IN THE EARLY HOURS OF 15 JANUARY 1934, an earthquake of magnitude 8.4 rocked Nepal and Bihar. Fissures as much as five kilometres deep opened in the earth, exhaling a choking dust and swallowing hillsides and villages. Ten thousand people died without leaving their beds. Although Kathmandu was relatively unscathed, nearby Patan was upheaved; large portions of the prime minister’s private palace were razed, and the town’s Durbar Square filled up with rubble. In distant Calcutta, the bell tower and steeple of St Paul’s Cathedral collapsed, the crash accompanied by a tremendous clang. As the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates shifted into a more comfortable position beneath the earth’s surface, new lakes filled up behind landslides in the Himalayas and more people lost their lives in shuddering aftershocks.
Since the Gurkha War of 1814, the Kingdom of Nepal had been off limits to foreigners, especially the English; available maps had been entirely the work of Indian surveyors unsupervised by British colonial officials. But with the permission of the Maharaja of Nepal, the Geological Survey of India (GSI) sent a small team to investigate the devastation, led by an English geologist. The four men left Calcutta in early February and travelled for several months in bullock carts and on royal elephants, completing three separate traverses over ranges in both Nepal and Bihar before completing their trek at Darjeeling.
Comparing seismographs from Bombay and Kew, England, the long-legged, bearded and alarmingly pale-skinned team leader, 31-year-old John Bicknell Auden, had first judged the earthquake’s epicentre to fall in southeastern Nepal. On reaching the area to camp, however, he read the landscape as a detective might study overturned furniture to reconstruct a violent crime. He concluded that the epicentre was not in the Nepal Himalaya but in the Gangetic alluvium, further south, in north Bihar. In the seismological report he eventually filed with the GSI, Auden’s observations were largely geological. His account of the same journey for the Himalayan Journal, however, revealed a mountaineer’s agenda: to get a close-up view of Mount Everest’s southern face. He would be the first European to take in this view, and the first in over a century to visit the region.
Despite thick spectacles, Auden had a mountaineer’s eye for what he called “the great Himalayan tide”. He used his annual furlough, not to return to England where every stone had been turned over at least once, but to join path-breaking British expeditions in the high Himalayas whenever he could. Himalayan exploration had exploded with a kind of rapacity between the first and second world wars, and Everest was its most coveted prize. Before the Englishman George Mallory disappeared on the final approach to Everest’s summit in 1924, he had ascended its heights from the North Col route, from Tibet. This not only involved obtaining permission from the Dalai Lama, but a long dreary march across the bleak wastes of the Tibetan plateau. The year before the earthquake, the Dalai Lama had granted limited access to the mountain for another attempt, the first since Mallory’s. This 1933 expedition, too, had failed to reach the summit. The possibility of an ascent from the Nepal side of Everest was thus a tantalising prospect. On the first, westernmost traverse in the wake of the earthquake, Auden was able to photograph Everest at dawn, from a forest bungalow near Kaulia, but the mountain was dwarfed by distance.
Had Auden been travelling in the month of September or October, the south-facing slopes of Everest and the peaks surrounding it would have been fully visible on his third, easternmost traverse. Instead, by early April, the mountains were concealed behind a scrim of dust and rain. “From the point of view of…obtaining new aspects of the southern slopes of the main Himalayan range, the journeys were an almost total failure,” he lamented in his report for the Himalayan Journal.
IN THE 1930S, Eric Shipton and HW Tilman were the presiding eminences of Himalayan mountaineering. Shipton was the son of an English tea planter in Ceylon whose early demise uprooted the young Eric to England and brought a premature end to his childhood. Nine years older, Tilman was the taciturn, bachelor son of a wealthy English sugar merchant based in Cheshire. After surviving the trenches of the Somme, Tilman left England and became an unsuccessful coffee planter in Kenya, where the puckish Shipton, also desultorily trying his hand at coffee, found him in 1930, immured and restless. Together they set out to go climbing, first ascending two peaks of Mount Kenya, then tackling the Mountains of the Moon (now known as the Rwenzori Mountains). That same year, they made an effort to climb the three volcanic cones of Mount Kilimanjaro; only the tallest defeated them. In 1931, Shipton moved on to the Himalayas, successfully summiting Kamet, a peak on the edge of the Tibetan plateau, at that time the highest ever achieved.
