Friday, 19 July 2019

The French Napes Needle

Two identical needles a 1000 miles apart???

On a wet and windy day in March 1908, a day far from being conducive for climbing, Rusty Westmorland, [Lakelands’ last climbing pioneer and founding father of Keswick Mountain Rescue Team in 1946], entered the photographic shop at the top of Lake Road, in Keswick, where he met George Abraham. They liked each other instantly and became lifelong friends. A year later, in March 1909, George and his brother Ashley, invited Rusty to join the newly formed Fell and Rock Climbing Club. Soon after joining the club, George invited Rusty to accompany him and his brother Ashley, to North Wales to do some climbing. This was to be for Rusty, his first time to Snowdonia and his first ever to ride in a motor vehicle - George’s open top car which just happened to be missing its front windscreen. Both new experiences were to make a lasting impact! 
Twelve months later, George, Ashley and Rusty, took the train from Carlisle to Folkestone, boarded a ferry to Calais, then boarded a train for Paris and another to Geneva. During the train journey from Paris to Geneva, George persuaded Rusty to have a beer in the dining car. Given his temperance background, this was the first-time alcohol passed through his lips and he was to note later in his memoirs, that he enjoyed the taste although he never became a regular beer drinker, despite liking a wee-dram of whisky or two, now and then! They first went to the Engadine, a long valley in the Swiss Alps, located in the canton of Graubünden in southeast Switzerland. It follows the route of the River Inn from its headwaters at Maloja Pass running northeast until it flows into Austria, 63 miles downstream. The Engadin is protected by high mountains on all sides, many of which had never been climbed. However, after a week of foul and unsettled weather, they had two choices. First was to return home via Dover, and second, was to move south to the Dolomites. The latter choice won the day and they duly made their way to the Dolomite region of the Italian Alps, near Cortina d' Ampezzo where they found ample accommodation given that they were the only tourists there at that time. 
The following day, they set off with all the camera equipment, making their way up past the foothills across Alpine landscapes, until they came to the shores of the Dürren See, a lake amongst the Limestone monoliths with the Alps in ruins due to erosion by countless storms that rage in and around the area. Such was the vista being presented to them that George wanted to take a picture. Ashley and Rusty set about getting the tripod and camera set up, when they were unexpectedly visited by some disgruntled Austrian soldiers, who whilst not speaking the English language, made it clear, that no photography was allowed and if they did not desist immediately, they and their equipment could well end up in the lake. They complied and later when ensconced in a Pension, they set about hiring a suitable guide - Sigismundo Mendari. Rusty admired the tenacity and endurance of both the Abraham brothers as climbers, and especially George who he said of him later in life: “George had a temperament which was equable and good-natured yet he could show strength and determination.”

Whilst taking photographs as they climbed the Cima Piccola route, the hardest of the climbs on the Tre Cime di Laveredo, they noticed a thunderstorm was gathering. Their guide wanted to make a retreat off the mountain but George said in tourist German; “No Zsigmondy Kamin, no pay”. As it turned out, they went on up despite the onset of the thunderstorm and ignoring their guides feelings on the matter who doubtless thought he was working for an English lunatic and that he was going to be made to earn his fee!

Reluctantly, Mendari led the rope with Rusty following, whilst George being the ablest and most competent climber of the two brothers, led Ashley who had the task of carrying the tripod and camera and other associated equipment as he climbed, in order to leave George’s hands free to lead the climb. Once George decided on a place to take a photograph, he would belay Ashley up to him so that George could be held on a tight rope whilst he got the equipment ready and took the photograph when he was happy that all was in order.

Rusty recalls on one occasion, seeing George high on a ledge with his head under the cloth cape with only two of the three legs of his tripod touching the rock, whilst Ashley held his brother tight with the rope as George took the photo. George’s photos were not action shots, which meant that Mendari and Rusty would have to stay still in a posed position for at least 40 seconds or more until George was happy with the pose, before taking the photo.
Not all their climbs went smoothly. For example, on the Great West Face of the Conque Torri, Mendari was leading a high pitch up a loose chimney when he lost hand contact with the rock face, causing Rusty who was belaying below, some consternation as he himself was not tied into the rock face which meant if Mendari fell, so would he!

Both George and Ashley (who were climbing below Mendari and Rusty), knew something was amiss when they heard the loud plaintiff cries from above accompanied by a hail of rapidly falling stones. George described the incident: “A minute or so later there came from above a terrifying sound of falling stones due to our guide losing his head and his handholds simultaneously, but fortunately he slid and jammed in the narrow crack, whence he was yelling promiscuously the most dreadful language.”
The outcome was that George lost an inch of skin to one of his fingers when he automatically reached his hand out to shield his camera lens from the onslaught of stones whizzing past. 
The photographs from that trip were world class, and some of the first ever seen from high up in the Dolomites. It is just a great pity that as Rusty and Mendari appear in a great number of the images, they are so far away that their features are indistinguishable. It is also a great pity, that in George Abraham’s book: ‘On Alpine Heights and British Crags’ (1916), not once does Rusty get a mention by name unlike Ashley and their Swiss guide. He is instead referred to as “our friend”. Perhaps this was George’s way of paying respect to Rusty by calling him ‘our friend’ rather than by name?

The area Rusty and the Abrahams were climbing in 1910

Without any shadow of a doubt, all four climbers made a significant number of routes during their time in the Dolomites, many of which historically, are only attributed to George Abraham and to a lesser degree, Ashley and Mendari. Rusty however, does not get any recognition for his daring climbs which when you view them in one place, is both impressive and worthy of such recognition: West Face Cinque Torri at 7,746ft (2,361m); Croda da Lago at 8,887ft (2709m); Kleine Zinne Traverse at 9,373ft (2,856m); Rosengartenspitze at 9,780ft (2,980m); Grohmannspitze at 10,255ft (3,125m); Langkofel at 10,436ft (3,180m); Sella Joch Haus at 7,349ft (2,240m); Weisshorn at 14,783ft (4,505m); Aigulle Blaitier at 11,555ft (3,522m); Monch at 13,474ft (4,106m); Torre Grande at 7,709ft (2,349m); Croda da Lago at 8,907ft (2,714m); Torre Inglese at 7,415ft (2,260m) and the Zsigmondy Kamin route on Cima Piccola standing at 9,350ft (2,849m).

