Mount Everest. Photo: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
Show Hide image

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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Tories play Game of Thrones while the White Walkers from Brussels advance

The whole premise of the show is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

If you’re a fan of asking “who’s that, then?” and “is that the one who killed the other one’s brother?”, I bring great news. Game of Thrones is back for a seventh series. Its vast assortment of characters was hard enough to keep track of before half of them got makeovers. But now the new Queen Cersei has reacted to the arrival of the long winter by investing heavily in the kind of leather ball gowns sold by goth shops in Camden, and Euron Greyjoy, once a fairly bland sailor, has come back as a Halloween costume version of Pacey from Dawson’s Creek, all eyeliner and epaulettes.

The show’s reliance on British character actors is the only thing keeping me vaguely on top of the cast list: what’s Diana Rigg up to these days in Highgarden? And what about that guy who was in Downton Abbey that time, who now has the scaly arms? (Luckily, the next thing I watched after the Game of Thrones series premiere was the first two episodes of the revived Twin Peaks, which put my confusion into perspective. There, Agent Cooper spent most of his time talking to a pulsating bladder attached to one of those fake trees you get from Ikea when your landlord won’t let you have real plants.)

The day-to-day business of Game of Thrones has always been power – answering the question of who will sit on the Iron Throne, forged by Aegon the Conqueror from the swords of his defeated enemies. But its backdrop is a far bigger threat: the arrival of a winter that will last many years, and the invasion of an army of the undead.

That might seem like an unkind way to think about Michel Barnier and his fellow Brexit negotiators – inexorably marching towards us, briefing papers in hand, while Liam Fox frantically rings a bell at the entrance to the Channel Tunnel – but nonetheless, the whole premise of Game of Thrones is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

The current internal Conservative struggle for power might be vicious but it is at least familiar to its contestants; they know which weapons to deploy, which alliances are vital, who owes them a favour. Meanwhile, the true challenge facing every one of them is too frightening to contemplate.

In 2013, this magazine celebrated the early success of the show with a cover depicting one of our terrifying painted mash-ups: “The Tory Game of Thrones.” Our casting has been strangely vindicated. George Osborne was our Jaime Lannister – once the kind of uncomplicated bastard who would push a child out of a window but now largely the purveyor of waspish remarks about other, worse characters. Our Cersei was Theresa May, who spent the early seasons of The Cameron Era in a highly visible but underwritten role. Now, she has just seized power, only to discover herself beset by enemies on all sides. (Plus, Jeremy Corbyn as the High Sparrow would quite like her to walk penitently through the streets while onlookers cry “shame!”)

Michael Gove was our Tyrion Lannister, the kind of man who would shoot his own father while the guy was on the loo (or run a rival’s leadership campaign only to detonate it at the last minute). Jeremy Hunt was Jon Snow, slain by the brotherhood of the Night Shift at A&E, only in this case still waiting for resurrection.

The comparison falls down a bit at Boris Johnson as Daenerys Targaryen, as the former London mayor has not, to my knowledge, ever married a horse lord or hired an army of eunuchs, but it feels like the kind of thing he might do.

We didn’t have David Davis on there – hated by the old king, David Camareon, he was at the time banished to the back benches. Let’s retrospectively appoint him Euron Greyjoy, making a suspiciously seductive offer to Queen Cersei. (Philip Hammond is Gendry, in that most of the country can’t remember who he is but feel he might turn out to be important later.)

That lengthy list shows how Conservative infighting suffers from the same problem that the Game of Thrones screenwriters wrestle with: there are so many characters, and moving the pieces round the board takes up so much time and energy, that we’re in danger of forgetting why it matters who wins. In the books, there is more space to expound on the politics. George R R Martin once said that he came away from The Lord of The Rings asking: “What was Aragorn’s tax policy?” (The author added: “And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?”)

Martin’s fantasy vision also feels relevant to the Tories because its power struggles aren’t about an “endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes”. Instead, everyone is flawed. In Westeros, as in the Conservative Party, it can be difficult to decide who you want to triumph. Sure, Daenerys might seem enlightened, but she watched her brother have molten gold poured down his throat; plucky Arya Stark might tip over from adorable assassin into full-blown psychopath. Similarly, it’s hard to get worked up about the accusation that Philip Hammond said that driving a train was so easy “even a woman” could do it, when David Davis marked his last leadership campaign by posing alongside women in tight T-shirts reading “It’s DD for me”.

The only big difference from the show is that in real life I have sympathy for Barnier and the White Walkers of Brussels. Still, maybe it will turn out that the undead of Game of Thrones are tired of the Seven Kingdoms throwing their weight around and are only marching south to demand money before negotiating a trade deal? That’s the kind of plot twist we’re all waiting for.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder