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Sunday, 11 December 2011

The Lost Photographs of Captain Scott

I'm afraid I've been too busy with other things to write a new blog post this week, but as part of my ongoing commitment to keep it all killer, no filler, I've got a card up my sleeve. So in the style of the cookery show of your choice, here's one I did earlier.

Lower Glacier Depot, Beardmore Glacier, one hundred years ago today; photo taken by Captain Scott

Sunday, 4 December 2011

British Services Antarctic Expedition 2012 (BSAE2012) Farewell Dinner

Last night, I went to the Farewell Dinner for the British Services Antarctic Expedition 2012 (BSAE2012), the companion expedition to the (civilian) ISCE2012. The venue was the magnificent Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, whose baroque firmament of a ceiling was painted by Sir James Thornhill over 17 years. Payment was by the yard; perhaps a precursor to today’s controversial government practice of ‘Payment by Results’...

After dinner, there was a rousing round of toasts and heartfelt speeches, which pithily captured what inspirational figures and endeavours the BSAE2012 will celebrate and emulate. The Director of the Royal Geographical Society, Dr Rita Gardner, reminded us of how Scott and his men were dedicated to research to the last – even as their strength faded, they refused to jettison 14 kg of rock samples that were later used to formulate a unifying geological theory, that of plate tectonics.

The BSAE2012 is logistically complex. 24 men and women from all three military services will land on the Antarctic Peninsula from the sea and split into two teams  which will interweave paths, including a new traverse of Antarctandes. The rich scientific programme will touch on climate change, meteorite compositional analysis and sports psychology/sociology in extreme conditions.

Kathryn, behind the electric candleabra, also came to Norway

The link between the ISCE2012 and the BSAE2012 is strong. When we had our first (ISCE) selection challenge in April, this was hosted by Lt Cdr Paul Hart at the Royal Naval training dry dock of HMS Raliegh. Both expeditions jointly fly the banner of the ‘Spirit of Scott’ and adopt a Tennyson line for their motto which it’s hard to say out loud without sitting a bit taller: ‘To Strive, To Seek, To Find and Not To Yield’.

The evening made me think about just how much work goes into making any endeavour of interest a success. I also felt great excitement for Henry that he’ll have an adventure of his own next year with the ISCE2012. For my part, yesterday’s dinner was an unforgettable coda to this phase of my involvement with the ISCE2012. It’s been a fantastic experience that has sent my life in a Constance Spry spray of new directions. Correctly, the focus must now be on getting Henry & Co. there and back to cap the centenary celebrations in November 2012 – I hope to find a way to contribute to this in a small way behind the scenes, if I can.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Rachel Hazell & her Antarctic bookworks

I recently met the artist Rachel Hazell, a book artist whose work I admire (website here). I’m particularly drawn to her Antarctic bookworks, informed by her experiences of visiting and living there. I more or less doorstepped her on her last trip to London and she kindly answered my nosy questions:

What was your initial attraction to Antarctica?

I was in South America, taking photographs of glaciers. A friend said I should apply for an artist’s residency. I did a semicircumnavigation of Antarctica, from South America to New Zealand. We did landings at Cape Evans and Cape Royds, where Scott and Shackleton’s huts are. It was very, very moving. Scott’s hut had damage from over the winter. Ice had backed up on the walls. Snow was melting on to it. Scott’s hut had a more sombre atmosphere. Shackleton’s hut felt warmer or cheerier. I don’t know if I just imagined that, knowing what happened.

Do you feel that bookworks fit well with the Antarctic landscape or did you feel you were working in opposition with your medium to generate the forms you wanted?

I saw books and paper in Antarctica. I would like to take it further. I would like to write a book on the paperiness of Antarctica. I’ll give you an example. The crevasse lines on a snow field look like a page of notepaper with writing on. The striations where a glacier has ground lines into a sea bed look like the pages of a book. It might not seem an obvious link because ice is wet, but paper comes from water. The creation of paper is a very wet process.

Do you aim for a figurative representation or a more symbolic depiction?

I’m still trying. I do want them to be quite figurative. When I got back from Antarctica, I could hardly sleep. It wasn’t just jetlag. I would look back over old physical geography textbooks and learn about glacier tongues and so on. We may not have an indigenous language in Antarctica, so we don’t have 50 words for snow or whatever, but the descriptions we do have are very graphic: growlers; bergy bits; porridge!

What are your thoughts on people visiting Antarctica? 30 000 tourists went last year.

The numbers are down by 8000 from the year before. I hope that they can be ambassadors for the continent when they get back. It’s a delicate ecosystem. IATTO [International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators] does a great job.

Have you read Scott’s Journals?

Yes, I read them as a teenager, and biographies that portrayed him as a hero. I read about Cherry-Garrard; by Sara Wheeler. But I also read Huntford, a reevaluation. What comes across to me is that for Amundsen, it was about the competition and reaching the pole. That was it. But with Scott, there was so much more. He’s passed so much  knowledge and data to us that we’re still using – it’s just priceless what he’s left us.

What next?

Antarctic paperworks are not over. At the moment, I’m focusing on being a bookbinder closer to home. The Sun Valley Art Gallery, Idaho, will exhibit my Antarctic work soon.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Edward Wilson's Antarctic Notebooks

Statue of Peter Scott at WWT Barnes Wetlands Centre (picture credit: Michael Reeve)

On Thursday, I went to the launch of Edward Wilson’s Antarctic Notebooks. This book comprises a careful selection of pencil drawings and watercolours done by Dr Wilson, who accompanied Captain Scott as Chief of Scientific Staff, confidant and friend on both the Discovery and Terra Nova Expeditions to Antarctica. Fittingly, the launch was held at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) in Barnes, London as the WWT was founded by Sir Peter Scott, Captain Scott’s son.

