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.”


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.


Past the Bounds of Time POST 1

Past the Bounds of Time: A Biography of Andrew Irvine
Copyright 1998-2011 by Salena Kay Odom Moffat

Brave heart at peace--youth’s splendour scarce begun
Far above earth encompassed by the sky
Thy joy to mount, the goal was all but won
God and the stars alone could see thee die.

Thou and thy comrade scaled the untrodden steep
Where none had ever ventured yet to climb
Wrapt in heroic dreams lie both asleep
Their souls still struggling upward past the bounds of time.

Till God’s clear clarion rends the last morn
Sleep on! We mourn not for ’tis God knows best
Then rise to greet the glad eternal dawn
Flooding with flame the peaks of Everest.
Freddie Prior, former master of Shrewsbury
Written in honor of Sandy Irvine, 1924

On May 16th, 1998, I fell hopelessly in love with a dead man.

All right, nothing that dramatic or gothic actually happened. But the fact remains that on that day I looked into a pair of eyes that had been dead for seventy-four years. And once I looked, I was hooked.

Earlier that day my husband and I had gone to see the now-famous IMAX film of the disastrous 1996 Everest expedition, showing at the Museum of Natural History in Denver. In the museum’s gift shop, I bought a paperback copy of Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, and I devoured half the book that day. Everest had claimed me, an ordinary wife and mom, and its hold was powerful.

I was blissfully unaware just how powerful that hold would prove to be.
I went to my local library the same day in search of more. I’d been particularly intrigued by Krakauer’s account of the 1924 Everest expedition on which Andrew “Sandy” Irvine and George Leigh Mallory had vanished. I’m a huge fan of the mysterious, and I was determined to read everything I could find about that ages-past disappearance.

“All I could find” turned out to be, to my immense surprise, precisely one book. And although that book, The Mystery of Mallory and Irvine by Tom Holzel and Audrey Salkeld, was wonderful, it was ultimately unsatisfying. It dealt mainly with the life of George Mallory, a colorful member of the Bloomsbury crowd that had put London on its ear in the 1920s.

Mallory was well known in the various sets in which he traveled. He was, by all accounts, a sensitive, poetic, talented man, friend, husband, and father. His reputation as a mountaineer and climber was generally a good one, though opinions on that score tended to vary widely among his contemporary peers. As with many historical personages, Mallory’s memory has today received a high gloss of varnish that would astonish even him.

Now, for those eyes I mentioned. Within the pages of the Holzel/Salkeld book was a black and white photograph of a dashing blond man with haunting eyes that grabbed me and haven’t let me go. They belonged to Sandy Irvine, the man with whom George Mallory died.

And Everest’s hold tightened.

I burrowed further into various library catalogues and databases, eagerly searching for more about the doomed 1924 expedition. And I found…
…precisely one other book, The Irvine Diaries by Herbert Carr. It wasn’t a biography, but rather consisted in the main of transcriptions of Sandy’s Everest diary. A brief account of his life by his much-younger brother Alec was included. Rather than satisfying me, this slim 1970s-era book just left me wanting more.
I found myself only further intrigued, my usual response to being thwarted. Sandy Irvine’s story was clouded, hidden, and therefore, to me, a challenge. I wondered why, where George Mallory had several published biographies of his life, Sandy had, at the time, nothing. The Everest literature generally included his name, naturally, but not much else.

I quickly realized that the only way I’d ever know more about Sandy’s life was if I dug in and researched him myself. Sometime in the first two weeks of June 1998, I decided to write what would be the first in-depth biography of him. After all, I reasoned, no one had cared enough about Sandy’s life in the seventy-four years since his death to write a full-length biography. Why not me?

Everest’s hold was now permanent.

I wrote dozens of letters around the world and received gratifying responses. I was put in touch with Audrey Salkeld, who was encouragement personified. Her e-mails were full of information and support.

Audrey advised me to write to a woman called Julie Steele (she uses “Julie Summers” as her professional name when writing, and in the pages that follow I will use “Summers” when referencing her printed work, and “Steele” when referring to her personally). Julie, it transpired, was Sandy Irvine’s great-niece, the granddaughter of his sister Evelyn. I liked her immediately from her friendly e-mails, and she seemed eager to help me with my book.

By this time, 1998 was drawing to a close. My research went on apace, and I was deeply steeped in Everestiana. However, I would still need the family’s help for information regarding Sandy’s short life. Since his death in 1924 at the age of twenty-two, his family had closed ranks around their famous relation, and very little substantial information was allowed out. This only served to deepen the mysteriousness of it all, making Sandy a reclusively romantic figure, and making any would-be biographer’s job a maddeningly tough one.

