Saturday, April 30, 2011


Past the Bounds of Time POST 3

Lilian was a rigid, staunch woman, very Victorian in many ways. Children were to be tolerated and endured. Whenever her children got into scrapes, hugs were not given by Lilian but by nursemaids. Emotion was never, never to be shown in any outward or open way. Even deathbeds were, in the Irvine family, scenes of stoic fortitude; even then, emotion was absolutely forbidden.

Lilian possessed a cruel streak, one of which she seemed to be rather proud. She teased people mercilessly, especially children, and it didn’t matter if those children were her own or someone else’s. Julie Summers wrote in Fearless on Everest that nephews and nieces “found Uncle Willie and Aunt Lilian rather severe and did not like the way they made fun of children.” For this facet of her character to be so universally noted, Lilian must have had quite a habit of laughing at children. Sandy naturally didn’t escape this scathing teasing, and Julie Summers wrote that Lilian “was frequently frustrated by his mood swings and his oversensitive reaction to her teasing.” It’s difficult to imagine the sort of child who would or could welcome that kind of parental attention, much less imagine the sort of parent who could find their fun in constantly belittling children. Lilian firmly “maintained her physical and emotional distance” from all of her offspring, and Sandy would always be careful to inquire after her health before imparting his own news. The sort of woman, in other words, who always saw to it that she came first.

Willie Irvine was a social butterfly who loved to surround himself with his vivacious circle of friends. He seems to have, like his wife, regarded children as a necessary evil, but rather than disparage them as Lilian chose to do, he seems simply to have ignored them as much as possible. He has been called a “benevolent authoritarian,” and his visits to the nursery “were so infrequent as to be events of considerable note and worthy of comment.” He liked his children much better when they reached adolescence.

Willie frequently hosted dinner parties for eight or more, but he himself had an unnamed digestive problem from which Sandy also suffered, and for which Willie developed a certain fixed mealtime regime of custard, stewed apples, and a glass of whisky and soda. Since Willie lived well into his eighties, and since Sandy never followed any such set menu, it’s entirely possible that their ailment was nothing more than nerves. The atmosphere at Park Road South was a stifling, stultifying one, and it’s hardly surprising that more than one family member suffered from some form of digestive upset. Sandy and his father probably had ulcers.

Willie himself was raised in an environment of strict religious observance, which is at odds with the fact that his father, James, was an adventurer and wanderer at heart. Perhaps it was Willie’s mother, Edith Hickson Irvine, who first instilled these things in an Irvine household. Certainly, by the time Edith died, when Willie was only eleven, the ethics of puritanical religious adherence and suppressed emotions were firmly in place. As children generally do live what they learn, it’s perhaps not so surprising that Willie was so rigid an adult.

This would be mirrored years later, when Willie’s daughter Evelyn was on her deathbed. One of her brothers would be remembered as walking away with dry eyes, showing no emotion whatsoever. Grief over Sandy’s death must have been made all the greater by the fact that the siblings would have been counseled to keep any emotion tightly reined. Keeping a stiff upper lip in public is one thing; maintaining that kind of emotional enforcement in private is quite another.

Willie’s rigid puritanical attitude found its way into every aspect of his children’s lives. They were forbidden to make a single sound until after eight o’clock every morning. Evelyn, who in adulthood would be far stiffer than she’d been as a child and a teen, would forbid her own offspring to go out to play in the mornings until they had recited, from memory, a different Psalm each day. It’s entirely possible that she learned this routine from her own mother, and that it had gone hand in hand with the morning silence. Mistakes in recitation were not permitted; if one of Evelyn’s children made a mistake, the Psalm must be started again. Only after meeting these requirements could the children go out to play.

Willie and Lilian’s children dealt with their upbringing in vastly different ways. Hugh and Kenneth followed the path that society expected of them, going into the armed forces in World War I and becoming a brilliant medical doctor respectively.

Alec and Tur, the two youngest, lived intensely quiet, withdrawn lives. Alec only came out of his self-imposed shell of anonymity in the 1970s when Herbert Carr was writing The Irvine Diaries, contributing the brief tale of Sandy’s brief life that is included in the book. Several people accused him of “dining out on Uncle Sandy,” and he surfaced again only when Audrey Salkeld tracked him down to interview him for The Mystery of Mallory and Irvine in the 1980s.

Alec was certainly the most vocal of the siblings when it came to discussing Sandy, but that isn’t anything much to go by as the other siblings were utterly silent. A few pages of text from Alec was a thousand-page book compared to what the other siblings contributed. Alec’s natural reticence and desire for anonymity competed with his desire to tell Sandy’s story. This trait is distinctly Irvine, this need to close ranks and assume a position of silence, as I myself discovered.