Dr Edward Wilson’s great nephews, Dr David Wilson (ISCE Chairman) and Christopher Wilson explained that they wrote the book in the hope that the images will inspire a new generation of scientists and conservationists. David Wilson highlighted what an extraordinary seed Captain Scott planted when he wrote in a parting letter to his wife for her to ‘make the boy interested in natural history if you can; it is better than games’. How much easier if would have been to say, ‘make the boy join the navy’ or ‘send him to a top school’.

Christopher and David Wilson

The ramifications of this mindful parenting bequest are staggering. Peter Scott helped to found the world conservation movement, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), whose panda logo he designed. David Attenborough made no bones about our debt to Scott, Wilson and their colleagues.

David Attenborough. He recalled his first visit to Scott's Hut on Cape Evans, Antarctica: 'There was a musty smell of rope, tar and antiquity.' He added that, 'If I ever believed in personality after death, that was it.'

David Attenborough said that Peter Scott’s conservation efforts succeeded in a way that was possible for the first time. I imagine he meant that worldwide broadcasting was still new, and that ecological understanding was freshly mature enough to support large-scale conservation efforts. It seemed right for this sentiment to be expressed by David Attenborough of all people, given that his very successes have also coincided with landmarks in pioneering mass media, e.g. colour television.

This reminded me of something expressed by the artist Ben Coode-Adams, who is currently matching Captain Scott’s mileage on a daily basis until March 29th (he blogs with inimitable frankness here - I don't arrive at almost any of the same conclusions as he does, though): one of the bases of his interest in Captain Scott’s story is the notion of ‘being of your time’. It’s difficult to imagine that a broadcaster today can make as big a splash as David Attenborough now that we have hundreds of digital channels; and it’s doubtful any terrestrial explorer is going to capture the public's imagination as much as Captain Scott and his men have.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Norway - training and selection

Joe, me and Henry

Well, it’s been an incredible fortnight! I joined the other three remaining ISCE2012/Telegraph Competition candidates for a training/selection event in Norway. We were based in Gargia, 69°N, i.e. 800 km within the Arctic Circle. Our base was a fjellstue or travellers’ lodge along the Beskades Highway. Our local host, Per-Thore Hansen, explained to us that the government spaced these waystations approximately 33 miles apart so that passersby could take shelter in stormy/blizzardy conditions. Most of these fjellstue were bombed off the map in WWII, but have been rebuilt and privatised.

When we weren’t pinching ourselves, we were steeped in polar adventure training. The first few days were quite gentle. We were lectured on various aspects of cold weather survival, including first aid, historical precedence and communications. The Deputy Expedition Leader, Geoff Somers, (adventurer and serial Antarctic revenant) impressed on us the contrast between the absolute isolation of Scott’s crew in Antarctica and the connectivity of modern expeditioners, who are required to radio in updates every two days.

After some preparatory practical learning (tent routines; working the gas pressure stoves), we set out for a week in the wilderness. Henry and I shared a tent with Geoff, while Joe and Kathryn shared with Antony Jinman, Expedition Leader. Starting at 100 m above sea level, we hiked uphill, above the tree line (200 m) to approximately 400 m, where the terrain was characterised by tundra. It’s been an unseasonably balmy November in Finnmark (northern Norway), so there was only enough snow cover to cross-country ski on one day. I’d never worn skis before, so I did my best to discredit Per-Thore’s ‘bambi-on-ice’ predictions!

Learning to pull a pulk (sled) was an initiation right in itself. We negotiated turns, snags, bogs and stream-lets, marvelling how much less energy it takes to pull a load than to carry it in a backpack. Sadly, winter days are short in the arctic, so we soon grew accustomed to being in our tents for extended periods, swaddled like Russian infants. I felt that Henry, Geoff and I made a happy unit, and I’m sure the other three got to know each other well, too.

However, my favourite moments were when we were on the move, calmly alert (pacing, keeping an eye out for stragglers and regulating our ‘clothing systems’ for temperature control) and alive to our achromatic surroundings. I’d never seen so much snow in my life. At times I felt as though a fifth chamber would open in my heart to take in the Northern Lights, the powdery crunch underfoot and the slate, Nordic horizon.

We were asked to blog throughout our adventure, so for a day-by-day snapshot, please click here or here. More pictures to follow.


Hot off the press: Henry has won the ISCE2012 competition. Henry's a good egg and a very deserving winner. Well done, Henry!

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Off to Alta

Northern lights in Finnmark, Norway. Alta is the administrative centre of Finnmark. [Picture credit:]

Dear all

I'm off to Alta, Norway this Friday for the last selection event. I can't contain my excitement! Anyway, just to let you know that I won't be updating this blog (or my YouTube, Facebook or Twitter pages) until I'm back on the 8th of Nov. In the meantime, depending on remote internet connection strength, you might be able to keep tabs on our adventure on the official ISCE2012 website. Please keep your fingers crossed for me. :)

Warm wishes

Sunday, 23 October 2011

The Heart of the Great Alone

This morning I went to ‘The Heart of the Great Alone’, a look at the achievements of Captains Scott and Shackleton through the photographers’ lens. This engrossing exhibition opened on Friday at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, and will run all the way through to 15 April 2012.

"Castle Berg" - they returned to this berg several times. [Photo by: Herbert Ponting; The Royal Collection]

The structure of the exhibition encourages the visitor to play ‘spot the difference’ between Captain Scott’s Terra Nova expedition and Shackleton’s Endeavour expedition, as the photographs from each were displayed in separate sections, largely chronologically. The majority of the photographs on display were taken by Herbert Ponting and by Frank Hurley, respectively. Both were professional photographers of considerable experience and skill, but they were employed in subtly different capacities, which showed in their results.

