Sunday, May 01, 2011


Past the Bounds of Time POST 5

Of English prep schools Mark Hichens wrote: “One schoolboy later wrote that at his Prep School corporal punishment was not so much a punishment as a way of life. Another from a distinguished family wrote that his parents might as well have had him educated at a brothel for flagellants.” It can only be hoped that Sandy did not have to deal with beatings at school along with emotional lashings at home.

In 1912, the magnificent luxury liner Titanic was scheduled to be launched out of Liverpool on her ultimately fatal maiden voyage, and the Irvine family, living as they did across the Mersey from Liverpool, must have been swept up in the excitement, even though the ship would eventually actually sail from Southampton. Willie Irvine may very well have taken his children to Southampton to see the ship launched. By the age of twelve, Sandy had developed a passionate interest in the sea, in boats and all things nautical, and his interest would later expand to building model boats out of spare materials he found lying around the family’s garage. It would continue into adolescence and adulthood when he pursued a rowing career. Titanic sank just days after Sandy’s tenth birthday, and cannot fail to have impacted his life in some fashion.

Sandy was eleven when, in February 1913, the world learned the fate of Robert Falcon Scott and his doomed Antarctic polar party. The frozen bodies of Scott, Birdie Bowers and Edward Wilson were found in their tent on November 12, 1912 (they had been dead for at least seven months), but because the Terra Nova had already sailed for New Zealand it was too late to alert anyone outside Antarctica of the tragedy. The ship was the only means of contact. By the time the story finally broke, it “was rendered even more piquant because Scott’s widow, Kathleen, was then sailing to New Zealand to be reunited, or so she thought, with her husband, unaware, as the newspapers were quick to point out, that she had been a widow for nearly a year. Neither was she aware of the great memorial service held in St Paul’s Cathedral on 14 February…” Two bodies were never recovered, those of Edgar Evans and Captain Oates. England descended into a paroxysm of grief, and the dead men became instant heroes. Ironically, a similar memorial service would be held for Sandy and George Mallory on October 17, 1924, at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Sandy, eleven in 1913, would have heard the tales, and would have believed, like most boys of the time, in Scott’s unquestioned heroism. He could never have guessed that his own death would prove to cause one last gasp of maudlin British romanticism.

Sandy went from Birkenhead Preparatory to the “Big School,” Birkenhead School in 1914. Willie had attended this school, and presumably all of his sons did as well. Before he started there, Sandy went for a vacation to Glasgow to visit his aunt Helen McNair, and while there ran straight into the now-burgeoning preparations for war.

The twelve year old treated his experience as something almost run of the mill, almost ordinary. (All punctuation, spelling and grammar have been left intact wherever I quote from his actual writings.) “I am having a splendid time one day we went fore an eight hour voyage down the Clyde and round Bute we saw on the Clyde…Cruisers and 15 Torpedo Destroyers being built,” he wrote, “and a Light Cruisers seemed to be garding the mouth; Bute was awfuly nice…We are going to have a game of golf after dinner. Everybody is telling you second or third hand about the Russians. Archy said his scoutmaster had told him he had seen them, it is a very good thing it was all true.” Archy was apparently a cousin. At the time, reliable people all over England were seeing Russian soldiers passing through on their way to war who were reported to have snow still clinging to their boots. It’s generally accepted today that the sightings were hoaxes, but Sandy was especially impressed with the stories. He wrote to Lilian, “Tell Sarah that everybody up here knows about the Russians.” His letter is decorated with drawings of battleships.

Incidentally, it was while on this vacation that his cousins dubbed him “Sandy,” a nickname resulting from his fair coloring and which he adored. He announced to his family that he wished to be known by this nickname alone. Julie Summers thought it “typical of him, even at that age, to seize upon something that appealed to him, to take it seriously…” She uses the phrase “at that age” a great deal, and always in connection with Sandy’s extreme seriousness. A twelve year old is hardly a child any longer, and for a twelve year old to attach to a nickname and demand to be known thereby is not surprising, and is in fact pretty typical of most pre-teens. What is typical of Sandy that is not so of most pre-teens is the seriousness. Apologies and excuses are made today by his family for Sandy’s repressed outlook, and blame is never laid upon his parents. The same uber-serious five year old who supposedly struck a pose for Lilian’s benefit is reflected quite sadly in the uber-serious twelve year old’s first timid bid at individuality.

Sandy attended Birkenhead School for a little over a year. Of his academic experience before his entry to this school, Julie Summers wrote: “He was not particularly academic and did not shine…” This assessment is for his performance between the ages of eight and twelve, and is a judgment of Sandy’s character (that he was not very bright) that is unfortunately still pervasive to this day. I believe that one reason for this, though certainly not the only one, is the desire to place blame on his shoulders for his own and George Mallory’s deaths in 1924. Criticism of George Mallory, then and now, is met with violent opposition, and has spawned more than one verbal war on internet forums. Ever the shining Galahad, Mallory can do no wrong. He himself, incidentally, would not have welcomed this fawning appraisal of his character.

