A Long Walk With Lord Conway
An Exploration of the Alps and an English Adventurer by Simon Thompson
Signal Books £16.99
‘Like most men of his class and generation, Lord Conway was an imperialist, a racist and a snob. He was also a dreamer, a liar, a philanderer and a cheat’. Simon Thompson certainly knows how to sell his subject on the second page of his book. Martin Conway began by cheating in his school exams and then by claiming false altitude records and also summits he did not climb. There were gold mines that produced no gold, Bolivian rubber plantations that produced no rubber (and were actually in Brazil). There were dashed-off ‘best-selling’ books that weren’t, and approaches to any political party that would offer him a seat in parliament. His knighthood was created in the hope of making him look good and getting him elected. He spent most of his life living off ‘borrowed’ money from family and rich friends. Conway kept a copy of the Punch cartoon of himself as the, by then, First Baron Conway of Allington. Thompson implies that Conway did not get the joke when he says that it carried the ‘somewhat ambiguous caption: The Climber’. But in all seriousness, to counter the notion of the ‘idle rich’, Thompson lists all the clubs and associations of which Conway was a member, including The Alpine Club of which he was President. It takes up two pages.
So why this book? Because in 1895 Conway published a once famous book about a long walk called The Alps From End to End and Thompson recently attempted to follow in Conway’s footsteps. Except that Conway kept leaving the route to stay in posh hotels, taking a carriage for parts of the route and missing out summits later claimed in his book. Thompson writes: ‘At Aussois, I finally caught up with Conway. Ignoring rest days, it had taken me 18 days to walk from the Col de Tende to Aussois, whereas Conway had taken just nine. But on the other hand, Conway had left out most of the route’. He was ‘loaned’ by General Charles Bruce two Gurkhas as porters, Amir Sing and Karbir, who had to walk during Conway’s carriage rides and did not always find the intended accommodation. Conway always eventually found them more easily than they found him. His two Italian guides had to patiently tolerate Conway’s map reading and tendency to get lost.
Once the reader realises that Thompson, despite his fascination for Martin Conway, or perhaps because of it, is going to expose all his hypocrisy, lies and deceptions, this book becomes quite amusing in a horrific kind of way. Thompson lets Conway condemn himself in his own words. Of his long walk through the Alps Conway says that ‘crossing pass after pass, climbing peak after peak, changing your sleeping place from day to day, you will avoid the fatuous stupidity to be found in large hotels’. Of a miserable journey across Spitzbergen Conway wrote to his wife, ‘I think I can make it appear a really greater success than it was’. Of the diminishing band of Alaculof Indians in southern Chile Conway said, ‘Only anthropologists will regret them. Yet it is impossible not to extend pity towards these unfortunates, whilst wishing them swift euthanasia’. You see what I mean.
Of course, there were other aspects to Conway’s achievements, such as the first practical guidebook for climbers, the Zermatt Pocket Book of 1881, which indicated which routes to avoid since they had already been climbed. The first Professor of Art History in Britain, he was innovative in collecting photographs of paintings for the development of art history and his collection resides at the Courtauld Institute. He organised the first Himalayan expedition, mapping the position of K2 (8,600m), but walking past it because it was obviously too difficult to climb and claiming an altitude record by the ascent of Pioneer Peak (6,500m) which he claimed as over 7,000m high. His gifts of ‘intelligence, power and charm’ have been described as ‘unrealised, except perhaps his gift for self-advancement’. This book provides plenty of evidence for this assessment by the historian Peter Stansky. Thompson’s description of his own walk provides plenty of evidence of glacial retreat, and perhaps matches the breathtaking audacity of his impressively flawed hero.