Credit: Eyewitness Accounts with Scott in the Antarctic by Herbert Ponting.
The Odditorium: the tricksters, eccentrics, deviants and inventors whose obsessions changed the world (Hodder & Stoughton, 2016) includes some amazing characters. Some you’ll have heard of, some you probably won’t. All of them have changed the world, although in some cases the wider world hasn’t noticed yet. They include Joshua Norton, first Emperor of America, and Reginald Bray, who carried out strange experiments with the Royal Mail. I was delighted to be asked to write about Apsley Cherry-Garrard, who is by far my favourite explorer.
When I was at school, we were often told stories about adventurers and explorers as something to aspire to. Captain Robert Falcon Scott was held up as a great example, bravely sacrificing himself in an attempt to reach the South Pole. As Sara Wheeler once described Antarctica, our southernmost continent often seems to be “a testing-ground for men with frozen beards to see how dead they could get’”. Despite that, I find Cherry-Garrard’s accounts of his adventures uplifting and inspiring.
Scott intentionally framed his death as an act of heroism. Bruce Chatwin’s book What Am I Doing Here (1988) describes a note left by Scott reading: “I have done this to show what an Englishman can do”. This legend-making worked well, and Scott’s story has often been retold. But his account often overshadows the tale of his companion, Apsley Cherry-Garrard. When Cherry-Garrard wrote an account of his time in Antarctica, it was entitled The Worst Journey in the World (1922). This referred not to Scott’s fatal mission, but to Cherry-Garrard’s attempt to collect penguin eggs for scientific research. What Cherry-Garrard went through was about as bad a time as one could go through and survive to write about it.
Cherry and his two companions travelled 60 miles on foot to reach the Emperor penguin nesting grounds, all in the darkness of an Antarctic winter. Pretty much everything that could do wrong did. Cherry’s teeth shattered from shivering at one point. Yet there was no triumphant return home and, according to Cherry’s account, officials at the Natural History Museum couldn’t care less about the eggs that had been retrieved at such high cost.
Scott gets most of the glory from that expedition, despite his mistakes. But, for me, Cherry-Garrard’s story is the most precious – his graceful description of suffering and how to bear it has as much to say about daily life as it does about Antarctic exploration.
The Odditorium at the Buxton Festival is a chance for me to talk about one of my favourite people. Cherry’s account of frozen misery is inspiring, and is one of the greatest treasures that has been found in Antarctica. We’ll also be talking about Baroness Elsa Von Freytag-Loringhoven, who created the most important work of art in the 20th-century, the bestselling author of books on Tibet (who didn’t even own a passport) and an Italian time lord who built the world’s largest underground temple. In just two hours, you’ll hear an alternative history of the world told through the lives of these remarkable people.