Mount Everest. Photo: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
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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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Rarely has it mattered so little if Manchester United won; rarely has it been so special they did

Team's Europa League victory offers chance for sorely needed celebration of a city's spirit.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Bayern Munich manager, memorably once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”, but he was only partly right. While it is absolutely the case that a bunch of people chasing around a field is insignificant, a bunch of people chasing around a field is not really what football is about.

At a football match can you set aside the strictures that govern real life and freely scream, shout and cuddle strangers. Football tracks life with such unfailing omnipresence, garnishing the mundane with regular doses of drama and suspense; football is amazing, and even when it isn’t there’s always the possibility that it’s about to be.

Football bestows primal paroxysms of intense, transcendent ecstasy, shared both with people who mean everything and people who mean nothing. Football carves out time for people it's important to see and delivers people it becomes important to see. Football is a structure with folklore, mythology, language and symbols; being part of football is being part of something big, special, and eternal. Football is the best thing in the world when things go well, and still the best thing in the world when they don’t. There is nothing remotely like it. Nothing.

Football is about community and identity, friends and family; football is about expression and abandon, laughter and song; football is about love and pride. Football is about all the beauty in the world.

And the world is a beautiful place, even though it doesn’t always seem that way – now especially. But in the horror of terror we’ve seen amazing kindness, uplifting unity and awesome dignity which is the absolute point of everything.

In Stockholm last night, 50,000 or so people gathered for a football match, trying to find a way of celebrating all of these things. Around town before the game the atmosphere was not as boisterous as usual, but in the ground the old conviction gradually returned. The PA played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an Ajax staple with lyrics not entirely appropriate: there is plenty about which to worry, and for some every little thing is never going to be alright.

But somehow the sentiment felt right and the Mancunian contingent joined in with gusto, following it up with “We’ll never die,” – a song of defiance born from the ashes of the Munich air disaster and generally aired at the end of games, often when defeat is imminent. Last night it was needed from the outset, though this time its final line – “we’ll keep the red flag flying high, coz Man United will never die" – was not about a football team but a city, a spirit, and a way of life. 

Over the course of the night, every burst of song and even the minute's silence chorused with that theme: “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”; “Manchester la la la”; “Oh Manchester is wonderful”. Sparse and simple words, layered and complex meanings.

The match itself was a curious affair. Rarely has it mattered so little whether or not United won; rarely has it been so special that they did. Manchester United do not represent or appeal to everyone in Manchester but they epitomise a similar brilliance to Manchester, brilliance which they take to the world. Brilliance like youthfulness, toughness, swagger and zest; brilliance which has been to the fore these last three days, despite it all.

Last night they drew upon their most prosaic aspects, outfighting and outrunning a willing but callow opponent to win the only trophy to have eluded them. They did not make things better, but they did bring happiness and positivity at a time when happiness and positivity needed to be brought; football is not “the most important of the least important things,” it is the least important of the most important things.

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