Sunday, 21 December 2014

The Dig: a bleak midwinter read

No end of year list this. Just a short recommendation of a short, stark and arresting novel: a bleak midwinter read.

The Dig is Cynan Jones' fourth book, but the first that I have found. It is the story of two men who's lives are ingrained in the cold, sodden fields of the hill country of mid Wales; one a recently bereaved sheep farmer, the other a single-minded badger-baiter. The language and tone of the narrative is sparse and bleak and matter of fact, reflecting the landscape in which the two protagonists edge towards their, seemingly inexorable, fated confluence.

It is clear where most reader's sympathies will lie: with Daniel, the farmer bringing new life at lambing time, sleep-walking through the long hours occupied by memories of his dead wife, rather than the un-named big man with his dogs and his barbarous occupation. But this is an unsentimental picture of rural life and both men are of the land; making a living through their knowledge and understanding of the animals they share their days with. Indeed they are both in some way trapped in their existence in the fields. Of the big man we are told: "He was too much of an instrument to change what he did".

The writing of Cynan Jones has been compared to the visceral narrations of landscape, of nature that characterise the work of Ted Hughes and Cormac McCarthy. I was also reminded of God's Own Country by Ross Raisin, rooted in the North York Moors and the words of its upland anti-hero narrator. The cadence of the writing, seemingly awkward at first, draws the reader into the landscape, pulls you away from the passive gaze of an outsider. 

Reading the book reminded me of two of my own observations from earlier in the year; brief glimpsings that unsettled, and have stayed with me. The first was on a local walk, during a cold and glowering late winter morning. Resting at a field gate affording a fine wide-screen view, I was drawn to the sound of dogs and men closer to hand. Down-slope at the fields edge (the field in these photographs) I surveyed a pick-up truck, its occupants digging in the bank running along the boundary, accompanied by insistent barks. I did not linger, was not seen. But I had seen them and wondered what their labours were in this lonely spot. Perhaps renewing a fence or clearing scrub? This was not the view I came away with though. There was something malevolent in the air. Had I happened across badger-baiters? was the question that nagged for the rest of the day.
A contrasting day and location in the summer: waiting at a rural level crossing in the Aire Valley, North Yorkshire and the only people disembarking into the sunshine from the two carriage diesel unit are a rag tag band of teenage boys; track-suited hyperactivity - lads from the estates of Keighley or Bingley or Bradford, maybe Leeds I surmised. As we waited on opposite sides of the crossing gates their exuberance was a striking counterpoint to the reticent village halt that had just accepted them. Equally frantic dogs accompanied the boys, one of whom carried a wooden box in which his ferrets lurked. As the gates lifted the gang unhesitatingly and knowingly climbed the nearest four bar and raced across the large field adjacent to the station, their released dogs filling its space. Space that minutes earlier had been the benevolent preserve of their prey, gambolling rabbits. I carried on my way as a passing local resident dialled the number of the field's owner.

The Dig gives voice to such encounters at the sharp end of rural life. The story dissects our cosy view of the countryside to reveal the unbidden and often unspoken darkness that lurks at every gate post, in every copse, atop every hill. A reminder that harsh, hard lives and deeds bleed into the landscape still.

Friday, 12 December 2014

I see winter coming in

A December walk from my East Bristol city-suburb front door, through the green places of Fishponds, Frenchay and Stapleton. The images speak of Emily Dickinson's words: 'there's a certain slant of light, winter afternoons', and I see winter coming in.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Where is the (human) life of the fields?

After a two month lay-off due to a ruptured Achilles tendon I am glad to be back out roaming again. A day of late autumnal brilliance led me to a favourite place, the hidden combes below the hamlet of Cold Ashton: a becalmed swathe of deep England happy in its steeply contoured obscurity. I’ve been afoot here for a decade, at least twice a year. Absorbing the solitary serenity it occurred to me that I could hardly recall ever meeting or even seeing another human being on these numerous wanderings, once away from the road. To be in a long settled and wrought landscape, a stone’s throw from Bath and Bristol, in a densely populated country and have the place to yourself – acres of splendid isolation - is a curious thing. There is much to gain from wandering alone – time to think, away from the clamouring noise of everyday life – but this got me wondering existential thoughts about the very idea of my lone occupation of such places.