The “terrible twins”, as Shipton and Tilman were known, provided England with something like what Stamford Raffles, Chinese Gordon, Richard Burton and Cecil Rhodes had given to the Victorian empire builders. In the 1920s and 1930s, a London-based group called the Everest Club treated the world’s highest mountain as their private domain; successive British consuls would negotiate England’s exclusive access to Everest with the Dalai Lama in Llasa. By the 1930s, however, interlopers from Switzerland and Germany began arriving in the Himalayas; a German named Paul Bauer had already attempted the giant peaks Nanga Parbat and Kanchenjunga. Though Bauer failed to reach either summit, it was clear that a race to plant national flags on the loftiest Himalayan summits was on.
For the 1933 Everest expedition, hopes were high. In a bid to offset its massive expenditures, the Everest Club auctioned off exclusive publishing and newspaper rights, promising editors weeks of coverage on the team leader’s eccentricities, the high spirits of the Sherpas, and perhaps a close call with death or disaster. While Tilman remained in Africa to summit Kilimanjaro alone, Shipton joined the expedition along with a few others from his Kamet climb. He was astonished by the Club’s ponderous military-style assault on mountaintops, accompanied by tinned delicacies, radio transmitters and troops of Sherpas. (His climbs with Tilman had generally been shoestring operations paid for out of his own pocket.) When its attempt on Everest failed, the club blamed the early arrival of the monsoon and vowed to try again, but Shipton felt the size of the climbing party and the tonnes of provisions required to support it were as much to blame.
Tilman soon joined Shipton in India, arriving in time for the next climbing season. Within a few months of the Nepal–Bihar earthquake, the two successfully penetrated the Nanda Devi sanctuary, an unexplored mountain citadel comprising a ring of 30 peaks, each over 21,000 feet high, on the border between India and Tibet. In 1935, the Tibetan government gave permission for another Everest expedition; but it was too late in the season for the Everest Club to assemble its requisite army. Instead, Shipton volunteered to take a smaller team to reconnoitre the range (he was explicitly enjoined from making an attempt on the summit). Together with Tilman, and a 19-year-old neophyte named Tenzing Norgay, he managed to climb 26 peaks over 20,000 feet, including 24 first ascents—a monumental achievement for a single season. From a northern shoulder of Everest, Shipton got a distant look at an approach from the Nepal side and deemed it feasible, should the Nepalese kingdom ever allow him to try. While Shipton joined a full-bore Everest Club attempt the following year, Tilman became the first to summit the legendary Nanda Devi, two years after Shipton and his initial penetration of the sanctuary. Finally abandoning Everest and the club, Shipton and Tillman hatched a plan to explore a remote reach of the Karakoram Range abutting K2 (in what is now the Gilgit-Baltistan area of Pakistan). This became known as the Shaksgam Expedition. Against the advice of his family and friends, John Auden accepted Shipton’s invitation to join them.
Although primarily a geologist, Auden’s assignment on the expedition was to help survey the region. The Karakoram, located northwest of the Himalayas, is prone to earthquakes and landslides and characterised by deep river gorges and impenetrable passes. It is also home to some of the highest and most dangerous summits in the world. In 1937, the intention was to produce a map for a 2,000-square-mile area that had yet to be surveyed. (Blank on the Map would be the title of Shipton’s subsequent bestseller.) Another surveyor, the 6-foot-5-inch Michael Spender, joined Auden in the task. Spender had been on the 1935 reconnaissance of Everest, during which he created a stereo-photographic survey of the mountain’s northern face. Shipton had recruited him on the recommendation of a fellow mountaineer who believed that it was a great advantage to include a man “so universally disliked that the others, with a common object for their spleen, would be drawn together in close companionship.”
After crossing the Indus with 100 Sherpas and Balti-Tibetans from Skardu carrying sufficient food for four months, they found a pass to take them over the Karakoram. In the middle of the unexplored territory, they created a central supply dump, and then sent most of their porters back. The remaining crew, including Auden and Spender, broke up for radial journeys outward, methodically surveying from the fixed point of K2 to extend the margins of the known world. By then a confirmed believer in small, lightweight and half-starved expeditions, Shipton allowed only a handful of Sherpas to accompany the surveying trips. The heavy equipment limited how many supplies they could carry. In the course of the work, the climbers skirted moraines and crevasses, and forded torrents swollen with glacier-melt. On one such excursion, Spender definitively established K2 as the second highest mountain on the planet.
