And they are gone-aye ages ago.these lovers fled away into the storm
There is a point and a time of day when travelling south down Nant Francon when the west face of Tryfan is revealed in all its glory. 'Tryfan's Cinderella face' I was to describe it as years later after spending weeks climbing up and down its ridges,faces and gullies and jotting down notes on every aspect of its recorded climbs until I could finally get around to rewriting the entire section for the Climbers Club Ogwen guidebook. Today, that possibility did not remotely surface on my radar. I could just relax in the rare position of being a passenger and take in 'all that useless beauty'. Jacs’ Peugeot cruised through Ogwen Cottage and we craned our necks to see if anyone was enjoying the early evening sun on Milestone Buttress.
We had driven to Caernarfon from Jac's home on the moors above Cerrigydrudion to look at a V Dub van that I had seen in a free ads paper. I had been mortified when Jacqie turned up one day at my house waving a wad of cash and asked 'where is it then ?' 'It' being a VW camper I was selling and had sold to someone else when after a week, I presumed she wasn't interested. In my guilt I promised to find her an even better bus...' it was a bit of shed actually Jacs..needed a bit of work'
We pulled into the Stables in Betws y Coed and brought out our drinks to join the tourist throng who crowd the yard in front of the bar on evenings such as this. Swilling back my Old Speckled Hen I watched Jacqie and Luke- my youngest son- share a bowl of chips..'haven't eaten all day...I'm starving!'. I casually remarked, 'Debbie was saying that you've had contact with Jim Perrin recently? '.I'd known that in the dim and distant past that Jacs had hung around with someone who had literally inspired me to take up rock climbing and whose writings and uncompromising politics was in sharp relief to the flacid posturings of so many egos whose words adorned the climbing magazines.
'Yeh..I've seen him' was the guarded response as she lifted the house red to her lips and looked away. Not wishing to pursue the topic if it was awkward I veered off and asked when she was going to go climbing with me.
I knew that Jacs had climbed in the past and was part of 'the scene' but she never took it beyond..'Yep..I might go grimping with you some time'. 'Grimping'; never heard it called that-must be a Lakeland thing? Jacs was from Kendal oop north although like me she had lived in NE Wales for a long time. The triangle twixt Cerrigydrudion, Corwen and Ruthin had seen a steady stream of boheimian invaders arrive from all points of the compass during the early 70's and 80's. Artists,Buddhists,New Agers,Hippies,drop outs,self sufficiency freaks you name it. They came,they saw and they..well..assimilated man !. Escapees from the urban ghettos ,drawn to this quiet corner of north Wales by the space, natural beauty and cheap housing.
In my own village it was said you could not swing a cat without hitting an artist!. John Sampson - grandfather of the writer Anthony Sampson-had arrived in the Edwardian age to study the unique dialect of the Welsh Romany Gypsies who had settled here and who remained up until the 1930's-bringing the arch boheimian and enfant terrible of the Edwardian art world, Augustus John with him.
In modern times everyone from Brian Eno to Ralph Fiennes has passed through. John Sessions once stopped by with an artist friend to use my loo!
Jacquetta was just one artist who had arrived here and continued the tradition. Her discipline evolving into stained glass work of unique delicacy and rare beauty. Although she was not what I would consider a close friend as such, she was the best friend of a close female friend of mine and as such I would see her often when I dropped in across the valley. Sharing vile herbal teas and bowls of mung bean and nettle broth or some such equally disgusting concoction that these arty new age women seem unaccountably fond of ? The dubious health benefits being somewhat diluted by a partiality to roll ups sprinkled with dope and a bottle or three of red wine! If there was a thread which linked this sisterhood of the vine it was the fact that they were all strong willed artistic women who had either extracted themselves from relationships or in Jac's case, was about to. One male 'victim' of this process was to describe this little circle as 'The Witches coven !'.
By virtue of being on my own after separation and being a single parent struggling to make ends meet, happily I was granted honorary witch status .
