Friday, 1 July 2016


Ken Wilson: Photo John Cleare-Mountain Picture Library
‘It’s an old Ken Wilson maxim, a picture is worth a thousand words, so snap away, snap away, snap away!’

(From a song by the author)

Not many sports can have spawned a character like Ken Wilson. A photographer and publisher of outstanding talent with an unequalled track record in producing high quality work, but a climber who is always at the centre of controversy.

On a book shelf in my home is a full set of Mountain magazines (at least there was until I lent out a couple of none returned copies), and just a quick review of these illustrate what Wizz is about. Opinionated, hard hitting, tight editing, first class graphics and photography, with in depth interviews, and no dodging of the issues .As Tom Patey observed, ‘Mountain was the magazine that all climbers were seething about!’

Ken took over the old house magazine Mountaincraft of the Mountaineering Association in 1968, and turned it into a highly respected, bimonthly review that was widely acknowledged as the number one mountaineering magazine in the UK.

My own first meeting with Wizz was when I gave a lecture, in the winter of 1964/5 on the Gauri Sankar expedition, at the Westminster Hall in London. After which the Chairman, Raymond Japhet invited questions. Enter Wizz, and he subjected me to a barrage of questions from the back of the hall; ‘Why had we failed to reach our summit? Why were we so badly funded? Why had we needed to drive overland etc?’ From the stage, this young guy with dark hair, and of medium height, a loud strident voice and flashing eyes and teeth seemed to me to be some new kind of nutter. I had never then been subjected to such a cross- examination and Raymond who could have doubled for Mr Magoo, was too kind and polite to close him down. We simply ran out of time, the caretaker threatening to put out the lights, and so we continued with a shouting match in the pub.

My next meeting with Ken was to be even more dramatic, and it occurred during that summer. I was climbing on Cloggy with Harry ‘The Kid’ Smith and we were attempting an early repeat of Taurus on the Pinnacle when there was the sound of a huge rock fall from the West Buttress. A guy came rushing to the foot of the East Buttress to shout up that there had been an accident on the Great Slab and could we go to the aid of the stricken climbers.

Harry and I descended and rushed over to the West Buttress, where we could see a team at the bottom of the 40 feet Corner who were obviously in distress. Smith shot up a full rope length, without placing any protection and I joined him and then led through to reach the injured party. On meeting them I was surprised to find two fellow Rock and Ice members, Ray Greenall and Don Roscoe tending an unconscious Steve Glass, lying at the base of the Corner. Steve like the other two was then an instructor at Plas y Brenin. Above our heads was another party, and the second on a top rope held by his leader, was shouting down excitedly.

‘Crikey’ I realised it was Wizz. It transpired that Ken following Graham Gilbert, in order to avoid the crowded 40 feet Corner had decided to climb up the wall out to the right, which is actually an alternative in the guidebook description of the West Buttress Girdle, the climb they were following. Wizz had mantled onto a large basalt block, which then collapsed under him, and it had fallen away raking a large portion of the cliff. It was a miracle that only Steve had been hit and by the time Harry joined me he was regaining consciousness, but was obviously injured.

Although it must have taken quite some time, eventually a rescue party arrived with a stretcher and we pulled it up, set up some belays, then between us we lowered Steve down the cliff. He was then carried off to Bangor Royal, and happily he made a complete recovery from this accident.

Ken was born in Birmingham in 1941, and originally began to train as an architect but found he was better suited to Photography, and after following a three-year course in that subject at the Birmingham College of Art, he fetched up in London working as an Architectural Photographer. Anyone who studies Ken’s photographs, particularly of crags will note these influences in his work. And it was whilst he was engaged in this arena that he took the bold step to set up Mountain Magazine. Unless you were active in that era, it is hard now to understand the impact this organ then had on British climbing, and to a lesser extent on similar activities in the USA, for Ken using his contact with American climbers, particularly Royal Robbins built up a large circulation base there.

Initially Mountain was on a knife-edge financially and Wilson took a serious personal risk, giving up a safe position to take over Mountaincraft. He produced only one issue under that title, dedicated to developments in Patagonia, which to publish he had to double the cover price to meet his costs, but it worked and at this his first attempt at editing the issue sold out. He then launched Mountain and for the next decade he lived, ate and slept the magazine for 24 hours a day establishing its reputation as the outstanding British climbing magazine.    

By the time I joined the BMC, as its first ever professional officer at the end of 1971, Ken had also established a reputation as a climbing politician, referred to rather impolitely on occasion as ‘The London Lip’ (shades of Cassius Clay?) And I immediately began to find out why, for he seemed to spend a large proportion of his time ‘phoning people at home and abroad, discussing what he saw as the key climbing issue of the day. Trying to cajole and persuade the listener around to his point of view, myself included. But he was always good value and an important sounding board, and so he was invited to take part in the first BMC Future Policy Exercise in 1973/4 under Alan Blackshaw’s chairmanship. And as a matter of historic record, Wizz is the only committee member to have taken part in all three such exercises that have taken place over the last 30 years.

This in retrospect was the initiative that set the Council on its modernisation phase, and when the BMC moved from London, it was Ken who because of a contact with a group of Manchester University climbers, suggested we locate ourselves in the Precinct Centre of that body. Tiring of London and wishing to move himself, a few years later Ken transferred his publishing activities to the north, first basing himself in Altrincham, then Macclesfield where he is still living.

Being a realist he realised he could not edit and publish Mountain magazine for ever and so in 1978 he sold out to a group based in Sheffield, headed by Tim Lewis, his wife Pat and Paul Nunn.

Wizz then set up the first of his book publishing enterprises with Ken Vickers as his partner, and this new imprint, Diadem, quickly made its mark. He had already edited The Black Cliff (1971 jointly with Pete Crew and Jack Soper), Hard Rock (1975) and Classic Rock (1978) whilst working with other mainstream publishers, but now he took on the whole of the publishing process for himself. In quick succession he produced further titles in the ‘Classic’ format: Cold Climbs, Extreme Rock and Classic Walks. But there were also some other groundbreaking titles such as, The Games Climber’s Play, Mirrors in the Cliffs and Irvine Butterfield’s ‘The High Mountains of Britain and Ireland’. This latter being referred to as the bible of the native Peak bagger, and several reissues of out of print classics and omnibus editions of such as Shipton’s and Tilman’s classic books.

There is a long tradition of national publishers having an interest in producing mountaineering books, although this seems to depend on who is running a company at any particular time. It was Longman’s who sent Edward Whymper, a young wood block engraver to the Alps for the first time in order to prepare a series of Alpine sketches for them. Another Company with a long history of publishing climbing books was Hodder and Stoughton, and in 1989, aware of a dynamic presence in this field, they made a bid for and took over Diadem keeping Ken as the Managing Editor. Initially this worked well with two outstanding coffee table picture books being produced, Chris Bonington ‘Mountaineer’ and Doug Scott ‘Himalayan Climber’, both of which were best sellers. But then with the onward march of globalisation, and the swallowing up of smaller fish by bigger ones, Hodder’s was taken over by Headline, and Diadem was decided by them to be surplus to requirements. And so Ken struck out on his own and formed a new publishing company in 1993,called ‘Baton Wicks’

This has continued where Diadem left off, in 1994 Dermot Somers’ ‘At the Rising of the Moon’ and in 1997 Paul Pritchard’s ‘Deep Play’ were both Boardman/Tasker Literature Prize, winners. In 2002 W.H.Murray’s autobiography, ‘The evidence of things not seen’ won the Grand Jury Prize at Banff. Ken’s latest project is a complete re-vamp of Classic Rock with new photographs and up to date graphics. This will be something like his 60th publication!

When Wizz moved north to live in Altrincham he was soon drawn in to attending Tuesday night climbing meets of the All Stars. This group formed from Manchester/Peak based climbers and included such as Martin Boysen, Trevor Jones, Dave Pearce, Malcolm Howells, Chris Bonington, Mark Vallance etc. Apart from Boysen, Howells and Pearce they were more alpinists than top rock jocks, but when they zoned in on a crag on the appointed mid-week evening, they were good value for an exciting evening. Ken fitted in well as the group’s publicist and a journeyman climber.

On several occasions the All Stars visited our local West Yorkshire outcrops. And sometimes they experienced difficulties. The first indication we Tykes had that they would visit was a warning phone call from Wizz. On one occasion I met them at Almscliff and was invited by Ken to be his local expert. I pointed Wilson and a youthful partner at the Traditional Climb (VS), and the kid was sent forth to lead this. He managed about ten feet of ascent, then winged in a large Hex into the crack, the next moment he was pulling on this, and then gasping he persuaded his second to first hold his weight then to lower him back down to the ground.

