So many anniversaries this year it is hard to keep up, Titanic will be upon us any day, but we were also feeling honour-bound to do something in recognition of the centenary of Robert Falcon Scott's fated expedition to the Antarctic.
We can claim Scott as a local hero after all.
So taking into account my aversion to camping, and in the absence of a sledge or a team of huskies and any urge to do a re-enactment, Bookhound and I took the Park-and-Ride into Plymouth and headed for the exhibition at the city museum instead.
We are mad keen on the Park-and-Ride for city visits these days, we'll be getting our bus passes next, but why flog into a city centre anywhere and time-limit parking, (that's if you can find a space) when you can let the bus make the fuss. We whizz upstairs, shotgun the front seat and spot all the things that we might miss from the car...
Plymouth Museum is within walking distance of the Art College where Bookhound was a mature student (i.e. an old codger of twenty-three when everyone else was sixteen) back in the 1970s. Sandwiched inbetween, and opposite the new space age Levinsky wing of the university, is a row of old buildings which I love.
Plymouth so severely bombed during the war that very little of the old city centre exists, just little pockets of real character preserved here and there that may give a clue to how the city of old would have looked, and you want to cry for what must have been destroyed.
Bookhound would often wander up to the museum for some sketching practise. Indeed we still have his watercolour of the stuffed squirrel on our staircase, and which I just managed to stop him from screwing up and binning and to his embarrassment had framed instead. We lived in Plymouth then and he would spend hours in the museum and knew it inside out, whilst I didn't because I was out around the city on health visitor training, so everytime we walked past I would say..
'Shall we go in the musuem?'
and he would say...
'No there's nothing new in there...'
Well, very true, and for the thirty five years since, every time we pass a museum, I say that, and he says that, and we laugh, as you do.
Robert Falcon Scott was a son of Plymouth, born and bred in the city and you would know it if you came to visit. Pride in the expeditionary team well-recognised around the city ...Scott Hospital, Scott Road, Wilson Crescent, Bowers Road, Oates Road, Evans Place and Terra Nova Green to name but a few, along with the Scott Memorial in Devonport. The memorial re-dedicated in a ceremony attended by Princess Anne last week.
I am always reduced to jelly when I read those last pages of Scott's diary in the permanent exhibition at the British Library...
We had heard that the Plymouth exhibition 'wasn't up to much' but can only imagine whoever told us that had looked at the small display in the library next door and missed the main gallery in the museum, because we spent a long time, looking, watching and reading everything, and we will certainly go back for another visit before it closes on April 14th if we can....especially as my camera battery died so no picture of the obligatory stuffed penguin who had the cheekiest look on his face.
Who can know when history is in the making, though early Arctic exploration has to be a safe bet, but thank heavens so many interesting artefacts and letters from the time survive, and what fascinating reading they make. Bookhound and I had a little fret about it all as we leant over the glass cabinets reading everyone's letters home ...the fact that now it will soon cost 60p to send a letter here in the UK, well really...is anyone going to bother any more when an e mail goes for free??
I was quite taken aback when I first set eyes on that sledge... from across the gallery it looked like an elongated bed and I thought it must be a mock-up of a cabin interior. As I looked more closely the sheer weight of it became very apparent.
I have been dipping into An Empire of Ice - Scott, Shackleton, and the Heroic Age of Antarctic Science by Edward J. Larson,published by Yale University Press, and can see there is so much that I don't know that I now need to read the book. It is eminently readable and has grabbed my attention in the way that Thomas Kessner's book about Charles Lindbergh did a while back. I read about half of The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry Garrard years ago but surrendered because it just made me feel constantly freezing cold, and it didn't look as if things were going to warm up any time soon. I might light the fire and stick with this one.
I get a bit confused about where Shackelton comes into all this but at least now I know that it was Shackleton's humilation after the earlier HMS Discovery expedition that had led him to mount that expediton of his own to restore his pride, and which led to deep rivalry between the two men. Meanwhile Scott's fund-raising drives for sponsorship of his own projects preyed on a sense of national derring do and 'British pluck and endurance', along with the need to prove that 'the manhood of the nation is not dead.'
The final expediton seems to have relied on man-hauling rather than the use of dogs after a previous venture had witnessed acute problems with the dogs, who as they had died were fed to the remainder. This had apparently upset Scott terribly and Edward Larson confirms this, but weaving through Scott's decision was also something of an Edwardian need for manliness and 'competitive demonstrations of fitness.' Scott's decision has been called into question ever since but it would seem his men were destined to 'pull their sledges to the pole and back or die trying.'
Little wonder then, with such sentiments abounding, that the nation found itself in such a mess just two years later in 1914, yet who can question the courage of Scott and his men in the face of the inevitable miserable denouement.
One name that really interested me and whose life featured large in the Plymouth exhibition was Thomas Vere Hodgson. A marine biologist from the city who went on the expedition, but who was also, it seemed, an early curator of the Plymouth Museum collections. All I could think of was the Persephone book Few Eggs and No Oranges, and the valiant Vere Hodgson clearing rubble through the Blitz, and such an unusual name I felt sure there had to be a connection. I was pleased to discover that there was, Vere had been named after her famous uncle who went on Scott's expeditions. Thomas Hodgson brought back quantities of pickled creatures which were discovered more recently in the museum's vast marine archives, so we gazed at perfectly preserved crustaceous things, and seal embryos in rusted Kilner jars, and wondered how on earth these had come home in one piece rattling around on a sledge, and whether anyone had taken the lid off since.
Isn't it amazing what I don't really think I am interested in, until a moment in history like this comes along and suddenly I want to know all there is.
Expect Titanic something or other to follow any day soon.