T’is true that there is nothing new in the world – we have been down this path of retrospectively denouncing celebrities, judging them by modern mores, before.
‘Falcon’ came from a privileged background – but scarcely led a privileged life. His Father had inherited a Plymouth brewery, and a country estate in Devon – “the property, a small country estate, was complete with a nice home, a stream at the bottom of the garden, three large greenhouses, dogs, a peacock on the lawn and a small staff of maids and gardeners”. When Falcon was still a young man, the brewery was sold, the money badly invested, and the family became homeless and penniless – forced to move to a rented house in Somerset. As the Guardian would have it today – ‘the children’s education disrupted, the family forced to move away from their social network’ – but there was no housing cap to blame then, the family just had to get on with it, and everyone, including the girls, had to take jobs.
Long before that, out of choice, rather than necessity, Falcon had been sent into a form of apprenticeship – aged 13. He was forced to climb to 120′ above ground – with no safety net; bullied, shouted at; and lived a life of extreme deprivation in the name of making ‘a man out of the boy’. His natural diffidence, shyness and dislike of blood, cruelty to animals and anything vaguely unpleasant had been drilled out of him – anathema to today’s mollycoddled society. His only route out of this lifestyle was not via ‘Jobseekers allowance’ and the ease of the ubiquitous sofa – but to undertake ever more dangerous tasks in the hope of being selected for advancement.
When he was 29, his Father died, leaving the family utterly penniless. Falcon supported his Mother and his sisters from his meagre salary, leaving himself not a penny to spend on anything but the bare necessities of life.
So it was that Falcon volunteered for a voyage into the unknown; to lead an expedition to Antartica. Not out of interest in matters Polar, but as advancement to solve the families financial situation. Falcon was to become better known to us as Robert Falcon Scott, or ‘Scott of the Antarctic’.
It was 100 years ago today, January 17th 1912, that he arrived at what he thought was the South Pole, only to discover that the Norwegian team led by Admundsen had beaten him to it.
Would he have taken that path in life had he had Jobseeker’s Allowance, had the family had tax credits and housing allowance? No doubt someone will come along and say that I am advocating a return to a society where children were sent up chimneys, but it is worth reflecting that we have not only taken away from young men the necessity to prove themselves, but also the opportunity. We still have adventurous explorers today – Ranulph Fiennes, or Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes as I should call him. Only those with a life of privilege can prove themselves in that way – Falcon may have been born into privilege, but it didn’t last long. By the time he was 13 he was living a life that would be unknown today, of hardship and deprivation, and it was his efforts to lift himself out of that life that led to the celebration of his outstanding drive and feats of endurance.
As is the way of modern life, 70 years later, from the comfort of the centrally heated apartment, and the ease of the electric typewriter, several books appeared which mocked Scott. He was, apparently, a ‘heroic bungler’, ‘a man who had led his companions to their death’. Scott was lucky perhaps, in that he died before a knighthood could be bestowed upon him, which spared him the modern scourge of celebrity - calls for him to be stripped of his knighthood after death…
Only Ranulph Fiennes, the only person truly qualified amongst those who clamoured to write the definitive ’revisionist’ biography of Scott was prepared to defend him, in a book called ‘To the Families of the Defamed Dead’. Defaming the Dead is not, it seems, a new preoccupation.
Today, there is barely a mention of this 100th anniversary. Though amusingly I see the feminists have remembered, publishing a piece in the obscure Australian on-line paper, the ‘Northern Rivers Echo’ – it was only Scott’s misogyny allegedly, that prevented Marie Stopes from being the official palaeobotanist on that doomed expedition! The article does at least allow that it was carrying the rocks that Stopes had requested he bring back for her that ultimately delayed the men and led to their death. She, of course, went on to create the movement which allows women to destroy the outcome of their carnal desires with dastardly men – such a shame he didn’t let her go with him 100 years ago.
Between abortion and health and safety rules, the welfare state and the removal of competition between children, will we ever see another Robert Falcon Scott?