In November 1975 when Rusty was aged 89 and his memory was starting to fade, he gave a tape-recorded interview over several days with the late Alan Hankinson, journalist and author from Keswick. When Rusty was asked about the 1910 Dolomite trip, he mentioned a story relating to Napes Needle that Haskett Smith climbed solo in 1886 (the year Rusty was born), and that the Abraham brothers made famous with their iconic image which prompted O. G. Jones to visit the Lakes to climb, and later, became the logo for the Fell & Rock-Climbing Club in 1907.

It appears that during a respite from climbing and photographing in the Dolomites, they were sitting at the bar of a guest house, having a pleasant evening with some Austrian climbers, discussing of course, rock climbing. During the discussion, one of the Austrian climbers produced a picture post card of a rock spire, described (in French), as being the Ascension d’une Aiguille in Chamonix. He commented that: “Surely the photographers who made the picture must be frauds” as he had visited Chamonix before and the Chamonix Aiguille looks nothing like the postcard. In fact, the rock spire shown, according to the Austrian, was called the Aiguille de la Nuque!

George and Ashley grinned like the proverbial Cheshire cat as they looked at the postcard, knowing that the Austrian’s comment was true in part as there is such a rock spire called Chamonix Aiguille, but it looked nothing like that on the postcard and of course, it was not the Aiguille de la Nuque!
It transpired, that some enterprising French (or Swiss) photographer, felt that by taking an original photo of Napes Needle in the Lake District and “rechristening it and slightly tweaking the image”, he could earn some money from the tourists that visited the Alps believing that the tourists would not know any better!
Mendari belaying Rusty on the Great West Face of the Conque Torri,
the pitch above the chimney where Mendari slipped.

Rusty finished his story by adding: “George and Ashley said nothing but continued to smile sweetly, knowing that at least it was a compliment towards their own original ‘English’ specimen.”

Frank Grant

Note: This article was taken from Rusty Westmorland’s unpublished biography by the same writer.

Friday, 5 July 2019

What to Do?

Sojourn in Harm.

I could be black I could be white
They put a hot wire to my head
'cause of the thing I did and said
And made these feelings go away
Model citizen in every way’ – Public Image Ltd.

What to do.

The affiliation fiasco of belonging or not to Europe is like a punch and Judy sideshow on the approach to a gladiatorial arena. I guess okay for those selling hot dogs and watermelon, but… Meanwhile, every day the horror of what man does to man and the planet multiplies, escalating horror to a new level. When my five year old stepson saw images of the ocean drowning in plastic, he said, “What, no way, its not me, I haven’t done this, what are they thinking of…” He understands the gravity of what he sees and feels collective guilt. He knows nothing yet of suicide bombers or children starving to death in Yeman. What to do?

So I tend the land, get the composts going, sort out the waste, minimize the water use, grow as much bio food as possible, shop in the local markets that are plastic free, recycle, re-use and mend. My footprint is small, and if I were Mr Average the businesses that employ people and produce commodities and stuff on a non-stop-continual-growth-sell-model, would cease to exist, including the popular ‘green washing’ eco-show. Would the collapse of the economy, mass unemployment and the probable disintegration of retail outlets be a truly bad thing, considering the return of donkey fields and allotments? But I use the car and take flights, my trousers are made in China and every time I turn the radio on I slump helpless into some horror acted out on the world stage, and like a five year old, say it is not of my making. But it is. My small footprint is no solace in the face of this harm.

So I return to the land and the crops, and try to forget the problems of the day. I amuse myself with the thought that there is a strong possibility that a warlord does not grow spinach. I remember saying once that Owain Glyn Dwr, the Welsh fugitive hero, fighting for land, had no time for growing parsnips. And even Popeye had spinach from a can. But whilst surrounded by nature and all things organic in the biosphere, nature has its deal. Each inch of soil is a battleground. Everything is programmed to take advantage, to seek a foothold and survive; from a sapling seeking light and excreting toxins to deter predators, to a snake with a toad in its mouth or the bacteria in your belly. I notice blackfly in the spinach. I observe an ant colony that has moved in and is busy on the leaves. I think that perhaps this is a good thing and they are feeding on the blackfly. But no, this army is no normal predator like the ladybird, who is also present. What is actually happening is that the aphids excrete a waste called honeydew that has a very high sugar content. The ants rub their antennae on the aphid’s bodies to encourage them to release this elixir, which is actually their waste material. Apparently some aphids can only ‘go to the toilet’ by having an ant rub itself on their bodies. 
Margins of the Marrows; JR's Veg patch.
Surrounded by the clever trickery in nature, which is almost ‘corporate’ in its symbiosis, I can be amused and amazed. But every time an act of terrorism occurs, usually of a religious nature, it is not remotely symbiotic and it is not the voice of the earth that is directing. It is another voice. Such violence against people and the planet leaves me at a loss. So I pause a lot and, more and more, to think about that voice… From feelings of angst and borrowed time and horror at disintegration, to man just getting on with it ‘as if‘ things will just get better like ‘soup of the day’, accepting lies and fictions for a peaceful life, and then on to the engaged artist addressing harm in a poetic sense. So I sit on one of the many pondering stations on the food terraces surrounded by my green ‘stuff’, not only racked by hypocrisy but also by a powerful sense of vitality and awe. I look at the rocks, placed to form the tall terraces, some the size of a small car, as if in a dream. The communal relationship between the land and trees and the soul of man is omnipresent, is inspirational. It is like hanging with giants.

I ponder on my recurring anathemas of belief systems, creed and belonging. I rewind two thousand years to take in the devastating accountability of this ‘creature’, this voice, called belief.


