Monday, 19 April 2021

Guest review by C J Driver: THE MOTH AND THE MOUNTAIN by Ed Caesar

"This is a man who can't turn back, won't turn back, doesn't turn back ..."

Jonty Driver has kept himself busy in lockdown working with a local firm, Artwrite of Rye, to produce four booklets of his poems, some illustrated by himself, and a card, The Slave-Bell at Doornhoek, a poem and a painting. The booklets are: Image & Image, some old photographs & a dozen unrhymed sonnets; The Journey Back; The Chinese Poems, 1979-2020; and A Winter’s Day at Westonbirt & other poems. All are available from Artwrite. See more on Jonty's website.

I’d better start by mentioning that, though I didn’t teach him, Ed Caesar was a pupil at Wellington College when I was Master there. I admitted him to the school in 1993 as a non-fee-paying Foundationer because his father had been killed on active service with the Royal Navy in 1982. After taking a degree from Edinburgh, Ed has made a successful career for himself as a journalist and is now writing books too: the first, Two Hours, was about the marathon and the chances of someone’s breaking two hours to run it. This one is about an attempt in 1934 by a brave but largely deluded Englishman to be the first to climb to the top of Everest. 

“By any rational measure, he (Maurice Wilson) had not the tiniest chance of reaching the summit.” The third son of a Yorkshire family, he had fought through  the First World War, joining as a private and then being commissioned, and winning a Military Cross for his bravery. Recovered from his wounds, but still mentally damaged, he had left Bradford and emigrated to New Zealand. After various mishaps, marital and otherwise, he returned to the UK and then settled on a scheme to buy an aeroplane to fly, solo, to the lower slopes of Mount Everest, and then to climb the mountain, on his own. He didn’t know how to fly, and he had never climbed a mountain. But he does fly solo all the way to India in his Moth, and evades all efforts to stop him getting to the mountain. And he does set off to climb what no one has climbed before.

It is an extraordinary story, garnered from a variety of sources, including Wilson’s own diary and letters he wrote to a woman he was in love with (she was married to someone else). Ed Caesar is, I think, meticulously truthful; he doesn’t pretend to know what he can’t know and, when he guesses, he makes it clear that he is guessing. In the end, the story becomes somehow close to tragic: this is a man who can’t turn back, who won’t turn back, who doesn’t turn back, even when any rational being would realise he can’t survive. I found the book utterly absorbing, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

The Moth and the Mountain is published by Viking

See also: Touching the Void by Joe Simpson

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