It should have served not as a warning bell but as a warning claxon.

Julie promised all the help she could, and graciously asked family members to speak with me.

And then, in February 1999, Julie phoned me and told me I absolutely had to get to England in March. Much was happening. An expedition specifically to find the bodies of Sandy Irvine and George Mallory was to be attempted that spring. It would mark the 75th anniversary of the 1924 tragedy. A conference was to be held at Shrewsbury School on March 12th, a school Sandy had attended as a teenager, to which several important people were invited. The list of invitees included, much to my gratification, my own name.

I was genuinely glad to be invited to this conference. It gave me a thrill to read, in a warm e-mail from Stephen Holroyd, one of Shrewsbury’s housemasters, my name on the itinerary as “Biographer of Sandy Irvine.” As Audrey said in her e-mail urging me to find a way to get to England, “Exciting times, eh?” For an ordinary wife and mom, and an American at that, who’d set her sights on rather extraordinary things, they were “exciting times” indeed!

I managed to arrange the trip, and landed at Gatwick airport on March 10th full of excitement. Julie picked me up at the train station near her home and installed me in her warm, comfortable house for the next six days. I was in England, the first time I’d ever set foot in a foreign country other than Canada.
The days flew by. Julie was a generous, gracious hostess, and I felt very much a part of the family. I even bonded with her three delightful young sons, and learned more about Nintendo than I’d thought possible.

The conference at Shrewsbury was nothing less than magical. The school, with its mellow red brick buildings, is set among rolling hills on the Severn River. You can see into Wales from Shrewsbury’s riverbanks.

At the conference, I finally met Audrey face to face and was quite enchanted by her. She had a great deal of energy and enthusiasm, albeit masked beneath a quiet and unassuming demeanor. I also met Peter Firstbrook of the BBC, and Graham Hoyland, who were to be part of the planned spring expedition. Sandy’s life was discussed in detail, and Stephen Holroyd proudly displayed the school’s collection of photographs of Sandy.

Audrey gave me photocopies of most of the material she possessed regarding Sandy, and to this collection would be added photocopies from a visit to the Alpine Club library and the Royal Geographical Society. I accumulated reams of documents, and Julie herself added to the mounting pile with photos of Sandy and copies of a great many of his letters. She even made me some business cards, something I had never even thought of doing.

A highlight of my trip was the visit to Merton College, Oxford, the college Sandy had been attending before his death. Julie and I visited the library there, and Sandy’s journals and diaries were laid before me at a timeworn table. With the mandatory white gloves on my hands, I flipped through the penciled pages, and for hours was lost in his account of his Everest experience.

At Merton College, in an intensely quiet, secluded little courtyard, stands a stone monument to Sandy’s memory. It was twilight when we sought out this memorial, and the air was clear, crisp and cool.

The monument is inaccessible without walking across the grass, and the grass itself is lush, soft, and springs beneath your feet as you approach the marker. It’s tall, this marker, and crowned with a carved stone flame. Ancient windows frame the courtyard, and trees and bushes deepen the feeling of seclusion. Hushed and withdrawn from the world, this small spot doesn’t really reflect the type of person Sandy Irvine was. Only the flame captures the essence of his spirit that the cloistered spot fails to honor.

Departure time eventually came. Before I left, Julie announced that the family considered me to be Sandy’s official biographer. Her father, whom I’d interviewed on tape, told me the family had every confidence in me before he hugged me goodbye.
After my return to the States, I was contacted by the PBS television show NOVA. The expedition in search of Sandy and Mallory’s bodies was on the mountain. NOVA wanted me to be “on call” for an interview should Sandy’s body be found.

Work on the book was going smoothly. Mountaineer’s Books in Seattle expressed interest.

And then Mallory’s body was found, and my world came crashing down.

The blow fell with a single phone call from Julie. Sandy’s relatives were upset (to put it extremely mildly) over the way the discovery of Mallory’s body had been handled. They had no desire for Sandy’s body, should it be found, to receive the same intense publicity Mallory had received. Julie told me that the family had decided she would be the only one writing any biography, and that she thought a phone call would be better than simply telling me, and I quote, “to fuck off.” To this day, I am uncertain what one has to do with the other—did the family assume I would desecrate Sandy’s body with my biography? Did they think that I was somehow going to publish pictures of Sandy’s dead body (never mind that as of this writing—April 2011, over a decade after Mallory’s body was found—Sandy has not been found let alone photographed), as had been done in British tabloids with Mallory’s? And, regardless, what had happened to the family who had welcomed me with open arms and seen me off at the station with a hug? It was baffling behavior.

