Friday, January 11, 2008

Edmund Hilary (1919-2008)

All the New Zealanders I know know each other and all New Zealanders referred to Edmund Hilary as "Ed".
The story is that he was the first man at the summit of Everest – but, frankly, given the staggering danger of what was then unknown, who cares? – but Tensing Norgay had never used a camera before "and this was no time for a photography lesson".
Hence the picture of Tensing at the top.
Noble, whichever way you look at it.


  1. David you are right about New Zealanders knowing each other, I often describe this as a small town of a country. Here six degrees of separation is unknown; it is almost never more than one.
    I never knew "Ed" but two journalist friends who became mates of his have been widely quoted over the weekend (one saying that Ed was occasionally depressed about the way NZ was going, but the success of The Lord of the Rings made him think we might be alright, after all).
    There has simply been nobody in our short post-colonial history that has won and kept the respect and love of the public. We are taught the legend of Ed with mother's full-cream milk. For 15 years his unshaven face has been on our lowest-denomination bank note, $5 or about £2.
    I can just remember Churchill's funeral on television, but even the century's greatest Briton was often a divisive character in his career. Colin Meads is respected by everyone except Springbok tour protestors with long memories. Charles Upham VC & Bar is respected but we all kind of know he had to be insane to pull off his feats of courage on the battlefield.
    Ed Hilary is the Mt Rushmore of NZ heroes: courageous, laconic, generous, modest but also cheeky (take that, Sir Vivian Fuchs). Apart from conquering Everest for Britain and its Dominions, Hilary just kicked that farm tractor in the guts and got it to the South Pole while Viv was still passing the port back in the gentleman's club.
    Today there has been a good essay on what it takes to be a hero in New Zealand:
    But even better is this morning's news item about the two Australians who conquered the Tasman Sea (about 1200 miles) in their kayak for the first time. They hit the west coast a month later than they expected, after tides and winds sent them around in circles. In the words of another New Zealand hero, they were buggered. The nation has been following this story closely for weeks, maybe because a year ago a solo kayaker almost made it but perished a day away from success. But their welcome today by the small city of New Plymouth is like reading of some event in the 1950s, when All Blacks scored tries without triumphant high-fiving, men were men and women cooked roast mutton. The most extraordinary thing about this account is the old-fashioned generosity to our neighbours in Australia; this was an Anzac event, whereas our sports journalists have hyped NZ/Aus encounters into Coliseum cock-fights. Reading about the spontaneity of their welcome gave me goose-flesh, and I suppose the death of "Ed" on Friday had something to do with their welcome. People actually left their TVs to go down to see the boat come in. One last frontier has been conquered and any decent bloke would have to admit that, even if they were Aussies.

  2. Read somewhere recently about the hotel in Snowdonia where Hilary stayed while getting ready for the Everest attempt. The news came through in the middle of the night that Hilary had been successful. The innkeeper went around all the rooms, demanding that all guests report downstairs to the bar to drink a toast. Most did, some didn't. Those who'd decided to pass on the drink were, when they came downstairs for breakfast the next day, presented with their bills and asked to vacate immediately. Without eggs, kippers or anything. Class act, that hotelier.

  3. Hillary, of course, is spelt with two Ls. I knew that.
    It might be like a death in the family here in NZ, but it looks like it's going to be a long 8 days till the state funeral. But with the Green Party calling for a new public holiday and a cricketer calling upon his inspiration for today's game, Edfever has a way to go yet.