The White South by Hammond Innes (1949)

The sky cleared about eleven that night. The sun was almost due south, a flaming yellow ball, its lower edge just above the horizon. A towering iceberg loomed up to starboard, catching the sunlight and flashing fire like an enormous pink diamond. Fragments of ice began to drift past us – tiny ‘growlers’, almost completely submerged. And ahead of us the loose pack ice stretched like an unending, broken plain of pink straight into the sun. It was an incredible sight. (p.112)

Summary

This is a longer, deeper and more successful novel than any of its predecessors.

Slowly and methodically it chronicles the tangled web of personal and business rivalries which lead to a major shipping disaster in the Antarctic. It is the story of the whaling ship Southern Star which, along with its flotilla of chaser and support ships, heads south in search of whales into Antarctic pack ice. Here some of the chaser ships, and then the master ship itself, become trapped, forcing their crews to abandon ship and decant nearly 500 men and a handful of women and boys onto the treacherous ice.

The novel tells in gruelling detail the story of the attempts of one of the chaser ships and its crew and English captain to survive the most inhospitable environment on earth.

Set-up

The story is topped and tailed by an omniscient narrator, briskly telling the facts of the case. After a few pages recalling the media storm surrounding the story ie lending the story an aura of factuality, including brief newspaper cuttings, the texts of telegrams, the original radio messages etc – the text then cuts to a long and detailed first-person narrative by young Duncan Craig. (This use of a narrative framed within an objective editor’s-eye-view recalls loads of late Victorian, Rider Haggard/Conan Doyle-style yarns.)

Like characters in the Innes previous novels, Craig had an exciting and responsible job in the War, in his case as captain of a corvette, which took him all over the world. The return to Civvy Street was a shock and a disappointment, the only post he could find was clerking at a tobacco import company. A friend of a friend mentions work in the mines in South Africa and on this flimsy pretext Craig hitches a lift on an airplane to Cape Town.

In those days it was a long trip with a number of stopovers which give Craig time to get to know the other passengers, who includehated the harassed and sick head of the South Antarctic Whaling Company, Colonel Bland, which owns the Southern Star, and his daughter-in-law, Judie. He learns that the owner’s son, Erik, is a spoilt brat who was put in charge of the Star as an opportunity but has quickly got at loggerheads with the master of the ship and co-owner of the company, Judie’s father, Nordahl. As they arrive in Cape Town the crisis deepens as all three learn that Judie’s father has gone missing from the ship. How? Did he jump or was he pushed?

Later the same night Bland makes Craig an offer: the captain of the towing ship, Tauer III, due to take Bland out to to the Star has been hurt in a car crash. Knowing of his wartime experience, Bland offers him the captaincy and the job of taking them from Cape Town out to the troubled ship. Craig hesitates then accepts. He is now thoroughly embroiled in the fate of the ship and the personalities who are central to the disaster which will follow…

Briefly

The vast Southern Star factory ship is surrounded by a small flotilla of whale catcher boats and fuel and refrigerator ships. The whole whaling operation is described in convincing detail and is clearly something Innes has observed himself.

As to the thriller story: Craig is reluctantly roped into an onboard inquiry which hears the contradictory evidence about whether Erik pushed Nordahl, who he hated and feared, overboard. Lots of murmuring among the crew which old man Bland defuses by demoting his son to captaincy of one of the corvettes, much to Erik’s seething anger. But then whales a-plenty appear and for a while everyone forgets their troubles in the exciting, dangerous work of chasing, catching, killing and gutting whales, which Innes describes with his usual energy and vividness.

A few days later one of the catchers follows whales into the pack ice then suddenly finds itself trapped. The catcher Craig has been given to captain immediately goes to its rescue. So far bad luck, but then, in the mist and fog Craig’s boat is suddenly rammed by the corvette captained by evil Erik, though not before the rather mad Dr Howe fires a whaling harpoon up through the bridge which penetrates the engine room and explodes. In a matter of minutes a problem has been changed into a disaster: Craig abandons ship onto the ice, then watches the corvette go up in flames and be abandoned onto ice further away.

Between them the three stricken boats have radioed the Southern Star but the small receiver Craig’s men rescue has no send facility. They listen with mounting horror to the radio broadcasts from Southern Star as it announces it is coming to rescue them, requests them to burn stuff to create smoke to find them, begins to say the ice is closing in, the pack appears to be being scrunched up by a set of giant icebergs being pushed in by a storm, the clear water by which it entered the pack is being closed behind it, now it is being itself crushed by ice, it is taking on water, they are sending SOS signals, they are abandoning ship. Silence. Horror. Death on the ice.

