The Mystery of Sandy Irvine

Sandy aged 21 photographed for the Oxford University 1923 Blue Boat

96 years ago, today, 8th June 1924, my great uncle stepped into the pages of history. He was the nd’Irvine of the greatest mountaineering mystery of all times, the junior climbing partner of the great George Mallory. From the moment of their disappearance, somewhere close to the loftiest spot on earth, Mallory and Irvine’s names have been inextricably linked. The question everyone wants to know is this: were Mallory and Irvine the first men to stand on the summit of Mount Everest, 29 years before Hilary and Tenzing?

Two decades ago, I published a biography of Uncle Sandy, as he was always known in our family. It caused a little stir at the time and added yet one more book to the more than 1,000 written about Mount Everest since the 1920s. Sandy was only 22 when he died, Mallory 37. Sandy had had little mountaineering experience while Mallory was judged to be one of the best rock climbers of his generation. All the odds were against Sandy Irvine being an equal partner to Mallory. Yet I found evidence in letters, which had been hiding in a trunk in the attic of a house in North Wales for three quarters of a century, that Mallory had selected Sandy as his climbing partner as early as mid-April 1924. He wrote to his mother on 24th:

I have provisionally been chosen to do the first oxygen climb with Mallory.  Norton & Somervell doing Non ox. on same day.  It will be great fun if we all 4 get to the top at the same time!  I say provisionally because I don’t know that I will be fit at 26,500 ft yet (our kicking off camp). The weather has behaved in a most peculiar manner so far – no one knows if it is a good sign or not.

Prior to this, mountaineering historians had offered a variety of views as to why Mallory chose Irvine, some suggesting it was a physical attraction. I was always of the opinion that Mallory had accepted that it was necessary to use oxygen for the last 3,000 feet of the climb, based on the experience of the 1922 expedition. Sandy, who was a technical whiz when it came to fixing the oxygen sets, was the obvious person to take along if he proved himself at altitude. Mallory had good reason to think he would, as he had shown he was as strong as an ox on the trek and had performed well on the high passes in Tibet. The other thing that Mallory understood was that Sandy, as a top-class rower, would have the courage to push himself to his physical limit. It was a good combination.

Mallory (left) and Sandy Irvine leaving Camp IV on 6 June 1924. It was taken by Noel Odell as they made the final tweaks to their kit. c. Royal Geographical Society

So off they went, on 6th June 1924, to Camp V and the following day to Camp VI, their high camp, which in reality was a tiny two man tent which Sandy instantly turned into a makeshift workshop to prepare the oxygen apparatus for their early start the next day. We will never know for sure what happened when they left their tent but Noel Odell, climbing in support and one camp behind, spotted what he believed was a tiny figure climbing over a patch of white snow just a few hundred feet below the summit. He watched and saw a second figure joining the first. Then the summit was enveloped in cloud and when it lifted 15 minutes later there was no sign of the two climbers. They had disappeared from view.

From that day onwards people have thought, written, argued about what happened and how far they got. Some believe they made it to the summit and died on the descent, others are sure they were thwarted by the Second Step, a steep rock face that now has a ladder attached to it for easier passage. In May 1999, George Mallory’s frozen body was found in the snow some 1,500 metres below the summit. He had taken a fall, broken his ankle and cut his forehead. The discovery of notes in his pocket, a watch (broken), altimeter (broken) and other objects threw no light on the question of whether they got to the top or not. In fact, it raised more questions than it answered.

Sandy’s pressure kettle, designed so he could have a hot cup of tea. It was one of the few objects that came back from the mountain without him.

In four years’ time it will be the 100th anniversary of their climb and disappearance. Surely there will not be anyone still interested in their story. When I wrote my book in 1999, I was able to meet three people who had known Sandy Irvine, but they are all long dead. We have no more information now than we had after Mallory’s body was found. Yet still this mystery – British mountaineering’s greatest – continues to fascinate people. There have been no fewer than a dozen expeditions in the last 20 years which have set out with the express aim of finding Sandy’s body and answering the question for once and for all. None has succeeded.

Recently a young filmmaker, Archie Price Siddiqui, made an eight minute film about the last climb of Mallory and Irvine. It is a very accomplished piece of work and I thought I would share it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p0G-RVEnT-E&feature=youtu.be. What it proved to me, if indeed I needed convincing, is that the mystery continues to fascinate people.

This was sent back to my grandmother, Sandy’s sister, in 1933. In this scrap of cloth she found 20 Himalayan garnets. It was a present from Karma Paul, the translator on the expedition who had had the most to do with Sandy while dealing with the porters on the trek.

I’m going to stick my neck out here and say that I think the reason why the question of whether Mallory and Irvine made it to the top of Mount Everest in 1924 still intrigues us is because we love stories and better still, we love mysteries. Some people have tried to explain it away as a celebration of glorious British failure but, frankly, I think that is rubbish. Their deaths came six years after the end of the bloodiest war in history. There was little appetite for glorious failure in Britain in 1924. Believe me, I’ve spent the last six months writing about it for the Royal British Legion. No, this is all about mystery and storytelling. When people ask me if I want Sandy’s body found so we will finally know whether they were the first men to stand on the summit of the earth I say: ‘No. It’s a mystery. Let us leave it at that.’

The Cost of War

Soldiers in Wrexham

Today is Friday 8 May 2020, the 75th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe. Seventy-five years ago today the costliest war in history was finally drawing to a close, though its end would not come until 15 August 1945 when the Japanese Imperial Army surrendered unconditionally. Costliest in terms of lives – historians estimate 60 million men, women and children, military and civilian, lost their lives. A generation of children had grown up knowing nothing but war as the backdrop to their lives. In Britain, those children at least had more or less enough to eat. In Nazi-occupied Europe whole families were starving while further afield the famine in Bengal cost the lives of 3 million people. Costliest in terms of economic damage – Britain was almost bankrupt as a result of the war. And costliest in terms of its impact on society. Hitler had boasted the German Reich would last for 1,000 years. It went on for 12 long, destructive years but the impact of it has lasted for eight decades and it will go on for many more.

