Living the high life

There’s something magical about mountains. They’ve inspired authors, poets and painters for centuries, been a place of pilgrimage for some, escape for others. It’s no wonder that in many cultures they are worshiped as living beings, such is their power to elicit emotional responses. It’s just a natural reflex when we say that the very sight of them takes our breath away.

Photo by Rick Lee

My own love affair with high ranges began as a child, rooted in the passion shared by my parents. Mum and Dad had long been devoted mountaineers and fell walkers. They met during WWII in an army camp where they were both stationed in Northern Ireland. Such was their love for the mountains that they spent their honeymoon on leave climbing the mountains of the English Lake District and dreaming of a place amongst them to call home. Once they had a family, they took every opportunity to head north from our home in Liverpool to the mountains. The mountaineering genes soon took root in me, my sister and three brothers. Mum and Dad even named my older brother, Michael Mallory, after one of Dad’s mountaineering heroes, George Mallory, an English climber who died while trying to conquer Mount Everest.

Photo by Denis Lee circa 1963

Times were hard in those early years, but camping was an affordable option for a large family. Every summer we’d travel to Cumbria on the bus, each child carrying their own sleeping bag and camping paraphernalia. We would share a large canvas tent – it weighed about 70lbs – and Dad would lug it on his back along with his rucksack and cooking gear. We’d endure the English summer rains – Cumbria has the highest rainfall in the country – for a chance to don the hiking boots and head for the summits. Undeterred by weather, we trod a path through the high country, seven ducks in a row, and learned to enjoy the simple pleasures derived from overcoming the challenges these high mountains set before us.

Photo by Irene Lee

In my youth the pull of mountains continued. I’d hitch-hike with friends to camp amongst the peaks, sometimes pitching our tent high in the mountains, waking in the early dawn to find our campsite shrouded in mist, washing our faces in the icy mountain streams. It’s a feeling of isolation and tranquility I’ll never forget. Of take-your-breath-away moments in the mountains, I have many memories. One such experience occurred while climbing with a friend on Glyda Fawr in Snowdonia, Wales. Conditions were treacherous with freezing rain and mist. A thick layer of shiny ice covered every rock and boulder; we really should have aborted the climb and retired to a warm pub in safety. Nevertheless, challenged by the harsh conditions, we pressed on to the summit, knowing full well that there would be no panoramic views of the Welsh countryside, only the satisfaction of reaching the top in difficult circumstances.

It was like stepping into Heaven from the cold abyss

Fifty feet from the apex we emerged from the mist. ‘Topping out’ they call it, a halleluiah moment of revelation. It was like stepping into Heaven from the cold abyss, popping our heads through a trapdoor to see a new world emerge in all its glory. Stretched before me, a carpet of fluffy white cloud spread to every horizon beneath a pure blue sky. Only the summit of Snowdon – Wales’ highest mountain – poked through the clouds like an island in some fantasy world of cotton wool seas. At the time I had yet to fly in an aircraft and it’s a view I’ve since observed in the comfort of an air-conditioned cabin many times, but on that day with the rocks of the earth firmly beneath my feet, it was a sight that left me speechless and has stuck with me as a vivid memory ever since. 

Topping out! Photo by Gianni Crestani

My wife and I followed in Mum and Dad’s footsteps, spending our honeymoon hiking the fells of the Lake District. My own children were raised climbing those same mountains. We too spent our family vacations camping and hiking the high country. My wife shares that same love and we have had the good fortune to climb in the American Adirondacks, the Canadian Rockies, the Swiss and German Alps and volcanoes in the Pacific among others.

Photo by Rick Lee

It’s easy to understand just why mountain analogies are used to describe life’s challenges. It’s all about conquering things much bigger than ourselves. We set ourselves a challenge and slog away until we beat it. Like some of the physical peaks I’ve climbed, there have been many daunting challenges in my life. There were times I thought of giving up on some before refocusing and forging on to the top. Sir Edmund Hillary – another of Dad’s heroes – once said: “It’s not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.” Testing ourselves is something unique to humans. It’s in our character to strive and overcome. When ever the going gets too hard, I look to others for inspiration. I see those who face daily battles of immense proportions fighting back from terrible injury or illness, hardship and loss; these are the true heroes and it always brings back perspective to my own life with its peaks and valleys.