The men of the corvette rebel against Erik’s characteristic bad leadership, trudge over to Craig’s makeshift camp and he finds himself in charge of both crews. And the last 80 or so pages of the novel describe their nightmare on the ice: the deaths of the injured; the decision to try and mount a natural ledge on one of the approaching icebergs; civil war that breaks out between Bland’s followers and those who stay true to Craig; the slow diminution of rations until they take the desperate decision that a few volunteers should trek across the ice to try and find the camp which the survivors of the Southern Star must have made; and the gruelling trek across the ice in which more people die of exposure and exhaustion and Craig himself is on the edge of extinction when they finally do stumble across the survivors of the whaler complete with ample stocks of food and oil.

Even then it takes a major effort to bring all the survivors together in one place; and even then they have to make the difficult decision to select crew to set out in the little lifeboats to try to sail to South Georgia; and even then they have to persuade the authorities to commission ships to return in search of the iceberg, now floating freely in the south Atlantic, to pick up the last of the survivors. Exhausting.

Innes’ previous novels had been about handfuls of characters, 5 or 6 people. This is on a much larger scale: the awesome setting of the Antarctic seas, the dramatic descriptions of whale hunting which fill the middle of the book, and then the gruelling tale of starvation and survival – it is a much larger imaginative achievement than anything he’d done before.

Anticipation

As usual the first-person narrator is in a privileged position and has the ability of hindsight to drop throughout the text ominous hints of disasters yet to come…

I think it was then that I got the first premonition of trouble ahead. (p.48)

I didn’t know it then, but this was the morning of the fatal decision. (p.76)

Later I was to remember this story and wish she’d never told it to me. (p.114)

The Empire/the Commonwealth

In the later 1940s the British Empire began morphing into the British Commonwealth. The ‘jewel in the crown’, India, became independent in 1947, Palestine/Israel in 1948. The Commonwealth was formally constituted by the London Declaration in 1949, the year The White South was published, and was ready to receive the scores of nations which gained their independence in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Despite these changes one persistent thread of these books is the free and easy way the (white, male) characters seem to have been able to up sticks and live and work in other Empire/Commonwealth countries with wonderful ease.

Bill Ganster in The Blue Ice opened a nickel mine in Canada, having previously worked with the novel’s central character in southern Rhodesia. As the novel opens he and a few other Brits disgruntled by the lack of post-War opportunities in England are about to sail to the Mediterranean in search of new lives. In Killer Mine Jim Pryce has managed to live illegally in Italy for several years and now plans to start a new life in Canada.

In this novel the narrator, Duncan Craig, decides to emigrate to South Africa because someone he met in a bar tells him he can get him a job there. He blags a lift on a plane at London airport because a pilot he met at a party the night before tells him there are a couple of spare seats. And these aren’t especially well-off people.

The air of these books bespeaks a much free-er, more open world in which an enterprising man could travel the world, find work and make his fortune.

Style

Innes wrote these first ten or so novels very fast. You can watch his style being purified, becoming simpler and more effective. The key is not the fancy words, it’s the clarity of perception. It’s using simple language to convey things which are vividly felt and imagined. Maddon has wonderful descriptions of the wild sea and the barren Arctic island. Blue Ice eloquently describes the sea voyage to Norway and then the clear green water and soaring cliffs of the Norwegian fjords. In this book, again, Innes gives powerful descriptions of man-in-nature which are convincing because of their simplicity and precision of feeling.

I went up onto the bridge. The sea was a heaving mass in the dreary half-light. I stood there for a moment, watching the heavy weight of water surging white across the bow every time the little ship plunged. An albatross wheeled over the mast. Its huge wings were still as it planed into the wind. The air was bitterly cold. A thin film of ice was spreading on the windbreaker so that the canvas was stiff and smooth to the touch. I went into the wheelhouse and looked at the barometer. (p.56)

Sentimentality

I’d like to say the book was a masterpiece but it isn’t. Although the situations are described with startling power, the characterisation is weak and sterotypical. Old man Bland is a typical ageing patriarch, part bluster, part genuine authority. His son is a stereotypical spoilt son, sometimes weak and craven, at others surprisingly brave, but never to be trusted. The narrator, Craig, is a typically upright specimen of the Royal Navy who insists on behaving properly and refuses to do what absolutely everyone tells him to do ie either kill Erik or leave him behind with the entirely predictable result that Erik time after time sabotages their efforts to survive.

