Monday, 16 September 2019

Kill Them All

Caban: The Author on a recent trip back to another of his old stomping grounds.The Llanberis slate quarries.

Kill them all, the land will know its own…

Beziers 1209. This title is drawn from the alleged orders given by Arnaud Amaury, a Cistercian abbot and Pope Innocent’s legate, during the first military action of the Albigensian crusade against the heretic Cathari. When it became known that, in the throes of the bloody carnage, it was impossible to tell a Catholic from a Cathari, he ordered, ‘kill everyone, God will know his own’.

Liverpool 2019. My version of this infamous dictum comes from a recent visit to this northern port. Its raw, tribal energy has always instilled a vibrant feeling of ‘fuck off therapy’. Its healthy, socialist, militant fist is in your face demanding attention; loud, messy, with music at its core. It thrusts its weapon on the worldwide stage… I love you, yeah, yeah yeah, and a million such tunes with no sell by date. It is an expressive, inclusive city, and when I lived here for seven years it was probably the most active ‘social forensic’ of my life. Musing on Heinrich Harrer’s seven years in Tibet, I escaped via the Clywdian Hills of North Wales, not to escape war but to avoid the slings and arrows of a tight chapel attitude. I landed amongst parallel streets of red brick warehouses, vomit-slid and piss-stained, and the groaning of life forms intrigued. I adventured to a different, energetic drumbeat. Musicians and artists are bred here, flock here, find freedom and inspiration here, in a Liverpool reformed from three centuries of transatlantic human trafficking, redolent with humiliation, degradation and brutality. And the legacy of an oppressive regime is still manifest, as hardship, hunger and blankets greet those in the doorways of a shopping trip.

For a northern town built on commerce, trade and slavery, it has held its ‘family’, its pool of life sacrosanct and, sure enough, you will never walk alone here. The urban tribe is one animal, acting with one tongue, like the festival dragon whose long tail is held up by many; a red army, so to speak. All are artists. Enrollment is free for all.

When I lived and worked in a warehouse in the centre of the town, I wrote an article called Music of Decline. I refer to the studio warehouse as a precarious perch, a tree house, an observation post and a hunter’s hideout.

The communication is elemental, hyper, stricken with poverty. It’s hypnotic. They fight and grope together deep inside neon-lit, converted buildings. The bass sounds that escape to the outside are indeed a jungle beat. Wood street, Fleet Street, warehoused and heavy with light industry are transmuted from the Victorian Merchant era to the primaeval hunt – raw and hypnotic’. …and one for the crow

This vision was new to me, but I guess if you were on safari seeking out this ‘wilderness’, you would find it in every city in the world.

On the second floor, large doors opened out onto a fairly empty Concert Street and Fleet Street, still hanging in as a remnant of the merchant era and within sly-piss-distance from busy Bold Street shoppers. Opposite was a sweat-shop employing many girls on sewing machines and underneath me an upholstery business and a cabinet maker. Assorted businesses operated from Holmes Buildings: a web of practice rooms for budding musicians, cake makers and craft persons. I collected loose tea, spilt from the chests at the tea factory, opposite a convent up the road, where the homeless and drunk sank into the convent’s soup kitchen. No ships in sight. I dreamed as an artist should, furiously alert to the threads of humanity.

Frankie, the upholsterer was a broad, tough Scouse cookie. He had lost an eye in a fight and would be quite happy to summon his mates with metal plates in their heads to wipe out the growing number of ‘tossing arty wankers’ in the street, if he so wished. I liked him and his close, down to earth family ties. But he had his defensive, ‘manly’ moments in between cutting and sewing fabrics and stapling furnishings that others could relax in. He only hit me once and head-locked me another time over an argument about toilet roll…never again has toilet roll been an issue in my life. Pete, the cabinetmaker, had learned his craft during a harrowing ten years spent in jail in Johannesburg. He’d been caught smuggling diamonds across the border. When stressed about life’s grind, he would recall his black mates who had all died, beaten to death in the same jail, then just get on with it, rolling another number. Regardless of his ‘enforced’, nurtured feel for wood, his main concern was dealing hash. He wasn’t alone when 96 of his fellow supporters died in the Hillsborough stadium disaster. Lesley, a gentle soul, was a ceramicist working in the cellar, and when not totally bonged-out or playing the whistle, made slip cast Art Deco forgeries. The building was owned by a chap nicknamed Gollum, a dealer in antique furniture, bric-a-brac and household clearance or whatever. He was a small hunched man who walked with a slight limp, and always seemed to have a hand outstretched ready to take cash or cheques. He was known to deal in ‘dodgy’ items and large shipping containers arrived in the middle of the night to be loaded, destined to sail on the same old slavery route across to the Americas. So, as artist in residence, and the only person actually living in the street with the rats and pigeons, I was in good company with the gangsters of the inner city. 

My warehouse was the last epicenter of ‘down to earth’ working practice before the town planning takeover of L1, advertised and marketed as the new creative quarter. These days you may not find much dereliction, nor much of its eager mate, the purple lilac Buddleja, programmed to seek a damp neglect, hanging from cracks, broken downspouts and rooftops. The street life had just started to ‘drip’ design and after seven years of dialogue with my own Dalai Lama, I was out of place – clean up, dress up or fuck off. My sketches writhed awkwardly and grotesquely around this style conscious ambience… this comedy, this tragedy, this subterfuge born from profit and fear?

‘…the energy is pure escapism.
There is no content apart from alcohol induced aggression and violence.
At 2am the happy funky clubbers are baring and gnashing their teeth on the threshold of a new era…’ and one for the crow

Creative quarter? My tree house was converted into a bar for that new era. This was 23 years ago and times have changed. Ryley was born in the warehouse and is 23. I have changed. The ‘one-eyed Frankies’ have had kids and operate businesses from more convenient premises out of town. The warehouse has had a new cool, consumer make-over; but if you read the red bricks, the slavery and slops remain. Concert Street has changed into an open-air arena of almost Shakespearean proportions. The concert too has changed and become more festival… the street concert booms the new tunes and refreshments to the new happy highway. Rejoice in the non-stop hedonism? I love you yeah yeah yeah – and I’m not the only one. Religion is still persecuting, killing and proselytising however. Wars, terrorism and pollution are always topics of main news. Pope Francis’s answer to the destruction of the Amazonian rainforest is to send in married priests. Derek Hatton, the Trotskyite Militant voice of the 80’s, back into politics, was then kicked out again after speaking his mind over Israel’s obvious and horrendous atrocities against the indigenous folk of Palestine. Freedom of speech, more than ever, hides behind the design label of a corporate voice. Greenpeace is still active but has been joined by a more timely and radical troupe, Extinction Rebellion. It is with thoughts and questions arising from my recent essay ‘What to do’, concerning a harmed planet and the violence of the day, that I visit the city. If there was ever a city that could push a few tangents and clues into your skull, headlock you with a few punchy jabs, the Pool of Life is it. 
I walked almost blindfold into the ‘concert’ and faced the familiar red brick. Gone was the ventilation pipe that connected to the main sewer under the street, the one we plugged a toilet into. I knew that Waterstones the bookstore, had been converted into a bar. Fuckin buzzin. I knew that my old café, Trading Places had gone along with its random artworks on patched up walls. I remembered Isabelle’s home-baked banoffi pie and the morning toast and marmalade after slipping out of the studio, groggy and barefoot. Gone was the broken, mended and shabby humanity, making ends meet but talking poetry, gone the frayed misfits who ran it and the homeless, not out of place, who would chance a free coffee and a chat, for me significant and of world importance. It had a sense of place, on earth, above and beyond what it seemed to offer at face value. Yes, it had become another bar. Fuckin buzzin. The waste ground where I had my bonfires of street rubbish: two more bars. Fuckin buzzin. The car park had gone: high-rise above another bar. Fuckin buzzin. I had no sanctuaries left. Neither had the grey wagtail. Designer wagging tails were on the humans now and how they wag. How busy, how clean, how barren. I was brought to a full stop. Was this the headlock I sought?

