The View From the Great North Wood
One of the more interesting lockdown treats on the telly has been The Terror on Netflix, a dramatized account of the ill-fated expedition to find the North West passage between Greenland and Canada in the Arctic. I began watching it thinking it was a straight historical drama of heroic failure from Victorian times, another story in the vein of Shackleton and Captain Oates. It didn’t take long to realise that this was no ordinary adaptation. It was, in fact, an adaptation of a book of the same name by Dan Simmons from 2007, which is a weird magic realism, horror, adventure, ripping yarns, supernatural mash up of epic proportions. Yes, exactly. It’s fairly accurate in many respects, but completely weird at the same time.
Simmons seems to have taken his inspiration from the title of the second ship on the mission, The Terror, which accompanied the newer model, Erebus on the journey. Just as well it wasn’t called The Jolly Roger. The interpersonal rivalries and politics of the journey, largely based in fact, are well portrayed and make up the bulk of the opening episodes, along with atmosphere of the Arctic. Howling winds, driving snow, that sort of thing. But then it takes a turn for the weird with the appearance of a supernatural creature, that, through the fog and driving snow, could be mistaken for a huge polar bear. This is the Tuunbaq, a mythical demon creature from the Inuit culture, that terrorises the ships after an Inuit elder is mistakenly shot and killed by one of the crew.
It’s a little weird and a little ridiculous, but at times genuinely scary and always gripping. There are some great performances, notably from Jared Leto as Captain Crozier, the alcoholic captain of The Terror and Paul Ready as Doctor Harry Goodsir, the thoughtful and civilized junior doctor. It’s a far cry from his role in Motherland, particularly his final appearances, which will leave an indelible mark on anyone who watches. Adam Nagaitis, as Hickey is also a compelling presence throughout, before he meets a grisly end. I think we’ll be seeing a lot more of him in the future.
In the end though, I was left a little disappointed. The supernatural elements were often left unexplained (in a lazy way, not in a show-not-tell way) and despite the obviously massive budget, I wasn’t convinced by the harshness of their situation. At times, it seemed all a little too jolly. I had no sense of the absolutely punishing cold, particularly given the fact that they seemed to be wearing nothing more specialist than flimsy Millets duffle coats.
Alright, there was one scene of casual finger amputation, using a pair of pliers, that looked like a slightly too enthusiastic case of cutting someone else’s nails, but there were no other references to the cold at all. It’s like dramatizing Livingstone and Stanley without mentioning the punishing heat. But it did its job in one major respect – it intrigued me. What was the real story of this expedition when you expunge all of the nonsense? To find out, I read “Erebus – the story of a ship” by Michael Palin. Yes, that Michael Palin. And guess what? As well as being an iconic comedy genius and all-round national treasure TV presenter nice guy, he can also write. This is a wonderful book. I finished it in a couple of days, so compelling was it. The real story did not need any supernatural flimflam to make it work, and I do wish that they had done a straight historical re-enactment. (or that someone else will do one )
Palin tells the story of how, at the end of the Napoleonic wars, there was a long period of peace that allowed Britain to focus its financial and naval might on exploration rather than conquest. Franklin and Crozier, the two captains in this tale, were already veterans of expeditions to the Antarctic, Australasia and The North West passage and their success in the South, along with various political considerations lead to the ill-fated 1845 expedition being launched. Of course, the motivation was not merely for the greater glory and the thirst for knowledge. The North West Passage represented a quicker, easier, cheaper and potentially safer route to the markets of the far East, compared to the hazardous voyage around the Cape Horn, the most dangerous stretch of ocean in the world.
There are some fascinating details. Both ships were fitted with steam engines to power propellers, as a way of minimising the risk of getting stuck in freezing pack ice. The fact that they were barely powerful enough to produce ice cubes for the Officers’ gin and tonics is another matter. The ships had central heating through a network of pipes and these were also used to provide additional supplies of fresh water from melting ice. They had well stocked libraries and games on board as well as provisions enough to last for four years. The diversions were the result of their experience of getting stuck in the ice previously and having to overwinter in permanent darkness for several months. Their journals from previous missions showed quite clearly that even stiff upper lip British chaps ran the risk of depression and mental illness with little to do except survive. They put on several theatrical performances, in which one of the officers in particular, had a penchant for dressing in women’s clothes. The idea that they took a dressing up box with them has completely turned my preconceptions about Victorian explorers on their head.
None of this, as the book makes it clear, was enough to save the ships and their crew. They were never seen again. Various rescue missions, the first launched nearly three years after the ships’ departure, found nothing, and it was not until the 1850s when artefacts, including graves were found and testimony from the local Inuit people told of white men on ships in the area. Some of the crew stayed on the ship for three winters, and various parties left to try and walk to find help.
When bodies were finally discovered, forensic examinations showed they had unusually high levels of lead in their systems, leading to the theory that they were slowly poisoned by their extensive collection of tinned food that had been poorly sealed with lead. One is the more fascinating snippets in the book is the fact that the contract to supply the tinned food was awarded to a company based in Moldavia because they were significantly cheaper. Capitalism, eh? ‘Twas ever thus: tender on price, lose out on quality.
The discoveries kept on coming, including an extraordinary discovery of three graves on Beechey Island in 1850. They were finally exhumed in 1984 and the bodies inside, in coffins just 6 feet into the permafrost, were eerily preserved, as if the men had just dropped off for forty winks. The later expeditions also confirmed what had been revealed in the 1850s, the last days of the mission entailed unimaginable misery and horror, including cannibalism. The survival instinct must be hugely powerful.
When this was suggested, it was too much for Victorian sensibilities and their veneration of the British Imperial character. No less than Charles Dickens fulminated against the allegations of cannibalism brought against men who he described as “the flower of the trained English Navy.” He was much more comfortable with the notion that the Inuit people had committed the acts of cannibalism, and he dismissed their testimony as “the chatter of a gross handful of uncivilized people, with a domesticity of blood and blubber.” Great writer he may be, Charles Dickens, but fundamentally, he was foremost a man of his age.
This , in short, is a wonderful book, beautifully written, and Michael Palin adds another string to his remarkable, Renaissance-man type bow. Give it a go, and while you’re at it, sneak a look at the TV series as well. They are both worthy of your time, at least until we can all go back out and have a social life again.