Michael Palin reads from his new book that follows the mysterious and tragic voyage of HMS Erebus in 1845. The author is in the bar of the Akademik Sergei Vavlov, an ice-strengthened survey ship, and singing lines from Northwest Passage. "Tomorrow" he says, "we make our way through the Bellot Straight, which will take us into Peel Sound and very close to the heart of the Franklin story." But what will be found there?
Although the story of this disastrous voyage has often been told, two things distinguish Michael Palin’s revisiting of it. The first is that he’s Michael Palin, which means that his narrative is driven by a deep sympathy for explorers and adventurers, while also being illuminated by flashes of gentle wit... It’s a fascinating story that he brings full-bloodedly to life, stripping away the barnacles of the past to reveal the hidden history of a ship that spent years encountering places such as Cape Disappointment, Delusion Point and Exasperation Bay...
Palin has seized it with relish: the distinctive dry humour familiar to his television audiences finds plenty of opportunities to emerge, and his easy assurance as a writer (he has kept a daily journal for decades) keeps the pace sprightly... The four-year expedition was, nevertheless, a triumph whose results formed the bedrock of Antarctic science. In Palin’s telling it’s also a very human story... Palin gives a flavour of the voluminous, gossipy correspondence that continued as far as Greenland, where the final support vessel left them... Perhaps wisely, Palin does not attempt a fictionalized guess at events aboard ship, or the motivations or interactions of the crew... Palin avoids the temptation to speculate on what it might eventually reveal, content to leave this latest chapter in the life of Erebus open-ended. On the evidence of this book, Palin’s fifth career will also, with luck, have future instalments.
Palin regularly introduces his own experience of the places visited by Erebus. Sometimes it is irritating and distracting when an author does this, but not on this occasion. Palin’s experiences, including a voyage on a Russian ship to the channel where the wreck of Erebus was discovered, give a sense of immediacy and proportion to his narrative. The comparative ease of his travelling stands in sharp contrast to the grim realities of Arctic exploration in the days of sail, when those on Erebus and ships like it were cut off from any communication with home for years. This contrast serves to heighten the heroism of these men. One wonders at their fortitude and endurance...Michael Palin has done full justice to him and all these remarkable men. This truly is a marvellous book.
Palin makes it his own. It is an epic story, full of appalling human suffering (everyone died) and one constantly revised as fresh discoveries float to the surface... The prose style is fluent, though Palin might have allowed himself more jokes and fewer anachronisms (“on all accounts a bit of a drip”; “there was no plan B”). As always, there are far more officer sources (notably here Robert McCormick and the genius naturalist Joseph Dalton Hooker) than those of regular seamen. But Palin does his best, accessing, for example, the diaries of Mne Sgt Cunningham and the muster books and description books kept by the paymaster and purser on every navy ship.
Palin’s inquest into the Franklin Disaster and the brave souls who perished is terrific in its detail, poignant, and with the suggestion of cannibalism, macabre. Months stretched into years, as the ships, just 102 feet long and each crammed with 60-odd men and supplies, became mired in the ice. The perpetual darkness and cold of the Arctic winter seem scarcely endurable. Palin draws together recent research to explain just how the men could have ended up in such a desperate state, weakened by scurvy, possibly lead poisoning too from poorly made tinned food, or the water system on board the ships.
Nicholas Crane, current president of the Royal Geographical Society, has described Palin, one of his predecessors, as "the world's most appealing practitioner of geographical curiosity", and it's that curiosity which drives his stirring new book... His account is written in crisp, unshowy prose, though now and again ("pride before a fall"; "poisoned chalice") it slips into language as whiskery as some of those intrepid Victorians. Only once, when I read of Palin's evening on an icebreaker "singing lustily" the Stan Rogers song Northwest Passage, did I find myself thinking of Monty Python and lumberjacks.
Palin tells this fabulous story well, if not always with all the pace and tension you might expect — there is a lot of detail.... All this reads as if written by an experienced historian; Palin the Python is nowhere to be seen. Even Palin the presenter only pops up occasionally — with a handful of genial, faintly anodyne travel anecdotes and droll asides... Elsewhere, a more serious Palin cuts in. He is upset by the number of birds shot by the ships’ naturalists, and saddened by the explorers’ failure to appreciate the value of wilderness as a 21st-century person might. The book does not really need any of these interjections. Carefully researched and well-crafted, it brings the story of a ship vividly to life.