Despite the cartographic triumph, Shipton frankly admitted that he looked upon surveying as “a patient uncle might regard his nephews playing trains on the table on which he was shortly expecting his lunch”. Surveying and mapmaking, however useful in planning future expeditions, not to mention military campaigns, were clearly lowlier vocations, altogether lacking in glory. Writing up an account of his work on the expedition, Michael Spender would observe: “No one was more surprised than I, when Shipton told me how many minutes it took to get my plane-table on to its tripod, leveled and properly oriented,” entirely failing to register Shipton’s teasing impatience. For Shipton if not for Spender, the point was to tread where no one else had trod before, “to wander with a small self-contained party through the labyrinth of unexplored valleys, forming our plans to suit the circumstances, climbing peaks when the opportunity occurred, following up on our own topographical clues, and crossing passes into unknown territory,” as he wrote in his memoirs. If Everest continued to prove elusive, a lesser summit or a heretofore un-crossed mountain pass in some other terra incognita would do.
BY THE END OF THE 1920S, two decades of tragedy had complicated the triumphal myth upon which the British Empire once stood. In 1912, Roald Amundsen bested Royal Navy officer Robert Falcon Scott in the race to the South Pole; on his return leg, Scott froze to death with his team on the Ross Ice Shelf. A year later, Lytton Strachey eviscerated the moral pretensions of the Age of Empire with his satirical take on its heroes in Eminent Victorians. By 1918, an entire generation of men lay martyred and immortalised beneath the mud of Flanders fields. The jockeying for colonial possessions among the civilised nations of the West, had led directly to the savagery of the trenches of the Somme and Ypres, and to the extended massacre at Gallipoli. By the time Robert Graves’ war memoir Goodbye to All That was published in 1929, the extent of the First World War’s senseless slaughter—and the British establishment’s blundering complicity in it—was clear. For a period, John Auden’s generation seemed baffled not only by having been born too late for the Great War, but also by a vague call for martyrdom or heroic action of some sort.
If mountaineering represented one sort of response to this call, literature, in its own way, was another. During the 1930s, as many reputations were being made in English letters as in the Himalayas, and the incidence of sibling rivalry across these two domains was remarkable. The novelist Graham Greene invariably compared his early mixed literary successes with the accomplishments of his dashing older brother, Raymond, a doctor who had joined Shipton on both his successful Kamet climb and the failed 1933 attempt on Everest. Auden’s younger brother, Wystan Hugh (WH) Auden, and Michael Spender’s younger brother, the poet Stephen, had even been part of the same left-leaning cohort at Oxford, together with the writers Christopher Isherwood, Louis MacNeice and Cecil Day Lewis.
Wystan and Stephen looked upon their elder brothers’ Himalayan adventures with a mixture of awe, envy and ambivalence. Oversensitive and self-involved, Stephen was completely mystified by Michael’s overbearing sense of his own superiority and utter humourlessness; he chafed at the memory of how his parents had favoured their golden firstborn. In contrast, Stephen often suffered from nosebleeds and had an overpowering fear of heights. For his part, Wystan—although he would go on to become the greatest English poet of the 20th century—begrudged John his bladed scientific mind and his heterosexual nature. He and Isherwood were constantly debating how the Truly Weak Man—such were their terms—might transform himself into a Truly Strongone. Auden in particular felt himself condemned to the solitary life of an ineffectual “bugger”, rather than ordained for something more impeccably masculine and heroic, such as the great mountaineering exploits of his brother.
In some sense, though, these younger siblings were also charting new territory. Poetry, Wystan wrote in 1935, was concerned with “extending our knowledge of good and evil, perhaps making the necessity for action more urgent and its nature more clear”. Surrealism, absurdity, and satire vied with Communism, pacifism, and psychoanalysis to provide an alternative to the British establishment’s political and literary status quo. This was partly a response, not only to the crumbling moral sureties of the Victorian era, but also to the previous literary generation’s study-bound aestheticism and political disengagement. TS Eliot, whose 1922 poem “The Waste Land” had electrified Wystan and his peers as undergraduates, still reigned over English-language letters; his critical pronouncements, advocating classicism, Roman Catholicism, and, above all, a strict adherence to tradition, appeared regularly in the magazine he edited, The Criterion. In contrast, Auden and his cohort hunted for muscular political commitments, travelling to China and Iceland, to the Spanish civil war, and to pre-war Berlin, corresponding and comparing notes with each other all the while. These were not the sorts of questions to which John Auden and Michael Spender ever gave much thought.