And this is the burnout that the Gnostics, or rather the telestai predicted a long time ago. Their indigenous European culture, rejected the incoming salvationist beliefs. They were perplexed, but tried to engage with these alien concepts that were polluting their psyche: an ‘off planet’ landlord, being God, bringing redeemer ideology wrapped in a victim-perpetrator cult complete with effigies of suffering for sins and narcissistic prophets with tricky cards up their sleeves making miracles…and of course, latterly, crusades and genocide and corporations making a stack of cash. This is not metaphor but murder in the backyard. This was not their tolerant, nature inspired voice and experience of the world. What on earth allowed all that righteous rage in? The Gnostics called this new Judeo-Christian religion a disease. That is a tolerant appraisal from the wisest that Europe has known. So facing the garlic and potatoes I call it a story to literally die for and its interpretations total bullshit that allow radicalization to end the world. Everyone who follows the Abrahamic religions, even the passive colluders with welcoming, gummy smiles, serving Sunday tea and cake, are guilty of all the horror and violence enacted, now and throughout its history, in the name of the story.

Direct, nature oriented experience needs no interpretation or self-diagnosis or weird subjective twists. It is self-controlled. There are two tiny words that capture the essence of our Earth…it is. It is not ‘as if’. The reality is now an ailing planet, as the armed newcomers, centuries ago tore it up, regarded themselves in ‘glory’, persecuted the Mystery schools and those of a nature-inspired mind and made more stuff. The will to violence through creeds of suffering and redemption leads to ever more destruction of the planet, ecocide and, commodification: stuff. Hey ho! Isn’t it about time we recognized the harm and had a serious word with the perpetrators…? The problem is that we are all involved in various degrees. I talk to myself a lot. Do I really need my milk-frother and a nutmeg dispenser for a perfect designer cortado? What to do?

Europa barbarically wiped out its highly intelligent, native culture of tolerance and harmony with the biosphere. This was a genocide against deep thinkers and what is now known as ‘deep ecology’. On a universal scale it pales even the Jewish holocaust. It continues today. The extermination of the Europa Cathari and their ‘book of love’ was also genocide against deep thinkers. It continues today.

We are in a state of chaos between political, religious and racial tension. Bluntly we are in the hands of the haters and believers. They seem to be in control: ‘put a hot-wire in your head’ limiting the range of thought, keeping people almost blissful in shallow waters. The bottom line confirms to me that none of this nonsense and hate that confronts us on the world-stage can happen if the planet is loved. It isn’t I am afraid…it is hated! The hate is due to the effects of false promise that is a belief in something or other, and uncontrollable greed. But wait, this is not strictly true, and this is the rub: it isn’t hate for the planet as such, but devotion to a cause. The causes make the planet invisible so that it’s health is ignored and side stepped for loyalty to a belief system, to a creed and to the need to belong and have. This affair, I am afraid, is all too human. And this is the state of hypnosis. This is the abyss AE is talking about in his dreaming, and I think is part of the ‘democratic process’ we are used to.

Mistrust it. Its messengers are prophets of the darkness. As we sink deeper into the Iron Age we are met by the mighty devils of state and empire lurking in the abyss, claiming the soul for their own, moulding it to their image… We need a power in ourselves that can confront these mighty powers’. AE

The belief business is not just a religious tag or a political party or an ethnic intolerance, it is also a corporate mentality and financial strategy that kills and harms for profit. It is also Mr and Mrs Average blindly going about their daily routine. Belief in something is bought cheap every day without awareness. Media headlines, special offers, sport, self-reflective therapies and designer coffee all work to annul the stupor. It is big business. We are all culpable. What to do?

Back to the sideshow: I live in Catalunya, the self-declared new European state, but not quite, already in Europe as the wealthiest province of Spain. I am in Europe and I am European, so the question is not how to vote (as if) but how to act otherwise. Being pushed to qualify a stance, I would like to contemplate advocating non-action in the socio political order. This guy said it a long time ago,

a man cannot solve social problems, but he can forsake them’. Lao Tzu

In Homage to Catalunya, George Orwell wrote a cautionary tale that for me draws on the deep insanity of the schizoid human condition. Mr and Mrs Republic versus a military dictatorship. Socialists versus the fascista. Man verses man. Breath versus breath. All very well; but, when institutionalized, the group mindset fails in its thinking; it favours duty and doctrines, and then obedience to hell, as the order from above goes out to harm and destroy.

Is the worst that could happen any bad thing? Surely, both time and death equalize.

Orwell was ‘dug in’ too deep. He was morally and ethically obliged to fight on the side of the socialists, the communists and anarchists against the fascista regime of Franco, ‘the bad guys’. His ideological romance was about the working class and ‘the good guys’; his notion of ‘liberty’ and truth only concluded in fighting a war amongst the institutional political factions of the ‘good guys’, an insider battle of who’s who in the political arena of left, right or wrong. 

This will always be a battle lost and the fascists will always be better tooled up. If you oppose a regime you are merely the opposite side of the coin. Oppositions need oppositions, they need you, and a revolution means exactly that, to revolve around this ‘devil ruled hell’, constantly with heads full of conflict and war. This is not the life of the ant and the aphid or the tree aggressively seeking more light or the maggots in a carcass. This is the terrain of Armageddon as depicted in Revelation and it dominates our culture today. The planet can do nothing but seem to suffer. This world paranoia keeps people in a ‘futile’ bubble trying to save themselves from the enemy or protect from this or from that, or to make a few more pennies, getting and spending and supporting the party giving the most. Politics, like religion fails to negotiate with man’s inner being and it ties with nature; it is a busy, dreary, man-made construct, directing and entertaining the world with no vision of the ‘divine’. To be free one must be free of rigid polarization. Fighting wars for whatever cause is not a supple business…it is Auschwitz and Gulag and misery. It is not Earth first. Remember? We need a united Europe. But more importantly, we do not need the ocean warming up.

Each man is in the spectre’s power

Until the arrival of that hour

When his humanity awakes

And casts his spectre into the lake… Blake.

My own ‘Homage to Catalunya’, regardless of its political or economic climate – is to be rooted in the Catalan earth, because this is where I live, and where my creativity runs free of any political or ideological agendas. Beyond the growing ‘independencia’ graffiti, my imagination is my home, and is always a safe haven for ambiguity and metaphor. It is always on the go. As an outsider artist I am totally aware of the spectre and delusion, the almost hallucinatory grip that politics and religion have on man. It is a shadow. This shadow of economics and politics fulfills its role in suppressing nature in man. The shadow is man-made. All are capable of visionary pleasure with every breath of wind or birdcall or raindrop, because nature has no economy or politics to keep its species under control. To live fully and harmoniously at one with nature, nurturing and protecting humanity outside of any institutional system, is the only form of democracy there is, and the planet wins. Nationalism is always a threat.

