And did death proudly take them?

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard. 

Apsley Cherry-Garrard. Photograph taken by Herbert Ponting on the Terra Nova Expedition.

Apsley Cherry-Garrard. Photograph taken by Herbert Ponting on the Terra Nova Expedition.

On the 8th of February 1913 readers of the Sunderland Daily Echo & Shipping Gazette would have read on the back page:

The Central News says the Terra Nova [the ship that took Captain Scott and his Antarctic Expedition to the southern ice] has arrived more than a month earlier… in consequence of a serious calamity having overtaken the expedition. The exact nature and extent of the calamity is not yet known, but the Central News regrets to learn that it is of a grave character. Further details are awaited with the utmost anxiety.

By the 10th of February the Evening Telegraph, reminding its readers that:

The perils of such a journey as Scott’s are manifold. A slip down a crevasse…blizzard…cloudy weather.

put its report under the headline of All Perished. 

It was not until the 14th of February that the Luton Times and Advertiser was able to report in more detail that:

Captain Robert F. Scott, commander of the British Antarctic Expedition, has perished in the wastes of the Ross Barrier, together with four of his comrades, while struggling back from the South Pole…They were weakened by lack of food, and when they pitched their tent for the last time…Fuel for one hot meal and food for two days remained.

Thus in these six days the British public learned of the fate of Captain Scott’s Antarctic Expedition.

The hagiography was there from the beginning. The Luton Times and Advertiser noted that:

…when death seemed very near Captain Scott committed to his diary a last message to the British public. The message rings with the courage and fortitude of the man.

The personal cost too was highlighted. The Yorkshire Evening Post of the 10th of February, under the headlines “Mrs. Scott’s Sorrow – World-Wide Sympathy in Her Loss – Not Yet Heard the News,” reminded its readers that:

The sympathy of the nation will go out to Mrs. Scott, who left England last month for New Zealand, in the expectation of meeting her husband.


She has not reached New Zealand, so she has not heard the news.

Perhaps with one eye on posterity, it included:

Geographers in this country have emphasised from the first that Captain Scott’s expedition was not intended merely as a dash to the Pole… The expedition comprised scientists who were expected to throw light upon different phenomena of the Antarctic…

How did the nation express its mourning for its national hero? On the 20th of February the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser informed its readers that the total of Captain Scott Fund was now £20,000, including donations from the King and Queen. Expressed in terms of comparative income value this would today be worth £9,378,000.

Captain Scott’s fame continued to grow, with notable peaks in the 1930s and 1950s (The Worst Journey in the World was republished by Penguin in 1937). Cue a Google Ngram:




Somewhere in this splendid array of data is the talk given by the Rev. H. G. Johnson, and reported by the Portsmouth Evening News on the 24th of October 1938, to the Cosham Brotherhood on The Worst Journey in the World. He was quoted as saying, proudly I am sure:

We are members of the race that produced a Scott, a Wilson, a Bowers and an Evans.

Since then, Scott has bounced through a succession of cynical ages.

Growing up in an Edwardian age that distinguished between love and being in love, Apsley Cherry-Garrard as a man loved Scott, as a man, despite of and for all his faults. Compared to them, and their companions in the various base camps on that southern ice, we are indeed a sorry and sordid lot, obsessed with side-boobs, cellulite and sexting. What group of men could today could spend two years in uncomfortable isolation without swearing, talking about sex or slipping into such levels of irony that any enriching conversation becomes impossible? Damnit, where are the heroes? I plot a strong but lonely (1,0).

Arnold Bennett!

Next time, Hilaire Belloc’s The Path To Rome and G. K. Chesterton’s Autobiography. 




The journey is the thing

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin. 

The Morning Post of the 25th of October 1830, under the heading Interesting Voyage of Discovery, announced the arrival of:

His Majesty’s surveying-vessel Adventure…with the Beagle…from South America, where both vessels have been engaged nearly five years…in surveying the coasts from the River Plate on the East, round Cape Horn, to Chiloe on the West.

Sadly, the report went on to say, four officers and seven seaman died while on the voyage. It did not mention that the leader of the expedition Commander Pringle Stokes had committed suicide, thus giving Robert Fitzroy his command of the Beagle. 

Robert Fitzroys's map of Tierra del Fuego. Source:

Robert Fitzroys’s map of Tierra del Fuego. Source:

However, there were some passengers on board the Beagle who had joined the ship in Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost tip of South America. As the Morning Post explained:

The Beagle has brought to England four natives of Tierra del Fuego…These Fuegians were taken prisoner during the time that the Beagle was employed on the S.W. coast of that country, in consequence of their tribe having stolen a boat…

Seeing that they had quickly settled into life on board the Beagle, Fitzroy decided to bring them to England, educate them (which meant converting them to Christianity) and then return them to Tierra del Fuego. Thus by improving their lot, the life of the tribe could be improved, and lifted up from its present condition, described by the Morning Post as:

…the lowest of mankind…

adding that they were:

…without a doubt, cannibals.

