The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge.
Now I’ve read three novels by the late great Dame Beryl Bainbridge, I can truly say that she has become one of my favourite authors, and I can’t wait to read more. She was a master of succinctly getting to the heart of the matter. Her novels aren’t long in pages or words, not a word is wasted, but they are absolutely full of detail, in the setting and landscape, particularly in the emotional makeup of her characters.
This is never more true than in her 1991 novel of Scott’s last expedition to the Antarctic, The Birthday Boys.
Coincidentally, I started reading this novel the day before the BBC screened a fascinating programme in which Ben Fogle journeyed to the Antarctic to see Scott’s Hut which is being conserved in situ as an historic site. (Link to iplayer here). It helped to bring the book even more to life. Beryl cleverly re-tells the story from the perspectives of the five men in the team who went on the final push to the South Pole.
Each man takes a portion of the narrative, starting off in London with Petty Officer ‘Taff’ Evans, a Welshman who although patriotic to the core, is rather a brawler, and prone to causing embarassment. Fundraising in Wales, he helps Scott whom they all refer to as ‘The Owner’ to get vital donations, but then blots his copybook by getting drunk with the Cardiff city flag the Mayor had given them. He’s always repentent after these interludes though, looks forward to setting off, but will miss his rather long-suffering wife. His account, seen from the ordinary rating’s point of view takes us through the preparations to the point of setting sail.
The story is then taken over by the expedition’s chief scientist and medic, Dr Wilson, known to all as ‘Uncle Bill’. Wilson is worried about the condition of the leaky ship, but can’t wait to get to their first stop in the Caribbean and some bird watching. Wilson is Scott’s main sounding-board and support throughout the expedition, and helps Scott through many difficult decisions.
The Owner takes the middle segment. Scott, although a naval man, is given to much soul-searching and introspection. He can turn it on when he needs to, but comes across as rather indecisive. Oates is always questioning his authority – particularly his decision to bring horses rather than dogs for the race to the pole. Scott’s expedition was as we know, more than just a race, there was a serious scientific side to it also and he is a real detail man. When they return to their old hut, he is disappointed to find a window has been left open, and the inside has become all iced up…
I’m inclined to think to must have been Shackleton’s party of 1909 who left the window open, not us. After all, we had plenty of time, whereas Shackleton’s lot had to bolt for the Nimrod in the lull of a blizzard. In the circumstances the securing of windows was the last thing on their minds, and then, of course, Shackleton was never a man for detail. All the same, I cannot understand the mentality of people so shallow, so lacking in foresight as to act in such a manner. Surely it’s a mark of civilised human behaviour to leave a place in the condition one would wish to find it. One would think they had walked out of an hotel in some modern town, not a shelter in the most uninhabitable spot on earth, a refuge which could mean the difference between life and death to those who follow after. Such carelessness transgresses all the boundaries of common courtesy, and plunged me into depression.
… So no love lost there then! Scott also rages inwardly at all the weaknesses he perceives of the crew, especially malingering …
The tents are struck, the rugs come off the horses, the sledges are loaded, the dogs wrestled into submission – and still I wait. Attempting to get everyone off on time is like trying to spoon treacle back into a tin with a feather.
The fourth section of the story is taken up by Lieutenant Henry Bowers, a giant of a man and seemingly unflappable and indefatigable. But even he is pushed to the limit by the expedition’s scientific offshoot when he accompanies Dr Wilson to visit an emperor penguin colony which takes far, far longer to reach than they anticipate.
The final push to the pole is narrated by Captain Titus Oates, and we all know the ending. Oates, a loner, who has served for years in India, has remained an enigma throughout the story until now. He is the opposite of Wilson, being Scott’s fiercest critic, yet in the end, he comes to appreciate that Scott’s concerns for his fellow man made him a hero, and Oates accepts his fate with equanimity.
Each of the five has a distinct tale to tell and their characters come through really strongly, as does the inhospitable Antarctic – essentially the sixth character in this book. Bainbridge has really brought the expedition to life, finding the inner voices of them all, which are the opposite of all the stiff upper lip on display, and the blind obeying of orders. In her hands, Scott is both sympathetic and flawed – held back by indecision, totally deflated by Amundsen’s not being a good sport, a meticulous planner, yet always able to rally the men.
As in the other fact meets fiction novel of hers that I’ve read, Every Man for Himself about the Titanic, Bainbridge really inhabits her characters, they feel impeccably well-drawn and researched but she never resorts to purely telling us what happens.
I’ve got another six Bainbridge novels on the shelves, including the one that recently won the ‘Best of Beryl’ Booker poll, Master Georgie set in the Crimean War, and several of her earlier fiction books. I shall look forward to reading them all in due course. I desperately want to read lots of other books about polar exploration now too, including Rannulph Fiennes’ biography of Captain Scott. I also want to re-watch the DVD of the fine miniseries about Shackleton (starring my fave Kenneth Brannagh), and read Mrs Chippy’s Last Expedition – the fictionalised story of the cat on board the Endurance.
The Birthday Boys is a fine picture of a tragedy that really happened; a portrait of a golden age of Polar exploration that’s gone, and I loved it – if you read it I hope you enjoy it too. (10/10)
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I bookswapped for my book. To buy from Amazon.co.uk, click below:
Journals: Captain Scott’s Last Expedition (Oxford World’s Classics)
Captain Scott by Sir Rannulph Fiennes
and about Shackleton:
South: The Endurance Expedition by Ernest Shackleton
Mrs. Chippy’s Last Expedition: The Remarkable Journal of Shackleton’s Polar-Bound Cat by Caroline Alexander.
Shackleton [DVD] starring Kenneth Branagh