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