Apr 12

inuit science and the commodification of victory: scott versus amundsen a century on

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(WARNING: Very VERY wordy piece still in a rough-ish state: really REALLY don’t read unless you’re an obsessive too! And to explain a little: all this is an ancient passion for me, the tale of how Captain Scott was beaten to the South Pole by Roald Amundsen in early 1912, and failed to make it home. As far back as I can recall the elements in the story called out to me, even as a small Lord Sukrat laying on my grandparents’ snug yellow fitted carpet in mild-weathered Shrewsbury, leafing through the gorgeous photographs in their battered old blue copy of Herbert Ponting’s The Great White South, spooking myself with Ponting’s extracts from Scott’s final journals, or his image of Dr Atkinson’s hideous frostbitten fingers, and dreaming of fabulous bergs and snowponies and famous men who would never return. In 1979, a change in the way the tale was told, catnip to a bolshy teenage Sukrat. Polar historian Roland Huntford published Scott and Amundsen, which upended all pieties: to such a scandalous degree that in the mid-80s it was renamed The Last Place on Earth to coincide with a television dramatisation (feat.Martin “Dub Dob Dee” Shaw as Scott and Sylvester “Who7” McCoy as Bowers, and scripted by ultra-lefty playwright Trevor Griffiths, whose Comedians I admire enormously). I’ve read and reread LPoE dozens of times over the years, growing oddly fond of Huntford’s abrasive and occasionally lumpily repetitive style, repelled by (but also drawn to) the sheer violence of his name-making dislike for Scott, and fascinated (if not always convinced) by his unsentimental examination of conflicted in-group dynamics, what went sour in each party, and the immediate and long-term tragedies arising. So when — a little over a year ago — this controversial historian returned to his break-out subject, with Race for the South Pole: The Expedition Diaries of Scott and Amundsen (RSP), aggressively recapping almost all his earlier debunking assertions — well, I was always going to be writing something. I just didn’t quite expect it to have to be so much. Skip to the end for an acronym-glossary, and to the footnotes for how this all fits in with my other interests, if it does [1: note — footnotes not yet written]; for the vast and still somewhat unvarnishedly bleurgh sketches-to-self of what I have to say and how I think, sketches I vaguely hope of a much better piece than this yet is, read GINGERLY on... )

“[There are] three tribes of Mu-Ma Turks [who] have the custom of riding wooden horses to gallop over the [snow and] ice. Resting their feet on boards and supporting their armpits with crooked sticks, with one stride they travel a hundred paces.” Xin Tang Shu (New Tang History), c.AD600-900. [2]

“Polar exploration has two naturally defined necessities: skis and dogs… to achieve the best results, we must learn from the two primitive peoples who, through centuries of experience, have understood how to exploit these necessities: Lapps and Eskimos… I am inclined to believe that an adaptation of the Lapp kind of ski is the most useful type of polar ski, and the Eskimo dog an ideal companion on a polar expedition.”
Otto Sverdrup, Nyt Land, 1903, p.19 [3]

TO SET THE SCENE: It’s a hundred years and ten weeks now since Petty Officer Edgar Evans, 35, collapsed and died close to the lower end of the Beardmore Glacier, on the return march from the South Pole. Which was appalling blow to his four companions, but also a relief: his condition had deteriorated alarmingly, mentally and physically, in the month since the team found themselves forestalled at the South Pole. They well knew they could not drag a sick man 700-odd miles back to safety on the sledge; margins of safety were always slim, with food, fuel, warmer weather and time all set to run out soon. They sensed they were badly behind schedule, and beginning to fail: for Scott, writing in his journal the following day, Evans’s death was at once a terrible boon to his companions, and a stay of judgment. [4]

Nevertheless, when this same judgment fell on the survivors, some time in the final week of March, 1912, Evans’s “astonishing failure” — the “man whom we had least expected to fail” — was become one of the six or seven key reasons Scott gave for the disaster, in his famous Message to the Public: as was the “sickening of a second companion, Captain Oates”. Can we really excuse Scott responsibility for the condition of his own men, or accept it was an exogenous event impacting entirely unexpectedly on his decisions? But he had a way with words in a desperate situation, and was somehow this way able to disperse blame far out beyond himself, onto everyone and thus somehow no one.[5]

Four of the five in the polar party left journals, or fragments of same: though only Scott updated though to the very end.[6] But Evans wrote nothing that we know of, and we see him only though the eyes of others, not always kindly. We also see him in the photographs the British polar party took at the Pole, half a dozen carefully posed images we can’t not view through the lens of what we know is coming, that they still only fear: so poigant with hindsight, five men defeated and dejected, hungry, cold, exhausted, humiliated, anxious, doubtless angry too. And doomed.

Perhaps we tell ourselves we can see Evans (standing, right) has only a month left to him, in face and body language, both masked and unreadable; or indeed that Oates (standing, left, visibly favouring one leg[7]) has just two. Perhaps we tell ourselves that we can well see exactly what both most meant to mask, from those far away, who would only see photos, as much as from one another.

But our visceral connection to the known aftermath certainly massively shapes our sense of what’s shown and what’s not; especially when blanks so litter the telling of this tale. “Things going down-hill,” wrote Scott on 10 March, just days before the crippled Oates walked out of the tent in miserable agony. The Polar Party, wrote Apsley Cherry Garrard in his 1922 memoir The Worst Journey in the World were “going down-hill” (this not long after the Second Support Party left them and turned for home): ACG means it geographically — the polar plateau does indeed slope down from the Transantarctic Mountains to the Poles — but the echo is insecapably there for us, reading afterwards. Close-reading his companions’ journals for missed clues, ACG quilted a measured, complex, beautifully written record of the expedition, a portrait of fallen comrades that’s part apologia and nevertheless full, in its quiet-spoken way, of the grief and guilt and occluded rage of the survivor, accepting the collective blame of Scott’s Message — and yet not quite accepting it either. Before the PP even reached the pole, sometime between 4-10 January, “something happened” as ACG puts it: and the implication is that this something must be present in the journals he’s reading and quoting, a something barely grasped by their writers, a something resisted or denied. [8]

The journal-keepers were no longer alive to speak for themselves, and ACG himself made no accusations; laid no blame. What he does, piece by delicate piece, is set out the relevant material, to allow latterday readers to think through what went wrong and why. Clues there are, but rarely emphasised as such. And though anger flashes now and then, it’s easy to miss: “On the one hand [he writes in his summary chapter, ‘Never Again’], Amundsen going straight there, getting there first, and returning without the loss of a single man, and without having put any greater strain on himself and his men than was all in the day’s work of polar exploration…. On the other hand, our expedition, running appalling risks, achieving immortal renown, commemorated in august cathedral sermons and by public statues, yet reaching the Pole only to find our terrible journey superfluous, and leaving our best men dead on the ice.” [9]

At which point the anger somehow slides sideways — as ACG ruefully but unrelatedly admits how angry the Brits were at the time at Amundsen’s impertinent intrusion. Anger is something he’s ashamed of, or so he seems to feel and to be saying: Amundsen (of all people) of course bore no responsibility for Scott’s men’s death, and if it’s wrong to be angry with Amundsen, it’s wrong to be angry at all.

But it’s at this moment of comparison and contrast that full impassioned clarity emerges, just for a sentence or so, from ACG’s writing. And it would be a further 50-plus years before the implicit challenge was taken up: to tell the history of the two expeditions as a matter of contrast and comparison. Hence, in 1979, RH — to startled acclaim and undimmed controversy — turning orthodoxy on its complacent head, and retelling a tale of endurance, hardihood, sacrifice and what Scott called “unaccountable” bad luck as a miasma of inadequate knowledge, inadequate preparation and inadequate competence; an acid portrait of a moody leader unpopular with many of his team, improvising capriciously, out of his depth in a terrain that remained a whirling mystery to him to his last hour. RH, who speaks good Norwegian, has also scoured the surviving journals, for clues spoken and unspoken, noted and missed, to reveal two expeditions: one professionally tight with itself despite personal differences, intelligent and focused; and one in perpetual disarray, demoralised if not frightened, shadowed from the start by profound doubt and considerable mutual dislike.

Three important elements Huntford brings to LPoE and (30-odd years on) RSP: an aggressive forensic willingness to dig down beneath publicly declared team loyalty, to worry out elements diplomatically elided and fill in blanks; a sour shrewdness about what he repeatedly terms the “cross-currents” of conflicted human behaviour in groups; and (for a British writer) a likeably unusual Norwegophile admiration for Scott’s triumphant rival Roald Amundsen, who RH considers outrageously unpersoned in the routine British version before his intervention. RSP in particular is an unexpurgated edition of the journals of the rival leaders, organised so that day by day and date by date, the accounts of the journeys proper interlace and thus pass mutual comment. And importantly (though the book’s title obscures this) RSP weaves in a third account, in the form of a second Norwegian diary, that of cross-country ski champion Olav Bjaaland. Amundsen’s journal is plainer and far less discursive than Scott’s; Bjaaland’s, translated into English for the first time, provides an amused and often unimpressed sportsman’s counterpoint to his leader, just as Amundsen’s curts professionalism cuts across Scott’s writerly misdirections. These three take up the greater part of RSP, interrupted by occasional elucidatory harrumphs from editor RH, almost always at Scott’s expense: this all forms the central section, which is bracketed by focused contextualisation fore and aft, RH scornful restating his 1979 position, doubling down on very nearly all claims and anathemas; unapologetic and unimpressed by the various counter-arguments offered in the years since 1979. Amundsen he plainly still hugely admires, though by no means uncritically; and he still harbours a very lively anger at Scott, in person and as representative of a type and a mindset and of the cocooned society that so eagerly elected to canonise this dead explorer.

Anyway, the publication of RSP was what gave me the initial impulse to write all this, and — clear disclaimer here, as the RH line is sometimes contentious — my retelling is very much shaped by his, except where I explicitly say different. RH invariably fills blanks in to suit his anti-Scott agenda, when (by definition: blanks) the solid evidence isn’t there — but his instinct for where blanks actually are is a different, rather more interesting matter.

And as regards taking ACG’s challenge, and setting out the stories side-by-side, stage-by-stage and interwoven, purely as a formal structure, it really does do a surprising amount of Huntford’s work for him. Certainly it establishes key elements: that Amundsen was something of a genius, in the painstaking and imaginative depth of his preparation, and that Scott by contrast was always floundering, not only lacking in technical knowhow, but lacking too in the foresight or insight to recognise this; also that the story we imagined we knew depends all too crucially on omission if not suppression.

