Looking at Leni and Peter Gillman from the front row of a lecture theatre at the Heriot-Watt Campus in Galashiels brings a wave of anticipation over me and also a slight nervousness. Not long before, I had sat across from them at a dinner table in the Courtyard at the Kingsknowes Hotel.
They are a couple with a gentle spirit. As we spoke over dinner I was sad and concerned to hear that these conscientious writers had been usurped by one of our television broadcasters who had taken their decades of research about George Mallory’s life, given them little credit and stolen the title of their book. Although, the story did not surprise me, having had personal experience of this on a much lesser scale.
They start quietly, too quietly for some of the audience, but we are gently pulled into the details of Mallory’s young life. The son of a vicar, the boy George chose his father’s church in the Cheshire village of Mobberley – as well as other edifices in the surrounding countryside, including drainpipes and ruined buildings – to practice his rock-climbing skills.
A description of the church building by Peter as a series of shoulders, ridges and a summit dome wins the audience over. From the childhood world of a safe and charming English village, we move on to images of a maturing and strong young man who excelled in sports such as gymnastics.
George was not just a finely tuned physical specimen, he was beautiful and intelligent. During his three years at Cambridge he associated with a group of men who all seem to wanted a piece of him. When Peter broaches the subject of homosexuality I could feel the tension behind me in the dimly lit room.
The discomfort is superbly broken by the amusing string of unrequited loves among the friends of the Bloomsbury group. Each man was attracted to another, but no-one seemed to be attracted to the man who was attracted to him. Although, it is evidenced in a letter that George did experience homosexual love for one night before he met his future wife Ruth.
Leni shed light on the beautiful and enigmatic Ruth. The daughter of Hugh Thackeray Turner, she was brought up in an artistic world. Her father was an architect by profession and was involved in the Arts and Crafts movement. He was also an amateur china painter. Examples of his china are exhibited in Godalming Museum in Surrey.
We are shown a picture of Westbrook House that Hugh designed and built as a family home. The image was idyllic; the very stuff of a leafy English village. I look at it and think of lazy summer days, the air infused with scented plants and children playing, adults reading.
In stark contrast to this are the images of the mountain, Mount Everest in all its unimaginable mass – slabs, glaciers, remoteness, coldness.
Between these two landscapes and these two sets of people, family and climbing partners, George Mallory swung. As Leni finishes her last stint at the microphone, she says with a cocked eyebrow: “Back to the mountain.”
With that simple phrase, the atmosphere of the talk was clear and complete. Peter and Leni Gillman’s book, The Wildest Dream, is subtitled Mallory, His Life and Conflicting Passions. Even before he visited Everest he had climbed routes on Ben Nevis and the Skye Cuillin, guided by Graham Irvine, who had no knowledge of the routes already set out and mapped by the Scottish Mountaineering Council members.
The Gillmans’ research demonstrated great trials in a mountaineering career that, while it led the way for others to conquer Everest, it ended in tragedy and of course the unanswered summit question. When Mallory’s body was found in 1999 they discovered that his tinted snow goggles were in his pocket. It has been assumed that they would have fallen during the night, but it still cannot satisfy the question as to whether they reached the summit.
Peter feels that the mystery is what keeps Mallory’s story alive, and mystery it shall remain, unless they find Sandy Irvine’s body and the camera he is said to have carried.