A few days ago Google reminded us all that it was Ernest Shackleton’s birthday. I was also reminded to post this article. Only the other week I went to the Maritime Museum in Liverpool to see “Endurance: Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure”, on the recommendation of the intrepid explorer Danolo Vanz.
I was not disappointed. Regular readers will know that I recently returned to Blighty (and more specifically my hometown) for the first time in a wee while. And I am at a bit of a loose end. I decided to try and rediscover my city, in particular taking advantage of anything that is fun and free.
Though the Maritime Museum is most certainly free, I had no idea it would be such good fun. I think Old Rope last went to this cold corner of the Albert Dock many moons ago on a school trip and nothing could chill a child to the core more than the words “nautical”, “museum” and “school trip”. Yuck! Boo! Count me out!
The story of Shackleton and his doomed expedition to the Antarctic is widely available, since the man and his legacy have enjoyed something of a populist revival of late. Actually, that makes him sound like a dictator in some far flung country. But what I really mean is that he has gained recognition within the circles of people who give a shit about arctic adventures, of which Old Rope has never really considered himself to number. Until now!
Shackleton was from a long dead breed of slightly eccentric explorers, you know the kind who have a well-cut jib and are only interested in madcap adventures. Having sailed on Scott’s failed Discovery expedition, old Ernie set off for the South Pole on a couple of his own voyages, all of them failures one way or another.
But it was the Endurance expedition for which he is most famed. Shackleton set sail from Old Rope’s beloved Buenos Aires in 1914 with a crew of 28 men (including one stowaway), 69 Canadian sledging dogs and the carpenter’s cat, Mrs Chippy. His story is a disastrous, nay, calamitous tale of arctic adventure in which everything went horribly, almost brilliantly, wrong from the very start. Yet despite the relentless hardships and many plights the crew faced – including the loss of the ship, living on the drifting ice and finally being dumped on an arctic island for four months – all miraculously survived.
I will not do the journey justice by clumsily recounting it here, but would urge anyone with the means to visit the museum to experience it for themselves.
What made the exhibition so compelling, in Old Rope’s jaded eyes, was the way in which the story was told. Fabulous photographs and film footage, recorded by the on-board photographer James Hurley, are coupled with diary extracts to make a compelling and exciting narrative. You literally follow the story around the room, through the trials and tribulations, till it reaches its heart-warming conclusion. And you do so with eagerness and vigour, thanks to the amusing but detailed accounts scribbled in the diaries Shackleton encouraged his crew to keep. Serious props and hats off to the curator for making learning fun in what is usually a sterile and dull environment.
The photographs are breathtaking, especially for the era, with Hurley risking life and limb to take creative and imaginative shots of a landscape virtually unknown at the time. Shackleton must be admired not only for his offbeat bravery and heroism, but his foresight in bringing such a talented Australian chap along for the ride. Indeed, the trip was part funded by advance sales of the photographs that would result.
For Shackleton, the pleasure was in the adventure and the narrative, rather than scientific discovery. The four scientists on-board Endurance were recruited simply in a bid to get funding and patronage for the trip.
That said, the man was also a pragmatist and his romantic sentiments would not extend to the four-legged participants on-board. When the ship was crushed to pieces in the ice and the crew faced with months of gruelling arctic survival, Ernest ordered that the puppies born on-board and Mrs Chippy, the ever popular carpenter’s cat, be executed. Harry McNish, Mrs Chippy’s owner, never forgave his former captain, even bitching about it on his deathbed some fifteen years later. “Shackleton killed my cat,” he muttered before shuffling off his mortal coil.
I must admit, I felt for old Harry. I’d be pissed off too if Ernie had tried to put a bullet in Yoko Ono’s brain. But that’s the real strength of this exhibition, it’s ability to humanise what is essentially a tall tale to which few of us can relate. The insights of the crew, their football matches on the ice (they had fuck all else to do) and their friendships with the animals are almost enough to make you wish you had been there, making a preposterous and marvellously silly mark on history.
That said, the men feel like fully realised characters in a gripping yarn and for all their humanity you do have to routinely remind yourself that this was real, not a tall tale from one of the contemporary adventure pulp magazines.
These men had great bold names like Tom Nash, Harry McNish and Tom Crean, each with jaws chiselled from asphalt and a hardiness that makes me blush with unmanly shame. In their photo portraits they have excellent pipes and woolly jumpers that make me green with envy and they make frostbite and eating seals to stave off starvation sound like a picnic in the park.
Far be it for Old Rope to judge whether the world of today is worse than it was on the cusp of the greatest war humanity had ever seen, but I think we are sorely lacking in the type of eccentric adventurers that the nineteenth century seemed to spit out by the boatful.
Such men were aboard the good ship Endurance. Their jollity and unthinkable stoicism is charming and jarringly funny. After being abandoned for four months on Elephant Island, an Antarctic shithole, with what little chance of rescue dwindling by the day, Shackleton and the hard-as-nails Tom Crean hove into view on a Chilean tugboat. Frank Wild, second in command and left in charge of the shipwrecked crew on that god-forsaken rock, noted in his diary: “I must confess, I almost burst into tears and couldn’t speak during several minutes.”
Me too lad, me too. The whole thing only served fuel to my newfound desire to become some sort of full time adventurer and / or pirate. Why, I could finally tick the “seafarer” box in the dole office. I’ll need 30 sturdy men (or women!), stout of spirit and romantic of heart. We set sail Monday, I’ll see you at the docks.
‘Endurance, Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure’ is on at the Maritime Museum, Liverpool, till 27th February 2011.