While researching this book, I was left with the impression of three very different Sandy Irvines: the reserved and painfully quiet family son and Everest mountaineer, the devilish charmer who fell in love with a quite dangerous girl, and the athlete for whom the passion for sport was all-consuming. None of these include Sandy the Obtuse (if not outright stupid). He was diffident and inhibited among most company because that’s the way he was raised, forced to swallow every emotion stillborn (which likely resulted in his odd, silent laugh). He was, at times, far more comfortable inside his own skull than anywhere else.

Julie Summers wrote, of Sandy’s application to Magdalene College Oxford: “His academic record was found wanting….Even in the days when academic brilliance was not the only requirement for securing a place at the university, the Master, Sir Herbert Warren, felt unable to offer him a place.” Regarding that academic record, I was left with the feeling that Sandy was bored at school, unchallenged. I can only reiterate that the notes in his physics notebook are in ink, with no cross-outs, and are intensely neat and legible. Not the notebook of a dim or brainless youth. And Julie herself did admit, rather tellingly, that Sandy “had succeeded in passing his Higher Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics” for the Magdalene application. Hardly subjects that would be excelled at by the dim-witted, especially assuming “higher” means more difficult than a lower class on the subjects in question.

Of Birkenhead Prep which Sandy entered at eight, of his awareness that his parents wanted him to get high marks, Julie Summers wrote: “This led to him being insecure and sometimes worried that he was not good enough and he made a point of writing to his mother, when his place in the form order was announced, hoping that she was pleased with his performance.” The drive to please was already large, and one can only imagine the inner turmoil he experienced. Perhaps his stomach troubles began here. All children wish to please their parents, but Sandy worried, at just eight years of age, “that he wasn’t good enough.” Good enough for what, at eight years old? It’s not surprising that Sandy’s intellectual pursuits were carried out introspectively, within the privacy of his own mind where nobody could tease or laugh or punish.

I wondered whether he ever succeeded in gaining true self-confidence until I read Flora Deacon’s diary. With Flora, he was able to fully explore his thoughts and ideas with no fear whatever of ridicule. She appears to be one of a handful of people who accepted Sandy for himself, who did not demand that he perform to some unattainable standard, and as a result it’s not surprising that she knew Sandy’s “reams” very well indeed. The only other people who came across this way were Geoffrey Milling and Antony Viscount Knebworth. Significantly, all three of these people were in one way or another deliberately excised from Sandy’s life after his death. Geoffrey was literally deleted entirely from a photograph of he and Sandy at Spitsbergen (thus making Sandy’s arm, around which Geoffrey’s was casually draped, appear malformed in the currently circulated version of the photograph), and Tony Knebworth is credited by the family as “other” in photographs. Of Flora there remains only an unidentified sketch and the single letter “F.”

World War I, the Great War, began in 1914 when Sandy was twelve years old. The only mention Alec Irvine made of the outbreak of one of the most horrendous wars humanity has ever seen was that his father interrupted the children’s schoolroom dinner one evening with the words, “We shan’t be going to the Isle of Man, children. England is at war with Germany.” This isn’t surprising, really, when the Irvine hatred of emotions is taken into account. An announcement of war, a war which would leave Kenneth with a festering open wound that would never heal , could have been nothing but dry and detached, at least not in this particular family. This casual announcement, made to sound as if the family vacation had been deliberately spoiled by the British government, must have sounded strange even to the ears of the youngest of the siblings, who were eight, three and one at the time.

The Irvines had been to the Isle of Man before, in the summer of 1913. They’d gone yachting that summer, a typically upper-class Edwardian thing to do, and Sandy, at eleven, had made a passable wooden model of the yacht they’d used, the Genista. A friend of one of the maids helped him, and the little model yacht is still in existence today.

With the war at last officially begun, Lilian and Willie sent their three eldest children—Hugh, Evelyn and Sandy—to the Davies-Colley estate outside Chester. Newbold was then in the possession of Thomas Davies-Colley, Lilian’s bachelor brother, and the children were consigned to his care. All holidays for the Irvine children would be spent now with their Uncle Tom at Newbold where, Alec remembered, they were “ridden with a very light rein, being looked after mainly by the housekeeper and the groom.” Newbold “is a large brick mansion with a turreted tower at the front and a further, slightly lower octagonal tower at the back overlooking the gardens.” It was apparently part of a much larger estate, as Alec Irvine noted that it was “a large and imposing property on the family estate at Bruera…” Again, this was not a family living in anything other than wealthy, extremely comfortable conditions.

