Book Of A Lifetime: Coronation Everest by James Morris
Friday 08 October 2010
Of course, the jacket today would be quite unacceptable. Simple, pale blue, elegant in the way all Faber jackets have always been – and dominated by a photograph of a splendidly bearded old man, tribally decked out in some turbaned Himalayan fashion, reading a copy of 'The Times'. But then you look more closely, and realise that the unfortunate man is reading what cannot possibly be read, since what he is seeing is the front page turned quite upside down! What a capital joke! We tricked the old devil! Poor heathen fellow.
Today, naturally, the jacket would be seen as a racially-charged and imperially-freighted infelicity – though half-a-century ago, I would never have noticed it. Maybe it was, but this is a book that I nevertheless can say, without hesitation, completely changed my life. I had borrowed a copy from the British Council Library in what was then called Fort Portal, in western Uganda. I was a geologist at a time; I was prospecting for copper deposits, with a determined want of success, in the foothills of the Ruwenzori Mountains. I lived in a tent near a village called Kyenjojo, and spent all my evenings reading.
The library may have been 40 miles away, but Mr Bhimji's grocery shop was next door, and there was a branch of Barclays across the street. So I would drive my Land Rover down the red murrum highway each week, and load it up with milk, meat, money - and books.
Back then I especially liked books about climbing. This was the time when John Harlin fell off the North Face of the Eiger, and all Britain was obsessed with mountains. I had even named our family dog in Harlin's honour. So I would head magnet-straight for the library's mountaineering section. I was very much a Walter Mitty, maybe, but the reading was generally enlightening.
I read 'Coronation Everest' at one sitting, in a hammock outside the tent until dark, and then inside, with a guttering oil lamp for light. I was totally captivated. James Morris, a 'Times' reporter just becoming known for a certain deftness of style, had managed to wangle himself onto John Hunt's expedition as the correspondent. He had done courageous things on the mountain himself (never having previously trekked much higher than Moel Siabod in his native North Wales) but, most crucially, had managed by an elaborate system of prearranged codes and runners and forewarned cable offices to get news of the climbers' success into the paper on the morning of 2 June 1953 – the day the Queen was crowned.
It was one of the finest scoops in Britain's journalistic history; and the account of how it had come about – written with light precision and a seemingly magical vocabulary - prompted me to go that next cool African dawn to the folding table outside my tent and write a letter. It went as follows: To James Morris, c/o Faber & Faber, London. Dear Mr Morris: I am a 21-year-old geologist living in East Africa, and I have just read 'Coronation Everest'. I have one question: how do I become a journalist like you?
Simon Winchester's new book is 'Atlantic: a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories' (HarperPress)
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