Ken whispered to me, ‘I can’t understand it, he led Slanting Slab on Cloggy at the weekend’. ‘Maybe he is still tired out from that effort?’ I suggested. Snorting like a bull Wizz pulled the rope through and then set off to lead the route himself. It was a case from thereon of hands, knees and bumps a daisy, but using the friction from off his moleskin breeches and Helly Polar jacket to the full he wobbled his way to the top of the route. ‘Bloody fantastic’, ‘Frankland (who made the first ascent circa 1920) must have been a great climber’ ‘Incredible jams’ etc, was then shouted out at full volume around the Crag.

You always know when Ken is on a crag and he is always up front with his comments. Instance his turning up at Almscliff on another occasion and seeing a young climber soloing such routes as The Wall of Horrors and Western Front shouted up at him, ‘Oy…… are you  that guy Ron Fawcett?’ ‘Am I climbing that bloody bad?’ was the laconic reply from one Mike Hamill, who at that date could fairly have been seen as a rival to fellow local boy Ron.   

On other West Yorkshire visits members of the All Stars were to find our climbs even more unforgiving. On one occasion at Caley Crags they were falling like the Autumnal leaves, and the result was a dislocated shoulder and a sprained ankle and on another occasion a badly fractured leg at Greetland Quarry. Mike Browell who unfortunately was the victim on that occasion has written that these meets were testosterone fuelled, solo, fests!

One of my own keenest memories of Wizz was when he and I were the BMC representatives on the Plas y Brenin Management Committee, and we met to appoint a new Director of the Centre. Ken a great devotee of the novels of C P Snow loves the cut and thrust of such gatherings, and thus it was that he earned the sobriquet of ‘The BMC’s tame rottweiler’.

In a committee meeting he is a tireless debater, and a handful for any Chairman to deal with. However on that occasion, Jack Longland who had been in the Chair for a very long day, when I apologised if in our enthusiasm to get our candidate, John Barry, into position, Wizz had overplayed our hand, responded with an ‘Oh no!’ ‘ Ken is actually a real sweetie!’

Without reference to me Ken challenged two young hot shots of the Welsh scene at that time to a ‘race’ up Dinas Mot as soon as the meeting had finished. And when we arrived at the base of the crag they were waiting. It was agreed that Billy Wayman and Nigel Shepherd would climb up West Rib (HVS), whilst Ken and I would tackle Western Slabs (VS). We set off climbing when Wizz shouted out ‘OFF!’

I had not climbed the route before, but in the lead I was levitated up the cliff by Ken urging me on in full voice. ‘I had not realised how good you were!’  ‘Faster, they are catching you.’

I had never previously been keen on such an idea as racing up cliffs, and when I had seen the Russian climbers at the Munich Olympic Games in 1972 give an exhibition of their speed climbing, I found this both hilarious and worthless. However with Ken’s enthusiasm driving me on I ran out about 140 feet of rope at speed. Ken then came running up the cliff, and shot into the lead to climb a steep groove above our heads. I then seconded this and led another short groove and we were on the top, well ahead of the local experts. The losers had to buy the drinks and we repaired to the bar of the PYG, where news of the appointment of Captain John Barry as the new Director of Plas y Brenin had preceded us. For some reason Chris Briggs then the landlord of the PYG and his wife were not best pleased about this. I guess it might have been because they were friends with some of the other candidates and I was subjected to some harsh criticism as this was seen as a BMC organised coup. For once Ken kept his head down, and enjoyed watching me take the flak, while nodding serenely in agreement as if he was a total innocent in the whole matter.

Ken’s love of climbing is still as keen as it ever was, and although he is now travelling on a Bus Pass, his enthusiasm for traditional British rock routes is undiminished. The new edition of Classic Rock will testify to this, as will his continued campaigning to preserve all that is best in this area of our sport. His contempt for bolts and particularly retro-bolting are so well known that the message does not need repeating here. He does on occasion to cement his arguments over egg his pudding, but it is good that such a vigorous and outspoken character is always ready to defend our tradition of bold and self protected climbs. And long may it be so!

 Dennis Gray:Loose Scree March 2007


Friday, 24 June 2016


It is all too easy in these days of Crags, Hard Rock, Mountain and Climbing to assume that the state of mountaineering photography has never been better. The recent entries of still photos for the Kendal Film Festival displayed a breadth of ability and enthusiasm which would have been unimaginable a decade ago. Fed by inspirational books and magazines, and armed with the excellent new cameras that have become cheaply available in the last few years, climbers can, and are, taking photographs of their activities that are infinitely superior to those of a decade earlier.

The broad plateau of competence in this field is doubtless due to a number of factors. Apart from those already mentioned, one could also note the increasing demand for good pictures for magazines, books and adverts. Moreover, the increased expedition activity with its attendant sponsorship and book and lecture possibilities has also encouraged climbers to produce better results. Thus in all these fields—action photos, alpine views and expedition narratives—the state of the photographic art in mountaineering is in good shape and we can feel confident that this can only improve. It is in an altogether different field that I fear we are in danger of neglecting; for the amateur, the impromptu snapshot, or for the keener photographer, the telling observational photo that illustrates the world of the climber in a more human way.

Original Caption ' Example of the work of Jed Storah,a young photographer who shows particular talent in capturing the unusual in climbing situations: Image- Extra runners being thrown up to Gabrial Regan on 'The Swan' Roaches.

Recent lectures and illustrated articles have left me bored, despite excellent photographic material, by the inhumanity of it all; an endless procession of bronzed athletes caught in mind-boggling situations doing stupefying moves on routes of tediously repetitive excellence and in permanently magnificent weather. Yet we learn nothing of them as people, nothing of their epics and tribulations, nothing of their lifestyles.

These days people never fail, use camps merely for a few hours sleep, only climb in the sun, never fall out with one another, never lose the route, never get overtaken by storm, never injure themselves, never wobble and never get frightened. The only preoccupation is increasing ones fitness for the next very clinical, very physical confrontation with the latest super-route. The scene has become ever so slightly boring in its technical brilliance. Characters and events have been suppressed by an endless procession of technical successes.

Somehow the photography has begun to reflect this too—we risk being bored by photographs which a few years ago would have had us gasping with amazement for weeks after their publication. At this point I begin to ask myself whether it is me. Whether after half a lifetime of climbing and climbing photography I have seen it all and become too familiar with images and situations that still impress younger climbers. I think not however. The declining attendances at lectures, the increasing tedium of climbing writing, the growing uniformity of photographic features in magazines—all tend to support my basic complaint. But if this article is about photography, what value is there in digressing into a personal diatribe about the decaying fibre of the sport? Namely this: By their efforts, photographers can direct climbers' attentions to new interests in the sport.

In the past I have quite cynically encouraged activity on certain crags or in certain climbing areas by publishing some good photos. Usually the cliffs badly needed traffic to establish newly discovered routes— Lundy is a good example.

It should therefore be possible to encourage in visual terms a move away from the more soulless attitudes to the sport. Of course not everyone is taking pictures for magazines, books and lectures. Many are shooting for personal pleasure and record. In many ways using a camera as a personal diary is its most valuable function. But I suspect the ordinary fun photographer, influenced by the magazines and the possession of better equipment, has begun to elevate his ambitions.

I can imagine countless dusty cupboard-fulls of slide boxes full of tedious action sequences on ordinary climbs, and half-baked landscapes imitating some vaguely remembered painter or photographer. Such "amateurs" (and I use the word hesitatingly for it is they who are truly in touch with the real roots of the sport) would be far better occupied in following the traditional amateur pursuit of the snapshot of the sport, the personalities involved, the campsite life, the extra-mural adventures, peripheral activities like sea level girdling, club dinners, booze ups and the like, editors, confronted by rich new stocks of interesting pictures would soon respond.

While searching through the unpretentious photo collections of some of our folk hero climbers, I have been constantly impressed by the historical value of pictures that were originally conceived as mere snapshots. John Cunningham's superb picture of the Creag Dhu at Jacksonville (in Games Climbers Play) is one memorable image that comes to mind, and another is Geoffrey Bartrum's lyrical portrait snapshot of Menlove Edwards at the foot of the Milestone Buttress (opposite page 87 in Samson, or Mountain 18). I tore my hair when The Black Cliff was published because of the poor reproduction of the photographs.

Yet people didn't seem to mind and still don't. They valued a certain sense of period, a realness in the pictures that a slicker book might have destroyed. Of course, by their nature snapshots cannot be achieved by careful professional planning. They are photographic records of fleeting moments, sometimes technically awful (early pictures in The Black Cliff for example), sometimes approaching perfection such as the work of the professional snapshots hunters— photo-journalists like Cartier Bresson or Donald McCullin.