In 1995 I wrote –

As I am writing this, looking down on a battle of streets from my studio, I am reminded of the pre-literate truth that finds its release in the ‘hunt’ every night. However, this pulsating of the Earth offers no succor to the unsuspecting ‘mummers’ on the stage down below who remain in blissful ignorance of the ancient sapience to which they perform…’ and one for the crow

All cultures need a release of treatment, a Mardi Gras, a festival, a piss up, a get together, a rubbing of flesh, a peace pipe for a pause and respite, an alternate headspace… the spectrum of humanity’s “rules of the game”. The validating codes of a ceremony are here usurped by hashtag trending. I wade through a collision, flicking through pages of a Marvel comic, trying to grasp the familiar, the eternal, to pick up a few gems and try and understand its place in the psyche and on the map. This was one animal in loud voice, seemingly on social media, finger-clicking for life’s affirmation on Tinder and Facebook, for likes, for retweets, for selfies, brainwashed by the buzzword topics of the day…Game of Thrones…Women’s football…Billy Eilish … migrants… shopping... Brexit… Boris Johnson… Trump. No doubt Extinction Rebellion made a brief appearance of ridicule on the menu of this month’s bar conversation, but this animal moved and shook to the offers on sale in the city’s retail shops. Designer carrier bags dazzled and flooded out from under seats like modern chains around the ankles. But this is Liverpool, so rest assured there is an indifferent street poet not far away, probably chained to a lamp post, intuitively rhyming that mankind is ‘fuckin’ mad. 

No matter what loose change is ‘salved’ into Greenpeace tins it is crystal clear that this release needs a release. It is also crystal clear that this voice is not a chant of freedom or joy, but a blissful addiction to a slow-sleep consumerism. It is state controlled through bankers and developers in a sham democracy. It is also crystal clear to me, as to a migrant, bobbing on the sidelines of this show, seeking an island on which to land, that this is a conflict zone. This is not to say that Toyota Hilux pickups are patrolling the streets with rocket launchers. This is not to say that armed militias are grouped behind the red brick walls awaiting a command. This is not to say that opposing factions will arrive to rape and ethnically cleanse. It is to say that something far more clever and insidious is in operation, something that is equally controlling and manipulative and life threatening – for everyone on the planet. Reading the scene, I cannot say that we are fortunate to be free of the horrors of war and the systematic transportation to extermination camps.

the life and joy you so energetically seek does not exist, it is really a blissful promise of death’. and one for the crow

So, facing this ‘death’, this hidden creeping death, this death wanting more and more of whatever this death needs, I go for a quick cortado coffee behind ‘enemy-lines’ and make a shopping list of my immediate wants. My coffee suffices. But even my coffee, is not a coffee as such, it’s an experience of place, sounds, textures, observations, insights and stimuli for the imagination…like my old café of 23 years ago, of world importance and transcendence.

In numerology, the number 23 is significant, often called the angel 23, carrying messages of a divine nature for optimism about your place in the universe. I will keep that esoteric gem under my belt.

But for the present it is very difficult to be optimistic having waded through the Concert Street soap opera, where every street is like a kids’ theme park, choked with ‘happy’ folk buying stuff, pretending to be adults, herded and surveyed. It is heartbreakingly obvious that this way of being is not sustainable either for civilisation or the planet. When I see this total submission to the soul of Mammon, to consumer slavery, orchestrated in the most evil and concealed corporate manner, I see the end of the world. Part of me wishes to hasten it on its way, for surely the health of the planet will recognize its own….?

And then I see the Toyota Hilux pickup, manned by Extinction Rebellion activists. Civil disobedience has taken a new twist. They are collecting consumers from the streets, admitting them to consumer decompression units for therapy, education, deep-ecology and blue planet retrieval. A better dream than a Jihadi, a religious consumer, forcing his will, hell bent on eliminating that which is other… Beziers was not a happy ending.

The biggest problem facing humanity is how to replace this monster called belief.

John Redhead, Lous Manes, Coustouges, Catalunya Nord. July 2019

Llanberis Photos-JA

Monday, 2 September 2019

'Crazy Sorrow'. The life and death of Alan Mullin..Reviewed

Original Image: Heinz Zac
Crazy Sorrow. The life and death of Alan Mullin. Edited by Grant Farquhar. 264pages Paper Back. Perfect Bound. ATLANTIS PUBLISHING. £28 or £8 in e-book format. 
His hunger burns, he learns how to steal, and he learns how to fight’. In the Ghetto Elvis Presley

No price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning oneself. Nietzsche

I faced the thought of reading ‘Crazy Sorrow’ with some trepidation, for I already knew the Alan Mullin story climbing wise, and had read Ed Douglas’s article about his terrible death. I feared that in learning about what had led up to that, some of my own father’s mental breakdown would be in my recall, although unlike Alan Mullin my sister and I never suffered physical abuse at home.

The story begins with a short Forward by his brother Kevin, three years younger than Alan who also eventually joined the army, finishing as a senior NCO. There then follows an authoritative overview ‘The discipline of Suffering’ by the historical guru of Scottish winter climbing, Simon Richardson. This is replete from the earliest ascent of Ben Nevis to collect plant specimens in 1771, to a winter climbing Grade X10 and beyond two hundred years later. All the major historical figures and their climbs are included and the story finishes around the time Alan Mullin begins his ascents. Ascending unbelievably in two years to the top of the grading system; which Richardson explains of how it developed and its workings over so many winter seasons of trial and error. Being a pendant I found only one mistake in this excellent review, on page 20, the first ascent of the North Face of the Droites in September 1955 was by P.Cornau and M. Davaille.

A major part of the book is detailing where and how Alan Mullin was coming from; beginning with his early life growing up on two different housing estates near Glasgow. His father was partly deaf, earned a living as a pipe fitter, but abandoned his family when Alan was 13, leaving him to fend for himself and his younger brother, with a mother who sank deeper and deeper into alcoholism, living off benefits, which resulted in Kevin being removed into care. It is warts and all, for his father was a Protestant, and his mother a Catholic, and once his father had departed he was moved from a Protestant School to a Catholic one and he became a Celtic supporter; and on one occasion actually attended at an ‘Auld Firm Derby’, Celtic versus Rangers. This was at the latter’s ground and wearing his Celtic shirt he was lucky to get away without a beating, for having lost a friend and transport home he was accosted by older, bigger Ranger’s fans who were ready for a fight having lost the game to their Catholic Rivals. He had the sense to get his shirt off and hide it from sight. For the uninitiated the Protestant versus Catholic rivalry between these Clubs supporters has in the past being the cause of much violence.

In the early Chapters there is also violence and much fighting for Mullin had to learn the hard way that he needed to toughen up, and assume the role of ‘The Hardest Kid In Our Street’. And although he was small physically he made up for this when challenged by his level of aggression. Unless you have experienced this kind of milieu yourself it may seem pointless but we are a product of our environment, and if you live in any such area throughout the UK, it is likely you too might experience such a culture. How do these sink areas develop? When I was 15 in 1951 I had met in Wales, Mick Noon of Glasgow’s Creagh Dhu Club (Mick is mentioned in Richardson’s review) and he had invited me to visit him and attend a Club meet on the Cobbler. I hitch hiked from Leeds and was met by Mick who lived in Denmark Street in The Gorbals; a sea of run down tenements and dilapidated saloon bars. It is from the redevelopment of such inner city areas out into Estates/New Towns on the peripheries of major conurbations, with many of their denizens moving there from these districts that some sink estates seem to develop? 