I spin the globe and randomly pinpoint a place on the planet. The nearest city is Jakarta, in Indonesia. I Google for info and find the sprawling township and its poor farming folk forced to seek work in its spiraling economy, sinking slowly into the sea under fashionable and arty high-rise concrete and ‘stuff’ impossible for me to comprehend. An example of what could never be sustainable and surely the ocean is waiting… A silly game, but the random point surely has a high probability of empires lurking in the abyss?

After the kingfisher’s wing

Has answered light to light, and is silent, the light is still

At the still point of the turning world… T S Elliot

Two migrants asking for money engaged me in my local café the other day. Upon a meeting of tongues, they sat down, and bought me a coffee and lunch from the ‘slummy’ they had made that day! It was brought to our attention that we are all migrants, that is, floating on a mythical migrantship in potentially losing the planet to idiots… Easy for me to say having a home, but the question depends on how you negotiate and rationalise the concept of home. For me, as declared in Colonist’s Out, a home is conjoured through the need of creativity and imagination, manifesting a virtual space of connectedness. Being ‘dug in’ to a negative, literal mindset gave them the impression they needed more than I did.

As regards Europe, the folk that make the politics habituate and create gain in a world of fear, war, plague, famine and pollution. Such visions of doom dominate the world today. It is fuel. We are used to it. It is a script born from long ago when the wise shuddered in dis ‘belief’. It is the group mindset. The collective imagination is fuelled by terrorism, and manifestations of mass-hysteria. This is not, nor ever was, a democratic tale. As regards a vote, what the hell do people know about Europe? Most only want more stuff. This is about choosing how to act.

The Europe ‘vote’ is a foregone conclusion. It is not ‘real’. It is a game, a spectre, with a curse of agendas that conceal more important issues. I think it important to give thought and imagination to more life affirming possibilities and thereby to bypass the insidious takeover, the ownership of our psyche as commercial property belonging to the state or a prophet or a television series. That the earth is alive and intelligent is surely contrary to the apocalyptic pathology of the last few thousand years of weird religious creeds. It is an infestation massaged by the State.

Ghost bird.

It was because I was motionless that the bird landed so close in the fig tree beside me. Like the white flash of a shooting star, I glimpsed its entry blur upon landing. I remained motionless, but my eyes were upon it. It looked at me, as if focused on something odd or out of place. My brain scrolls down for the measure of its bird knowhow – silver-white-grey, pale tawny crown, size of a plumpy robin, insect eating bill – my eyes recorded something odd and out of place. Birds of a feather? I had never seen anything like it. Perhaps the bird was thinking the same. It was too early for juveniles and visitors and with dark eyes not an albino or leukemic. It lingered and we looked at each other and in five seconds it was off, a silver dart vibration beating through the budding chestnuts. My books offered no clues as to species. It was a mystery bird that became the phantom creature, and from thereon it became a geomantic symbol of the feathered messenger in myth, legend and folklore. But I am also aware that the phantom could be me. Five seconds was enough for the white creature but hardly enough for me.


I return to my Europe and to the external stonewall that I am restoring at the old mas where I live. Some of the stone lower down is of poor quality, some kind of gneiss that is very friable. This is the first stone you find close to the surface of the land. The old lanes gouge through this soft material and some builders dig from the edges and sieve to 6mm to make coarse sand. These easy pickings do not make a stable structure but are mostly used for terracing and as an interior fill between better stone. It may suggest a previous structure or perhaps just poor building practice when money or labour was short.

Red conglomerate sandstone, of various qualities predominates, and again is found close to the surface of the land forming the slabby cliffs in the valley. Tall, leaning slabs of this rock stand aloof from the holm oaks and look like hooded pilgrims’ eager to journey to the many chapels that furnish the land. When eroded, pink quartz pebbles protrude from the stone like gems. This reminds me of climbing at Montserrat, where every move made using a pinched pebble is balanced by a hollow sloper where a pebble used to be. This rock is identical to my own slab found from nearby Bryn Celli Ddu, a Neolithic burial mound on Anglesey. Slithers of this stone are curiously placed, slanting to curve across the wall in what appears to be an arch from a previous vaulted building. Some of this stone disintegrates to the touch, liberating its hold on the pebbles, scattered like marbles in the fissures. The stone more deeply buried in the wall has become like red mud. I love this ‘visceral’ business. It is a reminder of time; you can almost read its secrets, in your face and on your fingers, demanding attention. It affirms how little of your life you own… ways of maintaining it, or patching it… and how indeed it falters and fades.

The lime mortar is friable, dusting to the touch, migrating into my lungs with each raking of its tenuous grip. I expose chunks of solid lime, placed deep inside the ‘rat runs’ where the edible dormouse is heard on an evening scampering with apparent glee after taking a few hazelnuts. It’s a sleepless night when she decides to play marbles in the roof space. We once heard the chilling, croaky cry of what sounded like a baby coming from deep behind a kitchen unit. Apparently this is its incredibly human sounding snore. In a dreamy tangent, Alice and the White Rabbit come to mind…

In a Mad Hatter sketch, he fails to remember what the dormouse said of the stolen tarts, and the dormouse denies nothing being fast asleep. In the lyrics of the Jefferson Airplane song, the dormouse vehemently says, “Feed your head, feed your head.” With creativity, tarts or drugs or what remains undecided? Funny, I don’t associate the dormouse with sleep. I count hazelnuts.

In my builder’s head, fed by the groggy dusts of history, I begin to understand that this building, or part of it is much older than previously thought. Three hundred years was a good initial guess, but sections of this wall are medieval if not prior. The pottery found on-site may prove it. I also understand that these stones were a precious commodity and were reused as structures fell into disrepair or were replaced by other structures as needs dictated. I face many cultural and social accretions by analyzing and restoring this old wall, not only the external make-up with its odd array of different rock, but the inside business holding it together. I am just the latest human being in a long line of humanity holding on to the land for shelter and use.