Less successful is the attempt by RH to establish that his burning contempt for Scott is morally justified, rather than mere accident of chemistry or tribal prejudice. The favoured RH structure gives him a handy rhetorical platform for the attempt, but the need for it is more symptom than reason — which is where my own obsession begins to play, I suspect.

TO ESTABLISH THE LARGER CONTRAST: the two leaders, who never met, headed very different types of projects. Agency, a wise man said, is far less important in any success than either luck or structure. Scott’s project was sprawling and confusedly ambitious, with portentous and often hubristic official and academic backing; Amundsen’s was focused and secretive, an embarrassment to his countrymen and supporters: he didn’t even tell his shipmates they were going South rather than North until they were halfway there.[10]

We have the luxury of hindsight; we know which team lost, and how catastrophically. To us, it’s quite plain whose the better mode of transport was: Amundsen’s (with Bjaaland at its head) a cross-country ski race with dogs, the Norwegian technique pioneered by the great explorer Nansen [11]; Scott’s an intricate plan combining experimental motorsleds, ponies (Shackleton’s unpromising innovation), dogs [12] and an immensely long slog of punishing man-power all across the polar plateau and back, down the Beardmore, and all the way home across the Barrier.[13] Since ponies can’t stand low temperatures that dogs can, Scott’s party started some time later than Amundsen’s, and the numbers alone show it falling further and further behind — and all too soon battling exhaustedly not to win a race but just to survive.

Hindsight Scott did not have, of course. He distrusted dogs — which he’d never seen run by those who knew how — and shipped in far too few to use as his primary sledge-power. We know — because ACG tells us — that Scott went into panic-mode for several days when he first learned of Amundsen’s presence (basecamp one degree further south, a party of expert skiers including Nansen’s former second-in-command, and fully 100 dogs). We know — because RH has astutely winkled this out — that no part of Scott’s plan shifted more confusingly and confusedly than the part relating to the dogs. The dogs themselves were taken farther than existing supplies really allowed — they didn’t reach the polar plateau but had a tough run back, their driver having to raid rations intended for others — and their orders for the following year changed so often (limping back from the South with their weary human messengers) that in the end literally no one knew what these orders actually were any more. By the time it mattered, the dying marchers were praying for their arrival with supplies and transport, the dogs were being rested back for projects the following year. No adequate supplementary dog rations had been laid in; the best dog driver had quit and gone home; and no one at base grasped that their beleaguered friends so desperately needed someone to come and rescue them. [15]

To win the pole — if the motors that Amundsen so feared didn’t deliver (and they didn’t) — the best British could hope for was that an accident in a crevasse or the like stopped the Norwegians; that Amundwen would discover no way up onto the plateau; or that his dogs couldn’t climb glaciers (it didn’t; he did; they could.)

Meanwhile: tents, clothes, goggles, ski-shoes, sledges and runners, containers, depots, cairns, way-markers — after a while the contrasts turn into a list[16], neatly effective solutions in one column, belated slap-dash improvisations in the other. Things small in themselves aggregated over days and months to give the Norwegians an enormous safety margin.

Secretive as he was, once Amundsen had let his team in on the secret of their own mission, he was also careful to place all his plans before them fully, tactics, strategy and route, for frank discussion and criticism. He needed them to trust in his leadership: he did this by trusting his team-mates to take their own safety and well being seriously.

Scott’s plan — unformed as it was until the depots were laid and half the ponies lost — remained opaque to his companions until it far too late. As intimations of disaster began to emerge, no one had a clue what steps to take. All knew, of course, that Norwegians were experts with ski and dogs, Nansen having pioneered the speedy effectiveness of this combo; faced with this, at least some of the British retreated to the stance that a technology aimed at speed and safety was to all intents and purposes cheating. [14: note to self and reader, footnotes now out of order — sort later]

Scott, however — in a journal passage posthumously excised by his publishers — calls it a “miserable jumble”: as if to say mistakes were made, the passive-voice exculpation that all too often emerges after disasters. As even the inexperienced ACG recognised, Scott’s project was from the outset a sequence of hair-raising risks. As he cut corners with oil and food, he was spendthrift with his luck. Time and again, before the Polar journey even began, his men had had incredible (and undeservedly fortunate) escapes from serious harm or worse.[17]

Leaving no detail to chance, Amundsen was the opposite. He seemed to be stockpiling his fortune; narrowing the bounds of uncertainty to leave room for just two informed gambles: the location of his basecamp on the dangerously friable ice of the Barrier, and his certainty he would find a glacier to climb up through the Trans-Antarctic Mountains to the Polar Plateau. (All of which care offered Amundsen a certain grace when responding to his one lunatic improvisation, a near-disastrous error of judgment that turned out better than it ought, at least in the near-term.) [18]

In fact we’re using the word ‘luck’ in two distinct senses: Amundsen’s gambles, taken within a structured understanding of his environment; and the unexpected events that constantly assailed Scott, arising from his lack of a structured grasp of understanding of his situation. Which is a good point to start to switch the focus away from (so-called) agency, which merely compares of individuals (far-sighted intelligence versus fecklessness), and look closer at rival systems of thinking, attitude, knowledge. My belief is that the social border territory between competing systems is where anger like Huntford’s always lurks.

Let’s establish one key rivalry clearly and provocatively: here are two distinct species of science. Scott’s camp contained a physicist, three geologists, a meteorologist, two zoologists, and a parasitologist; three of these were also qualified doctors. The expedition was widely, well and deservedly praised for its published scientific studies and results: the scientists selected to accompany Scott were high-quality field researchers. This was Big Science; Imperial Science if you like: science that leads to and from Royal Societies, official, prestigious, charismatic, within its sternly policed disciplinary matrices both effective and fruitful. There was an official photographer also, and two motor engineers — all three pioneers of the technics of machinery in severe cold — plus the folks brought along to look after the horses and dogs. And lastly — at the worried Nansen’s urgent behest — a skiing instructor: Tryggve Gran. In this world of snow and ice, and anticipating a punishingly difficult 1,700 mile journey across it, the only practically knowledgeable person regarding ski was the camp’s youngster, just 22, a rich Norwegian playboy paying his way and (as some felt) not really pulling his weight. Certainly no Britons were adequately trained at his hand: as the Norwegians technicians sped ahead across the various surfaces, fast and slow, the British more than once despaired of their skis and depoted them, only to regret it when improved surfaces changed their minds, and go back and fetch them.

Amundsen’s expedition made no claim to be science-led. He planned to get to the Pole first, fast and safely, taking only such magnetic readings as aided his quest and proved his claims. The closest to a qualified doctor was Amundsen himself, who’d dropped out of medical school in his first year. Nonetheless, this too is science: the focused science of swift and safe polar travel in the age before the motor was adapted to the climate; the gathered science — from folk wisdom and practical fact in half a dozen northern cultures, from the Finns to the Inuit — of the many states of snow itself, when these could be expected, how they behaved and how you coped. [19]

This is a deliberately contrary definition of “science”, of course: and the flash of irritation the contrariness maybe sparks marks exactly the borderwar I’m most interested in. On one side: the narrow and local and specialist knowledge and technique, perhaps transmitted by word of mouth and folk nostrums and experience in the field (snowfield; icefield). On the other: academic papers and peer review, official qualifications and credentials and graded centralised exams, with codified beginner courses that can be absorbed in a class-room. Little of what Scott needed to know to survive was yet woven tidily into any established or institutionalised Big Science discipline. Nor was a sense of this lack part of the ordinary knowledge of the imperial metropole he came from. Gran aside, the closest the British had to an expert in the science of polar travel was Scott himself, whose furthest south with Discovery in 1901–04 had been a riskily chaotic scurvy-ridden scramble. The notion that cultures adapted to the cold might have knowledge worth examining doesn’t appear to have occurred to Scott: thus the purblind complacency of Imperial Science in a nutshell — the natives within or beyond imperial boundaries were to be studied and exploited as resources, never consulted or respected as equals.[20]

Amundsen didn’t think like this at all. He had made thorough and intelligent study of every single relevant aspect of life, travel and survival in the snows. He’d read everything available, and thought hard about it: clothing and food, means of transport, modes of equipment, facts, rumours and myths about the region and its equivalents in the north. He’d pored over accounts of European and American expeditions, successful or otherwise, and (crucially) made intelligent study of the expertise of the peoples who lived in or hard by the polar regions, the Lapps and the tribes in Siberia, whose minds and skills he trusted; he’d already been on two invaluable expeditions — as first mate on the chaotic Antarctic expedition in the Belgica in 1897-99, and as captain of the Gjøa when it traversed the Northwest Passage in 1903-06. On the former he saw scurvy and madness; on the latter he spent two invaluable years living with the Netsilik Inuit studying dog-sledging and polar clothing, gleaning his wisdom from the people whose everyday lives depended on getting such matters right, every time they left shelter.

Amundsen wasn’t right about everything: Big Science already knew a scatter of relevant things he didn’t. But centralised institutions of knowledge inevitably carry with them complex hierarchies of authority and irrelevant slabs of self-interested preconception — and like all theory, Big Science is slow-moving and conservative. In the crucial adaptive space — how to keep himself and his men alive in the urgent moment — Amundsen’s very precise “uncredentialed” expertise, combined with the shape of the group he fashioned round this type of thinking and acting, was as superior as was his transport.

EVIDENCE OF THINGS NOT SAID: In November 1912 the search party found Scott’s tent buried in drift just 11 miles south of One Ton Camp. The first terrible astonishment: how could they perish so close to safety? The second: just three bodies lay within, not five. Scott lay in the centre, Bowers (“Birdie”) to his right, Wilson (“Bill”) to his left, head to the door. “Bill especially had died very quietly with his hands folded over his chest,” wrote ACG in his own journal, the same day the bodies were discovered: “Birdie also quietly.” Bowers and Wilson lay as if asleep in their bags, while Scott had thrown open the flaps of his and opened his coat, his hand outstretched across Wilson — but beyond this he would not “try and put down what there was in that tent.” Scott had died last, of this he insisted he was certain; left in the air is the suggestion that Scott had not died quietly. (Gran, in the same rescue party, was more forthcoming in his journal and memoirs: noting the glassy yellowness of their frostbitten faces, he says that Scott “seemed to have fought hard at the moment of death…”)[21]

Time was pressing; the search party itself was in no position to dally. No post mortem, just the swiftest examination of scene and bodies by expedition surgeon Atkinson (never officially written up), then tent let down over the three, and all evidence but diaries and letters buried with them.

