Captain Scott

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 November, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 November, 2003, 12:00am

Captain Scott

by Sir Ranulph Fiennes

Hodder and Stoughton $260

After more than 50 biographies of Captain Robert Falcon Scott, is there really room for another? Well yes, perhaps just one - provided it is by Sir Ranulph Fiennes, described by the Guinness Book Of Records as the world's greatest living explorer.

The story of Scott's doomed 1912 expedition to the South Pole has enjoyed a special place in the lore of western culture for almost a century, as a yardstick for bravery, perseverance and dignity in the face of pain and death.

Who, having heard this tragedy, could forget the sheer pathos of that stiff-upper-lip resolve? Lawrence Oates, hopelessly crippled by frostbite, stumbling off to meet his end in that blizzard rather than inconvenience his companions; Scott, Henry Bowers and Edward Wilson eschewing the morphine option, electing to slowly freeze to death instead.

And yet the past few decades have been hard on old-style British heroes. Like T. E. Lawrence, Florence Nightingale and other figures, Scott has been the subject of harsh historical revisionism. Several more recent books about him have set out to debunk the man of legend, seeking a more banal truth beneath a myth.

But former SAS officer Fiennes is out to set the record straight with an assiduously researched book dedicated 'to the families of the defamed dead'. Like his subject, Fiennes is an exceptionally hard and determined man. He captured international headlines earlier this month at the age of 59 by completing an amazing seven marathons in as many days, only four months after a heart attack and double bypass surgery.

He is a veteran of expeditions to both poles, including an unaided trek to the North Pole, and is the only person to have been awarded two clasps to Britain's Polar Medal for his endeavours in the Antarctic and Arctic.

As he writes: 'No previous Scott biographer has manhandled a heavy sledge-load through the great crevasse fields of the Beardmore Glacier, explored ice-fields never seen by man or walked a thousand miles on poisoned feet. To write about hell, it helps if you have been there.'

His eloquent, functionally dispassionate descriptions of the rigours of polar exploration on foot leave no doubt that it must indeed be hell, demanding physical and mental resilience of the ultimate calibre.

Fiennes makes extensive use of the voluminous diaries and letters of members of Scott's expedition, offset with his personal experiences, to bring this nightmare world of suffering so vividly to life as to shock the reader. For example, the book's photographs of both men's expeditions include a shot of Fiennes' frost-bitten fingers after their accidental immersion in the North Polar Sea.

Ultimately, Fiennes concludes, the question of Scott's success or failure becomes pedantic - the scope of what he endured and achieved becomes clear. And who are we mere mortals to disagree with that?