A Victim of the Aurora
By Thomas Keneally
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 1977 Thomas Keneally
All rights reserved.
Once, sometime in the 1930s, when journalists pressed me about the Henneker rumours, I cried out: 'We were the great New British South Polar Expedition.' We were the apogee, I was implying, of old-fashioned Britannic endeavour. If we lied, then all institutions were liars.
Perhaps it was some kind of Antarctic sasquatch or wild man who got him? the journalists pursued. I made a face as if they didn't deserve an answer. We were the great New British South Polar Expedition ...
Journalists don't press any more. Could you imagine young Woodsteins flying out to the West coast to grill me concerning Henneker's South Polar fate?
Other conditions have changed as well. I suffer long patches of what could be called coma. I am sitting in the sun on a Tuesday morning, say. From the terrace of the rest home south of Los Angeles I survey the golf course of the township called Sageworld, where sixteen thousand aged people live in apartments and manors. When they lose the capacity to drive, chip and putt they will join me in the rest home, unless of course a massive stroke or heart attack graduates them directly to Forest Lawn.
I squint at the sun, chewing over Sageworld's geriatric ironies. I blink and it's all at once Wednesday afternoon, and I am no longer on the terrace. I am watching the rain from the reading room. I have a different shirt on. Who put it on me? Where did yesterday go? I know by questioning the nurses that I went on sitting. I ate. I watched the 7 p.m. news and drifted off to sleep during an episode of Maude. I rose in the morning, dressed myself and ate – that's what they tell me. I remember it no more than a vegetable remembers the spring.
Sir Anthony Piers, ninety-two-year-old designer and onetime official artist to the New British South Polar Expedition is frightened not so much of conventional death, as of the way death comes ravening up to him while he's still at his ease under the sun, and bites chunks out of his days.
He ... I ... doesn't ... don't know why I should want at this late hour to write a little record of the expedition. Why I should write down the things Eugene Stewart asked me never to utter. It isn't simply that Stewart and the sainted Dryden and Hoosick and Sullivan and Beck and Kittery and all the rest are dead now. It isn't simply that, at this distance, Henneker's assassin ... for he had an assassin and it was not some form of polar ape-man ... is himself a victim. I think it's because I believe what I told the journalists. To me, the world was simple and the lying hadn't begun when I joined the expedition. The world grew complicated and the lying set in with Henneker's death, and ever since the world has been fuelled and governed by lies. That is my concise history of the 20th century. That is why I wish to define what was for me the century's first lie.
There's one good thing. Decay takes away my consciousness one day and doesn't give it back till the next. But the same process also sharpens my sense of our hut on Cape Frye in that Antarctic winter, in the innocent years before the First World War. I can for example smell the cocoa and the acetylene lamps, the drying thermal underwear before the stove and the acid smell of Siberian pony dung when the door to the stables was opened. I can see them now in their young bodies, my colleagues, a supposed polar élite, selected from thousands by Captain Sir Eugene Stewart. They sit at the large table in the middle, writing reports. Or they move to the laboratory, to the darkroom or the naturalist's alcove, or out of doors to read temperatures or visit the magnetic hole, an ice cave three hundred yards to the north of the hut. Or they dress to go trolling for biology specimens through holes in the ice of McMurdo Sound or even to ski across to the Barne Glacier to help Harry Kittery with his measurements of ice movement.
As well as the Cape Frye hut, I remember to the last nuance of language the manner of my recruitment to the expedition.
In 1909 when I was 24 years old I had my first exhibition in a Bond Street Gallery called Brenton's. It may amaze the film-buffs, who know me as a movie designer of the 30s, 40s and 50s, it might amaze equally the corporations, airlines, armies and fashion experts who employed me as a design consultant, to find out that I was once a bona fide artist, a landscapist no less. I did not in fart design my first stage set until 1925, when I was nearly forty.
At the time of my first exhibition then, I considered I was an artist, would always be an artist. And if the craft of designing movies had been available to me I would have despised it as a bastard activity for any true talent.
It was a golden, frivolous year, the year I was 24. The summers seemed longer then and the women seemed allied to the summer and dressed in the colours of the sweet-pea, mauve, pale rose and lavender. Even their make-up seemed an extension of the sunniness of the age. It was the great decade of peaches and cream, except in the slums of East London and in the cities of the North where, in any case (so we all believed), tuberculosis and squalor would eventually yield to progress and good will.
In 1908, I had earned £200 from sales of paintings and lecture fees, and that was enough to allow me to move amongst the happier complexions. You didn't need much money. We lived under a King who would make love to any of his subjects as long as she was pretty. Farmers' wives and boilermakers' daughters could dazzle him, make him get down out of his carriage and speak softly to them. He was a fat satyr, and appalling as any fat satyr. Yet I knew a pretty cook called Rosa Lewis for whom he bought a hotel, the Cavendish in Jermyn Street, which she went on managing in remembrance of her King well into the 1950s.
