Sunday, January 5, 2014

Ice, Steel, and Fire, by Linda Parker

Linda Parker writes a series of profiles of some of Britain's most intrepid travelers of the Modern Era in Ice, Steel, and Fire: British Explorers in Peace and War 1921-45. She picks an interesting and perhaps overlooked set, as many writers have already covered the great explorations of participants in the Great War, such as the Mount Everest reconnaissance, or the turn-of-the-century journeys of Younghusband, Wollaston, Bailey, and others. Parker's explorers head out to decidedly remote locations, whether crossing Greenland, surveying Antarctica, sailing the Aleutians, scrounging in the southern Amazon, or penetrating the Nanda Devi Sanctuary, and then apply their unique skills to the battles of World War II. Parker picks subjects with decidedly interesting stories both in their explorer days and their war careers, so some famous British explorers, such as Eric Shipton (who served as a trainer during the war), are left out. She includes, however, the explorations and war careers of George Binney, Spencer Chapman, Quintin Riley, Peter Fleming, Andrew Croft, Sandy Glen, Martyn Sherwood, R. E. D. Ryder, Lancelot Fleming, Augustine Courtauld, and Bill Tilman. 

Tilman is the Everest connection to this set, and a bit of an exception to the list, as he participated in both world wars. Parker writes of his crossing of Africa on a bicycle, a little of his African mountaineering, his exploration and climbing of Nanda Devi, and his 1938 attempt on Everest, before writing significantly more on his World War II career in North Africa, the Middle East, Albania, and Italy. The 1938 attempt gets about two pages of summary, with Tilman quips about oxygen and the weather, but overall dry treatment. Tilman's participation in the 1935 Everest reconnaissance is but a two-sentence interruption to the story of Nanda Devi. Parker analyzes a bit more Tilman's army career, such as suggesting why he remained a relatively low rank. It's too bad the narrative stops at 1945, as Tilman's exploration and war service blend uncomfortably as he pushes the limits of "being lost" while wandering round politically sensitive areas in Central Asia soon after the war.

Overall, I felt like Parker could have done more to analyze and explain, as this is a narrative of the grey areas between exploration and service to one's country. Too much of it was summary and exposition, and not nearly enough it the interesting stuff that can go along with a good story. The Martyn Sherwood chapter, especially, had a lot of potential to ask or even answer some fascinating questions. The stories are entertaining, but the book is more an introduction to the topic than a definitive volume.

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