There are larger, faced volcanic limestone blocks as quoins, the masonry blocks at the corners of the wall, and the same stone is used to step up from the supposed dome, a little like steps. This beautiful creamy-white sedentary rock is pocked with a myriad of holes and honeycombed vents adorned with fossilized leaves, which I think is the holm oak. The locals call this stone ‘tosk’. It is very light and easy to face into any shape. Some sections have worn better than others. Poor quality tosk can disintegrate into little more than soft cheese. Granite, in speckled grey, yellow, pink and a collage of all three colours is spread across the wall like strong statements. A stratered ferrous black and quartz rock appear like sparkling, glam make-up, and totals the collection of stone types used. This stone may have come from the many old gold mines in the area. In between some stones have been placed broken roof pantiles to chock or balance the stone. These are called snecks and are an old technique to avoid using too great a thickness of lime mortar, which would crack. Where the soft rock has latterly disintegrated, the broken tiles have been packed into the gaps as a fix and rendered over. This is not the handiwork of a mason however; it looks shoddy and has a limited life span because of different strengths and densities; is always a sign of trouble. Stone should always replace stone and should be well raked out for a key. This kind of working is not sustainable as the rigid concrete shuffles as the building moves. Primitive, makeshift and ‘needs must’ are the solutions used as occupiers struggle to ‘make good’ in times of poverty and need. C’est la vie doesn’t work for me.

A ‘mas’ is like a small hamlet under one roof. Community living is a working practice, with its own home-produced economy, pre-commodity existence. This makes me aware that the old mas is a living, breathing entity, a home, a factory, a farm holding a wealth of human and animal-kind, a one-roof extended family, the life and death of community soul. Part of its furniture is a sleepy dormouse that must have snored here for over five hundred years. I have to stop my work for a while as I hear the alarm call of a nuthatch, nesting in a hole higher up the wall.


I cannot know what an alarmed nuthatch or a snoring dormouse would mean to Sebastian Bernabast who lived here in the métier, the workers’, bakers’, caretakers’ domain, that is now my studio. I cannot know his relationship with the stone and wood that sheltered him or the land that fed him. I cannot know his ecstasy or fatigue at the end of a laborious day or his response to desire and sensation. I cannot know his moments of quietude or rest or revolt. I cannot know the hidden ‘god’ visiting in his sleep. I cannot know more than what history, fact or fiction, wrote of him and his times. I cannot know for sure…

Around 1840 a famous group of bandits lived and roamed in these hills. They were the Trabucaires, originating from the Spanish Carlista soldiers who became brigands and formed allegiances with their French cousins. Their name refers to the metal-shot rifle that they used. This was a safe house for the Trabucaires and their symbol is etched in the tosk stone that surrounds a tiny window. This window was used to signal with a lantern when the coast was clear of soldiers, police or douanes. The Trabucaires were notorious for kidnapping people of wealth and holding them to ransom for gold. They dealt violently with their human trade and held command in this remote, fecund terrain on the frontier between Spain and France.

I have my Peruvian bowl with fertility beads, a large clay penis and a Buddha in the ancient bread oven that ‘Tia’ must have baked his spelt loafs in, spat in and got dressed by. I paint where he slept, snored and fucked, probably on straw. Linseed oil and turpentine have replaced the wood smoke that must have billowed through the room, judging by the blackened oak roof beams. A digital synthesized Eno has replaced the pastis-analogue breath of song and squeaky brass. The heartbeat of a fugitive’s life lies just under the surface of things. I feel like a hologram in a time machine jukebox.

The smugglers footpaths that snake from the house were the highways of commerce and subterfuge, at one with the blood and adrenaline coursing through veins. The remains of the day are scattered around the remote habitations in various stages of dereliction now claimed by vegetation and fed by the rot and rust and rag within the dense woodland. Everything not needed was thrown out, which was at least bio-degradable, but if plastic had been invented I imagine it would have buried the houses. One particular mas called El Palla, took two years to find and is less than half a kilometer from the house on the Spanish side. Although now physically lost, older locals remember it with mischievous glee as a place to dance and make merry. They remember the music and the brave, fiery-eyed smugglers evading capture. It was never regarded as being in a remote location, but part of the interconnectedness of a working community. This den of iniquity, this seedy bar by all accounts, provided the human animal with the lascivious platform of the day. It is now a burial chamber under beams, planks and tiles holding memory of dancing shoes, joy and freedom. This was a woodland central club keeping rhythm with the green world and the heartbeat of the soil, released from its agricultural past.

Hideaways, caves, lookout points and nooks and crannies of the landscape are joined to the soul of a man’s existence as the rutting and breeding locations are to the life of the wild deer. The energy of the predator as a participant of nature is ancient and part of the land telling its story. As the Golden Eagle scopes for life to be taken, so, as in a notion of freedom, the bandits robbed and killed. The green world is red and just so. There is sanctity here. But of course, there is also criminality here. As the notion of freedom from the restraints and the slavedom of society have been romanticised, so the robber fulfills the balancing role inspiring those who feel suppressed as human animals. For those who were losing the land, the Trabucaires were seen as holding it. As man’s instinct is sanitized by permanent work for the devil’s purse in the townships nearby, and an easier life, the symbolic, macho creature that is the fugitive hero plays out a colourful life as a sell-by date caricature. I associate with the anti establishment ethos but cannot reconcile to the taking of life for cash as opposed to for food.

As tenants in the property where they lived, the fugitive heroes tend not to fix a chimney or a fallen down wall or to grow parsnips. They tend to be on the run or looking to move to a better ‘crib’ with better food and comforts. Of course, there must have been a wider communal collusion among the poor tenant farmers; they must have benefited from the activity like the mutual support of cottage industry…tickling the farmer’s bellies with a little gold in exchange for silence, shelter and food…

But times change, sell by dates arrive and not everyone can be bought. They were shopped and stood trial in Perpignan. A wealthy man had been kidnapped and later found dead with an ear cut off.

Later on, during the second world war, local conscripts for the French army were perplexed as they hadn’t realized they lived in France and didn’t speak French.

