MY MISERABLE schooldays at Dulwich College were punctuated by regular roll-calls at “Shackleton’s boat”. Forlorn and neglected, this sad little vessel, quietly decaying in a cage in a corner of the school grounds, was none other than the James Caird. In this frail boat, Ernest Shackleton had crossed the Weddell Sea from Elephant Island to South Georgia in a desperate bid to raise an expedition to rescue the stranded crew of his Endurance, lost to the ice. It was an unbelievably heroic mission, and among the greatest sea stories ever told. Not that anyone at Dulwich told us infants anything about it.
That was a lifetime ago. Today, Shackleton has at last emerged from the long shadow cast by his contemporary and rival, Scott of the Antarctic. Sir Ranulph Fiennes is only the latest of his many biographers — Michael Smith being the best of them (Shackleton: By endurance we conquer, 2014) — and one is bound to ask what more is there to be said about him. Fiennes has few fresh disclosures, though we are startled to learn that Shackleton saw to it that his crew should have sufficient privacy for “sporting the oak” as — so we are told — public-school men put it.
Fiennes’s unique contribution to the study of Shackleton is the perspective granted to him as incontestably our greatest living explorer. He is the first person to have reached both the North and South Poles by surface means, and the first to have completely crossed Antarctica on foot.
In a word, Fiennes has been there. He, too, has had to pee into a bottle in temperatures far below freezing; he, too, has hauled a heavily loaded sledge across hundreds of miles of ice and snow; he, too, has suffered “gangrene, crotch-rot, and frostbite”.
Fiennes provides a running commentary on his account of Shackleton’s three great expeditions — in the Discovery, the Nimrod, and the Endurance — by drawing on his memories of his own exploits, not least of the cost of them: the financial cost, but, above all, the human cost.
Penguin BooksThe author of Shackleton, Sir Ranulph Fiennes: one explorer on another
The highest price was, of course paid by the women. It was ever so. Shackleton would be away off for a year or more on his travels. No sooner home, he would be off again for months raising funds for his next expedition, leaving his wife, Emily, to bring up their children. She understood him so well. He was “a soul whipped on by the wanderfire”, she said. She had much to endure and much to forgive — not least, in later years, her husband’s fondness for other women and the bottle.
Shackleton was a deeply flawed man, but he would do anything for those in his charge. There was something almost incarnational in his readiness to share and to suffer all that they were going through. For his last word, Fiennes quotes the judgement of Shackleton’s polar contemporary Sir Raymond Priestley. “For scientific leadership, give me Scott. For swift and efficient travel, give me Amundsen. But when you are in a hopeless situation, when there seems to be no way out, fall on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”
And the James Caird? It is still at Dulwich, but, today, fully restored, and on the south-London tourist trail.
The Revd Dr John Pridmore is a former Rector of Hackney in east London.
Shackleton: A biography
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