David Day: Flaws in the Ice: In Search of Douglas Mawson (2013)
For years I've been encouraging my travel writing students to study two different versions of Douglas Mawson's classic survival yarn from his 1912 Antarctic expedition. On the one hand, there are two chapters from The Home of the Blizzard (1915), as reprinted for a popular account of his journey in 1930; on the other hand, there are his original diaries, edited for publication in 1988:
- Mawson, Douglas. Mawson’s Antarctic Diaries. Ed. Fred Jacka & Eleanor Jacka. 1988. North Sydney: Susan Haynes / Allen & Unwin, 1991. 127-29, 147-48, 150-51, 157-59, 170-72 & 174.
- Mawson, Douglas. The Home of the Blizzard: The Story of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, 1911-1914. 1915. Abridged Popular Edition, 1930. Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 1996. 158-203.
I was therefore interested recently to come across a new book about Mawson by David Day, author of the fascinating (and, indeed, truly groundbreaking) Antarctica: A Biography (2012). He'd expressed a few doubts about the veracity of Mawson's account in his earlier book, but given it was largely devoted to debunking the various masks behind which sheer naked greed for territorial acquisition were lurking on virtually all Antarctic expeditions old and new, I have to say that they didn't really seize my attention.
Now, however, he's committed himself to a full-scale hatchet job on Mawson, whom he clearly loathes with a passion, in the grand tradition of Roland Huntford's magisterial deconstruction of the "Scott of the Antarctic" legend in his Scott and Amundsen (1979).
In a sense, it's not a particularly difficult task. In his excellent and very balanced review of Day's book in Inside Story, "Debunking Mawson," Tom Griffiths acknowledges that:
All of Mawson’s well-known weaknesses are probed at length – his ambition, selfishness, coldness, competitiveness, meanness, lack of compassion and humour, propensity to dither, and other “flaws” in his icy character.Yes, precisely. I doubt that anyone who has studied Mawson - or even just read his books and diary - was ever tempted to think of him as a nice guy. Scott certainly had charm, though he mostly chose to use it only on his superiors and those he was cajoling to do something for him. Shackleton, too, inspired a kind of love in most of those who encountered him (though he too had his bitter enemies). Mawson was a little more like the emotionally reserved Amundsen, it seems: though he wholly lacked the latter's immense expertise and attention to detail when it came to the mechanics of organizing an expedition.
Was the picture quite as black as Day has painted it, though? A recent book by Karyn Maguire Bradford called The Crevasse: A Critical Response to "Flaws In The Ice" (2015) argues otherwise. Tom Griffiths also points out a couple of respects in which Day's book seems to weight the balance unduly against Mawson:
As revealed in his general history of Antarctica, David Day continues to lack any interest in, or curiosity about, science. This political historian of empire, who casts a perceptive and tenacious eye on the politics of polar annexation, can only ever see science with cynicism. It is for “show”; it “acts as a cover”; it “buttresses scientific credentials”; it is always strategic, self-serving and “disguising” something else ... With such a view, Day is destined to be blind to Mawson’s core motivation, and he is unable to share the wonder and intellectual excitement that drew – and still draws – many expeditioners to Antarctica.Quite so. "Science" is only ever mentioned with a sneer in Day's book, except where it assists him in pointing out how more "successful" both physically and scientifically the other expeditions Mawson sent out from his main base were than his own (scarcely surprising, since his became a desperate struggle for life, while theirs were merely intensely uncomfortable and difficult).