There is a highly sentimentalised love match between the physically feeble and drunk Dr Howe, who appears almost deranged with anger against Erik from his first appearance, and the ugly fat but immensely strong and likeable Gerda. Gerda accompanies Craig on their trek to find the other survivors and her slow wasting away and final death are meant to be moving, but Craig the narrator overdoes it, lamenting her death and going on about the love she had found with Howe at too much length.

If the practical, resourceful and jolly decent character of Craig sounds exactly like the practical, resourceful and jolly decent narrators of Blue Ice and Maddon’s Rock, so the love interest, Judie, bears a striking resemblance to the Jenny and Jill of those novels. Innes makes a token gesture to differentiate her by pointing out early on thjat she is not conventionally beautiful; but after that she shows herself every bit the practical sailor-type as her predecessors, and the whole process of being-brought-together-in-adversity-and-falling-in-love is basically the same. It’s a formula.

In the last lines we learn that Judie and Craig marry, buy a nice house overlooking Falmouth Harbour, have babies, and hang up a photo of the sainted Gerda in the hall. It is the superficiality of their entire relationship and the tweeness of this sentimental ending which limit the book, which limit it to its genre setting. Where the book triumphs is in its dazzling descriptions of exciting and exotic locations; where it fails is in its attempts at character and psychology.

Still, it’s the most ambitious and rewarding novel Innes had written to date.

Dramatic personae

  • Duncan Craig: narrator. Leads survivors out of the ice. Marries Judie.
  • Colonel Bland: chairman of the South Antarctic Whaling Company.
  • Erik Bland: his useless playboy son, conspiring to take complete control of the company, threatened by his father’s partner Nordahl. Erik orders  his corvette to ram Craig’s chase boat which leads Southern Star to enter the ice pack to rescue them but itself get stuck in ice and sunk. Ie Erik is responsible for the deaths of several hundred men.
  • Judie Bland née Nordahl: daughter of the Norwegian co-owner of the company, unhappy wife of Erik Bland. Falls in love with Craig.
  • Bernt Nordahl: Norwegian. Judie’s father, co-owner of the company, master of the Southern Star who goes mysteriously missing. Did he jump through stress, or was he pushed by Erik Bland because he had done finiancial deals to gain a controlling share in the company and was therefore a threat to the owner’s son?
  • McPhee: standard issue Scottish engineer of the Tauer III.
  • Dr Walter Howe: violently angry drunk marine biologist expert aboard the Tauer III, revealed to be Nordahl’s natural son ie Judie’s half-brother. Obsessed with killing Erik Bland.
  • Captain Eide: captain of the Southern Star.
  • Gerda Petersen: chunky, ugly, immensely competent female whaler. In many ways the best man there (p.179). Craig comes to really like and value her and her wasting away and death on the gruelling trek across the ice is meant to symbolise and sum up the entire tragedy, something – I think – it fails to do.
  • Aldo Bonomi: famous photographer who has the bad luck to be commissioned to take photos of whaling on this trip, merrily keeps on snapping no matter how bad things get, and ends up surviving and selling his photos to the world’s press.

Movie

The novel was made into a movie named Hell Below Zero (1954), starring American heart-throb, Alan Ladd, and rugged Brit, Stanley Baker. Here’s the opening titles, looks like a bad quality transfer from a VHS. I’d imagine it would have to simplify a lot of the plot and certainly tone down the fact the hero and heroine almost starve to death, and people around them actually do. I dare say they manage to retain a cinematically rosy glow.

Related links

Cover of the 1960s American Fontana edition of The White South

Cover of a 1960s American Fontana edition of The White South

Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines leads to him being hunted by an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land. The book features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute shootout on the Nazi ship.
1940 Wreckers Must Breathe – Journalist Walter Craig stumbles across a secret Nazi submarine base built into a ruined tin mine on the Cornwall coast and, along with local miners and a tough woman journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm – Gripping thriller based on Innes’ own experience as a Battle of Britain anti-aircraft gunner. Ex-journalist Barry Hanson uncovers a dastardly plan by Nazi fifth columnists to take over his airfield ahead of the big German invasion.