It is a National disgrace that in some of these poverty and depressed levels exist that no country should allow to-be so. But let me be clear here, there was nothing depressed about the members of the Creagh Dhu when I eventually met up with them. However as I was to find out later in the mid-sixties working for a firm in the Anderston District of Glasgow, that many of these places on the fringe of the City were just as Alan Mullin experienced when young, districts to avoid unless you were also willing to trade a Glasgow kiss or two!

Mullin was determined to get himself out of his troubled environment, and as soon as he was able, at 15 years of age he joined the army. But incredibly he joined an English infantry regiment, The Green Jackets. After one year of basic training as a junior soldier, he was posted into the regiments 2nd battalion. Having expected life to be so different in the army, he quickly learned that it could be just as violent as it had been at school and on the two Council estates on which he had lived. In another life, when I was forced into National Service, before I was posted to Manchester in February 1954, I had to undertake three weeks of infantry training in Wiltshire. This educated me on how such can dehumanise anyone who is of a sensitive nature, for one of those I shared a barrack with, Rosenheim a young Jewish teenager just could not stand the constant verbal attacks on him by the NCO’s and the antagonism from bigoted fellow recruits, so he killed himself. In true army style the ranks closed and though his parents along with their MP arrived at the camp demanding answers, the true situation as to what had happened was brushed away without any real consideration by the officer corps.

I think I need here to give an insight into how such training affected Mullin, by a direct quote ‘After almost a year of training, I had transformed from a scrawny young recruit into a finely tuned psycho with a thirst for violence: exactly what the army was looking for’.

Over the next 8 years Mullin served first in Northern Ireland at the height of the troubles, then Cyprus and finally in South Georgia. Good and bad things happened to him during these years, a positive one was meeting his wife Marion whose first husband had also been in the military, but who had died in a helicopter crash. But a negative one was when nearing the end of his tour in Northern Ireland, whilst engaged in the rumble of a game of indoor football. Rifleman versus NCO’s he was rammed into a wall badly fracturing a knee. This was so serious he was flown to the Woolwich Military hospital near London, resulting in an operation and a month in bed before returning to Belfast. His final posting in South Georgia perforce because of the terrain meant a course in mountain training, including some ice climbing and this is when he became fired up by a wish to become a climber. 
Unfortunately whilst on another exercise carrying a heavy rucksack he suffered a slipped disc which made continuing on with this outing a physical agony. It was a big mistake to go on battling this for he was doing himself real physical damage. I also once slipped a disc and I was likewise in physical agony, but I had this dealt with in 48 hours by a Neuro surgeon. It took me a few months to recover completely, but despite moving onto light duties, Mullin’s situation became ever more serious and eventually resulted in him needing a spinal operation. And this eventually led on to him being discharged the service, a decision which he found hard to contemplate, for despite all else, he loved the army and had no wish to leave a life which he found so conducive to his own attitude in living. By the end of his story I had to agree with a view expressed by his brother Kevin; that retiring him from the army on grounds of physical disability was truly a questionable action.

On returning to civilian life he moved with his family (his wife Marion had two children via her first marriage, and they had a son together) to a village near Invergordon, and for a time they seemed settled. Although Mullin was drinking heavily, and on occasion experimenting with drugs, and getting into fights in Clubs (he acted as a bouncer for some short period); he unfortunately found that life in what they had thought could be a honeyed existence in a traditional Highland village, turned, out not to be so. Resulting in confrontation with a family of local trouble makers which ended with criminal charges in court, over which Mullin and his wife were completely exonerated. They then moved 20 miles away to another village where they did find the lifestyle that they had originally sought, with an environment for their three children to safely grow within. However his heavy drinking, drug taking, with bouts of anger and worries about where he was heading; he had been only 23 years old when he left the army, made him begin to question his mind set. And so he booked himself into a series of appointments with a psychologist and confessed that despite his apprehension about doing this, he found the meetings worthwhile and even enjoyable! 
He then almost by accident rediscovered what he was good at; climbing. In the 1990’s mixed winter routing was taking off and after what was, an unbelievable short apprenticeship of two years, he went from soloing at grade I to climbing at grade VIII. For Mullin, the hardships that are hand-in-hand with Scottish winter climbing seemed no worse than those he had come to expect in the army. Initially he was very much self-motivated and self-taught, but in 1997 he teamed up with Steve Paget, a highly talented but relatively unknown winter climber. Together they focussed predominantly on mixed climbs in the Cairngorms.

Making full use of the equipment revolution then under away, and the new technique of dry tooling, over the next few years either partnered by Steve or climbing solo Mullin repeated many classic Cairngorm mixed climbs. Simon Richardson noted that he was rapidly moving to the forefront of Scottish winter climbing. Ascent followed ascent, a standout climb being The Needle on the Shelter Stone Crag in a 17 hour push in 1998. A ten pitch route, the first to be graded IX. They bettered this the following winter with an ascent of The Steeple also on the Shelter Stone, seen by many at that time as the ultimate last great Scottish winter problem. Again Simon Richardson opined that this ascent was ‘without question the most sustained technical winter route climbed in Scotland to date’.

But others were not so complimentary, for both these climbs were made early in the season, in the case of The Needle in late October, and I know when I lived in Scotland it was rare that routes were in winter condition so early in the season, but conditions in an area like The Cairngorms change so much from year to year, and even from day to day. However not all the responses to these ascents were critical; Andy Kirkpatrick noted ‘Alan was a revolutionary in the history of Scottish climbing, a total outsider who shook a closed scene to pieces’.
He further upped the ante by making an incredible on-sight solo first winter ascent of Rolling Thunder on Lochnagar in December 1999 (V11 8). This in summer conditions is a four pitch, E1 5B and there was no doubt about the cliff being in winter condition on this occasion, for other climbers were in the area and took pictures with long lenses of the Face on which Mullin appears as a red dot in a hanging sea of white.

One Chapter I really enjoyed reading was about Mullin attending the 1999 BMC International Winter Climbing meet based at Glenmore Lodge. As the person who organised the very first such BMC International Meet in Wales in 1973, it was interesting to note how much had changed. I do not remember any of the attendees then being prima donnas; although some of the 51 climbers there from 19 countries had made major first ascents in their own countries and the Himalaya. It seemed by 1999 some of those who were in attendance were such and one of them in particular did not rate high on the Mullin personal behaviour acceptance scale. However good came from this for Mullin met Kevin Thaw and Leo Holding with whom he did gel and before the meet was over he had an invitation to climb in the USA and Patagonia from Thaw.

During 1999 and 2000 Mulin’s desire to widen his experience led him to the USA, the Dolomites and Patagonia. In Yosemite he climbed his first ever big wall climb and aid route The Prow. His first trip to Patagonia with Kevin Thaw, an expat Brit based in California in January/March 2000 was very successful and the pair made a free ascent of the Czech Route (V1, 5ll+) on Fitz Roy’s West Face. This was Alan’s first of three trips to Patagonia, the other two were to be attempts on infamous Maestri Egger line on Cerro Torre. The first of these attempts, climbing again with Thaw but also accompanied by Leo Holding, ended when the latter took a leader fall badly fracturing an ankle, and the second attempt was totally bombed out by the constant bad weather. At least some good came out of these last two trips for Mullin made friends with the Austrian climber Peter Janschek and visited him to do some ice climbing of which there is plenty in that country. The famous photographer a friend of Peter’s, Heinz Zak accompanied them resulting in an impressive picture in Crazy Sorrow of Alan leading an iced up route at the Rudolfshutte, winter ski and climbing area.

