Jim Gavin's Black Balls

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Among the new books waiting for me when I got back from South Georgia was Tony Smythe's biography and memoir of his father Frank, comfortably the most famous mountaineer in Britain in the 1930s. I idly picked it up and skimmed through Doug Scott's introduction, which noted that Frank had probably seen George Mallory's body in 1936 and kept it quiet. This, as they say, was news, and so I interviewed Tony and wrote it up for The Observer.

The public are of course much more interested in Everest and Mallory than the finer points of 1930s climbing politics, but Tony's excellent, and at times deliciously gossipy take on this period contains gems that didn't make it into my article. Chief among them was the discovery that Everest climber Jim Gavin's notorious struggle to get elected to the Alpine Club really was fixed.

The fact Gavin had been knocked back the first time he applied because he wasn't sufficiently experienced was acutely embarrassing for Frank Smythe, pictured above, whose particular job it was to choose new blood, and the Mount Everest Committee. Frank, as Tony acknowledges in his scrupulously balanced and compassionate judgement, had erred badly in not selecting Colin Kirkus for Everest in 1936. Kirkus was comfortably the best choice and had a notable Himalayan record. Gavin was, by comparison, third or fourth best. It's quite possible that Frank just didn't want the competition.

So it became vitally important that Gavin was elected to the AC. Frank's' enemies, of whom there were several following the Thomas Graham Brown spat, were equally determined to embarrass him, and several black balls were introduced during Gavin's second election process. During his research, Tony Smythe discovered a note from Tom Blakeney that proves the president, Edward Lisle Strutt, wasn't above skulduggery to save the MEC embarrassment:

 "An effort was made to blackball Gavin, and in fact black balls were cast at the ballot. But it is notorious that Strutt removed a number and put them in the 'white' ball box!"

I'll try and review My Father, Frank if I get some time, but in the interim I can wholly recommend it. It has lots of original research and is a lively read with lots about other well known figures from that era, including Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman. It really is one of the best mountaineering books I've read in a long while and for those of us with a passion for 1930s mountain exploration – the true golden age – a rare treat.

Posted by Ed Douglas at 1.48 PM