Saturday, April 30, 2011


Past the Bounds of Time POST 2

Flora Deacon herself proved to be rather elusive. The diary ends with a mention of Sandy’s death, and the letter accompanying the journal told me that Flora had died very soon after, within months. In attempting to establish contact with the sender, I was unsuccessful, but I am hopeful that this book will bring that relative back into the open. The letter was written in what appears to be a rather aged hand, so it’s possible that the sender has since passed on, but hopefully someone in their family will read this and come forward to claim their property. Until that time, the diary is in extremely safe hands.

Flora was a fringe member (albeit a very young one) of George Mallory’s Bloomsbury set, and was likely related directly to the Laura Deacon who’d been the mistress of Lord Lytton of Knebworth House in the mid-1800s, perhaps a great-granddaughter. Audrey Salkeld, in an e-mail to me, wondered whether Flora and Sandy might have met through Antony Viscount Knebworth, a young man who was the glowing light of the Lytton family and one of Sandy’s closest friends, and this scenario is by far the likeliest for their meeting.

Edward Bulwer Lytton, perhaps best remembered for being the novelist who penned the immortal words “It was a dark and stormy night,” was married when he began a decades-long affair with Laura Deacon. They met when Laura was the mistress of a neighbor of Lytton’s, and she was living with Lytton by 1836. The couple had at least three illegitimate children, and all of Laura Deacon’s children were remembered in Lytton’s will.

Laura used many aliases, among them “Mrs. Grant,” “Mrs. Sellars,” “Mrs. Beaumont,” and even “the Vicomtesse d’Azzimart.” Lytton’s three wills are extremely confusing documents, as he switched between Laura’s aliases from will to will. He also left money to various “Vansittarts, de Rossets, Grants and Sherwoods” who according to his biographer Leslie Mitchell “were not servants or estate workers, because such people are mentioned elsewhere in the will. It is quite probable that they were all illegitimate children. Indeed the list may not be exhaustive.” And so we have Lord Lytton’s many illegitimate offspring, several of them from his favorite mistress, any of whom could have borne Laura’s surname “Deacon” and been Flora’s grandfather or grandmother. The fact that Flora says in her diary that she was an intimate of Antony Viscount Knebworth goes a long way toward proving this.

Flora was thus, even as an illegitimate great-grandchild of Lord Lytton, very much a part of the same wealthy social circle as the Irvines, if not in a slightly more rarefied strata than theirs. She was decidedly not of the same class as the girls who would, after his death, claim they’d known Sandy intimately, and was of a far higher social station (even given her descent from an illegitimate line) than ex-chorus girl Marjory Thomson Summers, whom the Irvines claim held Sandy’s affection (or at least his lust).

I recently came across a book about a 1960s CIA mission to plant a spy device on top of Nanda Devi. There are two quotes in this book that are apropos to the journey I have been on. From Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses: “In the end we all come to be cured of our sentiments. Those whom life does not cure death will. The world is quite ruthless in selecting between the dream and the reality, even where we will not. Between the wish and the thing the world lies waiting.” And from Gordon Livingston’s Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart: “There are no maps to guide our most important searches; we must rely on hope, chance, intuition, and a willingness to be surprised.” I was undoubtedly cured of my sentiments, cured of the dream, slapped hard with the reality. The world did indeed lie in wait for me, with sharpened claws and dripping fangs. And then came, finally, like sun after a chill winter squall, hope and energy and determination. I regained my intuitive senses, I was more than willing to be at last surprised, and I once again took up my “searches.” And Flora Deacon’s diary was unquestionably a surprise.

When I began my journey, I was disappointed that Sandy’s name was inextricably linked not only to Everest but to George Mallory. It struck me as unfair that he should basically be remembered as half of a duo, like Gilbert and Sullivan or Bertie and Jeeves. Mallory-and-Irvine, always, for eternity. However, they were a team, and they headed for the summit as a team. George had specifically picked Sandy for that ill-fated summit attempt, and I suppose Sandy could have refused. He didn’t refuse, and was in fact overjoyed to have been chosen. The two men had become close friends on the trek. They made themselves a team, and to try to pry them apart would, in the end, be doing them both a disservice.

The further I delved into my research, the more I realized that the amount of literature available on Everest itself is absolutely staggering. It’s a job to wade through everything currently in print, and once you begin on the out-of-print volumes (available through the glories of interlibrary loan), you start to feel like you’ll never make your way through. The internet only adds to the feeling. I don’t know of any other place in the annals of exploration except Antarctica that comes even remotely near the sheer weight of print that Everest can boast. Even at that, I was able to find little gems of Everest information hidden within books whose subject matter was strictly Antarctica or even Africa.

With Everest, you read, you devour, you scrutinize, you analyze, and you take more notes than you took in four years of college. You become a friend of maps, and you see Everest in your mind’s eye all decked out in red and blue and black and green dotted lines leading to the summit. You can’t speak the languages, but you know Everest’s Tibetan and Nepalese names. You don’t speak Welsh, but by golly you know what a cwm is.

