Daily Archives: 24 February 2014

Book Review: “An Unsung Hero” by Michael Smith

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Tom Crean was an unassuming seaman from Ireland who distinguished himself as one of the hardiest antarctic explorers in history. He served twice under Scott (on the Discovery and the Terra Nova) and once under Shackleton (on the Endurance), both of whom held him in high regard as a supremely dependable crewman.

He proved his bravery time and time again. On the Terra Nova Expedition, while returning to base camp following a depot-laying trip, the ice on which he and his comrades Apsley Cherry-Garrard and Henry Bowers had been camping broke away and started drifting off, taking them with it, away from their sledges. Crean salvaged the situation by jumping across the broken ice floes to fetch help, saving the two men’s lives.

On another occasion, Crean, Edward Evans and William Lashly were trekking back to base when Evans was struck by slow blindness, and had to be aided by the other two. Soon he began to develop scurvy. With provisions running low, and 35 miles still to go to safety, it was decided that Crean would go alone. He set off with just three biscuits and some chocolate, and walked for 18 solid hours. He reached the base just in time to avoid a blizzard, and Evans and Lashly were soon saved.

In his native country, though he has been long admired, there is a perception that his legacy has been underappreciated. Michael Smith set out to restore Crean to his rightful place in history, with his book “An Unsung Hero; Tom Crean – Antarctic Survivor”. The book examines Crean from his early days working on the family farm in Kerry to his death in 1938, but obviously the book is primarily concerned with his polar adventures.

To write about Crean must have been a challenge. He was a modest man who did not seek fame and attention. Because of this, there is no record of him ever giving an interview to the press. He did not write an autobiography. He did not make speaking engagements. He left very little personal correspondence. Many other characters from the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration thoroughly documented their exploits; we have a wealth of diaries and memoirs covering every moment of every expedition, but Crean was a more private person.

The author makes a game attempt to provide a full account of a man whose thoughts and feelings largely remain a mystery. Smith knows that it is Crean’s actions which must speak for him, not his words, and wisely avoids unnecessary interpretation. To use an odd turn of phrase, he lets the story tell the story. He paints a strong picture of a loyal, reliable, and unerringly brave man. The book is well-paced and as well-researched as can be considered possible with a such an elusive figure.

There are, however, stretches of the book where the relative lack of information about Crean becomes apparent; there are times when the author must make do with talking about the general work of the expedition with only occasional sentences to remind us of Crean as a specific presence. He was, after all, part of a crew. Such sections are excusable, and do not hinder the book. It is in these moments that the author provides a good overview of the various voyages. In many ways the book would serve as a solid introduction for those who wish to start learning about the Heroic Age (This does not mean that the book would hold no appeal to those who are more well-versed in the era, as there are some new insights to be gleaned).

Crean comes across as a thoroughly likeable person, full of dedication; a good-natured man who kept his spirit up (and the spirits of everyone around him) in the midst of one of the most inhospitable parts of the world. He was more than capable of emotion, but would not let circumstance get him down for too long. As with Shackleton, there is much a Stoic could learn from such a man as Tom Crean.

Smith has written an exciting, inspiring book, one which makes a strong case for recognition of this previously under-appreciated explorer, and one which I heartily recommend.

Book Review: “Marcus Aurelius” by Frank McLynn

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Any work by historian Frank McLynn is destined to be a decidedly mixed bag. On one hand, McLynn clearly undertakes a gargantuan amount of research, and any reader will not want for sources. He is undoubtedly an intelligent writer, with a strong (though occasionally archaic) command of the English language. He is able to describe not just the individual subject of each biography, but also the wider world in which they operated, thus offering us a better understanding of the geo-political context than we would otherwise have.

On the other hand, he can be biased; allowing his prejudices or preconceptions to shape the narrative. This can give some passages an arrogant flavour. Frequently he appears to use evidence to fit his foregone conclusion rather than drawing a conclusion from the evidence. A strong ability to research does not imply a strong ability to interpret. Once he has made up his mind, he will not budge, the result of which is proclaiming opinions as facts. Finally, (in my opinion, for fear of hypocrisy) he has limited aptitude for describing battles, a significant disadvantage when examining great military commanders like Marcus Aurelius and Napoléon I.

McLynn’s biography of Napoléon was my introduction to his work. Although the author made one or two elemental errors (propagating the now-discredited myth that Napoléon was ridiculously short), and delved a little too often into the unconvincing world of Jungian psychoanalysis (with every decision invariably being described as the result of some baseless complex or another), I nonetheless found it very well researched down to the most personal details (he seemed to have pinned down every dalliance the Emperor ever had, for example, no matter how casual), and despite its length, well-paced. He skilfully kept track of a huge cast of generals, relatives, and assorted hangers-on. He gave equal attention to Napoléon the Emperor, the General, and the Man. The book offered a fairly balanced view of the great leader, never overlooking his faults and never denying his achievements. I hoped to find the same qualities in his examination of Marcus Aurelius. Sadly, I did not.

First, we must consider the reasons why a reader would be drawn to a book about Marcus Aurelius. Perhaps they are interested in Ancient Rome in general. Perhaps they are interested in military and political leaders. Let us especially consider those who are interested in Marcus as one of the most noted Stoic philosophers, a man whose Meditations, despite never being intended for publication, offers wisdom and guidance to modern readers, almost two millenia after being written. In my estimation, any advocate of Stoicism will be dismayed at this book (or rather they would be dismayed if they did not reject this emotion as they should). It is clear from the earliest chapters that McLynn detests this great – and proven – philosophy.

