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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?

Saturday, 23 July 2011


Commanding 65 men on the Terra Nova expedition, Captain Scott had to run a tight ship, but he wasn’t an aloof leader – he had a strong camaraderie with his team. This isn’t to say that there was endless mirth and bonhomie. The enforced jollity of office away-days is a modern invention. But what comes across in his Journals is that each man was free to be themselves, warts and all. Integrity definitely contributes to good teamwork.

I’m only too well aware of what a difference it makes to have the support of a team, after an experience I had four years ago. Bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and straight out of tailoring college, I turned up for my first full-time paid job, on Jermyn Street.

I’d woken up early with a mixture of excitement and nervousness, got to work an hour early and circled the block a few times; eyes glued to my watch. First impressions, right? I was set straightforward tasks, and about half an hour into them, I felt a slight twinge in my left leg. Over the day, it steadily worsened, until I was feeling my pulse throbbing in my hip socket. My job was to cut bespoke tailoring patterns, so it’s the kind of thing that keeps you on your feet all day. By lunch-time, I’d commandeered a step-ladder to sit on, which gave rise to unorthodox fabric cutting technique, to say the least. I was starting to feel like a case-history-in-the-making for bizarre psychosomatic stress, which just wasn’t adding up because I was enjoying the task, searing leg pain notwithstanding.

Finally, I made my apologies and left work early. I stumbled up out of the basement cutting room, on to Piccadilly and waved down a black cab. “To A&E.” I was living in East London at the time, so I headed for the Royal London. I was racked by now and could barely make it to the hospital entrance, but the nurse on her cigarette break helpfully explained that her work insurance wouldn’t cover her assisting me outside the building, so I pressed on.

It turned out that I’d contracted an unusual infection, which was killing my leg muscle (plausible theory: caught when I lived on the equator, and simmering away). The necrotic tissue was cut out and I was discharged two weeks later. What I’m getting at in a roundabout way is that learning to walk again, first with a stick, and then without, was an effortful, drawn-out thing, but I learnt how much wind it put in my sails to have a team of friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances to support and encourage me. I dread to think how much longer my recovery time would’ve been without support. While I was shuffling along with my exercises, I took heart from the herculean efforts of Scott and his men. I reflected that if they could trudge through the pain barrier in Antarctic conditions, I could do the same in comparatively balmy London, with my creature comforts and home-cooked food.

Members of Scott's team (Picture taken by Herbert Ponting; Getty Images Gallery)

So what contributed to the smooth teamwork of Captain Scott and his crew? I mentioned integrity earlier, but other factors fed into it. One was Captain Scott’s humility. He was happy to appoint people to his team with greater experience than him. He wasn’t cowed by the scientists’ superior education, but engaged with their work thirstily. He engaged Cecil Meares to handle the sledge ponies and dogs, without being intimidated by his excellent reputation in that field. I think when a leader doesn’t stand on ceremony, it helps a team to relax in each other’s company.

Also, from all the accounts I’ve read, I’m struck by the warmth, friendship and mutual respect that characterised the Terra Nova mission. Disagreements were aired, rather than suppressed, and resolved with an even hand. Britain a century ago was hidebound by the class system, and this persisted through the expedition (there were separate dining tables at the winter camp for officers and scientists, for example), but gradually, far from home, constraints were loosened and there was free mixing amongst all members of the crew. For the time, this was progressive and a mark of how well the team gelled.

Friday, 15 July 2011


I started training in February. It’s been an uphill learning curve as the incline of my treadmill has crept up and as I’ve learnt what’s useful training and what’s just filler. The first thing I did was to find a training partner local to me, because – as much as I like to pretend I’ve a cast-iron will – it’s easier to train if I’m fuelled by a fear of looking lame.

Anyway, Will’s been a great motivator and all-round goldmine of training tips. A man-haul sledging trip mostly works the legs and back, so I’ve been working to strengthen these parts. Of course, for balance, the other areas aren’t left out, and the core is, well, central. I was fairly sporty growing up (I was lucky to be scouted for free tennis training five times a week) but weight training was still new to me. I find it satisfies my nerdy inclinations to get it right (to isolate the right muscles).