I suppose I am saying that in pursuing the fickle goal of sports and landscape photography in mountaineering, we have sadly neglected the photo-journalistic side. In the past this was naively achieved by unpretentious wielders of Brownie Box cameras. Today we need to consciously seek such pictures so that our period can be faithfully reflected by more than a catalogue of athletic action shots. Finally I would like to say a word in defence of the photo album. I have always kept one, not for my best professional work, but for pictures that are, in effect, personal diary entries. Looking back at ones first Alpine season or ones early trips to Wales, remembering half-forgotten friends, rekindling nostalgic memories, is always entertaining.

From the same era: John Cleare's classic 'Rock Climbers in Action in Snowdonia' cover shot.Photo-John Cleare Mountain Picture Library.

As the years go by such collections gain in historical and retrospective value. Photo albums are difficult to keep in these days of the colour slide, but I advise anyone who is taking pictures solely for personal pleasure to forget the colour slide and opt for the black and white or colour snapshot. By careful selection and notation a photo album of real value can be assembled. Trade postcards can always be used to illustrate the mountains, huts or places one has visited, but the really valuable contribution that the photographer can make to himself and to posterity is to try and make a really good record of the nature of his activities and his friends. Therein lies the true enjoyment and value from the cameras we all lug around these days. 

Ken Wilson: First published in Crags Dec/Jan 1981

Friday, 17 June 2016

The Old Men of Hoy

L to R; Paul Trower.Al Alvarez and Mo Anthoine: Photo G Band
Most of us city dwelling climbers lead split lives; five days a week in the office or factory, occasional weekends and holidays in the hills. Rarely can the two interests be merged; when the chance occurs it must be seized. One such opportunity arose last February 1985. It was the most prestigious oil industry dinner of the year, still some months before the oil price collapse. The UK's 212 million barrels per day of production was earning over £20 per barrel. Even while we ate, royalty and tax revenue was accruing to the Government at £1 million every 44 minutes. The Prime Minister had just delivered a stirring and congratulatory speech. In the Great Room of London's Grosvenor Hotel, eighteen hundred well fed guests unbuttoned their dinner jackets, lit up cigars and recirculated the port and brandy.

Conversation became completely relaxed. My host was the chairman of the company which operates the Paper and Claymore North Sea oil fields and their onshore pipeline and storage terminal at Flotta in the Orkneys. It was a prize-winning plant constructed with great care to minimise its impact on the environment. Learning that I had never yet visited it, he immediately invited me to do so. 'That must be quite close to the Old Man of Hoy', I volunteered. 'I've never been there either'. 'Then you must do them both', he said. And so the idea was born. I recalled a much earlier occasion in the Pen-y-Gwyrd Hotel below Snowdon. It was 1966 and in came the late Doctor Tom Patey, who, in between treating his patients at Ullapool, was famed for seeking out hard new routes on remote Scottish crags. He fanned out a sheaf of large photographs of an incredibly spectacular sandstone sea stack.

It stood like a stubby pencil on a granite plinth, vertical on all sides for 450ft, and separated from the equally sheer line of sea cliffs by a jumble of rocks just clear of the breaking waves. Rusty Baillie, Chris Bonington, and I have just made the first ascent', said Tom; 'there was one really hard pitch’  a third of the way up the East face; a thin traverse to the base of this long vertical crack which Rusty led using several slings and wooden wedges where it overhung: I've come to show the pictures to Joe Brown. What a TV spectacular it would make'. Tom's words were right. Both in 1967 and more recently in 1984 live TV broadcasts of the ascent by several different routes had fascinated and gripped millions of viewers. Climbing standards had also shot up in the intervening period, not only due to sheer fitness and intensive training but helped enormously by the invention and development of modern safety gear: the whole range of 'nuts' and 'Friends', and sticky soles. 

It meant that climbers of my age who had still kept reasonably fit were uniquely still able to lead routes as hard as they were doing in their twenties, even though these fall far short of the more desperate present day routes. It is a rare privilege accorded to our climbing generation which will probably never occur again.

Having accepted my host's generous invitation, I soon began to have misgivings. I could manage to fly up to Flotta but was less sure about the Old Man. After years of festering in the Tropics, I was no longer leading hard routes and would need to assemble a strong party to get me up. I contacted two equally mature friends: Dick Sykes, who had recently introduced me to ski touring and was still rock climbing well; he had celebrated his fiftieth birthday by leading Cenotaph Corner, and Al Alvarez, poet, poker player and author of several books including a recent one `Offshore; the story of North Sea oil. Both were enthusiastic but we needed younger blood. Al suggested Mo Antoine with whom he had climbed in the Dolomites. Mo ran a small company, Snowdon Mouldings, making and selling climbing equipment but had a profitable sideline as a 'safety officer' to the cameramen in stunt films requiring climbing skills.

He was currently involved in the shooting of 'The Highlander' starring Sean Connery. More important he had assisted in the TV programmes of the Old Man, and had done the climb. He suggested we should have at least one more strong climber. I enrolled the youngster of the party, Peter Evans, who I had last seen wandering off to try Suicide Wall alone with a fixed top rope. He was the son of Sir Charles Evans with whom I had climbed Everest and Kangchenjunga 30 years ago. 

It was not until the end of the summer — Friday, September 13th, to be exact — that we could fix a mutually convenient date. The weather then would be less reliable but it would give us veteran pen pushers the summer to improve our fitness and finger strength. Dick and I climbed a few days together on the seacliffs of Cornwall and Pembroke. Al rehearsed his favourite routes at Harrisons Rocks near Tunbridge Wells, and I practised on a rough brick wall at home. Mo returned from filming 'The Mission' in the Argentine. Over the phone he said What if the weather's really poor? We, need a hard man at the sharp end who can get up in the rain, if necessary. With six in the party we can fix the Old Man with one long rope from top to bottom'. He produced his secret weapon, Paul Trower, a plumbing and heating engineer, who like many top climbers had chosen to live in the heart of the Welsh mountains at Llanberis. With a permanent stubble and single earring he added not only strength but a slightly piratical image to our party.

Surprisingly, we all arrived in time at the southside of Heathrow airport on Friday 13th, for the specially chartered flight to Orkney. We were joined by Alex Blake-Milton, Occidental's public affairs manager who was adept at handling unusual assignments with his customary good humour. Expecting some spectacular moments, he had I commissioned a professional I photographer, Chris Mikami, to come along with us. I began to worry that with all our climbing ropes and equipment our increasingly large party would no longer be able to fit into the compact HS-125 executive jet which was to whisk us up to Kirkwall. 

Happy wanderer: Author George Band
It was drizzling on Saturday morning as we boarded the ferry for Hoy. The weather forecast promised sunshine and showers with even a little hail and S.W. winds of 25-30 knots gusting to 40 knots later in the day. We were rather subdued about our chances; but with most of the climb on the East Face we ought to be sheltered from the wind. It's nearly an hour's walk over the moorland from the hamlet of Rackwick towards the Old Man. Halfway there, the summit appears 50ft above the level heather. Only as one teetered at the cliff edge and peered over did the immensity of the 450ft pinnacle appal one. Powerful gusts blew in from the sea and angry waves surged around its foot. We changed into our climbing footwear and waist harnesses and, shouldering one or two ropes each, scrambled warily down the steep and soggy grass slopes and scree, to the base of the pinnacle. Alex, who had already muddied his fine hand-stitched brogues, wisely stopped halfway.

We planned that Paul should lead the climb; Mo going second would then remove surplus gear, Next the three veterans with 167 years between us: Al, myself and Dick: all of us doubly protected on the tricky traverse by rope ahead and behind. Finally, Peter would patiently bring up the rear. The first pitch of 70ft led to a convenient ledge at the top of a buttress on the South East corner. From there one descended a few feet onto the slightly overhanging East Face where an irregular ledge, but an acute absence of handholds, enabled one to traverse gingerly across to the foot of the vertical crack. Paul swarmed up confidently and was soon out of sight over the overhangs, the rest of us silently hoping to make it look as easy but knowing that it would be a lonely struggle. It was my turn to climb up to the ledge at the top of the first pitch, where the wind still buffeted unless one could sit right back in the corner.

On the second pitch Mo had left a sling dangling as an extra foothold but Al didn't need it and crack widened above until one was straddled inside as in a chimney. Above, it was blocked by a roof, but the rope snaked up through a diminishing slit on to the outer wall which overhung. I could hardly believe that was the only way. Fortunately for me, previous parties had left slings or wooden wedges in place here and there and I had no scruples about using them for extra handholds to conserve my strength. Leaning right out on the arms over the void, one had to commit and lever upwards on the right foot to gain an inch wide ledge for the left toe at the extreme point of reach. Comfortingly, the rope eased tight to reassure me after the move. The crack continued up a vertical corner with the natural jointing of the sandstone providing occasional horizontal creases giving rounded handholds and adequate bridging for the feet.There was no point in dallying and I soon thankfully joined Al — my guardian angel — crouched in a niche amid coils of rope. We had climbed the crux. Two more pitches followed at a distinctly easier standard continuing upwards but easing to the right in a depression. The ledges became wider and more frequent but the rock was also more suspect, slippery with sand grains, or coated with a slimy green lichen. Finally a vertical 50ft corner led to the top.

