Blog #113: Virginia Woolf and Doctor Who–Part 2: Robert Falcon Scott

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Very close to the Doctor Who “Experience,” and to the blue Tardis call box statue which stands outside it, is a white, rather nebulous, rather ugly statue of what looks rather like an Abzorbaloff phagocytosing several victims. It is a statue which rathers in the mind, and initially I rather wished it weren’t there. On close inspection, however, it turned out that this tessellated, Gaudi-esque monstrosity was not related to Doctor Who at all. It is meant as a memorial to Robert Falcon Scott and stands not very far from the lock through which the Terra Nova set out on its deadly voyage. The phagocytised victims represent the expedition members who perished in the snow with Scott.

The memorial, even if I found it ugly, made me aware of how important the myth of Scott is to Cardiff and of how powerfully the Scott expedition dominated the popular imagination between 1910 and 1913. In exploring Cardiff, I repeatedly stumbled upon traces of Scott. Near the massive barrage, for instance, as I hiked around Cardiff Bay in steady rain, I took temporary shelter under the white pavilion sails of the outdoor Scott exposition and read informative plaques about the expedition and about Cardiff’s connection to Scott. In the Pier Head building, the beautiful terracotta red brick harbour master’s building of which Cardiff is so justifiably proud, I almost overlooked the binnacle from the Terra Nova. The binnacle stands in a corner of the old Dock Manager’s Office, and it took a few moments for the brass and wood of the binnacle to draw my attention away from the windows and the view outside. The binnacle is a splendid artifact, much more beautiful and much more poignant than the white statue. A true time portal.

There was more of Scott in Cardiff, even if I didn’t seek it out. Thinking about Scott and Cardiff, though, brought home the power of the Scott myth. It was a myth massaged by Scott himself, as he set about securing sponsors and financing for the expedition (even OXO got on the bandwagon, binnacle and all), and Cardiff’s current connections to Scott owe much to Scott’s marketing skills and fundraising efforts. From the outset, the expedition dominated the popular imagination and the race between Amundsen and Scott was regularly featured on the front pages of the daily newspapers. The publicity and the media frenzy which attended the death of Scott and his companions was monumental in scale. Across the British Empire, Scott and his tragic story dominated the headlines and Scott became a universal symbol and icon of tragic heroism. To feel a sense of the intensity of public interest, imagine the impact of the Apollo 11 moon landing if Armstrong had died on the moon.

Imagine the impact of the Scott expedition on a thirty year old Virginia Woolf in 1912, and imagine how those events would have seeped into her imagination. There is no mention of Scott in her letters or diaries of the time, yet she and her friends must certainly have read and talked repeatedly about the events as they unfolded. Buried in her mind, along with stories of Leslie Stephen’s mountaineering exploits, those events were there for her to draw upon when she came to write To the Lighthouse:

Qualities that in a desolate expedition across the icy solitudes of the
Polar region would have made him the leader, the guide, the counsellor,
whose temper, neither sanguine nor despondent, surveys with equanimity
what is to be and faces it, came to his help again.

Feelings that would not have disgraced a leader who, now that the snow has begun to fall and the mountain top is covered in mist, knows that he must lay himself down and die before morning comes, stole upon him, paling the colour of his eyes, giving him, even in the two minutes of his turn on the terrace, the bleached look of withered old age. Yet he would not die lying down; he would find some crag of rock, and there, his eyes fixed on the storm, trying to the end to pierce the darkness, he would die standing. He would never reach R.

How many men in a thousand million, he asked himself, reach Z after all? Surely the leader of a forlorn hope may ask himself that, and answer, without treachery to the expedition behind him, “One perhaps.” One in a generation. Is he to be blamed then if he is not that one? provided he has toiled honestly, given to the best of his power, and till he has no more left to give? And his fame lasts how long? It is permissible even for a dying hero to think before he dies how men will speak of him hereafter. His fame lasts perhaps two thousand years. And what are two thousand years? (asked Mr. Ramsay ironically, staring at the hedge). What, indeed, if you look from a mountain top down the long wastes of the ages? The very stone one kicks with one’s boot will outlast Shakespeare. His own little light would shine, not very brightly, for a year or two, and would then be merged in some bigger light, and that in a bigger still. (He looked into the hedge, into the intricacy of the twigs.) Who then could blame the leader of that forlorn party which after all has climbed high enough to see the
waste of the years and the perishing of the stars, if before death stiffens his limbs beyond the power of movement he does a little consciously raise his numbed fingers to his brow, and square his shoulders, so that when the search party comes they will find him dead at his post, the fine figure of a soldier? Mr. Ramsay squared his shoulders and stood very upright by the urn.

Who shall blame him, if, so standing for a moment he dwells upon fame, upon search parties, upon cairns raised by grateful followers over his bones? Finally, who shall blame the leader of the doomed expedition, if, having adventured to the uttermost, and used his strength wholly to the last ounce and fallen asleep not much caring if he wakes or not, he now perceives by some pricking in his toes that he lives, and does not on the whole object to live, but requires sympathy, and whisky, and some one to tell the story of his suffering to at once? Who shall blame him?

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