“I feel sure that he had died the last”: in 1922, this is ACG’s fond grieving recognition of a colleague’s stamina. A half-century later, and this generous gracenote of subjectivity had apparently become a partyline. RH was researching at the Scott Polar Research Institute in the mid-70s, as he told a Guardian interviewer a few years ago: “They were reframing Wilson’s last letter and we found some instructions in pencil from Bowers on the back… The implication of this was clear: it was Bowers, not Scott, who was the last to die. The academic’s response to this was to say ‘This is the sort of thing that should be locked away in a bank vault and not revealed for 50 years.’ Facts should not be allowed to injure a national hero. After that, I learnt to be discreet about what I was doing.” [22]

There’s no way we’ll ever now know the answer to this quite minor question — in LPoE, RH actually places this same pencil note on the reverse of one of Scott’s last letters, not Wilson’s and makes no open mention of the unnamed academic and his fatwa — but it is a curious loose end right in the middle of the official legend. It’s no great surprise that an unexamined incident-scene throws up contradictory explanations — but why are the loose ends being kept tidied away? As I say, however he glosses them, RH has a nose for the blanks that beg explanation.

Scott’s family read the drafts of LPoE and exploded with shocked hurt and fury, and unsuccessfully went to court to stop publication. Doubtless they came to see this as a mistake: they made a foe of a diligent and intelligent scholar with an unparalleled grasp of the relevant material, who they will certainly have concluded was also a grudge-harbouring monomaniac. It’s pretty hard not to admire how waspishly well RH works the gaps and gulfs between Scott’s unpublished journals and their final public form. In both LPoE and RSP, all posthumous edits are restored; not to say, laboriously emphasised.[23]

What was considered decently printable in the Edwardian era, a reticent and an anxious decade, is very different from what we routinely today expect to be allowed to read, of course. Expedition survivors were physically shattered and emotionally traumatised — and the world they all knew was about to explode into a war beyond anyone’s imagination. The pain and grief of surviving family or friends were very much not things to be trifled with, and the pruning of Scott’s disappointed impatience with this or that expedition member was as much a diplomatic kindness as a distorting untruth — at least in the immediate aftermath.

But not everyone needed their feelings protecting. Scott’s crewman from the Discovery days, Shackleton, now a bitter rival, was alive and healthy and only too well aware that Scott had not loved him. In several passages referring to Shackleton’s 1907 polar bid, RH uncovers a crankishly dismissive scorn on Scott’s part — were these excised because they leave the latter looking petty, or worse?

Intriguing as such excisions are — and thrilling to any historian — all are minor: their reinstatement re-calibrates our sense of a complex man not universally loved, in an age era when plaster saints impress no one. But one omission is very different. And here was certainly a closing of ranks, a cover-up on a dead man’s behalf, as well as the wreck of the expedition’s claim to honour — if, that is, it was genuinely a project dedicated above all to science.

THE DOG THAT DIDN’T BARK IN THE BLIZZARD: the missing word is “scurvy”, and (to be fair) and ACG uses it several times in The Worst Journey in the World. He just doesn’t use it when it most needs using. He describes Dr Atkinson’s winter lecture on it. He quotes Lashly’s journal entries, when Lt Edward Evans nearly died of it on the SSP.[24] He notes (twice) that — when they knew the Polar party would not return — Lashly was certain scurvy was to blame; and that Atkinson disagreed (though not why he disagreed). Both had helped save Lt Evans’s life [25] — and Atkinson, the senior officer in charge after Scott’s failure to return and Lt Evans’s collapse, would insist in November that the search party took with them raw onions — he would not have done this if scurvy wasn’t a concern.

But then WJitW arrives among the bodies, and the urgent question vanishes. Nor is it to be found in ACG’s analysis of the reasons of the disaster. What’s going on here?

Scurvy is a deficiency disease, caused by lack of vitamin C, which the human body cannot synthesise. If vitamin C is absent from the diet for much more than three months, the following progession of symptoms appear: lethargy, spots, paleness, depression, spongy gums, bleeding from mucous membranes, partial paralysis, suppurating wounds, loss of teeth, jaundice, fever, neuropathy and finally death.

However, vitamins were unknown to official science when the Scott and Amundsen expeditions embarked: the experiments that isolated and identified them were little known and still underway in 1910. And by a quirk of fashion, orthodox scientific thinking in the Edwardian era was hostile to the notion of deficiency disease. Atkinson’s winter lecture had declared scurvy a product of tainted food, a toxicity avoidable via careful food preparation, and this was the mainstream view. Nansen himself, scientist and explorer, was venomously opposed to the very notion of deficiency disease.

The symptoms of scurvy were well enough known to sailors like Lashly — as were the classic preventatives, fresh fruit (especially lemons or limes), fresh vegetables, fresh meat. Nomadic Arctic peoples knew better too: seal meat and cloudberries not only kept scurvy at bay on long journeys, and quickly cured it when it appeared. Amundsen had seen just this on the Belgica; and had certainly discussed it with the Netsilik Inuit too. Neither expedition ate a balanced scientific diet in the modern sense: but Amundsen’s was informed by Inuit knowledge and his own experience. (And making his luck and reducing his risk as always, he anyway planned to be out in the field for no more than 10 weeks; Scott’s journey could never have been completed in much less than twice this.)

At the time of their respective expeditions, neither Amundsen nor Scott could know the first thing about Vitamin C — it wasn’t even isolated yet, let alone named. But ACG was writing in 1922; vitamin C’s role in scurvy was accepted, and the concept of deficiency disease back in good standing. Big nutritional science had swung right back in behind despised folk wisdom. And we know ACG knows this: because he discusses it, in a late footnote. We also know Atkinson had been thinking about it: first, the raw onions for the search party, and second, ACG mentions that he had had the size and contents of the rations quietly re-examined in the years since the disaster.

More to the point, both had seen the bodies in the tent, which were in (wrote ACG) a “terrible state”; he is not a man given to lazy hyperbole; the word “terrible” has a considered force here.

Scott has justification here: official science was very wrong about scurvy, and he was in no strong position to revolt against officialdom. But Scott’s chroniclers don’t have this excuse. This was a scientific expedition; if the condition was present in the bodies as found, science required it be recorded; and if it was not present — somewhat miraculously, given the circumstances — science requires this be noted too. Atkinson, ACG and were honour-bound to discuss its presence OR absence; and if unable to explain what they found, then honour-bound to say what needed explanation and outlay questions arising.

I said that the word doesn’t appear when ACG analyses the disaster. This is true, but it’s not quite the whole truth, perhaps. Another blank to fill in: in his closing pages, ACG explores three contributory reasons. Unlike Scott, he doesn’t blame anyone’s physical condition, citing instead a lack of oil, unexpectedly bad weather, and (at length) the rations.

Oil and weather we’ll leave to the footnotes [26]: the food is the matter of the tale. We know how things turned out; we know that folk-scientific Amundsen guessed right, and Scott badly. Summing up, ACG first moves doggedly through quantity and make-up of rations, on the barrier and on the summit: he knows, because he was eating it, and man-hauling on it, that just in terms of protein, carbohydrate and fat, it was wrongly adjusted. Everyone lost weight, strength and underlying fitness; everyone felt cold and hungry; lessons that should have been learned from the Winter Journey were in fact not learned [27]. He notes that Atkinson had independently been puzzling at the same issue.

And then ACG does quite a curious thing: rather than summing up, he throws the discussion wide open, with a last-minute typographical intervention of his own devising, as it were. He inserts a long footnote about vitamins (in my crumbly dawn-of-time Penguin edition still spelled “vitamines”), and this footnote — by virtue of page layout alone — draws our attention. No way to prove this is a strong unspoken hint, of course, about where historians-to-come ought to look. He still doesn’t mention scurvy — but I can’t see how a 1922 reader versed in the relevant science can’t be thinking scurvy. [28]

DISLIKE IS MUNDANE; HATRED IS INTERESTING: your own everyday reaction against the tiresome flaws of others is easily justified, and rarely all that important. Unexamined loathing, however apparently justified the catalyst, is your own weaknesses mastering you: it’s a giveaway, a tell. It’s natural enough for biographers to find themselves trapped in intimate and unveiled association with someone whose choices and mannerisms, beliefs and failings, they find over time they can’t really stand. And there’s no reciprocity with the dead: they will never adapt to the scholar’s sensibilities, can’t turn on the charm and soothe jangled nerves.

Probably the RH aversion to Scott is undisguised enough that it works a kind of self-innoculation: nothing is being snuck in, that’s for sure, and readers can easily push back against it, readdressing the evidence more sympathetically.

But Huntford is intensely sensitised to bad group chemistry, so perhaps there’s an aspect of his own allergy which bothers him a little. Does he feel he needs to justify his animus? Does it seem a bit much even to him? Certainly in both LPoE and RSP he nudges now and then towards speculations so extreme that even his most convinced readers likely recoil a bit. Somewhat different speculations in each book, and small moments both times — but telling; some might say damaging.

In LPoE, three men arrive arrive at their last camp: “Scott’s right foot had been frostbitten, and he was almost unable to walk. Now he was the drag on the party, and in the predicament of Oates. Wilson and Bowers, in marginally better shape, prepared to set off for the depot and fetch food and fuel. Something stopped them; it is not clear what.” [29]

This highlights a genuine mystery, a blank that needs filling: the two-man depot-march is indeed announced in Scott’s journal, but we never discover why it didn’t happen. RH chooses to imply that Scott had some strange hold over in his men, shutting off their natural survival instinct. He’s also implicitly sharpening a contrast: Oates had stumbled off into a blizzard, to free up rations and remove his companions’ responsibility to stick with him to the end. Only a few days later, Scott’s companions are persuaded to remain at his side, and all three starve.