It was just after our Caernarfon jaunt that I met Jim Perrin for the first time with Jacs at that rather gloomy tavern on the A5- The Saracens Inn- a few miles twixt our respective homes. There was no great show of affection between the pair and I could detect no signs that their coming together was anything more than two old friends trawling over past times before moving back into their respective worlds. Within a few weeks I had finally got Jacs out onto the rock face but she for one would not be donning her rock boots. She’d asked me if I’d take two of her children and their friend climbing and she would tag along. Toby and Jessica would be in their later teens and as fine,enthusiastic and good looking youngsters as you could wish to meet. I decided to take them to a strange little crag which I’d discovered a few years previously and was yet to hit the guidebooks. Craig y Tonnau (Waved Crag), a small very steep little outcrop of amazingly rough gritstone and decked out with a never ending supply of bucket holds. Perfect for novices I thought and quiet and secluded in a forest clearing. As we walked down the forest track on a balmy late summer’s afternoon, Jacs casually mentioned that Jim would be joining us.
As I led the youngsters up Spring Lightning, Jacs relaxed in her heather nest while Jim prowled around,frozen shoulder keeping him off the rock and clicked away with his SLR. From my perch atop the cliff I watched as they sat together. As the evening drew the heat from the sun and a breeze stirred the branches, he casually put his arm around her and drew her to him, heads touching and faces wreathed with quiet contentment. It was the first sign I’d seen of a rekindling of passion. How could I ever imagine in a million years on this day richly spiced with the hope of summer that just beyond the turn of the season we would all move into a new world touched by tragedy and loss. Death rides a pale horse and the course he charts is revealed in all its ragged glory in a book which will be seen as Jim Perrin’s valedictory masterpiece ‘West’.
If this is the most circuitous introduction to a book review ever then I apologize. It feels only fair to set the scene and point out the difficulty of offering a totally objective review. West is a remarkable book which will be rightly acclaimed for its raw beauty and searing honesty. But West is not the whole story . There are other versions and interpretations.And other writers of the story.
And so it begins. Jim has fled West..far far West to the storm wracked Galway shores to find solace and company with a former lover who promises to look after him . His beloved wife by Pagan ceremony on the western shores of the Lleyn, Jacquetta and son Will are both dead. Torn from his life within 9 months of each other. From here on in the tale is masterfully constructed like an epic poem. Interwoven with dreams and nightmares,hope and despair.But each word underpinned by great love. By now Perrin is nearing the end himself and like George Orwell on Jura, crucified by TB and fighting to finish 1984' before he dies; propped up in bed with pillows,typewriter precariously balanced on the stained covers;kept alive by strong tea and strong cigarettes- Perrin too fights on to finish his version of what Edward Abbey called his 'big fat book', The one which will finally take him 'outside the stockade'. His Pyrenean lair a distant refuge from where by necessity he has had to escape to to disentangle himself from those who would cluck and clutter around him at home.Killing the project before completion.
What both works have in common is that they were crafted in passion and pain. For Orwell and Perrin they were books which HAD to be written.
The book begins under grey skies as Atlantic breakers pour down on Galway shores.I had only reached page six however, when a paragraph sprang from the page which was crafted with naked rage and regret. It explains why throughout the book,children,siblings and friends have been air-brushed from the story. But more of that later.
West is constructed as an artist constructs a landscape. The elements created before being filled in. Not for Jim the boring linear narrative. West bobs and weaves.Coming back to the future before pressing forward to the past. Using 'Pre-Histories' as a device, events and experiences are painted in. Early life in Salford is vividly brought to life. A hard life where love was absent until kindly grandparents took on the parental duties from useless warring mother and father and that diamond hard intelligence brought escape through academic success and university education. From an early age,the hills offer their siren call. Their majesty and mystery drawing him to a world which would later define him.