John Auden had arrived in Calcutta to join the GSI just after leaving Cambridge in 1926. Though an automatic member of the ruling elite, the social rounds of the colonial bureaucracy in Calcutta were intolerable to him. This was made even more so when, in 1933, his wife left him for another man and he was obliged to venture out alone for company. He was an immensely self-conscious man who, when flustered, tended to blush angrily to the roots of his white blond hair, humiliating himself still further. Under the influence of whisky and heady clouds of cigarette smoke, however, John’s shyness gave way to anti-imperialist mockery. He vented his fury in letters to Wystan: “Most of the British here have either lost any curiosity to live or don’t exist outside their ridiculous clubs and sordid chummeries,” he wrote, oblivious to the sting that “sordid chummeries” might have for Wystan. He wanted nothing more than to be left alone in the mountains to reconstruct the clash of continents millions of years before the arrival of Clive’s addled and depraved descendants. In the “crisis physiognomy” of the Himalayas, he found not only a correlate to his personal unhappiness but a means to evade the larger political questions implied by his mere presence in India.
Wystan took on such questions in John’s stead. Though literary historians have endlessly dissected the evolution of his, Stephen Spender’s, and Isherwood’s political views on Fascism and Communism, what has been less remarked upon were these writers’ feelings about the Empire they inherited, and how those feelings reacted with the choices they made in their lives and their art. Despite his generally liberal views, Stephen felt India was not ready for independence. He quarrelled with both George Orwell and Mulk Raj Anand on the subject. (Orwell, for one, thought him silly.) Other writers, Wystan among them, joined some of India’s restive colonial subjects in implicating liberal democracy in the misdeeds of Empire. When, in the latter half of the 1930s, another world war loomed, the need to re-imagine political ideals, so as to put one’s literary ambitions and spiritual beliefs on a firmer footing, acquired a sense of urgency.
In 1936, even as Hitler’s armies marched unopposed into the de-militarised Rhineland to re-occupy the Ruhr, both Liberal pacifists and Labourites in Britain were fuming over Churchill’s insistent warmongering. That February, Wystan wrote to John that he and Isherwood were leaving for Portugal to compose a mountaineering play. “Everyone in England is just waiting for the war to start,” Wystan said. While Wystan and Isherwood traded drafts that summer, Tilman’s progress up the slopes of Nanda Devi was extensively reported by the world press. The verse drama that resulted from Wystan and Isherwood’s collaboration would mirror the events both of this climb and of Shipton’s attempt on Everest that same season. The writers also lampooned the jingoistic news coverage of the ascents as a transparent attempt to shore up the nation’s morale. To Wystan and Isherwood, the drumbeats of the impending war were as unmistakable as the echoes of the last one:
Night after night we have listened to the ignoble news.
We have heard the Glib justification of the sorry act.
The frantic washing of the grimy fact.
But nothing to bring a smile to the face.
Nothing to make us proud of our race. […]
Nothing to take us out of ourselves, […]
Give us something to make us proud of ourselves.
Give it quickly.
“The Summit”, as Wystan and Isherwood initially called their composition, would eventually be re-titled The Ascent of F6: A Tragic Play in Two Acts.
At the play’s outset, a crisis is brewing in the fictional British colony of Sudoland. The British Colonial Office, in league with the gutter press, has obscured how dire the situation has become. There have been riots; colonial officials have been attacked and military stores set aflame; and the flower of British womanhood has been grossly insulted in unspeakable ways. Furthermore, England’s arch nemesis, Ostnia—read France, Germany or Russia—which had an equal presence in Sudoland, has seen a chance to acquire more territory. At a meeting to discuss the British response to the crisis, Lady Isabel Welwyn, the daughter of a former viceroy, suggests the public simply be informed. General Dellaby-Couch, implicated in a recent Amritsar-style massacre that nearly brought down the government, deftly spells out why that is impossible:
The truth is that we’ve got ten millions invested in the country and we don’t intend to budge—not if we have to shoot every nigger from one end of the land to the other. The truth is that we’re under-garrisoned and under-policed and that we’re in a blue funk if the Ostnians come over the frontier and drive us into the sea. Already, they’ve spent thousands on propaganda among our natives, promising reforms which neither they nor we nor any other colonial power will ever carry out…
Then, Sir James Ransom, a minister of His Majesty’s Government, presents a plan to divert public attention. He will ask his twin brother, Michael, a famed mountaineer, to lead a British expedition to the summit of F6, the highest peak in the world. Lord Stagmantle, a press baron, leaps at this; he will fund the expedition in exchange for exclusive rights, hoping, as Whitehall hoped, that such a story will push the talk of the Sudoland revolt off the front pages.
