The Pole

The Pole: Preamble

This 500 word short-short story appeared in my first collection, Extreme Weather Events (2001). It reflects my continuing fascination with the events of December 1911 and January 1912, when the Norwegian expedition under Roald Amundsen and the British expedition under Robert Falcon Scott contended, with their different methods and different personalities, to be the first in recorded history to reach the South Pole. It’s an era and a competition about which there is still controversy.

I was raised on tales of the heroism of Scott and his other great rival, Ernest Shackleton – yet, in those tales, Amundsen was always regarded as an outsider and something of a bounder, a Johnny Foreigner using such underhand methods as meticulous preparation and detailed organisation to succeed where British pluck and improvisation failed.

“The Pole” is far from the first story to re-imagine the race for the Pole – one of its most distinguished predecessors is Ursula Le Guin’s short story Sur. I even have an idea for a “The Pole 2”, which, perhaps fortunately, I haven’t yet written. But here, in 500 words or so, is my version of the race for the Pole.

The Pole

Amundsen and Scott approached the Pole from opposite directions. They halted when they were each about ten feet from it. Their men, who had been following warily behind, joined their leaders, and two semi-circles of tired, hungry, dirty explorers glared at each other through the drifting snow.

There were protocols to be observed on such occasions. “Pony-butchers!” yelled Helmer Hanssen.

“Dog-killers!” replied Wilson. This wasn’t really fair; the English had killed their dogs, too, but the difference — an important difference to all right-thinking Englishmen — was that this had been the result of incompetence rather than design.

“Disorganised rabble!” True enough.

“Cheats!” This was the Englishmen’s greatest complaint. Everyone knew Scott had first dibs on the pole, yet this arrogant Norwegian had tried to beat him to it.

Insults go only so far. It may have been Evans who scooped up the first handful of icy snow; soon, the air was filled with missiles, little packets of misery bound for neck or chest or face. The activity released something in them; they danced and capered, bending and straightening, hurling challenges when they were not hurling snow, their ranks dissolving into a fluid ballet of man and ice.

But it was cold, utterly cold, and they were tired. Scott and Amundsen (who had kept themselves largely aloof from the frenzy infecting their men) looked at each other, brushed the snow from their clothes, then motioned for silence. Each leader walked forward, step for step, until their hands could clasp.

“Welcome to the Pole, Captain Scott.”

“Welcome to the Pole, Mr Amundsen.”

They shook hands again. Then they moved to one side and repeated the handshake for the cameras, and it is Bjaaland’s photograph we have seen so many times, the two leaders, hoods thrown back, smiling at each other, there at that desire of all true hearts, the Pole.

After the handshakes were over, after the exchange of gifts between the men, they returned to the Pole itself. Whoever had made the cairn that stood there had built well, but there was no clue to their identity, nor to how they had brought the rock from some distant outcrop. It took the best part of an hour to dismantle the cairn, bury its rocks a suitable distance away, and smooth over the snow.

When the site had been cleared, they stood two ski poles upright in the snow, lashed on the Norwegian flag and the Union Jack, and took a further round of photos. After the British had gorged themselves on the Norwegians’ food — for the British were half-starved, while the Norwegians had more than they needed — each party left the Pole behind, with many a final glance at the two flags fluttering bravely together in the wind, and began the long trek home.

What Our Book Group Reads

I’m a member of a book group. Nothing unusual in that, I suppose. Our book group formed in early 2004. The group was formed by several parents of children in the same class at Kilbirnie School, plus friends, and though people have come and gone over the years, three of the founding members are still involved.

We’re much like any other book group in many respects. We meet each month in the lovely house of one of our members – with occasional forays to other members’ places – have a glass of wine or a cuppa, a piece of cake, and discuss that month’s book, plus what else we’ve been doing, reading and watching. Books we all like, or books we all hate, don’t provoke as much discussion as books we have mixed feelings, or a variety of opinions, about.

There’s some things about our group that are a little different, though. For one, we’ve always had a roughly equal balance of women and men: at the moment, when all of us are in the room, there are four men and three women. For another, we read widely, in both genre and time. We’ve been back to the 19th century with Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and further back to the roots of the novel with Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote; then all the way forward to Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. We’ve had excursions to Russia, Poland, and recently the Dominican Republic with Junot Diaz and his Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Although we mainly read novels, we’ve also read short stories by Jorge Luis Borges and Dorothy Parker, and a little biography and poetry.

And I know all this because one of our members, Richard, has kept a list of what we’ve read since 2004 (and what we’ve watched as well: there are many copies, and we have a plan). We’ve read many fine books, but of all of them, I think the best has been Plumb by Maurice Gee. I think it might be that legendary beast, the great New Zealand novel.