The pre-history years when Jac and Jim first meet in south Liverpool only to fracture when Jac arrived unexpectedly in Llanberis Pass after breaking off a tired relationship and committing herself to him- only to have climbers idling against the stone wall beneath Dinas Cromlech- point him out to her,casually soloing Cenotaph Corner. Still graded an 'extreme' rock climb and demanding of a calm head and strong limbs. It was too much to bear. The wild fun loving criminal who played chicken with Al Harris above the slate quarries and partied and doped his way across the whole crazy psychadelic 70's scene was patently not a man who was ever going to love honour and obey. Their parting created a 28 year void which neither ever filled successfully. Within that span,young Will Perrin arrived...and departed. A son who Jim as sole guardian clearly adored and cherished. Their lives together are beautifully laced with humour and affection. The young toddler whose faltering steps would eventually take him into UK climbings premier league. A modest, self effacing virtuoso whose self induced death at 24 shocked everyone who knew him and virtually drew a line under his father's climbing career which was already teetering towards its denouement through physical injury and a calm,measured understanding that in that area,there was nowhere left to go. The season had turned.
Jim mentions how these days in the mountains it is the moments of rest which contain the greatest measure of contentment. Not chasing ever on towards some distant goal. Advice likely to wash over those fell runners,mountain bikers and climbers charging headlong towards....what ? Oblivious to the ' loping hare kicking rainbows from the dew' or a Kestral pouring into sunlight. Late on in the book he appears to reject the climbing game altogether as a false religion. Fulminating against those who climb because their lives are so abject and retched that they cannot face themselves and their sad tortured empty lives. However it is to that defining game that he returns, to seek closure with his father by scaling the Old man of Hoy around the time of his 60th birthday. His detachment from the modern climber though,is never more evident than when he lambasts climbers for being one of the most detached communities of all from the natural environment . Anyone who has ever followed a debate on one of the climbing forums on the industrialisation of the uplands,islands and coast by wind farms would know how true that is! The overwhelming majority parroting the hollow mantras of the state and its corporate chums . Jim Perrin would no doubt say that these are not climbers but sportsmen. Braying middle class yuppies for whom the great outdoors is nothing more than a roofless gymnasium. " Ya...Jez sent a V8...yah I know... awesome dude!' Those who Ed Drummond describes as 'having an infantile obsession with numbers'. They should hang their heads in shame but Jim would point out that if you are bone from the neck up that action is a physical impossibility!
Jim Perrin...Lord of the Crooked Path: Photo Ramblers Assoc©
Needless to say, West is a book which will pass over the heads of the majority in the climbing community. For them let me point them at something by some public school all action hero who also has a TV series on Channel 5 or some American blockbuster set in Patagonia where lots of people die but the hero by dint of having God on his side succeeds against the odds.Right...that's got rid of them..shall I carry on.
The subtitle 'A journey through landscape and loss' says it All. West is a river which passes through different countries both real and imagined in the turning seasons. Hosting a cast list of lovers,poets,dreamers and schemers with Jim and Jacs the axis from which they all spin. Their foreign adventures which includes visits to the West Indies, Spain, Vancover and Turkey are recalled in roseate detail.However,it is back home in Wales that the magic and mystery of the natural world is most impressively brought to life. Candle light delineating the delicate bark of a rotting Scots Pine. A blackbird that sings itself to death, a dragonfly caught in a sunbeam which is taken in a breath by a tumbling hawk. A raven which watches Jim for five minutes before flaring in a purple aura and ascending to the sky. There is magic in this world and though the unkind would suggest youthful excesses with LSD might explain his sense of wonder, those who travel down the same road and who hold the same Blakeian belief that 'everything that lives is holy' would recognize this self evident truth.
Llanrhaeadr church yard...Place of a ritual that was as good natured as it was lively and debauched.