Catalan Resistance

Orwell’s communist and anarchist Republicans, torn, tired and starving, arrive in Vichy France via the smugglers paths through no-man’s land, destined for the pre-Nazi camps of hell…

And so, beyond plastic, beyond hate, cruelty and stupidity… I find a stag’s antler after days of barking and roaring heard nearby. Our nine month old puppy dies of a snake bite. A tethered goat is engorged and eaten by a wild boar. The box moth devastates all the box trees.

Soon, the cosmic hologram jukebox will be on a different shuffle.

Perhaps we are fighting nature in addressing what we construe as harm and horror. Is it relevant? As the medieval anchorite Julian of Norwich wrote in Revelations of Divine Love, ‘sin is behovely’… the harm, the horror is the way ‘it is’… and all too human. Perhaps all the harm I feel is actually self-controlled and what I witness is little more than potato blight?

And continuing the wise dame’s thinking – looking upon a dusty hazelnut in the wall… this little thing… it is all that is made… shall not be forgotten… it is loved.

John Redhead, Los Manes, Coustouges. June 2019

Friday, 21 June 2019

In Hanging Garden Gulley

When halfway up I heard the voice of a good child enduring, with effort, a painful call upon its patience. "Any Lloydia yet?" it wistfully said. Between my feet I saw Darwin below. Well, he was certainly paying the rope out all right, as I had enjoined; but he did it "like them that dream." His mind was not in it. All the time he was peering hungrily over the slabby containing walls of the gully, and now he just pawed one of them here and there with a tentative foot—you know how a puppy, when first it sees ice, paws the face of the pond. "These botanists!" I thought, "These fanatics!" You know how during a happy physical effort—a race or a hunt, a fight or a game—you think, with a sort of internal quiet, about a lot of old things. There came back to my mind the old lines that I had once had to make Latin verse of: How vainly men themselves amaze To win the palm, the oak, or bays, And their incessant labours see crowned from some single herb or tree. Meanwhile I took a precaution. I first unroped myself. Then I passed the rope, from below, through the space behind a stone that was jammed fast in the crack. Then I roped myself on again, just at my old place on the rope. A plague of a job it was, too, with all those 60 feet of spare rope to uncoil and re-coil. But you see how it worked: I had now got the enthusiast moored. 

Between him and me the rope went through the eye of a needle, so I could go blithely on. I went. In the top of the crack I found a second jammed stone. It was bigger than number one: in fact, it blocked the way and made you clamber round outside it rather interestingly, but it, too, had daylight showing through a hole behind it. Sounds from below were again improving my natural stock of prudence. You can't, I thought, be too safe. Once more I unroped, just under this chockstone, and pushed the rope up through the hole at its back. When the rope fell down to me, outwards over the top of the stone, I tied on again, just as before, and then scrambled up over the outer side of the stone with an ecstatic pull on both arms, and sat on its top in the heaven that big-game hunters know when they lie up against the slain tiger and smoke. If you have bent up your mind to take in the details, you will now have an imposing vision of the connections of Darwin and me with each other and with the Primary or Palaeozoic rocks of Cambria. From Darwin, tied on to its end, the rope ran, as freely as a bootlace runs through the eyelets, behind the jammed stone 30 feet above his head, and then again behind my present throne of glory at the top; then it was tied on to me; and then there were 60 feet, half its length, left over to play with. 

Clearly Darwin, not being a thread, or even a rope, could not come up the way that the rope did, through the two needle-eyes. Nor did I care, he being the thing that he was, to bid him untie and then to pull up his end of the rope through the eyes, drop it down to him clear through the air, and tell him to tie on again. He was, as the Irish say of the distraught, "fit to be tied," and not at all fit for the opposite. If he were loose he might at any moment espy that Circe of his in some place out of bounds. There seemed to be only one thing to do. I threw down the spare 60 feet of the rope, and told him first to tie himself on to its end, and then, but not before, to untie himself from the other. I could not quite see these orders obeyed. A bulge of rock came between him and my eyes, but I was explicit. "Remember that fisherman's bend!" I shouted. Perhaps my voice was rather austere; but who would not forgive a wise virgin for saying, a little dryly, to one of the foolish, "Well, use your spare can"? As soon as he sang out "All right" I took a good haul on what was now the working half of the rope, to test his knot-making. 

Yes, he was all right. So I bade him come up, and he started. Whenever he looked up I saw that he had a wild, gadding eye; and whenever he stopped to breathe during the struggle he gasped, "I can't see it yet." He came nearly half-way, and then he did see it. He had just reached the worst part. Oh, the Sirens know when to start singing! That flower of evil was far out of his reach, or of what his reach ought to have been. Some twelve feet away on his right it was rooted in some infinitesimal pocket of blown soil, a mere dirty thumb-nailful of clay. For a moment the lover eyed the beloved across one huge slab of steep stone with no real foothold or hand-hold upon it—only a few efflo-rescent minutias small as the bubukles and whelks and knobs on the nose of some fossil Bardolph. The whole wall of the gully just there was what any man who could climb would have written off as unclimbable. Passion, however, has her own standards, beyond the comprehension of the wise: His eye but saw that light of love, The only star it hailed above. My lame Leander gave one whinny of desire. Then he left all and made for his Hero. 

You know the way that a man, who has no idea how badly he bats, will sometimes go in and hit an unplayable bowler right out of the ground, simply because the batsman is too green to know that the bowler cannot be played. Perhaps that was the way. Or perhaps your sound climber, having his wits, may leave, at his boldest, a margin of safety, as engineers call it, so wide that a madman may cut quite a lot off its edge without coming surely to grief. Or was it only a joke of the gods among themselves over their wine? Or can it be that the special arrangements known to be made for the safety of sailors, when in their cups, are extended at times to cover the case of collectors overcome by the strong waters of the acquisitive instinct? Goodness knows! Whatever the powers that helped him, this crippled man, who had never tried climbing before, went skating off to his right flank, across that impossible slant on one foot and one stilt, making a fool of the science of mountaineering. I vetoed, I imprecated, I grew Athanasian. All utterly useless. As soon could you whistle a dog back to heel when he fleets off on fire with some fresh amour. I could only brace myself, take a good hold of the rope in both hands, and be ready to play the wild salmon below as soon as he slipped and the line ran out tight. While I waited I saw, for the first time, another piquant detail of our case. Darwin, absorbed in his greed, had never untied the other end of the rope. So he was now tied on to both ends.

