Thursday, 10 November 2011

Into the Brilliance. . .

It's been a magnificent week so far for filling my head with awe and admiration for some of Canada's incredible writers and thinkers.  On Monday night, I headed over to Wade Davis's event at the Toronto Public Library. His new book Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest is definitely in my top 10 books of the year.  He's an incredible speaker and accompanied by a slide show, he really brought the stories of the twenty-six men who were part of the Everest expeditions in 1921-1924 to life, particularly the horrors they'd suffered in the First World War.  The book is incredibly detailed and researched (he's been working on it for over ten years) but after hearing him speak, it's clear that his mission was to really honour the incredible lives of these men, each of whom could have had a biography all to themselves; attempting to climb Everest in many cases was the least of their accomplishments.  The grandson of Arthur Wakefield, a military doctor on the expedition who had spent a number of years in Canada working in the isolated communities of Newfoundland and Labrador, was in attendance and he brought a pair of thick mittens and Wakefield's wooden ice pick/pole that had gone to Everest with him. I got to handle the latter and it gave me goosebumps. Wakefield's story is really heartbreaking; he was working in a casualty station just behind the front lines during the Battle of the Somme where the Newfoundland regiment - many of whom he knew personally - was decimated during that horrific day.

Davis, who holds the wonderful title of Explorer-In-Residence for the National Geographic Society, also wanted to tell the story from the Tibetan point of view and he spent a couple of months living and researching in Tibet. It's as much a book about the arrogance of British imperialism as it is about exploration and the post-war culture of England. And yes, even the Bloomsbury set shows up. What I found engrossing about the talk was Davis' excitement at the strange turns his research took him. After all, this is definitely not the first book on George Mallory.  But by delving extensively into the war records of all these men, he was able to bring new perspectives to their motivations and actions. AND he was able to unearth the diaries of Canadian surveyor Oliver Wheeler who he credits with finding the approach to Everest that the expedition eventually used.  If you don't have time to read the book, you can hear the whole of his amazing talk (accompanied by slides) in three parts, Part One, Part Two and Part Three.  Well worth a listen.

Have you been listening to this year's Massey Lectures by Adam Gopnik ? (American born, but Canadian raised, so I'll claim him for this country).  His theme is Winter: Five Windows on the Season and while I've only heard three of the lectures so far, I know I'll definitely be buying the book.  Tuesday's lecture on Radical Winter and the culture of the polar expeditions, from the race across the Arctic of Frankenstein and his monster, to Apsley Cherry-Gerard's The Worst Journey in the World,  was fascinating, particularly in light of thinking about how heroism and exploration changed between those Antarctic journeys of Scott and Shackleton, and the Everest attempts outlined by Davis just a decade later, but with the horrors of the First World War sandwiched in between.  Davis notes interestingly, that several survivors of Shackleton's trip actually applied to join the Everest expedition; others of course had enlisted and been killed in the trenches. 

I think I need to go and buy Davis's The Wayfarers, his 2009 Massey Lectures.  Heck, in honour of the 50th anniversary I should go back and read them all.

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