Captain Scott had taken on Ponting as a ‘camera artist’, so the emphasis was on artful composition and capturing the imagination. This was the first time a professional photographer’s role was included on an official expedition’s payroll, mostly because Captain Scott had seen how popular the Discovery expedition photos had been with the public, and he was keen to capitalise on this interest. This was a prescient move, given the landslide of critical acclaim for Ponting’s film ‘The Great White Silence’, though Captain Scott himself never saw how his foresight bore fruit.

The silvery glint of the moon on the sea as it freezes [Photo by Herbert Ponting; The Royal Collection]

In contrast, Hurley was taken on as a documentarian; to chronicle the narrative of Shackleton’s venture. Hurley’s shots have a more rapid-fire, forensic quality than Ponting’s, though both rose to the exigencies of Antarctic conditions with ingenuity: Hurley’s flashlit study of HMS Endeavour trapped in the ice is a spectral portrait reminiscent of the Mary Celeste.

These photographs were given as a gift to King George V shortly after the First World War, and have been in the Royal Collection since then. It struck me how familiar so many of the photographs are; how they’ve slipped into the public parlance of what Antarctica ‘looks like’. I’m not clear whether the photographs are held in the collection  as negatives or prints, but it was impossible not to notice that Ponting’s folio offerings dwarfed Hurley’s quartos, with obvious implications on how prominently I can remember whose photos!

Ponting thought carefully about what development treatments to give each print, often choosing carbon or silver gelatine on white backing, but he would shift the ink chromaticity towards red or green, or even print on coloured card to hint at the colours he saw.

It’s clear from Captain Scott’s journals that the expedition plans would bend to accommodate Ponting’s compositional wishes, even influencing the precise position of campsites, but Ponting was never taken on extended trips across the ice, as Hurley was.

'The ramparts of Mt Erebus' [Photo by Herbert Ponting; The Royal Collection]

The standout print for me is one titled ‘The ramparts of Mt Erebus’, which ticks the ‘rule of thirds’ box vertically: topmost is Erebus itself; the middle is a colossal stack of ice and the squashed bottom is ground level, including a toy soldier-like figure for scale. It reminds me of a late ancient Egyptian portrait device, where the majority of the picture would be the main story itself (the crushing majesty of nature, in this case) and the painter would be indulged with a miniature of an icon in the corner (often taken from the painter’s life) as a reminder of man’s insignificance.

Have you been to see this show? What did you think?


As you might know, I'm off to Alta, Norway soon and have been humming with excitement for weeks. My rucksack's packed now and there's just four clear days between me and Norway. Can't. Wait.

Sunday, 16 October 2011


Following our most recent selection challenge, the final shortlist for the last place on the International Scott Centenary Expedition 2012 has been decided. Four people are still in the running and I couldn’t be happier that I’m one of them! The last test we’re going to be set will centre on ice survival skills in Arctic Norway from the end of this month. I’m incredibly excited and can’t decide whether to steel myself with ice baths or to squeeze out the dregs of the autumn sun...

Not surprisingly, this past week I’ve been reflecting on what role competition played in the life of Captain Scott. The leadership position on his first polar expedition, the Discovery mission, was filled by competitive written application. The applications were pored over by a 32-strong expedition committee, but Captain Scott was fortunate to have won the favour of the chair, Sir Clements Markham (president of the Royal Geographical Society), who had encouraged Captain Scott to apply in the first place.

One of the most famous images from the Terra Nova expedition; taken by H Ponting. On the left is T Griffith Taylor (geologist) and on the right is Charles Wright (physicist). The timing of this photograph was lucky. Just ten minutes later, the iceberg (through the grotto of which we can see the Terra Nova) swung round. 

The competitions to join the respective crews of his Discovery and Terra Nova expeditions were fierce. In the planning stages, 8 000 men volunteered for 64 places on the Terra Nova expedition. It is interesting to guess at the various applicants’ motivations, not least because many of the crew members eventually chosen had effectively agreed to demotions from their career positions. Compounded with the prospect of years spent away from loved ones, it’s clear that a spot on the teams was highly prized.

Especially in the dark, overwintering periods, Captain Scott was mindful that his crew needed to be kept active to stave off ‘winter blues’ or what we would now call seasonal affective disorder (SAD). In 1902, on the Discovery expedition a windmill was erected and electric light strung up, under which all kinds of competitive sporting activities (including ski races and football matches) kept the men sharp and boredom at bay. Indoors, chess and parlour games were popular, though some took them more seriously than others – Captain Scott would struggle to hide his displeasure when he lost at chess.

Another way in which ‘competition’ must have crept into Captain Scott’s polar forays is, as any schoolboy biologist can tell you, through the Gaussian Principle of Competitive Exclusion. This notion in ecology is that species differentiate to exploit different portions of the total natural resource available (e.g. sunlight, water, food), leaving the remainder for neighbouring species. The result is that even in apparently crowded conditions, each species can enjoy its own niche in some degree of splendid isolation. I think a similar principle can apply in the group dynamics of an expedition, and that Captain Scott encouraged his team members to each fulfil the role that best suited their strengths and their temperament.

Of course, each of them had been recruited with particular skills in mind (e.g. scientific background/experience with ponies), but Captain Scott didn’t treat his crew as an undifferentiated lump, as we can see from his keen journal observations. A team where each member is valued for who they are is a happy team – crucial when there are no early exits from a three year sojourn.

