Review: Vivien Horler
Finding Endurance – Shackleton, my father and a world without end, by Darrel Bristow-Bovey (Jonathan Ball Publishers)
Like author Darrel Bristow-Bovey, I’m a Shackleton fan. Some Antarctic polar nuts are Robert Falcon Scott fans – and Scott did actually reach the South Pole, albeit behind the Norwegian Roald Amundsen – but he and his party died on the return journey.
Shackleton never made it to the South Pole, yet his story seems to me the more remarkable one: he and his entire team made it back home, after seeing their ship crushed by the ice and then going through extraordinary privations to survive.
Bristow-Bovey ascribes some of the reasons for the difference to the men’s approach: Scott was a navy man who issued orders; Shackleton didn’t have the same in-built structure with his men so relied on innate leadership skills and also empathy. He cared about his men, and they knew it. He was The Boss, and most of the time they went along with him, even when he made decisions many of them hated.
The story of Shackleton’s second attempt on the Pole, which began in 1914, just days before the beginning of World War 1, is well known. It has been the subject of innumerable books, of which I’ve read a few, including Shackleton’s own account, South.
As far as I know, the most recent account of the epic voyage – before Bristow-Bovey’s – was that by Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Shackleton – A biography, published in 2021. (For the review, see here: Shackleton: terror and courage on the ice)
Finding Endurance covers much of the same ground – well it would have to – but it is much more of a personal reflection by Bristow-Bovey about his own life, and his relationship with his father, who died when the author was a young boy.
He tells a horrific story about how, on a holiday in Cape Town from Johannesburg, the family were walking on the Sea Point Promenade when they came across a contraption, a sort of barrel you stood and walked on, trying to keep to keep upright as it rolled. Seven-year-old Darrel was nervous, so his dad got up and showed him how it was done.
If his dad could do it, Darrel was ready to try, and then his dad fell, hitting his head with a smack on the tarmac. He was taken to hospital and had a stroke. He was never the same again.
Stranded in a leatherette recliner, he would tell stories to young Darrel, who was enchanted. He told him he had been with Shackleton on the ice, which Darrel realised later could not have been true, since Shackleton’s expedition ended in 1917 and Dick Bristow-Bovey was born in 1922.
And yet there are different truths. In a “Note about the Author” at the start of the book, someone writes: “His fascination with the Endurance expedition began as a small boy, when his father first told him that he had been south with Shackleton. He still believes him.”
The writing can be lyrical. “The Antarctic summer is dry and cold, and when it meets the warm blood of your lungs it fizzes like pure oxygen.”
He also writes: “Under the circling sun the ice does things to light to which we are not accustomed… In the ledges and faces of the bergs are unexpected hues; not just blues and purples but golds and ochres, sage green, herb green, all the greens of the forest… The men saw rainbows of pure, glittering white, formed by the droplets of the fog…”
Despite what you might assume from the title, Bristow-Bovey was in Greece, and not aboard the SA Agulhas II when it made its historic voyage to the ice to find the crushed remains of Shackleton’s ship on the bed of the Weddell Sea.
So the “finding Endurance” promised in the title is a bit of an over-sell, and is covered in a single chapter, based on interviews with Captain Knowledge Bengu and ice pilot Freddie Ligthelm, “two very good names for your ice pilots”.
I suspect an in-detail account of the suspense of the SA search in March 2022 is probably being written as we speak – because it was truly a suspensive expedition, with the ship due to leave the ice and then staying for a game-changing little longer, thanks to Captain Bengu’s courage – but Finding Endurance is still well worth the read.
It’s beautifully written, it gives insight into what inspires men, from Shackleton and his team to a self-confessed flawed contemporary SA writer, and I inhaled it.