It may have taken 100 years, but the men who accompanied Captain Scott on his final mission to the South Pole are, at long last, emerging from the great man’s shadow.
And at this month’s Scott Centenary Conference in Plymouth, they stepped out into the sunlight. Over the course of a weekend, some 200 of the world’s leading Scott experts and enthusiasts gathered together for a series of talks encompassing everything from melting ice caps to nautical navigation, from polar photography to the physiology of freezing.
Most densely attended talks, though, were those which came with human, and not just scientific interest. And during the two days, no fewer than four of Scott’s expedition members were accorded their own, hour-long sessions in the course of which their stories were told and their praises sung.
We met Captain Oates, for example, not as the grizzled, frost-encrusted explorer, but as an angelic little boy with luxuriant curls, a sickly disposition and a domineering mother who both protected and spoilt him (when his siblings got £1 as a birthday present, he got £50).
“She called him Baby Boy, and didn’t let him have his own bank account until he joined the Army,” said Michael Smith, author of the Oates biography I Am Just Going Outside.
“He was shot in the left thigh during the Boer War, as a result of which his left leg was two inches shorter than his right. This is a man who limped to the South Pole.”
And, of course, never made it back. Among the others to die with Scott was Henry Bowers, known as Birdie because of his beaky nose. “He was short, unconfident and got nicknamed Kinky Boke because of his nose,” declared Bowers’ biographer Charles Lagerbom.
“When people first met him, they tended not to give him the credit he deserved, but those who knew him had nothing but praise for his zeal and integrity. He was the backbone of the expedition, afraid of absolutely nothing except spiders. Which is why I don’t care to refer to him as Birdie. I think Henry suits him better.”