I only met the magnificent Helen McCrory once, for an hour and a half, in a tiny room above a shop in Tottenham Court Road. But that meeting left an indelible impression on me and I will never forget the magic of her presence. I had been hired as the historical consultant on the film Woman in Black 2 and after working on the script I was asked to meet Ms McCrory and Phoebe Fox. I arrived early for our meeting and was not quite sure what to expect. They arrived together and before Helen had taken off her coat and sat down opposite me the questions began. Who was I? What had I written? What were my credentials for advising them on life in London in the Second World War? She was not impressed with Jambusters but when I mentioned that I’d written Fearless on Everest she looked at me sharply and said: ‘Sandy Irvine? The one who climbed with George Mallory? Oh that is exciting. My husband is mad about the Mallory and Irvine story. I must get him a copy of your book.’ I don’t know if she ever did but I was fascinated to learn that Damian Lewis is interested in the Everest 1924 saga.
After that we settled down. Phoebe Fox was relaxed and chatty, Helen McCrory the consummate professional. She was not there to waste her or my time and her questions were searching and intelligent. We talked about her character, Jean Hogg, and how she would get inside her head and understand what she was thinking. The conversation moved from her personality to her physical presence. What would she be wearing? A suit or a dress with a cardigan, I suggested. ‘No, I mean what would she have been wearing underneath all that?’ A corset, I said. ‘A corset? Surely that is Victorian?’ I replied that in 1940 over a third of the female population wore corsets and someone the age of Jean Hogg probably would have been one of that third since it was mainly younger women who were happy to cast corsets aside for the new-fangled bra and pants. That really captured her interest. ‘So when were bras invented?’ Well, it’s a complicated story but suffice it to say that it was only in the mid-1930s that they were mass-produced for the European market. ‘Oh I like that,’ she said. ‘So what sort of corset would Jean Hogg have worn?’ The question almost caught me off guard but then I remembered talking to my friend Marion Platt whose grandmother was a corset wearer. Marion had described watching the old lady (probably in her fifties) taking off her stays at night, rolling them up and putting them carefully on her bedroom chair. So I told Helen the story and described the simple stays that Marion’s grannie had worn.
‘How would that have made her look? I mean, how would it have affected her posture?’ She sat up on her chair, straightened her back and asked ‘Like this?’ ‘Not quite so stiff,’ I replied. She moved her body around, feeling for the right sort of pose. It was stunning to watch. She had perfect control over her poise and as she moved her body around, making minute changes to her posture she morphed from beautiful, natural Helen McCrory into middle-aged, spinsterish Jean Hogg. I couldn’t take my eyes off her, nor could Phoebe Fox. It was mesmerising. And then it was all over. She relaxed, smiled oh so warmly and thanked me for helping her to get inside the head and body of her character.
When she stood up to go I realised how petite she was, yet her presence was enormous. I have met other actors since, but none has made my heart beat as fast as Helen McCrory. I have watched her on television many times and I always feel a tiny sense of pride that I once met this great, wonderful, clever, beautiful professional woman whose brilliance has touched so many and whose life has been extinguished way too early.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Researching non-fiction is a bit like being a police detective, I imagine. Sniffing out clues and piecing together a story that brings the facts to the fore in a convincing way. I also imagine it must be near impossible to put a perfect case together as life is not neat and linear. It is chaotic, veering off in this or that direction and leaving traces which sometimes lead to vital clues and at other times a dead end. I will stop with the police analogy as I am out of my depth, basing my knowledge on Agatha Christie or PD James’s crime fiction.
However, I am in the right part of the stream when talking about sniffing out clues about people’s lives for my non-fiction books. I am known as the ferret by my irreverent god-father. Others might describe me as a nosey-parker but whichever sobriquet you choose, the truth is that I am persistent in my pursuit of facts. In 2000 I found a trunk in the attic which no one in the family believed still existed. In this now famous trunk I found a blue foolscap folder, tied with a blue ribbon, and the title ACI Everest 1924 which gave me eleven letters written by Sandy Irvine to his mother, father and sister from the Mount Everest expedition. Also in the file were photographs, drawings, invoices for clothing and notes on his work on the truculent oxygen sets for the climb: all unseen for over seventy-five years. It was the archive find of my writing career to date and brought the book to life in a way that I had not anticipated. Suddenly I had this young man’s voice and it was thrilling.
When I was writing the biography of my grand-father, Philip Toosey, who was the colonel who built the bridge on the river Kwai, I had more material than I could possibly have wished for. There are collections all over the world charting the Death Railway from all sides of the story. Military histories focussing on the fall of Singapore are outnumbered by autobiographies from Prisoners of War in the Far East by about ten to one. And my grandfather had added to this mass by recording thirty hours of conversation with Professor Peter Davies on reel-to-reel tapes in the early 1970s. Having an embarrassment of riches can be almost as off-putting as having too little material. You have to work very hard to find the individual personal voice among so many.
Eventually I did but in the most peculiar way. Every time Peter Davies went to interview Toosey, as he was universally known, he would start with ‘Well, Brigadier, today we will talk about …’ and then he would give a topic such as Baring’s Bank, Dunkirk or the Allied bombings of POW camps. One day I happened to be chopping carrots for my children’s lunch when Toosey himself announced the topic of the day: ‘Well Peter,’ he said, clearing his throat and bracing himself for what came next: ‘Today I would like to tell you about my experiences with women.’ ‘Oh heck,’ I thought, ‘what do I do now?’ Should I turn off the tape or fast forward it in order to preserve my grandfather’s privacy or should I listen, like a diligent historian? I listened, of course. And the listening was rewarded with the following: ‘Like most Englishmen, I could write the story of my sex-life on a postage stamp.’ I got off light there, I thought with relief.
He then did go on to talk a bit about brief encounters in Piccadilly and Peru but his focus was on my grandmother, who he met in 1930 and married the following year. He described her as ‘formidable’. She was known as the regimental sergeant major and ‘we all love and respect her.’Over the course of the next two years I got to know this man who was in awe of his wife. I had known him as a child, of course. He died when I was fifteen. But that does not give you the kind of knowledge you need as a biographer. The tapes helped me to understand him in a way that no books ever could. Sometimes he would laugh when telling a story, at other times his voice would break, particularly when he was speaking of the men’s suffering in the prison camps. However, most impressive of all was his energy, his love of life and his determination not to be beaten down, however ghastly the circumstances. At the end of the war he was on a panel screening prison guards for war crimes. Some he had to condemn and it was not something he took any pleasure in. Revenge was not in his character.
A Japanese guard who had given him a serious beating for allowing some prisoners to escape in 1942 came up in front of him. Toosey insisted he should be set free without punishment. He knew that this man, Sargeant-major Saito, had had to punish him because he had flagrantly disobeyed Japanese orders. He also knew that Saito had saved him from a far worse fate: cross examination by the Kempi Tai (the Japanese secret police). Saito finally came to Britain in 1984 to pay his respects to Toosey. He visited his grave and wrote to Patrick, Toosey’s son, after the visit: ‘I feel very fine because I finish my own strong duty. One thing I regret, I could not visit Mr Philip Toosey when he was alive. He showed me what human being should be. He changed the philosophy of my life.’ By the time I finished the book I believe I had my man.
Now I am embarked upon a third biography, separated in time by fifteen years and eleven books, and yet the task is the hardest to date. Audrey Withers was Vogue’s editor from 1940 to 1960. She was married twice and worked in later life as a volunteer for the Liberal Democrats. She received an OBE in 1954 and the Bi-centenary medal from the Royal Society of Arts in 1961. Yet despite being a public figure and publishing an autobiography, she has succeeded in remaining almost completely in the shadows. So reticent was she about personal matters that she filleted her father’s archive before she gave it to Somerville College, Oxford, removing all copies of personal letters referring to her. It is tantalizing to say the very least.