How we, the neo-landless masses, interact with landscapes outside of the narrowly prescribed to and fro of our immediate living, working, leisure and travel environments is something to ponder whilst out on an unshackled walk: even the most lowly cottager of pre-urban society would most likely covet our home comforts but be at a loss to understand how little of the land around us we actually have a stake in through common rights and custom. Such thoughts bring land ownership and legal rights of access into sharp relief, as well as the artificial lines that are often drawn between the rural and the urban. These themes are at the heart of two recent media articles: Prince Charles' comments in Country Life berating the loss of connection between urban dwellers and rural life (apparently unencumbered by the irony of a beneficiary of enormous inherited wealth and estates admonishing the descendants of those driven off the land by poverty or coercion for their lack of understanding of the countryside); and Simon Jenkins' article on threats to the rural landscape as he comes to the end of his term as Chair of the National Trust. In their different ways both seek to reinforce the view that the countryside needs more 'protection' from development and change. This is in many ways an admirable sentiment, as is Jenkins' view, mirroring a current campaign by the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, that the pressures on the housing market should be primarily met by developing brownfield and derelict sites in urban areas. 

However, in seeking to preserve the rural landscape in idealised form there is a danger that it becomes an ossified version of itself; notwithstanding the fact that efforts to defend and conserve landscapes in this way, through designation, campaigning, management schemes and so on, necessarily have to focus on those deemed to be of most value, thereby leaving swathes of less heralded countryside at the mercy of intensified agri-business and mission creep urban infrastructure. The binary problem of a concentrated but spreading urban population, culturally adrift from its high status (and high cost) rural hinterland can only be exacerbated if this is our only response to developers and businesses who see the countryside in terms of pound signs. 

Curiously, one of the more optimistic sounding conservation movements of the moment, rewilding, may only add to this problem if followed to its logical extremes (and the rhetoric of some of its advocates seems to be worryingly fundamentalist in tone, with vague exhortations to 'control' human population and immigration). There is certainly significant scope for returning parts of the landscape to a more self-willed natural state - thereby enabling flora and fauna to reestablish a less anthropocene dominated ecological balance. Though rewilding surely has its place, it should be remembered that, in Asa Briggs words "...nature and culture - the latter a word derived from the land - are inextricably entangled in Britain as a whole" and if human engagement with the environment was even more highly concentrated in the urban (and suburban) realm to enable the wild to reassert itself elsewhere then the landscape - and our relationship with it - would be all the poorer.

As the images from my recent walk shown here illustrate, much of the rural landscape is remarkably depopulated, like a Hardy-esque scene 'swept by a spectral hand'. This is at odds with the received wisdom of a crowded, densely populated island where it is no longer possible to find space or tranquillity. In fact in pre-modern societies, though the total population was much smaller than today (cities of any significant size having yet to develop) it was more evenly dispersed, with hundreds of residents in even the most remote parish or township; the shouting and unruly swains, shepherds, woodsmen, maids and gypsies of John Clare's poetry-social commentary. Even in Richard Jefferies time, the late nineteenth century, as he traces the course of a spring-born brook through 'the life of the fields' in Wild Life in a Southern County the wildlife and natural history that he observes are in the context of a highly peopled environment - in field, wood, farmstead, hamlet and village. This pattern of settlement, allied to the fact that the majority of the population were engaged in working the land in some way, meant that today's rural backwaters were much busier places. To give an example, on my three mile route along the hushed valleys around Cold Ashton there can be seen grassed over terraced strip lynchets indicating medieval land under the plough, the ruins of a mill and its silted up pond, woodland intensively managed as coppice until recent times, an abandoned farmstead and numerous tracks and holloways that are now verdant footpaths or overgrown but would have been well used thoroughfares. This pattern could be replicated on a similar short walk in pretty much any part of the British Isles (and would in fact be magnified in many upland areas, often haunted by the memories of even more dramatic abandonment and desertion from prehistoric times through to the early modern period). 

Does this matter? Is it simply an inevitable consequence of processes steadily advancing ever since the first furnaces of the Industrial Revolution were stoked? 