We waited for what seemed an age as the rope eased out foot by foot and then stopped. We shivered to keep warm and watched the passage of the heavy clouds breaking and reforming, infused by shafts of sunlight. With the wind distorting our voices, communication round the corner was difficult and Chris, in between taking photographs from the opposite slope, helped to relay our requests to pull in the rope.

In the back was a crack with daylight filtering through here and there as the summit block almost became split into two fingers.The wind howled through the gaps and made us realise how lucky we had been sheltered on the East face. We were also largely protected from sheets of rain enveloping the mainland cliffs and a splatter of hail which now suddenly surprised us. It made us keen to finish as quickly as possible. We had been slow; there as no question of lingering as a group on the summit. Paul and Mo were already descending past us, abseiling down and busy fixing further doubled ropes below. Al brought me up to just below the summit where he was squeezed in the corner sheltering from the wind.

I climbed the last few feet and the blast hit me as I raised my head above the parapet. It was four minutes to four. I stood bracing myself momentarily on the summit in case Chris was taking pictures from the opposite clifftop but I could only see a dim figure running for shelter. Peter now led Dick up the crack as Al and I prepared to descend. Al was soon out of sight, and at the third abseil I began to feel very lonely. How was I to know that the rope below ended at a convenient ledge? One might end hanging like a spider over space or simply slide accidentally off the end.
To avoid this at the overhanging second pitch it was essential to leave a fixed rope on the way up so that the first person descending could haul himself back in to the cliff at the beginning of the traverse and then tie in the end of the abseil rope for the others. When it was Al's turn to haul himself in he had an anxious moment finding himself slipping precariously upside down out of his harness which had become too loose. Dick and Peter had the tedious task of retrieving and coiling the numerous abseil ropes. Finally Peter was halfway down the last abseil laden with three coils of rope over his shoulders. A sudden extra strong gust of wind blew him sideways and the twanging of the taut abseil rope flipped a loose block of rock from above on to his head. Fortunately his climbing helmet protected him. We all breathed a sigh of relief when he joined us at the bottom.
A couple of hours later, tensions released, we were laughing and joking and downing our first pints at the bar of the Ferry Inn, Stromness. 

Chris Bonington's 80th birthday ascent of TOMOH

George Band: First published in High-May 1987. 

Friday, 10 June 2016

The Fear Barrier

I first perceived the fear barrier on my first VS climb — the Barbican on the Castle Rock of Triermain.Four of us,on separate ropes,went for it on a damp March day in 1975. Big black boots; a stiffish nylon rope; not much experience (on my part). The book's relentless phrases had shelved themselves in a dark layer of my brain: "exposed and sensational in the upper part" — I would rather not have known that. "Particularly for the last man" — I couldn't understand that, which made it the more unnerving. We huddled beside the ash tree above the seeping vegetable life of the lower pitches and stared at the corner which bent round into space. It was undercut and it looked holdless. Below there was nothing but the crowns of tall trees and the backs of flying wood-pigeons.

Pete led off round the corner, hands on invisible holds, toes on derisory edges, moving fluently. A few years after he was to help pat up an E4 on Kilnsey; today he was in a state that he later called "blind fear". One of the party, an experienced climber but years out of practice, leaned her head against the rock beside the ash with her eyes shut. When I followed Pete, it felt like treading a wire-thin line of rock stretched in mid-air. At the corner lay the fear barrier, a zone of menace, of impossibility. As I neared it, it shrank, became transparent, turned out to be impalpable. I rounded the corner and there it was again, part way along the seemingly impossible wall. As though in a dream, pulled by the magnet of sheer necessity (and pushed by the impossibility of going back), I kept fitting the hefty Vibrams to the little edges, advancing on the fear barrier — until it disappeared, and we both felt fully human again, tethered to the rusty but solid peg (Drasdo' s from the first ascent in 1951?), and beginning to glow with the realisation that the barrier could be nullified.
Jim Birkett in Langdale
But still it lurked,ready to materialise on any crag, and for me it still has the character of that great wall on Castle Rock. A character made of the bottomless drop below an overhang, the vacancy that yawns behind you as you climb only just in balance, the silent obdurate resistance of any big steep mass, of stone. There it was again on Gimmer, on the steep rib above and to the right of the chimney stance on Kipling but not at its crux (though I fell off that twice); and at the apex of the flake on the traverse of Haste Not, Birkett's most spectacular line in White Ghyll, where you cling on with strained forearms and frictioning toes, trying to drape a sling; and on the incredibly undercut crux a hundred metres up the VI — on the Punta della Disperazione above the Canali but in the Pala Dolomites, where I only made the fear barrier vanish by deciding in advance that I would aid along on a sling clipped into one of Renzo Timillero's solid wedges.

It is an invisible obstacle —the point where your arms and your nerve will buckle and fail — the divide where impossibility begins, where everything is too much, the steepness, the sheerness, the not yet-known — a kind of break in the world, a space-warp, where the laws favouring your survival will stop applying and pure gravity will take over.

You can best it — or should I say disprove it? or exorcise it? —only by pushing on into it and through it, as I did in those novice days of big black boots and nylon rope. In that same March, when the mist verged on drizzle, we went at White Ghyll Chimney, and on the thinnish crux where you leave the sheltering security of the corner and step out onto a wall which is all downward-sloping ribs and fitigery edges, I met the fear barrier when I wasn't expecting it, I felt suddenly club-footed, all friction seemed to cease, the rock turned blank and dark, the mental steps afforded by runners ran out and I perched there fearfully, face to face with the barrier, willing it to cease — it didn't — calling out excuses to the other two in the party — they said nothing . . . the barrier consists also of loneliness: you are on your own, as helplessly solitary as though you were hovering in mid air, trying to invent the glider,or evolve wings.

With help from equipment and from people, and with experience, the fear barrier does lose its power. That May we went back to White Ghyll Chimney, I in squashy pumps, and of course I swarmed across and up that wall, and as Chris finally joined me at the top, he said, "Loony tunesville! You failed on that six weeks ago — in proper footgear" (his quaint name for hulking Vibrams). Six weeks later again I made a hash of Kipling, feeling the pumps splurge and wobble on the smaller holds, and by the autumn as the rains came on I had graduated to PA's and my feet felt elegant as an okapi's, unerring as an orang' s. But the fear barrier hadn't lost its power, it had only moved, to a perhaps diminishing but still vast number of locations around the crags the world.

Perhaps it has lost some power in this respect, that I barely notice it when I'm seconding (which for me means on anything harder than 5a). If you fall as a second you can usually swing about airily, like some clumsy trapeze artiste, and the wild free arcing through mid-air helps to make up for the ignominy of failing to surmount the crag by your own powers — I used this compensation heavily when I failed to mantel up the crux of Kipling, tried too late to traverse right, my arms turned to candlewax and I took off on a pendule, facing outwards, Horse Crags, Pike of Blisco, Crinkle Crags, Bowfell all swimming past in a slow-motion arc — crunch as my right hip hits rock and the arc reverses itself, majestic, as exhilarating as flying, the best way to see the Lake District.

Even if there is the comfort of a rope above you, some of the usual fear symptoms still flicker. The sinking gut as the impossible move looms just beyond you, the inefficient scrabbling with fingerends that just aren't up to it. But all this is far less formidable than the barrier itself — that zone of pure ill being or unbeing where your imagination balks — across which it can't throw any Bailey-bridge of conceivable moves into which it implodes like matter into a black hole.

At times the fear barrier locks itself onto a piece of rock and stays there with all the illusory deadliness of the Bermuda Triangle. The only way to prove it doesn't exist is to fly through it and come out alive and well at the other side. For me it was locked for six years (until June 29, 1984) onto the overhung corner and rib on Castle Rock where Triermain Eliminate goes straight up and Harlot Face veers out onto the rib, then round and up it out of sight. The book promises "a good resting place", but you can't see it, and this invisibility helps the fear barrier to form out of the steepness all around. On the Eliminate, in 1978, I tried to follow Pete up the corner, got past the in-situ nut, and faced with more overhang and diminishing help from the crack in the joint before I could even reach the high step onto the doubtful perch on the downward-sloping block, the scale of the overhangs and the colossal outward shove of the great face overcame me — I had reached the fear barrier — it had continued to exert power invisibly, like negative magnetism, and I had to downclimb rapidly (to put it politely) and abseil off the ash-tree.

