On 16 April 1934, Maurice Wilson set off from the Rongbuk monastery in Tibet to climb Mount Everest via the North Col, entirely alone. He carried over 20kg of equipment and food including a defective altimeter, his talismanic “flag of friendship,” an ice axe (but no crampons), a copy of The Voice of Silence (his Buddhist text) and a concave mirror (to signal his progress). He also bore the blessing of an aging lama, and the dream of reaching the roof of the world — the first person ever to do so — on his 36th birthday. Remarkably, he had no technical mountaineering expertise, nor even any alpine experience. In fact, as Ed Caesar notes in this gem of a book, “Wilson had hardly climbed anything more challenging than a flight of stairs.”
How the son of a Bradford mill owner got to the Rongbuk monastery forms the central narrative of this carefully crafted, riveting tale. Wilson’s short, irregular life pivoted, as with so many of his generation, on a single day in Flanders. As a second lieutenant in 1/5th West Yorkshire Regiment (Prince of Wales’s Own), Wilson witnessed the destruction of his battalion at Wytschaete, on 25 April 1918.
“Almost every man not taken prisoner was a casualty,” Caesar writes.
Isolated, in advance of the British frontline, raked by German machine guns, Wilson continued to fire on the enemy. The citation for the Military Cross he won stated: “It was largely owing to his pluck and determination in holding this post that the enemy attack was held up.”
It was Wilson’s first day on the frontline.
Caesar is a journalist foremost, rather than a historian, yet the book has been meticulously researched. The principal primary sources are Wilson’s diary and his letters, which provide an incomplete and, at times, unreliable picture: Wilson was, as Caesar notes, a dreamer, a chancer and a man adept at varnishing the truth. To add historical backbone to the protagonist’s own narrative “forged in private trauma,” the author hunted through history society collections, ships’ manifests, accounts of expeditions to Everest, National Archives, India Office Archives and the Alpine Club collection. He toured battlefields on the western front. He learned about London nightclubs in the early 1930s, and flying a de Havilland Moth — the plane Wilson audaciously flew to the Himalayas. Caesar even flew a Moth himself, taking the controls, albeit under instruction, in the air.
Quite how traumatized Wilson was by the ghosts of Flanders is never apparent, though Caesar probes the issue. If Wilson suffered post-traumatic symptoms, he was never diagnosed. Nor did he ever receive a pension on account of his injuries, despite applying six times. The rebuttals left a “sense of grievance against authority figures… The anger never left him.”
Wilson tried to settle in Bradford again after the war, but he was already “chasing a chimera,” his mother later wrote. From 1923 for a decade, he traveled the globe, ripping through two failed marriages, further relationships and businesses. He was undoubtedly restless; there were also hints of mania.
The storyline is, for the most part, historically linear, but there are several digressions to help us understand this complex man. Bradford — the booming “Worstedopolis” before the first world war and a “town of widows” after — gets a few pages. The Great Trigonometrical Survey, the British mapping project in India, which first proclaimed “Peak XV” as the highest mountain and renamed it “Everest,” is briefly reviewed.
More space is devoted to the development of alpinism as a western sport, and the emergence of Everest as a “modern and peculiarly British obsession.” A host of extraordinary characters thereby appear, including Alfred Wills, Edward Whymper (whose account of climbing the Matterhorn was a “worldwide 1871 bestseller”), Sir Francis Younghusband, George Mallory and Charles Howard-Bury, the explorer who spoke 27 languages. Howard-Bury was captured by the Germans during the spring offensive of 1918 — he escaped — and went on to lead the first British Everest exploratory team in 1921. A small criticism is that these digressions could be longer and more elaborate. At 227 pages, I felt the book ended too soon. There are a handful of maps and illustrations, a short bibliography and notes.
In 1932, back in London after his world tours, Wilson became obsessed with a married woman, Enid Evans — the “love” in the book’s subtitle. The relationship was platonic — Enid’s husband was Wilson’s good friend. Through the curious dynamic of this threesome, Caesar considers the rumors from within the mountaineering community that Wilson was a transvestite — possibly the first transvestite to win the Military Cross.
