Thursday, 29 September 2016

Old Frankie's Back

Talking of folk-songs, as I was in the previous post, longer-term readers may recall a few posts from 2012 (for example, here and here) in which the mystery of the fate of the Franklin expedition to the Arctic to seek the Northwest Passage was mentioned, particularly as mythologised in the popular ballads of the time. At the time I did have a vague plan to start an icy "Lord Franklin" photographic series, but climate change seems to have intervened.

In those long-ago days (2012, I mean, not 1845) we used to suffer bitter winters, when for entire days static water would be frozen, and pavements could become dangerously slippery. Why, on some mornings we even had to scrape ice off the windscreens of our cars, it was so cold – imagine that! Even in the Arctic, things are getting significantly warmer: it seems the Northwest Passage is about as mysterious and as hazardous, now, as the M25 (which is, admittedly, quite mysterious and distinctly hazardous). I suppose one shouldn't joke about an impending planetary climate catastrophe, but, hey, I'm British; it's what we do best.

Although, when it comes to our national characteristics, the celebration of heroic failures has traditionally run gallows-humour a close second, and they're obviously close relatives. But that may be changing, too. It's notable that as more and more evidence emerges of what did happen to Franklin, his ships, and their crews, the less attention it gets in the British press. Just recently, Franklin's actual ship Terror was discovered by an ongoing Canadian investigation, but barely made the news here. Two years ago, the companion ship Erebus turned up, to a similar yawn of media boredom. It's clear the Canadians care an awful more more about this particular Great British Disaster than we do, now. I'm pretty sure that if Pentangle had not recorded "Lord Franklin" on their Cruel Sister album in 1970 I'd never have heard of or cared about John Franklin and his gallant crew, either.

In fact, matters Franklin have got to the point where there's really not much of a mystery left. A very recent book reviewed in the current TLS (Finding Franklin: the untold story of a 165-year search, by Russell A. Potter, TLS 5921) sounds like a pretty definitive summary of the known facts, of which there are now quite a few. Perhaps the most interesting, if depressing thing is the way Inuit testimony has consistently been discounted; both ships have turned up exactly where Inuit hunters have been saying they are for a very long time. Well, what would those illiterate primitives know, after all?

There's nothing quite like a good mystery, though, is there? The trouble is, there is a valuable minority of humanity who will not rest until they have substituted a good explanation for every good mystery, and these rational folk will never quite grasp how comparatively charmless to the rest of us a definitive solution generally is. Douglas Adams was not merely being facetious with Deep Thought's famous solution of "forty-two" to the question of Life, the Universe and Everything: he was being profound. Not just for the flip-chart wisdom ("I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you've never actually known what the question was"), but for the amusing but sad truth that humanity finds not knowing what happened to the Franklin Expedition (with its spicy hints of cannibalism and lead-poisoning) far more interesting than finally stumbling across a heap old bones and a few brass buttons.

In the end, some mysteries lead to fruitful quests, yielding useful knowledge and further useful questions, and some do not. Resolving the latter sort usually leads to an answer that is less interesting than the mystery itself. As Benjamin Jowett says in Max Beerbohm's cartoon about the Oxford Union murals: And what were they going to do with the Grail when they found it, Mr. Rossetti?


Zouk Delors said...

So, for those of us who don't subscribe to the TLS, what -- briefly -- did happen to him? And has anyone tried to claim the ten big ones from Lady F?

I see from the first pic that the Inuits did try to give hints about which direction at least the search should be heading.

Mike C. said...


The story seems pretty well up to date on Wikipedia ("Franklin's Lost Expedition"), but amounts to "boats trapped in ice, leading to plucky but hapless and poorly-equipped white men stumbling around hostile terrain, confused by lead-poisoning from ship's plumbing and tinned food, refused or refusing help from local inhabitants, and ultimately resorting to cannibalism".


amolitor said...

Apparently one of the Antarctic expeditions went rather pear shaped because the British had forgotten that lemons cure scurvy and were on a 'no, no, proper hygiene is the thing'.

The golden age of exploration seems to have had rather more clumsy dolts running things than the writing on the tin suggests. With some notable exceptions.

Mike C. said...

There is something peculiar about Victorian exploration -- as you say, it's as if the lessons of the age of Cook and Nelson had been forgotten. Or more likely (if O'Brian's version of the Navy is accurate) lost in the bureaucracy somewhere.

The spectacle of men dressed in nothing but standard uniform and an extra pair of socks dragging a boat containing a full service of monogrammed silverware across the icy wastes is bewildering... (I think only Werner Herzog could do justice to this in a movie).


Zouk Delors said...

The Royal Museums Greenwich have relics of the expedition and quite a lot of info about it: