Deborah Baker’s ambitious and entertaining book narrates the exploits of geologist John Auden and surveyor Michael Spender, whose journey of exploration took them through the Indian subcontinent at the closing of the British Empire. Auden was a pioneering geologist of the Himalayan region, while Spender became the first to draw a detailed map of the North Face approach to Everest.
Their work mirrored the romantic ideal of a generation coming to terms with the loss of Britain’s dominion over her most dazzling imperial possession. Auden diligently studied and surveyed the mountains to learn how and why the range was formed, and in doing so became a pioneer in detecting the fault that runs the 1,500-mile length of the Himalaya. The conquest of Everest itself was at that time a metaphor for Britain’s struggle to maintain power over India. Spender used his craft of photogrammetry, making measurements from photos, to create topographic maps. During the war, he defined the art of photographic interpretation and was able to identify Nazis amassing equipment.
Set in Calcutta, Baker’s book also focuses on those who figured in the world of art, poetry, and prose, which included the celebrated relations of the two protagonists. WH Auden was John’s brother, while Stephen Spender was the brother of Michael. The story is also one of a romantic rivalry when Auden and Spender both fell in love with the painter Nancy Sharp. Four years later she married Spender, who died in an air crash shortly after the war. Along with Christopher Isherwood, these were the luminaries who defined that era’s cultural landscape.
The history of Empire is seen here through a unique prism, one of mountaineering and the pursuit of Everest’s summit. It also offers an insight into India’s role in the Second World War.