The Scott syndrome

Two days ago, I happened to hear on Radio 3 Sarah Walker’s introduction to her ‘Choice’ on Essential Classics, which was Vaughan Williams’s Sinfonia Antartica (sic). As I recall it now, she said that the composer was commissioned to write the music for the film Scott of the Antarctic but that during the process he was increasingly struck by how Captain Scott was ‘doomed by his own poor judgement’, and this eventually led to the symphony and particularly its terrifying third movement.

The phrase ‘doomed by his own poor judgement’ sounded like a quotation from Vaughan Williams himself. It struck home deeply with me. Throughout the day, I found that it helped focus some of my own ‘experience’ (see yesterday’s post) of completing the story of George Calderon’s life, i.e. my describing his disappearance into the smoke and dust of the Third Battle of Krithia and my knowing he would never came back.

In a post on 13 August last year I said that I knew it was going to be a challenge to avoid lugubrious, ‘portentous’ prose once George set out for the Dardanelles (not that he or his fellow officers knew where they were going); the trouble being, of course, that you as his biographer know he is going to his death, but he doesn’t. I duly girded my loins to avoid this sombre temptation. I think I have avoided it, but in fact an entirely different seriousness intervened, or supervened, in the narrative.

Describing the last weekend they spent together in Hampstead, and then the journey to Devonport with George to say goodbye and watch him embark, Kittie wrote:

He was full of loving kindness.

Yet a strange feeling hung over everything; not of foreboding, but as though there were millions of miles of distance — distance that was bridged, but yet there.

But it was not bridged in ordinary ways — somehow the warm clasp of his hand as he sat by me in the train speeding down to Devonport didn’t seem to have anything to do with being near to him.

It is important, I felt when I got to this point, that she stresses this was not foreboding on her part. I believe her description is objective; I believe we can trust her memory here. She felt ‘millions of miles’ apart in spirit. For the umpteenth time in his life, George was becoming ‘someone else’, someone she did not yet know. This time, before her eyes, he was becoming Lieutenant Calderon going to a distant war. Being a soldier was far more of an appropriated persona for him than for Owen, say, or Thomas. He had assimilated the role so carefully and was acting it so well that most people did not realise it was acting. Personally, I believe he was impersonating a soldier so that he could write about the War from the inside afterwards (more evidence will come in May and June).

Understandable and even admirable though that may be, underlying George’s military career was the most awful misjudgement. In October 1914 he believed the war would be over by Christmas (at least, he told his mother that); in May 1915 he believed his Russian would come in handy when the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force joined up with the Tsarist Army in Constantinople; even at Gallipoli he was certain his regiment was always going to be in reserve (at least, he told Kittie that).

This last misjudgement was fatal. George was manipulated by Lieutenant-General Aylmer Hunter-Weston’s and Commander-in-Chief Ian Hamilton’s latest ‘invincible’ plan for the Gallipoli campaign and sent straight to his death. His experience was of open warfare only, as he had seen it at Ypres. That is, warfare in which you have a chance if you can run. His last letter to Kittie shows that even on the day before the Third Battle of Krithia he thought it was going to be relatively open, like the Battle of the Brickstacks (see my post of 27 January). In fact, as the official history puts it and all sources agree, the Third Battle of Krithia was ‘the first to be fought on the peninsula under conditions of definite trench warfare’. Within minutes of going over the top, George Calderon was dead.

Obviously, I don’t like straying from our ‘real time’ like this, but my point is that the last pages of my biography have been overhung not by foreboding and lugubriousness, but by a stunned realisation that George was ‘doomed by his own poor judgement’. He had a naive, uninformed and quintessentially idealistic view of the war. He was ‘conned’. I have found the realisation of this — as I studied the campaign in detail — depressing, but also infuriating. The waste, the waste, the waste! The destruction it wrought to Kittie’s life!

Or was he conned? I touched on the ‘Scott syndrome’ in my post Polymaths, or dilettantes? on 21 November 2104 and I won’t draw further parallels at this point, as the greatness or otherwise of Captain Scott is a vast, pullulating controversy. But if Calderon was ‘doomed by his own poor judgement’ and is in some ways as infuriating as Scott, one cannot deny his courage any more than one can Scott’s. Perhaps George was not conned for one moment, but his courage and love of what he was defending were greater than any disillusionment and despair.

I shall try to get my head round another aspect of the experience of ‘finishing someone’s life’, on Monday…

Next entry: The dear departed

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About Patrick Miles

I am a writer who specialises in Anton Chekhov and is writing a biography of George Calderon.
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