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I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019 and I am now properly retired and trying to write a novel. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Wednesday, 31 July 2019

"Barrow's Boys" by Fergus Fleming

A wonderful story of exploration of the Arctic, the Antarctic and Africa in the 1800s, expeditions commissioned by the Second Secretary of the Admiralty, John Barrow.

Apart from the hideous stories of suffering in inhospitable climates (I couldn't decide whether I would rather suffer winters in the Arctic with the ever present threat of losing bit of my body to frostbite or in Africa with the constant opportunity of dying from a parasite-borne disease; this book was only slightly less horrific in this respect than the Amazonian adventures recounted in The Lost City of Z), this book was notable for the complete bonkers people who wanted to go to these awful places, sometimes, after narrow survivals including being driven to eat one's own boots, to go back. For example, these madmen included “John Franklin ... [who] refused to sully the sabbath even by writing a letter.” (C 9), John Ross ("Never one to burn one boat when two would do") and McClure, whose "temper was uncontrollable. When ... his first officer allowed the ship to hit a hurricane, he ... was arrested and sent to his cabin with two marines standing guard outside the door.” (C 26) But not all of the madmen went abroad. The First Secretary of the Admiralty (Barrow's boss) was angry when John Ross turned down a dinner invitation on the grounds that he had just learned that his only child had died. The first secretary replied “You’ll get more children, come and dine with me.” (C 4)

Some of the story is about what happened at home. The Admiralty itself "was not interested in the unknown precisely because it was unknown.” (C 1) However, “This was the age of Romanticism, where crags of ice, tempestuous seas and tribes of undiscovered savages were far more interesting than the dry perspectives of eighteenth-century Enlightenment.” (C 1) Barrow had two particular goals: to discover the North-West Passage by which ships could sail north of Canada from the Atlantic into the Pacific, thus avoiding Cape Horn, and to discover the course of the River Niger in Africa, which he believed either emptied into Lake Chad or joined with the Nile. Part of the trouble was that he was so convinced of his own, stay-at-home, geographical theories that when explorers came home he would often tell them they were wrong and rubbish their findings or significantly edit their accounts before they were allowed to be published (normally by John Murray). A second part of the trouble was that money was always short and incompetence in good supply: “In every venture Barrow sent forth there was an element of incompetence. Something, somewhere, was always lacking.” (C 5) It is interesting to read a book in which many of the characters are so roundly condemned.

But the bulk of the narrative concerns the terrible ordeals experienced by some very brave men. Sometimes they discovered remarkable things. For example, the amazing sights Parry saw included “a fascinating phenomenon whereby the sun was surrounded by two haloes in which refraction gave birth to three mini-suns.” (C 6) and, on a later voyage to the Arctic, “a magnificent rainbow of five complete arches.” (C 14) Another explorer was able to confirm that the aurora borealis made no noise. Then there were the people:

  • Polar Eskimoes ... had split from the main group of Greenland Eskimos in about 1450, and had wandered northwards during a period known as the Little Ice Age, adapting to the cold and the available food supply to such a degree that they had lost most of the usual Arctic skills ... As far as they knew, they were the only people in the world.” (C 3)
  • The Arctic Highlanders were so isolated that they had even lost their mythology.” (C 3) 
But there were horrors as well:
  • His hands had the appearance of translucent marble and was so cold that the bowl of water into which they were plunged froze over.” (C 6)
  • The road from Murzouk to Lake Chad was 700 miles long and strewn so thickly with the remains of the some 8,500 slaves who died annually on the journey north that Oudney’s party moved with an audible crunching sound. ... For days on end they tramped through the brittle remains.” (C 11)

There were interesting experiences: 
  • He attended wild parties and slept the night off in an Eskimo hut. ‘But I was awakened by a feeling of great warmth, and to my surprise found myself covered by a large deerskin, under which lay my friend, his two wives, and their favourite puppy, all fast asleep and stark naked’.” (C 8)
  • One African explorer was invited to drink water from a chamberpot which his companion recognised “as an old one of his own, which he had sold at market only a year before.” (C 13)

Other great quotes:

  • Had Ross been buried at sea he could not have been stitched up more thoroughly.” (C 4)
  • His commanding officer wrote that ‘his military exploits were worse than his poetry’ - which is saying a great deal.” (C 12)
  • When the James Ross expedition crossed the Antarctic Circle the men celebrated by getting the ship’s goat drunk. “Two days later while Billy ‘was paying the usual penance for his debauchery’, they reached the ice pack.” (C 21)
  • The Falklands ... colony was pitifully neglected with only seventy inhabitants, twenty of whom were government officials.” (C 22)

A great book but I think my travel will be more enjoyable at home.

Other great travel books include:

Some more books about exploration:

July 2019; 446 pages

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