1946 Dead and Alive – David Cunningham, ex-Navy captain, hooks up with another demobbed naval officer to revamp a ship-wrecked landing craft. But their very first commercial trip to Italy goes disastrously wrong when his colleague, McCrae, offends the local mafia while Cunningham is off tracking down a girl who went missing during the war. A short but atmospheric and compelling thriller.
1947 The Killer Mine Army deserter Jim Pryce discovers dark family secrets at a ruined Cornish mine which is being used as a base by a father-and-son team of smugglers who blackmail him into doing some submarine rock blasting, with catastrophic results.
1947 The Lonely Skier Writer Neil Blair is hired to visit the Dolomite mountains in Italy, supposedly to write a script for film producer Derek Engles, in reality to tip him off when key players in a hunt for Nazi gold arrive at the ski hut in the mountains where – they all think – the missing treasure is buried.
1947 Maddon’s Rock Corporal Jim Vardin, convicted of mutiny at sea and imprisoned in Dartmoor, breaks out to clear his name and seek revenge on the captain and crew who pretended to sink their ship, the Trikkala, but in fact hid it at a remote island in the Arctic circle in order to steal its cargo of silver bullion.
1948 The Blue Ice Mineralogist and industrialist Bill Gansert sails to Norway to discover the truth about the disappearance of George Farnell, a friend of his who knew something about the discovery of a rare metal ore – an investigation which revives complex enmities forged in Norway’s war-time Nazi occupation.
1949 The White South Narrator Duncan Craig becomes mixed up in the disaster of the whaling ship Southern Star, witnessing at first hand the poisonous feuds and disagreements which lead a couple of its small whalecatcher boats to get caught in pack ice, fatally luring the vast factory ship to come to their rescue and also becoming trapped. It then has to evacuate over 400 men, women and children onto the pitiless Antarctic ice where Craig has to lead his strife-torn crew to safety.
1950 The Angry Mountain – Engineering salesman Dick Farrell’s wartime experiences come back to haunt him as he is caught up in a melodramatic yarn about a Czech spy smuggling industrial secrets to the West, with various people from his past pursuing him across Italy towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupts to form the dramatic climax to the story.
1951 Air Bridge – Bomber pilot fallen on hard times, Neil Fraser, gets mixed up with Bill Saeton and his obsession with building a new type of diesel aero-engine based on a prototype looted from wartime Germany. Saeton is helped by partner Tubby Carter, hindered by Tubby’s sex-mad wife Diana, and spied on by Else, the embittered daughter of the German who originated the designs. The story moves to Germany and the Berlin airlift where Saeton’s obsession crosses the line into betrayal and murder.
1952 Campbell’s Kingdom – Bruce Campbell, given only months to live by his doctors, packs in his boring job in London and emigrates to Canada to fulfil the dream of his eccentric grandfather, to find oil in the barren patch of the Canadian Rockies known as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.
1954 The Strange Land – Missionary Philip Latham is forced to conceal the identity of the man who replies to an advert to come and be doctor to a poor community in the south of Morocco. Instead of curing the sick, he finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient silver mine, a quest which brings disaster to the impoverished community where it is set.
1956 The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Yacht skipper John Sands stumbles across the wreck of the decrepit steamer Mary Deare and into the life of its haggard, obsessive captain, Patch, who is determined to clear his reputation by revealing the owners’ conspiracy to sink his ship and claim the insurance.
1958 The Land God Gave To Cain – Engineer Ian Ferguson responds to a radio plea for help received by his amateur radio enthusiast father, and sets off to the wilds of Labrador, north-east Canada, to see if the survivors of a plane crash in this barren country are still alive – and what lies behind the conspiracy to try and hush the incident up.
1960 The Doomed Oasis – Solicitor George Grant helps young tearaway David Thomas travel to Arabia to find his biological father, the legendary adventurer and oilman Colonel Charles Whitaker, and becomes embroiled in a small Arab war which leads to a siege in an ancient fortress where the rivalry between father and son reaches a tragic conclusion.
1962 Atlantic Fury – Painter Duncan Ross is eyewitness to an appalling naval disaster on an island of the Outer Hebrides. But intertwined with this tragedy is the fraught story of his long-lost brother who has stolen another man’s identity. Both plotlines lead inexorably to the bleak windswept island of Laerg.
1965 The Strode Venturer – Ex-Merchant Navy captain Geoffrey Bailey finds himself drawn into the affairs of the Strode shipping company which aggressively took over his father’s shipping line, thereby ruining his family and driving his father to suicide. Now, 30 years later, he is hired to track down the rogue son of the family, Peter Strode, who has developed an obsession with a new volcanic atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose mineral wealth might be able to help the Maldive Islanders whose quest for independence he is championing.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this one convinced he can prove his eccentric and garbled theories about the origin of Man, changing Ice Age sea levels, the destruction of Atlantis and so on. Much sailing around the Aegean, feelingly described by Innes, before the climax in a vast subterranean cavern covered in prehistoric rock paintings, in an atmosphere heavy with timeless evil, where his father admits to being a murderer.