Fish trapping

I guess any comment on Captain Scott and ‘competition’ is going to have to look at the relation between his expedition and Roald Amundsen’s. Ranulph Fiennes, in his excellent biography of Captain Scott, firmly and convincingly dismisses any nonsense about Scott having ‘raced’ Amundsen to the South Pole. Certainly, by the time Amundsen shared his Antarctic intentions with Captain Scott, Scott’s plans to conduct scientific studies en route to the Pole were set, and he never intended to deviate from these plans – had ‘priority’ at the Pole been the primary concern, the science would have fallen by the wayside. It’s to Captain Scott’s credit and the benefit of all of us that he pursued the lines of inquiry that he did. In future weeks, I’m going to look more closely at the scientific outputs of the Discovery and Terra Nova  expeditions.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Centenary concert

Last week, I put on a fundraising concert for the ISCE2012. It was at St Stephen’s Church, London SW7, where the verger had set up atmospheric pools of light along the length of the nave; a cool relief from the unseasonably balmy weather outside.

John Cuthbert accompanying James Geer

I was very lucky to have enlisted the help of Monica McGhee, a soprano completing her Masters in Vocal Performance at the Royal College of Music this year. She planned and coordinated all musical aspects of the concert, such as organising rehearsals. Including Monica, all of the musicians generously donated their time and talent to support the ISCE2012: Victoria Gray (mezzo), James Geer (tenor), Matt Buswell (bass-baritone) and John Cuthbert (piano).

Dr David Wilson, me and Gill B

Me with Duncan Lawie

As the evening was arranged to commemorate the lives and achievements of Captain Scott, Captain Oates, Lt Bowers, Petty Officer Evans and Dr Wilson, it seemed appropriate to set a nautical/travelling theme. The singers chose a thoughtful and robust programme that, as Monica commented, ran the gamut from corals to the inky sea to pirates and mermaids. The arias and art songs were leavened with fin de si├Ęcle musical theatre numbers and a Scottish sea shanty. The singing was utterly transporting and the mood of the pieces segued effortlessly from rollicking to doleful to quizzical. The evening ended with light refreshments.

On the far right is Monica McGhee

Amongst the guests were two of the trustees of the ISCE2012, Dr David Wilson (Dr Edward Wilson’s grand-nephew) and Duncan Lawie. Gill B, Captain Oates’s greatniece also came along. A good sum of money was raised, and from the feedback I got from the audience, I gather it was a memorable evening. Having never put on a concert before, I was delighted with the response and relieved that it went smoothly!

Videos and more photos from the concert are on my Facebook page...

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Captain Scott's polar party team

Quite a few of you have asked to know more about the four men who sadly perished with Captain Scott, shortly after reaching the South Pole in 1912, so that’s what I’ll focus on in this week’s blog post. I’ll look to write more complete biographical entries on these four men in due course, as I can’t do them justice in today’s space.

From left to right: Capt. Oates, Capt. Scott, Dr Wilson, Lt. Bowers, P.O. Evans

Captain Lawrence Oates
He was born in Putney, London. Having been the adjutant of his regiment (the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons) in India, he effectively accepted a demotion to become the only member of Captain Scott’s crew to have served in the army (not the Navy). His left leg was shorter than his right, from an injury sustained in the Boer War. He was tasked with tending the horses on the Terra Nova Expedition. The one ornament he took to Antarctica was a small print of Admiral Nelson. Remembered for his stoical reserve, he described the Antarctic climate as bring ‘healthy although inclined to be cold.’ He uttered the famous laconicism, ‘I am just going outside and may be some time,’ choosing to die through self-sacrifice when he felt he would otherwise burden his sledging companions.

Dr Edward Wilson
Born in Cheltenham, Dr Wilson was a conscientious medical doctor who set high standards of self-discipline for himself. After working hours, he would offer medical assistance to slum children around the Battersea university settlement area, and he also taught them on Sundays. Noted for his gentle manner and strong Christian faith, Dr Wilson was anti-imperialist. A natural polymath, he served on both the Discovery and Terra Nova expeditions as zoologist, medical officer and artist. He also acted as Captain Scott’s confidant and spiritual counsellor. His penetrating zoological insights and his pellucid watercolours set benchmarks for future Antarctic endeavours.

Lt Henry Bowers
Born in Greenock of Scottish descent, he was raised by his mother after his father died when he was 3. He first went to sea in the merchant navy, before joining the Royal Navy. Having previously commanded a Royal Indian Marine gunboat on the Irrawaddy he, too, effectively accepted a demotion to join Captain Scott’s Terra Nova team as storekeeper. He stood out for his prodigious memory, excellent navigation skills and physical strength. His pacific Christian faith and straightforward, kind nature made him popular with the other crew members. He had dreamt of visiting Antarctica from the age of seven.

