A boy’s favourite book re-examined
In particular, this boy. Me. Many decades ago when I was, oh let’s say ten or eleven years old, I discovered a copy of The Lost World of Everest in a bookshop in Rotherham. I was probably looking for ‘Jet, Sled Dog of the North’ or some such, being heavily into that kind of thing at the time. The cover of this called to me: the snowy ledge, the bright sunshine on the verdant valley below, the courageous chap on his feet while his nervy companions crawl to the edge to look down.
Three British climbers, led by the stalwart Bill Gresham (a heroic name if ever I heard one) are swept from the flanks of Everest by a freak storm, and discover a hidden civilisation of English settlers inside Mount Everest, who are being threatened by a degenerate race of cavemen, or Tunnel-Men, who have electrical superpowers. I thrilled to the adventures of this clean-cut trio. Their frantic slide into the mountain, their battles to help the pleasant folk they found in this other world, the use of giant umbrellas as parachutes, all were eagerly gobbled up by a boy whose biggest adventure was getting on the bus to school.
A few years ago I found a copy on Alibris, and bought it. Re-reading the tale led me initially once again into exciting adventures, but then there was something else, too. Something that nine-year-old Wombat hadn’t noticed at all. Here’s our introduction to the Tunnel Men:
“Scantily dressed in a waist-garment of some coarse matting, they were a pale brownish-yellow in colour; a sickly, repulsive shade, as though the very skin, and the flesh beneath it, was dead. Their features were coarse and cunning and cruel, and suggestive of both Tibetan and Indian blood. Their eyes glowed like red fires… luminous eyes in the heads of human beings… eyes which burned like lamps.”
See the problem? There’s more. The English cavern-dwellers, descendants of Anglo-Indians who fled the Great Mutiny of 1857, are the complete opposite of the Tunnel Men. They live among ‘trees… fields and gently-flowing streams’, and are cheerful and welcoming – ‘Bright-eyed girls sprang forward and saluted the comrades with kisses, and the friendliness of their reception was beyond doubt, if embarrassing in its warmth’. The Lost World of Everest, therefore, is a racially ordered one, where the pleasant white people are goodies living in a nice place and the swarthy, evil Tunnel Men are baddies who want to take it away from them – ‘wretched’ hill tribesmen who were expelled to the ‘Lesser Cavern’. The Lost World of Everest was published just seven years after India had gained independence. The siege mentality of the English in the cavern resembles strongly that of British people in India during the late 1940s.
Young Wombat noticed none of this. The goodies might just as well have been green, and the baddies, I dunno, Morlocks for all he cared. I can safely say that I wasn’t indoctrinated into racism, but I did become fascinated by hidden world stories for a time, such as Lost Horizon and Pellucidar.
My point, if I have one, is this: before you revisit a beloved book from your childhood, be wary of what you might find to tarnish its memory.