Back in winter Scotland, the first ascents or difficult repeats continued, ‘Centurion’(VIII,8) solo on Ben Nevis, The Demon Direct (IX,9) in the Northern Corries with Steve Paget, and Crazy Sorrow (X,II) with Steve Lynch in Lochnagar. Over this latter, the first so highly graded, a storm of criticism erupted. ‘Pre-placed gear, abseil inspection, aided moves etc’ being the screams from the keyboard warriors but also some of the protectors of the Scottish winter climbing ethic, but Mullin either did not care or pretended not to. An innocent enquiry about this controversy by Simon Richardson hit a raw nerve and resulted in an unfriendly response to be followed by three abusive e-mails. And that was the last time Simon communicated with him, although he writes that despite everything he still regarded Alan as a friend, and that he was the best winter climber of his day. Interestingly Dave MacLeod who also climbed with him gives him the same high rating, but noted he was without a doubt ‘the most intense person I’ve ever spent time or climbed with’.
(For those interested the name ‘Crazy Sorrow’ comes from a lyric by Bob Dylan, but it is also a book title by Susan Bowes about a deadly family feud in the Appalachian Mountains)

In 2004 Mullin, abruptly announced he was giving up climbing, his injuries suffered during his army career had caught up with him. He had an operation in a private clinic in Sheffield to try to alleviate this in 2003 but he had to accept that his injured knee was ruined. He also still suffered from his spinal injury for which he had continued to take an opioid pain killer.
Stopping climbing in which his star had Shone so brightly despite the fact it had been for such a brief period seemed to be as Kevin Thaw writes, ‘the beginning of a downward spiral’. Marion his wife noted ‘he became very withdrawn and we could see a dramatic change in him’. He was admitted twice in 2004 on an informal basis to the local psychiatric hospital in Inverness. He was diagnosed with ‘Bipolar Affective Disorder-manic phase, Personality Disorder and possibly drug induced problems’.

He then became an outpatient but in August 2005 he failed to attend an appointment and thereafter had no contact with the hospital until his next admission in 2007.He had stopped taking the antipsychotic medications he had been described citing bad side effects. He tried to find new directions away from climbing by studying philosophy and psychology via the Open University. He was very enamoured of the writings of Nietzsche. He trained as an alcohol counsellor, but quickly gave that up, later enrolling on an anthropology course at Aberdeen University.

The whole terrible story then unfolds, and no one is better qualified to give insight into its development and causes than Grant Farquhar the books editor, for he is a practising psychiatrist. I will leave the reader to follow this to what may seem an inevitable demise with first a suicide attempt by slashing his wrists and walking in front of a car on the A9 road suffering an ankle fracture, damaged ribs and multiple soft tissue injuries. He spent eleven days in Raigmore Hospital in Iverness before being admitted in the care of his wife as a voluntary inpatient at the New Craigs Psychiatric hospital.
Ten days after admission the medical staff wanted him to stay but he wished to go home so on his own instigation he discharged himself ‘against medical advice’, although once again he was prescribed a suitable antipsychotic- medication. There was much more suffering for his family and Alan before the final breakdown, when he became so delusional his wife drove to the Dingwall police station to seek help. Two police officers followed her back to her house, and managed to enter but Alan told them to leave, moved himself upstairs to a bedroom warning the policeman that to come up to him would be at their own peril. Knowing he had been in the army and was a trained combatant the coppers then called for backup. 15 officers arrived at the house, five in riot gear along with negotiators and dogs!

Eventually after five hours of stand-off, and Alan threatening, under orders of the area commander they removed him from the house. Instead of having him sanctioned and entered into hospital, due to multiple misunderstandings he was held in police cells and appeared the next day at Tain Sheriff Court charged with ‘a breach of the peace!’ Instead of being removed to a psychiatric hospital he was sent down to prison. And on March 9th 19 days after this, again due to a series of calamitous decisions, including the stopping of ‘special observations’ and the removal of his cellmate to attend court; when officers did check his cell they found him hanging by a radio flex. He could not be resuscitated. They discovered a number of suicide notes in his cell.

There was an inquiry held into his death eighteen months later, but it appears nothing has changed and throughout Britain there have been numerous inquiries, but the sad conclusion is that the culture seems to be in many cases like Mullin’s, that suicide is inevitable. I do not think Grant Farquhar thinks this is so and there is much more to his analysis than I have written. Preventing suicide is difficult, but rates vary within different countries prison systems and real effort should be made to bring the best practice into our service.
There is then a final chapter of reflections and thoughts about the subject, but for me my view is that Alan Mullin was the classical case of an Outsider. Throughout history such people have appeared, disrupted, and changed how other people think or behave about the meaning of their lives or the approach to their activities. They are often difficult to know but they usually make a positive contribution to our lives, often like Alan Mullin at great cost to themselves and those who love them. 
Photograph: Ian Parnell
Crazy Sorrow is well illustrated with many outstanding historic colour prints and contains contributions from many other climbers and sources. It is well produced and though highly priced is unlike any other climbing book I have ever read; think Irvine Welsh and ‘Trainspotting’ or Colin Wilson’s ‘The Outsider’. It is a hard read, but it touches on a subject that we all need to know much more about. So my recommendation is despite the sadness at the terrible outcome do, buy and read it!

Dennis Gray: 2019 

Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Footmarks of a Cantering Man: A Tale of Two Books

Footmarks of a cantering man. The perfect title for the rushed memoirs of a recently-fallen politician? Or the souped-up story of some philandering celebrity? No, but the phrase is not new. It is the caption to a drawing, one of a hundred or so illustrating the first comprehensive textbook on climbing, the Badminton Library's Mountaineering, published in 1892. Cantering in this context means descending steep ground by a series of two-footed leaps;

"... the feet falling almost side by side and one immediately after the other...  the interval between each pair of steps may be eight to twelve feet."

It is eccentric advice, part of three pages on how to walk downhill, which follow six pages on how to walk uphill ("A certain slight degree of roll, or, to put it more scientifically, of swinging of the pelvis or hips, is of the first importance"). And it is characteristic of an eccentric book, in which most of the text is of a remarkably long-winded, humourless pomposity. The tone is set by the dedication, written by the series editor, the Duke of Beaufort, presumably during pauses in licking the boots (or some other part) of the dedicatee:

"... to HRH The Prince of Wales, one of the best and keenest sportsmen of our time. I can say, from personal observation, that there is no man who can extricate himself from a bustling and pushing crowd of horsemen, when a fox breaks covert, more dexterously and quickly than His Royal Highness...  often have I seen HRH knocking over driven grouse and partridges and high-rocketing pheasants in first-rate workmanlike style. He is held to be a good yachtsman... His encouragement of racing is well known... fond of all manly sports. I consider it a great privilege to be allowed to dedicate these volumes to so eminent a sportsman as HRH the Prince of Wales, and I do so with sincere feelings of respect and esteem and loyal devotion.”
If that didn't gain an extra gong for the ducal chest, what would?

After that, it is unsurprising but still rather depressing that every piece of advice to the would-be climber is based on extreme conservatism, utmost caution and a reverence for age and experience. Innovation, in equipment or in the quest for new routes, is severely frowned upon:

 "Crampons, or climbing irons, do not find much favour with English mountaineers, and have been spoken of contemptuously on many occasions..........Far too many of these 'variation' routes have been introduced of late years. The art of mountaineering will be better developed and maintained by following as well as possible the old routes, than by attempting at any cost to fashion out new ones... The pleasure of novelty and the flatteries of fame betrayed some of those whose misfortune it was to come late into the field, to attempt an undue multiplication of routes... A limit must, of course, be set to this kind of overproduction, and the good sense of the large body of climbers may be trusted to enforce it."

