Thursday, 10 November 2011

Alfred Wainwright: Fool on the Hill?

It is twenty years since 'the greatest fellwalker', AW Wainwright was cast to the fell winds atop Haystacks above Buttermere. In the intervening years, the iconic image of the avuncular, flat capped, bluff Lancastrian with a smouldering pipe firmly fixed in a jowly jaw, has remained constantly in the public eye.

Indeed, in the years since Wainwrights death there is no sign that 'The Wainwright industry' is grinding to a halt. Each year sees a fresh batch of glossy coffee table tomes re-printed, New updated versions of his pictorial guides dispatched. Ditto desk diaries,address books,walkers notebooks,caledars,DVD's etc

However,despite the general hagiographic treatment of Wainwright the man and his work from the media-Think Julia Bradbury traipsing around the Lakeland Fells in BBC's 'Wainwrights Walks', quoting at length from one of his pictorial guides as if AW was Rabindranath Tagore! - the Fellsman has seen dark clouds gather over his snow capped reputation.Hunter Davies' 2002 biography of Wainwright, brought into the public domain some less than attractive elements of the man's life and character. Despite Hunter's sensitivity in dealing with the less savoury parts of his subjects' character. Enough information came out both in his book and in contemporary articles by other writers to suggest that Wainwright was actually was not the lovable curmudgeonly eccentric beloved of Daily Mail readers and BBC presenters but was in fact, something of a dark,egotistical and self centred individual that most people would cross the street to avoid!

Not surprisingly though when dealing with iconic cultural figures like AW,nothing is quite as it seems and in truth,the heart of the AW enigma lies somewhere between the two extremes. AW himself would say in his Lancashire drawl..let's get down to brass tacks.

I must hasten now to the Scafells.noblest of Lakeland's cathedrals,while good health and appreciation of beauty and simple reverence and gratitude remain with me. For when I have lost these blessings I shall have little left.

Alfred Wainwright...the history bit.

AW was born in Blackburn Lancashire in 1907. Yes US readers...the one with four thousand holes in it! Born into a working class family to a rather unpleasant alcoholic father with violent tendencies and a demur saintly mother who bore the brunt of Thomas Wainwright's boorish and unpredictable behaviour. In common with most working class children of the day, AW was destined for a life in one of the town's many cotton mills but his academic prowess proved to be a defining and redeeming feature of his early life and he managed to escape the clutches of the mill owners for a life of white shirt and tie accountancy in the service of local authorities.
After passing his accountancy exams and climbing the town hall career ladder. Wainwright began to while away the quieter moments with doodling and calligraphy experiments. Developing a reasonable degree of competency in cartoon drawing and cartography.  Indeed Wainwright had developed his passion for maps in childhood. Spending hours studying existing maps and designing his own. Created to detail  imaginary locations where his creative  young mind had led him.

A holiday excursion to the English Lake District with a cousin-Eric Beardsall from his Blackburn home in 1930 proved to be a revelationary experience for AW. Together they climbed modest Orrest Head and the experience proved to be the catalyst which ignited his lifelong religious passion and fervour for the fells of Westmorland,Cumberland and Lancashire.

In 1931 Wainwright had married local mill girl Ruth Holden in Blackburn, with whom he had one son. It quickly became apparent that the upwardly mobile AW felt he had made a terrible mistake and had married someone with whom he had nothing in common. It grew into a quite frankly horrible loveless relationship with both parties held within a iron maw of contemporary social mores. In 1941 the Wainwrights upped sticks and moved to Kendal where he had gained a position in the local authority. Eventually becoming Borough Treasurer,a position he held until retirement in 1967.

During his time in Cumbria and partly to escape to from his tragic  relationship
Wainwright began his transformation from Fell Wanderer into Fell chronicler. What had been originally intended as a comprehensive journal evolved into the classic series of pictorial guides which AW began in earnest in 1952. Completing the 7 volume series in week ahead of his 13 year schedule!

The probability is that the books will progressively be withdrawn from publication after a currency of a few years

After divorcing Ruth Holden in the late 60's he married long term 'girlfriend' Betty McNally in 1970 and remained with her in the Kendal home he previously shared with Ruth Holden until his death in Kendal in 1991.

Following retirement Wainwright devoted more time to his writing career and as his popularity and appeal took off,began to produce a series of works including glossy coffee table works in collaboration with photographers like Derry Brabbs. In the late 80's Wainwright star had risen to the extent that television producers had beaten a path to his door and persuaded him to take part in fell walking TV programmes with friend and Cumbrian resident,Eric Robson. In this post retirement phase,Wainwright had also written a guidebook to the popular Pennine Way and created a long distance walk of his own. The Coast to Coast walk across Northern England between St Bees in Cumbria to picturesque Robin Hood Bay on the North Yorkshire coast.

We shouldn't forget Wainwrights passion for animals and football! AW was a founder member of his home town Blackburn Rovers Supporters Club and established an animal sanctuary in Cumbria to which he is estimated to have given over a million pounds in his lifetime.

WAINWRIGHT-SAINT OR SINNER?: The Case for the prosecution.