But why would they not stay? Even starving and exhausted, they had deep affection for Scott; deepened, in fact, by shared adversity, even if they also held him entirely responsible for this adversity. RH himself seems to consider Scott so intensely dislikeable that any loyalty can only be a deluded hivemind etiquette at most, evolving into a species of group-protective corruption. But we all of us have affection for difficult and ambiguous people, which stressed situations often heightens… [30]

In RSP, 30 years later, this line of speculation — prominent in LPoE by virtue of its placing at the climactic moment — has vanished. What replaces it requires a link be intuited between two comments many pages apart. On page 30, when Scott first discovers Amundsen is in the Antarctic, and likely to beat him, the RH gloss on the inadequate British preparation that followed is this: “Scott continued with his declared pretence that Amundsen did not exist. Anyway, he knew that if he did not succeed, he might still be forgiven a ‘glorious failure’.” [31]

Some 280 pages later, with Amundsen feted globally and Scott’s whereabouts unknown, RH writes as follows: “Until then, Amundsen was regarded as the natural victor, while Scott was in the process of being dismissed as the loser. Scott’s ruin now reversed the roles, which poses the question of whether it had been premeditated.” [32]

The idea on p.30 is standard-issue sourness at the Brit love of a goofy loser: Eddie the Eagle-ism, a trait RH has no patience with. But where do we go when we conjoin it with the word “premeditated”? Coming second is one (unavoidable but spinnable) thing; when was ruin premeditated? At what point could Scott have intuited — and what an intuition! — that “ruin” might reverse the roles, and when could such a realisation meaningfully have been acted on? The key depots — most significantly One Ton — were already established. Various belated and risky improvisations notwithstanding [26], Scott’s overall plan was always both intricate and inflexible, with next to no give built in: by the time the British discovered Amundsen had poled first, and barring deliberate dawdling, the character of the home journey was entirely determined. [26a]. It was also a pitiless race for survival: is RH really arguing that Scott intended it to be such, and that Bowers signed off on the entire pre-trip prep not seeing this (or not minding)?

Or just that Scott was confident that gamely struggling losers would always have a place in John Bull’s big fat heart? That he knew he was well beaten before he even began — hence the mental crisis ACG describes — and thus set things up to ensure a suitably glamorous and romantic struggle for second place, against seemingly insuperable odds? Odds that turned out genuinely insuperable.

What about a subconscious death-wish? A friend jumped at this notion: “Of course! a death-wish is part of anyone’s make-up that repeatedly places themselves in high-risk situations!” And to her, this was very likely also a source of Huntford’s rage: as she knows from personal experience, there’s a self-absorbed arrogance to risktakers, especially when their stunts blithely endanger others. (Certainly it matters a lot to RH that Shackleton, no one’s idea of a cautious fellow, always showed scrupulous care towards his men, and lost none that he directly oversaw in two very high-risk enterprises.)

But she had also homed cleverly in on something I’d overlooked; that Scott’s a better writer than Huntford. Or perhaps better say better stylist — where RH has something of an ex-journalist’s bad instinct for the first laziest phrasing, Scott had a superb sense of evocative pacing and what people need to read to begin to find amusement in the explorer’s technical gaffes and carelessness, his parochial conceit, his all-too entitled sense of a world that needs to organise itself for his convenience. It’s possible that Scott’s facility with words really rankles with Huntford, the gentleman amateur besting the meticulous professional; and when this is combined even with the suggestion that Scott had (unconsciously?) engineering a better drama by skimping supplies and cutting corners, and that he had fashioned himself an admiring and uncritical audience by the means of best-quality storytelling, well, we’ve maybe arrived at the irrational and all-consuming heart of a wounded amour propre. In the uneasy borderlands between competing disciplines, rival ethics chafe one another as feverishly as the most threatened modes of partisan politics, or indeed stand-in quasi-politics. My friend knows me pretty well: when irrational passions emerge in disputed cultural or disciplinary neighborhoods, when attitudes rational in themselves deliver themselves embattled, this is when my ears prick up.

SO IS THERE AN ACTUAL REAL POLITICS IN ALL THIS?: ever since LPoE appeared, Scott’s defenders have tried to impugn Huntford’s credentials by accusing him of mere fashionable political bias.[34] Here’s an aggressively anti-establishment Empire-mocking Norwegian-speaking enthusiast for the Lappish or Inuit world-view: the man has to be some kind of lefty, his attack merely typical of the pinko tendency in the 70s to decry all things British, no?

They could hardly be more wrong (or sillier): RH has never been slow to announce his admiration for Margaret Thatcher and his revulsion at all things socialist, his disgusted contempt for the thuggish collective as it smothers individual enterprise and vision, the state as it curdles into self-interested self-expansion.[35]

All the same, he’s no parochial conservative; as a Briton he’s unusually fond of Norway. His (very engaging) history of skis, Two Planks and a Passion, is obliquely also a history of Norway’s struggle for throw off Swedish overlordship (as is much of his biography of the explorer Nansen), as a sympathetic chronicler of the road to independence, he’s often highly critical of the emerging nation’s backwoods timidity, and sees the flaws and limitations within the liberating energies (he’s an Ibsen fan). What little time he has for Empire is a more a boyish fondness for its long-vanished buccaneering days — he compares Amundsen to Drake at one point — and he’s actively and relentlessly angry at that element in the imperial mindset that patronises and ignores local knowledge and native skills. Nor does he admire tradition simply because it’s tradition — 2P&P is a complex study of the materialist dialectics of innovation, to put it in a way that would annoy him greatly.[36]

He is no uncomplicated admirer of capitalism. Early in RSP, for example, he contrasts Amunden’s mindset with Scott’s. Scott he thinks a thoroughly conventional British naval officer, embedded in and dependent on imperial-military class rigidities; Amundsen was the “antithesis of Scott’s hierarchical discipline and today’s corporate mentality” [37, my italics]. He seems greatly to distrust the idea of “theory” — the word operates in his prose as the diktat-from-the-centre that blinds and blocks the lesser agent in the field. And he perhaps distrusts idealism even more; politically successful idealists he largely dismisses as power-hungry hypocrites.

So what to call him? Tory anarchist? But he’s really not an anarchist, and (as a self-declared Thatcherite) I slightly suspect he’d argue Thatcher‘s more pathbreaker than Tory. Radical individualist? Certainly there’s a tinge of the Nietzschean here (with more than a dash of Nietzsche’s sourly delicate sensitivity towards the psychological tangles of seemingly respectable social intercourse). He detests what he calls “sterile uniformity”, whether imposed by the state or by mass manufacture — or indeed by what I’ve been calling Big Science. He’s drawn to people whose path takes them away from the ordinary; and fascinated by how groups interract internally. To quarantine Amundsen’s success from the taint of crime of “collectivism”, he introduces the notion of the Virtuoso Team, and systematically contrasts such a formation with the ill-informed Polar amateurism he sees dominating Scott’s outlook and projects.

What spurs Huntford’s animus is his investment in certain convictions about expertise and its refinement, how best to combine variant strands, to process and scale up, to exploit without destroying.[39: footnotes out of order] This is a politics of the betterment of knowledge: he aligns himself with Thatcher because he’s convinced this betterment is best favoured by her reforms; or rather, most threatened by her opponents and enemies and the interests they represent.

Which will seem utterly contradictory to many. And requires (since it’s the tangle at the root of what draws me to this story, and to Huntford’s extreme take on it) a digression, into my own semi-formulated theory about the conflicting dynamics of rival systems of knowledge within a modern market economy.

Because I don’t actually think class politics (as we ordinarily understand the word politics) well explains Huntford’s anger. And to explain why, I need to propose a type of social category that cuts down through the horizontal layers of economic class: my term for this being tranche (because tranche is French for “slice”, and everyone knows intellectual jargon must be in French, clerical Latin or fake Greek: and slice because economic class is kind of like a layer cake, and I need categories that slice vertically down through the recognised class layers).

What I want to explore — and I’m aware this is the heavily contested territory of politicised experts, with me setting out onto a high and airless ice plateau with nothing but amateur equipment of my own devising — is the politics of partial information; and more explicitly the generalised paranoias of rival modes of partial information. [new footnote here: re cake and class and rival theories]

Now as noted, the British Empire in the Edwardian era repels Huntford, not least for for the conformist and class-bound stickiness of its institutes of knowledge; but also (and seemingly at odds with this) for the “British cult of the gentleman amateur”, a ideology of comfortable know-nothing complacency that makes a virtue of its own belated improvisations and lack of planning; a “common sense” empiricism that tends to manifest as insouciant amusement towards any technical matrix of disciplinary knowledge. [38: footnotes out of order] And to sterotype and generalise the RH bete noir: it’s the bad dynamics of large institutions, and how they fail to scale up the close observation and subtlety of understanding he associates with individualism (or anyway Virtuoso Teams).

A tranche is a social structure organised to develop and nurture and protect values, perspectives and skills that seem overlooked or under threat in society at large. Formal examples of tranches would be professional associations and institutions (legal or medical or military), guilds and unions and the like; less formally perhaps, there’d be art movements and magazines readerships and hobbygroups and fanclubs, from modernists to metalheads, from trainspotters to Beliebers, plus — not so different, rhetoric notwithstanding — the many identity-pol quasi-nations (the “Black Nation”, the “Queer Nation”), and of course all the many conflicted factions of actual official political and-or religious parties and groupings and movements and sects. A tranche (in my definition) is really ANY structure dedicated to the defence of values those self-selecting to gather in its defence (and within its community) consider essential, and vulnerable. Tranches — by this definition — come in many rival forms and internal sutrctures, the rivalry itself often the generator of this variation of form and structure.

In economic class warfare, the direction of battle is primarily up or down (the haves against the have-nots). In tranche warfare, as often as not, the conflicts are lateral. Whatever else it is, a tranche is a temple to partial information: a social space in which the specific local expertise will often seem to function as the dominant ideology.

Twentieth-century politics was dominated by variations of the Bismarckian technocratic state: for all their war-causing differences, one thing was common to the decaying and embattled 19th-century imperialisms, as well as the USSR, the USA, and the many smaller social-democratic regimes. This was a commitment to managerialist systems of planning. Until the 60s, these otherwise very different models of societies shared one assumption — that a better world could be created by a well educated, well intentioned centralised ruling class running everything in the interests of those not so fortunate. Vast political conflict arose over the machineries by which this class was selected and arrived at this role, by which it recognised and realised itself. Significant conflict too over what constituted the interests of all not within this class: and how (and whether) these interests merited concern. Yet beneath the implacable conflict there was a sinister measure of agreement.

By the 60s, challenge to this model was massing everywhere; in anti-colonial peasant nationalisms, in a surge of anti-Moscow marxisms, in a youth revolt across Europe and the Anglophone world (a revolt that aonxiously combined America’s stubborn don’t-step-on-me culture of individualism with a mushrooming of incompatible varieties of identity politics).

