The Angry Corrie 71: Jul-Sep 2007

Everest and everything after

An Afterclap of Fate, by Charles Lind. The Ernest Press, 2006, 126pp, ISBN 0 94815 384 9, 15

Review: Gordon Smith

THE SURPRISE WINNER of the Boardman Tasker Prize for 2006 is a dramatic monologue, purporting to be the thoughts of George Mallory on 8 June 1924, the day he and Andrew Irvine made their Everest summit bid on the long north-east ridge. The 72 pages of (extremely) free verse are highly allusive - so much so that 40 pages of Eliotesque supporting notes are required to explain the references to the likes of Milton, Millet and Cecil B DeMille. The notes also contain what the Boardman Tasker judges called a "near forensic" analysis of what actually happened to Mallory and Irvine, of which more later.

First the poesy: unfortunately the reader's engagement with the work is hindered not only by overuse of allusion, but also by an almost ridiculously arcane vocabulary. This has necessitated the inclusion of a five-page glossary to assist us when we find Mallory musing on "the insidious glozing of success" or having "faint, scandent thoughts". At the other extreme, Mr Lind is guilty of occasional bathos, as in the banality of:

"Have a biscuit, old chap. They're my favourite, Ginger Nuts."

That is not to say that there is no poetry in the work: the final sections in particular are moving; however, too often Mr Lind cannot resist taking the extra step over the lexical edge. At the summit Mallory thinks:

"I feel as if I could just walk miraculously on this theophany of sunlight over to Nuptse ... my body transubstantial."

That theophany ("a manifestation or appearance of deity to man", the glossary informs us) surely gets in the way of understanding: Mallory's mystical experience is quite clearly expressed without it. In Mr Lind's defence it may be said that some of Mallory's own writing was overcooked and grandiloquent: however, that was surely a matter of literary style - neither Mallory nor anyone else conducts their interior monologues in this sesquipedalian verbiage.

image from source document

Now to the history: Mr Lind's belief, and the poem's argument, is that Mallory and Irvine were the first men to reach the summit of Everest. However, the ascertainable evidence is inconclusive: briefly, the climbers were last seen at 12:50pm, perhaps on the second of the three rock steps between 28000ft and the summit. In 1933, an axe that probably belonged to Irvine was discovered beneath the first step, and recently an oxygen cylinder has been found in the same area. In 1999, Mallory's body was found some distance below this spot. His effects included a damaged watch and altimeter, a pair of snow goggles and a wallet of letters, but unfortunately no camera. (The most obvious conclusion is that the lost axe indicates the place where one of the climbers slipped, resulting in both falling to their deaths: however, the fact that Mallory's body was found relatively intact would argue against the length of fall which this scenario envisages. So the mystery of Mallory's death remains unsolved, let alone the question of whether he reached the summit.)

From these few facts Mr Lind has constructed the following scenario: Mallory broke his watch hand-jamming the second step, and reached the summit where he left a photograph of his wife that wasn't found in his pocket. He used the altimeter to check the summit height and accidentally damaged it. Mallory and Irvine then descended in increasing darkness (hence the removal of snow goggles) until Irvine slipped near the rocky area where Mallory was found. The axe was in fact lost on the ascent rather than at the time of the fatal accident.

Mmm. Ingenious though Mr Lind's connection of all the known elements is, this form of analysis is hardly forensic: it is closer to drawing imaginary lines between stars and declaring them to form the shape of a bull, a crab or a plough. His clinching piece of evidence is the dog that didn't bark: Mallory's daughter apparently maintained that her father intended to bury a photograph of her mother at the summit, but no photograph of, or letter from, his wife was found on Mallory's person, despite the fact that he was carrying letters from other family members. Mr Lind acknowledges that there is no actual proof he was carrying a photo of Mrs M, but insists:

" is inconceivable that he did not have any letters from his wife with him. The problem facing those who do not believe that Mallory reached the summit is to provide a credible explanation for the absence of those letters."

Oh really? Is the explanation that he took the trouble to bury them on the summit of Everest any more credible than (say) the explanation that he left them in the tent to which he never returned? Mr Lind's assertion is like Russell's Teapot, the fallacy whereby an undisprovable assertion is held to be indisputable fact.

Even less credible is his explanation for the discovery of Irvine's ice axe below the first step, evidence which is potentially inconvenient to the theory that they died on the return from the summit. Mr Lind suggests that Irvine put down his axe to take a photo of Mallory and help him with his oxygen set:

"...then it becomes understandable how the ice axe could have been completely forgotten in the heat of the moment."

Doubtless this happens a lot on Everest. Doh!

Neither as history and as poetry is An Afterclap of Fate wholly convincing. Like his subject, Mr Lind makes a brave attempt, but falls some way short of his target (probably).

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