F6 is located on a chain of mountains marking the frontier between the two rival colonial outposts. Both England and the Ostnians claim it, and Ostnia is already planning an ascent from its own side of the frontier. Furthermore, the hill tribes believe the mountain is haunted and that whichever country gains the summit first and subdues the demon that inhabits it, will rule all of Sudoland for 1,000 years. Though climbing F6 had long been Michael Ransom’s dream, when approached by his brother with an invitation to lead the expedition, he refuses to even consider it: the General, the Lady, the Lord and especially his twin brother represent everything he finds contemptible in English life.
The character of Michael Ransom was loosely based on TE Lawrence, also known as Lawrence of Arabia, who had been killed in a motorcycle crash in 1935. Lawrence had haunted both Wystan and Isherwood, as he haunted their entire generation. His love of the Arabs and the desert was genuine, Isherwood felt, but left him open to political exploitation by the Great Gamers in the British Foreign Office. Wystan had a different view: he imagined Lawrence—and, as a result, Ransom—as a charismatic but lonely figure, conflicted about his need for public adulation, hence his refusal to lead the assault.
Wystan and Isherwood clashed over their differing views of the central character; the play went through at least eight revisions. Ransom had to be “far more wonderful, isolated, dotty, his relation with his [mother] more symbolic of Hitler’s relation with the crowd,” Auden opined to his brother in October 1936. Indeed, Ransom’s mother arrives in the play at a critical moment and persuades her son to accept the commission and assemble an expedition. Though John took mild exception to the representation of the climbers—particularly the main character’s Oedipal fixation—Wystan dedicated the play to him, insisting it wasn’t meant to be realistic, but more along the lines of a parable.
Michael Ransom eventually succeeds, stumbling to the summit of F6 in the midst of a blizzard that, one by one, has taken the lives of his team. There, after apparitions of his brother and mother appear, he dies. Yet even the loss of the entire expedition does not stop Lord Stagmantle and Lady Welwyn from turning the rituals of mourning into public fodder:
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Wystan would later maintain that the struggle to compose The Ascent of F6 marked a turning point in his life: “F6 was the end. I knew that I must leave when I wrote it.” He and Isherwood departed England for America in January 1939, two months before Hitler annexed Czechoslovakia. In doing so, they weighed in on their homeland less directly than they had in The Ascent of F6, but in a manner far less amenable to revision. They refused to be party to yet another global cataclysm, one that would send another generation of Englishmen into the bloody abyss. Isherwood soon moved to California and became active in the Vedanta Society. (His 1947 translation of the Bhagavad Gita is a classic.) Wystan remained behind in New York, declining to play the sanctified role of war poet. When Germany invaded Poland that September and England declared war, Auden’s decision to remain in America was discussed in the House of Commons, portrayed as a dereliction of duty and a seismic betrayal of England in her darkest hour. Under the guise of a review of a new collection of Wystan’s poems, Stephen Spender was among those who disapproved.
Within days of the war’s start, Wystan learned from his mother that John was planning to join the Royal Air Force (RAF). He straightaway cabled John in Calcutta from the George Washington Hotel in New York, asking him to hold off. In a nearby bar, Wystan had already begun the great poem “September 1, 1939”, in which he implicated England’s “imperial face” in contributing to the “international wrong” done to Germany at the treaty tables of Versailles: “Those to whom evil is done, do evil in return.” Putting the poem aside, Wystan then wrote at length to his brother. In an effort to dissuade John from making what was likely to be a fatal choice, he began the letter with reference to their shared visit to Bruxelles the previous year.
In Bruxelles, Wystan had spoken to John of his desire to take part in the coming war. The year before, he had longed for war to start, he now explained, so that he might finally sacrifice his life for a greater cause. “Death would solve my problem,” he wrote. But three months after arriving in America, he had finally found the love that he had longed for in the form of an American librettist named Chester Kallman. As evidence of his transformation, he told his brother that he had finally given up biting his nails and was now “all soft and warm inside like a housemaid”. When news of the declaration of war came over the wireless, he told John, he burst into tears. He planned now to stay in America, “at all costs”.