And another challenge too, from an unexpected, very anti-liberal quarter: a very opaque, ambiguous, very strong and ambitious mode of resistance to the notion of social transformation imposed and administered from above. It was formulated by the conservative pro-market economist Friedrich von Hayek and his followers (including Margaret Thatcher, of course); Hayek arguing, with sly vigour, that the localised knowledge essential for the understanding of (and thus efficient practical use of) this or that concrete phenomenon or social activity was by definition ungraspable in its full necessary detail by any centralised state elite, any inflexible Bismarckian bureaucracy whatever its political complexion. And thus that the judgments and decisions made at the centre — to whatever political end — would always tend to smother the skills needed to value a practice or a produce, and the quick-shifting facts necessary for informed and rational. The vast dispersed detail of this knowledge — available to no single agent in the nexus — was all too easily smothered, even in the best-intentioned overarching statistical generalisation of a centralised decision process. The interplay of detailed partial local intelligence (and desire), the interplay that fosters innovation and delivers focused satisfaction to those looking for it, will always be distorted and effaced.

Free markets, by contrast, allow the “dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess” to be aggregated in a readable and a useable way: the market’s ordinary pricing mechanism captures, codes and communicates all the types of information that mutually distant participants in the overall exchange need to know. What the free market allows is an speedread shared index of value that reflects and passes on, with immense and efficient swiftness, the corollary of the local judgment and knowledge of the factory-manager or merchant on the spot, without having to slather it in all the semi-relevant and irrelevant information-as-noise these judges have had to engage with.

A rational central evaluator will always still have to process such information (all the information there is, relevant or otherwise); the market (in this model) is essentially a vast interlocking system of shortcuts that allow everyone entering it to operate effectively, within a vast miasma of unavoidably partial information (against the swirling background of the imagined ideal of total information).

Thus Hayek: who I cite not because I agree with him politically (at all), but because he raises a question that surely needs answering whatever your politics. Partial knowledge is a conundrum that every conceivable society and any economy will have to confront: to transmit information by other means (be these statistical or descriptive) than by face-to-face encounter, or trade, is to risk the obliteration of local (especially tacit) knowledge and small-focus expertise, and to render value itself hugely vulnerable. Radical alternatives to the system-as-is are proposed all the time: but most (not all) arrive pre-infested with the same old modernist-managerial pseudo-rationalism of the central-committee-to-come. In tranche-warfare terms, the fundamentalist insistence that if only all society were reorganised exactly to the precepts this or that little dissident sect proposes, the problem of resource distribution in the face of unknowable information will simply vanish, the mechanism of such vanishment to emerge at a later date (and only reactionaries doubt or fear our motives or vision or capabilities…)

But having outlined a genuine (and a universal) conundrum, Hayek must now demonstrate that his favoured system, this unconstrained and undistorted ideal of the free-market pricing system, is not only perfect for the conveyance of the types of aggregated partial value he outlines (which are those that can be uncontroversially monetised), but is in no way an an active harm to the the transmission and protection of every other kind of value.

And actually his essay — famous as it is — really doesn’t even begin to attempt this. All we get are dodges: a speculative elision, a risibly sketchy survey of all rival wings of economic analysis, and in conclusion a mildly trivial nitpick aimed at fellow economist Joseph Schumpeter: that the partial knowledge imparted by price does not and cannot mean that consumers have magically imparted to them (as what Schumpeter apparently calls a “datum”) all the information of content and provenance that has, in the ordinary course of the market process, been sheared away. [39a]

The irony being that Schumpeter’s alleged silly error actually mirrors Hayek’s: not only does most of the complex of shifting information compressed and simplified into cost-price remain invisible at the price-paying end of the extended exchange; any information and evaluation that can’t be well signalled by the assignment of price is also rendered invisible.[39b]

And — to return to Amundsen versus Scott — such unmonetisable modes of information and evaluation are far from unusual (in fact they’re extremely common). In his 2001 introduction to Herbert Ponting’s The Great White South, Huntford says that it’s a “paradox” that the Norwegian victory produced a single book; where Scott’s failure no less than seven (to which can be added Ponting’s silent film documentary The Great White Silence). Huntford seethes at the obliteration of Amundsen’s achievement, as the two expeditions competed for mass mediation. But such obliteration — and such resentment — are surely exactly what tranche-warfare would teach us to expect, as lateral struggles within the information market play out. The occlusion of Amundsen’s story and the rise to heroic myth of Scott’s catastrophe is, very precisely, a example of the destruction by the market of certain modes of value and tacit knowledge. The value of Amundsen’s triumph — if by this we mean the compacted geometry of site-specific virtuoso expertise and the solutions his victory represented — was never going to be a value that the market, in 1912 or after, could recognise, scale up or exploit.

And while piratical self-motivation is undoubtedly an element in Amundsen’s story — the explorer as Viking raider — a merely uncritical Thatcherite admiration for entrepreneurship seems rather to miss the point. Amundsen was hopeless with money. He needed it badly but never made any: when he found sponsors to bail him out, they had to be satisfied not with profit (ever), but with the faraway mountains and glaciers that today bear their names [39c]. At the centre of a vast inhospitable frozen desert, the pole is a horrible place. The plain fact of the Polar Victory is that, in itself and as it is, it couldn’t directly be monetised: the commodification of the romance of unspoiled isolation can only ever mean the despoliation of both, via high-number tourism and/or mineral extraction. [39c2]

Stories, though: these can be sold (and might even somewhat protect the beauty of the landscape). But from a historian’s perspective, the better historical story is rarely the more saleable story: and (in the angry RH gloss), Scott’s account is a well written muck of sentimentality, mendacity, indifference or worse towards professional expertise, amused anit-historical indifference towards those foreigners (modern and ancient) who best understood the terrain, and a baffled contempt for any who declined to conform to complacent Edwardian convention. In other words, Scott gave his Empire readership exactly what RH believes they anyway craved: vicarious adventure, an enduring image of gutsily indomitable Brits at their best in a pinch, the affirmation of everything they already believed in. Any pointed questions could be smothered in shroud-waving, or a flurry of busy salutes to the flag of higher scientific purpose.

Amundsen — as his journals show — was a guardedly plain writer who refuses to gin up adventure where none was to be had. The tragedy of his occlusion can probably be summarised like this: you rarely get great copy out of a job well done. No “arc” and no “journey”, as the script-doctors would say — and not much “learning” either. By long planning and precise focus, Amundsen had made himself the master scientist of comfortable life and travel on the ice in the pre-petrol-engine age. His polar victory was a straightforward practical task very tidily executed (the very tidiness had a genius to it, but by its nature a tidiness of genius is always going to be self-effacing). And the difficulties he overcame will only prickle the nape of fellow scientists ( in the faintly contrarian sense I’m using the word here) — and this species of fellow scientist had been doomed by the arrival in the Antarctic of motor travel. Air travel and ship-to-ship radio were both on the historical horizon. The moment of Amundsen’s victory was the vanishment of the technique he perfected; an entire school rendered irrelevant overnight by its own triumph.

“Rendered irrelevant” is not an unsaleable story — but surely not one Amundsen had the mind to deliver. And manoeuvring in secret to steal the prize from under the nose of the foolish posh kids for the big stupid Empire, Amundsen had also stripped out the angle of the sporting upset: with the best will in the world, a single unrepeatable event is only a good pitch if you can present it as a public contest, and Amundsen left this too late. As a writer, he was no dramatist: the genuine achievement of reaching the pole first, its techniques, its lessons, its meaning — its value — did not find its storyteller for decades; and even this storyteller had to construct the drama within a larger juxtaposition, complete with overdrawn cartoon villain. Needing a hit to establish his career, RH (at least from my perspective) denies himself the more subtle, far more interesting moral-political drama, about the information that can’t survive the market’s cull, and how this impacts on Scott’s story, and Amundsen’s, and his own.

Which are more popular? Stories that conform to established conventions — of the doughty pluck and selfless heroism of “our boys” for example — or tales of skilled technicians taking unruffled care of business. The term ‘story-teller’ is hardly one of unalloyed approval — isn’t that fish you caught getting bigger and more of a fighter every time we hear of it? — but a story’s usefulness is only related in the most complex way to its truthfulness. Fiction vastly outsells fact, and we can tidy this unsettling statistic away into moralism in any smug direction we like — it’s our anxiety at being fooled by art that draws us to artists who die for their art. We read for struggle and conflict, for vicarious experience of extremes, for inspiration, to imagine ourselves more marvellous than we know we are, to confront ourselves in places we’d never dare go. Huntford thinks the victory-defeat switch is a paradox; but isn’t it really just a cliche? Albeit a very deep and strange cliche.

And science is as vulnerable as anything else once you move beyond its grand generalised narrative of progress. To turn it into popular stories, don’t you have to glamourise and distort? To favour conflict and daring breakthrough over patient routine and detailed exploratory uncertainty? Isn’t there a sharp tension between readers feel they want in the fields of information, education and science, and what they may actually need? Who gets to decide here, and how? [39d] Just as the free-market pricing system can hide ugly social facts about the production deep in the sheared-off “partial knowledge”, the mass dissemination of complex ideas can occlude or elide unpopular and unsaleable information essential to the evaluation of superfically popular or saleable claims. Good scientists in their role as scientists will know to hunt this hidden material out; but scientists rarely fund most of their own research, and the phenomenon of funders choosing to be ill-informed is hardly rare. Is there any evidence whatever that the free market encourages or supports scholarly research for its own sake, let alone the painstaking and scrupulous winkling out of disliked facts? Can RH argue the zigs and zags into and out of fashionability of his own conclusions about Scott — not to mention the disinclination of his critics to engage with the rich contradictory complexity of his material — are somehow not also artefacts of the information market as it actually exists? (This may come across as a rhetorical gotcha: actually I genuinely don’t know what RH believes is going on here, though he adverts to it darkly a couple of times…)

THE COMMODIFICATION OF A WIN AS THE REDEFINITION OF VICTORY: monetisable value is hugely privileged over any other species of value in a modern market economy. Other values are downgraded, sidelined, silenced, ignored: whenever you encounter the word “commodification” used in a negative or critical sense, you’re reading something that assumes some such argument (often, it’s true, extremely vaguely and confusedly). The effect of commodification — which so simplifies exchange in certain helpfully ways — is to shut whole layers of value out of any possible discussion.

To expand this a little: commodification is not simply the process of assigning an exchange price, to speed and improve transfer of materials or services, from source to use-point, in a particular trade. Or rather, the assigning of price is a far from simple process; certainly not a process with simple agency. Commodification is the insertion of any individual act of exchange into an all-emcompassing network of the deployment and interpretation of all the many many chunks of partial information, inheriting and accepting (as it were) values and prices assigned elswehere, far away, over the horizon of vendor’s and vendee’s immediate experience, knowledge or comprehension.