So I am have to piece together the jigsaw puzzle that will, I hope, paint a portrait of this remarkable woman by reading biographies and autobiographies of all the people she worked with. The relationship she enjoyed with the American photographer, Lee Miller, was the closest one she had during the war. Lee became Vogue’s war correspondent and I discovered recently that it was Audrey who worked hard to get her press accreditation so that she could go to France in 1944. Artemis Cooper’s biography of Elizabeth David gave me clues about Audrey’s interest in fresh and home-grown ingredients, while Hugo Vickers revealed that Audrey had been instrumental in persuading Vogue to reinstate Cecil Beaton as a photographer on the magazine after he had fallen foul of Condé Nast in 1938. Audrey’s own autobiography is more revealing for what it leaves out rather than what it includes and I am only now realizing that this is useful as it gives me clues about what mattered to her.
Valuable resources, which she could not destroy, are letters in the Condé Nast archives in London and New York. She was a prolific correspondent, as was Edna Woolman-Chase, the editor-in-chief of Vogue. Edna once complained that Audrey wrote too many memos and they were too long. That might be so but they are invaluable to me. These are full of detail of everyday life in London in the 1940s and 1950s. They give glimpses of personalities and offer reminders that famous photographers or writers, such as Cecil Beaton, Norman Parkinson and Elizabeth David, were real human beings with feelings, foibles and fury. I have a rich palette for the Vogue years and I am fortunate to have access to this material.
Of her private life, however, there is precious little. Here she did indeed succeed in hiding a great deal. Husband number one is a shadowy figure ‘who was never without a girlfriend’ and who has eluded my most determined efforts to track him down. There is minimal material from the 1911 census and an announcement of his second marriage in 1964. I know where and when he was born and died but apart from that there is almost nothing. When I say almost nothing, I do know one or two things that are revealed by the official records. I know, for example, that he did not volunteer for service at the outbreak of the war, unlike Audrey who was a driver for the Auxiliary Fire Service. That is recorded on the National Register from September 1939. He was working as a salesman for a bookshop in London, which would not have been a reserved occupation and he was only thirty-two. That strikes me as strange and I hope eventually to find out why.
There is one fuzzy photograph of Jock, taken at a wedding just after the war. He is about six feet tall which I worked out from comparing the height of the taxi behind him, the woman to his left and taking into account perspective and the height of a London pavement. He is quite good looking and well-dressed but his shoes are not shiny, so that tells me that he had not been in the military. He has thinning fair hair, large ears and full lips. The way he carries his hat and umbrella tells me he is a man with confidence. I would so love to find another picture of him, though. A younger Jock. But none appears to exist.
I also know that he described himself as ‘head’ of the household at 31 Blomfield Road in the 1939 register. The other occupants of the house, which was divided into three flats, were his wife, Elizabeth Stewart, his parents and a spinster who lived on the top floor. I realized that Audrey compartmentalized her life to such an extent that she had two names. At home she was Elizabeth Stewart while at work she was Audrey Withers. She recorded her occupation as ‘journalist’ while her mother-in-law is ‘unpaid domestic help.’ It was then I understood her mother-in-law kept house, did the shopping, cooking, washing and ironing while Audrey worked long hours at Vogue, often not returning until 10pm, something she had mentioned more than once in letters. Slowly a picture of the domestic life in Blomfield Road began to emerge. I even managed to work out which floor Audrey lived on from a chance remark about moving downstairs to sleep in her parents-in-law’s sitting room during the Blitz.
This is the work that will occupy me for the rest of this year and I confess that I love it. I shall find my subject, as I did with my other two biographies, and it will all come together in the end. In the meantime, where are the passenger lists for Southampton-New York for April 1938?