Love in a cold climate

16th April 2004 at 01:00
Victoria Neumark on a young man's ultimate gap year - or five - in the Arctic of the 1930s

THE LAST OF THE GENTLEMAN ADVENTURERS: Coming of age in the Arctic. By Edward Beauclerk Maurice. Fourth Estate pound;16.99

Today, when countless young Britons pour across the globe in search of adventure that includes hot showers, coffee and built-in music, not to mention emails home asking for extra dosh, it is hard to conjure up the bygone days of a fading empire when a young lad might be despatched to the Arctic to make his fortune with little hope of communicating with home for a year or two.

In 1930, Edward Beauclerk Maurice was a shy 16-year-old. Since shortly after he was born, he and his mother and siblings had been living off the grudging charity of his dead father's mother in a chilly house on the north Somerset coast. Whatever impulse suggested he sign up as a Hudson's Bay apprentice on a five-year contract, to trade with the Inuit peoples of the Arctic, seems lost in the mists of time. A mixture of desire for adventure and rebellion at the thought of a life of dull privation on a farm in New Zealand, where the family were emigrating, seems to have propelled him into another world in which dogs were as important as people and where deep bonds were formed in the face of harsh winds and deadening cold.

It is difficult to envisage how shy and sheltered an adolescent boy could be in those days. Beauclerk Maurice is no natural writer - his style is stiff and coloured by a gentlemanly reticence, especially in his account of a love affair with an Inuit woman - but his tale is extraordinary.

He combines a naive wonder with a stout-hearted determination to turn his hand to whatever comes his way, be it trading for skins, dog-sledding or getting to know the people, who take to him with open hearts. He never criticises their ways, even though their attitudes to drinking, sex and possessions are not his. His very innocence seals him against making sharp judgments, so that "not having been used to strong drink", he is overwhelmed by a raucous trading meeting, yet notices the human suffering of some of the Inuit whom other westerners dismiss as drunkards.

It was a life of privation, where seal meat and fish had to supplement a limited quantity of tinned goods, where human contact was limited and news of the outside world did not penetrate for nine months of the year. Opening a tin of peas was cause for celebration. Winter, he says, "closed round Baffin Island like a curtain", and lasted from October to late June. Besides passing the time with books, cooking and listening to the wireless (erratically), Beauclerk Maurice had to contend with the dramas of the community in which he lived.

Remarkably, he rose to the challenge. He learned the language, unusually for the time, and though he reflected that his colleagues who had advised him against getting involved with the community had the recipe for a quieter life, he took it on himself to live life in the Arctic to the full: hunting, travelling and socialising with the Inuit and falling, shyly, in love over the deathbed of a child.

From the distance of 70 years, it is difficult to imagine how a young teenager was able, for instance, to cope with a deadly outbreak of illness, the hostility of the medicine man, and the deaths of friends, then go on to scramble some eggs for supper and notice a possible uranium deposit that could benefit the Hudson's Bay company and further his career. And that is just one chapter. Perhaps we underestimate our own young people.

Beauclerk Maurice's adventures bring new meaning to the cliche "university of life". Having to cope with physical and social hardship, to learn to make friends and survive, to sharpen up commercially (the Inuit, though non-westernised, tried to drive hard bargains) gave him maturity and empathy too.

Maybe he was exceptional, but the charm of his book lies in its modesty: he makes no claims for himself. His concern was to make a record of some amazing adventures and a vanishing way of life; these are woven into an eye-opening narrative that is suffused with kindliness and an attitude to growing up more restrained but more humane than that prevailing today. A gentleman adventurer, indeed.

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