And once our particular exchange places us within the larger system of commodification — invaluable as it seems for the transmission of certain kinds of value — all these focused skills, this knowledge, expertise, wisdom, this entire dimension of human endeavour, become hugely vulnerable. The danger is — the fact is — that the ease with which the extant system processes value type A, in contrast to the evident difficulties it has with value type B, ensures that the “unfettering” of this system, the better to serve value type A, has (as unintended consequence, or not so unintended) the inevitable degradation of value type B; its rendering inoperable in public (which is to say political) discussion.

A tranche will form as easily round value type A as type value B: in both cases (in the society we actually live in) to beef up the degree to which the market (recognised as the primary vector of value across the entire culture) acknowledges either type as it adherents believe it should be. If the market is deemed incapable of properly recognising or valuing or respecting a value, a tranche will form: round any product or practice or idea or way of life that the market isn’t trusted to deliver or to leave unspoiled.

And the nervous system of any given tranche is thus a paranoid system: paranoia being the founding assumption of information asymmetry (whether or not such asymmetry exists); paranoia being the vast anxiety that the partiality of the information available to your tranche is damagingly less than it needs to be, for your specific expertise to receive what’s (as you see it) due. To commit yourself to a given mastery is to rob rival avenues of the time they’d demand: what mortal doesn’t worry that a different selection of time-investment might have delivered different advantages and counter-privileges. Because look at THEM over THERE — how did they know to get to know who they know…

Hence (inevitably) there’s endless fightback; there’s never not been been a fightback against the alleged atomised perfection of the Hayekian model, a fightback primarily from within the mass of its own fiercely uncritical adherents. A market is never merely a chaos: yes, it’s a highly turbulent system, and yes, highly opaque to itself — but its movements (of resources, of wealth, of information) follow patterns that can be explained and determined, even when any given explanation/determination remains controversial, limited and inadequate, with no overall explanation/determination able to date to transcend the background politics. Within this opaque turbulence, and the strong concomitant awareness of the fact of the partial information discussed above, those who depend on any given local knowledge for their livelihood — and those who are committed to the wider values embedded in the knowledge in question — will certainly band together: and will try and form structures to protect and promote the values they value, the skills, techniques, insights, the embedded or tacit knowledge that fashion their professional or their cultural or their informal ethos; to establish and protect and advance the continued presence of same within a market system they suspect (and are encouraged to suspect) may be functionally hostile or destructive to same.

All of us exist in an aggregate of larger and smaller overlapping groups, complete with obligations and contradictory loyalties; and the rational commercial agents in Hayek’s story are no exception, their reasons are as skewed as anyone’s by communal loyalties, the affective tribalisms of habit, the convenience of path dependency, the brittle defensiveness toward pre-invested time and attention; the binding and bonding facts of a region’s or a an institution’s history. Even if we assume away malice and fraud within the market (meaning the deliberate and conscious dissemination of false information for gain), management is driven by performance targets — which is to say, imaginary goals — that combine with an anxiety for their own positions, and a constant need to make decisions that affirm these positions (and to describe them and argue for them in termof the justifications of the market, whatever the actual rationale). And so management is ceaselessly placed in the position of destroying the accreted institutional knowledge that it doesn’t itself have, because its (imaginary) market indicators don’t recognise and can’t measure this knowledge. The much-vaunted rationalism of decision within the model becomes a kind of disconnected psychosis in non-model life, incapable of processing anything right there, but undescribed, by model or theory or ideological habit.

Tranches are inevitable, embattled crypto-tribal gatherings and clusterings and opacities within the social. The ‘ideal’ free market — the perfect circulation of goods and information to the benefit of all — has embedded within it a dynamic that cannot but generate the paranoia that fuels entranchement: the fact of the non-resolution of partial knowledge. Right there alongside the relief at not having to educate yourself in the entire science and language and practice of (say) fruit-farming in North Africa — the relative price of the apricot tells you the relative value, and you make your judgment — is the fear that, given someone somewhere knows something you certainly don’t, this someone or another is able to cheat you or fool you (only HIPSTERS pretend to like apricots). Just as the free market unavoidably coalesces into special-interest tranches, the clotting cannot but breed paranoia. Conspiracy theory is the nervous system of capitalism in a liberal polity: wherever you’ve found yourself there’s always a “they” over there, well versed in the exact secret knowledge that’s beggaring you. You know what we all know — that it’s impossible to know everything. So how come, if this is a democracy, is it that the asymmetries of insight always seem to favour this “other”? How did they know to know the things they chose to know?

And over and above this, modern democracy is in its ideal by definition in tension with the perspectives (and thus the interests) of the specialist; of all the many projects of the multi-form tranche. As knowledge structures itself into interest groups (corporate or professional) — and what else can it do? — politics right left and centre will be (is being; has been) shaped by conflicts between types and schools of expertise. Of course some take it as read that such intra-class squabbling is only ever a mask for deeper, more fundamental conflicts. But is it? Or better ask, can the fundamental conflict be “unmasked”, absent recourse to intellectual competition between all the relevant schools of political explanation and transformation (and their attendant systems of interested expertise)? Ask: when finally stripped of the distortions of economic or landed (or “cultural”?) status and hierarchy, will democracy also escape all the various rival lateral claims of established expertise? What will resolve or soothe this over-informed, over-invested, over-educated form of the war of all against all?

Certainly the structures of authority within the various professions have appeared in the past to survive conquests and revolution, even as details of practice and doctrine get shuffled. In any case, to return to the present, the politics of expertise is hard. Not only do you have to know what you’re doing and be able convince others who know what they’re doing; you must also at some point persuade everyone else. And humans — especially those with the vanity and drive to battle their way to the top of their field — are stubborn, egoistic, self-interested items. Threatened old-guarders will defend their turf; mere wily opportunists will always be circling. Change can be exciting, provided you feel you’re in the loop and in the know, not having something foisted on you; losing control of your already precarious lives can be terrifying. We mostly don’t think or act well when we feel threatened; on the contrary, we often react furiously badly.

Anyway, I hope I’ve given a sense of the extent to which lateral tranche warfare exists all across this story, a hundred years ago and today too, perhaps obscured and often recruited into all the (better recognised) “up-down” class conflicts. In one sense, the Polar race could hardly have been more cut-and-dried. Pioneering a new-and-untried route, Amundsen got there first; got back safe; his men were plumper and fitter when they arrived back at base than when thy’d left. The Norwegians treated it as a ski-race, a sporting event they’d invented; a sport they still in 1911-12 easily dominated. Their triumph was cheeky and deft: they won.

And then everything else kicked in. The RH view: Scott’s followers and supporters, united in grief, guilt and humiliated embarrassment, began gaming the refs: to fashion a win for their man by redefining the meaning of victory. A “moral” victory over the Antarctic; a victory — as the more religious were able to claim — over death itself. [39e]

Huntford, you could reductively argue, is simply angry on on behalf of the slighted art, craft and science of skiing: this is his tranche and he’s sticking with it. Every revenant claim excusing the British explorer’s bungling is for RH a renewed contemptuous assault on Lapp, Inuit and Norwegian craft mastery. These distant simple peoples with their funny unmetropolitan customs — how could they possibly anything unadjusted for in the hallowed halls of grand metropolitan assumption? Nothing will flame us more explosively than the airily ignorant dismissal of something we know in our bones to be true.

But there’s unbridled fury here too behalf of the slighted art of history. To fashion a history of his chosen tranche — to view one discipline through the lens of another, from prehistoric roots to modern sport and leisure activity, 2P&P must weave a tale out of every contradictory pressure and tendency shaping the evolution of a multi-purpose technology — must reintroduce all empirical details at any given stage, including the forces brought to bear by rival nationalisms, military requirement, the egos of sportsfolk, the entracements and curiosities of science, the contradictory advances and fashions of craft and industrial manufacture, the many divergent landscapes, snowscapes, climates and practical traditions of different skiing peoples at different times, the stubbornness, snobbishness, pretensions, vigour, greed, health and waywardness of an insanely large cast of characters in no sense mutually aware, less still in social and political sync. In other words, RH must reintroduce to his story vast background amounts of the various partial systems of information and value that the market economy would have had to shear off to function at the level of undistorted price-assignment. Commodification, I find myself arguing, absolutely specifically counters and disables the ethos of the historian in particular, and all rival disciplines committed to the re-examination of resolved and unresolved alternative complexities. (And once again, I hear my own obscure interests catcalling softly through this story…)

“Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my comanions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman”
Robert Falcon Scott, Message to the Public, 21-29 March 1912

“Adventures are a mark of incompetence”
Vilhjalmur Stefansson, Arctic explorer and ethnologist

AGENCY, LUCK AND STRUCTURE: BUT THE GREATEST OF THESE IS STRUCTURE. The longstanding Norwegian culture of snow-science aside, Amundsen — a driven, somewhat secretive loner — created much of his support network from scratch: he kept even his idol Nansen in the dark. And he threw his mind into reducing the play of luck wherever he could imagine it intervening. Scott was a spendthrift with luck. The entire voyage is a litany of narrow scrapes: the overladen Terra Nova nearly foundered a few days out of New Zealand; the near-criminal lunacy of the escapades with the ponies in the sound when the ice went out, and the entire Winter Journey project; the SPP’s impossibly squeaky escape and Tom Crean’s lone 18-hour march. An affair dogged by misfortune this really wasn’t, by any serious accounting: any luck banked was casually thrown away long before it was needed. Unlike his rival, Scott seems both uncomprehending and toothless before the structures shaping his destiny, until after death — through death — a way was found to refashion the way the world understood the issue.

Which returns us to the death of Seaman Evans, long weeks before bad weather or low rations and fuel were fully a factor. The five Norwegians were a team of equals, each a high-end niche technician under a leader they’d (more or less) democratically agreed to follow; a leader with a deep grasp of the respective technical ability at his command; the collective cemented by mutual recognition and trust. In an otherwise upper-middle-class and officer-class tent, Evans was there as handyman and porter. Large as it was, Scott’s expedition inevitably reflected Edwardian class structure, and within this the rigid hierarchies of the Edwardian Royal Navy, as well the intellectual rankings of the sanctioned official science of the day. To be free to apply themselves to science, scientists would not be asked to mend sleeping bags or design snowshoes or pack and unpack sledges. In fact, science was one of the few realms Scott himself seemed comfortable in: he enjoyed the company of professional scientists, and they returned the compliment, enjoying the pertinent questions this intelligent amateur would ask.

Interested amateurism was perhaps one escape-route from the collision of incompatible rigidities Scott face as leader of this expedition. Another was — paradoxically? — to throw himself into matter of the march itself. The party at the pole was a gesture towards Edwardian identity politics — naval officer Scott and his faithful sidekick Bowers, Wilson the doctor and published amateur zoologist, Oates representing the army, Evans representing the men. Isn’t there a sense in which Scott — who had immense physical stamina — really was escaping from the cares of leadership into the back-breaking labour of unskilled manhauling, for thousands of miles, as if to say, we’re in this together, simple packponies now one and all?