I hadn’t even tried the move and failed...pathetic! And this mental defeat is what potentiates the fear barrier like nothing else. In this case I’d made it spread and permeate the crux stride out of the corner onto the rib of The Harlot’s Face. Like a fool I let this move become a rite of passage. It was the great thing that I must do to prove my courage, among the thousands of other commitment-points that I might as well have built up into ‘The One’. On a day of cold rushing wind early in June 1983, after retreating off the Raven Traverse with Bill Peascod and Neil because we were too numb and shuddering to climb, Neil and I went over to the Castle for my first epic tilt at the barrier on The One. Seconding it would be worse than useless. The One must be led. I climbed up to the ledge much too quickly, putting on no runners, and belayed to the ash-tree with my guts feeling thin and quaky like watery porridge.

Neil settles himself down for the siege. I put on an original Moac, absurdly low down, and pull clumsily up the corner towards a blur or two of chalk. The crack takes a No. 6 hex, and as my forearms tire I eye the fateful step, the tiny abyss, one stride through air to fix my right foot on the side of the rib and then — the moment I make as if to move, the fear barrier rears —almost visible, almost palpable — a kind of tough formation of the air which my will and my imagination can't win through. No, not my imagination — I can conceive of the move all right: find the best lodgement for the left foot on the pockety wall — right hand onto the first small sweat-blackened spike on the rib — swing out — go for the almost juggy flake three feet up — transfer the left hand — but from what? It's feet away, clung on by its fingerends to a little saw-edged pocket — and if I can't bring it across double-quick to some sharp hold on the rib, or a jam in the corner-crack . . . The half-chances and fantasy-moves flick through almost subliminally, frames in a horror film. My faith in myself has now sucked out into the black hole, and I half-lower off the hex feeling witless and craven and defeated. Five or six minutes on the ledge, shaking out, analysing the moves to Neil — over-analysing them, letting the mental tension build far beyond the point of a useful surge.

Neil is phlegmatic, sceptical. He has a motto for this situation now: "You're your own worst enemy, Dave." He adds helpfully, -It's just one move." I now have a plan: climb higher up the corner; from there I can launch across to a point where the rib is less steep. It turns out that this takes me too high to use the black spike, to reach the juggy flake I would have to fly or something, and anyway at that height the corner impend's, demolishing my strength. I slither back down from nut to nut and stand on the ledge speechless with chagrin, fingertips numb, then starting to throb. Three more deranged efforts make no impression on the Harlot, or on the fear barrier, which remains in place. During the last one I find myself absurdly crouched ten feet up the corner, like a slug impaled on a cactus, craning  rightwards, eyeing the gap and that taunting rib beyond it, urging my inner self to go for it, feeling my inner self quail as the fear barrier toughens into a thick glass presence against which my mind scrabbles and fizzes like a trapped bee.

Then I spent a year rescreening the moves. The barrier was never more precise: six inches out from the rib. At that point the exact grasping of the fingers must begin, the centre of gravity shift smoothly across, the feet pick the perfect friction points, the will remain intact. At the barrier the will may crumple like plastic in a fire, or it may hold and then the barrier is a nothing. I do the climb most weeks — in my head — and in a bad week six or seven times. Maybe I should do more on snow and ice, to reduce the pressure, since it hardens and thickens the fear barrier still more.

The Return Match Just after the anniversary of the epic siege we are up there again. A fine drizzle has made the Castle the obvious place to go. Neil has designs on Rigor Mortis, whose second pitch he fell off several times when he was 16. For me, of course, it has to be The One. "Here it comes at last, the great grey distinguished thing," as Henry James said on his death-bed, and no-one knew whether he meant death or the Order of Merit? Such banter makes me forget the fear barrier, for a minute or two. And then we're there again, Neil steady on the ledge, amused at me but helpful, me staring at the corner and running my eye across the void to the rib. Original Moac, move up, lean out, sketch a sally with the right foot through space, downclimb in good order, five minutes to let the fingertips recover, back up to put on the hex and take a last reconnaissance.

I lean way out, bridging to the utmost, get my right hand on the black spike — then the fear barrier repels my right foot, the lodgement for it under the rib is useless, a greenish slip of cracked rock, I change hands and reach for the juggy flake with my right but the barrier is still working, the flake top runs out, how can I use so poor a hold to haul my full weight up an angle beyond the vertical? Again I retreat, as deliberately as a technician winding back a film (after all, I've done it six or seven times). "This time," I tell Neil, "I'll go for it — no more waste of glycogen - if I fall, I fall." He puts up both thumbs and blows out lips and cheeks in his inimitable mime of jollying and confirming. And as I swing across this time, the barrier shatters and scatters around me. It almost takes me with it, I don't climb well — "I can't do this, Neil!" I remember squawking as my left fingers just clenched my weight inwards and my right just curled hard enough over the flake-top to power me up round into that resting-place I have been trying to visualise for six years — which has become for me the embodiment of whatever lies beyond the fear barrier. It's a flat ledge about the size of a dinnermat, and as I stand on it for minutes, matching little nuts to the crack above, I feel as ensconced in mid-air as a kestrel or a helicopter.

No doubt Jim Birkett, climbing the route without runners 35 years before, made those crux moves at the first attempt. "When I got my hands on something, the rest of me generally followed," was his sublime motto. The fear barrier will have been so much less hard and deep for him, and locked onto fewer places, although he clearly saw it one winter, climbing Engineer's Chimney on Gable (grade IV/V) in nailed boots with one long-shafted ice-axe, since Len Muscroft (his second also on Harlot Face) heard him give a short rasping cough as he moved across the hard wall on verglas: "When he did this I knew it was going to be desperate." (Bill Birkett, Lakeland's Greatest Pioneers, 1983, p. 122).

I now see that the image of a barrier which is there, as though solid, is not true enough. The fear barrier is a zone of nothing, where you cannot be. As you move up closer to it, it may enter into you —you become nothing, your strength is cancelled, weakness hollows out your arms, your feet can't be trusted, your brain ceases to screen clear images, your balance shakes out of true, your imagination can't conceive of a way beyond. But if the fear barrier fails to invade you, it cancels itself, and you remain yourself, strong, limber, and collected, in a fit state to savour the lovely jubilation that floods through you as you move on and up, unscathed.

David Craig: First published in Climber and Rambler May 1985

Friday, 3 June 2016

Three men in a boat

There’s nothing quite like being on the sea at night in a wee boat,” said Graham. “Nothing lies ahead of us now except the Outer Hebrides. We should be there in another five hours.”

The trim little craft rising and falling in the oily swell was the Mysie, a 36-ft. long “Fifer” ketch with twin Perkins diesel engines which we had fuelled at Oban five hours earlier. Aboard we were three—Graham Tiso, the master; Brian Mahoney, the mate ; and myself, very much the passenger.

I am not a sailor, but a year ago when we went to Scalpay and made landings on the Shiants and Uist (you can read about the voyage here) I had surprised myself by enjoying it all. This time we had a more ambitious ploy to land on Barra Head on the Isle of Berneray and to explore the cliffs of Mingulay.

Seated in the stern, we looked with satisfaction on the dark headland of Ardnamurchan point behind us, while on the port bow the orange ball of a rising moon cast soup-plate reflections on the rippling water. In the west the sky still held a flush of pink, and around us shearwaters skimmed and guillemots scuttered out of our path.

The shipping forecast had spoken of mist in the Hebrides. It had come true by the time I bunked down, leaving the sailors to sort out the landfall. I had no doubt of their ability, and slept well. Above me, had I known it, they were having an anxious time trying to identify shapes in the mist and figure out a light that was flashing in the distance.

They were baffled, and for safety turned south with engines throttled back. I was awake now, and could detect the notes of concern in their voices as they tried to fix the position of another light. “We thought this was Castlebay but it never looked like this,” grinned Graham as I came to the wheel- house. What I saw was something which had the rough shape of a bay, dimmed by mist, and high above its right edge the searchlight beam of a lighthouse.

“It can only be Barra Mead, so how’s that for navigation when you’re trying to find Castlebay? We’re in luck!”

From the land I could hear a thrush singing as we dropped anchor in a tiny bay by the jetty on Berneray which is used for lighthouse supplies.

Graham and Brian were tired and ready for sleep. Nor was there any stirring until 10 a.m. when the galley got going for a ham and eggs breakfast, then into the dinghy to an island that looked green and inviting in simple plan, a high green ridge sloping to the sea with the ruins of houses and signs of former cultivation in an incipient hollow at mid-height. Incised above the landing, the distance to the lighthouse was marked, one and a quarter miles.