I think, to misuse Rachel Carson's famous phrase, these silent fields do matter. At the conclusion of his treatise on the relationship between the rural and the urban in English literature, The Country & the City, Raymond Williams shines a light on the powerful pressures exerted by capitalism leading to "a simultaneous crisis of overcrowded cities and a depopulating countryside". This remains the nub of the problem; how it can be challenged is the conundrum. Of course I am not advocating a developer's charter to concrete over the countryside, far from it. But perhaps if the concept of 'localism' is to be more than hollow sloganeering then it could be a bulwark to provide room for people, including those from the town looking to renew their links with the land but lacking the City salary or pension to purchase a hobby farm, to re-establish a foothold in the furlong, the coppice, the hillside trod. This means enabling people to build livelihoods, homes and communities in a rural setting, from the bottom up; sometimes this might make, for instance, the Cotswolds look a little scruffier (and upset the coach-bound countryside voyeurs), sometimes it might not work or be unsightly, but what's the alternative? Disconnected populations corralled into brownfield site ghettos whilst the wolf roams a returning wildwood unhindered, in earshot yet far away; and farm managers tend their spreadsheets, a robotic workforce tilling the land. 

If we are to move beyond the long-running position of stasis in the relationship between the wider population and the physical environment in which they live, if G.K. Chesterton's "people of England, that have never spoken yet" (as proxy for people everywhere) are to be awoken from their deep coma of complacency, fatalism and inertia and move beyond reductive visions of the country versus the city, then we could make a start by telling our social history like it really was: the landscape as much a setting for radical transformations as apolitical continuity and conservative evolution. The real story of why and how people left the land, how common land rights and responsibilities operated (and their limitations), how enclosure revolutionised the landscape and "in taking the commons away from the poor, made them strangers in their own land" (as outlined in E.P. Thompson's Customs in Common), and so forth. This is not about looking backwards - yearning for a golden age that never existed. To quote Thompson again "We shall not ever return to pre-capitalist human nature, yet a reminder of its alternative needs, expectations and codes may renew our sense of our nature's range of possibilities".

So, can I glimpse a possible future in which I would be able to wander these valleys and pass by numerous small communities, their endeavours part of the daily rhythm of a landscape in which they had a stake, freed from wage slave dislocation from their surroundings? Would these green images be enhanced by peopled colour? Wonder at the beauty to be found in the countryside untempered by the melancholy thought that I am merely observing the relics of human activity and there is no one here to enjoy it but me. Perhaps this sounds a little too like Thomas More's Utopian Republic; the idealised pastoral socialism of William Morris in his novel News From Nowhere. Well I'm a dreamer, and maybe that's no bad thing. What thoughts a walk in quiet country can provoke.


Briggs, A. 1987. A Social History of England. Penguin.

Clare, J, 1990. Selected Poems. Penguin.

Hardy, T, 1998. Nobody Comes in Everyman's Poetry: Thomas Hardy. Everyman.

Jefferies, R, 2011. Wild Life in a Southern Country. Little Toller.

More, T, 2003. Utopia. Penguin.

Morris, W, 1993. News from Nowhere and Other Writings. Penguin.

Thompson, EP, 1993. Customs in Common. Penguin.

Williams, R, 2011. The Country & the City. Spokesman.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Reliquiae Journal - Volume Two

Reliquiæ is an annual journal of poetry, short fiction, non-fiction, translations and visual art, edited by Autumn Richardson & Richard Skelton. Each issue collects together both old and new work from a diverse range of writers and artists with common interests spanning landscape, ecology, folklore, esoteric philosophy and animism.

Full print contents:

~ Thomas A Clark's collection of poetic aphorisms from the island of Colonsay.
~ Don Domanski's lecture on poetry, sacredness, and 'how each thing holds a mystery'.
~ Two visionary poems of death and darkness from Julia McCarthy.
~ An excerpt from Ronald Johnson's seminal poem of the English landscape, 'The Book of the Green Man'.
~ Peter O'Leary's poetic rendering of two runes from the Kalevala.
~ Three found poems by Autumn Richardson, derived from the journals of Knud Rasmussen.
~ Richard Skelton's interview with his father about life on a Nottinghamshire farm in the 1940s and 1950s.
~ A folkloric and literary survey by Mark Valentine on 'The Last Wolf in England'.
~ A hitherto undocumented ritual performed in rural France, written in French, Occitan and English.
~ Excerpts from the forthcoming Epidote Press book on the writing of Hans Jürgen von der Wense.

