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Jan Morris: No one else needs to climb Everest – let’s turn it into a memorial

Everest has been violated by fame, profit, sectarian rivalry and national pride. It's time to return it to holiness.

I fear it is probably true to say that I have been acquainted with the upper slopes of Mount Everest in Nepal for longer than anyone else alive – ever since, in fact, I welcomed Ed Hillary and Tenzing Norgay down from the first ascent of its summit on 29 May 1953.

Over the decades since then my feelings towards that greatest of all the mountains have fluctuated. I have never thought it the most beautiful of peaks, but when I first experienced its presence I wrote that I knew of nothing vaster, in a transcendental sense, except perhaps Milton’s Paradise Lost. It possessed an allegorical aura for me, and offered more than mere sporting or patriotic meaning – a profound and indefinable mystery of its own.

At first, of course, like everyone else, I thought of Everest as essentially triumphant; triumphant in itself and bestowing triumphs upon others. People spoke of its ascent as a victory, its climbers as conquerors. I myself defined that first achievement as a last hurrah for the British empire. After Tenzing and Hillary, countless other mountaineers from all over the world, private and public, military and civilian, pitted themselves against that most iconic of opponents, returning home fêted as champions of their respective tribe, army or climbing club.

It was marvellous. It was exciting. It brought fame and rewards to its exponents and a modicum of new prosperity to the mountain’s native Sherpas. But for me, as the years went by, the allure of it all was tainting. Everest itself, I felt, was tainted by it, its lonely glory diminished. Before long, the tentacles of tourism had reached into the remotest western valleys of Nepal, deposited its agents in the base camps of Everest and, for a fat fee, even escorted its hundreds of customers to that ultimate summit, depositing their trash in passing. “Because it’s there,” was George Leigh Mallory’s reason for wanting to climb Everest back in the 1920s. “So that I can say I’ve done it,” was the mass retort a century on.

So my feelings about that tremendous mountain, which played a seminal part in my own life, reluctantly shifted. Old disciple that I was, the spell had faded and I began to feel a sort of pity for Mount Everest. It reminded me rather of some magnificent wild beast, dressed up for a circus performance or a TV show. And in the course of this display, people lost their lives – Sherpas, climbers and tourists alike – to remind us now and then that it was not all make-believe.

For sometimes that mighty presence did hit back, and in the early summer of 2015, in the 62nd year of my acquaintance with the mountain, an unprecedented earthquake fell upon Nepal and caused a cruel avalanche to sweep down the slopes of Everest. A tented base camp was obliterated and many people were killed. Far, far more died elsewhere in the country, but it was inevitable, when the fearful news of the quake broke upon the world, that the media seized upon Everest for headlines. The very name of the peak, for all its recent flippancies, still spoke of drama, danger and the threat of tragedy.

As for me, the transcendental spell of the mountain was reactivated by the calamity, and, out of all the miseries, my old awe of it re-emerged. For me, it was Paradise Lost once more – a presence beyond tears or measurement. The Sherpas, whose mountain it is, call it Chomolungma, said to mean “Goddess Mother of the World”, and when Tenzing reached its summit all those years ago he buried in the snow biscuits, sweets and chocolate in thanks to that divinity. Other Himalayan mountains have been more publicly sanctified. When the third-highest of them all, Kanchenjunga, was climbed for the first time in 1955, by official agreement its climbers refrained from setting foot actually on the summit at all – a tradition that endures to the present day.

Is it not time, I wonder now, for Chomolungma itself to be recognised not just as a World Heritage Site, but as a universally recognised Site of Holiness, left alone there in its ethereal majesty, out of bounds to all human beings and never to be violated again by the crudities of fame, profit, sectarian rivalry or national pride? It could stand in silent memorial, perhaps, to all the people of Nepal who have lost their lives in the tragedy of 2015.

The Peak of Kindness, I myself would call it, a wishful name to be translated into multitudinous languages, and quoted from afar.

In 1953, Jan Morris, aged 26, was sent by the Times to cover Edmund Hillary’s Everest expedition. Her report that Hillary and Tenzing had made the summit reached Britain on Coronation Day and broke the news to the world

This article first appeared in the 06 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Struggle

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Commons Confidential: What happened at Tom Watson's birthday party?

Finances, fair and foul – and why Keir Starmer is doing the time warp.

Keir Starmer’s comrades mutter that a London seat is an albatross around the neck of the ambitious shadow Brexit secretary. He has a decent political CV: he was named after Labour’s first MP, Keir Hardie; he has a working-class background; he was the legal champion of the McLibel Two; he had a stint as director of public prosecutions. The knighthood is trickier, which is presumably why he rarely uses the title.

The consensus is that Labour will seek a leader from the north or the Midlands when Islington’s Jeremy Corbyn jumps or is pushed under a bus. Starmer, a highly rated frontbencher, is phlegmatic as he navigates the treacherous Brexit waters. “I keep hoping we wake up and it’s January 2016,” he told a Westminster gathering, “and we can have another run. Don’t we all?” Perhaps not everybody. Labour Remoaners grumble that Corbyn and particularly John McDonnell sound increasingly Brexitastic.

To Tom Watson’s 50th birthday bash at the Rivoli Ballroom in south London, an intact 1950s barrel-vaulted hall generous with the velvet. Ed Balls choreographed the “Gangnam Style” moves, and the Brockley venue hadn’t welcomed so many politicos since Tony Blair’s final Clause IV rally 22 years ago. Corbyn was uninvited, as the boogying deputy leader put the “party” back into the Labour Party. The thirsty guests slurped the free bar, repaying Watson for 30 years of failing to buy a drink.

One of Westminster’s dining rooms was booked for a “Decent Chaps Lunch” by Labour’s Warley warrior, John Spellar. In another room, the Tory peer David Willetts hosted a Christmas reception on behalf of the National Centre for Universities and Business. In mid-January. That’s either very tardy or very, very early.

The Labour Party’s general secretary, Iain McNicol, is a financial maestro, having cleared the £25m debt that the party inherited from the Blair-Brown era. Now I hear that he has squirrelled away a £6m war chest as insurance against Theresa May gambling on an early election. Wisely, the party isn’t relying on Momentum’s fractious footsloggers.

The word in Strangers’ Bar is that the Welsh MP Stephen Kinnock held his own £200-a-head fundraiser in London. Either the financial future of the Aberavon Labour Party is assured, or he fancies a tilt at the top job.

Dry January helped me recall a Labour frontbencher explaining why he never goes into the Commons chamber after a skinful: “I was sitting alongside a colleague clearly refreshed by a liquid lunch. He intervened and made a perfectly sensible point without slurring. Unfortunately, he stood up 20 minutes later and repeated the same point, word for word.”

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era