Soldiers from Jamaica

Today we have been celebrating and commemorating those brave men and women who fought for Britain abroad and on the Home Front. We have heard extraordinary stories from veterans, like the Jamaican, Alan Wilmot who flew with air-sea rescue, saving up to 17,000 lives, or Donald Hunter who sailed with the Merchant Navy from the age of 16. There have been tributes from people who were children at the end of the war. Everyone spoke with warmth of their memories of that special day, but few mentioned what had happened after VE Day was over.

The morning of 9th May 1945 was another bank holiday. Britain woke up with a national hangover and probably a few sore heads too. Barbara Cartland, then 44 years of age, summed up the feelings of many of her generation:

‘We were glad, but still our hearts refused to sing, the shadow of war still lay over us in a restriction of freedom, in controls and coupons. We had only to look at our empty larders, empty store cupboards and half empty coal cellars to know war had not receded very far from our daily lives. To practically everyone in Great Britain the war had brought the loss of someone they loved – either man, woman or child – and for many there were crippled bodies or blinded eyes as a legacy from the nights of terror and fire.’

Barbara Cartland The Years of Opportunity 1939-1945
Dame Barbara Cartland in ATS uniform, c. 1942

Twelve years ago I wrote a book called Stranger in the House that looked at the impact of returning servicemen and women on life at home. It was at times a heart-breaking book to research and I wrote several of the stories weeping onto my keyboard. I know that it affects readers too: my friend John wrote to me only this week to say that he has never cried so many times over a book as over that one. Am I sorry? No, not really. These are human stories that needed to be told. We have to understand the cost of war. It is not possible to gloss over the inconvenient truths, the ugly aspect of readjusting to life after war and to imagine that all the veterans are great heroes who shrugged off the impact of what they did and saw. They did not. They could not. Some will never be able to stop the memories coming back. And that applies to young men and women who in the more recent past have taken up arms on behalf of Britain in conflicts all over the world. They cannot be unaffected by what they witness.

At the moment I am writing a book for the Royal British Legion’s centenary in 2021. Once again, I am reminded of the enormous cost of war and the extraordinary efforts that people go to in order to try and alleviate the pain and distress returning service personnel and their families suffer. The story of the Legion is the story of our country’s twentieth and now twenty-first century wars and the impact they have had on our society. The Legion helped to shape Remembrance, it is a peaceful, peace loving organisation and it has a most generous welfare programme. It has fought for pensions, disability rights and widows’ allowances for 99 years and it is not going to be giving up any time soon.

As I work through the research I am reminded, daily, of the terrible situations faced by men coming home from the First World War. 2,300,000 ex-service personnel returned injured or disabled to a Britain that was suffering from an economic decline, that did not have the jobs, housing or welfare for them. The Legion had an enormous job on its hands to help those affected by the war, including hundreds of thousands of widows, orphaned children, the sick, disabled and unemployed. But it set about the task with impressive energy and focus. The Legion changed many things over the first twenty years of its existence and one of those was the way returning men were treated. By 1945 there was a better, more humane system in place. But even they cannot make the nightmares, the feelings of dislocation and the difficulties of settling down as a family go away. That has, eventually, to come from the individuals and their families.

In my most recent book, Dressed for War, the emphasis was on Audrey Withers’ life and on her energy and courage during the darkest days of the 1940s. Yet even in that book there is a major casualty of war. Her star photojournalist, the brilliant, brave and tireless Lee Miller, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder in the post-war era. She never really recovered her equilibrium. She was one of thousands who suffered, many silently, from the impact of their wartime experiences.

So, without wanting to throw a bucket of cold water on the celebrations around VE 75, I just think it is worth remembering that war has a far-reaching impact on everyone involved.

Coping in a Crisis

Several people have asked me what Audrey Withers’ reaction to the current crisis would have been. I have thought about it a lot and it occurred to me that it might be interesting to compare 1940 and 2020.

Fashion is Indestructible by Cecil Beaton, June 1941 © Conde Nast Publications Ltd

At the beginning of the Second World War the government closed down the country. It banned all public gatherings, sporting events and race meetings. Theatres and cinemas were ordered to close and no group meetings of more than 100 people were permitted anywhere except at church. Does this sound familiar? The introduction of petrol rationing from midnight on the day war was declared and the blackout altered people’s lives even more directly. The shutdown lasted for just twelve days but it had the effect of changing people’s behaviour, the way they thought about being at war – even though the war proper did not affect them until the spring of the following year – and it changed the way people moved around.

Now, in 2020, we are in equally uncertain times but on this occasion we are not terrified of air raid or gas attacks but of an invisible virus. The government is not only protecting its citizens but our wonderful, precious but horribly overstretched NHS.

So what would Audrey have done? The answer depends of course on what period of her life we are going to imagine in this hypothetical situation. Let’s place her in London at the beginning of the Blitz, days after she has been named as editor of Vogue, when nightly air raids and daily warnings disrupted life in so many ways. Audrey wrote an article about living under those conditions for American Vogue. She described how every night she and her editorial and art staff packed up a large laundry basket with all their ‘treasures’ and every morning the basket was unpacked and work began again. ‘If the siren goes work goes on until the alarm warns that planes are overhead or that guns are firing with the result that we now take shelter less frequently but more rapidly.’

I find in here a hint of how in the very early days of the Blitz there had been a touch of panic but by early October, when she wrote this article, she had got used to the bombing.