Wystan then turned to the choice that faced his brother: “If I thought you had found your happiness, and then taken the decision to sacrifice it, I should think you a hero, though I should not imitate you. As it is I feel you have no right to judge. You have your real life ahead of you. (Don’t imagine you won’t find it) and that is your first duty.” This was not, he insisted, “our war”. It was a war between “Big Business Imperialism” and “Nazi-Soviet bureaucracy”. He had no use for either. He then drilled his brother on the latter’s real responsibility in a mode Wystan often used with Spender and Isherwood, and sometimes, too, in his poetry: the hortatory, sweeping statement. “[You must] understand what is happening [and] create in your personal life, the life of the future. I need hardly say that this takes as much effort and courage as flying an aeroplane.” Wystan also suggested John take up Raj Yoga, a practice that brings non-violence into one’s personal life. (He himself now had a swami.) Though Auden later disclaimed one of the most famous lines of “September 1, 1939”, it echoed his admonition to his brother: “We must love one another or die.”
Replying from the hill station of Mussoorie while a local band stumbled through the obligatory Gilbert and Sullivan tunes in a lunatic attempt at rousing a martial spirit, John applauded his brother’s decision to stay in America. During his stay in Bruxelles, he had been astonished to learn that Wystan had imagined himself unlovable; his own loneliness had blinded him to his brother’s. He saw no place for a poet in wartime England where once again, he imagined, the perpetrators and propagandists of war would be left unscathed. “Nothing you can write can save England,” wrote John. “Nothing except the wholesale murder of the bunglers […] would do that—and as blood is only shed outside England—not in England itself so that the bishops can keep their catechisms clean—that will not be possible.” As for himself, he had just returned from six months exploring passes in Gangotri, most of that time entirely alone. He was now being reassigned to work on irrigation and hydroelectric engineering projects.
“There isn’t much visible ahead,” he wrote gloomily.
IN THE END, John did not return to England to join the war. Nor did he join the effort closer to home, which was largely directed at suppressing the population’s response to Gandhi’s call for the British to “Quit India.” (Despite the Japanese bombs falling on Ceylon and Calcutta, Indian sepoys were off in Africa facing Rommel’s Afrika Corps, so the Viceroy had to send for British troops to restore order at home.) Following his brother’s lead in opting for imprudent love over martyrdom in war, John braved the “studied insolence” of his compatriots in Calcutta, “as violently opposed to contamination as any Nazi bourgeois”, and married a Bengali. His new wife, Sheila Bonnerjee, was a painter and a granddaughter of WC Bonnerjee, the founder and first president of the Indian National Congress. John resigned without regret from both the Saturday and Tollygunge clubs because his wife wasn’t allowed entry.
Sheila soon gave John two bright-eyed daughters. His circle of friends widened to include the painters Jamini Roy and Atul Bose, and the poets Sudhindranath Dutta and Bishnu Dey. Though these developments did not entirely dispel the pall of the war years in Calcutta, he acknowledged his happiness. Wystan was pleased and triumphant. In the dark wake of the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, an attack that devastated the US Pacific Fleet and brought the United States into the war, he wrote his brother a note of congratulations on the birth of his first child: “Every ohm of private happiness and decency is, I am convinced, a political asset to the world.”
John remained in India as the British Empire collapsed around him. In contrast, Michael Spender joined the RAF as a squadron leader. He was shot down and killed in the war’s closing week, leaving a new wife and infant son. As the war raged, John told Wystan that he viewed his years of Himalayan work—the thousands of square kilometres covered, the austerities suffered—as a kind of private monument to himself, one which would soon seem as inconsequential as “names carved on desks”. With his characteristic sense of impending doom, he had concluded there would be no academics left after the war to ponder his pioneering geological papers. In 1946, with negotiations between Congress and the Muslim League over Independence at an impasse, he witnessed the “Great Calcutta Killing”, a blood soaked spree of communal violence. John Auden ventured out after the riots subsided to rescue colleagues and friends and to help bury the hundreds of bodies dumped along the roads. “The devil was loose here for 3 days and over 4,000 were massacred,” he wrote in a letter to Wystan, appending a graphic description of what becomes of corpses left outside in Calcutta for a week. “Both sides claim that the next slaughter will be Europeans,” he added bleakly. But he stayed at his post. “Kipling and Elgar must be positively tossing in their graves at what’s happening to the B.E.,” Wystan commented, not without a note of satisfaction.
