Day 8: January 8th 2019

Nothing beats a good diary.

The more salacious, slanderous and muck-raking the better. My favourite diaries are those of the incomparable Samuel Pepys, Chief Secretary of the Navy, but who, in delicious detail, tells us all about his entanglements with actresses, even his wife’s chamber maid and, of course, the wonderful and very married Bess Bagwell. And then there is waspish Hester Thrale and Fanny Burney, both scribbling away about each other and their dear friend, the inimitable Dr Johnson. And within that mix we have the journals of James Boswell which featured his first meeting with Johnson in Davies Bookshop in Convent Garden.

All good stuff, but there can be a serious side to the genre; a thoughtful and well observed diarist can do much to enrich our understanding of history; for instance the journals of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelias are fundamental to our perception of life and attitudes in the second century AD. Just think how impoverished our appreciation would be of life at Versailles under Louis XIV were it not for the gossip-mongering Duc de Saint-Simon and, returning to Pepys, it is no exaggeration to say that his diaries have entirely coloured our view of seventeenth century London under Charles II.

And so it is with the Shackleton story. The real red meat of what happened down here in the Weddell Sea a little over a hundred years ago, is to be found within the diaries. Off the top of my head I can count nine diaries from the expedition team of which I have read or consulted seven. Most people only read Shackleton’s book South (not to be confused with his diary) which is an excellent book, but it is Shackleton burnishing his legacy. If one really wants to know what was being thought, said and done, one has to go to the I-was-there accounts, but – and here we come to the problem – only three of the nine diaries have been made fully available through publication.

As might be expected, some are more revealing than others. Worsley has a lot to say, but he was a romantic who was writing to be read, and liked to embroider for the sake of the story; Orde Lees's journal is nicely descriptive; Wordie is a bit too guarded and discreet; James is good on science but otherwise a bit bloodless; Harry ‘Chippy’ McNish is completely unpunctuated and stripped-down terse (but I love him), while Shackleton is probably the most irritating of all because, potentially, he has the most to say, but does not, and, more than that, he simply will not allow you into his head.

And now I come to my favourite, the diary of the physician, Alexander Macklin, which survives in the archives of the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge. Of all the diarists he is easily the most thoughtful and erudite. But, and here’s the thing, only the second half of his diary survives - the first half went down with the Endurance.

Because they could only carry 2 lbs of personal weight on their intended journey across the ice, he felt obliged to leave his diary on the ship. For the rest of his life this was to him a source of infinite grief. During the surviving half of his diary, which he began on 28 October, 1915, the day after they abandoned ship, he occasionally paused to mourn the loss of that first volume; for instance on 8 November, 1915, he wrote:

‘I wish we had realized that we were not going to make a dash for land, for I would have brought my diary and my bible, both of which I value highly. My diary recorded carefully all events and impressions and was nearly full and would have been of immense interest to me and perhaps to others could I have got it home.’

At the beginning of the second volume he wrote the following poignant lament:

‘This diary I am beginning just a year and two days after that other which I started at Buenos Aires, which I kept so carefully, registering every incident, and recording all my impressions. I made the last entry only four days ago and now it is being ground to nothing aboard the Endurance – poor old ship – I can hear her groaning away with the ice crunch-crunching all about her. It is a real loss my old diary, but lost it is and beyond recovery, for the starboard alleyway is crushed in, and my cabin is under several feet of water solidly frozen oven.’

Macklin’s diary will still be there on the wreck. It is the one thing above all others that I would save if I could.

* * * * * * * *

We are now 150 nautical miles from the Antarctic Peninsula and closing. Fair skies, calm seas.

Ice that survives to the following year is called ‘first-year ice’, while that which survives two summers is called ‘multiyear ice.’ Up until now it has mostly been young ice, but today we have been shouldering our way through mixed first-year and multiyear ice, some of which was over 3m thick and required vigilance even though we are still in the Marginal Ice Zone (MIZ). Apart from the floes there are many large bergs dotted around in every direction as far as the eye can see. On the bridge there are three or four people constantly scanning with binoculars looking for ways through, but also making sure we do not whack any ‘growlers’, that is to say large chunks of ice that are not quite as innocent as they first appear.

Later tonight we will pause to make our first CTD descent and put out the nets to sample the marine biota.