1912: The Year the World Discovered Antarctica by Chris Turney

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1912: The Year the World Discovered Antarctica by Chris Turney

Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: An entertaining but very precise historical look at the first excursions onto the last continent to be explored by mankind.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368 Date: September 2013
Publisher: Pimlico
ISBN: 9781845952105

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If you read those products designed to make you a published author, one way to start according to so many of them is to look ahead for a pertinent anniversary, research or know your subject well, and write well in advance and as popularly as you can on whatever the subject is. Make no mistake, however – Chris Turney, even if he would appear to have followed that dictum to the last, is no chancer with the eye to the temporary relevance.

Even so, it is a bit awkward to have his book emblazoned with 1912 when the paperback comes out a full year too late for any centenary tie-in celebration. But its contents are timeless enough, and will be one of the best summaries of its kind for many years to come. It is a suitable celebration, as well, of those who made the first inroads into Antarctica, from the first dabblings into the southern seas and the first sighters of land, to those who managed to settle there for a long season, and go exploring.

And with the remit being to cover the most relevant calendar year, that means the subjects range far beyond the tragic Scott, the bolshy Amundsen or the successful chancer Shackleton. We get an equally large chapter on a Japanese excursion, which started almost failure-bound, but did a host of scientific work, even if the western world failed to recognise such for decades afterwards, the first major German incursion, and more. A final chapter covers the L word that ended up being so much more about 2012 than the Antarctic centenary ever did – Legacy. Turney peppers that with a seemingly-new revelation about the Scott journey that would appear to be well worth the wait for any completists.

Turney does pepper his work in quite noticeable ways. He dips into and out of science in every chapter, and it might gall some to get a grounding in geomagnetism and the history of portable compasses near the South poles midway through the first chapter. But this approach suits his ethos in the end, of trying to make everything about polar exploration sexy – not just the attempts at getting into the record books, but the science. He clearly approves of the explorers who did that – Scott included – even if it was at the expense of leaving without a fully-funded expedition.

It's a great shame the book does not go so far as to make the subject as populist. The price is at the higher end for a paperback, and I got really frustrated at the lack of a proper map for every featured expedition – until I found them lumped into one and dumped near the end. Yes, that means they can't spoil any of the narratives Turney portrays really quite vividly, but it did not help my comprehension. He so often refers to journeys away from landmarks we've seen as much of as the people who had just named them, and it leaves too much of a grey fog in our minds. That lets the side – and my star rating – down.

AS for Turney himself, he does, as I said earlier, an experienced, professional job. His foreword suggests he'll put more of his own personal experience of the Pole into the book than he does, but he's more than evocative with just the right amount of quotes, trivia and historical comprehensiveness about every excursion – and of course his sexy science. What he and his book does best is in painting a much broader, corrective picture than is in the common mind – the biographical data about someone with links to so many of the expeditions, the heroic yet forgotten travellers history has discarded, and the replacement of all the scientific achievements back into the foreground. It's a correction well worth making.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

Race for the South Pole: The Expedition Diaries of Scott and Amundsen by Roland Huntford is self-explanatory, in giving us the personal accounts from the horse's mouth. I loved Death on the Ice by Robert Ryan as a fictional account of the Scott adventure.

Buy 1912: The Year the World Discovered Antarctica by Chris Turney at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy 1912: The Year the World Discovered Antarctica by Chris Turney at Amazon.co.uk.

Buy 1912: The Year the World Discovered Antarctica by Chris Turney at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy 1912: The Year the World Discovered Antarctica by Chris Turney at Amazon.com.


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