A few weeks ago, something shocking occurred when I went to check my credits on Audible. Usually, their recommended section either accidentally recommends books I’ve already read, or throws me some kind of self-help book – which, honestly, they probably inflict these on everybody. But this time they got it right – they gave me a recommendation off their new release list that wasn’t something I was already familiar with.
And it turned out to be really damned good!
I wasn’t sure of how to categorise Erebus: The Story of a Ship when I purchased it. Was it history, or a biography? How on earth was this meant to work?
The answer is, it’s kind of both, and it’s a combination that has been executed very well. Even though the HMS Erebus is an inanimate object, this book makes it clear that it can’t be denied that ships live lives; we learn of how Erebus and her sister ship were commissioned and constructed at the Pembroke dockyards in Wales, of the men who commanded her, and her two greatest voyages – one each to both the Antartic and the Arctic. Erebus, I learnt, was fantastically well-travelled.
Alongside this life-story, we also get a large dose of Royal Navy history and details on British sea exploration in the 19th century, with a focus on the period between the Napoleonic and Crimean wars. We also learn about the motivations of these explorers and why the British were so interested in discovering the ends of the earth.
(Magnets. It’s to do with magnets)
And we cannot forget the one thing that the HMS Erebus is most famous for: both she and her sister ship, the HMS Terror, were part of John Franklin’s lost expedition to find the Northwest Passage. And the HMS Erebus remained lost until 2014, when the wreckage was discovered just off the coast of King William Island.
All of this is masterfully put together by none other than Michael Palin. While I knew that Palin had done a number of travel documentaries, I have never actually read any of his books, so I had no idea he writes so well. He’s also the narrator on the Audible version, which is just delightful, and one of the two reasons I decided to purchase the book straight away. Not only does he have a wonderful, calming voice to listen to, the passion he has for the subject really shines out of his narration. I had to remind myself how well-travelled Palin is – he’s been to the ends of the world too and knows first hand what the sailors in these expeditions would have felt! This is another book where I would recommend the audio version if you can get hold of it.
Now, the second reason behind my rapid purchase? I was a massive fan off of AMC’s ‘The Terror’ when it aired earlier this year. Like, I was an ‘Oh my God, so excited, a mini Rome reunion!*‘ kind of fan. For those people who are not familiar, this series is based on a fictionalised account of the final journey of both the HMS Terror and Erebus – John Franklin’s lost expedition. But after finishing the series, It occurred to me that I didn’t really have any historical (read: non-supernatural) accounts of the expedition, and that was something I had to rectify.
Luckily for me, Palin delivers on this beautifully, although his account of the expedition only starts two-thirds of the way through the book. The previous sections of the book detail the Erebus’ earlier adventures, from when she was serving her original purpose as a bomber ship; and after being retrofitted for the benefit of James Clark Ross, her voyage to the Antartic. (The latter itself is another story that would be well worth a dramatisation in its own right.)
Palin’s account of John Franklin’s disastrous last voyage is fascinating. There was a lot of politicking going behind the scenes, both before the voyage set out, and later, after the ships and crew were lost. While I couldn’t get behind Lady Franklin’s actions when John Franklin was Lieutenant Governor of Van Dieman’s Land (modern-day Tasmania), I’ll admit I developed a good deal of respect for her with regards to her fight to find out exactly what had befallen her husband.
Another section I really appreciated was the investigation in one of the later chapters on how much the local Inuit knew. John Rae, in his search in 1854, managed to obtain a good deal of information on the fate of the men of Erebus and Terror, along with some of their possessions, by interacting with the Inuit, when perhaps others wouldn’t. And Inuit oral history later aided in locating the actual wreckage of the Erebus, over 100 years later. It’s entirely possible that if people have paid more attention to these histories earlier, the wreck of the Erebus may not have stayed hidden so long.
So I’ll repeat – I was shocked at how good this book was, and how much I enjoyed listening to Palin narrate it. An automatic five-star from me, and if this sounds like the kind of history you might go for, this should be an automatic purchase
And I’m going to squeeze another sneaky bingo square in here under ‘Not in My Wheelhouse’ because until I read this, I didn’t even know that biographies on inanimate objects was even a genre, let alone one worth exploring? But now I know better.
* I know it’s not a good idea to mix fictional accounts of people with their real-life counterparts, but I cheered when Mr Goodsir got a mention in the book. Because if his real-life personality was even half as nice as that of his depiction in ‘The Terror’, he deserves a good cheer.
I’m sort of embarrassing like that