The question of heroism in the context of Antarctic exploration was the theme for a webinar I have just watched, in particular that of the men (and they were only men, then) during the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, as it is known. It is, of course, a subject very close to my heart, and which I have explored in my debut novel, Dead Men, which is all about the Antarctic and Amundsen and Scott, and in its yet-to-be-released sequel, Ice Child, which I’ve not yet sold, but which will see the light of day in some way or another in the next two years. Coincidentally, I’m reading Erebus by Michael Palin, the ship that at one point set a record for the furthest sea voyage south and then disappeared with all hands trying to find the North-West Passage years later.
There are inevitably discussions about what makes a hero, and whether someone deliberately exposing themselves to mortal danger without a greater aim than exploration or discovery is a hero or just a fool, and whether someone inadvertently exposed to danger of death is much more likely to deserve that accolade. It’s a term that’s often over-used, but it’s not far from the truth to say that those on the front lines of the pandemic are greater heroes than those explorers could ever be. Of course, all those explorers had courage, but the people who turn up to work in hospitals and GP practices every day right now and expose themselves to covid-19 out of a sense of duty and vocation are undoubtedly the braver group of people, having to deal, as many of them do, with the attendant troubles of everyday life, underpaid, unappreciated, threatened by those who don’t believe covid-19 exists, and threatened even more by politicians who were happy to stand in the streets every Thursday and clap for the NHS, but refused, and continue to refuse, to support the very system and its people upon whom the health of nations depends.
Fascinating as exploration is, and that of the Antarctic especially, it is a choice. People do still die in inhospitable regions of the world, but those regions which have no indigenous populations are not truly stages of heroism and despair measured by the contexts of climate change, global hunger, Western greed, and not-so-caring capitalism. We have become inured to the pictures of the starving and murdered on television and on social media, but don’t call aid or care workers heroes, don’t call those delivering humanitarian aid in those starving and dying regions heroes. And, least of all, do we we even think of those suffering in dust and heat and cold and dehydration and starvation as heroes? The world is the wrong way round. The word is the wrong way round (and that’s not a typo).
We need to re-evaluate. There are people fighting their own demons and mental illness who are greater heroes than those who marched across the planet in the name of imperialist expansion. There are people fighting their own quiet battles against the over-exploitation and destruction of their local green spaces who have more intrinsic courage than the soldiers and sailors and their leaders usually called heroes. People engaged in non-violent protest. People fighting to stay alive, and succeeding or failing, and being forgotten. By the time the pandemic ends, how many health workers will have given their lives to protect and heal, how many emergency workers will have died to let others live, how many bus drivers, delivery drivers, shop workers? Where will their lasting monument be?
And so, back to the Antarctic, where the only ones close to being heroes are those nameless crewmen who had to make the trips because they were so hard-up it was the only thing they could do to provide for their families back home, families which received the wages while their men were at sea and on the Ice. Yes, Amundsen, Scott, Shackleton, and all the rest of those remembered leaders, had great courage, and were, in their own way, great men, but they always had a choice.
At the end of the webinar, I posted a comment saying “Heroes are flawed.” Someone responded with “All people are flawed.” And that is exactly the point.