It didn’t take long after the Second World War ended before the mountaineers began to return. A new breed of adventurer accompanied them. “Plane loads of business magnates in their appalling ties arrive from New York and San Francisco, offering in the name of democracy to uplift the masses with enormous contracts,” John reported. “In Bangkok the Russian embassy numbers 198. China now includes most of Burma in its new maps.” Wystan replied cheerfully: “Thank god for American imperialism!” The Americans clearly had faults to spare, he acknowledged, but one did “not feel responsible for them”. As for the Russians, he proposed that England sign over Ireland to them, and they would “soon wish they had never been born”.
After the death of their mother in 1941, Wystan had abandoned his swami and returned to the Episcopal fold. Ten years later, John became a Roman Catholic, converted by Jesuits at a seminary in the hill station of Kurseong, just before his brother arrived in India on a brief and not altogether successful lecture tour. (Wystan found Indian dance performances interminable and made no bones about telling Jawaharlal Nehru so). John gave Wystan partial credit for his spiritual re-awakening; he had discussed his beliefs and disbeliefs with him on a 1945 trip to America to inspect dams and irrigation projects of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Wystan’s poem, “For the Time Being”, had showed John the way back to faith.
Despite his conversion, John assured Wystan that his wife noted no real transformation; he was still the same old sinner and, after Independence, no more pleased with India’s new rulers than he had been with the old ones. “Apart from a few like Nehru, Rajagopalachari, Sarojini Naidu, the country is being run by half educated sycophants and time-servers,” John wrote on 17 January 1949. “I have my own share of difficulties from the engineers, from whose imposing conference rooms roll out increasing numbers of grandiose schemes all to be taken up with the utmost priority. Dams are to be built 100 feet higher than Boulder and in half the time, for nothing is impossible to resurgent nationalism. My own position is in fact very precarious.”
Beset by demands for such Pharaonic projects, John returned to his Himalayan papers only once. It was like reading “the work of another hand,” he wrote to Wystan. “Amnesia has made me a total stranger to myself and what was then done with so much sweat and often fear.” Still, he wouldn’t have failed to note the irony that with the end of British rule, the Kingdom of Nepal was suddenly open to foreigners. Climbers now had access to a whole new array of the world’s highest peaks, and a chance at Everest’s summit from the south, exactly the approach John had been so keen to photograph in 1934. Taking in the massive Khumbu Icefall cascading from Everest’s Western Cwm, Tilman, once again first on the scene, pronounced it absolutely unusable. Three years later, in 1953, Tenzing and Edmund Hillary proved him wrong. It was as if the British had to lose their empire in order to claim Everest’s summit, though a Nepali Sherpa and a New Zealander came away with the prize. That same year, John finally resigned from the Geological Society of India—the last Englishman to leave its employ.
In one of this last letters to John, Wystan included “A Lullaby”:
For many years you envied
the hirsute, he-man type
No longer: now you fondle
your almost feminine flesh
with mettled satisfaction…
In a tribute to his younger sibling published after the poet’s death in 1973, John wryly recalled an early climbing holiday in Wales on which, much to his scorn, seven-year-old Wystan was carried part of the way up the mountain. It had taken John a long time to get over how his brother contrived to be so coddled and adored, first by his parents, then by the world—but he had. Characteristically self-effacing, what remained unacknowledged in his tribute was the role his own life and work had played in his brother’s political and poetic imagination.
John outlived his younger brother by nearly 20 years, dying in January 1991. He was cremated after a mass was said at Westminster Cathedral in London. At his request, his ashes were immersed in the Ganges at Rishikesh, below the crests of the Himalayan tide. But elsewhere, deep in the Gangotri, the mountainous region Auden explored just before the war, there is a pass connecting the Rudugaira Valley with the Bhilangana. Perhaps the hill tribes have another name for it, but, on official maps, some anonymous mapmaker has identified this pass as “Auden’s Col”.
Excerpts from the correspondence between John Bicknell and Wystan Hugh Auden are taken from the WH Auden papers at the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.
Deborah Baker is the author of In Extremis: The Life of Laura Riding, a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, as well as A Blue Hand: The Beats in India, a narrative account of the impact of India on the American imagination published by Penguin Books in 2007. While a Fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, she researched and wrote both of these books as well as her latest, The Convert: A Fable of Islam and America.