Sunday, 6 September 2015

The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge

I like the way that when you are living in a foreign country your book buying becomes directed by what you find in second hand bookshops, rather than by what happen to be the momentary darlings of a marketing department somewhere.

My latest discovery in my local second hand place is The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge, which I bought in a pristine hardback edition, complete with dustcover, for 1 (One O-N-E, just a single one) Euro.

The book, which tells the story of Captain Scott's last expedition, via the voices of the men, (including Scott himself), who went on the expedition with him, (each one taking up the story around the time of his own birthday, hence the title), is a masterpiece. I am awed by how successfully Bainbridge conjures up the five very different personalities in the ill-fated final team. Each of them is created as a fine-tuned tangle of their upbringing and indoctrination and their own private obsessions and defects. Their faults are clear, but they are still extremely sympathetic. She portrays their humanity, and also somehow - did she spend any time in polar regions? - conveys astonishingly vividly the strange icy world they are determined to pit themselves against. The book is, of course, immensely sad, but Bainbridge captures the futile beauty of the men's doomed quest, so that what one experiences is poignance rather than complete pointlessness.

I wish the author were still alive so that I could write her a fan letter. I suppose this post must stand in lieu. I've always enjoyed her books, but, until now, I thought she was mainly an autobiographical writer. This book shows her to have had magnificent imaginative powers and human understanding. It is hugely good.

(Incidentally, if you want to get an idea of the woefully inadequate nature of the equipment the expedition was using, I seem to remember that some of the belongings of one of the team can be seen at the Cheltenham Museum - there were kitchen things, plus I think I recall some kind of dreadful sealskin garment that became impossibly heavy when wet or icy. Sadly I cannot find the Cheltenham Museum online. I hope it hasn't been closed due to budget cuts. It is some years since I was there.)

No comments:

Post a comment