This fine book uncovers the stories of John Auden and Michael Spender, who, as Everest climbers and geologists, led lives quite as interesting though very different to those of their more famous older brothers.
Hooker was one of the great exploring botanists of his day, as well as a skillful geographer and cartographer. O’Brien, who runs the National Botanic Gardens at Kilmacurragh in County Wicklow, has followed Hooker’s journey of 1847 to the Himalayan botanical treasure-house that is Sikkim.
Based on Walter Benjamin’s own attempted escape over the Pyrenees, Mr B is a philosopher whose ideas have become unwelcome in his own country. When he tries to walk over the mountains to a better place, he will not be parted from his heavy suitcase which becomes, quite literally, a case for speculation – is it full of extraordinary ideas? Plans for a submarine? Or jam? As for Mr B, he vanishes… but is remembered, and read and thought about, ever after. Ages 4-6.
The author has been climbing mountains all his life, all over the world, and this extremely enjoyable account of his mountain-wanderings is based on sixty years’ worth of diaries, sedulously kept. Harding has led a full life as a soldier, administrator and lawyer, yet nevertheless has also managed to squeeze in numerous excursions to little-frequented parts of the world, mostly on foot and ski – Iran, Spain, Turkey, Greece, Yemen, Kenya, the Antipodes, Central Asia, Bhutan, Sikkim… Many of the places he visited are no longer accessible.
But this is no dull memoir of crampons and machismo: Harding’s is an eloquent, intelligent, modest, cultivated voice that not only makes his companionship delightful to the reader but makes the reader long for a sabbatical and the clear, rejuvenating thrill of high altitude. The fascination of place and excitement of adventure are quickened by his elegant prose.
He made his first expedition in 1956, while still a Cambridge undergraduate, to the Elburz range in Persia. Here’s an excerpt:
“Twenty breathless minutes later we emerged like Alice from the end of the tunnel to find ourselves in another world. Gone were the cloudless skies, the crystalline light, the searing heat, the parched earth, the dust devils, and boundless horizons of the Iranian Plateau. We had reached the ancient kingdom of Mazanderan where the Persian hero Rustum fought his epic battles; from whose forests Hyrcanian tigers were exported for gladiatorial combat in the circuses of Rome; and in whose mountain fastnesses Hasan-i-Sabah, the ‘Old Man of the Mountains’, founded the notorious sect of the Assassins. Everything was a luxuriant green and enveloped in mist. From far below came the deep boom-boom of a waterfall…”.
There is also an amiable foreword by Robin Hanbury-Tennyson.