That forecast was surely as remarkable as the writer's ignorance of human nature. The authors, peering down from their heavenly hut, must be horrified by the climbing scene of today, particularly in Britain: 

 "... there are many little rocky teeth in the Lake districts of our own country where the mountaineer may find abundant opportunities... These small scrambles are but delightful episodes in a day's walk". But those delightful episodes are not really to be encouraged. They might lead to "... the danger of 'fancy climbs'. Near Snowdon, in the Lake District, and to some extent even in Skye, those who would do some fresh thing have been driven to climb places of extreme difficulty... The novice must on no account attempt them... these fancy bits of footwork are not mountaineering proper..."

Mountaineering proper then meant alpinism, and to have the time and money to climb in the Alps in those days, you were necessarily of the upper crust. So maintaining the dignity of a "Herr" was important:

"A flannel shirt without a collar will look untidy, even though worn by a bishop, but if provided with a collar of fine-wove linen, the wearer can always look respectable... no man has a right to go about looking like an ostler unless he happens to be one." And for the ladies, "Three yards round the hem will be found a good width for a skirt, which can be of ordinary walking length... which, in the valleys or towns, does not look conspicuous."

Then there were the guides, those fortunate farmers and hunters whose local knowledge and common sense had acquired considerable value in the eyes of the visiting English gentry. Their assistance had been deemed essential from the birth of mountaineering but recently a foolhardy few climbers had ventured, in the face of senior disapproval, to do without them "Guideless climbing is to be strongly deprecated as a general practice. Under certain conditions it is reasonable enough."

And those conditions? A chapter of 17 pages is needed to describe them but:

"To sum up the question in a few words: every guideless party must consist of three or more members who know each other's climbing well; each must have had a long experience of lower hills in all kinds of weather; must have climbed in the high Alps for at least four seasons with good guides; must have the moral courage to turn back if advisable; must be able to take his share of the work, and lead the party in case of need."

That repetition of the authoritarian "must" jars in a big way now, in these less reverential days. It probably did then, but the Alpine Club bigwigs (five of the seven contributors were past or future presidents of the club) who put the book together seem less interested in encouraging would-be climbers than in warning them off. Keeping beginners in their place - not only behind a guide, but crouched at the feet of their elders and betters - is a recurrent theme: "Untrained men, youths fresh from school, even ladies[!] now climb, or are hauled up, the Alps... Novices must learn that, apart altogether from physical gifts, serious training and considerable experience are absolutely necessary... "

How were all these stern warnings received? By one climber at least, they were taken badly. At all stages of climbing history there have been prominent rebels who, by their actions and their words, have set new standards and encouraged fresh thought. Such a one was A F (Fred) Mummery, revered now as an inspirational climber and author but by no means universally admired then. Indeed, his first application to join the Alpine Club had been blackballed, partly, it is thought, through jealousy of his achievements but mainly because, as part-owner of a tannery and therefore engaged in trade, he was not, in the eyes of the old and crusted, a gentleman. Fortunately for the reputation of the club, wiser thoughts eventually prevailed and he was welcomed at the second attempt. In 1895, Mummery published his wonderful reminiscences, My Climbs in the Alps and Caucasus, perhaps the most enjoyable book ever written about climbing. The pleasure comes not so much from the descriptions of exciting first ascents, stimulating though they are; it arises from the unforced flow of the prose and the cheerful modesty and good humour which adorn every page:

"When the rope came down for me, I made a brilliant attempt to ascend unaided. Success attended my first efforts, then came a moment of metaphorical suspense, promptly followed by the real thing.....They said they were waiting for me, but the abandon of their attitudes suggested that this was not the whole truth. Seeing some signs of movement, I suggested lunch..."

Above all there is the explicit and unqualified declaration that climbing is fun (a truth, incidentally, which even today evades some writers, judging by the war-like metaphors and pseudo-mysticism - confronting demons and the like - occasionally described to a good day in the hills).  Amongst the tales of derring-do are sandwiched polite but explicit refutations of the general spirit and much specific advice contained in Mountaineering. Take the question of guides. Mummery had used them frequently - indeed, Burgener and Venetz and others had led him up several of "his" notable first ascents - so their use could hardly be condemned. But times had changed. Whereas guides had once been friends and advisers, sharing the spirit of adventure and uncertainty which spurred  an expedition, most of the originals had retired or died, and their successors - far more numerous and with many more clients - were more akin to contractors who could "lie in bed and picture every step of the way up" and determine to the minute when their charges would reach the summit and when they would return to their hotel.

That, in Mummery's view, was not adventure, and neither was the repetition of existing routes when there were myriads of potential new lines waiting exploration."The true mountaineer is a wanderer... a man who loves to be where no human being has been before, who delights in gripping rocks that have never felt the touch of human fingers, or in hewing his way up ice-filled gullies whose grim shadows have been sacred to the mists and avalanches since earth rose out of chaos." 

We - most of us, anyway - might find that description a touch difficult to live up to, now that new lines which are both climbable and accessible are rather hard to find. But few, if any, would disagree with Mummery's further point - at odds with the establishment of his day - to the effect that overcoming challenges using one's skill and strength was absolutely integral to the pleasure of the sport. It didn't mean that those who sought difficulty were oblivious to the glories of the mountains: "

... I should still climb, even though there were no scenery to look at, even if the only climbing attainable were the dark and gruesome pot-holes of the Yorkshire dales. On the other hand, I should still wander among the upper snows, lured by the silent mists and the red blaze of the setting sun... even though in after aeons the sprouting of wings and other angelic appendages may have sunk all thought of climbing and cragsmanship in the whelming past."
Nowadays we would probably substitute indoor walls for potholes, but the case for climbing as a multi-faceted sport is well made. The BMC couldn't put it better. As we know, Mummery didn't live to learn the success of My Climbs as, later in its year of publication, he was killed, with two Gurkha companions, during the first attempt on Nanga Parbat - the first attempt, indeed, on any Himalayan giant. The wings and other angelic appendages arrived too soon.

This tale of two books nevertheless has a happy ending. The chief author of Mountaineering was C T Dent, a past president of the Alpine Club who, having made the first ascent of the Aiguille du Dru, could be said to have practised the opposite of what he preached in his book. If he was offended by Mummery's criticisms he had the perfect opportunity to respond in kind, when reviewing My Climbs in the 1895 Alpine Journal - a review which, it is clear from the use of the present tense, was written before Mummery's death, so making sympathy or pulled punches unnecessary. How did Dent react? Not with rancour, but with generosity. His review is wholly favourable. It wasn't possible to ignore his differences with Mummery, but: "It is true that Mr Mummery does not always express approval of the maxims enforced in [Mountaineering]. And he certainly does not always practise the principles laid down. But Mr Mummery is an exceptional man, and they who are qualified by experience to make rules are privileged to break them.... It is far from our intent to make the profound mistake of answering criticism [as] it is not necessary... Mr Mummery is an ally, not an opponent." 

'Near Interlaken'. John Ruskin Watercolour     

Which only goes to show that, whatever is visible on the surface, when you delve beneath the skin all climbers are good guys.

