Tuesday, March 20, 2018

I am just going outside and may be some time.

From The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain by Bill Bryson. Page 127.
White lived much of his life in this house, and the rooms are mostly kept as he would have known them. The visitor can, for instance, step into Gilbert’s snug study and see quills and parchment and some spectacles left on the desk, as if White has just stepped out. The far end of the house changes abruptly into Oates territory, which I thought would be a little ridiculous but was actually quite diverting. Of the two commemorated Oateses, Frank was unquestionably the lesser. He lived only from 1840 to 1875 and spent much of his short life battling ill health. He went exploring in Africa and the Americas in a curious, ultimately misguided attempt to build himself up through fresh air and adventure, but merely caught a fever and died somewhere along the upper reaches of the Zambesi River.

Far more memorable was his kinsman Captain Lawrence Oates, though he lived an even briefer life. He was one of the members of Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the Antarctic in 1910, which with great difficulty reached the South Pole only to find it planted with Norwegian flags, left a short while earlier by a party led by Roald Amundsen. Greatly disappointed and already physically diminished, Scott and his four men turned back, but ran into terrible weather, slowing their progress to a series of brief daily stumbles. They ran short of food and suffered wretched physical hardships. Descriptions of their frostbite are genuinely horrifying. Oates ended up in a particularly bad way and famously sacrificed himself so that the others might have a hope of living. Stepping to the flap of the tent, he said, ‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’ It was, Scott wrote in his diary, the ‘act of an English gentleman’. I have no doubt he was wearing a dinner jacket. A point not often noted is that it was Oates’s thirty-second birthday. His body was never found. Scott and the others perished soon afterwards, dying in a whiteout just a short distance from a supply drop. Oates, it later emerged, couldn’t stand Scott and blamed him for inadequate preparations.

The person I ended up most taken with, however, was not Gilbert White or an Oates, but a man named Herbert George Ponting, who was the official cameraman to the Scott expedition. Though an accomplished photographer, Ponting knew nothing about motion pictures – hardly anyone in 1910 did – but he learned through trial and error, and in the process produced some peerless footage of Scott and his team training for their epic expedition at their Antarctic base camp.

Ponting spent years refining the footage into a movie, called Ninety Degrees South. A ten-minute extract is shown continuously on a television in an upstairs room. I sat down out of mild curiosity and was instantly absorbed. Suddenly the people I had been reading about in the nearby displays were animate and real. They waved and smiled and moved about, albeit jerkily, cheerful in their preparations and obviously unaware that soon they would be dead. Ponting cut and recut the film for so long that by the time he was ready to share it with the world, the world had rather lost interest and the film was a commercial failure. Ponting was wiped out both physically and financially, and died more or less a pauper. The Gilbert White museum seems to be the only place in the world where he is remembered.

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