The whole rope made a circle, a vicious circle. Our whole caravan was sewn on to the bony structure of Wales with two big stretches, one at each jammed stone You see how it would work. When Darwin should fall, as he must, and hang in the air from my hands, gravitation would swing him back into the centre of the chimney, straight below me, bashing him hard against the chimney's opposite wall. No doubt he would be stunned. I should never be able to hoist his dead weight through the air to my perch, so I should have to lower him to the foot of the chimney. That would just use up the full 60 feet of rope. It would run the two 60-foot halves of the rope so tight that I should never be able to undo the bad central knot that confined me. Could I but cut it when Darwin was lowered into provisional safety, and then climb down to see to him! No; I had lost my knife two days ago. I should be like a netted lion, with no mouse to bite through his cords: a Prometheus, bound to his rock. But life spoils half her best crises. That wretch never slipped. He that by this time had no sort of right to his life came back as he went, treading on air, but now with that one bloom of the spiderwort in his mouth. 

Apologising for slowness, and panting with haste, he writhed up the crack till his head appeared over the chockstone beside me. Then he gave one cry of joy, surged up over the stone, purring with pleasure, and charged the steep slope of slippery grass above the precipice we had scaled. "You never told me!" he cried; and then for the first time I noticed that up here the whole place was speckled with Lloydia. The next moment Darwin fell suddenly backwards, as if Lloyd himself or some demon gardener of his had planted a very straight one on the chin of the onrushing trespasser in his pleasaunce. You guess? Yes. One of his two tethers, the one coming up from behind the lower jammed stone, had run out; it had pulled him up short as he leapt upon the full fruition of his desire. It was easy to field as he rolled down the grass. But his tug on the rope had worked it well into some crevice between the lower jammed stone and the wall of the crack. We were anchored now, good and fast, to that stone, more than three fathoms below. What to do now? Climb down and clear the jammed rope? Leave that lame voluptuary rioting upon a precipice's edge? Scarcely wise—would it have been? Puzzled and angry, I cast away shame. I knew well that as Spartan troops had to come back with their shields or upon them, or else have trouble with their mothers, a climber who leaves his tackle behind in a retreat is likely to be a scorn and a hissing. 

Still, I cast away shame. Ours was no common case; no common ethics would meet it. I untied us both, and threw both ends of the rope down the chimney; then I let Darwin graze for a minute; then I drove him relentlessly up the steep grass to the top of the crag, and round by the easy walking way down. As we passed down the valley below, I looked up. The whole length of our chimney was visibly draped with the pendent double length of that honest Scots mountaineer's rope. "I don't really know how to thank you enough," Darwin was babbling beside me, "for giving me such a day!" But I felt as if I were one of the villains in plays who compromise women of virtue and rank by stealing their fans and leaving them lying about in the rooms of bad bachelors. Much might be said for climbing alone, no matter what the authorities thought. A good time it would be, all to myself, when I came back to salvage that rope. 

C E Montague

First Published in Fiery Particles in February 1923 

Friday, 7 June 2019

First on the Rope....Reviewed

FIRST ON THE ROPE’ Roger Frison-Roche. Perfect bound Paperback. 256 pages. Re-Published by Vertebrate. £8.99

Originally published in 1942, when its author was living in Algiers, this is one of a few climbing novels to have retained a wide readership, having sold over 3million copies. Frison-Roche was born in Paris in 1906, of Savoyard parents, but returned to their roots, to Chamonix where in 1930 he became the first none locally born mountaineer to become a mountain guide. The Chamonix guides are one of the oldest such professional bodies in the Alps formed in 1821, and a list of their members since that date includes some of the best known names in mountaineering history; Croz, Charlet, Simonds, Payot, Lachenal,Terray,Rebuffat, and in the modern era Profit, Renault and Gherson etc. 
Frison-Roche besides his climbing exploits had also always wanted be a writer, and following the publication of some of his stories about being an alpine guide he was offered work in Algeria first as a reporter, then an editor. Whilst in that country he made several exploratory trips to the Hoggar Mountains; but returned to Chamonix in 1943, joined the Chasseur Alpin, and hooked up with the Maquis (The Underground Resistance).

Climbing themed novels are rarely successful either because they simply do not sell, or their stories are less ‘true’ than the real life ones such as to be found in books like ‘Touching the Void’, ‘The Bond’ or ‘Into thin Air’ . Yet many climbers do decide to tackle this difficult art form, and in the past everyone from Wilf Noyce, Dougal Haston and Lucy Rees/ Al Harris took this on. But maybe I am being too critical for five novels have so far won the Boardman/Tasker literary award; ‘Climbers’ by M J Harrison, ‘Mer De Glace’ by Alison Fell, ‘The Ascent’ by Jeff Long, ‘Hazard’s Way’ by Roger Hubank and ‘The Fall’ by Simon Mawer of which the first such ‘Climbers’ is for me the most outstanding read. Although it does require a deep concentration due to its complex story, but nonetheless it is a well observed tale of how climbers do become obsessed by their alternative experiences ‘on the rocks’ ignoring life’s other responsibilities. 
Within the climbing novel field there are many genres, Sci-Fi, Horror, Thriller etc but a one off was/is (still in print) ‘The ascent of Rum Doodle’. Its author Yorkshireman Bill Bowman was not a Himalayan mountaineer, but somehow he produced in 1956 the most popular comical satire of expedition mountaineering ever penned. It is known and read so widely abroad that a bar/restaurant in Kathmandu is named ‘The Rum Doodle’ as is a mountain in Antarctica, courtesy of the members of a 1959 Australian expedition to that continent. There are Rum Doodle brand sleeping bags, a climbing company and a Rock Band so named. It was even recommended in the list ‘1000 novels everyone must read’ by the Guardian. 
But here I would also like to note two novels that made it ‘BIG’ as films, ‘The White Tower’ by James Ramsey Ullman and ‘The Eiger Sanction’ by Trevenian (Professor Rodney Whitaker). Both were made into blockbuster adventure movies, the first not long after the end of the Second World War, redolent with racial stereotypes, and the second in the 1970’s a sort of James Bond in the mountains, both of which would now provide a struggle for the reader to accept their institutional view of women as mere sex objects. However despite serious failings both these novels do explore how the wilderness experience often provides a test of human character? 
FIRST ON THE ROPE’ is a much more straightforward story, set in Chamonix and the Mont Blanc Range in the 1920’s and the 1930’s, which must have been a truly golden period in which to be climbing there. It tells of the life of the Servettaz family, the father Jean is a long standing, well known guide and his son Pierre who wishes to also follow in his father’s profession, but who is being dissuaded from this by his family who wish for him to become a Hotel manager. During recent winters Jean has worked hard to improve his families living conditions into a ‘Pension’, taking in paying guests which hopefully will eventually provide hotel type accommodation to be developed and administered by his son.