In addition to these there are: Michael Drayton's poetic account of the plunder of the forest of Andredsweld; Leo Grindon on the oak and the insects it supports; Gerard Manley Hopkins' fragments on 'the law of the oak leaf', and the maiming of trees; W.H. Hudson's contemplation his eternal dwelling place; Thomas Keightley's account of 'green children'; Mary Russell Mitford's description of the 'murder' of magnificent oaks by woodsmen; a collection of Chippewa plant remedies as documented by Albert B. Reagan; Charles Hamilton Smith on wolves and the sentiment of affection; Edward Thomas' strange and beautiful exploration of the English folkloric archetype, 'Lob', his visionary 'leaving' of London, and his elegy for the badger, 'that most ancient Briton of English beasts'; H.D. Thoreau on nature and art; Gilbert White's account of the destruction of the 'Raven-Tree'; W.B. Yeats on the Celtic element in literature, and Egerton Ryerson Young's transcription of an Algonquin story of how the coyote obtained fire from the centre of the earth.

Order the 2014 issue here and see information on last year's here.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Of idle days afoot in England and Patagonia

A new addition to my reading pile is Afoot in England by W.H. Hudson, perhaps the least heralded member of a loose triumvirate of pioneering writers on the natural history, landscape and rural way of life of Southern England alongside Richard Jefferies and Edward Thomas; influential ever since, particularly on the work of Robert Macfarlane who provides a foreword to the book that has whetted my appetite with its talk of the ‘deep-English supernaturalism’ and ‘pastoral psychogeography’ contained within.

Little Toller Books have re-published A Shepherd's Life, Hudson's story of a shepherd grazing his flocks on the borders of Wiltshire, Hampshire and Dorset. Here is their summary of his life and work:

"W.H. HUDSON (1841 – 1922) William Henry Hudson was born in Argentina, son of Anglo-American settlers. As a youth he spent much time wandering alone in the Pampas, studying its wildlife and encountering gauchos, whose nomadic, shepherding life left a deep impression. In 1869 he moved to England, settling first in London where he lived in poverty until the award of a Civil List pension in 1901. Success finally came with a novel, Green Mansions (1904), but he is best known for A Shepherd’s Life (1910), his ornithological writings, and an autobiographical memoir, Far Away and Long Ago (1918). He was also a pioneering conservationist and a founding member of the RSPB. He is buried in Worthing, West Sussex, in the same cemetery as Richard Jefferies. He is a national literary treasure in Argentina, where several public institutions and a town are named after him."

I first came across Hudson whilst looking for local writings in a bookshop in Ushuaia, the southern-most city of Argentina, where I happened upon the superbly named Idle Days In Patagonia in which the author describes the minutiae of the natural history encountered during his wanderings across the vast expanses of the Patagonian plains and Andean foothills. It was captivating reading whilst travelling across this landscape, but little did I then know of his prodigious output of novels and non-fiction and closer to home observations. A pioneer walker-philosopher chronicling a world and a landscape that now seem distant beyond years.  

The last words to Hudson from Afoot in England: "In walking ... there are alleviations which may be more to us than positive pleasures, and scenes to delight the eye that are missed by the wheelman in his haste, or but dimly seen or vaguely surmised in passing - green refreshing nooks and crystal streamlets, and shadowey woodland depths with glimpses of a blue sky beyond - all in the wilderness of the human heart".

Saturday, 1 November 2014

The Incredible String Band - Be Glad For the Song Has No Ending

It would seem appropriate to usher November in with the autumnal melancholic strangeness of the Incredible String Band, via a suitably idiosyncratic documentary called Be Glad For the Song Has No Ending.

A first reading of The Incredible String Band would lead to the conclusion that they embody every cliché of psychedelic-folk-world music-lentil inflected-commune living-naïve mystic hippydom. This film may not dispel that thought. I, however, would concur with Rob Young’s view that more than any other band of the pivotal late 60’s/ early 70’s epoch they “captured that elemental essence of music as an intimate rite in the flickering light, imparting sacred mysteries to rapt ears in the sapphire deep of night … the music consumes everything thrown into it in a blaze of inspiration.” To me their sound and imagery conjure thoughts of damp leaf-litter strewn woodland walks, candle-lit fireside chattering, seasonal folkloric ritual and my meadow-bound childhood roamings; sonic transportation to place and time rememberings.

I know nothing of the films origins and do not feel compelled to find out; I would simply recommend that you watch it and, if you are not already a devotee, seek out their unique music. 

