by Fergus Flemung
I have been picking at this book for over a year and to be honest I can't remember where I bought it. This in itself will probably tell you that its not exactly a riveting page turner, but rather a book one has to persevere with.
Its redeeming feature is the bulk of its subject matter - the search for the North West Passage.
The book pivots round John Barrow, Second Secretary to the Admiralty, who wrote:
"To what purpose could a portion of our naval force be, at any one time, but more especially in a time of profound peace, more honorably or usefully employed than in completing those details of geographical and hydrographical science of which the grand outlines have been sketched by Cook... and many other of your own countrymen."
A bit ponderous in its delivery but what it is expressing is that in a time of peace how can we usefully employ some of the many naval ships and crews who are kicking their heels on half pay? His answer was to sponsor a long series of explorations which with hindsight all appear to be lost causes and to some extent pointless.
So whilst Barrow is the connecting feature in these tales, he was no explorer himself and it is the stories of the crews which are unpacked in painstaking detail.
Sadly, whilst the book has many redeeming features such as the insights into Arctic and Antartic exploration, it is also a slave to historical accuracy with its five page bibliography and eleven page index. No one could accuse Fleming of skimping on accuracy or playing fast and lose with history - this verges on an academic work and its readability suffers as a consequence.
And then there is the African element. In the main the book is about water based polar exploration, which is a hugely interesting subject, but in the pursuit of comprehensive accuracy there are large chunks devoted to African expeditions to find the source of the Niger and the location on Timbuktoo. Quite possibly valid subjects for research, but completely at odds with the polar elements and to me, as boring as Hell!
So I pressed on with this book, taking it with me on several boat trips last summer and finally, over a year after I embarked on my journey through its 500 pages, I have completed the trip and returned to port safe and sound. That may sound slow going but for many of the crews seeking out a North West Passage they found themselves icebound for several successive seasons and could easily spent three years or more locked in these desolate arctic regions. Against this background it is perhaps fitting that the account of their journey is unpacked with glacial slowness!
So, 10:10 for historical authenticity, 9:10 for literary quality, 7:10 for interest factor and 4:10 for readability.
If you are interested in the subject matter read on. If not - move on!