"Waiter, has the chef peed in the soup?", asked my great-grandfather earnestly in a smart London restaurant. "Good Lord, of course not Sir Jameson", replied the shocked waiter. "Then I won't have any."
This was typical of "the Mate", so called because that is how he addressed almost everyone from King to coxswain. It also hints at the sort of character Shackleton must have been looking for when he asked the Mate to be his number two on the Nimrod Expedition. The Mate was very much his own man, running away to sea aged 13 (he met Shackleton when he was serving with the Royal Navy) and never short of a joke.
I never met the Mate but my father, his grandson, remembers him fondly. He was by all accounts terrific company (unless you happened to be a waiter), which helps when you need to survive, in every sense of the word, as part of a small team on a long polar expedition.
Sadly his diaries were lost to fire in the Second World War and he never published his own account of the Nimrod Expedition. I dearly wish I knew more about what he went through personally. I can only imagine how it must have felt to get within 97 miles of the Pole, the closest in history at the time, having sacrificed and risked so much over many months, before having to turn back in order to stay alive as their supplies dwindled. Scott and his team were to face a similar situation a few years later in their race to reach the pole before Amundsen and as we know, they took a different decision and paid the consequences with their lives.
I owe the Mate an enormous debt of gratitude. Firstly, he came back from the Antarctic alive, but for which I wouldn't exist (thank goodness he didn't get the wrong sort of frostbite). Secondly, on the centenary of the original expedition, I and the other descendants of the original Nimrod team literally have a once in a lifetime opportunity to retrace our forebears' footsteps and walk a very long way in a frozen, lifeless and stunningly beautiful land. Just getting there is a giant challenge. We will do and when we do, we will discover for ourselves what the original team must have gone through. We will also, like them, discover a lot about ourselves.
I will also be fascinated and privileged to visit the wooden hut at Cape Royds on the New Zealand side of the Antarctic, which Shackleton and his men built to survive the long Antarctic winter before embarking on the march to the Pole in October 1908. The hut marks the start of our journey and still stands 100 years later, with the team's belongings preserved within. To go inside will be to walk back in time. It will be a monumental inspiration before we set off.
And the expedition is just part of it. The Mate dedicated much of his life to youth development after the Nimrod Expedition. Shackleton's feats are well known and inspire awe throughout the world. We have set up a charity, The Shackleton Foundation, to promote, benefit from and encourage in others the accomplishments and spirit of Shackleton and his men.
The expedition is the first fundraising event for The Foundation. You can read elsewhere on these pages about the purpose of The Foundation. Its ambit is, in one sense, as wide as can be, the criteria for potential benefactors being that the projects for which they seek funding are bold, innovative and useful. For me, this means two things: that whoever is seeking a grant must have total faith in their idea or product and that it will make the world a better place.
I can't wait to meet the applicants and hear their ideas. Just need to walk 900 miles to the South Pole first.
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