But Evans, also caught in this unforgiving, unbending cross-ply of obligations and inherited class and professional structures, has no such escape-route into play-acting, as he discovers that the quite specific qualities he’d been selected for are all now failing him, horribly: his physical strength, his deft craftsmanly handiwork, his role as a symbol (the right man from below decks). His hands were useless, his strength was failing, his steadiness was evaporating into querulous panic…

One recent biographer, David Crane, belatedly attempts in Scott of the Antarctic to shield poor Evans from the worst of this: “Weight loss, dehydration, possible head injury, vitamin deficiency, hypothermia, mental collapse, the effects of scurvy in its early, undetectable stages — whatever the reason or the combination of reasons that lie behind Evans’s death, the two myths that can be thrown out are the notion of the ‘isolation’ of a lower-deck man in a tent full of officers, and the egregious error of Scott in taking Evans in the first place.” [40]

Crane never quite says outright that he’s arguing with RH here, but assuming he is (and he is), Crane entirely misses the import of Huntford’s argument. It’s true that RH has little sympathy for Evans, portraying him as out of condition, a rollicking drinker and blowhard unfit to task, mentally or physically. Yet what Crane calls “myths” are not RH’s inventions, after all: Gran it was that judged Evans mentally unfit [41]; as for the suggestion that being trapped in a tiny tent with four men not of his own kind would have been a lonely and emotionally daunting burden, this came from Evans’s fellow seaman and acquaintance of many year Seaman Lashly, giving evidence in the mid-teens before the unofficial court of Oates’s furiously angry and grieving mother [41a]. Gran and Lashly may both be quite wrong, but they were highly intelligent fellow expeditioners and their judgments can’t simply be handwaved away.

So no one to vent to; no one in that final crowded tent that Evans could ever drop his class mask with. The strongman too weak to play his part. The worker whose manual dexterity was his livelihood, his future and (no doubt) his pride: and whose hands were in fact now ruined (from frostbite and a bad gash sustain when rebuilding the sledge high on the ice plateau, which refused to heal). Huntford doesn’t empathise with Evans, but his antenna for the crosscurrents of tension are witchily sensitive: five men huddled together night on night, in a tent made for four, in a situation without respite or hope of pause. Even granting Scott’s insistence that he never saw the journey to the Pole as a race, the journey back was nothing but, and undertaken by tired and defeated men without alternative was now a race against death itself.

“[H]e shows signs of losing heart over it,” wrote Scott on 30 January, of Evans’s physical state, “which makes me much disappointed in him”: the final clause suppressed, in the official published version of the journal. And yes, of course such unsympathetic exasperation is driven by Scott’s own gathering exhaustion and anxieties. And yes, Scott’s journal was now both public record and the one place he could go to vent. And no, we simply can’t know the true dynamics in the tent, what kindness (or roughness) Evans’s tentmates showed him at the last, as they attempted frantically to halt his psychological decline. But Scott’s state of mind was a consequence of his own command and his own decisions — and when Crane claims that Scott had taken Evans for old friendship’s sake, his argument must accommodate Scott’s actual private words, when we know them. Seemingly judicious in tone, a likeable relief from Huntford’s relentless contempt, Crane’s book nevertheless quietly and routinely dodges the issue of the passages edited out of Scott’s journals. [42]

As so often, Crane’s is a bioography of Scott that keeps discussion of Amundsen — and the dissenting Norwegian perspective — to a minimum. Absent this primary conflict, the many overlooked sources Huntford has brought into the public domain — often by translation from the Norwegian — are all too easily folded back into a less demanding form. Perhaps Huntford does select and interpret to Scott’s disbenefit: but challengers must confront the whole, or explain why they needn’t. [43]

And what we don’t have, and will never have, is Evans’s own evidence. Perhaps the most tragic figure in an awful story, we only ever glimpse him, blurred and obscured, through the eyes of others. Scott found a way to tell his own tale his own way, and to recruit almost everyone into a co-dependency with it. Evans is shuffled away into an awkward bit-part role: evidence unseen, unheard, unrediscovered, unrecoverable. “What killed Evans?” asks ACG softly and bluntly angry on p.573 of WJiW; but on p.524 he’d already hinted what: “Things began to go not quite right: they felt the cold, especially Oates and Evans: Evans’s hands were also wrong — ever since the seamen made that new sledge. The making of that sledge must have been fiercely cold work: one of the hardest jobs they did. I am not sure that enough notice has been taken of that.” [44]

Another digression: notes excavated from a counter-tranche to the Hayekian view of value. In the mid-19th century, when economists were attempting to define and explain value, they rooted it in labour-time: David Ricardo argued that the value of an item derived from the amount of labour expended to produce it, the Labour Theory of Value (LTV), and Karl Marx — seeking to undermine orthodox political economy by turning its own grounding against it — wrote a very long book exploring the consequences, distortions and social injustices to be discovered if you take this orthodox definition as a premise. Not long after, mainstream economics found a way to diminish the role of LTV in its theories of value. Which perhaps sidesteps Marx’s claim that a contradiction wells up from within the market-as-system, but nevertheless in the process casually reduces all our own personal valuations of our own personal lived time working to an externality; to uncostable irrelevance and merely subjective ghosts. [44a2]

Money mattered to both expeditions, of course — or rather, the lack of it mattered; funding was always scarce, and needed scaring up, with all the distorting promises this can entail. But wealth had never been Amundsen’s driving passion: all he’d ever wanted was to bag the pole (actually the North Pole) [44a]. Scott’s ultimate goal is less clear, obscured in the competing tangle of professional commitments his diffuse project entailed. If, per Huntford, we can also discern self-immolation as the purpose, at least after Amundsen’s arrival, then the shift of faith back to exploration as pitiless pack-animal slog makes a certain strange sense. Man-hauling was as self-destructively primitive as slaves forced to build pyramids till they dropped. With demands and obligations so intractably conflicting, why not just drop out of the entire ghastly mess of tranche-warfare into the dignity, so-called, of undiluted sledge-hauling labour. [44a3]

I’m often baffled by the politics people declare — when I was on ilx there were probably half a dozen aggressively regular posters who considered themselves lefties who really really weren’t of the left, and it seems to me there’s a distinct fissure here too, running through the allegiances RH declares, a man ostensibly of the right battling only half-aware against his own declared choices — perhaps through the fog of the myth of radical individualism — not just to honour the non-professional fallen as fully as their credentialed companions; but to restore unofficial or unapproved routes to best knowledge to their rightful and earned level of respect.

Summarising in RSP in 2010 how background fashions in politics mirror reactions to his various polar biographies, RH perhaps sweepingly associates Thatcher with Scott’s rival Shackleton [44e], that self-taught amateur and social outsider who was adored by his men and explored by the skin of his teeth, that roguish and charming entrepreneur who got himself into scrapes but always out of them too. Shackleton is a hard figure not to have a soft spot for, but few of Huntford’s readers today will see much evidence of Shackleton’s amiable ilk anywhere round us. Let management manage was the Thatcherite mantra. Actually existing society post-Thatcher could hardly be less Shackletonian in the lee of this precept: cadres and combines of the powerful refusing ever to be held accountable, management whingeing bitterly when accountability is even mooted. Wielding ghastly instruments of asymmetric knowledge and jargonised obscurantism, predatory corporate raiders like Lord Hansen — hostile stakeovers and asset-stripping are nothing if not the destruction of patiently accrued local specialist knowledge — have laid waste to swathes of experience and expertise for ruthlessly market-justified reasons. And of course press-barons like Rupert Murdoch have shown not the slightest tenderness toward the subtleties of the complexity of scholarly understanding, or the tacit artisanal wisdom of the skilled worker in any given industry-under-threat. It is really very hard indeed to look around the world that Hayek remade, and argue that knowledge is better nurtured and nowhere threatened; that truth and value are somehow today better able to counter the machineries of moneyspinning fiction and power-gathering.

The hierarchy of the British Edwardian gentleman was deeply ambivalent about professionalism — doctors and lawyers could be accepted into it, as could scientists, but RH is basically correct: to best access this degree of technical ability a gentleman hired someone he trusted. To be the best at what you did because you hard to make a living was faintly absurd to the denizens of this upper-class layer: only its eccentrics and dissidents ever seriously embarked on a vocation or a skilled trade themselves. This is an attitude easy to dislike; Huntford detests it. He see, too, how patronising was the affection sometimes paid by the upper classes to the artisanal layers below the officially professional, and to those “honest working men” who embraced their symbolic as well as their economic role. But — however deludedly — there’s a kind of topsyturvy envy here also: a vaguely grasped sense that to escape from the purblind labyrinth of privileged perspective and partial understanding, you had to see everything from below, from the perspective of an absence of any inherited or learned advantage. [44a4]

Hayek’s model of the market, his defence of commodification as a effective machinery of exchange which usefully and accurately simplifies an impossible mass of information, is a model that entirely rejects the relevance of LTV to any grown-up discussion of value. In this world Evans’s sense of himself is simplified and exiled, overwritten into invisibility. As is any labourer’s valuation of his own time, his own skills and purpose, his own plans for his own future. Commentators since have sometimes projected dreams into him — he would quit the navy, set up a little pub in Wales, doubtless called “The South Pole” and live out his days telling tall and amusing tales as its landlord — but how he actually felt is forever elided from the conversation. He had no one — except perhaps Lashly in one instance — to battle on his behalf. [44b]

