Like many British people I was brought up on stories of glorious failure, perhaps epitomised by Captain Robert Scott’s exploration of Antarctica.
Although the expedition was successful in its primary aim (they made it to the South Pole, gathering many scientific specimens along the way) it failed in two major respects: they were not the first to reach the Pole, finding on their arrival a tent left behind by Roald Amundsen‘s team. Secondly, Scott’s party never made it back.
One of the most famous episodes, documented in Scott’s diaries, took place on the disastrous return trip. With one of their party, Edgar Evans, already dead, the team’s progress was being slowed by another, Captain Lawrence Oates, who was suffering with severe frostbite and possible scurvy. As Scott wrote, “Oates’ feet are in a wretched condition… The poor soldier is very nearly done.”
Aware that he was holding his colleagues back, Oates suggested that they go on without him. They refused; so, on the morning of 16th March 1912, Oates’ 32nd birthday, he took matters into his own hands.
Leaving his boots behind, and uttering the famous words “I am just going outside and may be some time”, Oates stepped out of the tent into a blizzard, never to be seen again.
I have known the heroic tale of Captain Oates for as long as I can remember. What I did not know, until today, was that he lived around the corner from me, in what is now Meanwood Park in Leeds, and was then Meanwoodside, the Oates family estate. Today marks exactly 100 years since Oates ‘went outside’, so an exhibition was held in the park, and a commemorative blue plaque unveiled.
As well as being largley responsible for the park’s attractive appearance, the Oates family included at least one other explorer: Lawrence’s uncle Frank Oates, who explored Central America, before dying during an expedition to Africa. The Oates approach to life can perhaps be summed up by Frank’s saying:
“I like anything that seems difficult of attainment”.