A Look Back at Forgotten Footprints by John Harrison

Parthian Paperback, 2013, 451pp

John HarrisonThere are authors by the score but John Harrison is unique in one respect. He has a publisher with a connection to theatre and on first publication of his award-winning Forgotten Footprints Harrison toured Wales north and south with an absorbing multimedia performance piece based on his book. It worked well; the Polar regions have an innate drama to them in their vastness, their silence, the depths of long darkness, the harsh human history played around them by diminutive humans.

The subjects of Forgotten Footprints are the barely known figures who opened up the earth’s last continent. James Cook is well known, the greatest navigator of his time. His death on a beach at Hawaii is well attested, the fact of his being partly eaten less so. Shackleton has been written into mainstream history but it is a rare reader who will know the names of James Weddell, William Spiers Bruce or Thaddeus Bellinghshausen. The name Charcot might strike a chord as a pioneer of psychiatry but not the explorer Jean-Baptiste Charcot. All these and others Harrison weaves into his literary exploration of the vastness at the base of our world.

Drama is inherent in Antarctica but there is also the drama of the particular. Sir James Frazier put together his Victorian colossus The Golden Bough with its span of global reference without ever in fact leaving Britain. Harrison’s historical and natural history is enhanced by the fact that he has been there. The word “I” slips in on occasion with modesty to emphasise a narrative point. “Nothing prepares you for your first sight of large icebergs.” The colour-“in dull light the turquoise blue shines out brilliantly”- astounds as much as the size. “The largest I have ever seen took three hours to steam past; it was twenty-nine miles long.” That one, he adds, was “only a broken fragment of a much larger one.”

The arrival of the newcomers is far from benign. Hand-woven ponchos are taken back to Lancashire for scrutiny. Soon the looms of England are producing them for a small fraction of their home territory price. Harrison reports the appalling death toll inflicted on seal populations but also the hazard. “I have been charged on a rough beach by a 250-pound male, fuelled by a riot of hormones, moving faster than I could run.”

But knowledge was a motivator. The voyage of Charles Wilkes surveyed fifteen hundred miles of Antarctica’s coast and established it as a continent. The expedition also resulted in four thousand ethnographic items, ten thousand plant species, two thousand plus birds and another thousand various species of fish, fossils and corals.

An insert page deals with the physics of the pendulum and the complications that Henry Foster had to deal with in his calculations. His observations had to take in barometric pressure, the altitude above sea level, the contraction or expansion effects within the metal.

Harrison describes in detail the food staple known as pemmican, developed by the Crees as a high-energy paste of meat and fat. Coming south via its adoption by the Hudson Bay Company it was mixed with hard broken ship’s biscuits. The British gave it the name of hoosh. The enforced dietary choices and the ignorance of the basics of physiology exacted a terrible toll on the early discoverers. Harrison follows a part of the Shackleton voyage with the twenty-first century knowledge that his predecessors would paradoxically have been suffering severe dehydration. Harrison on a part of the same route comments

I have walked for several days in a row, over thirty miles a day, at very high altitude on a poor diet. At the border of exhaustion is a place where the raw physical pain of each moment mingles with distracted thoughts which chatter away in the back of your mind. It is kinder to listen to the mindless chatter, than acknowledge the pain and exhaustion.

The exploration has many a moment of drama. Cook comes up against an envious rival in the form of Alexander Dalrymple. Dalrymple, in Harrison’s telling, was “the creature of the Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne, the man who had so frustrated clockmaker John Harrison, the genius who solved the longitude problem.” Dalyrymple is characterised as “vain, cussed and with a genius for backing the wrong horse.” John Harrison, the author, locates a later villain in the form of John Lachlan Cope.

Away from the chronology of exploration, Forgotten Footprints engages with the continent’s natural wonder. The skin of the seal has a first layer of dense short fine fur. This layer is protected by longer, tougher guard hairs that protect from the scrambling across rocks and stones. The hairs number three hundred and thirty thousand per square inch. When he turns to the air and the subject of skuas “I have seen two knock down a large man by co-ordinated swoops on his head.”

On a grimmer aspect of the ways of nature an inset page runs briskly through scurvy, the death toll it inflicted out from pure ignorance. Humans are unusual in being unable to make vitamin C. It comes in through the mouth or not at all. Its absence induces depression, shedding skin, bleeding fingernails and toenails, the loosening and losing of teeth.

Ecology and Antarctica are interwoven. A page is given over to ozone and the chemistry of its triple oxygen atom. Sunlight at an upper level breaks double oxygen into single atoms and facilitates the making of protective atoms. Harrison reports the findings of biologists that industrial chemicals from far-away continents are appearing in seals, whales and penguins. To date, says Harrison, “the Antarctic Treaty has steered the continent through difficult times.” Whereas tourism might be well regarded as a hazard to the continent Harrison takes the opposing view. With a negligible environmental impact each one of the controlled number of visitors most likely becomes a citizen lobbyist beyond an enclosed governmental-scientific circle.

To the youthful James Cook in Staithes “an apprenticeship to a draper-cum-grocer was just a genteel jail.” When Sir Edmund Halley is given absolute control over the observation of a transit of Venus in the Pacific, Harrison declares the consequence as “chaos ensued and mutiny threatened.” The subjects of chapter three are Thaddeus Bellinshausen and Nathaniel Palmer. “Poor Bellingshausen,” the chapter opens; “He achieved success without fame, suffered toil without recognition.” .

A nice detail occurs with the ship-wrecking of the sealer “Cora” in 1821. The ship’s company led by Robert Fildes is obliged to live ashore for a while. “The ship’s cat moved into an empty barrel and was promptly joined by two penguins.” “Living together amicably,” adds the author.

Lastly, Harrison explains the phenomenon that gave Gore Vidal the title for his first book. A williwaw is a wind of sufficient power to send the masts of a sailing ship horizontal.


John Harrison‘s latest book 1519: A Journey to the End of Time is available now from Parthian Books.