Ben Stroude: 2019 


Sunday, 11 August 2019

Kurt Diemberger's 'Summits And Secrets'....Extract

An extract from Diemberger’s account of his and Wolfgang Stefan’s ascent of the North face of the Eiger:

A stone whizzing past, not very far off – the first sign of life on the face. Then all quiet again, here in the shadow; utter silence. High above, rock and snow lay bright in the sunshine, quiet, peaceful, warm looking. And that was precisely where the menace hung – the menace that could at any moment shatter the cold silence down here, the menace of that beautiful warm glow.Tick … tick … ssst. Just a baby stone, hopping harmlessly, dancing down the rocks, whispering past like an insect, small and no danger to anyone. But how long before the cannonade would start, to shatter the peace and quiet down here? It could be minutes, it could be half an hour … It was 9 a.m.

I looked up at the warm, even light on those rocks. Then I started cutting steps again, smaller ones, quicker than before. I was up. In went a piton and then I hacked out a stance.I shouted down to Wolfi: ‘You can come now – but look out! The first stones are arriving.’‘So I noticed,’ came up from below. ‘One has just gone past me.’ Wolfi was coming up – the traverse, the piton, retrieving the sling, pushing a leg into the crack, reaching up with his arm. At that moment there was a ‘click’ on my helmet, and I enjoyed an instant’s satisfaction at the thought that I was wearing it. Then Wolfi joined me.

‘We’ll have to get up there before it really starts,’ he said, pointing to the upper rim of the huge ice field. He was right; there seemed to be at least a measure of cover under the jutting cliffs up there. We should take much longer by following that long curving rim than if we traversed diagonally, but – ‘Look out! Something’s coming!’ Wolfi, six feet above me, reacted instantly, pressing himself hard into the ice. A host of little dots was coming down in a grotesque dance across the grey surface 300 feet higher up. They grew larger, bounding down towards us in great leaps, a grey army of them. Now! … that one’s missed me, and that one, but what about this one? … sssst, ssst … Suddenly everything was quiet again. It was all over.

Wolfi straightened up slowly. ‘Benediction over?’ he asked. ‘Then I’ll lead on again. You keep watch and shout if you see anything coming.’I cast an anxious eye up the face, the surface of the ice, the groove running up to the rocks above. Nothing stirred. The rope ran out quickly, as Wolfi went diagonally up the next 130 feet. He dispensed with step cutting; we had to get out of the line of fire as quickly as possible. Tack … tack … tack, his crampons bit into the smooth surface, tilted at fifty degrees or more. It looked uncanny. The view down the face had completely disappeared; all we could see was the lower edge of the second ice field projecting over the abyss like a ski-jumping platform, with green ground beyond it, sending up a pale green reflection, mirrored by the surface up here, making the blue shadows look even colder.

We wondered whether we had been spotted yet. Not that it makes the slightest difference. There is no place on earth where one is so utterly alone. I squinted up the runnel to where Wolfi stood, with only the frontal points of his crampons biting into the steep, bone-hard surface. I stooped and took a tighter hold on the rope.Everything else had lost all meaning. Wolfi was standing up there on four steel spikes. Whether they held or slipped depended on his next movement …We were alone … alone with the North Face of the Eiger. At that moment even our friends had ceased to exist for us.

Another whilst Diemberger is making an ascent of the unclimbed Chogolisa with Hermann Buhl in 1957. They are making an attempt on the summit when a snow storm descends:

I reckoned we must be at about 23,600 feet, and that we must be near the steep avalanche slope which had pushed us so close to the cornices. If only one could see a bit more! I turned and saw Hermann coming after me, keeping the distance unaltered, following in my actual steps. As I moved down, I kept on looking across to the left, trying to see through the mist. All I could see was that it was getting a bit darker overhead and a bit lighter below. That must be the edge of the cornices. It seemed a safe distance away, but in mist distances can be deceptive. Perhaps it would be better to keep a bit to the right, but then I should have to look out for the precipice. It ought to be here by now. Ah, there’s another axe hole …

I looked anxiously to the left and then down to the surface at my feet. I was at a loss; it was almost impossible to see anything at all. Crack! Something shot through me like a shock. Everything shook, and for a second the surface of the snow seemed to shrink. Blindly, I jumped sideways to the right – an instantaneous reflex action – two, three great strides, and followed the steep slope downwards a little way, shattered by what I had seen at my feet – the rim of the cornice, with little jagged bits breaking away from it. My luck had been in, all right! I had been clean out on the cornice. What would Hermann have to say about that, I wondered? I stopped and turned, but the curve of the slope prevented my seeing over the crest as I looked up. The light was improving a little. Hermann must bob up any moment up there. I still couldn’t fathom that extraordinary shaking sensation; had the snow really settled under my weight?

Still no Hermann. ‘Hermann!’ I shouted. ‘For God’s sake, what’s up? Hermann!’ I rushed, gasping up the slope. There it was, the crest … and beyond it, smooth snow … and it was empty … Hermann … You! …Done for …I dragged myself up a little farther.

 I could see his last footmarks in the snow, then the jagged edge of the broken cornice, yawning. Then the black depths.The broken cornice – that had been the quaking beneath my feet, then.I couldn’t get a sight of the North Face from anywhere near. I should have to get down to Ridge Peak for that. As I went down, the storm gradually abated, and the mists lifted from time to time. I was utterly stunned. How could that have happened just behind me? I had the greatest difficulty in getting up the short rise to Ridge Peak, but even before I got there it had cleared up. I hurried out to the farthest edge of the cliffs. 
The storm was hunting the clouds high into the heavens. Above the veils of mist and through them a ridge loomed up – a tower – a great roof with tremendous banners of blown snow streaming from it. Chogolisa, the horrible. I could see the spot where we had turned at about 24,000 feet. Our trail down the broad snowfield below was crystal clear. Then that fearsome drop to the north – into the clouds. And there, even closer to our tracks as they ran straight downwards, the encroaching precipice. And then I could see it all with stark and terrible clarity. Just at that point, Hermann had left my tracks at a slight bend, where I was hugging the rim of the precipice, and gone straight on ahead, only three or four yards – straight out on to the tottering rim of the cornice – straight out into nothingness. Of the foot of the wall I could see nothing.Stupidly, I stared upwards again. If we had been roped …

I looked down along the face, shuddering …No, I should never have been able to hold him there; at the moment of his fall I myself was too far out on the overhanging snow.

At last I could see clearly down below, where the broad snow-masses of an avalanche fanned out. The crashing cornice had set it off and it had swept the face clean. Hermann was nowhere to be seen. He must have fallen at least 1,000, maybe 2,000 feet and was lying there buried under the piled-up snow. Could he have survived that? There was no answer to my shouts and I had no way of getting down there. I should have to fetch the others and we should have to come from below. That was the only faint possibility. I strained my eyes, searching every cranny, searching for a rucksack, a ski stick, a dark blob. But there was nothing to be seen – absolutely nothing. Only our tracks – up there. Clouds blotted the mountain out again. I was alone.

Mists and a high wind were sweeping the corniced ridge as I tried to find the way down. At times I could see nothing at all and could only tell from rifts in the snow that I had strayed too far down the slope. After what seemed an age, I found our tent. It was a horror of emptiness. I took the absolute essentials for the descent and went on down. At the Kaberi Saddle there was knee-deep fresh snow, through which only a tiny corner of the marker-pennants showed. I probed with my feet under that smooth expanse of white to find out from which side our ascent route had come, then went straight on into the whiteness … to the next pennant. I wandered vaguely down endless hollows, over crevasses, through fog, then into the darkness of night. For long, indescribable hours of horror – during which I at times had a feeling that Hermann was still with me – I managed, by some miracle, to find my way, onwards, downwards. Then, just before the great icefalls, my pocket-lamp failed; so I had to bivouac On and on … endlessly on … till, twenty-seven hours after Hermann’s fall, I tottered into base camp.The search which followed found absolutely nothing.
Once again, the monstrous rubble-covered river of ice lay freed of all human presence. The sun burned down on it with scorching intensity. The snow was rapidly vanishing, melting into the waters of gurgling glacier streams. Chogolisa’s white roof-tree seemed to lift into the very sky itself. The great peaks stood silently all around. Were they, too, mourning? Or was this only the great healing silence which eternally enfolds all living and dying? 