Canna Life...1930's
It was great to be on dry land again and walking in the sunshine under a great singing of skylarks, following the road to the lighthouse, but breaking off to climb the ridge and look down the other side. What a transition, where the grass ends as if with a knife-slice cleaving the island vertically, 600 feet to the breaking sea. The effect was heightened by a thin mist steaming up the ridges and buttresses of the dark crags.

Then, when the first shock had registered, you became aware of the birds whisking back and fore like bees round hives : puffins, their red legs out like rudders, razorbills whirling along in the updraughts, and settling down on airy ledges to perch and look out on the world. Fulmars glided at eye-level with us, and far below, above smooth overhangs polished black by the Atlantic rollers, kittiewakes bugled, mingling their neurotic chorus with the growing “Arr-nr-arr “ of hundreds of guillemots.

Outside of St Kilda I had never seen more puffins, and the razorbills ran them a close second. Two of the keepers were painting the outside top of the lighthouse when we got there. They were James Hunter from Stonehaven, the principal light- keeper, and Alan Chamberlain from Manchester, cheery men both who enjoy their job and are sorry that Barra Head is to go automatic, and that this could be the last season.

Joe Toner from Glasgow, the third keeper, was on cook duty and invited us for coffee.

“We do a month on the light here, and a month in Oban, so we have six months at Barra Head in the year. I like to see the birds. Sometimes we get ones that are strange to me.”

None of the keepers knew very much about the families who had crofted and fished here until 1931, when the island population had fallen to six. That remote population had hung on remarkably well, perhaps because of their neighbours manning the light and the little bit of extra service provided by visiting ships. Nowadays the main link is by helicopter, as crews are exchanged every month, but, weather permitting, the light keepers make a recreation trip to Castlebay by boat once a fortnight.


From Barra Head across the Sound of Berneray to Mingulay seemed a very short distance. I knew the view, having seen it in the opposite direction two years ago, but I had been frustrated then by lack of time to see all of Mingulay’s cliffs. Here was a chance now if Graham was prepared to take the boat in a clockwise circuit round Barra Head and up the west side of Mingulay.

Before doing so, however, we set out east from the lighthouse along the spine of the island to get an idea of its birds. Here is the list I made—buzzard, peregrine, meadow pipit, rock pipit, wren, wheatear, starling, songthrush, collared dove, twite, snipe, skvlark, raven, greater blackbacked gull, kittiwake, razorbill, puffin, guillemot, fulmar.

Back at the boat we had a snack, and I swallowed a couple of seasickness tablets, remembering the rough water I had seen on the American side of Barra Head. Never was any precaution more necessary, for the moment we became exposed to the Atlantic swell the boat began to emulate the Big Dipper. Brian shouted a warning as the boat cork-screwed at a steep angle sideways before diving into the rough and shooting up with a shuddering motion.

The rocks were all too near, contorted masses of grey gneiss, veined with pink and holed in places by the cannon-action of mighty seas. Atlantic seals playing in a boil of white water and crashing waves lifted my spirits with their supreme mastery of their element.

The lighthouse on Barra Head loomed above us at the head of the gully, and I remembered the head keeper telling us of the spray that is thrown up over 600 feet in a tumultuous sea.

I can’t say I felt any fear at that point. But I did feel it as we came into the heaving turmoil of lifting sea hurling itself white against the cliffs and churning back on us. Brian’s stomach had rebelled at the motion. His face was grey as he hung his head over the side, but my pills seemed to be doing their stuff. Graham’s enjoyment of the violent motion, and delight in the wonderfully textured Lewisean gneiss carved into holes and pinnacled into rock-stacks was reassuring. Privately I wondered if the engines of the boat were powerful enough to keep pushing at right angles to the power of the waves surging to the rocks.

Graham took my arm. “Last summer when I was here in the heatwave it was so calm that I sailed right behind the stack on Mingulay. It was marvellous. I landed on Pabbay. We’ll go and look at The Hoe —wonderful pink rock, and what must be the biggest overhang in Scotland.”

It was all he said it was, but I was glad when he did an about turn and we came into the marvellous calm of the sheltered eastern side of Pabbay. On this green side, with its deep bay, are the ruins of houses and signs of cultivation dating from the beginning of the century. The people left, I understand, when an island fishing boat and its crew failed to return.

There is not room here to write of our visits to Yatersay and Barra. I have to jump ahead now to the point where we sailed into the superb natural anchorage on the east side of Eriskay, now with only one engine working.

For me it was like coming home, since I have walked every corner of this rocky island blessed by two of the finest shell-sand bays in all the Hebrides.

“I love it,” said Brian, smiling the peat reek appreciatively and looking at the lazybeds of potatoes and wet places yellow with flowers. The road climbs gently over the Hanks of Ben Scrien to the settlement where most of the 200 of a population live facing South Uist.

How bright and well-kept the houses looked in their coats of fresh paint! Laughing children answered me in English when I tried out my Gaelic. It was their joke, for everybody uses Gaelic here as a first language. The island priest, Father McNeil, invited us in for coffee and expressed his concern that crofters who leave Eriskav are hanging on to their land when they should be giving it up to those who want to live and work in Eriskay.

“Let them keep the crofthouse as a holiday home. But the land is needed. We have up and coming young fishermen, and we’ll soon be able to crew two more boats. The four boats we have give a living to 24 families. But the young men must have land to build a house and grow potatoes—this is vital.”

I was pleased to hear that the Eriskay pony, which was threatened with extinction a few years ago, is now doing well, and that the island is likely to have a new shop, perhaps with a licence, if a couple can be found to manage it. As yet there is no hotel, but the priest would like to sec one as there is a demand for accommodation.

“We have a wonderful community spirit here,” he said. “Give them an excuse for a gathering and they’ll come.”

I imagine Eriskay is like what Mingulay used to be. We asked him if he knew what it was that drove the Mingulay people to up-sticks and abandon their island.

"It was tobacco' he said." Often they couldn't get it.And they hadn't the money to buy it in quantity'.

Tom Weir:The Scots Magazine:1977

Friday, 27 May 2016

Hay Dream Believer: Under the Tump....Review

Oliver Balch’s ‘Under the Tump’- the tump in question being the mound in Hay on Wye, upon which sits a fortification-is a lyrical tour of that quiet land twixt England and Wales...The Marches. A pastoral ribbon of border country which straddles English Shropshire and Herefordshire to the East, and Welsh Powys and Monmouthshire to the west. Within this nebulous lost domain of Princes and Lords lies the former county of Radnorshire- formally the smallest and least populated county in Wales- and almost tipping out of Wales into England, at its very fringes is the market town of Hay on Wye and the neighbouring village of Clyro.

Today, Hay is feted as the world first book town. The Hay on Wye book festival began in the 1980‘s and continues to go from strength to strength, attracting international figures from President Clinton to Mario Vargas Llosa.(In fact,with remarkably good timing I discover that the festival actually begins today) The town's cerebral reputation beginning in the early 1960‘s when Richard Booth opened the first of Hay’s many book shops and sowed the literary seed which flowered into the Hay we know today.

However, The Hay Festival is but a small part of Oliver Balch’s work. Essentially, the author offers a socio/cultural investigation into areas’ evolution from a virtually unknown small market town and farming community up until the 1960‘s, into the rather upmarket bohemian idyll it has become today. A place where the past struggles to keep its identity and values against the increasing tide of wealthy incomers from the cities who apart from snapping up properties and thus pricing locals out of the market, bring with them a swaggering self confidence and an urban mindset which to the chagrin of the areas’s indigenous population,threatens to overwhelm the town’s quiet rural character.

One of the areas most famous residents,the curate and rural diarist Francis Kilvert whose roseate observations of the area and people written in the mid 19th century has never been out of print since it was first published by Jonathan Cape in the 1930‘s; and it is to Kilvert that Oliver Balch looks to to guide his journey through a land which is ‘Not quite England, not quite Wales’. Using Kilvert’s zealous thirst to explore both the land and its people, the author adopts a forensic approach to uncovering the real Hay and its environs. A search not made easy by virtue of the areas’ multi layered character.

Oliver Balch’s arrives in nearby Clyro via London and Buenos Aires with his family and immediately seeks to discover if he and his kin can truly belong to an area to which-apart from childhood holidays-he has no connection? With a dogged determination, he latches onto just about anyone who will tolerate his investigative presence. Given the highly detailed references and observations of the people he meets, I have an image of him whipping out a notebook every few minutes and saying..’So that was 1963 you married your second cousin then’? Whatever the author’s methods, it provides a highly readable and fascinating account which manages to filter in some Kilvertian prose to compliment to publisher’s advised ‘reportage style’ of writing.