Fuegia, Jemmy and York. Three of the Fuegians brought back by Fitzroy. from his account of the journey Voyages of the Adventure and Beagle, at

Fuegia, Jemmy and York. Three of the Fuegians brought back by Fitzroy. from his account of the journey Voyages of the Adventure and Beagle, at


Fitzroy did indeed look after them. He organised lodgings for them, found a school which they could attend and called on the Church Missionary Society to help with their Christian education. Whatever else he thought of them, and he also believed them to be cannibals, he wrote of the need to vaccinate them:

I was, of course, anxious to protect the Fuegians, as far as possible, from the contagion of any of those disorders, sometimes prevalent, and which unhappily have so often proved fatal to the aboriginal natives of distant countries when brought to Europe…                                                             “Voyages of the Adventure and Beagle”

During the summer of 1831 King William IV asked to meet the Fuegians. The meeting was a success. The King, wrote Fitzroy:

…asked me so many sensible and thoroughly pertinent questions respecting the Fuegians and their country also relating to the survey in which I had myself been engaged…

Queen Adelaide went one further. She presented Fuegia with one of her own bonnets, the ring from her finger and a sum of money to buy clothes before she returned to Tierra del Fuego.

Darwin describes their return to Tierra del Fuego in The Voyage of the Beagle.

It was interesting to watch the conduct of the savages when we landed towards Jemmy Button: they immediately perceived the difference between him and ourselves…The old man addressed a long harangue to Jemmy, which it seems was to invite him to stay with them. But Jemmy understood very little of their language, and was, moreover, thoroughly ashamed of his own countrymen.

His own tribe welcomed Jemmy and the other Fuegians. With them was a Mr Matthews, a missionary who had been sent with them from England. His mission was a short one. Three weeks later, the Beagle returned to find that the members of the tribe had stolen everything and threatened Matthews – among the robbers was Jemmy’s own brother. Fitzroy decided to take Matthews with them. They returned for the final time in the March of the following year. Jemmy, naked except for a blanket, with his hair long and messy, was ashamed at first to meet with them. The sadness of their parting was very real as Jemmy has always been popular with the crew. Darwin wrote:

When Jemmy reached the shore, he lighted a signal fire, and the smoke curled up, bidding us a long and last farwell, as the ship stood her course into the open sea.

There is an epilogue. In October 1854 the schooner Allen Gardiner, paid for by the Patagonian Missionary Society, sailed for Tierra del Fuego, with the aim of spreading Christianity and also searching for Jemmy Button. Like previous missions it was not a success, not because of theft or murder, as in the case of the missionary Allen Gardner after whom the schooner was named, but through dissension between the schooner’s captain Parker Snow and, well, just about everyone else. But in the appropriately named Button Islet, attracted by the British colours raised by Parker Snow, two canoes approached the schooner.

I sang out to the natives interrogatively, “Jemmy Buttom? Jemmy Button? To my amazement and joy…an answer came from one of the four men in the canoe , “Yes, yes; Jam-mes Button. Jam-mes Button!”

Button Sound from the book A Two Year's Cruise off Tierra del Fuego, the Falkland Islands, Patagonia and in the River Plate. Source:

Button Sound from the book A Two Year’s Cruise off Tierra del Fuego, the Falkland Islands, Patagonia and in the River Plate. Source:

His English returned bit by bit. He asked to wear trousers in the presence of Parker Snow’s wife; when they sat down to eat he wanted to use cutlery; shown the captain’s library he asked for three books. Stepping on deck for the first time, he saluted Parker Snow which impressed the crew. Of this first meeting Parker Snow wrote:

..with his shaggy hair and begrimed countenance; I could not help assimilating him to some huge baboon dressed up for the occasion.

Which, I guess, says it all.

In the return visit six weeks later, over a hundred of the tribe came to greet the schooner. The tone of the encounter had changed. Jemmy’s brothers demanded gifts from Parker Snow while Jemmy chatted with the missionary on board the schooner. Parker Snow ordered the anchor raised. Jemmy’s wife called to him from the canoe. As the wind caught the sails the Fuegians on board returned to their canoes and the schooner turned to the open sea. Parker Snow wrote of Jemmy:

…the man of many hopes, of much talk, of great name in getting interest in the mission…yet none less a nude savage like his brethern.

It was never going to have a happy ending, was it?

