Book review - Birdie Bowers: Captain Scott’s Marvel

Anyone who’s seen the film ‘Scott of the Antarctic’, or indeed any of the big or small screen versions of the ill-fated Terra Nova expedition a hundred years ago, might think they know the story of Henry Robertson ‘Birdie’ Bowers.

But all the best life stories are told without dramatic additions, and Anne Strathie’s new biography of Bowers, who was born in Greenock and whose mother and sisters lived on Bute, follows that guiding light beautifully.

‘Birdie Bowers - Captain Scott’s Marvel’ paints a picture of an unassuming man, whose father died when his son was just three years old.

As the only man in the family he felt his responsibilities keenly, whether as a student at the Thames Nautical Training College, an officer in the Royal Indian Marine or at the peak of his talents, when he was selected by Robert Falcon Scott to join the Terra Nova expedition without so much as an interview.

Central to Bowers’ story are the copious letters he wrote to his family from wherever he was in the world; they paint a picture of unfailing optimism and cheerfulness - and, though he never made much of his own aptitudes, of a man of no little organisational and navigational ability.

All those attributes would prove invaluable on the Terra Nova expedition, which was far from being the failure the deaths of five members of the team - Bowers, Scott, Captain Oates, Edward Wilson and Edgar ‘Taff’ Evans - might suggest to the rest of the world.

Anne Strathie resists the temptation to surround the quintet’s fateful journey back from the South Pole in March 1912 in pathos - but that takes none of the emotion away from a story which is difficult to read without quite a few pauses for thought.

If one thing is missing it’s detailed testimonials for Bowers from his companions - but when you think about it, those are not really required, because the book as a whole does that job perfectly.