The New British
South Polar ExpeditionOnce, sometime in the 1930s, when journalists pressed me about the Henneker rumours, I cried out, "We were the great New British South Polar Expedition." We were the apogee, I was implying, of old-fashioned British endeavor. If we lied, then all institutions were liars.Perhaps it was some kind of Antarctic sasquatch or wild man who got him? the journalists pursued. I made a face as if they didn't deserve an answer. We were the great New British South Polar Expedition....Journalists don't press any more. Could you imagine young Woodsteins flying out to the West Coast to grill me concerning Henneker's south-polar fate?Other conditions have changed as well. I suffer long patches of what could be called coma. I am sitting in the sun on a Tuesday morning, say. From the terrace of the rest home south of Los Angeles, I survey the golf course of the township called Sageworld, where sixteen thousand aged people live in apartments and manors. When they lose the capacity to drive, chip, and putt they will join me in the rest home, unless of course a massive stroke or heart attack graduates them directly to Forest Lawn.
I squint at the sun, chewing over Sageworld's geriatric ironies. I think and it's all at once Wednesday afternoon, and I am no longer on the terrace. I am watching the rain from the reading room. I have a different shirt on. Who put it on me? Where did yesterday go? I know by questioning the nurses that I went on sitting. I ate. I watched the 7 PM news and drifted off to sleep during an episode of "Maude". I rose in the morning, dressed myself and ate ---that's what they tell me. I remember it no more than a vegetable remembers the spring.
Sir Anthony Piers, ninety-two-year-old designer and one time official artist to the New British South Polar Expedition, is frightened not so much of conventional death, but of the way death comes ravening up to him while he's still at his ease under the sun, and bites chunks out of his days.
He ... I ... doesn't ... don't know why I should want at this late hour to write a little record of the expedition. Why I should write down things Eugene Stewart asked me never to utter. It isn't simply that Stewart and the sainted Dryden and Hoosick and Sullivan and Beck and Kittery and all the rest are dead now. I think it's because I believe what I told the journalists. To me, the world was simple and the lying hadn't begun when I joined the expedition. The world grew complicated and the lying set in with Henneker's death, and ever since the world has been fueled and governed with lies. That is my concise history of the twentieth century. That is why I wish to define what was for me the century's first lie.
There's one good thing. Decay takes away my consciousness one day and doesn't give it back till the next. But the same process also sharpens my sense of our hut on Cape Frye in the Antarctic winter, in the innocent years before the First World War. I can for example smell the cocoa and the acetylene lamps, the drying thermal underwear before the stove and the acid smell of Siberian pony dung when the door to the stables is opened. I can see them now in their young bodies, my colleagues, a supposed polar elite, selected from thousands by Captain Sir Eugene Stewart. They sit at the large table in the middle, writing reports. Or they move to the laboratory, to the dark room or the naturalist's alcove, or out-of-doors to read temperatures or visit the magnetic hole, an ice cave three hundred yards to the north of the hut. Or they dress to go trolling for biology specimens through holes in the ice of McMurdo Sound or even to ski across to the Barnes Glacier to help Harry Kittery with his measurements of ice movement.--- From Victim of the Aurora
©'1978 Harcourt Books