Petty Officer Edgar Evans
He was born in Middleton, Wales. Like Captain Scott, he enlisted in the Royal Navy at 13 and they both served on HMS Majestic. P.O. Evans went on both the Discovery and Terra Nova expeditions and his equanimity and charm saw him through difficulties – for example, they helped to overturn his dismissal (for a minor infraction) from the Terra Nova Expedition. He was valued for his physical strength and ingenuity in modifying equipment to suit needs ‘in the field’. On the Discovery Expedition, he fell into a crevasse, but dealt with it with characteristic equanimity. His plan was to open a pub, upon return from the South Pole.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

HMS Terra Nova

 HMS Terra Nova (‘New Ground’) is rightly best remembered for conveying Captain Scott’s crew to Antarctica for his second and final expedition there. But ships, like people, typically have messy, uneventful stretches of life, punctuated by one or two defining experiences.  What else was HMS Terra Nova involved in?
In 1884, HMS Terra Nova was built in Dundee shipyards, renowned for turning out hardy whalers and sealers. The ship was pressed into ten years of sealing service in the Labrador Sea, part of the North Atlantic. She cut her teeth as a relief vessel in 1897, when the Jackson-Harmsworth survey crew required rescue. This expedition was founded on the belief that land extended to the North Pole, but its mapping exercises established that the Arctic region is archipelagic; the Northern-most island at 81°N. Shortly after, the ship was bought by a Liverpool shipping company, operating from Newfoundland (Bowring Brothers Limited). It resumed its sealing functions.
HMS Terra Nova setting sail from Cardiff in 1910 (Picture credit: BBC)

In 1904, HMS Morning was sent to relieve Captain Scott’s Antarctic icebound HMS Discovery with coal supplies for the voyage home. To Captain Scott’s dismay, an unwelcome second relief ship was sent, HMS Terra Nova, because the government of the day were anxious for the Discovery mission to be ended conclusively, and there was no way of knowing from afar if the Discovery would remain icebound. Expenses had spiralled out of control. Had HMS Terra Nova not been dispatched, too, Captain Scott had intended to overwinter for another year, since food supplies would easily last that long.
In 1909, HMS Terra Nova was purchased for the British Antarctic Expedition (the Terra Nova Expedition). Seven feet of oak reinforcement from bow to stern was installed in anticipation of icy conditions. Laden with about 500 tonnes of provisions, she set sail from Cardiff on 15 June 1910. Such a generous proportion of private sponsorship came from Cardiff that HMS Terra Nova that Captain Scott re-registered Cardiff as her home port and she flew the Welsh flag all the way to Cape Evans, Antarctica.
HMS Terra Nova's masthead, as it was displayed in Roath Park, Cardiff (Picture credit: BBC)

60 000 people joined Captain Scott’s widow and son welcomed the ship at Bute Dock when it returned. In 1913, HMS Terra Nova was repurchased by Bowring Brothers Ltd and returned to sealing. In 1942, she was chartered to convey supplies to base stations in Greenland, but unfortunately, the following year, she was damaged and sank by ice off Greenland. The crew were safely evacuated by the US Coast Guard
It’s estimated that 800 000 seal pelts were caught from HMS Terra Nova’s deck, all in all -  a gruesome tally to the vegetarian likes of me. The binnacle is preserved in the Pierhead Bulding, Cardiff Bay, from where Captain Scott set sail in 1910. The figurehead was removed in 1913 and is in storage at the Museum of Wales . The bell (removed in 1913) was given to the Scott Polar Research Institute, and used as a tea bell – rung five times in the morning and eight times in the afternoon, in the naval tradition.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Captain Scott Centenary Concert - 29th Sept 2011

It's coming along nicely - I hope to see you there! Please click on the image above for further details. Book tickets by emailing

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Admiralty Interview Board

Last week, the other 7 remaining shortlisted candidates (for the last place on the Captain Scott centenary sledging party) and I went down to Gosport, Hampshire for further selection tests. We were guests of the Royal Navy at HMS Sultan, where the Admiralty Interview Board (AIB) is held. This is the officer recruitment process for the navy, with a 30% pass rate. The navy kindly modified the AIB format to accommodate the 8 of us, so we were spared the quizzes on maximum speeds of different sea vessels, mercifully!

It was appropriate that this penultimate selection event was again on a naval dry dock (we had first all met at HS Raleigh in April), given that Captain Scott himself was marinaded in and moulded by naval ways. His first preparations to join the navy were made at 13, when he entered a crammer. HMS Sultan itself was of historical interest. The site encompasses four forts built by the War Office in the 1850s; the grassed-over roofs of which are now maintained by rescue goats.

It was walking a curious tightrope; to compete against friends, but the reunion aspect of our time at HMS Sultan definitely added levity to an intense arrangement. I’m going to keep this blog post short, because I doubt the navy would appreciate if I spilled the beans, peas and other pulses on the tests they sprang on us.

Photo credit: Christopher Pledger; The Telegraph

Suffice to say, we ran, swung, carried, built, balanced, led, cooperated, planned and improvised our way through a battery of tasks. It was fantastic fun, and oddly engrossing, even though a large imaginative element had to come into play in the fictional scenarios we were set in a converted aircraft hangar. A visiting delegation of services clergymen watched us with dinner plate eyes. Out tests ended shortly after 10 am on the Friday, with what I can best describe as an amiable interrogation of our understanding of a planning exercise – we were kept on our toes.

Four people will progress to the final round, a training expedition in Norway late next month or in early November. It’s been a tremendously exciting thing to be involved with, up until now. I’m surprised and grateful to have made it even this far. The next shortlist will be announced in The Telegraph next Saturday. In the meantime, here's their take on last week.

Monday, 5 September 2011


Food was important to Captain Scott’s team in numerous ways. Most obviously, it was essential sustenance. Although they couldn’t have known this at the time, their sledging rations were not planned to be calorific enough. On a typical day, a sledger would be allocated 4600 (kilo)calories in biscuits, pemmican (a mix of dried meat, fat and cereal), butter, cheese, sugar and cocoa. The crew generally preferred cocoa to tea, which they would drink from aluminium pannikins, pre-warmed to avoid frostbite. Modern ice explorers aim to consume 7000 (kilo)calories a day, which is the maximum the human body can absorb, though more than that can be expended in keeping warm. Sadly, in Captain Scott’s time vitamins had not yet been isolated or identified, so they did not aim to replenish micronutrients, except in a vague way, e.g. they worked out that fresh seal meat would keep scurvy symptoms at bay. In fact, Thursday was known as ‘Scurvy Day’, because it was the only day when they wouldn’t eat seal meat, when not sledging. In a nose-to-tail way that would please the Heston Blumenthals of the world, they would eat every part of the animal, and one seal could last the Discovery crew of 46 for two days.

