Dan Richards sees the present reflected in the tales of past disasters
They forged the last link with their lives – HMS Erebus and Terror by William Thomas Smith, 1895
“I scream, you scream, we all scream for schadenfreude”, as the old song goes. Unpleasant, yes, but the global pandemic has proved it all too true: isolated at home with nothing better to do, any proof that other people are having as bad, boring or at least as irksome a time as oneself has become a welcome distraction.
Twitter aside, witness the success of TV that mirrors the claustrophobic cabin fever of lockdown. Feeling trapped in a haunted dystopian soap opera? You’ll relate to the unheimlich fishbowl thrills of WandaVision. No idea what’s going on? Pity the “angry rozzers shouting acronyms” in Line of Duty. Your day is an endless round of thankless tasks involving toilet rolls and buckets? Relax with the lo-fi Crystal Maze masochism of Taskmaster. We are all Sad Lee Mack now.
The apex of such vicarious sadism is surely The Terror, a terrifically macabre retelling of Sir John Franklin’s “lost” expedition of 1845-48 — an endeavour famed for its casualty count which was… everyone. All 129 officers and men of the twin ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror disappeared into the Canadian Arctic en route to the undiscovered Northwest Passage — a story The Terror now retells in scrupulous period detail with added supernatural bumps in the polar night.
As a chilly exemplar of “yes, it could be worse”, it’s top end — a handsome cast of dishy, high-collared, stiff-upper-lipped military types set sail to find the Northwest Passage but instead go mad, mutiny, get mauled by a mysterious monster, become emaciated, and end up eating each other. It’s ice-station Downton meets The Thing.
But as fear ramps up on ship and formerly inflexible hierarchies start to shatter, the welcome escapism of the gothic horror genre changes into something closer to home. Senior officers lose their grip and run amok, unable to grasp the magnitude of the escalating nightmare. “I think the people of HMS Terror have had enough of experts”, says Sir John Franklin at one point when asked about his decision to shun, shoot or just ignore the Netsilik Inuit. (They turn out to be the only people able to control the Tuunbaq, the supernatural spirit bear attacking the crew. I found myself siding with it quite often.)
Not everyone on the mission is a total pillock, and how we long for our own Dr Henry Goodsir, a kindly, open-minded, moral chap who signed up with a view to exploring the Arctic’s natural wonders but finds himself in grizzly bedlam. The most junior of the expedition’s four doctors, and soon the last one standing, his empathetic nature marks him out. He’s one of very few to attempt to connect with indigenous people, in short a good egg.
But as we all now know, it’s hard to be that rare double-yolker when locked down with your nearest and dearest — be it in pack ice or Peckham. Hostility brews, festers and flares. Personal space, hygiene, hoovering and washing up, whose turn it is to buy loo roll or choose the takeaway, intolerable snoring, the futility of Zoom calls when everybody’s stuck. “Yes, I’ve started smoking again, what of it?!”
Which isn’t to say I’ve turned into a total misanthrope, just a mite grumpy in the teeth of a pandemic, in the way The Shining’s Jack Torrance got a little bit testy towards the end of his time in The Overlook Hotel. But with the spring now sprung and the prospect of getting out and meeting other people, I’ve noticed a change in my outlook, call it a schadenfreudal thaw.
Part of the reason for this, I think, is that I’ve been reading Madhouse at the End of the Earth by Julian Sancton — a book that ticks a lot of the bitter boreal boxes mentioned above, to the point where I don’t need a fix for a while.
And there we have it. An impulsive, arrogant leader who disregards advice. Scientists who are ignored and treated like wimps. A good doctor forced to make do and tend as a result of disastrous mismanagement in the higher echelons of power
Navigating a middle course between the polar axis of Franklin’s 1840s expedition (everyone dies horribly) and Shackleton’s in 1914 (improbably, everyone survives), Madhouse tells the true story of Adrien de Gerlache de Gomery’s 1897 Belgian Antarctic Expedition, the first enterprise to overwinter (by default) in the Antarctic. Not all the crew return.
The book’s cover shows the three-masted steam whaler, RV Belgica, locked fast in an Antarctic floe. The word “harrowing” appears in several of the jacket blurbs but the book manages to walk the thin ice between the fantastic, the sanguine, and the outright grim. The fact there were any survivors at all — because things go rapidly south in every sense — was mainly due to the intervention of another brilliant medic, Dr. Frederick Cook.
The soul of invention, energy, and optimism (outwardly, at least), Dr Cook gets the crew eating blue penguin steaks and builds the world’s first light clinic — standing the frozen, weakened sailors before the Belgica’s furnace to warm and illuminate them as a remedy for the scurvy and seasonal affective disorder ravaging the ship.
The Belgica’s first mate — a young Norwegian by the name of Roald Amundsen — also distinguishes himself by means of his bravery and stoicism, though as Sancton notes, one of the reasons he thrived was that “Since his adolescence, when he held the doomed explorer John Franklin in reverence, [he’d] equated suffering with accomplishment, to the point where it didn’t feel like suffering anymore”.
This isn’t necessarily someone you want in charge of a ship at sea, especially an ice-locked one. “Unfortunately the scientists are very frightened,” Amundsen wrote on the eve of his commander’s unilateral decision to sail south, in direct contravention of said scientists’ advice that it would be a suicidal move. Sure enough, the following day found the ship entombed in ice.
And there we have it. An impulsive, arrogant leader who disregards advice. Scientists who are ignored and treated like wimps. A good doctor forced to make do and tend as a result of disastrous mismanagement in the higher echelons of power. To add insult to vitamin deficiency, it turns out de Gomery has skimped on the citrus juice that would have saved the crew, instead bulk-buying nasty lime concentrate in line with the British navy’s cost-cutting dictates. He even underfeeds the crew for fear of the Belgian press reporting they’ve been living too well.
By this point, the pandemic parallels were becoming more depressing than fun. Instead of delivering the hoped-for schadenfreude, my polar “disaster porn” was starting to feel like another night stuck at home watching the news.
I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say the Belgica’s dark times didn’t last forever and eventually the ship escaped its icy catafalque. In the same way we are all now able to walk through our front doors and escape to… what? sunlit uplands? I doubt it. Maybe to the vaccine clinic and then the pub.
The Schadenfreude Arms or The Fox and Joie Maligne?
No, I insist, this round of rancid lime juice shandy is on me!
Dan Richards writes about travel, culture and art. His first book, “Holloway” (Faber), written with Robert Macfarlane and Radiohead artist Stanley Donwood, was a Sunday Times Bestseller. His latest book is “Outpost: A Journey to the Wild Ends of the Earth” (Canongate, 2019)