1973 Golden Soak – Alec Falls’ mining business in Cornwall goes bust so he fakes his own death and smuggles himself out to Australia to take up an invitation to visit a rancher’s daughter he’d met in England. He finds himself plunged into the mystery and intrigue which surrounds the struggling Jarra Jarra ranch and its failed mine, Golden Soak, a mystery which leads him on a wild chase out into the desolate hell of the Gibson desert where Alec discovers the truth about the mine and the rumours of a vast hill of copper, and witnesses archetypal tragedies of guilt and expiation, of revenge and parricide.
1974 North Star – One-time political agitator and seaman Michael Randall tries and fails to escape his treacherous past as he finds himself embroiled in a plot to blow up a North Sea oil rig, a plot which is led by the father he thought had died decades earlier.
1977 The Big Footprints – TV director Colin Tait finds himself caught up in the one-man war of grizzled African hunter and legendary bushman Cornelius van Delden against his old friend, Alex Kirby-Smith, who is now leading the Kenyan government’s drive to cull the country’s wildlife, especially its elephants, to feed a starving population and clear the way for farmers and their cattle. It’s all mixed up with Tait’s obsessive quest to find a remote mountain where neolithic man was said to have built the first city in the world.
1980 Solomon’s Seal – Property valuer Roy Slingsby prices the contents of an old farmhouse in the Essex countryside and is intrigued by two albums of stamps from the Solomon Islands. He takes up the offer of a valuing job in Australia and finds himself drawn into the tragic history of the colonial Holland family, whose last surviving son is running machine guns to be used in the coup and bid for independence of Bougainville Island. Though so much of the detail is calm, rational and business-like, the final impression is of an accursed family and a fated ancestral house which burns down at the novel’s climax.
1982 The Black Tide – When his wife dies blowing up an oil tanker which has hit the rocks near their Cornwall home, ex-merchant seaman Trevor Rodin goes searching for the crew he thinks deliberately ran her aground. His search takes him to Lloyds of London, to the Nantes home of the lead suspect and then on to the Persian Gulf, where he discovers several ‘missing’ tankers are in fact being repurposed by terrorists planning to create a devastating environmental disaster somewhere on the coast of Europe. With no money or resources behind him, and nobody believing his far-fetched tale, can Rodin prevent the catastrophe?
1985 The High Stand – When gold millionaire Tom Halliday and his wife Miriam go missing, their staid Sussex solicitor Philip Redfern finds himself drawn to the old gold mine in the Canadian Rockies which is the basis of the Halliday fortune, and discovers that the illegal felling of the timber planted around the mine is being used as a front for a gang of international drug smugglers, with violent consequences.
1988 Medusa – Former smuggler turned respectable ex-pat businessman, Mike Steele, finds his idyllic life on the pretty Mediterranean island of Minorca turning very nasty when he gets mixed up with mercenaries running guns onto the island to support a violent separatist movement and military coup.
1991 Isvik – Wood restorer Peter Kettil gets caught up in a crazy scheme to find an old Victorian frigate allegedly spotted locked in the Antarctic ice by a glaciologist before his death in a flying accident. His partners are the nymphomaniac Latino wife of the dead glaciologist, Iris Sunderby, a bizarre Scottish cripple, Iain Ward, and a mysterious Argentine who may or may not have been involved in atrocities under the military junta.
1993 Target Antarctica Sequel to Isvik. Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cruse is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to fly a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. There are many twists, not least with a beautiful Thai woman who is pursued by the Khmer Rouge (!), before in the last few pages we realise the whole thing is Ward’s scheme to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, whose existence was discovered by the sole survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a novel, which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania on the very days that communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu is overthrown, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller, before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s adventure stories for boys as Cruse and his gay, ex-Army mentor, battle their way through blizzards into the idyllic valley of Nirvana, where they meet the secret underground descendants of Vikings who long ago settled this land, before almost immediately participating in the palace coup which overthrows the brutal ruler and puts on the throne the young woman who Paul fell in love with as a boy back in Romania, where the narrative started. A convoluted, compelling and bizarre finale to Innes’ long career.

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