The Moth and the Mountain is a strange book. Several times this past month I’ve told friends about it, describing its central figure, Maurice Wilson: war hero, heartbreaker, daydreamer, globetrotter, irrepressible adventurer, the man who, in 1932, dreamed up a scheme to fly the moth of the title (a de Havilland biplane) on to Mount Everest, before hopping out and shinning up to the summit. My wide-eyed friends would blink and ask, ‘And this is a real story?’ and I’d nod, and then they’d ask the terminal question, ‘What happened next?’
Praise is due to Ed Caesar for managing to tell this tale so well, because the sheer madness of Wilson’s life would surely have thrown off all but the most sure-footed biographer. Caesar sets about it with fantastic energy and makes use of a marvellous collage of letters, diary entries, poetry, telegrams, interviews and archival iced gems.
In brief, Maurice Wilson is born in Bradford in April 1898, the son of a mill owner. A lively boy, he joins the army on his eighteenth birthday, fighting at Passchendaele and rising to the rank of captain – bumped up the social ladder to ‘temporary gentleman’ for the duration of the First World War. Near the town of Wytschaete he wins the Military Cross for ‘conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty’. The citation reads, ‘He held a post in advance of the line under very heavy shell and machine-gun fire on both flanks … It was largely owing to his pluck and determination in holding this post that the enemy attack was held up’ (the word ‘pluck’ haunts Caesar’s book).
Several months later, he is raked with machine-gun fire and invalided home. His wounds never totally heal. The government tells him he is not sufficiently injured to receive a pension. This injustice crystallises an enmity towards officialdom, bureaucrats and ‘stuffed-shirts’ that flares up fifteen years later, when he decides to buy a plane, learn to fly, head to the Himalayas and become the first man to summit Everest, all in the face of vigorous opposition (in particular from the British and Bahraini authorities, owing to the political complications caused by civilian flights in the Gulf).
The book’s accounts of his flight to India (dozens of telegrams reading ‘HE IS NOT REPEAT NOT TO PROCEED’ fluttering in his wake like so much confetti), the disguises he took, the love letters he wrote and the undercover trek he made from Darjeeling through Tibet are the stuff of Buchan and Verne. Caesar is superb at unpacking Wilson’s manic sense of adventure. He had stints in the United States and Mozambique; there were failed marriages in New Zealand, and Caesar untangles the strands of a chaste love affair in Maida Vale. He captures the sea change in Wilson once the idea of Everest bites – how he morphs from chippy war hero to mystic seer, becoming one of the fittest men in England – and notes how, in his fierce naivety, he prepares himself ‘purely to endure, as if toughness were the only quality required in the Himalayas’.
All of this might make him appear as a lone wolf with a god complex and a stiff upper death wish – a Crowhurst of the peaks. Yet Wilson still has his fans and champions. Early on in the book, Caesar recounts a conversation with the great mountaineer Reinhold Messner. ‘One brilliant autumn day in 2015, you visit Messner in his castle near Bolzano, in the Dolomite Mountains,’ Caesar begins, adopting an awkward second person, a quirk that sometimes hobbles the text. In his book The Crystal Horizon, Messner describes a moment during a 1980 expedition when, sitting on a rock outside his bivouac 26,000 feet above the Tibetan plateau, two days’ climb away from Everest’s summit, exhausted, freezing and close to death, he had a lucid dream about Maurice Wilson:
If Wilson had managed to get up here, I think suddenly, would he have reached the summit? Wilson was tougher than I am, uncompromising and capable of enduring loneliness. The stretch above me seems to be really easy, so Wilson would have been able to climb it, at least as far as the North-East ridge. Do I understand this madman so well because I am mad myself? Or do I take comfort in the constancy of this man in my delusion to prove something?
Moments like this cut through the Rum Doodle farce of Wilson’s venture. Perhaps it’s inevitable, given Wilson’s Janus-like nature, that Caesar sometimes seesaws between pathos and bathos in the space of a few sentences:
The theory was sound enough and would, decades later, find full expression in the ‘alpinist style’ – in which gifted climbers abandoned siege tactics in favour of self-sufficiency and speed. The trouble for Wilson, however, was that such tactics required the person in question to be a mountaineer of great skill and experience. Wilson had hardly climbed anything more challenging than a flight of stairs.
Alas, Caesar follows Wilson’s lead in terms of first-hand alpine research. He does none. Instead he co-pilots a Tiger Moth to hear the same roar Wilson heard, shiver in the open cockpit, and ‘feel the thing slip and yaw as you yank the joystick this way and that’. He considers, half-heartedly, following Wilson’s footsteps to (and up) Everest, but ‘the idea is parked’. That’s a shame, because the chapters about Wilson’s airborne adventures really sing as a result of the author’s endeavours, while the sections on the Himalayas feel slightly flat. Perhaps Caesar’s quest for absolute fidelity is misplaced. You don’t need to scale Everest to experience exposure, the crunch of hard snow beneath one’s boots, the rasp of crampons on rock, the ecstatic fatigue at the end of the day: you can do all that in the Cairngorms.
This is, however, a minor gripe given the book’s general excellence. Caesar is to be applauded for giving romantic, adamantine, lion-hearted Maurice Wilson his overdue day in the sun.