While I can accept a difference of opinion, even a difference of philosophy, it seems that the author hates Stoicism for imagined reasons. His dismissive treatment of the entire school of thought appears to stem from a simple lack of understanding, as evidenced by his assertion that Stoicism “denies human nature by recommending what most sane people would regard as chimerical: braving torture, mocking death, conquering sexual passions. It subscribes to the dreadful doctrine that if someone suffers misfortune, he himself is responsible.”

I am unaware of any Stoic tenet which demands the practitioner to mock death, nor does the philosophy blame anyone for having suffered misfortune. Perhaps McLynn has misinterpreted Epictetus’ saying “If any be unhappy, let him remember that he is unhappy by reason of himself alone” as meaning “If anyone has suffered a misfortune, let him remember he brought it on himself, and we have no sympathy for him”. This of course would be a ridiculous reading of the philosophy.

As for braving torture, stoic philosophy has indeed helped people in such dreadful situations. Let us take an example from the Vietnam War. In 1965 American fighter pilot James Stockdale, having ejected from his plane and parachuted to the ground, was taken as a prisoner of war by the North Vietnamese. He was in captivity for the next seven and a half years, during which time he was denied medical care, and regularly tortured. He specifically credited Stoicism with helping him to survive the ordeal.

The author fares much better when he deals with the culture, politics and history surrounding Marcus. This is not a blinkered biography of the kind obsessed with just one person at the expense of the wider world. It could read as an insightful overview of the history of Rome during Marcus’ reign as much as a history of the man himself. That is not to say Marcus is neglected; we are presented with a lot of information about a person who lived so long ago, for whom limited sources exist.

Unfortunately, these virtues do not excuse the wrong-headed attack on an entire school of thought. It is hard to imagine why someone who holds Stoicism in such low regard would choose to write a book about one of its leading proponents. It is equally hard to imagine why someone who advocates stoicism as a timeless and practical guide to living would choose to read it. I cannot recommend this book.

Stoic Lessons: Ernest Shackleton (Part VII – Conclusion)

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We rejoin the story with Shackleton, Worsley and Crean having reached the Husvik whaling station at South Georgia’s Stromness Bay. They were exhausted after their mighty 36 hour trek, but could not rest for long; their fellow crewmembers were still at the mercy of the elements. Worsley was sent on a whaling ship to collect McCarthy, McNish and Vincent from the other side of the island (they did not recognise him when he arrived, as he was now clean-shaven), while Shackleton and Crean planned the rescue of the men who were on Elephant Island.

Worsley returned with the men, and three days later he joined Shackleton, Crean and volunteers from the whaling station as they set sail for Elephant Island. The ice conditions prevented them from reaching Point Wild, so they diverted to look for a more suitable ship. Few were forthcoming; World War I had broken out shortly before the Endurance Expedition set sail, and was now in full swing, leaving British ships unavailable. A vessel from Uruguay was procured, but it too failed to reach the island, as did a subsequent Argentinian ship. Finally, a Chilean ship made it to the island, and the 22 men were rescued at last.

It is remarkable that despite all the calamities which befell the crew of the Endurance – the destruction of the ship, the months spent living on the ice, the perilous lifeboat journeys and the mighty trek across South Georgia – not a single man died. There was exhaustion, injury and a some amputated toes, but everyone under Shackleton’s command had survived almost unbearable hardship (It should, however, be remembered that the Aurora – the ship on the other side of the continent, tasked with depot-laying – lost three of its men: Victor Hayward, Rev Arnold Spencer-Smith, and the ship’s Captain Aeneas Mackintosh).

One wonders how they did it, particularly in such an unforgiving climate. I believe the main explanation for their success (and it can be called success, in spite of failing their original mission) lies in Shackleton himself. He was the ideal leader: calm under pressure, logical, reasonable, a good judge of character, strong-willed, brave and always undeterred by adversity. Chief amongst his qualities was that which he shared with the name of the ship: endurance.

His excellent command of an almost doomed expedition can serve as a lesson to any budding Stoic (or even an experienced one). Turn after turn he and his men were faced with another fresh difficulty. To face one of these situations would be too much for most people; Shackleton faced each new low with undeniable stoicism (at least on the surface).

This is not to say he was a model person. He had a terrible way with money, and his many failed business dealings landed him heavily in debt. Upon his death (he died of a heart attack while preparing another antarctic adventure) he had not made sure that his family could be provided for after he was gone. He was a frequently restless man between expeditions, always itching to return to the polar regions (it is fitting, therefore, that he is buried in South Georgia). These are not stoic qualities.

Additionally, some have accused him of holding grudges, as apparently evidenced by his denying four men the Polar Medal (McNish, Vincent and two fire-stokers named Holness and Stephenson) while everyone else was awarded. I am less inclined to judge him on this point. If he felt that the men’s conduct or attitude did not deserve recognition, I would not begrudge him his decision.

This has not been a hagiography. It has been a look at a man whose noble words were backed up by his determined actions. He did not spout empty aphorisms. When he said: “Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all”, he meant it. What’s more, he proved it.