Tom Davies-Colley spent the week in Manchester and came home to Newbold on weekends. The children were left in the care of the servants, servants who, as employees of a bachelor, were unaccustomed to looking after children, never mind teenagers. Hugh was fifteen in 1914, Evelyn fourteen and Sandy twelve, and various cousins of all ages joined them at times. A houseful of emotionally repressed teenagers at last let free of the rigorous constraints of home could only have been an almost impossible situation for those servants.

For Sandy, the freedom was utter bliss. He had escaped the ever-watchful eyes of his strict parents, and was allowed by Newbold’s domestic staff and his bachelor uncle to roam freely and at will over the surrounding countryside. He took to the outdoors eagerly, and showed an affinity for climbing, although the climbing was mainly limited to “a scramble on the rocks…” Nonetheless, he was allowed to do pretty much as he pleased, and for the developing athlete the terrain provided endless challenges and possibilities. Climbing was a very big deal indeed in Britain then, and “scrambling” an accepted and highly-touted activity. The Alpine Club and, eventually, the Ladies Alpine Club, welcomed more and more members every year, and the scrambles over rocks that marked the beginning of every climber’s—or alpinist’s—career were duly noted in the Clubs’ annals. Members graduated rapidly to real Alpine climbing, with trips to Europe in search of fresh ascents to officially bag also duly noted. George Mallory was an exceptional scrambler and shared his adventures with close friends such as Geoffrey Winthrop Young, Cottie Sanders, and Geoffrey Keynes (brother of Maynard) who, as one of George’s early climbing partners, accompanied him frequently to Wales and the Lake District.

Edwardian children of all classes spent as much time as possible outdoors, even during wintertime, and their inventiveness was endless. Besides the classic game of kick-the-can, Sandy and his brothers would have smoothed some dirt to make a marbles pitch, fished, cycled and in general been very free little boys, at least while on holiday at Newbold. Newbold must have been absolutely intoxicating for the repressed Irvine children. Evelyn must have joined Sandy in his games, and when they were older it was Evelyn who tramped with him over hill and dale.

Jane Pettigrew wrote (quoting another author): “After they reached school-going age, the boys no longer played with the girls, but found themselves a separate pitch on which to play….Or they would hunt in couples along the hedgerows, shooting at birds with their catapults, climbing trees, or looking for birds’ nests, mushrooms, or chestnuts, according to the season.” Hugh, at fifteen, possessed a shotgun , so if the Irvine children and cousins went on bird-hunts there must have been an extra dimension of thrills for the boys and terror for the girls.

All of this activity wasn’t easy on clothing, and no doubt the nursemaids were very busy indeed with laundering and mending. Sandy, however, wasn’t actually terribly hard on clothing, something which shocked his mother. Lilian wrote to Hugh in 1914 that she was “busy turning up the cuffs of a new suit for Sandy. At last he has finished out your old garden suit. He has not done badly at all in clothes though he is such a smut.” This care for his possessions would be a trait of Sandy’s all his life, and although he was known for being disorderly and generally messy, he was never disorganized or careless. Flora Deacon wrote in despair in her diary that he was “always so meticulous with his intelligence, so careful to guard his thoughts, and such an impossible mess with his things.” Following his death on Everest, there was some discussion as to whether or not he and Mallory had been slipshod or neglectful with their supplies, thus leading to their deaths. Mallory was known for misplacing and losing crucial expedition equipment. Given Sandy’s repressed upbringing it makes sense that he would come to “guard his thoughts” so carefully, and perhaps even to hide his intelligence in a world that demanded a certain what-ho idiocy of its young men (Bertie Wooster springs to mind).

At Newbold, Sandy developed the beginnings of a lifelong love of tinkering. On Everest, his teammates remembered him constantly tinkering with one thing or another, be it trying to improve faulty oxygen canisters or creating new spikes for crampons (metal spikes that attach to boots to better grip rock and ice when climbing). This enthusiasm eventually led him to take up engineering as his subject at Merton College, and he was actively pursuing an engineering degree at the time of his death. At Newbold was a particular room that held Sandy’s interest, filled with “war regalia…telescopes and microscopes, gyroscopes and all sorts of other unidentifiable things with wires, wheels and whirring parts.” Sandy could usually be found somewhere among the shelves full of books in this room, reading away happily. When not reading the books, he was messing about with the gadgets and machinery.

This room had a counterpart in the house at Park Road South that opened off of the laundry. Sandy filled the room in Birkenhead with various inventions and drawings, and was fiercely protective of its sanctity. Only one other person, the laundress Mrs. Killan, was entrusted with the key. Sandy wrote anxiously to Lilian in 1914, probably from Newbold: “Tell Mrs. Killen…not to let anyone into my room…” One wonders what Lilian thought of these instructions, but for whatever reason Sandy’s treasured room was left alone. Willie would find bits of an oxygen apparatus in this room after Sandy’s death, so the room remained Sandy’s hideaway for much of his life. I would be willing to wager that it contained at least some of the notebooks in which he so feverishly scribbled his thoughts and ideas, if not the entire trunk.


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