Palin on Erebus
“In Waterloo Place in London, across the road from where the first Franklin statue stands, is a memorial to Captain Scott. His failure was to be beaten to the South Pole. Franklin’s was to be beaten to the first sea-crossing of the Northwest Passage. The man who beat Scott to the Pole was Roald Amundsen. The first man to cross the Northwest Passage by sea was Roald Amundsen. He has no memorial in London.” Michael Palin’s voice peters out into a sigh as he closes the book. Reading this passage from his biography of the HMS Erebus –Palin articulates the emotion that moves readers across the world – that often, a story of heroic failure garners more fan-following than stupendous tales of success. The urge to write about a ship lost in the icy waters of the Arctic, led by the 19th-century polar explorer Sir John Franklin, a story of a failed exploration, stemmed from Palin’s hunch that this would interest his readers as much as it did him.
I was watching Sir Michael Palin in discussion with William Dalrymple as part of the #JLFLitFest’s fantastic new initiative – Brave New World. In the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, with the world in quarantine and each of us hunkered down at home, the internet has been a saviour of our hungry souls. JLF, for one, has been bringing a steady stream of stars into our homes – luminaries sitting in their living rooms across the world, talking while we listen in wonder over dinner. It is indeed a testimony to the human will to circumvent odds of the worst kind – resulting in this wonderfully intimate chit-chat between Palin and Dalrymple that I was witnessing from my sofa.
Intrepid traveller, writer and sympathiser of explorers and adventurers, Palin is more than an inspiration. And his account of the ship, HMS Erebus - from its launch from a dockyard in Wales in 1826 to its expedition to the Antarctic in 1841 and finally its doomed voyage into the Canadian Arctic in 1845 is gripping. History, adventure, triumph and failure all mark their attendance as Palin talks of Sir John Franklin leading the expedition that took this former bomb ship on a voyage to find the Northwest Passage. A sense of melancholy overtakes as he describes how Erebus was last seen off the coast of Greenland by a British ship before it fell off the radar. It’s astonishing to hear that for two years after its disappearance, no search parties were put together – because Erebus was apparently equipped to survive for three years. In today’s world of blow-by-blow accounts of everything, from undercover operations in war zones to Bear Grylls surviving a near-fatal bee sting on an island in the Pacific Ocean, it’s unimaginable that the crew was left to die in the narrow straits of ice in the Arctic. It was only after two years that search parties set out to look for the missing ship and eventually found the remains.
As he described his rigorous investigation into the history of Erebus, I could imagine every aspiring writer listening in, being inspired to go and buy a card index to bring order to the chaotic underworld of research that predates any book. What struck a chord was Palin describing how he delved into his scrutiny, not as an academic exercise of mere fact-finding but to figure out details such as - how the crew of HMS Erebus got along with each other in such trying conditions. Surely, humour would have played a major role, amongst the officers, the gentlemen and the deckhands, he says. History needs to have humour as does everything else, and I so agree!
It seemed as though Dalrymple was reluctant to end the chat as time ran out. A compulsive wanderer myself, I was eager to know what Palin had to say about the future of travel post-Covid. I wanted to hear a verdict of hope – that we will find a world again when we can continue our adventures; not a doomsday prophecy of years of self-quarantine, baking sourdough bread that did not rise enough. He made my day by saying this, “…It’s about
exploration and about pushing yourself and going to places that would seem to be not conducive to comfortable times… Mass, passive travelling of going in large numbers to look at a town and then moving on in a great big ship or airline - that’s not going to happen for a long time. Whereas the more independent travellers, active travellers will find a way and will find the world challenging.”
Shutting down my laptop, I was engulfed by a sense of admiration for this 77-year-old explorer whose life’s work comprises everything I cherish – adventure, humour and books. I will plan my next trip now, because there is nothing called unnecessary travel.