It also seems rather hypocritical of Day to spend so much time sniffing around the bedsheets to determine whether or not Mawson really slept with Scott's widow Kathleen. The same suspicions surround her relations with Fridtjof Nansen, but it's hard to see why it hasn't been allowed to blacken his reputation (though it undoubtedly calls his good judgment into question a little), while it should be so damning to Mawson's? Day is forced to resort to such phony rhetorical measures as balancing their trysts against the progress of the war itself:
That Sunday, as the relentless slaughter on the Somme continued, [Kathleen] went to Kensington Gardens with Peter [her son] to collect caterpillars, before spending a 'very delightful' time with Mawson in a row boat, and 'got home very late'. It wasn't warm enough for such activities, wrote Kathleen, but it was 'otherwise very delightful'. The implication is that they had sex in the row boat ("supine on the floor of a narrow canoe"), though it's hard to see how one can be sure at this distance in time. Day has earlier quoted the statement (echoed by so many contemporary writers: Proust and T. S. Eliot among them) by Kathleen's "biographer and granddaughter Louise Young [that] ... the 'war seemed to send everyone if not sex mad, then love mad, passionate friendship mad, waste-no-time mad'"  "Doubtless," he acknowledges somewhat reluctantly, "it was life-affirming amidst the death and despair of a war that was killing millions". Now, however, he lets his real feelings show:
Mawson may have dropped by to show off his ... officer's uniform ... He could hardly confess that he'd spent the war years relaxing on the beach and dancing the nights away at London clubs while a million men were being slaughtered on the Somme. This seems completely gratuitous. To hear Day trumpeting these John Bull-ish clichés ("What did you do in the Great War, Daddy?) a hundred years on is grotesque in the extreme. He tallies the various members of the Mawson expedition who managed to get themselves wounded or killed in the years that followed with almost the same smug satisfaction as some dyspeptic major in a Siegfried Sassoon poem.
WWI poster (1915)
James Joyce had a good answer for that question (or at any rate Tom Stoppard's play Travesties attributes one to him): "I wrote Ulysses. What did you do?"
The more serious charges against Mawson stem mainly from Day's analysis of his famous sledge-journey, after losing one of his two companions (together with the sledge he was guiding) in a crevasse.
You'll be unsurprised when I mention that Day seriously suggests that the accident was largely Mawson's fault because he hadn't told Ninnis that he might be in less danger riding the sledge than walking beside it, and speculates as follows about its cause:
Whether the bridge was already weakened by Mawson's sledge crossing it obliquely, or whether it was just the weight of Ninnis that made the critical difference, cannot be known. In this and other passages, it's clear that the question, for Day, has shifted from "Did Mawson play any significant role in causing Ninnis's accident?" to "Which of Mawson's actions were most crucial in causing Ninnis's accident?" His guilt and complicity in everything that went wrong is simply assumed (albeit with much logic-chopping and admission of gaps in the existing testimony which have not permitted him to prove conclusively this preset conclusion that Mawson was driven by self-interest and folly at this, as at every other moment of his life ...)
Why did Mawson choose to go back by the inland route rather than along the coast? Why did Mawson ration the food so severely on the first part of the journey? Why did his remaining companion, Mertz, die on the way while Mawson survived? All of these questions have now been answered by Day's magical powers of intuition (one of the oddities of his book is that he writes as if he is the first ever to consider the matter: as if his really were the virgin footprints in the snow he'd originally envisaged for his own travel narrative).
The coastal route would have had many advantages, but Mawson didn't choose it because it would have undermined his priority as an explorer (Madigan's party had already passed that way). The reasons Mawson himself gives: the possiblity of the sea-ice breaking, the prevalence of difficult crevasses, are so much flummery. Day knows that because ... well, for no reason really. As he admits in his preface, he'd hoped to land on Antarctica and do some travelling himself, but his ship couldn't land because of the pack-ice. He did get some nice photos of icebergs out in the bay, though. It certainly isn't his own personal experience of the conditions which enables him to refute Mawson so readily, then.
Why did Mawson cut back on the rations? Because there wasn't enough food on their one remaining sledge to get the two of the back alive without a great deal of luck. That's admitted by everyone. Where Day leads the pack is in suggesting that Mawson deliberately starved Mertz to death by giving him only lean meat while Mawson himself was scarfing down the heavy, fat-laden food they both needed for survival.
The trouble is that no-one knew about these dietary effects of lean meat at the time (a book documenting the fact by "the polar explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson" was published in 1913, though Day acknowledges that "Mawson and Mertz had no way of knowing this" ). So how precisely Mawson managed this cunning and systematic murder of his companion by using a dietary sleight-of-hand still controversial a hundred years later seems a little obscure. It does mean that Day isn't forced to major on the old accusation of cannibalism, though. He doesn't need to. However, it would go against the grain to let the old man off too easily:
His denial is not surprising. There is no heroism to be had in cannibalism. His vigorous denial has been acccepted by historians, who argue that it would have contravened Mawson's values and that, anyway, he had no need to do it, once Mertz was dead and all his intended rations were available for Mawson's consumption. I have a countercharge to make. I believe that David Day himself committed cannibalism (like Conrad's "Falk") during his repeated attempts to reach the shore of Antarctica and flesh out [pun intended] his absurd farrago of a book. If he denies it, that's hardly surprising. Cannibalism is not a good look for historians and science writers generally: it tends to alienate the buying public (though, on the plus side, it can make your appearances on TV talkshows more lively). It's true he didn't need to: there was food on the ship. But can we be sure that there was enough food? The verdict must remain unproven. If Day feels he can prove that he never did it, I'll be happy to look over his evidence. I remain unconvinced, though.
