I am surprised at how many books I, a noted bad traveller on water, have read about ships and boats. Recently I read this book about the life of one ship and I previously blogged about The Perfect Storm which is a true story about a boat in a storm – you can see my views on it here. I have a couple of other similar books which I read some years ago and I note that I have a book on the Titanic in my to-be-read pile. I have no idea where this obvious fascination for ships comes from given that I don’t set foot on a boat if I can possibly help it.
Nevertheless I have just finished and enjoyed Erebus by Michael Palin which is a book about the life of a ship. The ship was built in the early Victorian era and was firstly involved in Antarctic exploration, travelling further South than any other ship at that date. The first half of this book follows the ship on this expedition. Because we have so many diaries and documents from those who travelled with the expedition we can follow what was done, what the challenges were and even what the participants thought about it all. The author brings this together in a brilliant narrative which is very readable and doesn’t require any previous knowledge.
The second part of the book looks at the ship’s next, and last, journey. Over 100 men travelled to the Arctic in Erebus seeking to travel through the North West passage. The book looks at who went, why they travelled, what preparations were made and then what happened when the ship and its crew totally disappeared. I knew a little about this missing expedition because I have also read Barrow’s Boys by Fergus Fleming which is a fascinating look at the history of Arctic exploration at this time. In Erebus, however, the author does an excellent job of exploring what is actually known about what happened and why people reacted as they did – plus this more recent book has the advantage of being able to talk about the rediscovery of the ship beneath Arctic waters.
I enjoyed this book a lot. There were copious maps to keep you informed about where the ship was and lots of pictures (probably better in a paper book – I was reading this on a Kindle). The style is informal and the author tries to find interesting snippets to engage the reader and to help us see these explorers as real people with human quirks. From time to time the author visits locations mentioned in the book in real life and shares his experiences which I thought worked very well. It’s a fascinating story and told in a very readable way.