We grab work and paraphernalia, descend six flights of stone stairs to the basement. We look as if we are going on a peculiar picnic: coats slung around our shoulders; attaché- cases with proofs, photographs, layouts, copy, mixed up with gas- masks, sandwiches and knitting. The Art Department men carry under one arm a stack of drawings and layouts; and under the other, a stirrup pump, a pick axe or a shovel. It’s a peculiar picnic all right.

Audrey working in the bomb cellar of One New Bond Street in October 1940. As usual, she was wearing a hat.

She described how they greeted each other every morning with ‘what kind of night did you have?’ and how gallows humour soon emerged and kept them sane even when the news was grim. ‘A feeble joke makes us laugh, and we’re glad of the chance to laugh at anything; and on the other hand, you get oddly insensitive and callous, and are amused by incidents that normally you would have found macabre.’ She concluded the article by saying that they lived day by day, not looking too far ahead but always trying to be organised and practical.

It would be wrong to paint Audrey as instinctively brave. She was not courageous like her fearless photo-journalist, Lee Miller, but she became brave through sheer hard work and a determination to keep going under any circumstances and she was organised. Another aspect of her personality was her deep and furious dislike of cheating of any sort. She railed against people who bribed shopkeepers to give them a little bit extra over the ration and she despaired about Vogue readers who cheated with their clothing coupons. I suspect she would have had something to say about panic buying and, worse still, the scalpers who clean out supermarket shelves and then offer the products for sale at a higher cost. Spivs are what those people were called during the war and Audrey despised them.

She was a caring person and I am sure that she would have worried about people being lonely and cut off. There was no compulsory self-isolation during the war but petrol rationing had more or less the same effect for people living in the countryside. Her parents, both in their seventies, had been socially active in the nineteen twenties and thirties. By 1940 they were living on the edge of a small village outside Banbury seeing almost nobody week in, week out. They were lonely and depressed by her father’s ill health. Audrey and her sister, Monica, tried to ensure they had visits or letters as often as circumstances permitted.

As we are today, so Audrey was overwhelmed by government advice. During the war it was called propaganda and it was sometimes issued three or four times a day. The Board of Trade published nearly 200 notices in one year on the subject of women’s underwear alone. The ministries of food, agriculture, health and so on were equally busy bombarding editors with information. Audrey had to decide what to publish in Vogue, a monthly magazine, and what could be ignored as it had already been dealt with by the daily press.

By the end of 1940, when London had been bombed for 56 nights consecutively, Audrey could be proud that she had managed to get the October, November and December editions of her magazine out almost on time. November had been two days late and December just one. One of her staff, Audrey Stanley, wrote to Condé Nast describing how they had coped during those difficult months:

We went through such a transitional stage and we did not know exactly what to strive for as everything was so precarious and atmosphere and feeling was as fickle as the wind, but now I really think a comprehensive pattern has come out of it all. Audrey Withers is a remarkable person. She has such balance and tact and we all admire her enormously as being editor just now must be a difficult job.

Audrey Withers by Cecil Parkinson, 1944 © Norman Parkinson Archive

As the war went on, Audrey became more confident in her role as editor and more impressive in the way she coped with the pressure. In 1944 the President of the Board of Trade, Hugh Dalton, described her as the most powerful woman in London.

If we can take a message from Audrey’s strategy for coping in difficult circumstances I suggest it would be to keep calm and play fair. And, if you fancy, wear a hat.

Audrey’s Miniature Wardrobe for Today’s World

Now that Audrey is launched in Dressed for War she is public property. People have begun to contact me to tell me things about her which of course I wished I had known when I was writing the book. That always happens, though, so I have given up getting paranoid about missing out on every last gem. However, people have also been talking to me about how relevant they find Audrey’s attitude towards clothes rationing and how it rings a bell for today’s concerns about excess consumption and waste.

Last week I was thrilled to find a copy of the September 1943 edition of British Vogue with its stand-out beautiful cover and fascinating articles by Cecil Beaton, Lesley Blanch and Lee Miller. Audrey’s editorial for that edition was entitled Miniature Wardrobe. ‘Wardrobes are shrinking fast,’ she wrote, ‘and the smaller they get the more perfect they have to be.’ That autumn she would tell the New York editor of Vogue that she had in her personal wardrobe three suits, which she varied with blouses and accessories, one cashmere dress for dining out and two pairs of ‘slacks’ which she wore with baggy jumpers at weekends. She concluded her editorial: ‘In a miniature wardrobe – as in a small circle of friends – versatility is to be prized and bores not admitted.’ Coming a year after the introduction of Utility clothing and Austerity design it is clear to me that Audrey and her fashion editors were trying to encourage an upbeat message in straitened circumstances.

Audrey’s editorial in Sept 1943 Vogue

For Audrey Withers and her generation, recycling, making-do and mending, refashioning clothes and eking out the last few months of an old suit was part of their every day after clothes rationing was introduced in June 1941. In fact, before that date there had been a ban on the sale of silk stockings and all sorts of clothing was in short supply as a result of the bombing of factories. In comparison to a human life, clothing must have seemed unimportant. Yet it was not dispensable. At the most basic level, people had to keep warm. Children needed clothes and shoes to go to school. Men and women had to be dressed to go to work, whether in factories, in secretarial offices or indeed in the editor’s office of the most prestigious fashion magazine. The government understood that clothing was also important for morale. That is one of the reasons why they allowed the women’s magazines to continue to publish, albeit with a reduced quantity of paper.