You see the point? This kind of "When did you stop beating your wife?" stuff quickly becomes infectious. If you only have one source of information, then at a certain point you do have to admit that relentless speculation about - not to mention shitting all over - that narrative will only get you a limited way. And yet, it seems that - besides a lot of nasty remarks by a strangely volatile and childish fellow called Cecil Madigan who also kept a diary of the expedition - innuendo is all Day really has: not a great deal to guarantee a book contract.
Is there no alternative to all this? Are we forced to accept either Mawson's own hero narrative or Day's relentless put-down? Well, strangely enough, there is. It's mentioned in Day's bibliography, but (curiously) not referred to in his text, which also fails to acknowledge much other earlier scholarship on the matter, as Tom Griffiths remarks in his review:
Although Day draws on the work of many historians who have studied Mawson and the AAE – in particular Philip Ayres, Peter FitzSimons, Brigid Hains, Elizabeth Leane, Beau Riffenburgh and Heather Rossiter – he does not name them in the text or engage explicitly with their scholarship. They are referred to as “other historians” or “other writers,” generally dismissively.I refer, of course, to Tim Jarvis.
Tim Jarvis: Mawson: Life and Death in Antarctica (2008)]
In 2007 "Australian Adventurer" Tim Jarvis set out to retrace "Mawson's gruelling experience." As the blurb to his eventual video (it was also released as a book) remarks:
having been almost killed during his own solo trek to the South Pole in 1999, [Jarvis] confronts the deadly ice again - as Mawson did, with similar meagre rations and primitive clothing and equipment."Whether or not one agrees that it's "a bold and unprecedented historical experiment that will provide clues to what happened to Mawson physically - and mentally - as a man hanging on the precipice of life and death," one must surely acknowledge that it's an interesting thing to attempt? And, one would have thought, an enterprise quite like Day's original plan:
to travel in the wake of Mawson's 1911 expedition to Antarctica, so I could visit the hut in which he and other members of the expedition had sheltered for nearly two years, and look out at the windswept vista of ice and snow that had beckoned them into the unknown. "However," Day confesses, "it was not to be."
Reading that passage a little more carefully, though, one realises that for all his talk about composing a book "part travelogue and part history," Day was actually just planning to "look out" of the hut. There's no mention of actually walking in Mawson's footsteps. Why should he bother, anyway? Tim Jarvis had already done the thing so comprehensively that any such efforts would be largely wasted.
The problem, of course, is that mentioning Jarvis at all might risk reminding readers that Day is really just one more desk-bound scholar treading the well-worn steps of so many other archive hounds of the past. Griffiths documents thoroughly Day's attempts to imply a kind of conspiracy of silence surrounding the documentation of Mawson's expedition: his claims to have "uncovered" this or that new source:
Much of the evidence of the expedition, claims Day, “has been hidden away for the last century” and “includes the diaries of Archibald McLean, Robert Bage, Frank Stillwell, John Hunter, Charles Harrisson, and several others.” But the diaries of these men have been available for decades in public libraries and archives and have been studied intensely by many people, including those “other historians.” How strange that a historical scholar should regard the carefully preserved and curated collections of public institutions, long available for research, as “hidden away.” What Day means is that many of those diaries have only recently, in these centenary years of the expedition, been edited for publication.The other unfortunate fact about Jarvis is that this "adventurer" came to conclusions precisely opposite to those of Day himself on most of the significant questions surrounding Mawson's journey. What Griffiths refers to politely as Day's "confidently judgemental conclusions" on these matters can therefore be in no way helped by Jarvis's reenactment of the trip, and might actually be undermined by them. Best not to mention him, then. I'm an Academic myself: I know how that game works: the game of "accidental" omission.
