The Angry Corrie 58: Jul-Sep 2003

Evidently maybe: The Evidence of Things Not Seen, by W H Murray

Baton Wicks, 2002, 352pp, 1 89857 324 7, 20.00

That there is a strangeness to The Evidence of Things Not Seen is partly due to circumstance, as the author's death early in 1996 meant he was never able to properly shape a book of which he wrote "I believe it will be my last". The sadness of his passing - he was aged 83 years and one day but it felt before his time - is conveyed in an epilogue by his widow Anne, the best of her several contributions to the book. She tells of her man's final year of illness following a blackout and a fall, and of his having enjoyed "the best summer weather we ever had at Loch Goil. Even the midges were in abeyance and days were lived outside". This is mixed with her anger at the final, post-operative decline, hastened by "follow-up problems including hospital infection and pulmonary oedema - the latter regarded by Bill as a hazard of altitude and Himalayan climbing and not as a hazard of the NHS."

What Bill Murray's failure to see his last work published meant in literary terms can be seen in the extent to which the eventual book is something of a jumble: there is the feel of an anthology, or an externally edited "reader". The Essential W H Murray would look similar: the main text supplemented by a smattering of letters and speeches, some thoughts on writing methodology and the odd poem by his widow. One chapter here is even lifted wholesale from what is commonly held to be his finest book, Mountaineering in Scotland.

Quite what form the eventual balance of editorial input took is unclear - normally the publisher would be the dominant party, but Anne Murray comments that "After Bill's death in 1996 I continued the editing of his book as he would have wished and as we discussed." Perhaps it is this dual-control approach that has left the book feeling "busy", as opposed to being an uncluttered autobiographical memoir. Yet when genuine editorial intervention is needed in the form of an explanatory footnote, this tends to be absent - such that The Evidence... has a feeling of being simultaneously over-structured and underwritten, adrift on the moor between genuine autobiography and posthumous, analytical biography.

That said, there is much good writing here, especially in the early chapters. Murray begins with his upbringing (Liverpool born, Glasgow raised), and the opening page includes a wonderful image of his father, another W H, killed at Gallipoli when Murray was two. "In the great frosts of the 1890s", the son writes, "he used to skate ten miles up Loch Lomond from Balloch to Rowardennan, weaving his way through the dozen islands, then climb Ben Lomond and skate back".

These opening sections, "Early Years" and "Pre-War Climbing in Scotland", stand as a companion piece to Murray's early books and provide a valuable social commentary on a climbing era that will, when its last few participants die, suddenly seem an age ago. There is also a fine self-portrayal of poise and pleasure, of a hugely able hill man with abilities and health unhindered. "I have rarely enjoyed anything in life more than cutting up a long, high-angled ice pitch where balance was delicate," Murray writes. Few could have written that with such technical and philosophical honesty.

The looming war inevitably overshadows these early days, and the book's crux is the change from the freedom of the hills to the confinement of conscription. Come the outbreak of hostilities, two days after Auden had sat in one of the dives on Fifty-Second Street, uncertain and afraid, Murray is to be seen sharing at least the first of these emotions on the Buachaille, where he comments: "To me and everyone I knew at the time, mobilisation spelled the ruin of everything we most valued in life". After climbing the hill by Crowberry Ridge, he descends "as slowly as I knew how".

He didn't sign up until April 1940, when in an echo of his Buachaille ascent he "climbed Observatory Ridge, then came straight down to Fort William, where I registered for military service". What followed - his training, capture in North Africa and long sojourn in POW camps - gives the narrative an edge that outdoes even the best on-crag accounts from the pre-war years. Murray's humanity shows through in clear-eyed descriptions of at best grim, at worst horrific events: "I half turned to see how my platoon was faring, and to speak to my runner, who came hard on my heels. His body stood on its legs a yard away - but only the legs, still joined at the smoking waist." That "smoking" is a terrible, precise observation. Then there is disgust at "psychopaths" in his own ranks, be they a Hurricane pilot gleefully strafing a column of ambulances, or a general ordering his men not to take prisoners. Such people, Murray notes, "should be cut out when found".

And then comes an incident which links directly with the book's underlying theme of otherworldliness. A mortar bomb explodes a yard away, and Murray recalls a "golden rule of artillery attack": that "no shell lands twice in the same spot". But just as he is about to slither into the assumed safety of the crater, he "felt inwardly a sudden negative command: 'Stay put!' It came not from my own will or mind, which intended otherwise, yet while soundless, was so authoritative that I chose not to argue." Of course within seconds another bomb lands in the crater. "On rare occasions," Murray notes, "a human being may be open to direction from a power higher than his own."

The "Incarceration" section is no less vivid, and, if anything, even more brutal. Murray was moved between Chieti in Italy, Moosburg in Bavaria, Mahrisch Trubau in Bohemia and Oflag 79 in Saxony. Gestapo agents took a steadily greater role in proceedings ("men from whom all good had been wrung out, leaving an animated corpse. My flesh crept"), and Murray's coping mechanism combined writing and mystical religion. This latter was nurtured by fellow prisoner Herbert Buck, whose initial approach - "It seems to me you're ready to start on the Mystic Way" - carries with it, cold on the page and to the modern eye, an inadvertent sense of having slipped in from some Van Morrison lyric sheet.