Today, in Britain at least, we are not in the position of having to limit our wardrobes because of clothes rationing. We live in an altogether different time. A time of plenty which is running into an era of excess. Perhaps we can learn lessons from Audrey Withers. Barbara Guarducci and Saskia Terzani certainly seemed to think so when I met them via Skype in the autumn of 2019. They founded Mending for Good ‘to provide ethical solutions for fashion waste.’ When I met Barbara in London in November, she and I quickly found that we had the same anxiety about the vast excess that fashion creates. My concern came from having spent six years writing about wartime clothing, hers from a lifetime’s experience of the fashion industry but we met at the same point: we have to declare war on overproduction and waste. We are living beyond our means in terms of our impact on the environment and we have to change the culture that permits over-consumption.

Barbara, Saskia and I decided to team up to help launch Mending for Good at the same time as we launched Audrey in Dressed for War. The themes seemed to align so well. Then came the suggestion to produce a series of embroideries of Audrey’s phrases that she used in Vogue to exhort readers to think about their clothes. Taken on their face value they seem to have as much relevance today as they did eighty years ago: Wage War Against Waste, Quality Rather than Quantity, but also the more reassuring: You Cannot Ration Style or Relax and Mend.

Mending for Good works with the London College of Fashion’s vocational training and ethical manufacturing initiative. That sounds a bit of a mouthful but it is a wonderful undertaking that gives employment opportunities women in socially frail and challenging circumstances. We commissioned a group of women in HMP/YOI Downview Prison to create 100 embroideries with eight different messages. We gave them away to guests at the book launch and they proved so popular that I have only the original eight examples left.

Four of the embroideries created by women from HMP/YOI Downview 2020

I know Audrey would have approved of this initiative on so many levels. After the war she strove hard to make people – young women in particular – think about the fashion industry as a career that could help to make a difference. She ran a competition in Vogue from 1945 to get this message across. Today the London College of Fashion’s Making for Change initiative and my friends at Mending for Good are both trying to help change the way people think about fashion production. That is a wonderful thing.
I believe Audrey’s wartime campaign to encourage women to think responsibly but creatively about fashion can find echoes in today’s world.

Setting Audrey Free

There is a moment in a book’s life when it is no longer the personal, much-loved friend it was during research, writing and editing. This is when it goes to print and the powerful machine of publicity grinds into action. It might seem strange to express a book’s publication thus but it is something I and other writers have experienced. As the novelist, Diane Setterfield, said recently: ‘You care about your book. You love it deeply but it does not love you back. It would eat you alive if it needed to.’ I know exactly what she means. A book develops a life of its own. It goes out into the world as a published hardcover: Dressed for War will have an existence far beyond my desk – in bookshops, on shelves in libraries and private homes, as a second-hand ex-review copy on Amazon. It might be well reviewed. It might get a hostile reception – I have had experience of both – but it is out of my hands.

My desk on 7 January 2019 with notebooks, my favourite pen and Audrey to inspire me.

When I started writing Audrey Withers’ autobiography on 7 January 2019 I was still in that blissful state of privacy and intimacy with my subject. For three months it was just me and the material in my little office at the top of my home in Oxford. I watched the garden wake up from its winter slumbers as I wrote about Lee Miller and Cecil Beaton. I heard the first cuckoo of the year as I was describing the heart-breaking moment when Audrey’s beloved father, Percy, died. And I had my first glass of wine in the greenhouse the day I wrote the last sentence of the first draft. Eleven and a half months later I sent off the final proofs and the lovely picture section for the last time, having read the book sixteen times in draft and proof form.

A spread from Vogue, June 1957 by William Klein © The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

I shared all the writing stages in my quarterly blogs and as each one was finished, I experienced a different emotional reaction: relief at first, panic when the deadline was brought forward by six weeks, grief when the third proofs went off and now anxiety. At the end of this coming week the printers will run off the first copies. Of course I am excited about it but I am also nervous and there is so much still to do. As an author I have to work flat out with publicists and marketing people to make sure the book is noticed. And believe me, it really does matter.

I have my own publicist, Richard Leon, who works alongside the excellent team at Simon & Schuster led by Becky and Rich. Together they have cooked up a publicity and marketing plan that involves every possible media platform you can name and some that I cannot. I have been booked to speak at a dozen literary festivals already and there are bound to be more to come. I hope we might get some radio coverage and perhaps even a little bit of TV. This all sounds glamorous but it is hard work. We have been planning and talking about how to ensure Dressed for War gets a good start since October 2018, which is three months before I typed the first sentence of the first draft.

The book that I have always referred to as Audrey will be published on 6 February 2020 with a party at Somerville College in Oxford and an interview with Diane Setterfield, which I am very much looking forward to. Two days before that we will launch the book in London at a joint event with a small team from Italy who run a project called Mending for Good. Today there is a growing appreciation of the impact of fashion’s carbon footprint on the environment and I feel certain that Audrey would have been behind any project that challenged waste and encouraged good practice. After all, she presided over the most dramatic movement in wartime fashion, the Utility and Austerity scheme. This dictated skirt and shirt lengths;  it limited the number of pockets on jackets and the width of the gusset in women’s knickers. It feels fitting to focus on the future as well as on the past as we celebrate setting Audrey free.

Visitors to the 2015 Imperial War Museums exhibition Fashion on the Ration, dressed in 1940s costumes © IWM.org

As Dressed for War leaves me bobbing in its wake, I will try to be sanguine about the reaction of the reviewers who will express their opinions, whether good or bad. It is a fact that writers, as other performers, tend to remember the bad reviews. But what I really long for, and what I think every writer longs for, is the moment when we come face to face with a reader who has got something personal to say about the book we have just published. It does not always happen but when it does it is as important as any review. And that won’t happen unless we get the publicity right, which is why Richard, Becky and I are working so hard behind the scenes to make it work.

