Those who know me will know that I have had what you might call a bit of a year, or even – if you were so inclined – a bitch of a year. (No disrespect to female canines.)

Leaving the firm after 31 years with only half a plan on 'what next' was a free choice. Losing my life partner two weeks before the end of service was not factored in. So much for Spring. During the Summer, there was other unexpected stuff, which was utterly joyful, but short-lived. It turned out the universe had one more kick for me, before I got up and got on with it.

The result of this was being, if not exactly at rock bottom, certainly far down enough to know that solace would only be found between the covers of books. I started, as I always do in hard times, with easy reads: Pratchett for humour, Chandler for pure joy of language, Child for – well everything Jack Reacher – Christie and Allingham for 1930s Englishness, and so on. Then, comforted by familiarity, I reach for the self-help-shelf. Other books to talk about other times, because in the midst of that phase I found myself looking at my Dad's bookshelf and at random, picking up "Endurance".

This isn't a help-manual of any kind, but I heartily recommend it to anyone who thinks their life is bit less than they'd want it to be.

"Endurance" is, to give it its full title: "Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage to the Antarctic". It was written by Alfred Lansing and first published in 1959. It is based on the diaries of, and interviews with, the men involved. My inherited copy is the Weidenfeld & Nicholson publication of 2000, illustrated throughout with Frank Hurley's original photographs of the expedition, and also has a couple of really useful maps and a full list of the crew.

For those who don't know the story, I will spoil the ending: they all survive.

No apologies for that. It's a matter of historical record. Also, knowing this is important to the reading, because as a reader of this particular tale you are expected to know what the protagonists don't – namely, that they do all survive. The point is to be able to look at what happened knowing the outcome, and then having the imagination to put yourself in the position of these men who actually don't know what is going to happen. That creates the distance from the 'story' that the German dramatist Brecht felt was necessary to enable one to think beyond the story into the meaning.

Lansing's extraordinary feat in this book – which I read over the space of 3 evenings – is to both create that distance (the expedition was still widely talked about when he first published, people would be expected to know the outcome, he is writing pure history, facts, known) and yet create an immediacy that makes it spin out like a yarn, a tale, an adventure that might easily any minute end differently. Creating suspense when the outcome is a given, is quite a skill.

To recap – again for those who don't know – the story in simple terms is this: Sir Edward Shackleton was an explorer with a notion to cross the width of the Antarctic continent. It was a purely commercial and egotistical endeavour, one of the few 'extremes' not yet conquered. He got the backing both financial and political and gathered a crew, which set out on the renamed ship "Endurance". Her name came from Shackleton's family motto, but it was to prove appropriate. Enduring is something her 22 man crew would certainly do.

Lansing starts with the idea, the funding, the recruiting of the crew, the sailing south from England, but the real adventure starts on 5th December 1914 when Endurance leaves South Georgia Island heading south. It ends on a tug, called the Yelcho, heading back to that same island (with all hands) at the end of August 2016. For most of the intervening time, the crew have been, in different ways, but in very real terms, "adrift". Isolated. Lost.

Firstly the ship gets trapped in the ice. Then the ice crushes the ship and the men camp out on a drifting ice floe. Then they find some land, which is totally barren. Some of them set off on a journey of 650 miles in a 22 foot cobbled-together boat to find help. These few eventually get back to South Georgia and land on the wrong side of the island. South Georgia's interior had never been crossed on foot – it was geographically challenging to the point of probably impossible given the gear available at the time. Three men make that crossing. Eventually. There are false starts and back tracks and unbelievable risks even at this late stage.

But yes…help is found and they head back out to save everyone else. And do so.


Let's be honest, if it was a Hollywood movie we'd say 'no, not real'. We'd expect a few deaths. But the truth is there weren't. The truth is that despite the rigours, one heart attack, frost-bite, storms at sea, near starvation, freezing, water-logging, gangrene, and all the rest, every single man made it back alive.

So, why am I telling you any of this? Why is this remotely relevant over a hundred years later? Is it just a boys' own tale of derring do, glorifying a long-lost empire? No.

The derring-do part of it, does actually have a place, because I will admit that is what kept me reading. Lansing's ability to make you want to know the detail of what happens next, even though you already know the end result. It's like those old Columbo movies where you know right at the start how the crime was committed but you watch to know how the detective will figure it out. The point of this tale is not so much what they did, but how they did it. The interest is all in the "how" and that is also where the inspiration lies.

I found a number of lessons in this book:-

  1. It isn't as bad as you think it is.Ok, so life isn't treating you so kindly at the moment but: you're not living on an ice floe, sleeping in a sodden bag, subsisting on dogmeat, seal blubber and penguins.When the wind howls you don't need to check its direction as if (or rather because) your very life depends upon it.You're not at risk of frostbite or trench foot.You're very unlikely to be attacked by a sea leopard. On a very personal level, I kept going back to Hurley's photograph of the expedition artist George Marston, all swaddled in furs, eyes glinting at the camera, trying to play down a half-smile…and every time I looked at it, I heard "so what's your excuse?" To which my only response was: fair comment!
     
  2. The first rule of leadership is: recruit the right people in the first place.Shackleton was renowned for almost acting on instinct in his recruitment process. His interviews were notoriously short.In theory this would have made for a mismatched crew, but in practice there were few errors of judgement.There were one or two who didn't really fit in, whose down-sides were worse than the skills they brought, but for the most part, he managed to put together one hell of a team.This is something no manager would ever be allowed to do today, even in circumstances where national honour and/or the lives of those involved is not at stake.We have processes and boxes to tick and it seems that more often than not those procedures result in worse team mixes than this guy managed by going on basic knowledge and gut instinct.
     
  3. The second rule of leadership is: lead.Take responsibility.Shackleton does not come across as a particularly 'nice' person.I do not think I would have liked him, and I am certain I would not have chosen to work for him, but…he led.He accepted full responsibility for every decision he made; he mucked in with the men doing and enduring what they did and endured; he made some sensible decisions in managing the personalities he found himself stuck with; and above all…he talked and discussed but then DECIDED.His word was law.And he felt the responsibility of that very personally.
     
  4. There is always something to be happy about.What really lifted my spirits reading this book was the attitude of the crew.Of course there are moments of despair, acrimony, blame, fallings-out, disobedience and any other negative emotion you might expect given the extremity of the circumstance…but there is also a huge amount of ingenuity, doggedness, kindness, humour, appreciation of a fine day.Clearly it takes a certain kind of person to sign up for such an expedition in the first place, and putting a bunch of such people together you might expect them to just get on with life whatever life throws at them…but knowing that in the abstract and reading about the detail of it are two different things.The detail is what really pulls you up short, time and time again.

And I won't spoil the detail, because I seriously do recommend this book. Thrilling, thought-provoking, but utterly uplifting. A wonderful celebration of the human spirit.

~

Endurance, published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson, ISBN 0-297-64680-X

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