As the expedition’s second-in-command Lt Evans could presumably have asked pertinent questions early, about risks and flaws and corners cut. Instead he exhausted himself, out of misplaced ambition, in the scramble for polar priority — and his life was only saved by Lashly’s and Crean’s generous and courageous solicitude. Possibly somewhat scurvied themselves, the two seamen stuck with their senior officer and saved his life. This too is worth dwelling on, when so much in the story — not just the Scott/Amundsen race, but within the Scott camp and even within the much smaller Amundsen camp — is a tale of intensely divided loyalties and obligations: of professionals caught between their commitment to the ethics of their professional, and their commitment to the reputation of the expedition; of friends with a duty of honorable care to fallen companions; of the various contrasting acts of sacrifice which established this nexus of duty. While Scott was still imagined alive and defeated, the expedition remained a grab-bag of resentments, disappointments and buck-passing: his death — his self-sacrifice — allowed expedition and immediate family to fashion a “cultural movement” that conjured ethos-trumping loyalty to the expedition which was enormously politically potent (especially in the context of the Great War); and also — once it emerged into the wider media world — quite information-destructive. The three doctors, the entire contingent of scientists, working to obscure the issue of scurvy: science as an ethos subtly betrayed in the name of a distorted image of itself. [44c] Figures like Ponting or Cherry-Garrard gritting their teeth to help sacralise and purify an affair they had deeply ambiguous feelings towards. The uncolonised or refusenik layers or margins – from the Inuit, via the voiceless working men like Evans and his bereaved family, to obsessive focused micro-expert loners like Amundsen — without well-established platforms within the validated structures of the imperium on which to combine their perspectives, against the establishment of even quite bad science. Highest of high likelihoods is that they’ll fall out before they even begin to find common ground. Against all this, or with it but somewhat lost in it — they won decorations for valour and Lt Evans’s undying gratitude — the patient unselfish cross-class care of Lashly and Crean…

The Hayekian model of the market is where all professional confrontations must be mediated — confrontations between clubs and corporations, associations, institutes and movements, parties and nations and every other aggressive-defensive electively affine gathering. Here genuine potential conflict can indeed sometimes be diverted into the “marketplace of ideas” (or the lawcourts). This adjudicates between embattled modes of expertise and rival structures of passion — but it’s also the medium that cultures and generates this rivalry, this passion, off out from under the rational into the world of endless maddened petty bourgeois flamewar. [44d]

The social battles of specific expertise — the inevitable resentments and fury of an equally inevitable partial knowledge — point in all directions at once, of course. Laterally it points most of all, at rival tranches and temples of understanding. Downward it points, at the uninitiated masses as viewed from in-tranche perspective — sometimes as scurrying apprentice wannabes, not yet in on the marvels of understanding to be had; sometimes as unbudgeably torpid and unconvinceable know-nothings; sometimes as the seething unsalveageably threatening counter-mass. But also — in the end — it always also points up, at management with its generalisations and its targets and its theories and its fashions, all the many uniforms (as everyone in the middle agrees) of overpaid incompetence. (Management types are even more prone than academics to the self-interested adoption of those trends and systems they can best wield for professional advantage in intra-departmental warfare…)

There’s a politics here, but it’s intricate and tricky. In my own work, the critics I mainly lose patience with are those who skate past detail they can’t see or hear — or (worse) treat the techniques needed to analyse the detail as mere absurd scams. (Problematic, yes, often enough, no doubt; scams they almost never are). Push such critics a little — draw attention to the blanks that exist, that require explanation or exploration, and suddenly the anger and the defensive contempt are there. It’s unsettling to discover we require knowledge we didn’t expect to need to do our job properly — and some turn this about to declare the lack a value, and haughtily polish the turds of their ignorance, as badge of achievement. And so it goes round, and so it goes round: it’s almost always a two-way inflagration: because partial knowledge is everywhere a feature.

History as a discipline is ill-served by the market; by what I’ve sketched as the process of Hayekian commodification corrodes the deep ethos of the scholar. The pop breakthrough of Huntford’s first book, LPoE — it sold well; it made highly entertaining useful noise — derived, I suspect, from its brute slayage of sacred (if dated) cultural cows; RH found minor celebrity as a sourpuss maverick and troll… and most of those who’ve engaged him since respond to this and skip much too quickly past all the much more subtle, interesting and extensive lacunae and conundra within this ineluctably tangled field of tranche-warfare. Which is not to say that an aggressive defensiveness towards your own specialism — inevitable as it is in any context of contested values — isn’t largely also a good thing. You really probably do see or hear or know things other people. A hermeneutics of pure suspicion is a lazy thing as much as a brave thing; certainly a widespread and an established thing, all too quickly a boring and a, well, square thing. What drives an implacability as stubborn Huntford’s? More than simple dislike; more than ordinary disciplinary tribalism; more than merely bigoted judgmentalism; and more too than mere party-political kneejerkiness (especially within a partisanship as hard-to-parse and contradictory as Huntford’s).

There a commitment to the deep ethos of the social-professional-aesthetic tranche you identify with, which is suddenly all emotional triggers when menaced with disrespect or dismissive indifference. In the end, Huntford’s deep sympathies do lie with the slighted science of skiing and — not quite so easily conjoined — with the hard-won (and easily re-obscured) intricacies of popular history; in the end, it’s in defence of a perceived threat to this species of life-long investment and self-validation — of passion and expertise — that the uncontrolled crackle of quasi-political temper is most often heard. Heard here as Huntford’s own half-understood self-disgusted need to heighten the contradictions and accelerate the conflicts, to get the blanks on his map attended to at all.

RH = Roland Huntford
LPoE = “The Last Place on Earth” aka “Scott & Amundsen” (Huntford’s first book on this specific topic)
RSP = “Race for the South Pole: The Expedition Diaries of Scottand Amundsen” (Huntford’s most recent book on this specific topic)
2P&P = “Two Planks and a Passion: The Dramatic History of Skiing” (Huntford delivers what it says on the tin)
ACG = Apsley Cherry Garrard
WJitW = The Worst Journey in the World, Cherry Garrard’s 1922 memoir of the Scott expedition
PP = the Polar Party (Scott, Wilson, Oates, Bowers, PO Evans)
FSP = the First Supporting Party (Lt Evans, Lashly, Crean)
SSP = the Second Supporting Party (Atkinson, Cherry Garrard, Wright, Keohane)
LTV = Labour Theory of Value


  1. 1

    I imagine I’ll be tweaking this here and there over the next few days!

    The footnotes are still a mess and won’t be sorted for a week or three at the earliest: many are just citations, but a few should actually extend and clarify arguments or ideas, mine or Huntford’s. Your puzzlement or disagreement may well help: I strongly sense not everything here is adequately explained or grounded yet! So yes, I am crowd-sourcing the editorial improvement process.

    Now I actually need to go pay some bills and catch up with life in the temperate domestic regions :(

  2. 2
    Pete on 30 Apr 2012 #

    Apologies for not having read more than the first eighteen paragraphs yet, but what fascinated me about Scott is how he became a hero of Empire, much like say Livingstone, for the qualities which could be projected upon him rather than any that he may have had. The dressing up of Amundsen as a cheat was beguilingly satisfying for any child who felt they too had been cheated (ie all children ever except perhaps the toppermost of the toffermost for WHOM IT DIDN’T MATTER). So the qualities of stoicism, fair play, and (this is the important bit areonf Great War) Duty and Accepting Yr Lot is thrust upon him with his untimely but not unlikely death.

  3. 3
    Pete on 30 Apr 2012 #

    “The Norwegians treated it as a ski-race, a sporting event they’d invented;” Also inventing sport is another British job…

    (OK have skim read all now, will read properly later and comment.)

  4. 4
    Mark M on 30 Apr 2012 #

    I haven’t actually heard this, but they were plugging it endlessly on the World Service, but the summary suggests a counter-revisionist take redeeming Scott not as an Imperial martyr but as the man who made possible the modern Antarctic science project (and by extension – depending on your climate change scientific/political position – the man who may yet save the world).

  5. 5
    gdr on 1 May 2012 #

    The Scott/Amundsen comparison shows the importance of getting your publicity right. Scott was lucky to have Cherry-Garrard to write his epitaph. Cherry-Garrard ought not to have been there at all, had personnel been selected according to any kind of sensible criteria (such as the possession of suitable skills for Antarctic exploration). But “The Worst Journey in the World” is so much more interesting and better written than Amundsen’s anodyne account, which suppresses any hint of drama (such as the debacle of the September false start, the quarrel with Hjalmar Johansen, and the near death of Kristian Prestrud). We might think differently about Amundsen’s expedition if we had more versions of the events.

    Incidentally, Amundsen was (probably) first to reach the North Pole, but hardly anyone seems to be aware of the achievement. A better publicist could have made something more out of this.

  6. 6
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 1 May 2012 #

    (Just to be clear, Amundsen didn’t actually set foot on the North Pole, he flew over it in an airship: but all prior claims — the by-foot visits of Cooke and Peary, Byrd’s overflight — are now considered dubious).

  7. 7
    Alex on 8 May 2012 #

    What do you make of Francis Spufford’s line that the expedition was driven by conflict between the scientists, for whom the trip to the pole was a silly propaganda curlicue, and Markham & Scott, for whom the scientists were silly buggers getting in the way but who had to be put up with because it was their train set?

  8. 8
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 8 May 2012 #

    I lent my copy of Spufford to my sister ages ago — must get it back and reread while I’m working on the footnotes. My immediate response is that yes, these two species of obligation and narrative and structure — Markham’s vision of the heroic naval quest and the establishment of the first-ever polar research station — are both very present, and very much at odds, in professional ethos and goal. But Scott is best seen as torn between the two: I don’t think he’s personally impatient with the scientists at all, he seems to like writing about their projects, and certainly writes engagingly about them. Perhaps they offered a kind of haven from the responsibilities of command and the demands of decision.

  9. 9
    inakamono on 11 May 2012 #

    I wonder if you’ve read Huntford’s original interview with Tryggve Gran?

    It can be read from the jpg’s here:


    The backstory is that Huntford was working as the Observer’s Scandinavia correspondent and happened to file this interview. The editor told him he should do a book on the subject and wrote in the byline that a book was forthcoming; that’s what set Huntford off to start researching it, relocating to the UK and seeking access to Scott’s archives.

    The irony is that, in the interview, Huntford notes “To this day, [Gran] has preserved a tremendous loyalty to Scott, resenting any slur on his reputation.” The article continues: “Over the years, Gran has given more than a thousand lectures in Norway on the expedition. ‘Scott’s memory owes a lot to me,’ he says proudly.”

    I feel the real tragedy in all this is that an old man, 84 years old at the time, opened his heart to a journeyman journalist, inspiring him to research ancient events. And the result of that research was the exact opposite of whatever the old man might have hoped.

    I suppose Gran was from the same “layer of the cake” as Scott; he couldn’t have known that someone would cut a different slice from it. And of course, as he was Scott’s ski-instructor, he was probably thinking from what you call the same “tranche” as Huntford.

    But it still feels like the cake got sliced up wrong, here.

  10. 10
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 12 May 2012 #

    I have read it, yes — it was linked in the original EVEN LONGER version but in the end I moved the link to one of the not-yet-installed footnotes. Gran essentially says that Scott was a great man but a bad explorer, and Amundsen a bad man but a great explorer. It’s also where I source Gran’s bad opinion of PO Evans from.

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