This is the preview of the book https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QEvw_APrtX8&feature=youtu.be

Hidden Secrets

Poppies of Remembrance at the Thiepval Memorial, Somme © Brian Harris

The build up to Remembrance Day always reminds me of the importance of memories. I’m talking here about national memories as much as personal ones. Two organisations most closely connected in the public’s imagination to memories in this context are the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, who I worked for part-time from 2005 to 2015 and the Royal British Legion, who I will be working for from now until 2021. Both these great bodies focus a significant part of their work on remembering the individual servicemen and women who died in the service of their country. They do much else besides but both have outstanding archives that tell the story of the organisation and the people involved in them.

Menin Gate, Ypres, where over 54,000 names of the missing are recorded © Brian Harris

Having spent all my working life using archives I thought it would be a moment to reflect on the importance of archives and their role in preserving the nation’s memories, the world’s memories in some cases. If I asked anyone to name, say, three archives that would be places to consult when writing about the Second World War they would probably come up with Imperial War Museums, National Archives and the National Army Museum. You might not expect to find anything relevant to that topic in the archives of, for example, Barings Bank or Burberry or even the Met Office. But let me assure you that you can find material in the most unexpected places.

I am a regular visitor to the national collections such as Imperial War Museums and the National Archives but I also enjoy visiting the smaller archives that focus on one single issue, such as the Alpine Club or the Henry Moore Foundation. I did a quick calculation and jotted down the names of 38 archives I have visited in the last few years and I do not think that is close to the total I have consulted one way or another over the course of my working life.

It is hard to have a favourite because all archives are wonderful in their own right but one stands out for me as an experience I will never forget. I was writing The Colonel of Tamarkan, the biography of my grandfather, Brigadier Sir Philip Toosey, who was the senior British officer at the bridge camp over the river Kwai in Thailand. He spent all his working life at Barings Bank in Liverpool bar a few years in the early 1920s. Fortunately he did not live long enough to see it disgraced and then absorbed by ING in 1995. I wrote to bank in the hope that they might have kept personnel files from the Barings’ days and got a response by return to say that they had and I was welcome to visit. I made an appointment and set off with a spring in my step and a notebook and pencil in my bag.

Phil Toosey in Peru, 1935, on business for Barings

I arrived at an enormous glass and concrete building in the city and felt distinctly out of place among so many dark suits coming and going at great speed. The receptionist phoned through to the archives for me and there soon appeared the archivist himself, dressed in a brown tweed suit and wearing reassuringly thick glasses. He ushered me through the atrium and towards a brown domestic-sized door through which I stepped as if into another world. In fact, it was another world. It was an office full of old-fashioned filing cabinets and shelves bulging with books and folders. I was completely enchanted. The old office had apparently been transplanted lock, stock and barrel into the new building.

Toosey, February 1946, six months after being released from captivity and three months after arriving back in Britain

Sure enough the material was as good as the archive promised it should be. An entire personnel file on Toosey, including a fascinating exchange of a dozen or more letters between his boss, the Liverpool Agent for Barings, Alan Tod, and Evelyn Baring in London. So concerned were they for Toosey’s welfare (read mental health in today’s parlance) that they decided what he needed post-war was perspective with which to begin his new life after three years as a prisoner of the Japanese.

They sent him to South America as a roving ambassador for the firm but really with a view to giving him a chance to find his feet again. It worked and he was forever grateful to Barings. So was I. What a treasure trove and so beautifully preserved. On the surface the file had nothing to do with the history of the bank but in reality it had everything to do with it. The bank was run by men, and a very few women, who were individuals with personal history, characters, foibles and in this case, a war record.

Other archives have been equally valuable and nothing is more thrilling than finding something that even the archivist did not know was there. In the Royal Geographical Society I found a piece of paper slipped into the back of a notebook which had not been unfolded for years. Very carefully the archivist and I took it out and read it. It made us laugh. It was a memo sent from camp 3 to camp 2 on Everest in 1924. Written by Edward Shebbeare, one of the support team, it read: ‘I’ve been out on the glacier for hours looking for Beetham. Either he is lost or he is with you. If the latter, he’s a bugger for not letting me know.’

For that book I also found the now famous trunk in the attic that contained all Sandy Irvine’s correspondence from the trek and the mountain from where he was never to return. There were photographs, sketches of his changes to the oxygen sets and, hauntingly for me, the final letter he wrote to his mother on 26th May 1924. The trunk was in a family attic in North Wales and it was the most significant archive find of my life. Until 2018, that was. But that is still under wraps and will be revealed in February when Dressed for War is published.

So when you think about remembrance, or just national memory, spare a thought for the wonderful archivists up and down the country and all over the world who take care of this precious material. If it had not been for organisations understanding the value of keeping material for the future and for archivists cataloguing, preserving and caring for it, the history of our lives would be greatly impoverished. An archive might be kept under a bed (yes, I’ve seen those) or in a cupboard in a private house. It might be in the corner of an office or in an attic. Material might be stored in cellars, attics, barns, stables or in carefully monitored air-conditioned buildings. It is all important and valuable. How this will be kept in the future in this, our digital age, I do not know. But for now I acknowledge archivists at every level because they deserve our gratitude.

These precious diaries are stored in a family collection

Announcing Audrey

It is a very strange feeling when you hand over a proof of a book for the final time. This precious document that you have shared with an editor, a copy editor, a proof-reader and an indexer, is suddenly ready to be shared with others. There is a momentary feeling of loss that, for me at least, is comparable to a bereavement. Well, a bereavement over the loss of an animal, say, not a relative – let’s not be over-dramatic.

But when I pressed the final send button to launch Audrey back through the ether towards London I felt a terrible, almost physical sadness. She was no longer my private, treasured friend with whom I have spent the most intensive nine months of my life since I laid down my research papers and clicked out the first words of draft one on 7 January 2019. It seems a lifetime ago, as it always does, but it also seems to have gone far too quickly. In a strange way it is a lifetime. I have come to know Audrey over the course of most of her long and varied life, that is with the exception of the years of her retirement. I have found her fascinating, lovely, loving, amusing, passionate and ambitious but also private, infuriatingly self-deprecating and mischievous when it came to covering her tracks.