This is the point at which the writing begins to falter, as Murray is less sure-footed in conveying religious matters than when describing climbs or the vocation of writing, even though each meant much to him and the three were heavily intertwined. With religion, his writing lapses into a curious formality: "The practical approach [to what he calls the "Perennial Philosophy"] starts with discursive meditation, long continued and accompanied by stripping away of everything that hinders and obscures the soul's vision, or leads away from the goal, which is the unitive knowledge of the Infinite. One, to whom mankind has given innumerable names, summarised as God. The union is a paradox, free of pantheism - a union in love, truth, inner vision, and not in identity." Revealing one's spiritual beliefs in print is dangerous for any writer, and Murray deserves credit for risking this and several passages like it. Trouble is, he loses his writer's voice every time spirituality comes up, and "unitive knowledge of the Infinite" is as woolly as "smoking" was precise in the bombardment passage.

Another way in which the book - or, rather, its editing - starts to drift comes with the appearance of an intriguing character. Alastair Cram (1909-94) was close to Murray's equal as a climber, but in all other respects they appear to have been complete opposites. In the camps, Murray chose to meditate and write whereas Cram felt it his duty to escape. Each was right, and Murray is magnanimous about Cram's bravery. After the latter is taken to Dachau and "forced to watch the torture of Czech women" (leading to a spell in a mental hospital, from which, inevitably, he escapes), Murray comments: "I honour his memory. The man was indomitable."

Murray notes that Cram's constant co-escapee, Tommy Wedderburn, was of "markedly contrasting character", yet a similar question concerning Murray and Cram - how come these two great hill men handled prison life so differently? - is never asked. Murray's comment, after Cram's final escape, that "He and I never met again" is extraordinary, given that the pair were to be SMC stalwarts for another half-century. But it remains unclear whether this arose from antipathy, or from the two men's vastly different circumstances: Murray settled in quiet Lochgoilhead, Cram toured the colonial judicial-diplomatic circuit (although was home enough to complete a second round of Munros in 1978). The reader is likely to want to know more about this, and light shed on interpersonal tensions is often the brightest part of any biography. Murray himself evidently didn't want to say more, but The Evidence... would have been stronger with explanatory footnotes at this and various other points.

Having said that, were the book to stop at the end of the war years, then it would without doubt be a fine piece of work. Indeed, were the narrative shortfall to be covered by adding more depth and detail on Murray's friends and climbing colleagues (along the lines of the one-off chapter on Ben Humble near the actual book's end), then it could well have been tinged with greatness. The connection between Murray and the Great War poets has been noted previously (see Gordon Smith in TAC35), and the tension here between idyllic youth and military horror bears a marked similarity to Siegfried Sassoon's Memoirs of a fox-hunting man and Memoirs of an infantry officer. There are differences - not least that Murray, for all his having been one of the leading stylists in mountaineering literature, lacked Sassoon's ultra-elegant ability to carry a narrative forward. But Murray's account of gullies on the Buachaille being succeeded by gruesome conflict retains a resonance well suited to his sparse, spare style.

The book, however, doesn't end with liberation, and what happens next is curious. First comes a short section detailing Murray's return to non-war life: his emotional re-embracing of the Buachaille (climbing Central Buttress when he feared he would "be lucky to get to a top by the easiest route"), then decisions about work in a bank versus life as a writer and hill man. There is also an account of the Alpine accident in which Murray and Michael Ward (the medical officer on the 1953 Everest expedition) were seriously injured and John Barford, secretary of the British Mountaineering Council, was killed. This is all well written, albeit rather thinly (the three topics, and more, are covered inside 30 pages), and Murray sustains the mood and the momentum of the earlier sections.

Then comes an extended description - occupying over 40% of the book - of Murray's explorations in the Himalayas in the early 1950s. This ought to be interesting, even captivating, as the work was pioneering, putting up routes on often untouched mountains, correcting what passed for cartography in blank areas ("Make a map" Murray's mentor Tom Longstaff had ordered) and providing research and inspiration for succeeding generations of mountaineers.

It should be thrilling, but it's not. The prose starts to plod, and the porters and gorges and virgin-peak attempts blur together. It's always a bad sign when the words, especially those of a quality writer, are of markedly lower quality than the accompanying illustrations, and this is the case here. Take for instance the tremendous photograph of the Kali gorge that faces page 256. Murray's over-detailed description makes for dull reading in comparison, just as the whole section is less sparky on the page than is Eric Shipton's 1936 book on the same area, Nanda Devi. There is no real doubt that Murray was a better, more crafted writer than Shipton, so something has gone amiss. A clue is found in Anne Murray's note: "In consultation with the publisher it was agreed to expand sections dealing with [...] the 1950 Scottish Himalayan Expedition." Is there a hint of behind-the-scenes dispute in that awkward "In consultation with"? Whatever: it was a bad idea. The Himalayan sections seem to have been worked up from notebook drafts, and surely, had he lived, Murray would have condensed them, saying far more in far fewer words.

