The Collins Press, €29.95
A great deal has been written about the early 20th century race to the South Pole. Michael Smith's latest book on the subject follows his marvellous 'An Unsung Hero', the story of Irishman Tom Crean's part in that race. 'I Am Just Going Outside' follows the story of Lawrence Oates and his part in the Antarctic exploits of the time. We get to know Oates from an early age; his learning difficulties at school, the early death of his father and through to his time as a cavalry officer in Ireland and India.
Oates was not typical of the privileged English gentry class from which he came. Although I never got to like him as a person in the book, I did get to respect him - if only for his dislike of convention and the fact that he hated snobbery (this despite a background which included time at Eton). If you have the faintest bit of armchair adventure in you, you will find it impossible to put this unfaltering read down.
It would be difficult to imagine a character less suitable than Robert Scott to lead an expedition as demanding as getting to the South Pole and back. An introverted sentimentalist, Scott had huge difficulty communicating with his companions on any meaningful level and even when he did discuss issues with them he tended to ignore any sound suggestions. Such a person must rely heavily on luck when the going gets tough. In the end Scot's luck ran out and his incompetence as a leader resulted in five needless deaths, including that of himself and Lawrence Oates, who died on his 32nd birthday.
Scott believed it was better to do things the hard way and to die with a stiff upper lip than to play it safe and risk going home without accomplishing his mission. His poor planning and failure to learn from both his own experience and that of others resulted in harrowing hardships for all concerned. The realisation, on arrival at the Pole, that they were not the first must have been heartbreaking after their super human efforts across hundreds of miles of the most inhospitable landscape on Earth.
History suggests that during the return trip from the Pole Oates, now in very poor health, left the tent one night to die so that his companions might have a better chance of survival with their limited supplies. Scott’s diary reported Oates’ last words as, "I am just going outside and may be some time". This may be true. But of more consequence was the need at home for an English hero at the start of the First World War. Oates' self-sacrificing death made great propaganda for the British establishment in their efforts to keep up the morale of the troops as they dropped like flies in the trenches. Scott's version of events, based on his diary recovered in Antarctica after his death, was the public version for many years. It was an heroic version. Only years later did the true story begin to emerge, partly due to the probing of Oates' mother Caroline, a formidable Victorian dowager type who plays a major part throughout this riveting book.
This is a very well researched and gripping read. It is also an excellent manual on how not to manage a major project and a remarkable insight into psychology and human behaviour in extremis.