Summit for his trouble

Maurice Wilson aimed for Everest when he felt he had to leave Bradford. But the First World War hero never lost sight of his home city, however fanciful his flights

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In May 1933, Maurice Wilson took off in his Gipsy Moth biplane from the Stag Lane aerodrome in North London, at the beginning of an epic adventure. He wanted to become the first person to reach the summit of Everest. His plan was to fly his plane to the Himalayas, crash-land on one of the plateaus near Everest, then climb the mountain alone. It was a mad idea. Wilson had no alpine experience. Moreover, he had only just learned how to fly.

A few months after Wilson saw that plane, the nightmare of mud, murder and barbed wire began

Nineteen years earlier, as a schoolboy in Bradford, Wilson had seen his first plane in the sky. It was 1914, and he was 16 years old, the third son of a mill owner in the capital of the world’s wool trade. The Great Yorkshire Show rolled into town in Wilson’s final term at Carlton Road Secondary School. The show’s star attraction was “the world’s first passenger air service” – a monoplane that carried one passenger on a timetable from Leeds to Bradford and back. The schoolboys craned their necks in wonder.

In the many years that I researched The Moth and the Mountain, my book about Wilson’s adventure and the extraordinary life that preceded it, I often thought about how much his character had been shaped by the city where he grew up. At the turn of the 20th century, Bradford was one of the most exciting cities in the world. Money from the wool trade poured in. The city had its own symphony orchestra. For a time, it had two football teams in the first division: City and Park Avenue. It had a thriving immigrant community of German-Jewish merchants. It had a tram system that was the envy of other cities.

JB Priestley, who would go on to be Bradford’s most famous writer, was raised about a mile from where Wilson lived, and was almost exactly his age. He wrote about Bradford’s special atmosphere in the early part of the 20th century. This was a place not just of commerce but of radical ideas: a city where trade unionism flourished, and where the Independent Labour Party had been founded. Wilson’s own father did extraordinary work, helping the city’s poorest children eat better and have access to new and exciting experiences. Priestley believed that the class divisions that blighted other parts of England were not as apparent in Bradford, and that ordinary people from lowly backgrounds felt they could achieve their ambitions.

“The social hierarchy was invisible,” Priestley wrote, in his memoir Margin Released. “I am not pretending we had a miniature classless society there, but we probably came closer to having one than anybody born in southern England can even imagine.”

The First World War changed everything for Britain, but especially for Bradford. The conflict tore the city apart. A few months after Wilson had seen that plane in the sky, the four-year nightmare of mud, murder and barbed wire began in the trenches of the Western Front. Wilson himself fought with great bravery in the war, winning the Military Cross in 1918 by showing outstanding courage as he resisted a German onslaught near the Flanders town of Wyteschaete. Hundreds of his friends in the West Yorkshire Regiment were killed on the same day.

The city he returned to felt bleak, and dark. Thousands of young men from Bradford had died in the fighting. On Cecil Avenue in Horton – where Wilson lived – half a dozen families now had a spare place at their dining tables. Moreover, Wilson’s brother, Victor, was so traumatised by what he had experienced that his body shook and he suffered nightmares. He would never be the same man again. To add insult to all of these injuries, the wool trade on which Bradford relied began a precipitous decline.

Wilson no longer felt at home, either in himself or in his city. The war had ravaged his peace of mind and his sense of purpose. He began a long period of travel in 1923, living, working and passing through New Zealand, Canada, the United States, Germany, South Africa and Mozambique. He burned through two marriages and began many other failed relationships. Eventually, in 1932, he hit on an idea he believed would redeem him. He was going to become the first man to reach the summit of Everest, and he was going to do it alone.

The adventure on which Wilson embarked is detailed in The Moth and the Mountain. It’s a wild story, full of harum-scarum scrapes in the air, in the mountains and eventually on Everest itself. What never leaves Wilson – and what I find so touching – is his belief in the dignity and value of every human life. When an earthquake ruined the Indian town of Darjeeling in 1934, he was the only European man to bend his back alongside local people to repair the damage. Meanwhile, when it became clear that the local men who helped him sneak into Tibet and reach Everest might be punished, he wrote a wonderful letter to the British authorities in India, begging for his “lads” not to be punished.

“How bloody awful it must be to be brought up a snob,” Wilson wrote one night in his diary. “Real manhood,” he continued, lay among the poor, “not amongst the monocles and so and sos of the dontcherknows.”

Wilson never had much time for the dontcherknows. He may have left Bradford, but the city never left him.

The Moth & The Mountain by Ed Caesar is published by Viking (£18.99)

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