To add insult to injury, a friend told me in an e-mail in July 2002 that if she remembered aright “Nicholas Hellen [a reporter for the London Sunday Times] had been going to co-write the biography with Julie Summers.” Nicholas Hellen had, just six days prior to this e-mail, e-mailed me himself without a single hint that he and Julie had possibly been undermining me all along. I had by this time e-mailed Julie and told her that I had some interesting new information; I had heard unconfirmed rumors that Sandy had fathered a love-child, and a woman claiming to be his granddaughter had contacted me. (I did not reveal another and far more astonishing piece of information that had by then fallen into my hands regarding Sandy’s love life.) In her reply, Julie told me that there was a “journalist in London who would love to talk to your gossipy girl about being Sandy’s granddaughter. Can I put him in touch with you via email? He’s been chasing this story for months. Lots of love, Julie.” I of course told her yes, and then e-mailed Hellen. The possibility that Julie (“lots of love”) was baiting me for information is galling.

In retrospect, knowing what I now know about Nicholas Hellen, I am extremely grateful that I did not, in the end, give him any information at all. He stopped e-mailing me, and I did not—luckily for me—pursue it. Hellen attempted to blackmail a London-based blogger—via e-mail, of all things—in August 2006. The blogger, whom I will continue to refer to as Abby Lee (her chosen nom de plume, though Hellen did in fact publish her real identity), writes a blog called “Girl With a One-Track Mind.” She valued her anonymity, especially considering the subject matter of her well-written blog. He told Ms. Lee that he possessed unflattering photos of her, that he knew her mother’s place of residence and profession, and that he would publish his article outing her true name unless she agreed to a photo-shoot and interview. She reacted by posting his e-mail on her blog for the world to see, and the whole thing unleashed a firestorm that continues to some degree today. The blogging community saw to it that when the name “Nicholas Hellen” is placed into the Google search bar, the first things that come up still are all articles dealing with his attempted blackmail of Ms. Lee.

Hellen has been called a “glorified royal correspondent” who “enjoys tormenting junior staff, screaming down the phone and trying to cover up his own errors by blaming others.” Blogger Madame Arcati wrote of Hellen that people “who deal with him describe him variously as a ‘psychopath’ or a ‘loony’, a ‘bully’ or just ‘a plain nasty piece of work’.” This is the man who may very well have been given a large role in Julie Steele’s biography in a collaboration that could easily have begun while I was staying under Julie’s roof. How Nicholas Hellen, a man of whom Madame Arcati said that “there can be few people so morally unpleasant and self-seeking,” would have better handled Sandy’s body in a biography than I would have is another thing that remains unclear to me.

It’s been twelve years since then, and though I am thanked in Julie’s book, Fearless on Everest, in the last paragraph but one on the last page of acknowledgments, I must admit that the experience was a bitter blow that left deep wounds.
Audrey urged me, after I sent her a despairing e-mail, to write my book anyway. The time has come, more than a decade on, to acknowledge Everest’s hold on me. To acknowledge Sandy’s hold on me. I’m only sorry that it’s taken me so long to follow Audrey’s sound advice.

An additional spur to finishing the book I’d begun was my receipt, in 2001, of a diary purportedly written by Sandy’s girlfriend, a girl named Flora Louise Deacon. This is the piece of rather explosive material I did not reveal to Julie Steele or Nicholas Hellen. Three years before this unlooked-for information had been sent to me, I had been unceremoniously fired by phone, and therefore owed the Irvine family nothing further. To Nicholas Hellen, I had never owed anything in the first place. The diary was sent to me by one of Flora Deacon’s relatives, and proved to contain a wealth of information. The girl writing the journal had known Sandy Irvine, that much became very clear as I read her words. Could I trust that she was who she claimed to be, Sandy’s only love? Weighing the diary in one side of the balance, and what I knew of Sandy’s life and character in the other, I came to the conclusion that the diary was in all likelihood quite genuine. There is not one word in it that doesn’t meld perfectly with what is known of Andrew Irvine.


Past the Bounds of Time

I am going to begin posting bits of my unpublished biography of Andrew "Sandy" Irvine who disappeared on Everest in 1924. I welcome any comments! The original manuscript is heavily footnoted with extensive references, and if anyone would like a specific reference please feel free to post a comment requesting the information. ALL MATERIAL IS COPYRIGHT 2011 by SALENA KAY ODOM MOFFAT.

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