Now she is almost ready to be launched on the world in her final form. The book, with 416 pages including twelve pages of index and eight pages of photographic plates, will be available from 6 February 2020. Rather wonderfully that is my grandmother’s birthday, though she is no longer with us. She knew Audrey well as my grandfather and Audrey were cousins, born two years apart. My grandparents used to visit her on business trips to London and she and Victor stayed with them on the Wirral more than once.

The title for my book, which we have pushed back and forth for months, has been decided upon by the publisher: Dressed for War. The cover image took even longer to negotiate but what a stunning one it is. Undoubtedly the most beautiful cover I have ever had but then Audrey deserves nothing less. It was an American design used by Audrey for the September 1943 issue of Vogue with a list of contents on the left-hand side that included renovations, coupons and repairs. A stark juxtaposition but somehow a beautiful summing up of Audrey’s editorship during the second half of the war: beauty and excellence balanced with practical, no-nonsense advice.

For now Audrey is still under wraps at the publishers. I will get to see her one more time before she goes off to the printers to check the layouts and see the final version with plates, index, updated acknowledgements and footnotes. My job is to ensure this wonderful woman reaches as wide a public as possible. Audrey’s extraordinary life, her exceptional leadership and her championing of women’s causes in the middle of the twentieth century deserve to be better known, especially at a time when women’s rights are under threat as at no other time in our recent history. I want to celebrate her editing skills, her ability to attract, handle and maintain relationships with some of the most brilliant but tricky artists and writers of her time. And I want readers to understand that history has created a black and white portrait of a woman so colourful that it needs to be corrected.

You can pre-order Dressed for War at your local independent bookshop, at all other major bookshops in Britain, and online. The book will also be available as an e-book and an audio book.

Catapulting Audrey

I was going to post this blog on 4 August after I had handed in the finished draft of my biography of Audrey Withers to my editor, Iain MacGregor, on 31 July, as per contract. However, on 25 April Iain asked whether I could bring the deadline forward by six weeks and deliver by mid-June. It is the kind of question that focuses an author’s mind in a way almost no other can. I agreed to have a go. My feelings on the way back from London that afternoon ranged from blind panic to the thrill of the challenge. Over the last six weeks I have gone from one to the other on a daily, sometimes hourly basis. But I met my deadline and delivered the book last Friday, a week before Iain was expecting it. That surprised even me.

My son pointed out that there are a lot of diet cokes in the bin…

The main reason it was possible to do what seemed almost unthinkable on the morning after my meeting with Iain was because I was able to clear the decks and my diary thanks to the support of my incredibly kind and understanding husband, Chris. He retired last year and was able to act as gatekeeper and cook so that all I had to do was to work. Sometimes that work involved thinking and puzzling over some knotty little problem or other so I did that while working in the garden or walking on the riverbank with the dogs or on my cycle ride to the library. But in the main I sat in my office, staring at a screen, thumbing through my notebooks with an exasperated ‘where the hell did I make a note of that?’ or looking out of the window at the sun-kissed garden wondering when it would rain.

This morning we did a cross comparison of the difference between draft one of Audrey and the final version which is at least draft seven. Here it is.

As you will see from the amount of red on the screen, not much of the brilliant first plan survived contact with the editing enemy. I was astonished, to be honest. I had not realised just how much I had changed in the last two months (I had started editing before my critical meeting with Iain).

When I finished the first draft, I had the weekend off, then sat down on Monday morning and read the whole book through from cover to cover and tried to get a feeling for the overall story. That took three days and by the end I realized I had got a book that could work and although it was in need of a great deal of editing, it was at least a narrative. The next time I read it was for facts. Had I got everything in that I wanted to include, such as the vital memos or the story of her first marriage or her relationship with Lee Miller? That took two weeks and involved me using both my screens, one for the draft and the other to double check my electronic files. That is when a lot of changes took place and I needed a couple of visits to Vogue House to check issues of Vogue from the nineteen fifties.

The third read-through was for cadence. It seems a funny word to use but it is the best one I can come up with. Every chapter has to have a certain type of pace. Audrey once described how the readers of Vogue had to be led through the magazine page by page and there should be no ugly juxtaposition of stories. She was once very critical of a piece in American Vogue shortly after the war which featured luxurious clothes in Rome opposite a photograph of a starving child. For a book it is sometimes helpful to be able to change the pace and go from a piece of high action or drama of, say, war reporting, to a completely different type of event, such as a family funeral. For it to work it has to be deliberately but carefully done. I want my readers to feel some emotion. I once got ticked off by a WI lady who accused me of making her cry several times when she was reading Stranger in the House and she was rather put out when I said I was sorry but very pleased too. It is a sad book, telling some terrible stories about the impact on women of men returning from the war. Good that she was moved, good that she cried. I cried when I was writing some of those stories. War is a terrible thing and it has a long, long tail. A psychologist from Germany once said to me: ‘Hitler wanted the Third Reich to last for a thousand years. He didn’t succeed but the fallout from his experiment will last for generations.’

By the time draft three was completed I had had my meeting with Iain and the pressure was on. It was fortunate that I had got to where I was in the editing process because I could see how it would be possible to accelerate the next iterations. I think Audrey has benefitted from very close and energetic attention because I was forced to keep up a cracking pace and it meant that any research I still needed to do had to justify the time spent on it. I had one fantastic day in May reading the diaries of Harry Yoxall, Condé Nast’s managing director in the UK. He wrote about 250 pages a year and had the pages stapled and bound in slip cases with the year on the spine.