Feb. training weekend

I’m naturally skinny and opinion is divided among adventure types whether it’s best to stay lean (less weight to carry) or to fill up on the pies (more reserves to draw on). One thing that I’ve really enjoyed about the International Scott Centenary Expedition selection process is that, although it’s been made clear that we’re being assessed along the way, the other candidates and I don’t relate to each other in a competitive way: it seems fitting that it’s worked out this way, given Captain Scott’s team’s reliance on teamwork. So I asked the others what they’re up to, and it seems the way to do it is to build a high strength-to-weight ratio, i.e. to build strength that can be worked with rather than mindless bulk (That's why I'm not buff... phew).

To this end, I’ve been trying to balance cardiovascular drills with free and assisted weights. Free weights are honest labour, and there’s no bluff with the rep. names: dead weight lifts, indeed. It’s walking a tightrope to train for both endurance and strength, but it’s not an uncommon combination in sport (rowing comes to mind).

Do you have any ingenious training tips? Can you recommend a protein shake that doesn’t taste like one? All input welcomed with open arms.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Dartmoor training weekend

Last weekend, the short-listed International Scott Centenary Expedition 2012 (ISCE) competition candidates were set a hill-walking challenge, so I hopped on the first Friday train to Plymouth. We’d been given few details except to ‘expect the unexpected’, to pack a survival bag and ‘no cotton underwear’, so duly prepared, I turned up at the ISCE office.

Our own gear was supplemented with kit generously lent to us by the Royal Navy, which we each packed in 80 litre rucksacks. Ominously, no tents. We were told that we’d be on our feet for the next 36 hours, and with that to chew on were driven to Dartmoor. Of the ten of us, only six could make it to this training/selection event due to personal commitments. The ISCE expedition leader Antony Jinman was our trainer and assessor. Our aim for the weekend was to walk 65 km.

Dartmoor has a kaleidoscope of terrains. Antony was determined that we see them all, so at some point our boots were stuck in peaty bogs, stamping down grassy fields, splashing across cool streams and leets, or scrabbling up rocky tors (granite outcrops). The aim was to approximate polar sledging conditions, so the bumpier the terrain the closer the match, and with 18 kg strapped to our backs, we were working the same muscles as would a person man-hauling a sledge (i.e. the chest and legs).

Picture credit: Chris Gosling

We did 1 or 1½ hour legs at a plodding pace. In our 10 minute rest breaks, we’d hectically collect stream water to purify, graze on nuts, rehydrate, tape up blister ‘hot spots’, look out for signs of the ‘umbles (grumbles, fumbles, stumbles...) and plot our course for the next leg. We were encouraged to navigate by linear features rather than with compass bearings, and it was interesting to trust our navigational intuitions in this way, rather than be slaves to the North-point.

We travelled in a loose peloton, each person shooting forward or dropping back, as one pleased. This gave conversation a nice and casual scrappiness. In the end, we did stop to sleep both nights, stringing up ponchos for cover, and burrowing in feather-down bivvy bags. It struck me how malleable and ductile time felt over the weekend: some legs drew out like a last wobbly milk tooth, but others just whizzed by. A lot has been written about the self-reflective, ‘inner travel’ of the polar explorer, and the weekend gave a keen glimpse into that, because in quiet moments my mind would fly off and alight on various and unexpected things: had I double-locked my front door; should I tell my friend what I really think of his wife; how should I spend my life?

Our first night's camp site - like something out of a Midsummer Night's Dream (picture credit: Chris Gosling)

It reminded me of the twinned ancient Greek concepts of chronos and kairos. Both are words for time, but with vividly different flavours. Chronos is everyday, chronological time – the stuff of train timetables and setting the alarm clock. Meanwhile, kairos is ‘deep time’, where time itself seems to yawn open and moments of clarity fizz up. When we were boiling our rations, we were definitely thinking along chronos lines, but maybe the stretches of hiking quietude were better marked with a creative kairos. It’s either that, or my electrolyte levels were dipping!

Picture credit: Chris Gosling

I learnt how a metronomic rigidity with practiced drills (e.g. starting walking after ten minutes’ rest no matter what) helps progress and that even minor encouragement can perk a person up. I also felt the satisfaction of the Brave Little Tailor ( time I put on sunblock, since I’d see midge jam in my palms. All in all, it was a fascinating and fun weekend, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

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.