In Search of Shangri-La

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I first discovered James Hilton’s Lost Horizon as an adolescent, when I came across a hardback copy in a secondhand bookshop marked at one shilling and ninepence (8p in today’s money). It was published in Macmillan’s Cottage Library and I can still remember its nice clear typeface, the feel of its rounded corners, and the slight browning of the pages which added a nostalgic charm. As soon as I read the opening sentence I was hooked:

Cigars had burned low, and we were beginning to sample the disillusionment that usually afflicts old school friends who meet again as men and find themselves with less in common than they used to think . . .

At the time I enjoyed it simply as an adventure story, but each subsequent reading has revealed new layers of meaning. Over the years I have come back to this beguiling novel many times, and however often I do so, I never tire of it. It has become part of my inner world.

Lost Horizon, which was first published in 1933, tells the story of a group of four people – a diplomat, his assistant, a missionary and an American financier – who find themselves in the Afghan city of Kabul (disguised by Hilton as Baskul) when civil war breaks out. They attempt to escape by plane to India but the plane is hijacked and they are taken instead to a mysterious lamasery – the Shangri-La of the title – in a remote area of Tibet.

This is their magical first glimpse of it:

A group of coloured pavilions clung to the mountainside with none of the grim deliberation of a Rhineland castle, but rather with the chance delicacy of flower-petals impaled upon a crag. It was superb and exquisite . . . the feeling was only momentary, and soon merged in the deeper sensation, half mystical, half visual, of having reached at last some place that was an end, a finality.

Inside the lamasery they find a gentle, cultured community, isolated from Western civilization and deter

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About the contributor

John Hammond has written books on Wells, Poe, Orwell, Stevenson and Defoe. He is keenly interested in the author of Lost Horizon, and in 2000 founded a society to promote interest in James Hilton’s life and work.

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