May 22, 2008


The Boys of Everest: Chris Bonington and the Tragedy of Climbing’s Greatest Generation. By Clint Willis. Carroll & Graf/Da Capo. $18.

Jack and Lem: John F. Kennedy and Lem Billings—The Untold Story of an Extraordinary Friendship. By David Pitts. Da Capo. $17.

Re-make/Re-model: Becoming Roxy Music. By Michael Bracewell. Da Capo. $17.95.

      Some biographies make little if any attempt to reach out beyond a core group of people who will find the subject matter instantly fascinating. These three are examples – although the best of them, The Boys of Everest, contains enough stirring adventure so it may be attractive to people interested in what sorts of people climbed the world’s highest mountain before it became a tourist destination, why they made the ascent, and what happened to them. The Chris Bonington of the title was the leader of a group of about a dozen poor and (in some cases) middle-class British men who climbed mountains with an intensity bordering on fanaticism beginning in the 1950s, in the wake of Sir Edmund Hilary’s ascent of Mt. Everest in 1953. These men – the book opens with photos of them and a list of some of their climbs and expeditions – were more daring than previous climbers, more willing to take risks and then, if they survived, take greater risks still. Only a few lived through the climbs that the group attempted into the 1980s. Clint Willis, himself a climber as well as a frequent writer about outdoor adventures and other topics, divides his book into sections called “Boys,” “Men,” “Legends” and “Ghosts” as he chronicles Bonington’s climbs, his successes and his failures. Willis never really gets to the heart of why these men left everyday life behind to try, again and again, under more and more difficult circumstances, to ascend the world’s highest peaks – Annapurna, K-2 and others in addition to Everest. Willis hints at the men’s psychology rather than trying to mine it more deeply: “…Chris did the lion’s share of the work. He did it with a growing sense of elation. He was discovering a new aspect of his genius. He had found a task that engaged his peculiar qualities: his wish for certainty and his need to have that wish thwarted, his need to recognize that life was unmanageable and his urge to try to manage it.” There is much excitement here, but the book can also be read as a chronicle of lives wasted for no discernible reason except that they were available to waste.

      Jack and Lem, the first book by journalist David Pitts, has a more limited target audience. It is essentially for people who cannot get enough of the life and legend of John F. Kennedy – and perhaps especially for people interested in Kennedy’s sexuality and his tolerance for the sexual orientation of others. The Lem of the title was Kirk LeMoyne Billings, known as Lem to his friends – of whom Jack Kennedy was one, from the time when the two boys attended Choate Preparatory School together in 1933. Lem’s homosexuality seems not to have bothered the famously heterosexual Kennedy in the slightest, even though the two men grew up at a time when homosexuality was far less accepted than it is today. Pitts describes Lem as Kennedy’s “First Friend” during the Kennedy presidency, and quotes Lem as saying – a year after Kennedy was assassinated – “He relaxed with me because I didn’t really talk to him about any political matters, or any of the matters he had on his mind all during his workweek, and I mean this from the time he was congressman on through the presidency. I don’t know that we had a lot of things in common. I guess just the fact that we’d known each other intimately for thirty-two years is a pretty strong bond in itself. …I guess, just by habit, that we continued to enjoy each other.” That about sums up what readers will learn in the book – there are no startling revelations about Kennedy, and Lem comes across as a pleasant and devoted friend who kept Kennedy’s memory alive until his own death in 1981.

      The target readership for Re-make/Re-model appears to be people interested not only in the band Roxy Music but also in the intricacies of the evolution of pop music between the Summer of Love and the emergence of punk. Both those people (well, maybe there are a few more than that) will find out in Michael Bracewell’s book a lot of what the band’s members and others involved with it thought – much of the book is in the form of interviews, interspersed with such questions as, “But would [Roy] Ascott be radical, or simply isolated?” There is the usual name dropping here: “Working alongside Mark Lancaster’s friend Roger Cook (who, like Lancaster, was at this time represented by the Rowan Gallery), [Rita] Donagh became an immediately energising presence in the Art department.” Note the spelling “energising” – this is the U.S. edition of a British book, and it makes some assumptions about underlying knowledge of its time that may be valid in Britain but perhaps less so across the Atlantic: “Behaviourism and cybernetics were regarded by many intellectuals, rightly or wrongly, as branches of an infant and not necessarily plausible science. The writings and methods of the American behaviourist B.F. Skinner, in particular, had been met with a certain amount of mistrust. Some of this was due to sensationalist mis-reporting of Skinner’s creation of experimental ‘conditioning environments’ (not least for his infant daughter).” Some of the discussions of trends in the world at large – such as Mod fashion and pop art – are intriguing in terms of the way those trends influenced pop music. But in totality, the book remains so narrowly focused that it is hard to imagine it being of widespread interest.

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