Young farmers, old hippies, parish pump politicians, trendy young entrepreneurs,pub landlords, all get the OB shake down. Surprisingly, everyone he meets  seems only too willing to lay their life bare and reveal their personal triumphs and tragedies. Some readers might find the author’s microscopic descriptions of insignificant details like a gaudy painting in a cafe or some ancient pork scratchings hanging a bar, rather OTT in the information stakes, but gradually,like a painting which takes shape with every brush stroke,it is these finite details which make Under the Tump so readable and evocative of the land and the people.

People like Rob and Layla who I believe featured in C4‘s Amazing Spaces programme presented by George Clarke. Rob and Layla are like many ‘off comers’ are fairly recent arrivals who in common with most of their New Age tribe are not as the media would have it, ‘benefit scroungers’, but hard working individuals who can and will turn their hand to anything to make ends meet. In this instance, the Amazing Spaces connection saw the couple convert a 1960‘s coach into a bijou accommodation for holiday makers. Then there’s Woko, the young farmer who exists in the old country and in old times. When you could walk through Hay and bump into Evans the farrier or old Ned from the Bwlch. These days you are more likely to bump into Will Self or Martin Amis!

Of course no book about Hay and its people would be complete without ‘The self styled ‘King of Hay’, the aforementioned Richard Booth who on April Fool’s Day in 1977 proclaimed Hay an independent kingdom with himself as King Richard and his horse as Prime Minister. The publicity gained world wide coverage including slots in The New York Times and El Pais.

Hay’s ‘monarch’ was actually born in the town and after inheriting his uncles estate, began to ship books back from America in containers to furnish his burgeoning book shop sited in the town’s old fire station. His original book shop is now owned by a rich American incomer-Elizabeth Haycock- who has poured a considerable amount of investment into refurbishing the outlet.

The author offers a surreal description of a open meeting with Booth holding court. An event where a common usurper threatened Hay’s independence by successfully mounting a referendum on Hay and the King’s status. The people of the town obviously content with their liege voted to maintain the status quo.

The Hay book festival arrives late on in the book in keeping with the author’s style, is more concerned with the logistical side of the festival and the ordinary people who make it work year after year rather than waffle on about celebrity writers and politicians. With an estimated half a million people visiting a town with a population under 2000 during the festival period then although its not quite Glastonbury then it’s still a huge logistical task for the mainly local organisers.

Like Francis Kilvert before him, in his Under the Tump, Oliver Balch has certainly brought his adopted homeland to life and gone a long way towards unravelling the rapidly changing character of Hay and the surrounding farms, hamlets and villages. His vivid descriptions of the lonely bald hills and jackdaw haunted ruins remain long in the memory. Certainly within the genre, Under the Tump offers itself as a fine example of how a community and the land they share can be vividly brought to life by a writer who is not backward in coming forward. Sympathetically coaxing his cast into the spotlight yet maintaining a healthy respect for all concerned. I’m sure it is the author’s personable approach which has unearthed a rich seam of social and cultural history in an area where a more remote and objective writer would have failed.

Author,Oliver Balch: Photo OB

For this writer, domiciled in the more rugged north of the country, it has certainly inspired me to visit this summer. Google Earth has been perused and a wild camping spot for my camper pencilled in. You could say, I intend to make Hay while the sun shines !

Under the Tump is published by and available from Faber and Faber

Oliver Balch website

Hay Festival

John Appleby:2016

Friday, 20 May 2016

Terra Pericolosa: Speak, why are you here?

Derek Hersey:Photo Gary Thornhill

Intimacy with the planet keeps us wild, undomesticated, unwilling to submit to social conditioning.   Lash.

As a self-professed outsider in the outside arena it may come as no surprise when I view this culture as absurdly obsessive.Yes, I am at odds. As a climber has it always been so? I guess so, to an extent, but those obsessive climbers that I remember were never taken seriously and mostly ridiculed. Top activists these days are creating awesome problems and their goals, achievements, breakfasts and hair styles reported with such serious liberal yawn –where is the scornful, difficult but untroubled nature not chocolate-boxed by the mass media? The channel is switched to celebs, politics, sport, celebs, politics, sport… Who ‘literally’ is tying the rope to their balls out there…? Who gets bummed by a BMC employee…? Who breaks his opponents leg in a fight…? Who abuses sponsorship, robs banks, attempts to drive a scooter up to Dinas Cromlech…? Who puts another top climber in a headlock until he goes blue…? Who puts kettles into cracks…? What climber has had the most road accidents on-route from Llanberis to Chamonix…? Answers to come!

I know this is gender biased, but women tend to be more sensible. These people cannot represent anything but themselves. They cannot hold down jobs! Their climbing was alive and not staged and in my view preserved the way of nature. When I see the gob-smacked-talented bold ‘n’ young, I cant help feeling like there has been a ‘cover-up’… they behave like scouts and girl guides collecting their efficiency badges from the ministry of good behavior at the BMC. The cover up conceals the energy that climbing is grounded in, the right to say ‘fuck off’ to insurance and a paid job.

Nick Bullock has lately said that the present day climbing world is no longer as replete with ‘characters’ as it once was. He blames this shallowness of the younger generation being spoon fed on climbing walls, sport and consumerism…

Of course there are many characters still out there in climbing, but hey ho, everyone can’t be Stevie Haston, ‘cos there aren’t enough six inch nails to bend and there would be no peace for any geezer. It seems crazy to say everyone used to be a character, but perhaps characters breed characters in the culture they find themselves in. Perhaps there were more people with mental health issues? That can’t be correct. But where are the insouciant Gary Gibsons, boldly claiming routes they never climbed? The more enthusiastic climbers lived their lives through climbing and operated more like computer geeks, and kept notes and guidebooks. I don’t remember their names! These geeks are now widespread and are ace, civilized, beta-gathering, hummus and halva eating folk on bouldering circuits, counting calories and cleaning a range of toothbrushes with Ecover products.

Back in the day, a young Geraldine Taylor was ‘mad for it’ a precursor model of the femme sportive, but widely seen as chic-eccentric. She was not subdued. Not so these days. They have multiplied and instead of help-support groups that take the piss, there are competitions and Pilates and a super range of clothing. Where is ‘dirty’ Derek Hershey with his plums hanging out…dead of course. Where is Neil ‘Noddy’ Molnar with a reefer high up soloing…dead of course. Where is Al ‘playboy’ Harris, speeding up Fachwen…dead of course.  Where is ‘big’ Jimmy Jewell, hanging on holds all day…dead of course. And then there was my friend Paul Williams, a self-confessed obsessive with monstrous enthusiasm, that motivated many a climber including Ron Fawcett, Andy Pollitt and myself. If you ‘hung out’ with Paul you did epic new routes because he knew where they where, would take you there, hold your ropes and entertain you! Through obsession…dead of course. 

Paul Williams: Photo Ian Smith 
There were cleaner, more ‘sporty’ types, but the idea of a sport never entered the equation. Life was too funny, random, still a dirty business with side-stalls of anarchy and nonsense, when rock was more a guide to thought. The repression I feel in the climbing world is a manipulation of the human spirit, is corporate and in essence, religious. I am an artist, an outsider artist of course, and quite frankly I don’t give a flying fuck!

I know that anarchy doesn’t sell. And characters die. And that sport is seen as ‘clean’ and a cash crop goes without saying.

Whooooo, hang on, calm down, this article was never meant to be about personalities and sport, the synonymous duo. I was just using up a few leftover words from my last rant against sport. How vulnerable am I? I will now, I believe, succinctly tie in all of the above in relevance to the below. As above so below.

For those who frantically lose themselves searching for a hard-move, in fitness, adventure and sport I offer some alternative medicine… My article was supposed to start here… I flick the coin.

I open my door onto a street, and I am lost in awe at the safari before my senses. I have taken no twelve-hour flight to get here. I am not on holiday. No travel arrangements have been made. No fees paid. No apps or maps or guides are needed. My heartbeat is not monitored. No fitness necessary. No special clothes are needed. I am not chasing anything that improves my health or fitness. I am neither retreating or recoiling into myself nor escaping anything. I am not actively seeking anything. I am not self-observing. I am just being in a place where I live. I am. As I said, I am in awe at the world before me. I have only to step out and walk a short way for my senses to chatter away to each other and enable the unique imprint of place into my being. This is not ‘I could be anywhere’ state of mind, but specifically somewhere. This is not sitting back and looking at the panorama of life before me like a tourist brochure. Neither is it an examination of why I view the world as I do.