Everest is an addiction, pure and simple. It clamors inside your head, it snakes its way through your bloodstream, and it’s under your feet as you walk to the corner store. You start to see all mountains differently. You rapidly acquire all the lingo associated with this addiction. You could craft a 3D model of Everest in your sleep, complete with routes fully mapped out. And you crave more.

You actively search out like-minded folk, and are immensely gratified when you find a really great group of people on the internet. They share your addiction. You’re all Everest junkies, and you all know it, and there’s no way you ever want to be cured.

It’s no wonder, then, really, that all those decades ago men became smitten with Everest.

For George Mallory, the drug of Everest would prove not only addictive, but fatally so. Was Sandy likewise obsessed with Everest? No. Would he have become obsessed in later years, as George did after a brief trip back to the reality of everyday life? I doubt it, to be honest. Sandy had fallen in love with exploration in general, and not mountaineering, while he was in the Arctic as a handyman on the Oxford Spitsbergen expedition in 1923. He had no plans to settle down to a nice, quiet life, that much is certain, and in fact there is evidence that he intended to move to Canada, Flora in tow, when he returned from Tibet. He wasn’t made for the life of a chartered accountant any more than George Mallory was.

And that fact alone may have been enough to kill them both.

The Irvine family has always bred adventurous types. The family came from Lowland Scots and Welsh stock, and the name Irvine may derive from the Welsh “yr afon,” meaning “holy green river,” or from the Welsh name Iorwyn, which means “pure, handsome lord.”

Until Sandy Irvine achieved unlooked-for fame in 1924, the most illustrious member of the Irvine clan was James Irvine, Sandy’s grandfather. Family legend had it that around the age of fifteen James “took off his best (or only) pair of boots and walked barefoot southwards until he reckoned that he was cleverer than the local inhabitants. And he had to foot it as far south as Merseyside before he was satisfied that his specification could be met.”

James became a merchant in Liverpool and traveled to Africa, meeting Richard Burton (well known in exploration circles) in 1861. By 1881, Irvine was the owner of the Guinea Coast Gold Mining Company; he then employed Burton to survey each mine in order to prepare reports that would lure wealthy investors. Irvine would eventually become the go-between for his employee, carrying messages from Burton in Africa to Burton’s wife Isabel in England, and back again. Wrote Burton biographer Mary Lovell: “All communications went through James Irvine because the only ships regularly visiting the region [in Africa] were out of Liverpool.” Sir Richard Burton would dedicate his To the Gold Coast for Gold “To our excellent friend James Irvine….we inscribe these pages as a token of our appreciation and admiration for his courage and energy in opening and working the golden lands of western Africa.”

Irvine was above all else a shrewd businessman, if not always a strictly honest one, and was a man whose character was equal mix businessman and romantic, a combination of traits certain to prove fatal to any financial undertaking. He would lose everything when rumors sprang up among investors that a “200 ft gold reef” found by Burton would not pay out. With the equipment available to Irvine at the time, removing the ore was almost impossible.

Over time, the family would come to forget that their entrepreneurial relation had known Sir Richard Burton, let alone been the employer of that renowned and intrepid explorer. James Irvine would be remembered by his family mainly as a man who “could never command the requisite capital to be really successful and he seemed always to be backing lost causes…” This is a disservice to him, as he was frequently successful, albeit not very good at hanging on to any small fortunes that came his way, including one he made by exporting home-grown coffee plants. It cannot be denied that he made a name for himself.

James adored the other explorer in his life, his grandson Sandy, whom he outlived by two years, and Sandy returned the affection. Before Sandy sailed out of Liverpool in February 1924, his grandfather led him to believe that shipboard life would be filled with joyous singing. Sandy wryly wrote to his mother Lilian that in fact “people look more like a burial service than singing!” Since James Irvine had had lots of experience aboard ships throughout his various careers, he must have enjoyed the fun he had at his grandson’s expense.

It was this grandfather Sandy referred to when he wrote from Everest of a photograph he’d snapped in a Buddhist temple: “Looking from the Temple through the heavy wooden doorway to the Holy of Holies. The big Buddha cannot be seen as it stands about 20 feet above and behind. Taken while worshipping at the prayer rail about 5 steps below the altar in the pitch dark Temple! Don’t tell grandfather!!” Poignantly visible in the picture is Sandy’s kata, or prayer scarf, given him by the Lama of the monastery. “Grandfather will never own me as a grandson again,” Sandy wrote to his mother, “because I bowed down before a colossal Buddha...”

James Irvine’s mother was Christian Common, whose family were descendants of the Red Comyn, murdered by Robert the Bruce hundreds of years before in a power struggle for the Scottish throne. Sandy’s middle name was Comyn, reflecting the family pride in this descent.

