Overshadowed by the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War this year has been another hundred year anniversary, that of the launch of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition. It was of course a heroic failure, one which ended the heroic age of polar exploration. Two years earlier, Robert Falcon Scott had been narrowly beaten to the Pole itself by Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian, who cheated by using dogs, and not collecting any eggs. This subsequent, doomed, last ditch attempt to salvage some glory for the British Empire was the brainchild of Ernest Shackleton. Ultimately, in salvaging nothing but the lives of his men from the jaws of death, he wrote his name as an immortal on the heart of every properly educated man, woman and child in the country. I had long felt there were not enough stand up comedy routines celebrating his achievement, and I decided to write one. If you would like to hear it, it is the climax to my current live stand up DVD release - http://amzn.to/1t8gPDN
Shackleton was not alone of course - the Antarctic has long held a fascination for a certain kind of British man, usually ill suited to domestic life and the company of women. This despite, or perhaps because of its indifference to their safety. Perhaps even more famous than Shackletons, and certainly a more controversial figure, was Captain Scott.
Scott and his men of course perished probably on 30 March, 1912, pinned down in their tents by a blizzard, having been beaten to the Pole by five weeks. Scott's last diary entry was on 29 March 1912. According to Wikipedia, 'The positions of the bodies in the tent when it was discovered eight months later suggested that Scott was the last of the three to die", a phrase which provokes unnecessarily vulgar speculation, if you ask me, but there can't have been much in it. The remains of Captain Oates were never found, though given the state he was in when he went "outside", it is not hard to imagine the others having to delicately step over him when striking camp the following morning. However, no such indignity is recorded, thankfully.
Oates, of course, famously fearing he was slowing the party down, had famously excused himself some days earlier with what became the most famous formulation of British stiff-upper-lip sentiment ever uttered.
Among those in the Terra Nova party was Apsley Cherry-Garrard, who wrote perhaps the definitive account of polar misery in The Worst Journey in the World. Notice the lack of an " - Ever!" at the end of that title. There is also a remarkable absence throughout the book of the popular acronym "FFS!" despite many obvious opportunities for its deployment.
The title refers to the leg of the expedition which Apsley and two others made in July 2011, to collect Emperor Penguin eggs. July in Antarctica is even worse than it is in the UK. The journey took place in perpetual darkness, with temperatures ranging from -40ºC to -60ºC. The eggs were expected to be of scientific interest, as the Emperor was believed to be the most evolutionarily primitive of extant birds. Cherry-Garrard, virtually blind even in daylight without his glasses, shattered most of his teeth with chattering - the involuntary, cold-induced kind, not the Islington dinner party kind. On one occasion their tent was ripped away by a blizzard, leaving them singing hymns in their sleeping bags to keep up morale while the storm raged around them.
This sort of thing was once understood to be part of what it meant to be British. It was the mainstay of sermons, pep-talks, school speech days and even British humour, from The Goon Show, to Carry On Up the Khyber to Monty Python and beyond. It is perhaps harder for today's young people to identify with, which is why more of their stuff refers to over-indulging on stag weekends in Amsterdam.
Admittedly, having recently declined, on the grounds of self-preservation, to climb 20ft up a ladder in order to get hold of an egg (a ceaselessly squawking Herring Gull had laid one outside my son's bedroom window and the authorities were powerless to intervene, the egg of the Herring Gull being "protected", a level of bureaucratic interference with the laws of nature that was at least something that Scott's men didn't have to overcome) I suppose that I cannot claim to be directly of Cherry-Garrard's moral lineage, either.
Last winter, indoors, in temperatures rapidly falling towards single figures of centigrade, I had to clamber into the loft and re-start a faulty boiler, two or three times a night for nearly a week. On one occasion, I barked my shin in the dark, and completely lost it. The details are sketchy now - I did not keep a diary - but I'm afraid to say I used language stronger than any which seems to have occurred to Apsley Cherry-Garrard as being appropriate.
Still, I look to his example when I can. Two years ago last Christmas I set off from my parents home in Norwich with our two year old son in the back of our Toyota RAV4. Snow and ice on the roads slowed our progress, and the journey to my in-laws in Tunbridge Wells took 12 hours. The heater held up, we did not run out of fuel, and in fairness, although I have had occasion to refer to my wife's mother unkindly before now, "World's Most Primitive Bird" would still be a bit strong. But still, the parallels were there and the Stoicism that is my birthright, thanks to men like Scott, Oates and Cherry-Garrard, made all the difference. Though what would have happened if the nipper hadn't slept through it is another matter.
Simon Evans - Live At The Theatre Royal is available now on DVD and Digital Download, released by Universal Pictures (UK).Suggest a correction