Where do you do most of your reading? Your favorite spot?
I usually read on the sofa in our living room, a comfy two-seater in sagey-green velveteen bought at a huge discount when our local Laura Ashley shop closed some years back. (Our loss was our gain, as it were, as we could not have afforded it otherwise.) My second choice is the IKEA sofa in what we call the front bedroom, although it is in fact our TV room. I try not to read in bed much, as I have occasional bouts of insomnia. I don't think I have a favorite spot for reading, as such -- every spot for reading is a favorite spot! -- just a usual one.
I finished reading David Crane's Scott of the Antarctic a while back, and had to rush it back to the library some days late. It is an interesting book, one that impressed me in a number of ways, and made me think, and want to linger over it. I was delighted first of all by Crane's writing, with complex yet fluid sentences that made me realize how comma-starved I've become in these days of text messages and emails. Here is one of my favorites, regarding Scott's meeting with his future wife, Kathleen: "Bernacchi [as an early biographer of Scott] reckoned that Scott had 'only a slender knowledge of women,' but it is fair to say that all the knowledge in the world would probably not have prepared him for the wonderfully tanned, determinedly virginal, twenty-eight-year-old sculptress with a passion for 'male babies' and a critical eye for a prospective father, just back from five months' vagabonding around Greece" (p.312). How often does one actually laugh out loud at a book on Polar exploration? I ask you! Subtle, humorous, and telling.
I was very impressed at Crane's ability to not only write interestingly and thoughtfully, but to balance the admirable and not-so-admirable aspects of Scott's character. It did seem to be rather difficult at times, though, for him to tell enough of the story to keep the Antarctic-novice reader going. I can imagine that it's hard when the writer knows the cast of characters so well to say, for example, "Crean" or "Lashly," and not realize that the reader has no idea who Crean or Lashly is. (Even I wished for a little list at the back of the book.) Crane at one point remarks on Scott's stomach troubles in a way that implies this was chronic, but it had not been mentioned to us before then. On the other hand, Crane's ability to make the rather gorgonlike Kathleen Scott into a relatively sympathetic character can only increase my admiration for his abilities as a writer. (In Kathleen's defense, I can only admit that most of my impressions of her come from the men's diaries, as biased and anti-feminist as most Edwardian men.)
My first experience of the Capt. Scott story, as I've said before, was from the Roland Huntford book and television series -- definitely unflattering towards Scott -- and so my opinion of Scott was quite low for a long time, but after reading Crane's book, I think that Huntford is too hard on Scott, or at least unwilling to show the good side. I wonder if our taste for gossipy, warts-and-all biographies (did the gallant Captain Oates really father a child at the age of twenty, with an eleven-year-old girl?) these days make us underappreciate the loyalty Scott inspired -- sadly lacking in so many of our public figures now, to our great cost. Talking of the great Memorial Service at St. Paul's, Crane writes, "There are few things that more poignantly signal the remoteness of Dean Inge's age from our own, because while nothing is more inevitable or healthier than historical revisionism, what has happened to Scott's reputation requires some other label. It might seem odd from this distance that neo-Georgian England should find in a Darwin-carrying agnostic of Scott's cast the type of Christian sacrifice, but the historical process that has shrunk the rich, complex and deeply human set of associations that once clustered round his story into an allegory of arrogance, selfishness and moral stupidity is every bit as extraordinary" (p.11).
While we can't forget that, as Huntford reminds us repeatedly, ponies and manhauling in the Antarctic lacks a great deal of common sense (to put it mildly), and that by association this lack is transferred to Scott himself with tragic results, we also must remember, as Crane points out not only elegantly but tellingly, that "In such a climate of doubt and self-questioning [as that of post-Industrial Revolution and pre-WWI England], the outpouring of national pride over Scott was no demonstration of imperialist triumphalism but its reverse, its militancy the militancy of weakness, its stridency the stridency of a country desperate for assurance that the moral qualities that once made it great were still intact" (p.9). Huntford sees the mistakes -- huge mistakes, certainly -- while Crane sees the mistakes in context, which, while it doesn't excuse them, does go some way towards explaining them. "The most tempting answer is suggested by the cultural and political overtones implicit in Trevor Griffiths' use [in "The Last Place on Earth" series] of the word 'Englishness,' because if Scott was once celebrated as the incarnation of everything an Englishman should be, he is now damned as the sad embodiment of everything he actually was" (p.12), in other words, an Englishman. We do tend to lash out at the characteristics in other people that we most despise in ourselves, don't we. The qualities that "made England great" -- duty, self-sacrifice, discipline, patriotism, hierarchy, as Crane lists them -- are now seen as less than admirable. It's an interesting thought.