What's left to discover?

Advances in technology, transport and communications have made the world a smaller place. The opport

Can it be true? Are we already suffering from Webschmerz? Rejecting Microsoft's slogan of "Where will you go today?", we seem just as interested in where we went yesterday. Since Dava Sobel's Longitude hit the shelves in 1996 with its bestselling tale of chronometry, there has been a flurry of books on discovery. Auction houses have held specialist sales and shows on the theme. The Natural History Museum is currently holding an exhibition on "Voyages of Discovery", and the National Maritime Museum has revamped itself at a cost of £20 million to provide 16 new galleries devoted to oceanic travel and exploration.

These things come and go, their lifespans usually measured by commercial factors - remember that plague of plastic dinosaurs? But this time, the interest has been exceptionally long-lasting and widespread. It has been spawned by no Hollywood blockbuster such as Jurassic Park. Nobody is making mega-bucks out of it. There are no action figurines of Captain Scott in the shops. Quietly, steadily and apparently genuinely, we are demanding more information on how we explored the tangible world.

It is particularly encouraging that the National Maritime Museum has at last come into its own. For so long, it has been a moribund tentacle of London's museum world - hard to get to, dusty in content, and memorable mostly because we'd eaten our packed lunches before the coach set out. When the neighbouring Dome was announced, the NMM looked even more decrepit. Now, whether through happenstance or design, it is at the cutting edge.

What makes Britain all of a sudden so keen on discovery? After all, it is not as if we are very good at it. Holland, Portugal and Spain "discovered" Africa, the Americas, Australia, the East Indies and India. It was an American who first reached the North Pole and a Norwegian the South; the same Norwegian sailed through the North-West Passage - a goal that had eluded Britain's best for centuries; a Frenchman became the first European to return alive from Timbuctoo - another destination dear to the British heart; and it was either the French or the Americans - accounts differ - who discovered Antarctica. In terms of actually getting to places, British voyagers are not outstanding. In fact, they are memorably bad.

Voyages are a metaphor for life (it is no coincidence that the first major literary work in western tradition was the Odyssey), but in Britain's case they have often come to a very unmetaphorical conclusion. Sir Robert Scott's death in the Antarctic is one notable example; there are plenty of others. During the first half of the 19th century, Sir John Barrow, the Second Secretary to the Admiralty, instigated the world's largest programme of exploration. It was a patchwork of disasters, with almost every expedition dogged by tragedy. One of his minions, John Franklin, set off in 1819 on an overland mission to discover the North-West Passage: he returned in 1822, having travelled 5,000 miles to no avail and having in the process lost half his men to starvation and cannibalism; he himself had to eat his boots. In 1845, even more famously, he sailed into the Arctic on the same quest with two Royal Navy ships and 135 crew. The whole expedition vanished, and we are still trying to find out what happened. The British penchant for failure is restricted neither to Barrow nor to the Poles: from Mungo Park to Sir David Livingstone, British bones litter the African interior; and nobody has yet found the body of Sir Alfred Douglas, dashed to pieces in the Matterhorn disaster of 1865 which ended Britain's quest to conquer the Alps.

Sensation accompanied these disasters at the time and it continues to do so today: when we hear of Sir Ranulph Fiennes losing his fingers to frostbite, we want to read about it. But there is more to our current hunger than historical voyeurism. There is a recognition that what these people saw and did is unavailable to us. No longer can we stride into the unknown, charting empty spaces wherein might lie the key to the atlas or even - as in the 19th-century exploration of the Alps - the key to Earth's prehistory. Discovery, in its wider topographical sense, is finished, and the only keys left are those on our computers.

In all voyages there has been an element of romanticism - the reports of distant cultures, the tussles with ice, snow and sand, the insights acquired by boldly going where no man has gone before. Although discovery may be dead, romanticism ferments apace. It has been described as the last bulwark against modern secularism, and there is some truth in this. With western religion in crisis and the political "isms" that once promised to replace it overturned, when dogma has been replaced by the uneasiness of personal responsibility, when we explore not the globe but the blank recesses of the web, it is little wonder that we look to the past. This is not mere nostalgia, the rose-tinted rear-view mirror in which we interpret the glory days of empire; it is something more complex - a longing for difference in an age of uniformity, a rebellion against vacuum, and a paradoxical desire for both certainty of direction and the uncertainty of destination. Stripped of a collective goal, we are forced, by necessity, to admire a philosophy that lauds individual expression. On a mental and physical plane, no activity better reflects this philosophy than exploration. There are still places to explore if we can be bothered. In Alaska, for instance, it is possible to find, climb and name undiscovered mountains. In rainforests, we can conduct macro-studies of unknown insect and plant species that may or may not be relevant to our lives. Voyagers re-enact, solipsistically and in various configurations, journeys through Asia, the Arctic and Antarctica.

But it is no longer possible to boldly go: wildernesses have been settled, forests have been logged, and the "noble savage" of romantic lore is a laboratory specimen, preserved half-heartedly in regions that we cannot be bothered to exploit. The very ground on which explorers once stood has vanished: in recent years, the Arctic has lost an area of sea-ice the size of Texas; huge chunks of Antarctic shelf are breaking free; Himalayan glaciers are shrinking so fast that within a few decades the Ganges and Indus rivers are forecast to run dry in summer; and Alpine glaciers will follow suit, with predictable consequences for the Rhone and other major European rivers. The infinity that previously existed on Earth can now be found only in space - and in accounts of past derring-do.

To loss can be added a sense of insecurity. This is a peculiarly English attitude which goes back to the Dark Ages when Anglo-Saxons quailed at the sight of Roman ruins. The ancestors who made such edifices, they reckoned, must have been giants. They themselves obviously belonged to a shrinking race; in generations to come, they would be dwarves. They made up for it by conquering the rest of Britain. A similar feeling was bruited in the 19th century, when Barrow suggested that the advances made by previous scientist-explorers, such as James Cook, Sir Joseph Banks and George Vancouver, were in danger of being forgotten. Franklin duly strode forth. An even greater sense of inadequacy was expressed at the start of the 20th century. Serious discussions were held concerning the physical degeneration of the race; Britain was described (by a Briton) as "a weary Titan". Men of pluck were needed to stop the rot - men such as Scott and Sir Ernest Shackleton.

Undeniably, we are stronger, healthier and far better-off than our predecessors. Yet, cocooned by comfort, our mettle untested by war, we admire the toughness of yore. Again, this is not nostalgic self-delusion. Take Franklin's 1819-22 overland trek. When food ran low, he despatched Midshipman George Back to rustle up supplies; Back walked alone on snowshoes in freezing conditions to the nearest depot, covering around 1,200 miles there and back in three months. (As the bird flies, this is farther than the shortest surface journey to the South Pole.) He was an unexceptional youngster; he did it as a matter of course, without any training, and his trip scarcely rated a mention in Franklin's journal. The modern Briton is by comparison a pair of softy's underpants.

The ailment may be the same; the antidote, however, is not. We have no uncharted globe on which to prove ourselves, no national endeavour to swell our pride, no battlefield of redemption - we cannot meet the past on equal terms. Instead, there is a flourishing information culture which satisfies us vicariously with books, exhibitions and films. Demand is so strong that a new imprint, Sickle Moon Books, is devoting itself to reprints of explorers' journals. (Its first volume, recently published, is the lost diary of Captain Hugh Clapperton, one of Barrow's doomed myrmidons who perished trying to find the Niger.) Sickle Moon's publisher, Barnaby Rogerson, says: "What impresses me about past travellers is not only their toughness but their innocence, their charm and their non-judgemental attitude. They had a rare passion for the half-formed world they encountered and they expressed themselves with extraordinary clarity."

Rogerson's perception was not shared at the time. Paradoxically, while greeting discovery as a Jolly Good Thing, people could turn nasty if it did not live up to expectations. Franklin's disappearance was welcomed in the press as a salutary end to a futile quest. The same was true for the conquest of the Matterhorn: "Why is the best blood of England to waste itself in scaling hitherto inaccessible peaks, in staining the eternal snows and reaching the unfathomable abyss never to return?" asked the Times. "Is it life? Is it duty? Is it common sense? Is it allowable? Is it not wrong?" In 1916, when Shackleton became stranded on Elephant Island, Winston Churchill exuded contempt. Not until all the wounded from Flanders had been tended, housed and taken care of, he wrote to his wife: "Would I concern myself with those penguins? I suppose, however, something will have to be done."

Exploration may have been a pick-me-up for the national character, but it was considered irrelevant to everyday business. Real life was measured in real terms. Exciting as they were, adventures in distant lands had no bearing on more important - typically European - concerns. Home life, with its aristocracy, its tweenies, its tea- strainers, butter knives and salad plates, was worth pursuing; exploration, with its funny garb and reports of alternative cultures, was not - particularly if it led to death, a concern that was touchingly ingenuous given Europe's militaristic tendencies. Discovery was a distraction from progress. It is ironic, therefore, that we who live in such a progressed and progressive world, should be so fascinated by it. But perhaps it is not so surprising. Rather like those people who brushed up their survival skills in the shadow of the bomb, we are trying to learn as much as we can about the discovery of the tangible world before it is displaced by that of the virtual.

Fergus Fleming is the author of "Barrow's Boys" (Granta Books, £8.99). His next book, "Killing Dragons", about Alpine exploration, is published this October.
The National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, can be contacted on 020-8858 4422. "Voyages of Discovery" is at the Natural History Museum until 2 May