most recent book, Worlds within: Reflections in the Sand , should go straight to the on-demand format. “It’s the second instalment of my autobiography and doesn’t have the wider appeal of some of my earlier books. It was a book I just wanted to write, and I didn’t want to get stuck into the process of lengthy meetings with publishers and so on. I just sent off the manuscript, and in ten days I had a copy of the book in my hands.”

LIFE IN THE SADDLE

Before you get 100 pages into CuChullaine O’Reilly’s 600-plus page novel Khyber Knights , the protagonist is being tortured in a prison cell in Pakistan. It is a terrible scene where two men are held in separate rooms and forced to listen to the other’s sufferings while their assailants try unsuccessfully to beat a confession out of them with cricket bats. They are accused of being in possession of a large amount of heroin.

Basha, O’Reilly’s wife, says the book is based on her husband’s real-life experiences. “Every word you read is true. A few names have been changed here and there, but that was basically what happened.”

O’Reilly is known for his journeys through Pakistan, which form the source material for Khyber Knights , widely held to be the best and most authentic book on the country written in English.

Basha O’Reilly is the other half of the publishing partnership behind Classic Travel Books and the Long Riders’ Guild website, described by the O’Reillys as “part-museum, bookstore, tack room and Guild Hall” and as containing “the world’s largest collection of equestrian travel information”. She is known in equestrian circles for her ride from Russia to the UK and as author of children’s book Count Pompeii – Stallion of the Steppes , first in the Little Long Rider series.

Long riders do just that. They ride long distances. They are a tight-knit, though far-scattered, community whose significance lies in the quality of their literary output.

The O’Reillys plan to circumnavigate the world on horseback, a feat never before accomplished.

Details: www.thelongridersguild.com/

Nick Smith is a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and has been a judge on the Thomas Cook Travel Book Awards