Wednesday, January 14, 2015

the last book I read

The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge.

I say, you fellows, here's a ripping idea I've just had: let's go and conquer the South Pole! I hear those shifty Scandinavians are thinking of having a crack at it, so I say let's go and give them a good spanking and bag the bally thing for King and country, what? Yes, of course it'll be bally cold, but we're British, for goodness sake. No need to worry about the stiff upper lip: bally thing'll be frozen solid anyway! Drop more port? Splendid.

Just a little insight there into the exact transcript of the planning meeting for Robert Falcon Scott's ill-fated polar expedition of 1910-1913. And it's that expedition that's the subject of this novel, although, Bainbridge being Bainbridge, it's not an exact linear narrative of the events. Instead what we get is five separate sections, each covering a different period of time (in chronological order), one written by each of the final party of five who made it to the Pole: Evans, Wilson, Scott, Bowers and Oates.

As with Every Man For Himself, describing the broad thrust of the plot is a bit pointless, as everyone knows what happens anyway. Instead the interest is provided by a bit of back-story for each character, and by the interaction between them. This is what Bainbridge was good at: if you want a rollicking wintry adventure story that teaches you how to whittle a knife out of a walrus tusk then you're probably better off with Jack London or someone like that.

One of the fascinating subjects that historians have argued over for the century or so since the events depicted here is: why did the Scott expedition fail so disastrously while the rival Amundsen expedition scooted in, knocked off the Pole and scooted back again with relatively little fuss or drama? Plenty of reasons have been offered, the usual ones being the Amundsen expedition's use of dogs rather than Scott's bizarre insistence on using ponies, Amundsen's ruthless focus on Pole-bagging at the expense of scientific research, and Scott's fatal indecisiveness at various key moments, not least in deciding to take an extra man on the final push to the Pole, further stretching their already thin resources, and finally Scott's running into a window of horrific weather which made progress all but impossible, even for men whose extremities weren't useless gangrenous frostbitten lumps.

The other reason for failure is hinted at in the novel, and it's tied up with the British class system - naturally it was taken as read that the leader of the expedition would be a high-ranking military officer from the upper classes, and that there would be little room for dissent or discussion from his men once the expedition had kicked off. This sort of rigid hierarchical command structure, where there's no channel for criticism or questioning of decisions taken by those in authority, has been shown to be problematic - indeed it was implicated in so many commercial airline disasters that the industry came up with a whole new set of procedures called crew resource management to deal with it.

I remember saying in the review of Every Man For Himself that it was fairly clear that the narrator survived the sinking of the Titanic, because the novel was written in the first person and the past tense. Well, all five sections of The Birthday Boys are written in the same way, and we know that none of the five who reached the Pole survived. The usual way round this is to present the reminiscences as diary entries, but these are not presented that way, indeed Oates' section couldn't possibly be a diary entry since it describes the well-documented circumstances of his exit from the tent and subsequent death. This is really only a problem for a tedious literalist like me, who wants to know: well, in the suspended-disbelief fictional world we're in, how and from where are these words being transmitted onto the page? Are the expedition members all sitting around, in whatever Valhalla dead explorers go to, reminiscing about old times? Remember when Evans' hand fell off? Remember when you LITERALLY DIED? Ah, great days.

A minor quibble, though, really - this is a typically sly and sideways look at a familiar subject. The interactions between the men are fascinating, and the sketched portraits of each man are very convincing (and they are only sketches, as this is a short book at only 181 pages). The Birthday Boys (published in 1991) marked the start of what you might call phase two of Bainbridge's career, which featured a series of novels based on real historical events. Phase one featured novels in more domestic (and purely fictional) settings, including the slightly baffling Winter Garden and also Injury Time, probably still the best book of hers that I've read. Bainbridge herself was universally described as "eccentric" and "chaotic" and "a likable and amusing woman famed for falling over at parties", which I take to be affectionate obituary-ese euphemisms for "constantly pissed".

No comments: