Everest, The Great War, and The Town Where I Was Born

Normally this blog brings you hot news from the wacky world of science, universities and related phenomena. But right now, it’s freighted with old news. It’s about two people who died in 1924, a book that appeared in 2011, and an old town beside an English river.

The book is Into the Silence by Wade Davis. Wags like to comment that his job title, an Explorer in Residence at National Geographic, looks a tad oxymoronic. But anyone in the writing business knows that this is a gig to die for, and that anyone who gets that slot is a truly elite communicator.

Into the Silence is one of many books (not to mention films, TV programmes and the rest) about the catastrophic 1924 British expedition to Everest in which George Mallory and Sandy Irvine perished. Having a long interest in mountains and mountain literature, I bought it with high hopes of a good read about this intriguing topic. I was not disappointed.

What I had not expected, however, was the library of other books that came free alongside this classic of Alpinism. Davis’s thesis is that the whole ethos of this era of British exploration was shaped by the Great War, in which almost all the principals apart from Irvine (too young) had participated. They had mostly survived against massive statistical odds, and forever after thought lightly of death. So – first free gift, an astounding book on World War I. As with any good book on that theme, prepare to be horrified rather than uplifted as you read.

Next, Davis has also written a great book on the British in India, and indeed Tibet. And also hidden inside Into the Silence is a pretty good book on Buddhism at its rawest, a faith of hermits who sometimes met nobody at all during three years in a barren high-altitude cave. Oh, and it is also quite good on Mallory’s allies in the Bloomsbury group. Despite their perhaps effete reputation, Keynes and co liked their extreme mountaineering. Indeed, Davis is strong on the British upper classes in general. Also notable is the one thing absent from this account: women. None appear except in walk-on roles as wives, mothers and sisters, a sign in itself of the alien world that Davis describes.

OK. A great book that you must read. Make some time for it. Davis writes at leisure, and his Annotated Bibliography is not to be bypassed.

And for me, there was an added bonus. It concerns the obscure but important English town of Birkenhead, famous as the home berth of Wilfred Owen as well as being the birthplace of Sandy Irvine. Even more intriguingly, Mallory’s father, Herbert Leigh Mallory, a vicar, spent some years there at St John’s Church, where he must have been a bit of a fish out of water. (He sometimes seems to have enjoyed a hyphen, Leigh-Mallory.)

Birkenhead has never been the most prominent of places, but everyone knows where it is because it’s the town that faces Liverpool across the Mersey. It’s the place that the famous Ferry Cross the Mersey goes to.

And in 1940, the Luftwaffe found it just fine. I was born there, and so was my late father, Leslie, whom the Reverend Mallory baptised in St John’s in late 1915 or early 1916. Later, my father’s first memory was being hoisted onto his own father’s shoulders to see a military parade marking the opening of the town’s War Memorial near Central Station, probably in 1919.

It is no surprise that Irvine first encountered the Everest crew in North Wales when he met Noel Odell, a leading light of the project. Snowdonia has long been a playground for folk from North West England, including me. Irvine won the Boat Race with Oxford, was absurdly strong and tough, and was a terrific engineer and mechanic, drafted to Everest partly for his ability to reenvisage the oxygen equipment as he went. Indeed if I had a criticism of the book, it would be the fact that he only appears 100 pages from the end.

But for me it was an extra pleasure of Davis’s book to find (for example) that a special service was held at St John’s after the disaster, fronted by Herbert’s boss, the Bishop of Chester, who also spoke at the much bigger memorial service in London. Or that on one of his three Himalayan trips, Mallory sailed from Birkenhead, always a minor part of the mighty Mersey Docks and Harbour Board empire compared to Liverpool. Presumably he had been to see the folks en route.

I recall as a child asking my father why there was a nearby estate of houses with roads called Mallory, Irvine, Everest and (more eccentrically) Snowdon, Ingleborough and Ben Nevis. He explained that the estate was built in the aftermath of the deaths of Mallory and Irvine. Now I know what a pall the event must have cast over the town. By contrast, it took nearly 90 years for the library to get a modest stained glass window to commemorate Wilfred Owen.

About Martin Ince

UK-based science and higher education journalist, big strengths in universities and university ranking, futures, media strategy and training, Earth and space sciences
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