 Kurt Diemberger: 2019

Further details from Vertebrate Publishing

Monday, 5 August 2019

The Uncrowned King of Mont Blanc....Reviewed

The Uncrowned King of Mont Blanc. Peter Foster.
The life of T.Graham Brown, physiologist and mountaineer.
Published by Vertebrate. £14.95. 256 pages, Perfect Bound Paper Back.

‘Only those who will risk going too far, can possibly find out how far they can go’. T.S. Eliot

In the mid-1960’s I moved to live in a flat in Manor Place in Edinburgh, and unbeknown to me in a house in that secreted close lived T.Graham Brown. My landlord was a Captain Bowler and his daughter observed as I moved in that ‘strange happenings’ were taking place in the property opposite. Intrigued I kept a watch on its approaches that first night and noted people coming and going that to my trained eye looked like they might be climbers. At that date most of us were still rough and readily dressed, but the baring of rucksacks and the wearing by some of these residents of boots ought to have given a lead and eventually I found out who these strangers were? They were youthful members of the Edinburgh University Mountaineering Club, lodging freely in the basement of a house belonging to T.Graham Brown the pioneer of the famous Brenva Face routes, Mont Blanc, and author of a book ‘Brenva’ the story of these ascents. 

In retrospect this should have indicated to me that TGB must be a most unusual landlord in allowing his house to be so used, situated as it was in the very upmarket area of the West End of the City just off the Princess Street!
In the years previous to my sojourn in Edinburgh I had ascended one of the Brenva routes, and in the latter part of that decade I studied psychology at Leeds, and this occasioned me to enquire about Graham Brown’s academic work mistakenly believing that his research was in the field of Psychiatry, but once I discovered it was experiments within the discipline of physiology I did not pursue my interest any further. But Peter Foster as a retired consultant physician is most able to explain these in a manner that most none medically trained readers will understand.

TGB at the foot of a boulder in Mosedale. Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland
T. Graham Brown was born in Edinburgh in 1882 into a family of some distinction, his father being a distinguished Doctor who became the President of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. He had two brothers and a sister, but unfortunately his mother died of cancer when he was just nine years old. His father demanded/expected outstanding results from his eldest son TGB, and Peter Foster has well interpreted for us how this so influenced him in the career he decided to eventually follow in physiology; another major influence and mentor being one of his father’s closest friends, Sir Charles Sherrington, who eventually was to be a Nobel laureate holding Chairs in Physiology first at Liverpool then Oxford. Although initially at his school Edinburgh Academy he was not a stand out pupil once he had gained entrance to study medicine at Edinburgh University his ability for painstaking and methodical research soon became apparent. Finishing at Edinburgh on Sherrington’s advice he studied in Germany (as had both his father and mentor) for in the early part of the 1900’s that was where the finest medical schools and researchers were and TGB became fluent whilst there in that language. 

Returning to the UK in 1910 he obtained a post at Liverpool and adapting the methods of his mentor he began his research work into the neural control mechanisms of locomotion, part of which work he submitted for his Doctorate which was awarded with a gold medal. His researches in Liverpool and later at Manchester University whilst a lecturer there were perhaps his most productive, but he recognised at the latter he did not like teaching preferring to work solely at research projects. It was whilst he was at Liverpool he started hill walking and camping in the Lake District..... This would eventually lead him via chance meetings into becoming a climber and also whilst residing in Merseyside he involved himself in the University settlement, dedicated to improving the living conditions of the City’s slum dwellers.
The First World War intervened and there was much need for medical knowledge. And as the conflict progressed and it became ever more bloody, specialists in such as brain and spinal injuries were sought as were those who might have ideas as to how to combat-the ever growing phenomena of shell shock. TGB was commissioned into the RAMC and initially posted to a hospital near Liverpool but as the conflict spread he was sent out to Salonika, where on occasion he was in the front line under fire. However it was during the war that the ‘difficult’ side of his temperament seems to have surfaced, champing at the waste of the possibility of undertaking original research into such areas as brain and spinal injuries instead of patching / bandaging /stitching up injured squaddie’s.

TGB was appointed to the Chair of Physiology at University College Cardiff in 1920 and he was to spend the next forty years in and around that institute and he was elected to be a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1927 on the strength of his pre-war research. Over these years he was to be involved in ever more disputed arguments about the place of the College in the provision of medical education in Wales, and his constant absences away climbing and in his later years sailing! He had started climbing in Easter 1914 by ‘accident’, when camping in Mosedale and by being invited by a climber to accompany him on an ascent of Pillar Rock and a few days later some easy climbs on Great Gable.... and he was hooked. He was back again at the Whitsuntide holiday and climbed on Scafell and the Napes once more and he even took part in the first ascent of the Peregrine Gully on the Cam Spout Crag in Eskdale. But two months later the war intervened and it was to be 1920 before he was back to rock climbing in the Lake District where he met up with some climbers from Yorkshire’s Gritstone Club at a Wasdale Head gathering.
TGB making notes at the bivouac hut on Col d' Estelette en route to the Aiguille de la Tete. August 1927. His companion Herbert who took the image annotated it 'authentic contemporary portrait of Dioggenes'. reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland
Over the next three years he attended regularly at their meets and he made close friends with Leslie Letts a member of the famous diary manufacturing family. It was to be Letts who persuaded him to accompany Cecil Wood and himself to the Alps for the first time in 1924. In 1925 TGB in company with the well known Lakeland pioneer George Basterfield, having remembered seeing these whilst out walking previously, visited the Boat Howe crags situated on the northern flanks of Kirkfell overlooking Ennerdale and began a pioneering spree of new routing on these previously unclimbed rocks.
The visit to the Alps in 1924 was to be a life changer for TGB, and from that year onwards until the outbreak of the second war he spent most of his summers in the mountains. Much of his climbing in the Alps was to be accompanied by guides ascending voie normales or classic routes, but by 1927 he was a seasoned campaigner, being elected to the Alpine Club in 1926 and he had already begun his lifelong ability to fall out with rope mates including his original Alpine partner Letts. It was to be in the 1927 season that a fateful introduction to Frank Smythe set him on course for two outstanding ascents on the Brenva Face. He was so introduced by Edwin Herbert, later to be a President of the Alpine Club 1953-1956, and a life Peer as Baron Tangley.

TGB had read A.E.W Mason’s ‘Running Water’ a romantic adventure story which reaches its action climax on the ridge of the Old Brenva route, and this inspired him to think and plan for new routes on the then unclimbed face of the mountain. To record that this was presumptuous is still true, for few alpinists of that era would have dared to contemplate such ascents. But in 1927 accompanied by Smythe he ascended a route on the Face following a series of ribs on the right flank of the Great Couloir which is a major feature of the Brenva Face. They called this route the ‘Sentinelle Rouge’. The following year 1928 they made their second new route on the Face, ‘Route Major’ and this second route was far more impressive than the first, and included more difficult/technical climbing, following rock steps, walls and steep snow bands on the left side of the Great Couloir and exiting on the summit of Mont Blanc.

