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Author Interview: Peter Foster, The Uncrowned King of Mont Blanc

Friday, 19 July 2019

TGB making notes at the bivouac hut on Col d'Estelette, en route to the Aiguille de Tré la Tête, August 1927. His companion, Herbert, who took the photo, annotated it: 'authentic contemporary portrait of Diogenes'. Reproduced with persmission of the National Library of Scotland. 

Published earlier this month, Peter Foster’s biography of Scottish scientist and climber T. Graham Brown illuminates the highs and lows of Graham Brown’s careers and his friendships in the mountains. Cantankerous, opinionated but highly accomplished, his groundbreaking achievements first as a physiologist and then in the Alps and Greater Ranges after the First World War, once unrecognised, are brought to the fore. Following the publication of The Uncrowned King of Mont Blanc, we spoke to Peter about what inspired him to write about Graham Brown’s life. 

Did you know Thomas Graham Brown and, if so, how did you meet?

No

What made you want to write his biography?

For a long time I have been interested in the history of alpinism between the wars, not least because many of the routes I aspired to climb – Graham Brown’sRoute Major on the Brenva Face was one of them – had been climbed during this period. But it was my first visit to the National Library of Scotland to delve in Graham Brown’s archive that tempted me to write his biography; the extent and richness of the archive was extraordinary and fascinating. It was too good an opportunity to miss.

Did the archival research you uncovered about him change your opinion from what you knew of him before? Did you discover anything that surprised you?

From what I knew before starting the research, I considered him to be a difficult and cantankerous man and that view has not changed, but I did discover another side to his character, his capacity for friendship. He had important friendships with Charles Sherrington and Charles Houston, and in later life, he was held in warm affection by generations of Edinburgh University students. Also, I had not realised what an extremely accomplished alpinist he was. His achievements were much more than the Brenva Face routes, for which he is principally remembered, and unquestionably they place him at the forefront of British alpinism between the wars.

There has been much recent news coverage of climbers who have lost their lives in the mountains. What do you think his tips for survival would have been?

All three of his Brenva Face routes were serious undertakings involving exposure to the dangers of rockfall, collapsing séracs and avalanche. He minimized the risk by careful observation and assessment of conditions. He waited several years for favourable conditions to attempt the Pear.

T. Graham Brown made significant achievements in both his career as a climber and physiologist. In the Alps he made first ascents of the Sentinelle Rougeand Route Major– with Frank Smythe – and Pear Buttress on the Brenva Face of Mont Blanc, and his theory of the nervous control of movement though, now widely accepted, was ignored for many years. Why do you think he didn't receive the recognition he deserved? 

Frank Smythe stole the limelight regarding the first ascents of Sentinelle Rougeand Route Major. He was carving out a career as a professional mountaineer, writing about mountains and photographing them, and understandably published accounts widely in newspapers, magazines and a book. Graham Brown’s attempts to gain some recognition for his contribution were restrained by the Alpine Club’s antipathy to self-publicity. 

Explanation of Graham Brown’s observations on the nervous control of locomotion involved new concepts which challenged the prevailing orthodoxy, making acceptance more difficult, and he did not follow-up his work; new experimental techniques would be necessary before his novel ideas could be confirmed.

Why was his relationship with Frank Smythe so turbulent and was this reflective of many of the relationships in his life?

Graham Brown considered, with some reason, that he had been traduced by Smythe, but there was also a critical difference between them, which his friend, Peter Lloyd, put his finger on: it was not just a clash of temperaments or of climbing styles but it arose from something fundamental in Graham Brown’s character, the scientist’s inability to compromise on matters of fact and the rejection of romantic interpretations of events seen through the haze of memory. And it was his addiction to writing the truth that led to his falling out with Geoffrey Winthrop Young. 

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