I had read the Second World War years at his great-grandson’s house in Surrey but the rest of the diaries were with his grandson in Suffolk. I needed to read the years Audrey was at Vogue, so 1931 to 1938 and 1946 to 1960. Twenty-two years or 5,500 pages or, even more scarily, 1,375,000 words. How the hell was I going to manage that in ten hours? In the end I worked out a way to scan his handwriting for Audrey’s name. He had quite a distinctive way of writing A and it made it relatively easy to find mentions of her. Less easy when the diaries were in French, which half of them were! Sometimes he typed letters to his wife and then used them as diary pages.  They were a joy, especially the one from March 1953 when he attended an investiture at Buckingham Palace the day Audrey was given her OBE by a very young and nervous Queen Elizabeth. He was worried that the knighting sword was so heavy she might chop off the head of one of her subjects. That was a great discovery, as was the moment when I found out for sure that Audrey had left Vogue of her own volition and had not been gently asked to leave, which is what I and others had assumed. She told him over lunch in June 1957 that she intended to retire at the end of the decade. The trip was more than worth the day and a half it took to get there and back.

There have been other finds too, in the bowels of the Law Library in Oxford and in the microfiche copies of the Daily Sketch at the British Library but this blog is already too long…

So that has been the process and I plodded, raced, panicked, wept, laughed my way through the next weeks as I beat and bashed my writing into some sort of shape which I hope Iain will be able to work with. The next months are crucial as Audrey will be edited, copy-edited, proof-read, fact-checked and finally sent to the indexers prior to printing in the autumn. I have no idea how many more changes will be made but I expect quite a few. I am both excited and exhausted, but most of all relieved that I made it.

Clearing the First Hurdle

My very messy desk and one patient dog, Tiggy, who sits in her wine box behind the desk day in, day out, while I’m writing

Well, as promised in my last blog, here I am on 4 April 2019 with the first draft of Audrey under my belt. I kept a note of the daily word count to prove to myself that I was making progress so I thought I would be brave and publish it here. It shows, to me at least, the days when I struggled to get into the writing mode and other days when things went fluently. That is the nature of writing non-fiction in my experience: I get onto a roll and power through a segment, as I did on 19 February or get stuck up a blind alley as shown by the dismal figures on 4 March.

Do these figures actually tell me anything about my writing? To some extent they do. On 19 February I wrote the last half of chapter seven which covers the breathtakingly exciting period in Audrey’s editorship when Lee Miller was covering the battle of St Malo and the liberation of Paris. My diary entry from that day reads: ‘After gym spent all day writing 5384 words on Lee in France. All good stuff but utterly exhausting. Off to plan skiing clothes.’ Not very informative but the truth is that writing is exciting in my head but boring for the rest of my family. When I am locked up in my office for eight hours, I am hors combat to all and when I emerge my brain is so fried that I am not very good company. For what it is worth, I had returned from skiing on the first weekend in March so the reason for a small word count on the first Monday was not that I was stuck but that I had to spend the morning doing admin.

What next? I have 102,821 words in a draft and now the process of editing begins. For me this is the most exciting and creative part of writing non-fiction. I get to read the book for the first time as I almost never re-read anything while I’m completing the first draft. It is also a time of truth. The raw writing is full of repetition, facts that need cross-checking and an unhealthy number of adverbs. I could probably cut 1,000 words just by removing those unnecessary fillers which I know I put in to emphasise emotion or action but which add little to the work. So those will come out in the first edit, as will padding which inevitably creeps in when I am not entirely sure of myself, especially when dealing with family emotion. How do I know, for example, how Audrey felt at her father’s funeral? I do not know but I have to make an educated guess based on her relationship with him shown through her letters and her thoughts in her autobiography

Ah, the autobiography. Now there is a book I have had trouble with. Audrey published her autobiography in 1994 at the age of eighty-nine. She devoted less than half of it to her years at Vogue and a portion of the later chapters deal with her father’s correspondents and his art collection. In fact, that book is more interesting for what she leaves out than for what she includes. It is a prime example of her desire to cover the traces of her personal life. There is, for instance, no mention of any of her friends by name. Not a single one. But I know from her letters that she had many friends and was popular with her own age group and people of her father’s generation as well. The dramatis personae in her version of her life are her immediate family, her two husbands and about eight colleagues at Vogue.

My favourite example of Audrey taking control of her own story are the couple of sentences that she devotes to her first wedding. ‘Our friends had assumed that Jock and I would marry, and one day we did. From my parents’ point of view it must have been an unsatisfactory affair, to a man they had never taken to, and not in church but at a registry office.’ Hm. Not a very promising start to married life a reader might conclude. But Audrey was writing with hindsight and a divorce behind her. Through Percy Withers’ letters at Somerville College and Harry Yoxall’s diaries it is possible to build a richer and clearer picture of her nuptials. Far from disapproving of Jock, her parents accepted him readily and Percy wrote to one of his friends to say how pleased he was that Audrey was marrying at last. There was a huge party the night before the wedding, which took place on 2 September 1933 (thank you Somerville College archives), and a reception at the Savile Club in London which was attended by about 100 guests. It is true they got married in a registry office but that would not have bothered Percy Withers as he was an atheist. Mary Withers did have a religious bent but she bowed to her husband’s persuasion, as she did on so many other things… but that is another story. So, you see how I’ve had to read between the lines and take Audrey’s own record of her life with a large pinch of salt. A whole bucket load, in fact.

I interviewed Pam Makin who worked for Audrey from 1949 to 1952 and who spoke to me about her energy, passion and sense of humour.