Friday, 31 October 2014

The rhiw paths of the Black Mountains: liminal ways, old beyond memory

I have written a piece for The Clearing web site on a very specific genus of pathway, a sub-group which has a particular form, character and locality but remained unburdened by formal categorisation: lonely tracks that stoically climb and crest the hillsides of the Black Mountains; shadow paths, many now no longer or rarely used other than by a small number of local shepherds and farmers, often not appearing on any map. When driving or walking through the Vale of Ewyas, incising the old red sandstone massif of the Black Mountains for twelve sinuous miles with Llanthony its primary locus, these ways – known locally as rhiws - are all around but remain unseen in plain sight; liminal lines in the landscape of the steep valley sides with no meaning or discernible pattern to the casual eye.

You can read the full article here.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Goat, Sweden and psychedelic genius loci

A little off the Landscapism beaten path this one. I spent the early hours of Sunday morning with 1,500 like-minded souls crammed into an old warehouse in Liverpool’s Baltic Triangle, adjacent to the dock where 18th century whaling ships landed their cargoes, watching a pulverising performance by a modern day Scandinavian force of nature, the Swedish psych-collective, Goat.
Seemingly arriving out of nowhere in 2012, Goat claim to originate from a commune in a small village in remote northern Sweden with a history of voodoo and arcane pagan practice; the core members having made music together since they were children and for the last 30-40 years. On stage and in interviews the members wear masks and elaborate costumes, similar in style to the Afrofuturistic Sun Ra Arkestra, and keep their identities hidden. Now this back-story and image is clearly somewhat tongue-in-cheek, and there is a fine line between genuine and original musical and cultural fusion and cliché and novelty value. However, that Goat have so far managed to walk on the right side of this line is down to the quality of their records and mesmeric live performances: a mixture of wah-wah driven psych rock (a genre that Swedes seem to excel at), kraut-rock drone, North African inspired desert blues and hypnotic Afrobeat rhythms.

There were a number of excellent Swedish bands playing at the Liverpool Festival of Psychedelia, clearly a psychedelic genius loci is abroad along the Baltic; the enigmatic Goat will, however, remain strongest in the memory, a counterpoint to the rather bland and formulaic image that most artists and bands of note currently portray. 

Image from

Monday, 15 September 2014

A dream of common cause, common weal, common wealth

As the somewhat dismal forces of nationalism, Utopian pipe dreamers and neo-con capitalism collide in Thursday's Scottish Referendum I may not have a vote, but I can daydream about a more rational world in which ...

The Scottish National Party push for a referendum on Scottish independence. The response from the rest of civic and political society across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is OK, but thats a pretty narrow question on which to frame such an important process as a referendum. Anger, disenchantment and apathy towards our current political system seem to run deep across all sections of society and territory across these islands. There are also many Scots in England, English in Scotland, Welsh in England, those of Scottish decent across the other parts of the country etc etc; how would you decide who has a say in this matter?

Debate and discussion takes place. The consensus view is that, yes there is a need for a referendum but it needs to be inclusive and give all the people real options to choose from, not just a false binary choice for 10% of the population. This means that the referendum will give a voice to all registered voters across the whole United Kingdom. So the question is framed, and here it is:

Which of the following most closely matches your preference and aspiration for the future political structure of the United Kingdom (England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales)?

1. I am content with the current political structure.

2. I would like to see a federal system with meaningful and increased devolved government in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the regions and cities of England, within a unified United Kingdom.

3. I would like to see England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales become separate independent states. 

To ensure that there is no democratic deficit and enable self-determination, if a majority in any of the four constituent parts of the United Kingdom vote for option 3, separation, then that country would have the right to secede from the UK and become independent.

Am I naive in thinking that a majority vote for option 2, a federal Britain, would kick-start the urgently needed progressive reform of our democratic structures? 

Well I can dream. Although, maybe the seismic shift towards political engagement in Scotland may just tip us into believing that change can come for everyone. What a shame it would be if we are diverted from such an opportunity by a messy, prolonged, costly and divisive decoupling of Scotland from the rest of us?

 Anyone for common cause, common weal, common wealth?

