Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Englishmen on Ice Part One - The Worst Journeys in the World

My favourite polar memoir is "The Worst Journey in the World" by Apsley Cherry Garrard, who was a naturalist with Scott in the Antarctic in 1911/2. He starts his book like this: "Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised."

John Murray had a bit of a line in this kind of thing throughout the nineteenth fact, he more or less invented the literary genre of masochistic derring do...cleanliness and suffering sold a lot of books and inspired generations to follow their countrymen into the waste places of the world. And I thought I might ponder this kind of thing for a week or two.

I've already said that the Quarterly Review, which John Murray II started, was kind of the heart of both the business and the social circle that he forged and defined as a both a locus of thought, and the making of his dynasty. Key to that from the start was Walter Scott, but also key was a man called John Barrow...who wrote no fewer than 195 articles and reviews for the Quarterly Review, unsigned of course, but the nature of the social circle being what it was, people knew when he was contibuting one of his pieces on travel and exploration, and it put an average of a thousand on the sales of that issue.

If Byron was the emotionally intensest correspondent of the epoch, then Barrow was one of the most frequent...and not just because of the stuff he wrote for the Quarterly Review.

Barrow, you see, was the Second Secretary of the Admiralty. Through him, Murray published the Navy Lists...a good steady earner...and through Barrow, Murray got to publish epics of good clean bad times that had been had as British explorers opened up Africa and sought the Northwest Passage...from the first narratives of Ross, Parry and Franklin in 1818-20 to 1859's 'Voyage of the Fox' that found the first written traces of the later, lost Franklin expedition of had been Barrow who'd sent them out there, and Murray who published the books.

It is a treasure house of courage and absurdity...and it's where I'm heading now. I'll send back dispatches on a piece of pemmican...


  1. Looking forward to the journey.

    The funniest book ever written about exploration, imho, is The Ascent of Rum Doodle by WE Bowman.

    If you haven't read it, you're in for a real treat.

    Mike Cullen

  2. Well now I am rather fond of Shackleton and his really bad time in Antarctica which they all survived. Unlike Scott. Try Jenny Diski Skating to Antarctica. The search for the perfect white world. Particularly challenging if you read it while on holiday in Lanzarote, a perfect black world!(All volcanic rock)

  3. Thank's for your comments Mike and Janet. Mike, I've read 'The Ascent of Rum Doodle' and it's a gem indeed. Pity not more folk know about it.

  4. I don't know about it for a start...