This is an active engagement with experience. This engagement creates a connection and one enters a vision. This vision already exists. It animates with soul, generates a voracious awakening to the pleasure of seeing, touching, feeling and vital inspiration and to strange creatures that do not scorn ceremonial life. Perhaps this is what Arne Naess calls ecosophy – planetary wisdom? It can seem that all else that evokes the nonsense of losing oneself in everyday tasks has been abandoned…

I am on ‘forensic’ safari from my house and it costs nothing but imagination…

Remain true to the earth – Nietzsche

Two meters out from my door and the heat of the sun hits me. I am on my knees in the lane facing a thin, sticky coating of tarmac that has melted, ground-up and bared with use by hot, rubber tyres to the coarse sand beneath. This is the material of the original lane, a piste, when donkeys did their stuff. This quartzy metamorphic rock is the substructure of my house, the foundations of which were cut and fashioned from it by craftsmen who knew its character, structure and strength. I know that five feet underneath my knees is a cold tunnel that connects to my cave in the basement. It is blocked half way but locals tell of a huge network of passages used to smuggle all kinds of contraband including people. I ponder the Retirada, the traumatic exodus of Republican Catalans escaping Franco’s persecution and regime…into the clutches of Vichy France…to concentration camps and a different death and to tunnels and walls within walls and families fighting within themselves and within their own walls a battle of allegiances, subterfuge and espionage.

I had recently been privy to a Lama, a spiritual healer, who had been commissioned to exorcise my friend’s house on the border with Spain. He detected the energy that my friend felt in her cave-atelier and told of what he ‘saw’. A terrified woman with three children was hiding there after crossing the border and escaping persecution. She was awaiting the ‘passeur’, a person paid to facilitate your passage from danger. He raped her and cut her throat in front of the children. The three children fled and were lost in the woods. He turned away from his internal screen to face us and said, ‘Perdu – lost’. The Lama did his stuff, said a prayer and we left. 

Perillos work: John Redhead
I ponder the horror of the Lama’s psychic vision with an ironic smile as Maricka, my neighbour, starts her rendition of ‘musette en liberte’, on the accordion, behind the bars of what was once the village jail, screaming from her open window something about hell and her Mother…! Like the anthem of an alienated, wailing demiurge, the ‘regarde moi’ score resonates the rue with melancholy and incarcerated souls.

I move from the Gneissose-scar, pocked on the tarmac three meters to Placa Sant Antoni and sit down on a granite bench under the Horse Chestnut tree. St Anthony is the patron saint of lost people and finding things. He is noted for having a vision of the Christ’s child whilst reading a book. In a niche on Maricka’s house there is an odd statue of St Anthony holding the Christ’s child in one hand outstretched from Christ’s buttocks. The alarming figurative has replaced some meaningful symbolism for the Saint, as there is no book. I ponder the surreal world of Saints and visions, of Paul, John and Jerome et al. Is it not the case that these Saints enter the world of a vision when the ‘will’ decides to intercede into more than can be seen, ’what the fuck is all this man, all this shit that is of monstrous crazy chaos, this unseen world that is part of me and in me…must be God yeah’. The poverty of the desert fathers and the poverty of their desert souls absorb the poverty of a dead land, frantic for a fresh world matrix. It continues to saturate the minds of man with stupidity and a nature-rejecting abstract.

Under the Horse Chestnut tree I am with the treescape. Strangely, I have seen its down-there business as its finer, tangled roots dangle Pan-esque in the tunnel of my cave. I am left to feel and what I feel is that what I see, including my own body is the part that doesn’t exist. Of course there is more and you move to it in stillness. You move to it by recognizing a negative compulsion to the physical. It is an empathic connection of belonging, with no self-reflection.

‘Outer world and inner world are interdependent at every moment’  Ted Hughes

I also ponder ‘the miracle of the jealous husband’, St Tony’s finest hour, when a husband cuts the throat of his wife believing her to be an adulteress. He is mistaken but all is well after our hero in Placa de Sant Antoni, gives her the kiss of life. He cannot kiss his own life however for he dies of ergot poisoning, his skin looking like a mess of Guignaria leaf blotch that afflicts the Chestnut tree in autumn. My fingers are also blotched with cobalt, cadmium and black pastel from my sketch, waiting to assert itself on my return.

Maricka finishes her serenade with ‘la boite a musette’. A barking dog adds vigour to the drone. Bravo. Is her flamboyant ‘rapture’ any less meaningful than Tony’s visions, because they both ‘belong’ to this moment? Is one influenced by the divine-demonic and the other by mental illness? Is it just the culture that decides an experience is divine or pathological? I feel that neither is of knowing. I catch her eye, and the contact drifts on a whim. I realize she could be anywhere. Adversely I feel that the Catalans seem to ‘grow’ here, like plants, embedded in a pact with the land. They inhabit. In deep-ecology it is understood that this bond is essential to sanity.

So, wandering on in my mind, I realize that the tree is itself a droning musical instrument. Thousands of honeybees gather in the rich source of nectar and tits of all variety chomp up the insects. It is alive and in bliss with abundant life forms. I listen. Not so my neighbour who is defined by isolation, not realizing the music she offers is not of this world, but a victorious battle of her will to be. No matter. The sensory nature of the collective drones is a mystery of collected differences. The altruistic bees seem indifferent to the melody, seem indifferent to pollination and pathology as we know it, the conker and being busy… with the moment, eyes lost in the engine of honey-ecstasy.

The horse chestnut leaf is used for eczema, menstrual pain, coughs and joint pain, but not ‘St Anthony’s fire’, which is ergotism. As if to scoff ridicule at man and his diseases and personalities a black scorpion squares up to me at the base of the tree. Challenging. Pincers out, tail up, as if demanding an explanation. Only three possibilities come to mind – I am in a vital period of inspiration and you are part of it – I am in a metaphysical state and you are my friend – I am about to get stung. The latter wins as I shuffle away believing that it is the scorpion that is the poetic mouthpiece to some supernatural power.

The tree is a native of Turkey and its name in English may be from the fact that when the leaf stalks snap off they leave the indentation of an upside down horseshoe on the branch. Etymologically not so in France where it is called, ‘marronnier’. Each culture has its folklore and naming and the locals here tell of collecting the marrons to give to horses to alleviate coughs. I hear no one talk of or indeed play, marrons, the game. Too rough I guess!

When I first moved here, at noon every day, an old boy used to sit where I am sat. It is a cool place and welcoming. He propped his walking stick against the tree, the handle of which had been fashioned into a penis and painted red. He reached into a crack in the tree and pulled out a toothpick and proceeded to take off his shoes and flick the soil out of the tread of the soles. It was an obsession not a ritual. I engaged this happy man many times in strange conversation, thinking it good for my socializing and vocabulary, until I realized his French was utter gibberish. However, who knows what knowledge a madman imparts when words fail? Who cares about failing words when spoken by a happy soul? Perhaps the red penis was a clue?

The Eight-sided hydrangea tub sits opposite with an abundance of pink petals, symbolically noted for its heartfelt sincerity, grace and beauty. A small gecko emerges like a clockwork toy from the deep, cool interior to soak some sun, hard-wired and mindful of pleasure and intent, no doubt. No challenge.

My safari has taken me the grand distance of five meters so far.

Uncharted land…Terra Pericolosa, speak, why are you here?

‘To understand what it is to be part of the world and not an enemy of it’. Persig

On a previous ‘forensic’ in Liverpool I wrote – ‘I had always been interested in the family of idolatry, addiction, habits and neglect. Even though heavy words they float through all walks of life. They squeeze out from the squeaky-clean duty of attempted order and roll headlong from the leafy-ocean of suburbia, shopping for bric a brac, domicile to domicile, and wash up on the rocky-shoreline of inner-city streets where raw and naked chaos seems awakened. I feel this chaos… I am receptive…this abstract structure, this island of concrete, this heart… radiating and revealing some deep-ecological pulse as if the heart of the jungle’.

This jungle on my Placa is no different, just a little more contained, calmer and secretive. The bags of sardines or hash still move slowly over the border. The wary locals still check car number-plates. They know where all the mushrooms are. They wonder what the hell I do. They must read my mind. Through strobes of luminous green, I see the distant vapor trails from Ryanair jets en-route from Liverpool to Girona. Here, there, no matter. The village tree holds the distance. I face the granite wall by the font of 1888, and pick a few leaves of Pennywort (Venus’s Navel) for a little snack. Associated with lovemaking, it grows in profusion in the fissures along with its mates Toadflax and Herb Robert. I guess that these dark fissures contain all the sexy-life of the Cosmos, rooted in the Earth. It is a sensuous revelation.

‘The solid Earth but ever the sky’.

After five meters of moving ‘stillness’, I must return to my pastel sketch, ‘The moving of slimes and slops of birth and life to its end’.

To be continued.

John Redhead, May 2016