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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Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.