A festival to celebrate new-found love and romance in the middle of February? How on earth is that going to work in the UK? Clearly, I have never had problems in this department but obviously for most single people yesterday is like the final kick in the teeth of winter.
One year, in Edinburgh, my wife and I were wandering about, unaware that it was Valentines Day and we took the rare decision to go into a restaurent. The staff weren’t happy with our unexpected entrance – they had a booking in 30 minutes. We told them we wouldn’t stay long, we just wanted to eat quickly and leave. They let us sit down. There was a weird atmosphere in the restaurent I thought but I don’t often go to these places so I wasn’t sure. It all seemed very strained. We sat down and spotted a red rose on our table. We won’t need this declared my wife, throwing it to the floor and laughing. We joked with each other and talked about eating so much food we would be sick. Probably being too loud. I got filthy looks from the other men in there. Their female companions were all sitting politely waiting for non-existent romantic conversation, looking jealously at my wife. The men fumbled with their forks. It was awful. Suddenly my wife exclaimed I get it – its Valentines Day! The male stares at me became positively angry.
Forward to Pancake Day!
Today was Ernest Shackleton’s birthday in 1874. He is rightly celebrated as being one of the foremost antarctic explorers of the early 20th century. He was a great man; no arguments about that whatsoever. His southern march of 114 miles remains a feat which few, with far more sophisticated equipment, could manage today. I know what I am talking about because I come from a family of arctic explorers. My parents have spent a great deal of time in up in the far north and – warning: plug coming – you can buy a beautiful coffee table book presenting the finest landscape photographs of North-East Greenland.
The story need hardly be rehearsed here but, briefly, it is that following his ship Endurance becoming frozen in an ice floe on 15th January 1915. In late October 1915, the ship surrendered to the pressure and let in water. Shackleton ordered it be abandoned and the men (they were 28 souls) transferred themselves on the ice. For two months the men lived on drifting ice. They hoped to drift to Paulet Island 250 miles away, where a food dump existed. Various attempts were made to march across the broken ice to Paulet Island but none were successful. On 9th April 1916 their ice floe broke up. Shackleton put the men into lifeboats and directed them to the nearest land. Five days later they landed, exhausted, on Elephant Island; their first dry land for 497 days. Elephant Island was inhospitable (the men called it “Hell-of-an-Island”) and far away from shipping lanes. Thus rescue was impossible. Shackleton and five others rowed 800 miles through the worst imaginable seas in an open lifeboat to South Georgia. One storm they survived sank a 500 tonne steamer bound for Argentina! Only four times in this epic journey were they able to take celestial navigation readings. Shackleton left two men behind on the shore and with the other three made a virgin crossing of the mountainous South Georgia to the whaling station at stromness. This took three days. Consequently all the stranded men at Elephant Island were rescued. No doubt about Shackleton was a true badass.
However, he is wrongly applauded for having returned from an expedition with no lives lost. The expedition involved a sister ship, the Aurora, which had been laying down stores for the latter part of the expedition. They were on the other side of the continent. The Aurora was blown out of its anchorage and drifted out to sea, leaving men stranded at Cape Evans. That party lost three lives, including their captain Aeneas Mackintosh. Perhaps I am being hard on Shackleton, since he wasn’t personally leading those men but they were part of the expedition he led.
Whilst Shackleton acted heroically throughout the expedition itself (even giving his gloves away to someone suffering with frostbite) he is celebrated for leading men into disaster and then rescuing most of them from it. We remember the rescue but not the reasons for it.
English people seem to love this sort thing, witness Dunkirk where ordinary people went to the continental shores and rescued the stragglers of their defeated army. That has been celebrated through the decades since. More recently there was Eddy ‘the Eagle’ Edwards, who came last in the 1988 Winter Olympics Ski Jump. Why do they seem to spend more time dwelling on this sort of thing than on our numerous success stories? I think that the English national pysche has been shaped by the loss of its empire and not yet recovered. They seek success in failure as a consequence. They do not expect to succeed and loathe those outsiders that do. That’s why people hype their national football team when clearly only miracles would allow it to win the world cup in recent times. They hype it up and then can be devastated when it gets kicked out of the tournament. This devastation they feel at home with. (I say ‘they’ because I was raised by a Scottish family, in a Scottish household, albeit in Brighton.)