One of the myths that has grown up around her is that of the intelligent but austere blue-stocking. A headmistress-type with little emotion but great strength of character. It is true that she was intelligent, formidably so according to some colleagues, and it is true that she could be headmistress-like at work, but what that hides is her true personality. She was kind and generous, giving every member of staff at the office a personal and carefully chosen Christmas present every year. She was ‘one of the quietest listeners now living’ according to her friend, the artist Paul Nash, while Maur Griggs, an older friend, wrote of the gleams of friendly fun in her eyes. Later in her life she showed her passion when she described her happiness in the early months of her second marriage. Those letters to Edna Woolman Chase (editor-in-chief of Vogue), carefully preserved in the magical archives of Condé Nast in New York, were a revelation in their honesty, sheer delight and surprise at finding herself so happy. Audrey was not austere but passionate, fun, adventurous, impetuous at times. She adored foreign travel and wild swimming, she wrote poetry and went to concerts and the theatre as often as her work would allow. And she loved cats. She described herself once as being like a soda stream, fizzing with pleasure. That is the Audrey who is beginning to appear in my work.

My next three months will be taken up with beating the book into shape, teasing out the development of Audrey’s personality over the decades and planting her firmly, enthusiasm and all, in her life’s work as editor of Vogue. Appropriately, as Audrey loved America, I will be posting my next update on 4 July, the day before I fly to Boston for my son’s wedding. How about that for a neat circle?

Ready, Steady, Go

There is something intensely exciting about starting to write a new book. I don’t mean starting from scratch, I mean that delicious moment when most of the research has been done and you feel it is time to pull a blank page to the fore, to pick up a pen (or keyboard) and write. Although this is my thirteenth book, the sense of thrilling anticipation and out and out terror gets stronger, not weaker. When I wrote Fearless on Everest in 1999, I do not think I had a clue about the enormity of what I was attempting to do. This time I know full well and the pressure is great. It is another biography, my third, and this time it is of a woman. Her place in history is acknowledged by a small coterie of people who understand her unique contribution to the twentieth century. Her name is Audrey Withers and it is quite likely you will never have heard of her but I plan to put that right in my biography.

As the time-frame for this book is very short, it is due to be published early 2020, I thought I would do a quarterly blog with updates as to its progress and to share some of the highs and lows of writing biography. Apart from anything else, it will give me the incentive to be honest with myself about where I am in the process.

Writing historical biography, as opposed to social history, is a challenge on many levels. Key is to keep the central character to the fore in all relationships, however grand or overpowering the other characters might be. And in my case, they are both grand and overpowering. I have Condé Montrose Nast, father of the American magazine publishing empire and one of the most powerful men in early twentieth century New York. Many people I speak to in Britain do not even realise that Condé Nast, who gave his name to the brand, was a real man. But he was. By the time he entered the era about which I am writing he was so rich that he would book a suite at the Ritz with two bedrooms and two bathrooms so that he could have a hot and cold bath in the evening and not have the inconvenience of having to wait for one to drain before refilling it.

Then I have Cecil Beaton, the society photographer who worked for Vogue for over thirty years. At the beginning of the war, when Audrey Withers had just taken over as editor, Beaton was out of favour in New York and it was Audrey who got him reinstated. She needed his brilliant eye and his satiric pen to capture wartime London for her, especially during the Blitz. After Beaton comes the brilliant, brave Lee Miller who worked as Vogue’s war reporter from 1942 and whose reportage from the continent from 1944 onwards occupied in all seventy-seven pages of the magazine over a period of eighteen months, more than that of any other writer or photographer of the era. She was Audrey’s eyes on the ground and it was Audrey’s passion for making Vogue relevant in wartime that shaped her editing of Lee’s articles.

An issue with this book all along has been that Audrey destroyed all Vogue’s archival papers and photographs from its inception in 1924 to 1942 in order to support the wartime paper salvage effort. This action, while noble at the time (I guess), has produced agonies for me and other historians of Vogue because there is nothing extant from that period. Not a letter nor a memo. Just the magazine itself, where reading between the lines has become a dark art.

I have spent two and a half years, the last twelve months full time, researching this biography. My greatest challenge has been to find Audrey’s voice. She was a private person who did her best to cover her tracks in life – and with some degree of success I might add – but I have been able to unearth more than I thought I would thanks to a key find in the archives of Condé Nast in New York in October. Of that more anon.

Most of my research is stored in carefully labelled folders in Drop Box. For biography I order it in character files. Audrey has a folder which contains subfolders on her early life, her education, her employment, her parents, her marriages (a very thin one at present), her official personal details such as birth, death, marriage certificates and the 1939 National Register. Within that folder there is also a file of obituaries and letters, by date, from people who knew her and who have written to me. Beaton has a folder, as does Condé Nast, Lee Miller, Edna Woolman Chase (editor of Vogue worldwide) and so on. Then there are folders with general archive material and these are listed by date and then character. Old editions of Vogue are précised month by month and copy by Audrey highlighted where relevant.

Leuchturm Notebook from September to November 2018

In addition, I have three notebooks full of interviews, observations, pencil notes from my visits to the Tate Archive, the National Archives, Vogue House, Condé Nast, Somerville College and visits to private individuals who worked with Audrey. Those sit on my desk, indexed thanks to the foresight of the designers of Leuchturm 1917. In all it comprises about 500,000 words.

Most of this material will never make it into the book but it serves as background material, a sort of historical tapestry against which Audrey’s life was set. The challenge is to make sure that she is always to the fore and the material does not swamp or obscure her.

On Thursday 3 January I tidied my office in preparation for beginning work on Monday 7, accidentally polishing my desk with oven cleaner rather than furniture polish. The smell was appalling but the desk is thankfully undamaged.

My desk in the attic of my home in Oxford. Over the years I have gathered endless items of memorabilia which help to ground me when I am writing.

My plan is to write the first draft of 110,000 words by 28 March 2019 then take three days off to walk in the Lake District, write another blog and brace myself for the next three months which will be editing what one of my fellow writers calls the ‘shitty first draft’.

If you are interested, please look out for my next update in a blog on 4 April 2019.