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Plenty to chew over

The Man Who Ate His Boots Anthony Brandt

JONATHAN CAPE, 440PP, £20 ■Tablet bookshop price £18

L Tel 01420 592974

ike a tonsured monk, at the top of the world the North Polar ocean was an

open unfrozen sea surrounded by a giant crust of ice. Many eminent Victorians believed this to be true. Sea only froze because of its proximity to land. The salt water and wave action would prevent the whole ocean freezing. Surely it was fitting, right even, that mighty Britannia should chart this new ocean, find a passage through and triumph over the ice as she had triumphed at Trafalgar and Waterloo … Anthony Brandt, in this excellent book,

sets out to give us the whole history of the search for the North-West Passage. But like most before him, he is drawn inexorably to the story of Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated expedition and the rescue voyages that hunted for it. Who can blame him: it is the perfect Victorian saga. Franklin, already famous in Britain for

eating shoe leather to survive on a previous expedition, set sail in February 1845. There were two ships under his command, the

Erebus and the Terror. The ships carried 129 men and enough food for three years. The expedition disappeared into the Arctic and was not heard of again. Even by the standards of the day, the silence was deafening. Its fate tormented the British establishment, and public, for nine years. The Admiralty spent millions on rescue voyages. At one point in 1850, 10 ships were searching for Franklin’s party. The would-be rescuers returned with their own tales of hardship, scurvy and madness but no news, not a trace, of Franklin. In England his wife, the redoubtable Jane, tirelessly urged on the search effort. A true Victorian, she privately visited several mediums to try to find out what had happened to Sir John. A dead child called Weasy Coppin used to appear to her sisters, and told them the location of the Franklin crews. Her father passed on this information to Jane. It turned out to be accurate.

A by-product, almost, of the frantic search, was that the British finally mapped the north Canadian archipelago, and discovered a North-West Passage. The digging of the Suez and Panama canals, and the marriage of the steam engine and screw propeller, would make the route of less importance, but the discovery was trumpeted as a great national achievement. When word of Franklin finally emerged,

in second-hand reports from Inuit hunters, there were whispers of cannibalism. The men had starved to death but not before

NOVEL OF THE WEEK Brush with history

The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress Beryl Bainbridge

LITTLE, BROWN, 208PP, £16.99 ■Tablet bookshop price £15.30 Tel 01420 592974


eryl Bainbridge died last year, having struggled for years to complete her final

novel, famously declaring that quitting smoking had given her writer’s block. The manuscript was found among her papers. The text is polished and appears

complete: there are no gaps or dangling ends. The germ of the story lies in press reports, after Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, that a woman in a polka dot dress, who has never been identified, was seen running from the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, crying, “We shot him.” Rose is a scruffy English 27-year-old who

flies out to America to meet a man she barely knows who goes by the name of Washington Harold. It’s left to the reader to piece together that Rose and Harold are on the trail of the mysterious Wheeler, with whom Rose seems to be in love. Harold, it becomes clear, has a very different outcome in mind when they finally track him down (Rose finds his gun). They voyage across

22 | THE TABLET | 18 June 2011

some had tried “the last dread alternative”, as John Rae called it in his account. Rae, a Hudson’s Bay Company man, first met and interviewed the Inuit in question. Britain could not countenance the idea. There was uproar. Brandt reproduces some very unsettling commentary from the time, which dismisses the Inuit as lying savages, possibly murderous too. Charles Dickens wrote, “We believe every savage to be in his heart covetous, treacherous and cruel … ” and he was not alone. In the event when, in 1858, the skeletons

of some of the crew were found by Captain Francis McClintock’s expedition, it seems pretty clear that the corpses had been sawn up for cooking. One cannot begin to imagine the desperation of those men as they succumbed to starvation, scurvy and the cold. According to a note that was found, Franklin himself was spared such misery: he died aboard in June 1847, long before the men abandoned ship on Good Friday 1848.

Why we – the British – were so driven to

find a route through the ice is hard to comprehend today. Glory, and little else: clearly, there was no real commercial advantage. This tension between folly and bravery, between incompetence and duty, is a recurrent theme in the story of the British Empire. The Man Who Ate His Boots gives a surprisingly deep insight into the soul of imperial Victorian Britain. Like the shoe leather, there’s plenty here to chew over. Adrian Brewer

America in a camper van, all the way brushing up against madness and murder:

America in 1968 is a divided and hostile land, filled with cranks, thugs and victims. They meet a man who was present at the death of Martin

Luther King, run into a gang of racist campers and constantly catch rumours of dark crimes: “That black man said there’s been a shooting on a farm about a mile away,” she said. “A woman in a wheelchair. She’s not dead.” They even witness a murder, but deal with it, as with everything else, in a spirit of blank indifference. Rose exemplifies one of Bainbridge’s constant themes: young women before the advent of feminism. Like other Bainbridge protagonists, she is an intriguing mixture of innocent and sly, meek and assertive, fearful and careless. There’s a good deal of comedy in their misunderstandings: Rose gives the term “soap-dodger” literal sense, swerving away

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