The novels action is forever swiftly moving on, and with his knowledge of a mountain guides life, set in the Mont Blanc Range, Frison-Roche makes us understand the depth of tragedy and its ramifications that besets the Servettaz family, when Jean whilst guiding an American climber to the summit of Les Drus is struck dead by lightning on the descent. His Porter (now in modern parlance an accompagnateur) George, manages in the teeth of a storm to shepherd the client safely down but suffers severe frostbite in doing so. A team of guides assemble at the Charpoua hut to attempt to climb up and to retrieve Jean’s body, but to no avail and they retreat. Pierre and his uncle Joseph Ravant, a senior guide, join a second attempt to reach Jean’s body, but refusing to turn round again despite the route being totally out of condition, Pierre pushes into the lead ignoring the advice of his seniors and he takes a huge fall and badly fractures his skull. Resulting in him becoming the object of a full scale rescue by his father’s friends and guides, his life saved by them acting decisively and abandoning their attempts to reach Jean’s body.

The novel then moves on to six months later, the Guides have retrieved Jean’s body but Pierre has been both physically and mentally damaged by his accident, and now suffers from vertigo. Poor George the Porter is in a nursing home in Geneva having lost all his toes, and is learning to walk again in specially constructed short boots (this is what happened to Louis Lachenal post the Annapurna Expedition in 1950). As the spring approaches Pierre takes off by himself up onto an easy climb on the Brevent Peaks. On which he experiences a torrid time, suffering from vertigo and nearly falling to his death, and this makes him begin to accept that he will never be able to climb freely again.

There is of course a love interest, an understanding young lady who tries to do her best to comfort him, but he sinks into a black despair spending his days and evenings drinking and keeping low company in Chamonix’s lesser known bar districts. A welcome break means a come together when their friends and families meet up as the cattle are moved out and up onto the high Alps to graze for the summer. A time of feasting, singing and a competition between the fighting cows of the area.
George returns to the fold from Geneva and he and Pierre meet with their friends to celebrate his recovery. He surprises them all by announcing he intends to become a guide despite his injuries, and eventually he persuades Pierre to accompany him on some easy outcrop climbs and short routes. Slowly his vertigo becomes less severe, and subsequently they plan a major, but secret come back climb; ‘The North Face of the Verte’. Leaving separately and meeting up on the Grand Montets they bivouac near the foot of the route, and early the next morning they set out. The crossing of the bergschrund almost turns them round, but once onto the face they find that they can cut steps and climb ice as well as before. Turning the cornice at the head of the face is achieved by Pierre tunnelling through and they then spend another night out on the descent before arriving at a Refuge early in the morning. Much to the surprise of Pierre’s uncle Joseph, who having reached the age of 60 years has been retired from the Guide’s rota, and is now into his new profession of hut warden.

So in the end all is happy ever after, Pierre has recovered his health and will shortly marry, and George has shown he can manage major climbs once more. Both can now begin their training to become Chamonix guides. In the 1930’s to have been such must have been to be acknowledged as an aristocrat of that profession. So ‘FIRST ON THE ROPE’ is not a novel to search within for a meaning of life, but it stands the test of time and its descriptions of life in the Chamonix Valley and its environs in that era is obviously so true as are the descriptions of the routes and mountain areas described in the book. It is an easy read but truly worthwhile. I first read ‘Premier de Cordee’ in 1950 as a 14 year old and later met its translator into English Janet Adam Smith, and as someone who tried to read it in French I must observe she made an outstanding job of this work. 
I think that a time travelling visitor to Chamonix now would find it so different than it was in the 1920’s and 1930’s, for it is today a 24hour action town, a major ski resort and the Chamonix guides now offer Hang Gliding, Wing Suit Flying, Snow Boarding, Mont Blanc Tours besides classic Mountaineering, Skiing and Rock Climbing outings. I have keen memories of friendships I made with some of the holders of their carnet, first meeting Gaston Rebuffat at the foot of the West Face of the Blatiere and he plying us with cake and coffee (well laced with brandy), being with Lionel Terray in the Ardennes at Christmas/ New Year time, at Bas Cuvier (Fontainbleau) with Alain Gherson and climbing in the Peak with Andre Contamine. Frison-Roche became a major figure in their world, as a Chief Guide and later President of the UIAGM (The International representative body of mountain guides), he died in December 1999.

 Roger Frison-Roche: Image-Companie des Guides de Chamonix

Whilst writing about climbing novels I cannot finish without a consideration of ‘Mount Analogue’ published in 1952. This by French writer and poet Rene Daumal is unlike any other mountaineering book that has ever been published, of that I feel certain? It is unfinished at only 106 pages, but tells of assembling a team to find and climb a hidden peak that reaches inexorably towards heaven. Harold Drasdo sent me his copy urging me to read same and think on its meaning. You do not need to do this with ‘FIRST ON THE ROPE’ but with ‘Mount Analogue’, twenty climbers could read this book and everyone would come up with a different view of what is its significance? I read it as an allegory of man’s search for himself...... The motion picture ‘The Holy Mountain’ by Jodorowsky is based on the Mount Analogue story. So I finish with recommending you to read ‘FIRST ON THE ROPE’ whilst journeying to the mountains, and in your bivouac or a tent in the Himalaya study Mount Analogue to try to find the meaning to life?

Dennis Gray:2019