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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...

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.