One of Captain Scott's sledging parties (Terra Nova Expedition) stops for a meal, 7 Feb 1911. Picture credit: H Ponting; Getty Images Gallery'

When on the boat or based at more permanent camps (the huts), the crew ate well. On the Discovery expedition, they took with them 16 tons of 12 kinds of meat – mostly tinned – including veal, rabbit, partridge and duck. These provisions were kept in an ice cabin, which sadly did not keep it all from spoiling.

Secondly, food acted as social glue and an aid to regular time-keeping. Regular routines helped to keep motivated the men disorientated by the lack of daylight. Indeed, a significant part of their daily routine involved food preparation. Once they had landed on the Antarctic mainland, they had daily trips to cut out blocks of ice to melt for drinking. Strict Edwardian mealtimes were observed, which must have been especially important in the bleak winter months. For example, they would have their lunch at 1300 hours, followed by grog (a mixture of rum and water), served from a tub. This naval practice was only abolished in 1971. Captain Scott’s crew were not actually keen drinkers, which is why much polar archaeology involves preserving the bottles of booze they left behind at the huts.

Thirdly, food was a motivating factor and source of pleasure. Although luxurious feasts were put on for special occasions, such as Midwinter Day and Christmas, standard fare could be quite unappetising, e.g. ‘hoosh’, a mixture of pemmican, ground biscuits and water. Improvisatory variants of hoosh would include raisins and curry powder. Captain Scott was well aware that 3 years of bottled fruits and concentrated foods with Huxley-novelistic names (e.g. plasmon, somatose, tropon and serin) would affect his crew’s morale, so he paid close attention to the quality of his cook’s output. He dismissed two cooks on the Discovery expedition alone, but was happy enough with Charles Clark’s service to retain him until the end. Clark was tasked with baking bread every day; a surprising luxury to me, since I rarely have freshly baked bread.

Captain Scott even tried to initiate Antarctic farming practices. His first successes were with cress and mustard crops.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Climate change, part 2

Happy bank holiday weekend, everyone! Below is the second half of my interview with Tony Grayling, Head of Climate Change and Sustainability at the Environment Agency:

Have the Environment Agency got a clear plan for cultural change?

The EA is a regulator and adviser of other organisations, primarily industry, commercial organisations and public sector organisations. We deal in institutional change, not individuals, so we aim for cultural programme changes directed at public changes. We implement policy rather than create it. We deliver a carbon plan and aim to achieve an emission reduction plan, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 34% (c.f. 1990 level) by 2020. The UK is on track, because of the global economic downturn and we’ve also done quite a lot towards the target. However, we’re not on track for 2050 for 80% reduction. There are long lead times, e.g. for electricity reduction, so we need to act now not to lock ourselves into a high carbon future.

West Antarctic Ice Sheet highlighted in red - picture credit: EJ Steig/NASA

How can the government integrate climate change challenges with other environmental issues such as sustainability?
We need to see all as a seamless whole as the environment is indivisible. Dealing with greenhouse gas emissions is only one aspect of protecting the environment that we all enjoy. Environmental solutions can contribute to each other. A good policy framework, fiscal incentives and behavioural signals will mean that people don’t have to think about making the right choices so much. For example, make it part of the normal course of behaviour for people to buy energy efficient bulbs. So it comes down to packaging the whole system; that public policy promotes the common good.

Can you tell me about some climate change research coming out of Antarctica?

We’re keeping a close eye on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and the Greenland Ice Sheet. The prospect of their melting and disintegrating into the oceans is frightening because this would add many metres to the sea level. Many populated parts of the world would be underwater. This process would take time, but as the average global surface temperature rises, we creep towards the point of no return beyond which it’s impossible to reverse the melting of the ice caps. We urgently need to respond to the accelerating rate of climate change and adapt our behaviour domestically and internationally.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Captain Scott's living legacy - 100 moments

Under the Scott Memorial Statue, Waterloo Place. From left to right: Sarah, Julia, Fleur, Christina and Tom. I'm at the front.

Last Saturday, five of my friends and I based ourselves at the Scott Memorial Statue on Waterloo Place, London. We stopped passersby and had conversations about Captain Scott and his men and about the ISCE 2012.

People were wonderfully generous with their time, and shared their insights, memories and interpretations of the explorers’ bequests to us. We wanted to capture our conversations; to show that there is lively ongoing interest in Captain Scott’s story, so we photographed each person in front of the statue and filmed clips of their thoughts on the Discovery and Terra Nova missions. The photos are on my Facebook page, and I’m releasing the videos on my YouTube channel: one a day for the next hundred days, i.e. one for each year since their deaths.

The end-result is a document of Captain Scott’s living legacy. I’m delighted that we managed to speak with 100 people in English, French, German, Spanish and pidgin everything else. My friend Julia also sweet-talked a passing walking tour party to take us in, which was a fun, soap-box moment.

We asked people what leapt out at them about Captain Scott’s endeavours; what captured their imagination. The answers took in bravery, bloody-mindedness, stoicism, scientific and aesthetic concerns and other points of interest. The responses were various and uniformly un-bland. We met a lot of extremely well-informed people, including ex-adventurers, who passed on fascinating tips and facts. I was tickled to learn from a cabbie-in-training that the Scott Memorial Statue is a testable marker on ‘The Knowledge’.