Friday, 29 August 2014

The Epic of Everest: 'Still climbing - and then, no more'

Image courtesy of
I have finally found time to watch the BFI’s new release of The Epic of Everest, the contemporary film of the 1924 British Mount Everest Expedition, directed by Captain John Noel, who accompanied George Mallory, Andrew Irvine and the rest of the party on their – ultimately doomed – third attempt to scale the world’s highest peak. Appropriately, it is a breath-taking piece of work.

This is a fairly instantaneous reflection, which will hopefully inspire anyone who has not seen it to seek out this ninety minute masterpiece. Once again, BFI have done a superlative job of restoring, packaging and sound-tracking this, now ninety year old, artifact of another era. They seem to have an endless conveyor belt of such gems: Here's a Health to the Barley Mow, BBC Ghost Stories for Christmas, From the Sea to the Land Beyond, Robinson in Ruins ... the list goes on.

The initial scene-setting intertitles of the film are 'of their time' in conjuring up a context for the expedition based not just on the mountaineering challenge, but articulated through the language of empire and conquest, of battling against nature to subdue it. This was a time when the conceit that the natural world was something to be tamed was at its zenith; we now kid ourselves that we know better, whilst seemingly unable to pull back from this (unstoppable?) sham. However, as the film progresses, the original on screen commentary, written by the director, becomes more impressive, substantial and somewhat spiritual; the words of someone who bore direct witness to the events as they unfolded, sparsely dramatic and often poetic: "Into the heart of the pure blue ice, rare, cold, beautiful, lonely - into a fairyland of ice". 

Expertly restored, the antique frames - seemingly, like their subject matter, antediluvian - have an otherworldly quality entirely suiting the epic images of ice and cordillera on screen, surely more so than the technically superior results of modern day filming. This feeling is enhanced by the colour washes (blue, purple, red) applied to some of the frames. The hues producing a dream-like sense that evokes the Antarctic Gothic of HP Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, as well as the imagery from the pioneering days of Victorian Alpinism reproduced in Fergus Fleming's Killing Dragons: The Conquest of the Alps and Robert Macfarlane's Mountains of the Mind: haunting precipices, corniced ridges, looming towers of ice, endless glaciers.

Still from The Epic of Everest (Image courtesy of

Noel, in the words of Wade Davis in the film's accompanying booklet: "a soldier by profession, but an artist in spirit", was a pioneering and highly innovative photographer and film-maker. The technology and equipment utilised to produce the film was both state-of-the-art and ingeniously deployed, enabling footage of unprecedented clarity to be shot from up to three miles away. Particularly striking are the circular telescopic stills that intersperse the film. These were created using a powerful telescope clipped to his camera and synchronised with the lens so that the image of the telescope appeared in the aperture. The imagery that these frames bring to mind is of an even higher realm than the five and a half miles that Everest stands proud of sea level; we could be looking at the lines etched into the moon seen through a high powered telescope gazing out to space.

The film would be spell-binding enough if silent but is brought to life ever more vividly by the new score composed by Simon Fisher Turner. Perfectly pitched, the soundtrack lithely shape-shifts from sparsely beatific piano-led sections to appropriately ominous strings (like Godspeed You! Black Emperor at their most portentous) mirroring the epic build of the images; whilst at times melting into a drone-like murmur of echoing sound-effects: creaking ice, the noise of ropes secured and pitons hammered home, yak bells. Musically the film takes a startling turn as it tracks Mallory and Irvine's ill-fated attempt on the summit; reaching 28,000 feet they attain the outer limit of human breathing and reluctantly resort to oxygen gas. At this point we hear the heavy, laboured breathing of oxygen masks, the sound of pioneers of a different frontier in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Human breath then mutates into emerging elemental tumult: a sonic apotheosis reached in a roaring crescendo evoking a soundscape of avalanche and approaching storm, constructed by multi-tracking internet storm recordings from Everest and elsewhere; a fitting coda to, in the words of John Noel's on screen commentary,: "The historic climax of our adventure - glorious because of the marvel of attainment - sad because of the tragedy of death".

Mallory and Irvine were last seen by fellow climber Noel Odell, who placed them at 28,400 feet, above the Second Step - a 40 metre wall of exposed rock and the most technically difficult barrier before reaching the summit. "Still climbing - and then, no more" reads the commentary. The last shots of the mountain are red tinted as cloud shadow slowly envelopes the immensity of the rock and ice; darkness overcoming the light.  

