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From the Archive: The Last Coronation and Climbing Everest

By Robert Brown, 4 May 2023

In a much-cited poem, Philip Larkin singles out 1963 as an annus mirabilis: a liberating time ‘Between the end of the Chatterley Ban/And the Beatles’ first LP’.

In recent weeks, however, because of the impending coronation, it has become clear that 1953 better deserves that label. For that year proved to be a pinnacle, not just for the monarchy, but for a heightened sense of national achievement.

We are all familiar now with archive film showing the wonderful pomp and regalia of the coronation festivities, and the moving footage of Queen Elizabeth II being crowned in Westminster Abbey. What most of us don’t realise, however, is that the coronation coincided with another great national event: the first ascent of Everest on 29 May 1953 by the climbing team of British climber Edmund Hillary and Nepali mountaineer Tenzing Norgay.

News that Everest had been scaled reached London only the day before the coronation. The story of that expedition, and how the news was successfully telegraphed in code from ‘the roof of the world’ back to London, is an epic tale in its own right. This we owe to the Times journalist Jan Morris, who was embedded with the expedition (and climbed with it to 22,000 feet).

The news was published in The Times on Coronation Day itself, 2 June 1953, and was later the subject of a wonderful book by Morris, published by Faber and full of great stories, including discussion of the possible existence of the Yeti, the mythical, abominable snowman. Fittingly, the book was titled Coronation Everest.

Jan Morris later described it as a work of ‘historical romanticism’. She wrote that it depicted ‘the almost simultaneous occurrence of two events – a young queen’s coronation, the first ascent of a mountain – which profoundly stirred the British nation fifty years ago. It is hard now to imagine the almost mystical delight with which the coincidence of the two happenings was greeted in Britain. Emerging at last from the austerity which had plagued them since the second world war, but at the same time facing the loss of their greatest Empire and the inevitable decline of their power in the world, the British had half-convinced themselves that the accession of the young queen was a token of a fresh start – a new Elizabethan age, as the newspapers liked to call it . . . and marvel of marvels there arrived the news from distant places – from the frontiers of the old Empire, in fact – that a British team of mountaineers, led by a British soldier, Colonel John Hunt, had reached the supreme remaining earthly objective of exploration and adventure, the top of the world.’

Robert Brown is Faber’s former archivist.
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Coronation Everest by Jan Morris tells the story of the first British-led expedition to conquer Mount Everest.

About the Author

Jan Morris was born in 1926 of a Welsh father and an English mother. She spent the last years of her life with her partner Elizabeth Morris in the top left-hand corner of Wales, between the mountains and the sea. Her books include Coronation Everest, Venice, the Pax Britannica trilogy and Conundrum. She was also the author of six books about cities and countries, two autobiographical books, several volumes of collected travel essays and the unclassifiable Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere. She was recognised in 2018 for her outstanding contribution to travel writing by the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards. In the same year, In My Mind’s Eye: A Thought Diary was published. It was followed by a second volume of diaries, Thinking Again, in 2020, and then her posthumously published final book, Allegorizings, in 2021.

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