She had beauty. And I suppose in a way I must have had it then. I was tall and dark-haired and blue-eyed. I looked as spiritual as an artist ought. You should see what's happened to it all now, the tallness, the dark hair, the blue eyes, above all the spirituality.
So I had been able to attract and to be attracted by a woman, six years older than me, sixty times more wealthy, and unhappily married to one of London's most celebrated KCs. We'll call her in this record Lady Anthea Hurley, and she was supposed to be there, at Brenton's of Bond Street, pretending to be an acquaintance of mine and adding for me an edge of beauty and secret sexual triumph to the hoped-for artistic triumph of the evening.
Though she'd warned me the affair was ended, I didn't believe she would fail to come that evening. But by nine I began to believe. Not even strangers turned up at nine. I stood smiling but lost amongst my oils and watercolours.
The paintings were mainly of Tyrolean glacier scenes, for I was much taken with the way light came off or through great gnarled bodies of ice. I suppose Turner was my favourite painter, and he had painted scenes as if light and its reflections were the main realities and the solid objects were nothing. There is his famous painting of a train on an embankment, and the train is nothing and the light is everything. And that is the nature of light when it strikes and permeates stretches of ice.
Brenton, the gallery owner, was a fashionable Londoner. He owned, as well as the gallery, a restaurant called The Xanadu Gardens to which, sooner or later, came anyone of importance in business, politics, the arts and even the sciences. He would then invite these people to his next opening. The gallery, as it were, fed off the restaurant. That was how I first met Sir Eugene Stewart. He and his wife had been taken to The Xanadu Gardens for their fourth wedding anniversary and there Brenton had mentioned me and my ice paintings and suggested they would be of interest to a polar explorer who must have a more intimate acquaintance with ice than most people have, hah hah!
Brenton inserted his two guests through a gap in the scrimmage line made up by my parents and brothers, and critics from The Times, the Telegraph, the Sketch, the Evening Standard and other journals, amongst all of whom I stood bilious from the non-arrival of Anthea Hurley.
'Sir Eugene and Lady Stewart,' said Brenton, 'this is our artist, Anthony Piers.'
Sir Eugene said, before I could, what an honour it was. He was a husky man, dressed unfashionably in an old lounge suit.
'Tell me,' he said, pointing to one of the glacier paintings, 'the light ... the ice ... the exact glacier tones ...'
When you met a great man then, it was an entirely different matter to meeting a great man these days. We have been trained to mistrust greatness, to look for the manic fleck in the pupils of the eyes, the pathological twist in the way the great man walks or speaks to his wife. We have been taught that at the basis of greatness lies a great disease. It wasn't like that then. I believed while the dew still stood on the century that at the basis of greatness stood a great sanity. I looked at Sir Eugene now in those terms.
His head was held sideways, his brows lowered. A questioner, a listener, a man who believes he has much to learn. He kept that posture till the end of his life. I saw him approach other men the same way, even out on the Ross Ice Shelf with the wind cutting at his face. Stewart listening to Troy recount details of supplies cached at Ross Lip Depôt, at Sitka Cache, at the White Mountain Fodder Depôt. Listening to Harry Webb, the dog man, or Mead, the pony expert. It endeared him, of course, to the lot of us.
'Tell me,' he said again. I was excited by the respect he had for me, the care he took framing the question. But before he could put his question together, Lady Stewart torpedoed him.
'I think the water colours,' she said, 'are even more superlative than the oils. Splendid, Mr Piers. Splendid.'
She wore no hat. That was a sign of extreme individuality in that age. Like many other women she had given up wearing the savage corsets that forced the female body into an S shape. She wore a dress of grey and apricot under wide, glittering brown eyes that distracted me from my loss. She also had the sort of nose Greeks and Edwardians both were crazy about.
I mention all this not because Lady Stewart had a large part in the incidents of the expedition, but simply to show how the husband and wife physically differed. Lady Stewart dressed, spoke, walked with a passion, and that, even the passion of her loyalty to his Antarctic ambitions, rather frightened Sir Eugene.
She didn't buy one of my paintings. All the Stewarts' money had gone to pay off her husband's 1905 expedition, and now he was – in the quaint phrase of those days – 'putting together' another.
At last Sir Eugene had his question ready. 'Have you ever painted an auroral display, Mr Piers?'
'No sir. I've never had the good fortune to spend the winter in the Arctic'
'Ah. The aurora is brilliant not only in the Arctic, Mr Piers. In my experience the aurora australis of the Antarctic night is even more startling.'
I told him I had heard that and believed it.
'You painted these pictures in situ, Mr Piers?' he asked. 'I mean, actually perched on ice falls above the body of the glacier? Or sitting on the lip of a crevasse?'
