It struck me the other day that, barring rampaging cabbies and the fleshpots of my Eustachian tubes, I should live to see the 100th anniversary of the First World War, the “war to end all wars” that led to the “peace to end all peace.” Ernest Shackleton’s South details his failed Antarctic expedition; an excerpt, Escape from the Antarctic, has been marketed by Penguin’s Great Journey’s series. After sailing with five men 800 miles through the South Atlantic winter of 1916 in a 20 foot boat, and then climbing over South Georgia Island, which no one had ever done before, to get to the whaling station on the other end of the island for help for the twenty or so men left on the Antarctic ice, Shackleton has a pressing question. “Tell me, when was the war over?” The Expedition, starting in 1914, had been so cut off from the world they had no idea that the war still raged. A good proportion of Shackleton’s men, who were all rescued, by the way, ended up being killed in the European slaughterhouse. Stiff-upper lip irony indeed.
A twenty-foot boat. In the extreme South Atlantic. Navigating by stars. It was called the “James Caird,” that boat, and it’s about the same size as my friend the Commodore’s two craft. Unbelievable.
In The German Empire, a short history of a short but fraught subject (1871-1918), we get De Gaulle’s post WWII quote about “La guerre de trente ans de notre siecle,” the 30 years war of our century. He had fought at Verdun during round one. C.V. Wedgwood’s Thirty Years War is an excellent if relentless examination of the 17th century’s version. Wedgwood used her first initials back in the day because ladies didn’t write history.
In Names on Land, a fairly unadulterated bit of WWII-era propaganda (re Valley Forge: “the great Virginian held them, and somewhere through the snow-flurries a wraith of Liberty still lured them on.”) I learn that “Hudson” was pretty much the last of half a dozen names of the river. You can still see the name “North River” on some charts, for at the tip of Manhattan it does run north-south; this might be confusing if you take the cardinal points literally in the Inner Borough; in fact, there’s only one perfectly compass-oriented street that I know of there, the east-west Stuyvesant St. (Peg-leg Pete was a bit of a stickler for that sort of thing.) So why is the East River not the South River? Poor thing’s already traumatized by not being a river at all….
Currently, Rosemary Mahoney is rowing Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff. Now, that’s a river. She describes the lux accommodations on the boats used by the likes of such 19th Century Grand Tour of Egypt luminaries as Gustave Flaubert and Florence Nightingale, “Floating down the Nile in a dahabieh was a bit like floating down the Nile in a brownstone.” I would have liked to have seen Flaubert and Nightingale on the same floating brownstone.