Looking over the footage again, I find it touching how each person has a particular slant or inflection to their memory of Captain Scott’s story. There were comments on the recent riots, one man remembered that an account of Scott’s story was the first book he took out from a library, and others had very keen personal associations with different aspects of the adventure. It makes me reflect that none of us can ever know what impact we’re having on the people around us.


The bronze memorial statue was sculpted by Captain Scott’s widow, Kathleen.  She’d trained in Paris with Rodin. The material was paid for by public donations, after a memorial service was held at St Paul’s. It was erected in 1915, and a copy was commissioned by the residents of Christchurch, New Zealand that year. (Scott had based his New Zealand operations in Christchurch on both of his Antarctic expeditions.) Due to the short supply of metal following the First World War, the New Zealand replica is made of marble, instead.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Climate change - interview

Although Captain Scott and his crew ventured into unmapped territory with the Discovery and Terra Nova expeditions, theirs wasn’t an aimless wanderlust. The scientific programme was ambitious and phenomenally fruitful: the Discovery expedition alone gave reams of scientific data and analysis that were published in six volumes, running to hundreds of pages each. The findings spanned meteorology, magnetology, ecology, physiology and atmospheric chemistry. The data gives calibration points for longitudinal studies, for example into climate change. This week, I’ve spoken with Tony Grayling, Head of Climate Change and Sustainable Communities for the Environment Agency (EA). Here’s the first half of the interview:

What’s the ‘best case scenario’ for climate change?

That the average global temperature rise peaks at 2°C above the pre-industrial average. This would still not be great. There’s significant climate change that we can see with just a 1°C rise above the pre-industrial era average: too much water (storminess) in some places and too little in others (affecting agricultural production), but overall deleterious effects on human society due to water shortages and impacts on ecosystems and biodiversity. We’re seeing loss of whole species and the endangering of complete ecosystems. But this is nothing compared with letting climate change go unchecked to an increase of 4.5°C above pre-industrial averages – there we would see severe agricultural trouble, water stress and possible collapse of whole ecosystems. We can already see danger hitting the Amazon and warm water coral reefs, our two most biodiverse habitats.

Carrot or stick?

We need both. This is not a problem that is going to be addressed purely by voluntary action. We need regulation and incentives. Global problems require international cooperation and legally binding international agreements, e.g. for global emission checks. We need for carbon emissions to peak in the next decade and then to reduce by half by 2050 globally – a tall order. The distribution of effort needs to be fair, so wealthier countries with higher emissions per capita and more wherewithal to do something about it should reduce their emissions the most. Poorer countries have a right to emit. The Environment Agency are a regulator of government policy, but do not create policy. There’s a need to reward both right technologies and behaviours. Collective action is needed on a level playing field. Technological solutions are going to play a vital role because I cannot see how you’re going to persuade people who are used to a level of material prosperity to just give it up. So we need technologies that can enable people to enjoy benefits they’re used to without greenhouse emissions – core is converting energy generation from fossil fuel base and moving towards low carbon electricity generation, e.g. with carbon catch storage. There are alternative pathways. We can decarbonise electricity generation then convert surface transport to an electricity base and heating to an electricity base. There’s biomass for heat pumps. A whole range.

Melting iceberg on the Ross Sea. Picture credit: Mila Zinkova, Fogshadow

Do you consider knowledge transfer and the distribution of UK insight as tools to combat climate change? If so, how does the EA support this?

Well, this problem is fundamentally at the international scale. Wealthier nations historically are more responsible and have the capacity to do something about it. They do have a responsibility to transfer knowledge to less industrialised countries who will need to take a different path to development. We’ll all need to adapt to inertia in the global energy system, that is we have already stored up an amount of climate change that we’ll have to adapt to. The most vulnerable are usually the poorest and the least able to adapt. We also need large financial transfers, e.g. direct aid and creation of global carbon markets. Wealthy nations could pay for pollution rights and the money would go to poorer countries to adapt.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

HMS Discovery

HMS Discovery in Discovery Port, Dundee

Captain Scott cut his polar exploration teeth as the leader of the Discovery expedition (1901 – 4), which had a vast surveying and scientific programme. The HMS Discovery was built specially for this expedition and after decades of subsequent, various use as a cargo ship, a Royal Research Ship and a Scouts training ship, it has been conserved in Dundee as a museum piece (restored to its 1924 incarnation). I visited it yesterday.

The first thing that struck me was how small the ship is (52 metres long, 10 metres wide), and how much smaller it must have felt with a crew of 47, a dog and a cat on board. This compactness gave rise to idiosyncrasies in the design, e.g. coal had to pass through the ward room on the way to the bunker. Although it was the first survey ship of its kind to be built, it followed in a long line of wooden Arctic whalers to come out of Dundee. It wasn’t actually the first HMS Discovery, but the sixth, after Discoverys that had been led by celebrated explorers, including William Baffin, James Cook and George Vancouver.

An enfilade of 'ankle bashers' at deck level

Only two tenders were received once the naval architect William E. Smith had finished his draft, and the Dundee shipbuilders won outright, not least because they charged less. They used 10 kinds of timber, which were collectively thought to be stronger than iron and steel against the pressure of pack ice. The hull was made with three layers of planking totalling 65 cm in thickness, with extra shoring in the bow, and horizontal panting beams for reinforcement.