That's not to say that there's anything flawless or forensic about Jarvis's investigation. It is, as he admits himself, a fairly rough and ready affair. Where he comes off way ahead of Day, though, is in his willingness to discuss his methods and debate the nature of his results up front.
I can't claim myself to have noted any particular pro-Mawson bias in his approach, though there may be a certain man-of-action solidarity there as against desk-wallahs in general. I couldn't say. If it's there it's pretty muted, unlike (say) the strident efforts to defend "the defamed dead" by Sir Ranulph Fiennes in his anti-Huntford Captain Scott biography (2003).
Where Day is particularly cock-sure is in his assertion that he has "solved" the mystery of Mertz's death. Rather than scurvy caused by vitamin C deficiencies in their diet, or the previously suggested vitamin A poisoning from the livers of the dogs they were eating, they were killed by the lack of fat in their diet:
Mawson couldn't have known it at the time, but it wasn't the lack of food that killed Mertz so quickly, rather it was the type of food they both were eating - particularly the scrawny dog meat with its almost total absence of fat, which caused them to suffer protein poisoning. Nice to have that cleared up. Lest we should remain in any doubt on the matter, the very first note in his book reminds us: "It is often claimed that Xavier Mertz died from an excess of Vitamin A, after eating too many dog livers. It was later suggested that starvation was the more likely cause of his death. Both claims are wrong." (281) The fact that the two articles which argue these alternatives were published, respectively, in the British Medical Journal and the Medical Journal of Australia, and were presumably peer-edited by the medical professionals overseeing both journals, is neither here nor there. Day has cracked the case!
Of course, being a doctor himself, he'll be in a good position to weigh up all these competing claims from the scanty documentation surrounding the trip: the hints in the diaries as to who ate more of what. But just a second - what is his medical expertise? None, that's what. He started off studying accountancy ("in which he performed poorly due [to] his political activity that included protesting against Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War"), according to his wikipedia page, then switched to History and Political Science, in which he did better.
Jarvis was still running with the Vitamin A deficiency hypothesis when he made his documentary, in 2007, but at least he doesn't claim to know. If Day could only admit the faintest shadow of a doubt about his confident assertions, one might find his book more persuasive. As it is, even if he's right about his "protein poisoning" theory, how on earth could it possibly be proved?
As for the famous incident near the end of his one-man journey where Mawson (according to him) hoisted himself out of a precipice, Jarvis's attempts to reenact it proved quite unavailing, despite the fact that he was in substantially better shape than Mawson was at that stage of his ordeal (Jarvis was prepared to starve himself, but not to poison himself, in the name of complete verisimilitude).
Here, I think, Day's reasoning is more cogent. He argues that rather than falling fourteen feet, Mawson may have fallen about seven, which makes his feat of strength far more feasible. Agreeing as it does with Jarvis's reenactment, this is one of the few occasions where Day's relentless scrutiny seems to have produced results. The same point is, however, made (at rather less length) in his far better - possibly because it was better edited - Antarctica: A Biography.
So, should we pull down the statues and throw away all our busts of Mawson: stop trumpeting him as the closest thing we have to an authentic Antipodean polar hero? Probably, yes. But then Mawson has always seemed a far more equivocal figure than his "heroic age" contemporaries. A flawed hero, then, but still a hero. His failure to emote all over the page in his stoic Antarctic diaries is one of the reasons they remain such compelling reading today. All Day's efforts to debunk and second-guess Mawson leave us more curious about him than his subject. What kind of a person would dedicate his life to such an avalanche of petty spite and hatred?
The comparison with Roland Huntford is, I think, quite unjustified. Huntford has never been afraid to give praise where it's due. His portraits of Amundsen, Shackleton and Nansen do full justice to the darker sides of their character, while still attempting to account for the charisma they continue to project, so many years later. True, Huntford sees few merits in Scott, but more of his blame is reserved for Sir Clements Markham and the other irresponsible bureaucrats who "pushed" him than for the hapless, demon-driven R. F. Scott himself.
Perhaps David Day's next work should be an autobiography. "What huge imago made / A psychopathic god?" as Auden once asked. Just why does he feel this need to denigrate poor Mawson, to scoff and sneer at and second-guess a man trapped in a coffin-shaped tent, his comrades dead, the snow falling, with a far less than fifty percent chance of survival? Could it be something as simple as jealousy?
Douglas Mawson (2013)