Sandy Irvine became a public figure the moment he signed on for the 1924 Everest expedition (he himself knew that his expedition diaries were ultimately being written for publication, and he took great care to disguise certain people on the diary pages), and yet his family persist in the belief that they alone have any claim upon him. Any of their own number not authorized by the family to do so who speak of or write about Sandy are “dining out” on his memory. Alec, only thirteen when his brother died in Tibet, regarded Sandy with hero worship. He was fiercely protective of Sandy’s memory, to the point of lambasting others in defense of him, so to be accused of deliberately using Sandy’s name to garner money or acclaim must have been deeply hurtful to him. And in the end, the only effect this stoic silence has is to make one wonder precisely what it is the Irvine family are so desperate to hide, even at a remove of more than eighty years.

Despite the staunch emotional and religious strictures, the Irvine family was and is a tightly-knit unit. The circling of the wagons shows a need for mutual support and a level of fear, whether or not they ever admitted as much even to themselves. This is still reflected in the way their descendants shut out the world from their affairs. Emotional outpouring was forbidden, but was undoubtedly felt within each individual’s thoughts and prayers. They were, and are, reserved, cautious and remote from the world. The conflict between emotional remoteness and deeply felt familial unity is only one of many paradoxes that surfaced during my research. The Irvines were and are both collectively and individually complex and they are difficult to understand.

Sandy himself comes across as the proverbial black sheep of the family, a wild boy whose exploits have been deliberately hidden and whitewashed for decades. Herein lies the strong dichotomy that was Andrew Comyn Irvine. He was raised in a household that alternately ignored its children, mocked its children, and forced its children to obey inflexible rules. In family stories (the authorized ones, at any rate), Sandy is the happy-go-lucky child who romps gaily through one harmless adventure after another. The photographs of childhood outings tell a considerably different tale, for in them he is a stodgy, unsmiling little boy who looks very much as if he’d rather be somewhere else. Julie Summers saw something else in these photos: “At that age [five], Sandy was stocky, very blonde [sic] and had a solemn, thoughtful air about him….I rather suspect he and Evelyn cultivated this air for the benefit of their mother who was the chief photographer.” It’s unlikely that, at five years of age, Sandy was this clever. There’s no cultivated air here; there’s just a little boy who isn’t having any fun at all. If he’s doing anything at all for Lilian’s benefit, it’s staunchly holding in emotion, and with this photographic evidence in mind we can know that even when they were very small, the Irvine children followed this dictum.

Sandy is remembered in the official tales as a bounding child, ever springing hither and yon, yet the photographs give us a glimpse of a different reality. Only as an adolescent, only when he left home for school in the fall of 1916, did any of the effervescence begin to shine through. Only after the age of fourteen, when he was finally on his own and away from constant parental watchfulness, mockery and strictness, did he begin to blossom. Only then would be born the smiling Sandy of the later photographs, the grinning and slightly bemused Sandy of the Spitsbergen and Murren and Everest photographs.

Sandy spent most of his life in solitary pursuits, with few close friends (Geoffrey Milling and Antony Viscount Knebworth were among those few and were the two most frequently seen with him in photographs), and the only sibling with whom he had anything like a truly close relationship was his sister Evelyn. The family once claimed that he had bevies of girlfriends; I found evidence of only one, Flora Deacon. It’s true, however, that flocks of young women would, after his death, claim in print to have been his lover or even fiancée. One woman (the “gossipy girl” previously mentioned) wrote me and claimed that her mother had been Sandy’s child, but internal evidence within her correspondence easily disproved her claim.
Against the family’s claims of dozens of girlfriends we can turn again to photographic evidence, and there is no extant photograph of him with a girlfriend. I will deal with Marjory Summers later, but I will say here that she was most certainly not Sandy’s paramour, though I have no doubt that she wanted to be. (Nor is she the woman Sandy sketched in profile on his way to Norway in 1923 as Julie Summers claimed ; the sketch is unidentified—I have seen it myself—and could be any female, but I have very good reason to suspect that it is in fact the only known representation of Flora Deacon.) In pictures taken at functions, the woman Sandy is squiring is inevitably Evelyn. Sandy was characteristically coy, and kept the one girlfriend I have been able to verify a complete secret (though if her diary is anything to go by, there was a very good reason for this). This coyness would come back to haunt his family, as after his death claims were also made that he’d been a homosexual. The homosexual stories still circulate, specifically in relation to George Mallory’s well-known bisexuality.