Every feature of the ship was designed with rolling, icy water in mind. Portholes would have compromised hull strength, so the ship was fitted with mushroom vents or ‘ankle bashers’, i.e. light wells, which were being polished at deck level when I visited: a crew of three keep it ship-shape today. The interior of the hull was fitted with small boxes filled with salt to preserve the wood from water damage. The stern overhangs the propeller and rudder much further than usual, to keep the helmsman dry in far southerly high seas and for shielding from ice damage. The propeller and rudder are retractable – a substantial innovation for the time.

The rigging

Although it’s a sailing ship, it was fitted with a triple expansion steam engine for when the wind failed, for ramming through pack ice and for emergency reversals. The steam was ingeniously circulated to keep the propeller grease from freezing. The engine cost a third as much as the rest of the ship combined and was coal-hungry.

It was interesting to try to imagine what ship life was like for Scott and his crew. On the one hand, Edwardian dining etiquette was observed to the letter, so officers ate off specially commissioned Royal Doulton porcelain ware. On the other, there were no fixed ‘cuddies’ (toilets) and no bathrooms, so crew washed themselves and their clothes in portable canvas or rubber baths wherever they could find space.

The chart room

Tellingly, no care or expense was spared on the heart of the ship, the laboratory and the magnetic observatory. Louis Bernacchi, the only member of the Discovery crew to have visited Antarctica before, engaged in studies of terrestrial magnetism from the centre of a magnetic exclusion zone thirty feet across – no iron or steel was used in the ship’s construction within this zone (brass was a common replacement), and even cutlery was cleared from this area when measurements were due to be made. A sobering reminder that even the best laid plans are susceptible to human error, Bernacchi humbly observed at the end of the Discovery mission that all along a parrot had observed his work from an iron cage in the laboratory!

Dr Wilson would complete his natural history paintings in this corner of the laboratory

I have to admit I visited the Discovery with low expectations, but was engrossed in the intricate and intimate displays. The museum vividly gives a sense of just how mysterious Antarctica was at the time, and how great the achievements of the early explorers were. One line which leapt out at me in the displays is that more was known about the moon in 1969 than was known about Antarctica in 1901 – the interior was a blank on the map. Have you been to the Discovery? Can you recommend anywhere else for me to visit?

Sunday, 31 July 2011

Capstan, halyard, sheet and pump

One of Captain Scott’s earliest Journal entries on his Terra Nova expedition is dated Christmas Day, 1910: “For five hours the company has been sitting round the table singing lustily.” He drily adds, “It is a rather surprising circumstance that such an unmusical party should be so keen on singing.” What were they singing? Sea shanties, or sea work songs.

As Scott notes, ‘The merchant sailors have quite a repertoire and invariably call on it when getting up anchor or hoisting sails.’ Scott’s crew was made up of Royal Navy and merchant navy men and scientists. The Royal Navy had prohibited the singing of sea shanties in the late 19th century because the authorities were concerned that overenthusiastic singing would drown out orders.

Shanties were at once a useful aid to work - sailors learned to regulate their movements in time with the songs - and a distraction from the backbreaking nature of the work. Broadly speaking, two classes of shanty developed: hauling and heaving shanties. Hauling shanties were better suited to choppy, intermittent types of labour and were mostly in 6/8 time. Heaving shanties were sung for continuous activities, and their 4/4 time signature betrayed their shore origins. There were different sub-classes of shanty (e.g. capstan, halyard, sheet and pump shanties), depending on the particular task each one was originated to accompany.

Image taken from Stan Hugill's Shanties From the Seven Seas.

Of course, shanties also had a social function; to bind the crew. Ship crew were often a superstitious bunch, who would respect the taboo against singing them ashore. Perhaps it was the rationality of the scientist expedition members that tempered Captain Scott’s crew’s disinclination to sing ashore, or maybe this sort of convention is easily forgotten in the middle of an icy expanse. The philosopher Ziyad Marar writes about the trend for what were social concerns in antiquity (how does a happy life serve my community?) to devolve into issues of individual psychology in modern times (what makes me happy?) – huge leaps were made in this direction in the past century. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Captain Scott’s crew were more mindful of the harmony of the group than most people would be today.

On the subject of harmony, shanties mostly lacked harmony, being driven, instead, by melody. Anecdotal evidence suggests that most sailors sang bass-baritone, rather than tenor, with a few treble shiphands. With regard to the origins of shanties, one theory supported by Stan Hugill, the last great British champion of the shanty, is that they are the ‘loose ends’ left over from airs played on the ship’s fiddle.

The earliest British shanties are first mentioned in the 15th century. It’s not surprising that seafarers’ songs appear to have mixed with working and folk songs from around the world, picking up calypso inflections here and skiffle cadences there. It was common for the words of one song to be put to the tune of others, which makes tracing the phylogeny of songs difficult. This difficulty has been compounded when salty lyrics have been bowdlerised in ‘fair copy’ by earnest musicologists.

Whatever lyrics were on Captain Scott’s men’s lips, it’s hard to play down their determination to make music: they even took a piano on to the ice with them on the Discovery expedition, though only Lt Royds was noted to be a competent player.

I’m organising a fund-raising concert for the ISCE2012 on September 29th at St Stephen’s Church, Gloucester Road SW7. The outstanding Monica McGhee will sing and coordinate the evening’s programme. The theme will be nautical, including a shanty or two – any suggestions?

About Me

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Ali is a 28 year old Londoner. He has trained at various things, including tennis playing, biochemistry and bespoke tailoring. He currently works in social housing for a local authority. In his free time, he marinades in Antarctic arcana, runs avidly (middle-distance) and bumbles through music practice. Ali volunteers for the International Scott Centenary Expedition 2012 charity, which aims to honour the legacy of Captain Robert Scott and his four men who died a hundred years ago. Ali is one of ten shortlisted candidates for the final place on the centenary expedition itself.