Photo by Rick Lee
Photo by Rick Lee

It’s in the blood this passion I have for the ranges. Mum and Dad achieved their dream, their own private mountain conquered when they retired to a cottage in their beloved Lake District. Dad rests in a little church yard looking up to the fells. Mum was still climbing those high peaks well into her eighties and passed on aged 96. Her ashes are scattered on the mountains she loved so dearly.

Photo by Christine Lee

I retain an old canvas haversack from my teenage years and we’ve carted it around the world for decades. My wife has tried to throw it out many times and each time I’ve rescued it from the dustbin. She says she will bury me in it and that’s ok with me. When the time comes, I’d like my ashes to be packed in the old bag (not talking about the wife here) and carried to the summit of my favorite mountain where it should be buried for eternity amongst the peaks that have inspired my life.   

Waifs & Strays

There are pansters and plotters. As a panster, I begin my novels by taking the germ of an idea, a starting point, and just start writing, allowing the story to develop naturally as I go (writing by the seat of my pants). I never quite know where the journey might take me, or what characters I’ll meet along the way. My new novel – Black Bones, Red Earth – started in this way, with just the hint of an interesting tale.

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I never quite know where the journey will take me

The seed from which my new book grew, was, in fact, a part of my mum’s own life story. Mum stunned everyone when well into her eighties, she revealed that she had been brought up in an orphanage, a secret she had kept for over 80 years. Apparently, my maternal grandmother had died of TB when Mum was just four years old. Mum and her sisters, aged two and seven, were sent away to an orphanage on the Cumbria coast, by my grandfather. He was serving in the army at the time, and it just wasn’t done for men to raise little girls. This was the thinking at the time.

Hazel, Doreen & Irene - Whitehaven
Mum (right) and her sisters, little orphans

It’s hard to imagine how traumatic it must have been for the three little ones to be uprooted, packed away after only just losing their mother, thinking their father didn’t want them anymore, and finding themselves amongst strangers. The orphanage in Whitehaven was run by the Waifs and Strays Society, later to become the Church of England Children’s Society.

But why had my mum hidden her past for so many years, and why had she invented a different childhood that omitted the orphanage altogether? She told us that she had been too ashamed to tell the truth. The stigma of being an orphan in a small English town had been difficult to bear, especially during school years, when children at the local school would make fun of the orphan kids who lived in the home for strays. I can only guess at the cruel taunts from those children. But Mum was a fighter, and she quickly learned to look after herself and her sisters.

Ashamed of being an orphan

Mum survived her time in the strict establishment, where children rose between three and four in the morning to begin chores before school. The home’s overriding mission was to prepare children for employment, and so they were put to work with a lengthy list of daily duties. Mum said she was never mistreated, but that life was hard for the little girls in care. On her thirteenth birthday, Mum had to leave the home and was sent into service, shipped off in the goods department on a train to the coastal town of Hythe in Kent. “I had a name tag hanging around my neck, like a piece of baggage,” Mum told us. There she became the parlour maid for a doctor and his family, and was again singled out as ‘the orphan kid’. Mum vowed from then on that no one would ever know about her past. She joined the army when she was eighteen, her father’s regiment, the Green Howards, and served throughout the Second World War. Mum said she made peace with her father, but I’m not sure she ever forgave him.

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Irene Lee (Mum) 1918 – 2015

Mum’s revelation explained a lot about her character. At five-foot-one, she was as tough as they come. She took no-nonsense and would stand up for, and to, anyone. It also explained why she was so passionate about kids who needed help, working tirelessly for many years raising funds for children’s causes, especially the Church of England Children’s Society, and overseas charities, all while raising five kids of her own.

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British child migrants, courtesy Molong Historical Society

The idea for my book started with an English woman, like Mum, in the twilight of her years, her secret orphaned childhood revealed. That’s about where the similarities end, but it set me on a path that eventually led me to explore the traumas of child migrants, orphaned children shipped to Australia after the war. During this line of research, I also discovered the hardships suffered, under the name of child protection, by Aboriginal children – The Stolen Generation – who were separated from their families and placed in mission homes. These two stories came together to form the backbone of my novel.

Black Bones, Red Earth, is in the final stages of editing and should be released before Christmas.

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