Smythe unlike TGB was not a well heeled professional, he was in the mode of Whymper, someone who through his mountaineering writing, books and lectures crafted out a precarious living for himself, and so having lead on two of the most important first ascents of the inter war years he wished to write them up, include them in a book he was writing and to have his enterprise acknowledged by his peers, particularly in the pages of the Alpine Journal, whose editor in that era Col.E.L. Strutt was almost an equally spiky personality as TGB! And so the scene was set for one of the most contentious ‘Fallouts’ in the history of British mountaineering, spawning a feud that lasted for more than 20 years, the reason for this with hindsight is attribution? 

Who was the true progenitor of these climbs, Smythe or TGB? The latter believed with all his being that it was him and as Smythe’s claims and his writing up of these events were published the more vehement TGB became sending to Strutt on one occasion a letter over 70 pages in length refuting Smythe’s claims, requesting publication of it in the Alpine Journal. When he did prepare to write his own history of his Brenva ascents (including the Pear Buttress in 1933) in his book so entitled, the MSS was sent to Smythe who threatened to take legal action, and Lord Tangley (who was a high flying lawyer) intervened and helped to edit it in a way to avoid any such possibility.
Lord Tangley wrote of TGB after his death, a tribute in the Alpine Journal, noting that he was one of the most complex persons he had ever known. Somehow he remained friends with both of these two climbers, but he noted how difficult and touchy TGB could be for he had been subjected to a wall of silence for quite some time simply because he had retained his friendship with Smythe. 

He also noted how TGB’s obsession with detail could be so frustrating whilst actually on a route, insisting on stopping and noting the smallest of facts; times, distances, weather, and any difficulties in his notebooks which he always had about him whatever the conditions, whilst the other members of the party grumbled about the need to get on with the climbing. Tangley suggested that it was his scientific background that led to this obsession, and perhaps his combative nature was in part due to his physique, burley, small, and with the shortest legs he had ever seen! Nevertheless he accorded him to be one of the leading alpinist in the years between the wars who despite not being one of the best technical climbers, made up for this by his incredible stamina and ‘push’.
The final route in 1933 of TGB’s Triptych on the Brenva Face, the Via Della Pera (The Pear) was in retrospect the most impressive. With its long dangerous approach across the Brenva Glacier, the technical climbing on the Buttress and the route finding through the upper sections threatened with serac fall were a masterpiece of route finding. 

His companions were two Swiss Guides Alexander Graven and Alfred Audenblatten and despite this outstanding success he could not resist some criticism of the latter for his fears about the objective dangers of the route, pointing out he had a family to support.... which cut no ice with the hard bitten Professor Brown. For me what is perhaps most impressive about TGB was his longevity, he was into his ‘fifties by this date and he still had some major mountaineering trips ahead of him.

The Brenva Face of Mont Blanc showing L-R the lines of Via Della Pera-Route Major-Sentinelle Rouge and the Brenva Spur: Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland
He had made friends with Charles Houston, who he met on a youthful first trip to the Alps, and who subsequently invited him first on a trip to Alaska in 1934 to climb Mount Foraker, then the highest unclimbed peak in the USA at approx 17,000feet, and then on a joint Anglo-USA party to Nanda Devi(7,186 metres) in 1936. The first was an outstanding success and Houston, Waterston and TGB finally reached the summit after many weeks on the mountain, whilst the second trip although successful with Odell and Tilman reaching the top, TGB’s paranoia surfaced once again believing that he should have been included in the summit bid, straining his previous good relations with Charlie Houston who always referred to TGB as Tim or Timmy.

1938 was to be the worst instance of TGB’s paranoia, when high on Masherbrum (7,821 meters) the lead climbers Jock Harrison and Robin Hodgkin in retreat from a summit bid, were caught out in a blizzard and forced to bivouac in a crevasse, suffering severe frostbite. TGB had disputed Hodgkin’s view of the best route to attempt the final sections of the climb, and even wished to remain in a high camp on the mountain to make another summit attempt despite have frostbitten big toes himself. He even accused Hodgkin of over playing his injuries and pain, something that would come back to haunt him, for as someone who knew Robin well, his injuries were terrible and shocking and the worst frostbite injuries I have ever seen, losing most of his fingers and suffering partial foot amputations. So to infer that Hodgkin was some kind of mamby pamby was cruelly unsympathetic and interestingly it was the route via the south east face that he favoured that the first and second ascents of Masherbrum were made, thus vindicating his opinion as to the best and safest route to follow.

 TGB Roping down Chamonix Aiguilles, 1931. Photo-R Goodfellow: Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland

Somehow TGB continued to arouse controversies and antipathy, the more so when he became editor of the Alpine Journal in 1948. He tended to support via the journal ultra traditional views and downplay modern developments, he also used the position to make veiled attacks on those who he felt held unjustified power in the climbing world, not the least Geoffrey Winthrop Young and Leo Amery for their support of the British Mountaineering Council over the wishes of some of the senior AC members like himself, believing the Alpine Club should represent the British climbing world. He was however able to rest his feud with Smythe who died tragically in 1949. Things came to a head partly because of the setting up of The Alpine Climbing Group in 1952 which had highlighted how moribund the Alpine Club was becoming in not embracing modern developments and a letter to the committee from Bill Murray who had joined up with the ACG pointing out that the last place one looked for up to date developments and news was in the Journal. The committee met in January 1954 and with one dissenting voice, they decided to sack TGB and appointed Francis Keenlyside to take over as Editor of The Alpine Journal, tasking Lord Tangley to pass on this news to TGB who did not speak to him again for some years post this act. But TGB was not totally without feeling and he eventually invited Tangley to lunch with him at his club The Athenaeum to rekindle their friendship some years before he died in late1965.

Amongst his many abilities TGB was an Alpine historian, and a book co-authored with Sir Gavin De Beer (An Alpine Club member and the head of the Natural History Museum) about The First Ascent of Mont Blanc was published to some acclaim in 1957, he also was an accomplished sailor having his own boat Thekla moored at Mallaig, from where he made some adventurous sailings including a crossing in 1959 of the North Sea to Tromso in the Arctic circle of Norway, and he was also a poet. His book Brenva published in 1944 is adorned by a verse at the head of each chapter, and he was friends with Canon Adam Cox professor of poetry at Oxford who advised him about how best to present these to be appropriate to the Brenva story.

Graham Brown finally moved out of Cardiff back to his birthplace, Edinburgh and to Manor Place in 1961. He made contact with the Edinburgh University Mountaineers and though he had finally stopped climbing and sailing himself, he loved to attend their mid week gatherings either in a pub or at his house. He advised and encouraged their climbing, putting to use his wide knowledge of the Alps and the Greater Ranges. When he died in October 1965 he left his house in Manor Place to Edinburgh University, and requested for EUMC members to have a first call for residency at this facility, and his large collection of mountain themed books and papers he left to the National Library of Scotland.

TGB Glencoe 1950- D Bird.Image reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland
 TGB was a pioneer mountaineering author so replete in a sport that has one of the finest literatures of any human activity, graced by all human kind. He was born privileged but he was talented and his early researches into human neural locomotion are now being recognised as important. And as Lindsay Griffin notes in a Foreword to ‘The Uncrowned King’ that while the book does not disprove he was a complex and cantankerous old sod Graham Brown was undoubtedly one of the foremost British mountaineers during the interwar period and indeed one of the most experienced alpinists of his generation. And I wish to thank Peter Foster for bringing out such a fascinating and true picture of the life TGB, he has produced a master work which must have meant hundreds of hours of research and effort and I trust this will be widely acclaimed and well reviewed, perhaps by some who have medical expertise like himself.

Dennis Gray: 2019