Farewell to the English gent

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
OLD MEN in their chimney-seats, Smollett tells us, mourned the death of Nelson, whose name was England's inspiration. If those of us of a certain age are today mourning the death of John Hunt, it is partly because we are grieving for the death of England itself.

The England that Lord Hunt of Llanfairwaterdine knew and honoured, and which honoured him in return, no longer exists. It is receding fast into myth and ignorant calumny, deliberately thrown away by its rulers, misunderstood or forgotten by most of its people. It was the England of fair play, now practised it seems only by Australian cricket captains; of self-effacing humour and discreet liaisons; of the gentle monarchist and the unchauvinistic patriot; the England, in short, of the John Hunts.

People the world over have regretted the passing of that now almost legendary kingdom, and for myself, as a Welsh republican patriot delighted by the impending and inevitable dissolution of Great Britain, I look back to the England I used to know with pride, affection and pity.

Cynics will say it is a nostalgic image, masking all the miseries of social inequity and imperialist greed, and of course that England was by no means an Arcadia for its citizens and subjects. John Hunt himself, though, was proof that near the heart of its maligned Establishment lay much that was good, honourable and interesting.

Hunt was not a brilliant man - not a dazzler like Nelson; not a stylish aristocrat. He was an English gentleman, of the class which had over recent centuries established the reputation of his country, and fixed its governing style.

Hunt was a professional soldier, one of Montgomery's staff officers in the Second World War. He came from a family that had for generations served the British Raj in India. His Trafalgar, the successful ascent of Everest in 1953, was achieved by a team of British and colonial sahibs supported by native bearers.

He became a knight, then a peer, then a Knight of the Garter, wearing with pride its obscure antique accoutrements, velvet hat and buckled shoes. He was one of the great and the good, a familiar at royal palaces, a first choice to chair committees and royal commissions.

Dear God, I hear them saying, what a bore! Roll on the millennium! Pass me the pizza (or the pot)! Hunt, though, like his England, was anything but tedious. He was an imperialist, I suppose, in that he had served the British Empire in its last decades, but he was certainly never racist: it is impossible to imagine Colonel Hunt, leader of that 1953 expedition, reviling or scorning, let alone physically abusing, even the least conscientious of his Nepali coolies.

He cherished, I do not doubt, the prestige and somewhat ridiculous trappings of his various distinctions, but he cherished them with humour, slightly tongue-in-cheek, accepting them not so much for what they were, as for what they represented. He was ready to assume the awful responsibilities of Parole Board or Royal Commission, but as far as I could detect his attitudes were never prejudgemental or authoritarian. He was not at all an obvious man. He looked obvious, but he was really very subtle.

So was the England he epitomised. Later generations see it, as often as not, in movie caricature or political distortion, but it did not always talk in comic accents, posh or proletarian, and it was not generically arrogant. Hunt's comrades, Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing, got to the top of Everest in the week of Queen Elizabeth's coronation, and the event was hailed as the start of a new Elizabethan age, destined to restore a war-ravaged and impoverished nation to all its old glories.

There was little jingoism, though, to the celebrations. John Hunt's England had grown out of tub-thumpery, and generally viewed the splendours of its retreating Empire with no more than wry regret: I doubt if any empire in history abandoned its power with a better grace.

Nor were its much-mocked customs and manners, still alive in the Fifties, as absurd as they now seem. Englishmen dressed for dinner in the jungle because it was a kind of discipline, a statement of self-respect, and the stiff upper lip of comic tradition was not so much inhibition as exhibition of morale:

Hunt looked a very incarnation of the stiff upper lip, but when Hillary returned from the summit of Everest that day he threw his arms around the New Zealanders as emotionally as any football manager. In Hunt's soldierly England even class, that hazy bete noire of radicals, was often as much technique as prejudice; I remember a sergeant-major of the 9th Queen's Royal Lancers, one of the classiest of British regiments, explaining to me as a classless outsider that the social gulf between officers and men was a perfectly conscious device of military efficiency.

What about the famous reserve, a hallmark of gentlemanly Englishness in those days, thrown shamelessly to the winds today? It is presented to us now as a symptom of dullness, but it was seldom really that. It was a screen, behind which the Englishman seethed with just as many aspirations, complexes, neuroses, fears, fantasies and dislikes as anyone else: he wasn't suppressing them, as the counsellors would say now, just keeping them to himself. I have no idea whether John Hunt, who was happily married until the day he died, cherished sexual fantasies of his own. Who knows? He was a man like all others. I am perfectly sure, though, that you would never have caught him confessing into camera his sessions of oral sex in a corridor of the House of Lords. It would not have been gentlemanly. It would not have been English.

Where have all the flowers gone? I do not mean the poor wild flowers, the poppies and the cowslips, wiped from our meadows by heedless chemical farming. I mean the figurative flowers that once made England, for all its faults, a country worth dying for: modesty, general kindness, restraint, humour without cruelty, a sense of friendship, a sense of fun. Today's gurus of taste or correctness will probably sneer at their very mention, dismissing them as illusory ideals of an ageing romantic, but my contemporaries and I experienced them all ourselves, we know what Hunt's England was like, and we know what grand strengths and simplicities lay behind its circumstantial pomp.

When Everest was climbed for the first time John Hunt, as leader of the expedition, wrote its official account. The Ascent of Everest was not great literature, but it had all the calm, balanced, Huntian, English virtues. It tells the story of the climb in infinite, staff officer's detail, distributing compliments carefully among all the climbers, and displaying the requisite modest pride in the achievement.

In my favourite passage of the book the future Lord Hunt of Llanfairwaterdine, KG, CBE, DSO, quondam commander of the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade, pays particular tribute to "the wonderful work done by my wife and Mrs Mowbray- Green in sewing many hundreds of nametapes on to our garments, thus avoiding a possible cause of contention among us on the mountain".

There goes England for you! Turn your baseball cap the right way round, dear, and eat up your Big Mac.

Jan Morris was the only reporter with the team that conquered Everest in 1953

Obituary, page 6