Saturday, 12 January 2008

Sir Edmund Hillary, 1919-2008

The big story on last night's news was that Sir Ed has died, aged 88. I watched the documentary they screened afterwards and discovered that this self-effacing man had had self-confidence problems when young; he'd been a small, skinny child, and even immediately after he climbed Everest, was knighted, and was the hero of the moment throughout the British Commonwealth and the world, he didn't have enough confidence to propose to his girlfriend - he had to get her mother to ring her up and ask for him.

He really was the archetypal New Zealander - unselfconfident when young, hesitant in expressing emotion, rugged and outdoorsy, adventurous, down-to-earth (the leader of the Everest expedition was hoping for some words of "spiritual significance" when he came down off the summit, but what he got was Ed's remark to his fellow New Zealander: "Well, George, we knocked the bastard off.") Instead of cashing in on fame for his own benefit he spent decades helping to build schools, medical clinics and hospitals for the people of Nepal. He struggled deeply for a time with depression and self-doubt.

My own Sir Ed story is slight but indicative. When I was editing New Zealand Who's Who, in order to increase sales to entrants the publisher included a lot of people who weren't really who at all; small-town people who'd been on volunteer committees for years on end and got some sort of minor recognition for it. This is the other side of the NZ character, the side that forms a committee and spends the next 20 years waging tiny, inefficient vendettas on it over matters of staggering unimportance. When I got draft entries back from these people they were often covered in poorly punctuated amendments, adding copious unimportant detail or pointlessly changing the order of information (which was set by house style). Some even included CVs.

Sir Edmund was, undoubtedly, at the time the most famous living New Zealander, the only one whose image appeared on the currency, known, respected and admired all over the world for his genuinely impressive achievements both adventurous and charitable. If anyone could have justifiably added detail to his entry, it was him.

He just signed it and sent it back.

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