No, I only put on my judgemental hat for a crowd of one nutter: Prince Harry. He set off for the South Pole in early December, accompanied by the obligatory entourage of limbless ex-servicemen (and women), the aim being to show that limbless ex-servicemen (and women), and lame unemployed princes, are all capable of inspirational levels of achievement. It’s difficult to know where to begin when it comes to unpicking this giant bezoar – or should I say pseudo-bezoar – that’s stuck in the British gastrointestinal tract.
In a country in which ex-servicemen (and women) – whether limbless or not – have disproportionately high levels of all the following: unemployment, mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction, homelessness and familial breakdown, how on earth is the realisation that Prince Hal and pals have made it to the pole going to help one jot?
What these folk need are decent job prospects, homes at genuinely affordable rents and consistent welfare. What they get is the capricious compassion of charity and the example of “achievements” confabulated for them out of the most threadbare tropes of imperialist delusion. For the British loyalist the South Pole will always remain a proving ground: we was robbed – they still madly and impotently believe – by a gang of horn-heads who had the temerity to go properly equipped, using effective techniques (most of them learned, mark you, from the lowly Eskimos) that included that ultimate atrocity: feeding their sledge dogs to . . . their other sledge dogs. Damn it all, you cannot possibly consider a man who’ll watch such dog-on-dog action any kind of adventurer – let alone a victorious gentleman.
So it is that even after half a century of painstaking revisionism by the likes of Roland Huntford, the Scott debacle remains embedded in the national gut as a splendid example of pluck, fortitude and self-sacrifice, instead of a criminal one of officer-class arrogance, cravenness and homicidal ineptitude. But the really important thing to remember about this ill-fated expedition is that it prefigured, in miniature, the grotesque “sacrifice” of British lives that came two years later in the killing fields of Flanders, where the manufacture of limbless ex-servicemen was conducted as if on an assembly line. Perhaps the most pitiful addendum to the whole sorry business of British polar exploration was the fate of Shackleton’s men, who, having survived the loss of their ship in the Weddell Sea in August 1914, made it across the pack ice to Elephant Island, from the isolate wastes of which they were finally saved, only for many of them to return to Europe just in time to get killed in the First World War.
This year will be wall-to-wall remembrance, and the British state, which excels in co-opting dissident voices to its oxymoronic ideology of post-imperial imperialism, will have a field day propagating the bizarre double bind that while the First War was a dreadful business, it nevertheless produced some excellent poetry, and of course it remains the case that Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. Seen from this angle, His Dumbness was simply the vanguard of a great horde of bonkers militarists. We’re at a curious juncture in our island story: despite being defeated in almost all the theatres it has engaged in over the past decade, the British army has never been held in higher popular esteem. This isn’t down to state, it’s a function of a populace who subconsciously view our troops not as puissant warriors fighting for a noble cause but charity cases in the making, just like themselves.