With young Will Perrin's life in the ascendency, Jim moves away to give his son the space he feels he needs to develop and finds a place which very quickly becomes a motif. Llanrhaedr yn Mochnant nestles in the southern Berwyns close to the English border.Aesthetically it offers picture postcard characteristics.The traditional grey and white stone cottages which pour down the hillside to gather around the winding high street and squares.The ancient church at the heart of the village, graveyard scattered with the old leaning stones which spill down to the sycamore shrouded waters of the Afon Rhaeadr. The vast majority of the names in Welsh rather than English for despite its proximity to England, Llanrhaeadr's history is markedly Welsh although these days it has not suprisingly, seen a large influx of weekend cottage owners,retirement couples and commuters. Despite his obvious affection for the place, Perrin at times is Trollopesque in his descriptions of pert middle aged female estate agents who will literally bend over backwards to accomodate their clients; of ladies who lunch who enquire as to his expertise in an appreciation of the female genitalia and when a flash of white in a midnight graveyard ramble is more likely to be a set of heaving buttocks than the flashing wings of a barn owl!. Whether by accident or design, Jim has recreated Dylan Thomas's Under milk wood village of Llarregrub in the Berwyns!
The humour and warmth displayed in in these sections is quickly forgotten as the tragedy which underpins West is brought home. The deaths of Will and Jacs almost unbearable in graphic detail. Although at least in Will's case,his death brings his father some semblance of closure. A moving funeral and poignant scattering of his ashes within the roots of a rowan tree, Will's climbing buddies had planted in one of the Llanberis slate quarries. Sadly,the legacy of Jacquettas' passing appears to have brought only confusion and anger. He writes almost despairingly about how her funeral was delayed for two weeks week as her family organised 'a party'. The pain of watching disrespectful mourners departing Bangor crematorium after her funeral,snapping away with mobile phone cameras before rushing on their way .Leaving Jim alone to press the button which would consign Jacquetta's mortal remains to the cleansing fire. The scattering of her ashes by her children on waters which may have once but no longer of any special significance for her.
What readers of this moving love story will never discover within the pages of West is that Jacs had three beautiful children whose life she shared. Include her many close friends and siblings and my earlier comments about characters airbrushed from the tale might be understood.
'The party' was in fact a wake which was organised to allow Jac's many friends and family members to attend.
I did not witness an unseemly and disrespectful headlong rush to escape from the Crematorium chapel. I witnessed those who loved Jacs embracing her wicker casket, placing flowers and whispering their goodbyes before respectfully departing to continue with their lives, despite the fact that a great void had been created.
I saw Jim standing alone within the gardens of the crematorium and went over to him to offer my condolences and support. 'You know.' he said 'I stood here not 9 months ago at Will's funeral' before sinking back into tearful reflection. I think I offered a hopelessly asinine reply along the lines of 'what a terrible year you've had' with a solidaritous squeeze of his arm. At least I didn't say 'Never mind...time is a great healer' or he would well have been justified in laying me out !
We returned from Bangor to Jacquetta's home on the moors betwixt Foel y Garn and Carnedd Filiast for her wake. Jim was not amongst us. I never saw him again after that day.
A few weeks ago I stood in the mid summer gloaming on the bridge in Llanfihangyl Glyn Myfyr which spans the beautiful Afon Alwen and watched as Chinese lantern rafts were passed down the riverbank,from hand to hand to be released on the waters. Idly drifting downstream before they were consumed by the weir unseen but sounding its presence in the gathering gloom.. It was the wake of Debbie-Jacquettas best friend and the last of 'the witches'...all gone now. Proud,beautiful artistic women all struck down in their 40's and 50's. I stood leaning over the bridge with Jessica-Jacquetta's beautiful daughter and asked her if she ever heard from Jim Perrin these days and did she know that he was not too well?...She'd heard something she said. 'I believe he's living in France now' and nothing more was said. Perhaps the words of Dickens best summerised her mother's love affair with someone who failed to ignite any great affection in those around her....'It was the best of times...it was the worst of times'.
Under a pink new moon,Jessica and I walked across the void between the arches and looked down to follow the progress of the lanterns on the water. One or two had made it to the foaming waters of the weir but the majority had been caught in an eddy and becalmed now, just bobbed in the shadow of the bridge, their guttering flames briefly flaring before being consumed by darkness.
Since writing this review, the veracity of the story- in particular relating to Jacquetta- has been called into question by her family. In the interests of freedom of speech and the right of reply, can I direct you to the Jacssisters blog where the family offer their own version of the events which appear in the book.