But of literary taste, what can we say? I would say “Charlie, do you fancy a pint? ” And the crack, as they say in Oban, would be good. So, it’s a hearty (7,5) and set course for the open sea.

Har, me hearties!

Next time, the temperature drops as we head to the South Pole with Captain Scott, in The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard.

Stella Benson: a novelist who happened to travel quite a lot

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, Stella Benson and The Little World
But first:

My novel A Republic of Wolves. A City of Ghosts is now available as an ebook.

It can be purchased at:

Support independent publishing: Buy this e-book on Lulu.

Or at:,, Barnes and Noble and the iBookstore

If you’d like to get in touch with any questions about the novel or comments drop me a line at

acityofghosts AT gmail dot com


The RMS Empress of Russia was launched in Govan in Scotland on the 28th of August, 1912. Built for the Canadian Pacific Railway company it sailed the Far East route between Canada, China and Japan. Apart from mail, it carried 284 1st class passengers, 100 2nd class and up to 800 steerage passengers in a journey across the Pacific that would last approximately eight days. In an age of this:

Allure of the Seas. Source: Wikipedia

we’ve forgotten that this:

Empress of Russia. Source: Simplon Postcards.

Was the equivalent of this:

(But not this:)

The Hindenburg. Source: Wiikipedia.

Canadian Pacific sailing times. Source:

Stella Benson (1892–1933) made that journey across the Pacific, calling at Vancouver, Yokohama, Kobe, Nagasaki, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Manila (also the Atlantic, the Indian Ocean and, I think, the Mediterranean) on a number of occasions, and travelled first class on the Empress of Russia too. That it was nothing out of the ordinary can be seen in the lack of comments to do with the nitty gritty of travel in the steamship age in her book The Little World or in her biography Portrait of Stella Benson (published in 1939, in time for World War Two, I wonder if that is why in part she disappeared so quickly from the zeitgeist). True, on one of her journeys someone died from diving into an empty swimming pool but apart from that little else seemed to happen.

Stella Benson by Wyndham Lewis. Source National Portrait Gallery.

Stella herself almost died on one of these journeys. Always suffering from ill health she had come down, as she did frequently, with an attack of pleurisy. Only the care given by, I think, a steward saved her life. As a young woman she had made these long journeys by sea because she wanted to. Always independent she had lived alone in London during the First World War, working for a charity based in Hoxton, London. Following the end of the war, it seemed only natural that she should travel, alone, to California. It was this journey she repeated with her husband, this time by car, a Ford which they named Stephanie, coast-to-coast, in conditions which seemed not to have changed much since the days of Oregon Trail.

Once married, these journeys by steamship became a necessity. Her husband was a customs official in a number of Chinese provinces and the Winters proved too much for her fragile health. She wintered in California or visited her mother in England rather than risk her health in China. And herein lay the problem. She collected her experiences as a youthful traveller in The Little World. From it emerges the image of a clever, insightful and, above all,  funny woman. She was clever and funny enough to write of the granting of a degree of political autonomy to India:

Among other Calcutta women I had permission to witness this historic ceremony. Nevertheless, though I and the other women put on our most ceremonious hats or saris and flourished grass-green passes, the authorities decreed, on second thoughts, that the occasion was too historic for the eye of woman.

Married or single, pretty or plain, intelligent or dull she was a woman. Married, she had no choice but to play second fiddle to her husband. Where he went she followed and her own literary career was fitted into his. She was not the first woman to experience this disappointment, nor will she be the last.

Of The Little World she felt little affection.

…Stella always spoke of it as trivial hack-work…

She wanted to be known for her fiction, such as Tobit Transplanted, published in 1931 and winner of the Femina Vie Heureuse Prize. But on her death the Western Daily Press summarised her life under the heading, Miss Stella Benson Dead. Novelist Who Loved To Travel. The Western Daily Press wrote of Tobit Transplanted that it was:

…a kind of modern version of a tale in the Apocrypha placed in Manchuria;

before adding that:

Travel was her hobby.

Perhaps that was Stella Benson’s undoing in the years after the Second World War. Stories written by a woman who had shot tigers, travelled alone in Mexico, survived bandit gangs in China and lived through an earthquake had a limited role to play in the new atomic world of East and West. Her colonial associations may not have worn well in this world of black and white television and Harold Macmillian’s “…most of our people have never had it so good.” Her husband was, after all, an official in the Chinese Customs Service at a time when trade in China was seen as a prerogative of the Western economies.

I was going to be a coward and use her humour as an excuse to sit her on that fence of coordinates, neither in one camp nor in the other. She deserves more than being a footnote in biographies of Virginia Woolf. A sturdy (9,6) places her in her rightful place of literary taste.

Up next time,  E.C.Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case.

%d bloggers like this: