Erebus, by Michael Palin

Essentially the service history of the ship of that name. I’d never joined the dots and realised that as well as getting famously lost in Franklin’s search for the northwest passage, it also had a highly successful career in the Antarctic. HMS’s Erebus and Terror were a redundant class of warship, built to carry and fire massive mortars – so they were graceless and ugly but also immensely strong with lots of internal bracing, which made them excellent for ice work. It was on them that James Clark Ross discovered the Ross Ice Shelf, McMurdo Sound, Mounts Terror and Erebus (bit of a clue there) – and all this under sail. For the northern expedition they were fitted with engines (for all the good it did them), but under sail alone they went so far south (78 degrees) that the record wouldn’t be broken for another 60 years, by a steam ship. Fascinating stuff.

It’s all the more tantalising for being so on the verge of recorded history. They were seen by Inuit, who would have gladly given them help if it had occurred to these stiffnecked white Victorians to ask for it. Less than 100 years later, WW2 would be in the past. By the time of the Franklin expedition, photography had been invented, so there are pictures of him and all his officers before setting out. (There are none from Ross’s expedition just a few years before.) These were all educated, literate men, so you can’t help thinking it wouldn’t have killed them (arf) to leave written records of what was happening and where they were going. They probably did just that – but left them on the ships which then sank.

Palin strikes a good balance between heroism and the dark side of being an enlightened Victorian – the God-given right to go out and impose Enlightenment values on the rest of the world whether it liked it or not. Perform mighty acts of scientific research (the Ross expedition was part of a global effort to map the Earth’s magnetic field) in the name of learning how we can best tame and exploit our world commercially. The Royal Navy really was the Starfleet of its day.