Shortly after meeting the Evanses, Wilson underwent a “spiritual awakening” — not uncommon in the postwar era of pioneering adventurer-poets, all men, mapping the world while having transcendental experiences. He started reading Buddhist literature and developed an interest in purification through abstinence, and in the search for a “‘golden’ or higher plane of existence.” Somewhere in this rebirth, Mount Everest crystallized as the irresistible beacon in Wilson’s consciousness.
The story then turns into a Boy’s Own tale of derring-do. Wilson decides to fly himself to India. He buys a de Havilland Gypsy Moth and sets off on the three-week journey. Civil aviation was embryonic. Wilson hardly knew what he was doing. British imperial authority was weighted against him. There were innumerable near misses. “It must have been hard not to think he was being protected,” Caesar writes. Against the odds, Wilson makes it to the subcontinent, where his plane is impounded, to stop him flying over Nepal to Everest. He then sets off on foot, disguised as a Tibetan priest.
Wilson’s first attempt on the summit of Everest, which began on 16 April, ended ignominiously, when he limped back to the Rongbuk monastery. A month later, revitalized by the care of his Bhutia porters, the “show,” as he frequently referred to his adventures, began again.
“By any measure, he had not the tiniest chance of reaching the summit,” Caesar writes.
But if the line between life and death really was as thin as that day at Wytschaete suggested, why turn back? On his second attempt, “the whole sorry, beautiful, melancholy, crazy tale” reached its inevitable end. Wilson died of exhaustion and exposure at the bottom of the North Col, a 21,000-foot wall of ice, snow and rock, in early June 1934. His final legible diary entry read: “Off again, gorgeous day.”
By Ed Caesa
One often hears that the people of Taiwan are 98 percent Han, a complicated cultural term that is often used to imply a certain genetic relationship as well. Yet among the pre-1949 population of Taiwan, roughly 45 percent are descended from immigrants from Quanzhou (泉州) in China. Who might these people be? In medieval times Quanzhou was one of the world’s greatest ports, a melting pot of peoples from India and northeast, southeast and central Asia, along with Han and other peoples we now identify as “Chinese.” Merchants from Quanzhou competed in the southeast Asian textile trade, shipping cottons from India
COVID-19 has been racking the world, and there’s hardly a person alive who doesn’t want to see 2020 in the rear view mirror. Taiwan of course has proven to be an island of safety during this epidemic. In appreciation of that as well as giving 2020 an early send off, Brandon Thompson, Adoga, and Taipei Next have prepared a fitting music fest, “Forget 2020” or in the vernacular, “F#ck 2020.” It’s a late-night-early-morning festival where you’ll hear some 30 vocalists and musicians performing many of your favorite songs from the past two decades. Expect hits from the rise of Bruno, Slim,
NOV. 23 to NOV. 29 Japanese researchers initially thought that the Saisiyat Aborigines’ Pasta’ay festival was a New Year celebration. A drawing of a Saisiyat man dancing with a kirakil, a ceremonial headdress used during the Pasta’ay, appeared in a 1906 issue of Record of Taiwan’s Customs, where the author noted that it “represented reverence to their ancestral spirits.” Ten years would pass before the Temporary Taiwan Old Customs Investigation Committee published the earliest description of the ceremony. “The Pasta’ay is held to worship the Ta’ay people, who were a diminutive race living in the caves of the Maiparai Mountains,” the
A row over a Thai woman who held up a placard alleging sexual abuse in schools has put a spotlight on harassment in the education system even as she draws threats of legal action for misrepresentation and attacks for soiling Thailand’s image. The issue is the latest on which discussion has become more vocal as an anti-government protest movement seeking reform of the monarchy also emboldens people in a society where conservatism has often constrained criticism of the powerful. “I hope my case will raise awareness for people in society, for students in schools, for adults who send children to schools, for