Thursday, 22 March 2012

May be gone some time

We might all know a version of the famous phrase uttered by Lawrence 'Titus' Oates as he left the tent for the last time, in an heroic act of self-sacrifice, attempting to save the rest of his party at the tragic end of Scott's disastrous mission to the South Pole.

Scott's crew - on a day without a blizzard
One hundred years ago this week, Oates, who had been suffering terribly from the effects of frostbite and exhaustion, quietly told his companions "I am just going outside and may be some time."  His companions survived only a few days longer as the Antarctic winter closed in around them.

I have known the story of Captain Scott since I was a boy and I have always been saddened by it.  When it was first told to me, I wasn't aware that anyone had begun to question Scott's skills as a leader, or the wisdom of some of the decisions that were made during the journey.  Somehow we were meant to praise the efforts of a famous Englishman, battling against impossible odds in an under-funded attempt to reach the South Pole first.  Somehow we were being taught that the success of Amundsen's team was due to the way that they had 'cheated' by using dogs to haul their sleighs, whereas Scott's (failed) attempt to use mechanical methods were not considered to constitute cheating.  (See this comparison between the two missions.)

A century after the death of Robert Falcon Scott and his crew, I think even the English have the perspective to recognise weaknesses in his leadership skills, and yet still to respect him.  In particular I would question his fateful decision to attempt the last stretch to the pole with five team members, even though they had only planned the resources for four.  We can still recognise the great qualities of a man who was driven by his passion to succeed and to keep his team happy.  At the same time I completely respect his competitor's use of the best equipment and arctic experience available at the time, to succeed and to survive.

Amundsen successfully reached the South Pole - without 'cheating'.

I mentioned last year in 'Tears and Heroism' that I do feel a certain empathy with Scott.

One of the things I found that I have in common with Scott was an inability to organise things properly.  Yes - I am indulging in another bout of self-deprecation as a dear friend sometimes reminds me.  But I fear that I could organise things no better than Scott did.

The other was that he has a tendency towards lacrimosity, both in sad situations and (surprisingly) in happy occasions.  He found that it was embarrassing to him and to the other men around him

Perhaps at the time I had been having a bad day and was feeling less confident about my organisation skills than I am now.  Tears in happy moments are still a daily threat though.  Thank goodness for the happy moments!

Small note: Don't worry - Something Surprising will continue on schedule tomorrow in spite of the title!


RosaRubicondior said...

As someone who was brought up with a fairly well developed class consciousness, by a mother who, when 'in service', sometimes used to pray for the revolution to start so she could shoot the bastards, I always saw Scott as typical of the arrogantly self-assured English upper class when simply being English and upper-crust was enough to make you a natural leader and capable of just about anything.

Linda B said...

Always filed Scott in the same category as the Light Brigade, Galipoli & Dunkirk: over-glorified exploits of nit-wit Brits. Though not an exclusively English trait, they seem to have perfected the art.