Norton of Everest: A chance to chat with the biographer
- Friday 12th May 2017
Hugh Norton is the youngest of the three sons of Everest pioneer Edward ‘Teddy’ Norton, whose life is the subject of Norton of Everest. I worked very closely with Hugh throughout the editorial and production process on this book, selecting images from his father’s original textbooks and checking historical accuracy of information; it was a fascinating project to be a part of. We are honoured to publish the account of such a major figure in mountaineering and military history and we are delighted with the beautiful, excellently written finished item.
Hugh came to the VP HQ to sign some books, so I swooped on him with some questions about the whole experience.
Writing a biography is a massive undertaking. Once you had decided to accept the challenge, how did you begin?
I began by a discussion with my brothers about our overall approach to the book, since this was to be effectively an initiative on behalf of all three of us; I was merely the chosen scribe. We wanted to set down an account of Teddy's life compiled from family memories as well as from written records, and the continuing public interest in the Everest expeditions of the 1920s encouraged us to think it worthwhile. But, as my eldest brother Dick wisely advised me, 'the important thing is, make sure it doesn’t end up as just a hagiography'.
After that, the next step was determining where the written research material, such as it was, could be found, and how to capture before it was too late the testimony of those who had actually known him well and were still living. This last was quite a short list!
Which was the most difficult era of your father’s life to research, in terms of access to records and memories etc? How did you overcome this?
As he wrote very few letters to his family except when separated from them for a long time, the hardest parts to research were the periods when we were all together in one home and he was not making waves, or headlines, that left other traces on the record. For this reason, a lot of Chapter 5 ('The Middle Years') fell into the 'difficult to research' category, and I had to piece together as best I could the evidence available. He absolutely did not believe himself in keeping letters or documents that might have given a researcher more to bite on.
Curiously enough, the facts about his parents' and grandparents' lives, and his own in his earliest years, were not too hard to establish. This was largely thanks to his mother's habit of keeping meticulous diaries which revealed a lot of factual (though not emotional!) detail. The Norton family's interest in its remoter ancestors also left a surprising amount of material, or at least of strong family traditions, to consult.
What do you think mountaineering meant to Teddy? Do you believe he was happiest in the mountains?
Mountaineering, and more broadly his delight in wild, remote places, together with his constant fascination with every aspect of the natural world about him, were lifelong themes for Teddy. But he never considered them as a potential source of livelihood, and indeed in his generation that was scarcely possible. Nor was he a hermit or a shunner of society. He enjoyed the company of his fellow man far too much for that, provided it could be found as far as possible from the surroundings of a big city, which he loathed.
Teddy repeatedly found himself in leadership roles throughout his life, whether it be on the mountains or in the army. Why do you think this is?
As I have tried to convey in the book, I believe that the art of leadership, however much you try to reduce it to a set of rules or principles of conduct, remains elusive and somewhat mysterious. Leaders are both born and made. But someone who is a born leader will be an even better one if he studies the art and learns the skills, and best of all if he positively enjoys exercising them. Teddy was one of these. Add to that his strong sense of duty and refusal to run away from responsibility, and it is not hard to see how he repeatedly found himself in situations where outstanding leadership was called for.
What did you enjoy most about writing the biography? Was there anything you found particularly challenging?
The most enjoyable thing about this author's writing experience – apart from the sheer novelty of writing a book for publication for the first time – was how the full reality of my father as a person dawned on me slowly, as my researches brought to light a mass of fact and opinion that I would never have become aware of otherwise. On the other hand, by far the most challenging task was to convey vividly the appeal of someone whose approach to leading a full life, and whose values and priorities, came from a distant era, yet I believe had lessons to teach us in our utterly different world today.
How do you think your father would feel if he were here today to read Norton of Everest?
Teddy never wanted his life to be written up, even for a close family audience. With his overwhelming modesty and his self-effacing attitude to his own life, he clearly stated that it had not been remarkable enough to be worth recording. Nor could we three brothers be sure what our mother's attitude would have been, since, although it was she who pressed him more than once to write down his account of it, she always respected his veto.
I've little doubt that his initial reaction would have been a certain amount of annoyance that his wishes had been disregarded. I can only hope that we could have changed his mind. We felt that it was important to contribute this story to the historical record as interest in his era of both mountaineering and soldiering continues to grow, while at the same time it becomes more and more remote from us all today. I'm sure that, as he read the book, he would above all have wanted to be convinced that it was written objectively, not as a catalogue of uncritical admiration.