Even had he done so, however, there might still have been a problem. Murray without doubt loved the high-Asian regions and their people, but he didn't know them half as well as he did the Scottish hills and their people. One of the skills of good travel writing is to avoid the impression of lack of affinity, but Murray - whose Himalayan narrative reads as at-best-average travel writing - was evidently a writer for whom genuine affinity was crucial.

This links with another problem: Murray was a great writer about hills and climbs but not so hot on conveying the character of the people with and among whom he climbed. As the 100-plus Himalayan pages drag by, it becomes hard to distinguish between the coolies (sic), Dotials and other assorted porters and officials, try as Murray might to dutifully allocate them names and characters. Thus when the narrative arrives at a crucial moment - a Dotial named Matbir climbs steep ground on Uja Tirche to pick flowers for Murray in an act of simple kindness later contrasted with "its witnessed opposite [...] the corpse-like face of a Gestapo agent", the point risks being lost. This was a big, symbolic event in Murray's life, and deserves to stand out more.

Even his portrayals of close companions lack definition. Tom MacKinnon's character just about emerges via his medical work with villagers, while Tom Weir comes across as a man who could rustle up fine food from scant resources (and who would be less than pleased were such unavailable). But the third of Murray's Himalayan co-climbers, Douglas Scott, hardly seems to register at all, even though he was every bit an equal. Murray simply fails to capture him on the page.

And perhaps most telling of all, there is Murray's unwillingness or inability to fully portray himself. Hamish MacInnes, in his foreword, writes of "Bill's tendency to play down his role in events", and this is a problem throughout the book, especially once the early dramas have passed. Understatement, self-deprecation, formal modesty - call it what you will - is a common trait among intelligent, articulate Scots, and can be endearing if encountered in the flesh. But it doesn't make for good autobiography, and Murray, too humble for his own good, risks coming across as remote, clinical, even cold.

There was surely much more to him in the way of rough edges than the book suggests, and a degree of posthumous editorial intervention in the form of a few cross-referenced footnote quotes and anecdotes from leading characters could have added a roundness to the severe image. The problem isn't quite on the scale noted by Murray himself, in an appended (pp342-344) speech to the BMC, where he says, of 1950s climbing literature, "A gambit of understatement, overused, came close to humbug". But, at times, it comes close.

As it is, some vivid description is usually nearby to offset serious annoyance at the author's reticence (and his editors' reluctance). Hence Murray's writer's eye notes that "down in the glen [Coe] the frost was so hard that we had to drain the car's radiator", and he recalls - of his first bite of chocolate after wartime starvation - "that swift run of heat through the body as if from neat whisky". The book includes much of this standard. What humour there is (and Murray was one of the most serious of Scottish hill-writers) tends to be dry to the point of maybe not being humour at all. Hence, in a letter home, Murray describes the Great Pyramid of Gizeh as "no harder than the Curved Ridge of the Buachaille". And he and Anne, in search of a ledge on a (deliberate) night-time descent from an icy Aonach Eagach, suddenly find "the Glen Coe road under our feet - a fine ledge on a dark night".

Is The Evidence... a good book? Hard to say: the answer lies somewhere between Probably Yes and Possibly Not. It undoubtedly includes some quality writing, and is complex and profound enough for the recommendation to be to buy it and find out for yourself. But even the book's cover is symptomatic of the uncertainty. The photograph of a hooded, on-hill Murray successfully links the man's mountaineering and monastic interests. The title, by contrast, is debatable. While "The evidence of things not seen" is without doubt an elegant phrase (initially borrowed from the Letter to the Hebrews, 11, i), the book's strength is the evidence of things seen: the hills, the war, the post-war conservation issues with which Murray became engaged. When dealing with invisibles he's nothing like as successful.

So perhaps the question ought to be: does The Evidence... add to or detract from Murray's standing as a writer? He took great pains over his literary craft, and this is possibly the question he would have preferred. Again the answer is unclear, but on balance this book seems likely to leave his reputation in much the same place. We're 50 years on from Mountaineering in Scotland and Undiscovered Scotland, and in a further 50 years Murray will still be remembered for those books and not for this.

On the subject of posterity and the longer view, one final thought. Of Murray's various climbing and expeditioning colleagues, the one who comes closest to appearing as a rounded character is Tom Weir. For all that the Himalayan section drags heavily, without Weir - without his climbing and cooking prowess and his irrepressible weight of character - it would drag far more. Weir, of course, also wrote much about the hills, and his work is vividly peopled by friends, acquaintances and bumped-into hill folk, as well as being packed with hills climbed, routes achieved, wildlife seen and access battles fought. (Those over-accustomed to the red-nosed, bobble-hatted late-period Weir should dig out his early Scots Magazine work, in which forthright encounters with keepers and path-closers feature highly.) As things stand, Murray tends to be regarded as pre-eminent among Scottish hill writers. But thinking 50 years ahead, could it be that Weir will come to be seen as the more enduring?

TAC 58 Index