For anyone writing about Alfred Wainwright the man,from a liberal 'right on' perspective it is hard to know where to begin! Here was a man who according to friends was a boorish hang-em flog em conservative. A Tweedy old fashioned curmudgeon who had a seedy dirty raincoat, misogynistic view of women. Witness some rather sad sexualised cartoons which survive from his  Blackburn council days. A man who treated his first wife appallingly. A relationship which was unremittingly cold, emotionally cruel and abusive. A man who left his one and only child out of his will, despite the fact that his son was at the time of his death,suffering from a severe arthritic condition which had forced his early retirement. This despite the fact that Wainwright was a millionaire at the time of his death who had bequeathed a small fortune to animal charities.

As a person, Wainwright could be described as socially autistic. His wanderings in the fells were inevitably solo affairs as he couldn't stand most people and their idle chit chat. Living by Pascal's advice 'the more I see of humanity the more I love my dog'! He had the reputation of treating the approach of a well-wisher as the signal to turn his back and go through the pretence of urinating. Strangely those outstretched hands of his admirers were quickly withdrawn!
From an environmental perspective. It is argued that his pictorial guides and coffee table works helped to popularise and vulgarise the fells which he claimed to hold in religious reverence. In the lingua franca of the era, quite a cad and something of  a hypocrite wouldn't you say?  However, at this point, his legions of admirers may well chime ' cool your boots man....I think you'll find that old Alfred was a bit more 'right on'  than you give him credit for!'

ALFRED THE GREAT: The case for the defence.

Alfred Wainwright might well have been socially autistic,politically reactionary and emotionally selfish but then again,many well regarded creatives from Karl Marx to John Lennon....Ernest Hemingway to Picasso- carried within themselves some pretty heavy personal baggage. He might have been someone you would wish to avoid at all costs but surprisingly,in many ways, elements of his life and personal philosophy could be seen as progressive and enlightened. For example,Wainwright was very much the proto environmentalist; Railing in print against ecologically insensitive developments such as the destruction of the exquisite valley of Mardale in the north Lakes to create a reservoir to supply water to urban Manchester.  Think Capel Celyn in North Wales or US readers think Hetch Hetchy California.

But man works with such clumsy hands; gone forever are the quiet bays and shining shores that nature had fashioned so sweetly

Further environmental misgivings were expressed regarding the coniferous afforestation of Ennerdale and the construction of the A66 highway between Penrith and Keswick in Cumbria. The current encroachment of huge wind farms in Cumbria would have driven him to apoplexy! A development which couldn't fail to lambast in print.

Given his quasi religious appreciation of the northern fells, it is appropriate that Wainwright's carbon footprint -a term he would have snorted at- was minimal. As a non driver all his life,AW's excursions into the fells were overwhelmingly carried out by using public transport. Planning his trips meticulously. Aiming to return from the fells in time to catch the bus home and hopefully, in time to snatch a fish and chip supper!

All my walks during the past two years have ended at Keswick Bus Station

As a fell wanderer,Wainwright was the antithesis of the modern day walker. Eschewing the expensive 'must have' outdoor fashions which modern outdoor magazines-driven by the advertisers-convince their more gullible readers they really MUST purchase if they want to go hill walking. You wouldn't find Wainwright waiting for a bus in Keswick wearing the latest Gore-Tex kag, trendy Lowe-Alpine hat with his size tens slipped into a pair of £300 boots! AW somehow managed to roam far and wide over the fells in attire which modern walkers would find more suitable for a walk in the park!  Ironic that someone proclaimed by the outdoor media as 'the greatest fellwalker' was a million times removed from their commercial agenda.

Wainwright has been criticized for his philanthropy towards animal welfare charities rather than supporting 'people charities'...poverty, child welfare, help the aged etc. However, surely in any civilised society it is incumbent on the state to look after its citizens. After all, it is a Victorian concept that the weak and vulnerable should be at the mercy of charitable institutions. With animal welfare off the state's agenda then this area by contrast is very much the concern of charities and individual philanthropists like Wainwright.

One of the most appealing elements of Wainwrights character was his modesty and his indifference to the wealth he had accumulated as his career really took off and his books began to sell in their hundreds of thousands. There was nothing ostentatious about AW. Indeed,it appeared that he had little regard for material possessions at all, preferring to distribute his wealth through his charitable donations or indeed,through benevolent contributions to friends and collaborators.

Wainwright may not be considered as an outdoor sage in the manner of a WH Murray,an Edward Abbey or a Aldo Leopold but he sprinkled his pictorial guides with poetic musings on the spiritual elements which infused the fells and the act of fell walking.

In the north country parlance..'there's nowt as queer as folk'. Alfred Wainwright was a queer eel to be sure, but his pictorial guides can be seen as one of the great achievements in the field of outdoor literature. Every page hand crafted in loving detail and offered as  his' love letter to the fells' . Destined to remain forever unfashionably fashionable, Wainwright's works will undoubtedly continue to be read and appreciated long after many current well regarded outdoor writer's works have been consigned to the bargain bin or charity shop.

I had escaped from the disappointments and unkindnesses of life and emerged above them into a new a better world

John Appleby 2011