Sandy and his siblings differed from one another widely, and the range in ages separated the six children into two groups, with Hugh, Evelyn and Sandy in the older group, and Kenneth, Alec and Tur in the younger. Hugh was reclusive to a degree, not really joining in with his siblings, and was fairly delicate and sickly for much of his life. Kenneth achieved fame and an Order of the British Empire for his central role in the creation of an anti-tuberculosis vaccine. Tur became involved in the church, and is listed on a family tree as “the Very Reverend.” Evelyn married and had children, though her choice of marital partner sent Sandy into fits of explosive and angry letter-writing from Tibet. He thought Dickie Summers (who was decidedly not, despite claims to the contrary, Sandy’s best friend) was beneath Evelyn’s station, and said so in no uncertain terms. He continued in this opinion to the day of his death. Dick was the stepson of the woman—Marjory—named by his granddaughter Julie as Sandy’s lover. That Sandy was so very conscious of social station is one reason among many to seriously doubt that he himself would have become involved with a married ex-chorus girl. That the married ex-chorus girl was the stepmother of the man he most definitely did not want marrying Evelyn is yet another reason for doubting the Marjory/Sandy story, however popular chorus-girl/wealthy nobleman romance novels may be.

Sandy was an intelligent, reserved man, and liked nothing better than to be left alone to tinker and to work out problems. He spent more hours secluded in his tent on Everest, tinkering with things mechanical, than he did socializing with his climbing mates. He was not unfriendly, but was remembered by members of the 1924 expedition as quiet and withdrawn. He had a laugh that proved disconcerting to some, as it was almost silent, his body shaking with mirth while very little sound escaped his lips. This was undoubtedly a result of his upbringing, this need to show happiness as silently as possible, and it’s highly likely that some of his siblings laughed in the same fashion. He rarely spoke on Everest, waiting instead to be drawn into conversation, which may have come from simple respect for his elders, as he was by far the youngest member of the 1924 Everest party, George Mallory’s junior by some sixteen years.

Sandy’s intelligence has been called into question more than once, and I believe this is a result of his intensely quiet manner. I held his physics notebooks in my hands in 1999, and they were written in ink, with no markings-out, hardly the work of an unintelligent boy. He was pursuing a degree in engineering when he died, and had in his lifetime applied for and nearly received two patents for modifications to weaponry, one a design he’d made for a contraption that would allow machine gunners to fire between the spinning propeller blades of a plane and the other a “gyroscopic stabilizer for aircraft.” In a colossal understatement, Julie Summers wrote that the War Office “had been sent many proposals during the course of the war but it was most unusual for such an accomplished design to be submitted by a fifteen-year-old schoolboy.”

Unintelligent, Sandy Irvine was most definitely not, though his own family, for some reason, seems to have thought him so. Julie Summers wrote that Sandy’s uncanny “ability to find solutions to problems was so wholly accepted within the family that no one considered his achievements as particularly remarkable.” This is a sad statement. No matter what he did, no matter how hard he tried or the accomplishments he made, it was never enough for his family. On Everest, when George Mallory wanted one last go at the summit, it’s quite easy to imagine Sandy being equally eager, if only as an unquestionable way to finally prove himself within the ranks of his own family.

George Mallory (himself no lightweight among intellects) famously remarked that Sandy was “sensible and not at all highly strung he’ll be one to depend on, for everything perhaps except conversation,” and this observation, according to Julie Summers, “has been used further to underline the fact that Sandy was inarticulate and lacking in intellectual strength.” (Why a quiet man should therefore be called inarticulate is uncertain.) She goes on to say that the “latter claim contains some truth” while the former would have been the result of shyness. His own family thought him unintelligent, and still does, despite having custody of boxes full of proof to the contrary, including his physics notebook and his designs for modifications to the oxygen apparatus used on Everest. Why this should be so is bewildering, unless they are once again attempting to hide some facet of his life for reasons of their own. One is left with the image of the stereotypical hulking blond idiot of 1950s beach movies, which is hardly a service to Sandy’s memory or achievements, and this is one image of the man that I wish to dispel.

The withdrawn shyness among his elders on Everest stands in marked contrast to the outspokenness of his personal correspondence. It also stands in contrast to the way he behaved when among his peers. Photographs of the older Sandy show him playing tennis, picnicking, hiking, skiing, or sitting atop castle walls (Harlech castle, specifically, whose outside he had just scaled in hard-soled shoes wearing woolen pants and a thick woolen jacket). Always, in these pictures, there’s a smile, wide and full. There’s a challenge in his clear eyes, a glinting glance that dares the observer to join in. This attitude is palpably apparent also in the Everest pictures, where even the drudgery of repairing broken or inoperative oxygen canisters couldn’t dampen the grin on his face. George Binney, with whom he went to Spitsbergen in 1923, remembered Sandy as “lion-hearted, stalwart, and laughter-loving.”


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