On his mother’s side, Sandy was descended from the Colleys, a name common in English records at least as far back as the eleventh century. The Colleys appear to have been mainly a border family, raising sheep and probably fighting in the interminable border skirmishes of the Middle Ages. A Gertrude Davies-Colley was a traveling companion of Alice Bailey, noted for claiming to be possessed by a Tibetan monk. Gertrude may or may not have been a relation, but the Davies-Colley name was fairly well known, and the connection to Tibet is interesting. Sandy’s mother Lilian was the daughter of a successful Manchester solicitor, Thomas Davies-Colley. The Davies-Colley family owned a house called Newbold, which would eventually come into the possession of Sandy’s bachelor uncle Thomas. Sandy spent countless vacations on this estate as a child and youth.

Sandy was born in the town of Birkenhead on 8 April 1902 to William and Lilian Irvine, and George Mallory’s own family lived in the same town from 1904 onward. Birkenhead, whose history can be traced to the founding of Birchen Head Priory in 1150, was a boomtown by the Victorian era. The priory, ruined by Henry VIII, has been restored and is used today for concerts. Birkenhead Park, the world’s first municipal park, deeply influenced Frederick Lane Olmsted’s design for New York’s own Central Park. The town played host in 1917 to Wales’ National Eisteddfod, an event the fifteen year old Sandy may very well have attended.

In 1860, William Lord Hesketh established his Lever soap company in Birkenhead, and in that same year Europe’s first street tramway was founded in the town. The tram was electrified a year before Sandy’s birth, and was still in use in the 1930s. A rejuvenated tram system runs in Birkenhead today, using the color scheme from the original trams. Birkenhead is also home to a large collection of battleships from all eras, something that would have fascinated the young Sandy.

The world’s first Boy Scout troop was begun in Birkenhead in 1906 on Park Road West. Sandy’s childhood home was located at 56 Park Road South, and he might have been drawn to the Scouts as a child, though there is no record of his ever having joined them.

Judging by descriptions of the Park Road house left by Alec Irvine, it was a fairly large estate, with a large back yard, gardens, a detached garage, a croquet field, an orchard and a tennis court. The family had expanded their grounds by purchasing the gardens of their neighbors, and surrounded themselves with hedgerows and brick walls. Today, the family downplays the amount of money that the Irvines possessed at the time of Sandy’s birth in 1902, but the fact remains that paupers would hardly have owned this amount of property. I have a collection of recent photographs, given me by a dear friend who traveled to Birkenhead a few years ago, and can attest to the immensity of the house.

The upper classes of Edwardian England, which included the Irvines, had a world of privilege at their fingertips. Jane Pettigrew, author of An Edwardian Childhood, described the era as “a short-lived wedding party that lasted one brief decade,” and only a handful of England’s population were wedding guests. It was a time that saw dizzying advances in all areas of life, including the first airplanes, votes for women, refrigeration, photography as a hobby, a better understanding of illnesses and their causes and cures, electricity in homes, and telephones. For the first time thought was given to the general health and well-being of children. Of course, this only included wealthier children; England’s impoverished majority were still sending their offspring to hard toil by the time a child was nine or ten, and sometimes younger. Special dispensations were given at school for children who needed to go to work.

Sandy Irvine was one of the lucky few. He grew up in a home large enough to contain an upper-floor classroom and nursery, and from the moment of his birth he was surrounded by nannies and maidservants. Most comfortable homes of the period had several floors that held dozens of rooms, although the main focus of the small Irvine children was the nursery floor. They would have taken their meals here until they were old enough to join the adults at table downstairs, around the age of fourteen.

Sandy’s day as a small child was spent with either a nanny or maidservants, and this would hold true until he was sent away to boarding school at eight. According to Jane Pettigrew, “it was Nanny who dried tears, bathed and bandaged cut knees,…washed, dressed, scolded, supervised and fed. She organized games and outings, she read stories, taught the alphabet and numbers, instructed in good manners, undressed and bathed, and then when evening prayers had been carefully recited, she popped her little charges into bed.”

As a small child, therefore, Sandy probably saw very little of his parents. Popular magazines with titles like “Crèche News” and “Baby—The Mother’s Magazine” were written with mothers in mind, but were devoured as well by nannies and nursemaids who, Jane Pettigrew wrote, were expected to fill “the role of nurse, mother, teacher and friend.” Edwardian parents such as Lilian and Willie Irvine were generally not troubled by common childhood things such as teething or bad dreams; Nanny dealt with all of that. It would have been Nanny, not Lilian, who patched up Sandy’s scrapes and bruises and dried his tears.

Lilian Irvine and her husband had already had two children, Hugh Colley and Evelyn Victoria, by the time they moved to Birkenhead from Liverpool. Sandy was the first of four sons to be born in Birkenhead. Kenneth Neville (born in 1906), Alexander Scott (Alec, born in 1911) and Thomas Thurston (known as Tur, born in 1913), would complete the family.


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