'It's the only way to do these things, Sir Eugene.'
He took a card-case from his old-fashioned jacket and passed a card to me. 'Please, could you manage to call at the Expeditionary Office? I am there next Monday to Thursday in the afternoons. Would, say, three o'clock Monday be satisfactory?'
There was reason why it was not and we settled for Tuesday at the same time. Before she left, Lady Stewart took my hand in both hers – an act that wasn't common in public in those days – and squeezed it, telling me in a low voice how talented I was.
It's said that Zimmerman, the American millionaire, spent $150,000 on the week-end Edward VII spent with him in Surrey. That was the sort of vapid event for which money could be found, but wealthy Edwardians weren't nearly as ready to put money to more sober causes.
So the Expeditionary Office turned out to be two small rooms above a café in Holborn. In the outer office was a man about my age and one overworked typist. The young man was the expedition's secretary, McGuire, and he took me into the inner office where Eugene Stewart and the chairman of the expeditionary committee, Sir Dexter Milburn (there were such names in those days!), sat at a desk signing correspondence.
'Ah, Mr Piers,' Stewart called out, and went on signing and glancing at me between signatures. It was Milburn who put his pen down and began talking, saying who he was and what his powers were. 'You come to me with high recommendations,' he said sourly.
'I don't come to you with any recommendations, Sir Dexter,' I told him. 'I called in to see Sir Eugene. I haven't come for a job.'
I felt red in the cheeks. Didn't this old man know I'd been treated kindly by critics, sold out my exhibition, and become a public figure?
Stewart put his pen down. 'Forgive us, Mr Piers. We're overworked and we come to the point at a great pace, don't we, Sir Dexter?'
In fact I didn't know till the expedition was finished and became history how hard the two men were working when I first met them. Writing begging letters to manufacturers of biscuits, chocolate, dehydrated and canned meats, canvas and windproofs, tractors and woollens, hydrometers, anemometers, aneroid barometers, signals equipment, and so on and so on. Inviting companies to enhance Britannia's name by giving their goods and/or a cash donation to the New British South Polar Expedition. Not only that, but processing the thousands of applications for membership of the expedition, and travelling the country by second-class rail, speaking anywhere a crowd could be expected, speaking also at schools, many of which gave an arctic stove here and a tent there or a down sleeping bag or even, where the masters were enthusiastic, the cash for a dog or a pony. Both Stewart and Sir Dexter had been working a ninety-hour week for four months. They could be pardoned for forgetting that I was one of London's young lions.
'Can you ski?' Stewart asked. Exactly the way he'd asked me if I could paint auroras.
'A little,' sniffed Sir Dexter, as if I'd avoided the ski slopes just to annoy him.
'I spent a fortnight at Zermatt.'
'Well, you can manage to ski cross-country,' Sir Eugene said, as a fact. 'You start off ahead of most of the members of the expedition.'
I blinked, because he had so randomly opened up an Antarctic vista for me.
He continued. 'No matter how well an expedition is planned there is always a debt at the end. Sir Dexter and I have cast about for means of alleviating the debt. I mean, people aren't interested in making donations to an expedition that's over, are they?'
'I don't suppose so.'
'Now this is confidential, Mr Piers. We've approached a renowned popular journalist to come with us and document our efforts. He was virtually the first staff member to be approached and accepted. We have already sold his articles under contract – before they're even written – to newspapers and magazines the world over – England, Germany, Sweden, the United States. Of course, we won't get the bulk of the fee until the articles are delivered, which will be, for the most part, when the expedition is over.'
He paused for me to comment. I couldn't speak. Was he in fact inviting me into the expedition? I didn't think that for an irreplaceable eighteen months of my young life I would be without women and theatre and good food and modest adulation. All I thought was that soon I'd be on the ultimate ice, watching the world's farthest sunlight burst and dazzle on and through it. As for the golden haze of London summers, the sweet-pea colours, the dalliance and the sparkle, it would all be there when I returned. Perhaps by then the world would be entirely rid of the S form corset.
'The journalist's name – entre nous – is Victor Henneker,' Sir Eugene told me. 'Do you know him?'
'The poor man's George Bernard Shaw,' I said.
That was what people called him. Henneker was, in fact, a cross between Shaw and, say, Lowell Thomas. His fame was dazzling in those days, and his death became a journalistic issue. But if you read him now (as I have, perhaps the last reader he'll ever have) you see he was just a glib hack. He had been on the expedition to Tibet in 1905. Afterwards he wrote a famous article about the ridiculous nature of the exploring urge and said he'd never do anything so fatuous again. It seemed he'd changed his mind. Normally he interviewed politicians and generals, and reviewed theatre, art and even motion pictures with a stylish barbarity. (Continues...)
Excerpted from A Victim of the Aurora by Thomas Keneally. Copyright © 1977 Thomas Keneally. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.