The cult of Mallory and Irvine has continued to inhabit our imagination ever since, an endless expedition into the mountains of our mind; ironically in many ways eclipsing the evidenced first ascent of Everest by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay thirty years later (not helped by the pragmatic New Zealand persona of Hillary; his prosaic account of the record-breaking ascent, High Adventure, makes it seem anything but). The most intriguing mystery in mountaineering history remains: did they fall or collapse before reaching the summit or after it was attained? Tantalising evidence of the possibility that the climbers of 1924 had reached the summit was found during the 1999 Mallory and Irvine expedition, which – sensationally – found Mallory’s body within hours of its commencement. Jake Norton, the American mountaineer who was part of that and subsequent research expeditions believes that they probably did reach the summit before, in unimaginable exhaustion, they followed the wrong gully and Mallory fell to his death, leaving Irvine alone and stranded to perish in the impossible cold during the night. Norton's fascinating theory (and he admits it can only be guesswork) on what may have happened can be found on his The MountainWorld blog site.  

The expedition party: Irvine, first left on back row, and Mallory, second left (Image courtesy of
Although the futility of the deaths of the two climbers (and others who also died during the expedition), particularly so soon after the horrors of the Great War, is hard to comprehend there is, when following the party's progress on screen, an aura of residual nobility; surely the incendiary spark for the Everest fever that has grown ever since. All we see here contrasts quite strikingly with the current commercial imperatives that dominate activity around Everest, which seems to revolve around enabling appropriately rich, though often inappropriately skilled or fit clients, to 'reach their goals'; sucking away at the mystique of this sacred landscape, filling it with both real and metaphysical pollutants. All the while risking death and disfigurement. 'Because its there' sounds a hollower call to arms by the year. But perhaps this is over romanticising. The 1924 attempt was supported by a huge logistical effort, with over 500 people involved and camps strung out along fifteen miles of glacier above the base camp at 17,000 feet (the limit of the range of the main means of transportation, the yak). All this enormous effort cost money and a large part of the process of getting to the mountain, as now, was raising funds from wealthy sponsors and backers. It is also difficult to avoid the conclusion that Mallory in particular had become so obsessional about reaching the summit that he had drifted into a form of madness in which all else, including his family, was disregarded. In his history of the often fatal fascination that mountaineering can weave, Mountains of the Mind, Robert Macfarlane poignantly recounts the moment that Mallory's wife and three young children received the telegram of his death.   

The film also stands as an ethnographical record of the peoples of Tibet and Nepal and their way of life before outside influences started to seep across the scene. Here we see monks, sherpas and nomad shepherd communities, their dress and customs, and dependence on the yak. A patronising tone occasionally creeps into the commentary ("We cannot call them a musical race...") but generally the footage is left to speak for itself. Most striking is the image of the fortress monastery of Kampa Dzong ('The Shining Crystal Monastery', surely a psych-rock album title in waiting), looming into shot like a Crusader castle in the twelfth century Kingdom of Jerusalem. The Llama from the monastery had wished the expedition well but predicted that the spirits guarding the mountain (known as Chomo-Lung-Ma in Tibet: 'Goddess Mother of the World') would oppose their endeavour, and by the end Noel wondered whether this had come to pass.

The combination of ground-breaking use of film and photography - both still in their infancy as art forms, the unrivalled drama of the setting and the multiple narratives culminating in tragic yet heroic death make this an unmissable document of modern humanity's long climb to, what - conquer? understand? meet with? nature at its most raw and unforgiving. After the climactic last view of Mallory and Irvine before they disappear from view and in one of his final sections of on screen commentary, we get the feeling that Noel has left behind the bombast of imperial conquest as he muses: "We must think of ourselves and of nature. We spring from nature. In life we defy her, at death we return to her. We, who are so little, and nature who is so immense!".    

The last shot of Mallory, Irvine and the summit party from The Epic of Everest before they disappear from view (Image courtesy of


Davis, W, 2011. Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest. Vintage. 

Fleming, F, 2000. Killing Dragons: The Conquest of the Alps. Granta.

Hillary, E, 1956. High Adventure. The Companion Book Club.

Macfarlane, R, 2003. Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination. Granta.

Nelsson, R (Ed.), 2007. The Guardian Book of Mountains. Guardian Books.

Tyndall, J, 1906. The Glaciers of the Alps and Mountaineering in 1861. Dent.

Traer, M. A tale of two men and geology on the roof of the world.