In his masterly Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest, the Canadian writer Wade Davis re-envisaged attempts to climb Mount Everest in the 1920s as a response to the despair and carnage of the trenches. The book deservedly won the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2012. Deborah Baker’s no less accomplished The Last Englishmen could be read as a sequel to Davis’s book; it might even be another prize contender. Taking up the Everest story in the 1930s, Baker tracks the lives and loves of a string of unlikely Himalayan pioneers before, during and after the Second World War. Like Davis, she interprets their unsuccessful attempts to come to terms with the Himalayas as a metaphor, in this case for Britain’s failing grip on its Indian empire. Yet, oddly, neither Baker’s text nor her fifty pages of notes and bibliography contain any mention of Davis’s work.
Where The Last Englishmen excels is in exploring the wider cultural and political dimensions of its subject. The title may have been borrowed from Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s quip that it was he, not Mountbatten, who was ‘the last Englishman to rule India’. As an alumnus of Harrow, Trinity College, Cambridge, and the Inner Temple, Nehru’s credentials as an Englishman were indeed impeccable, as were those of the group of Indian independence campaigners, many of them Oxbridge graduates, whose ruminations punctuate Baker’s text like the voices of a Greek chorus. As the Luftwaffe blitzed London and Gandhi began another spell behind bars, these Calcutta luminaries – nationalists, communists, renegades and spies – gathered to lambast the iniquities of British policy while lauding the giants of English literature and recalling expensive lunches in the Café Royal. Is it they who are ‘the last Englishmen’? And was the British–Indian relationship really one of such fusion? Or just confusion?