Title:          MRS CHIPPY’S LAST EXPEDITION. 1914-1915
                The Remarkable Journal of Shackleton’s Polar-Bound Cat.
Author:         Caroline Alexander        
Publisher:      Bloomsbury, December 1997
ISBN:           0 7475 3527 2
Price:          A$ 24.95 (hardback)   170 pages
Reviewed by Ann Skea

Sam, my cat, is miffed. He regards comments on feline authorship as his personal preserve, and he claims extensive knowledge of naval expeditions based on frequent close inspection of a neighbour’s trailered dinghy. However, the photographs in Mrs Chippy’s Last Expedition clearly show that Mrs Chippy was closely related to him, so his objectivity is compromised and it would be hard for him to claim he had no vested interest in the book’s success.

In any case, it is largely due to Caroline Alexander’s sensitive editing that Mrs Chippy’s journal is so interesting and attractive. As well as giving us a complete and unabridged version of the journal, she includes some excellent photographs and drawings from other (human) members of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. And she has astutely persuaded Lord Mouser-Hunt FRGS to provide notes on the broader human context of Mrs Chippy’s saga and comments on the difficult and dangerous situation which prevailed on board the Endurance during the time of its writing. It is this extra perspective which makes Mrs Chippy’s journal important in expeditionary literature and which, to a large extent, supplies its poignancy and humour.

Mrs Chippy shipped on as carpenter’s mate in the three-masted barkentine, Endurance, in August 1914. One month after the ship sailed for Antarctica, Commander Worsley, the ship’s captain, noted in his diary ‘the regrettable discovery’ that ‘Mrs Chippy is not a lady but a gentleman’. But by this time the name had stuck and he was known affectionately to all his shipmates as ‘Mrs Chippy’ , ‘Mrs Chips’, or just ‘Chippy’ like his mate Henry ‘Chippy’ McNeish, the ship’s carpenter.

The journal does not begin until January 15th, just four days before the Endurance became trapped in the ice in the Weddell Sea. It documents events which took place over the next nine months, until the Endurance was finally crushed by the ice and the crew were left stranded on an ice-floe some 312 miles from the nearest land.

Mrs Chippy’s life was naturally a little different to that of other crew-members. He records events which are already familiar from the accounts of other expedition chroniclers (like Roland Huntford in his book Shackleton, Hodder and Stoughton, 1985) but, since his duties took him over the whole ship, he is able to offer a broader picture than most. And his analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of particular shipmates is acute. Thomas Ord-Lees, who, according to the reports of others, was an odd, antisocial individual, not always on easy terms with the rest of the crew, is perceptively described in his ‘earmuffs and pink nose’ as looking ‘like a mouse’ (which the photograph confirms). And the expert services of the stowaway, Blackborow, who took over galley duty whist the cook was sick, are recorded in detail.

Mrs Chippy was clearly a determined and resourceful character whose reliability was frequently remarked upon by his shipmates. He had no doubt about his own value as a crew-member. He took his turn on watch and assiduously observed the seals and penguins; he maintained control over the ship’s mouse population; and he perfected simple techniques to help exercise the dogs during their long periods of close confinement. He was also sociable and generous. From the crew-members’ perspective it is clear that Mrs Chippy was often a valuable distraction from the prolonged hardships they endured and his warmth and affection provided much-needed relief from stress. Even those who sometimes suspected his motives were frequently won over by his blandishments and charm. So, when the journal abruptly and disturbingly ends, at a time when the crew are preparing for a long and dangerous trek across the ice, we fear for his safety as much as we fear for that of the men.

Caroline Alexander’s restoration of Mrs Chippy’s journal gives us a unique record of a remarkable expedition. The stranded men were eventually rescued after Shackleton and five others sailed for sixteen days, 800 miles across open sea, to South Georgia, then trekked across the mountainous island to the whaling station at Stromness. From there, a rescue party was finally despatched.

There is only one problem. It seems that we cannot always rely on the word of Lord Mouser-Hunt FRGS. His claim that the original “weather-beaten manuscript” of Mrs Chippy’s journals resides in the archives of the Scottish Geographical Society has been specifically denied by Dr David Munro, the Society’s current Director. Did Lord Mouser-Hunt have a paw in the Hitler Diaries too, I wonder? I shall have to ask Sam.

© Ann Skea 2016. For permission to quote any part of this document contact Dr Ann Skea at ann@skea.com

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