Thursday, May 30, 2013

Onto the mountain



'Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest' by Wade Davis is a big book in many dimensions. 

Physically the hardback is heavy, unwieldy reading as I stood on the train into London yesterday. It is long - I am in the early 200s and we are only embarking on Mallory's first (of three) expeditions to Everest; and, of theme. It is not simply a book about a failure to conquer the highest of peaks, but of why such an attempt was so important, at that time, when the flower of British youth had been decimated by the Great War, lost to the mud of Flanders, and society yearned for triumph without that appalling adversity. 

Conquering Everest was to help re-establish an Empire at ease with itself as it reached, as it happened, its greatest geographical extent.

The failure of that attempt is to come but the as portrait of its age, seen through the particular lens of well-heeled adventurers (as well as explorers and scientists) is beautifully done. You taste both the luxury of a beneficent life (on, as E.M. Forster would note, so many £100s of pounds a year) and the stark shadow cast upon it by the brutality of the Great War, shattering hopes and realigning comittments. 

Once again I was reminded that possibly it was so many floundering in the Flanders' hell of mud encrusted decaying bodies and with so many killed by abstract ideals and to little practical purpose, is a reason why modern day secularism is aligned with those countries that were significantly impacted by that terrible conflict. Would American exceptionalism in this regard have weathered a year or more of war (rather than the short sharp shock they, in fact, suffered)? You can only too easily see God slipping away with one's own footing in the muddy waste.

The book is beautifully vicarious for one like me who has never evinced any desire to climb anything (though the exploration gene I can recognise in myself) and that sense of extraordinary freedom it must have granted these particular men at this particular time after four years or more of a strange, horrifying confinement.

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