Thursday 3 November 2011

Sacred Ground

John Redhead

Browsed to the Bone

Hill farming has always been seen as a joke and annoyance by those using the hill recreationally. The farmers were treated with ridicule and flippancy when accosted by them on the hill. I was once stepping over a stile with my dog on a lead, on my way to climb a route on Tryfan, when a farmer approached me and said he wanted the dog off his land. A scrawled sign on the gate said, Dogs on a Lead. I asked him if he could read English and carried on. He persisted aggressively with his demands. I refused, saying I was on a designated footpath within the National Park and what right had he got to harass me? He came at me to fight! I pushed him away and his glasses fell to the ground, breaking a lens. He was in rage. He went into his house nearby and came out with a twelve bore shotgun. He raised it up and pointed it at me, at which his wife threw herself out of the house screaming at him in Welsh. She stood between me and the gun. It was a nasty scene. A twitch away from News at Ten. Ugly. He backed off shaking in a mess of a man. I actually felt sorry for him. The old boy should be hanging out with girls in grass skirts swinging his hips to some samba rift on a Caribbean island, pissed up on coconut cocktails! Why is the land such a burden to these people? Is this due to the conflicts and restraints of a hard life fighting nature and resenting those enjoying it? I shouldn’t feel sorry for being free in the land. You shouldn’t get used to this aggression.

Another ‘diverse hill farming character’ that is allowed to farm sheep on Snowdon aggressively jumped up and down on a friend’s parapente chute after he had landed on the flanks of Snowdon. Causing a lot of damage to the fabric of the chute, he gave him a mouthful of abuse about flying being unnatural and scaring the sheep! It was tragically comic! The incident was photographed. He came across as a lunatic! I know this man, he treats ravens and foxes with the same disrespect! The episodes of confrontation and abuse of rights from these people constitute a novel in its own right. There is a correlation between farmers, depression and shotguns and farming being the profession highest in the suicide stakes. Seems divine to me. That’s the land telling them! But part of me likes this old geezer! I like the energy of this old boy playing the game he knows and getting away with it. I once said to him that these hills need the trees and wildlife back and he replied, “You can plant as many trees as you want boy, fill it with what you want boy, but it will cost you. It will cost you a lot boy” It’s all about a commodity and spreadsheets to these folk.

The continuing damage caused by hill farming is a major consideration for the need for escape. I have taken the issues on board and can no longer see it as a joke. As a climber in the hills en-route to a climb it can be tolerated. It can be tolerated for entertainment value. As an intolerant bastard who doesn’t climb anymore and cannot ignore the damage it’s a ‘fuck up’! Groups like The Snowdonia Society patronize the ‘traditional’ upland sheep farmer by supporting so called 'thriving and cohesive' hill farming communities. They do not exist! It’s a con, make no mistake, it’s the tongue they are patronizing! Their lifestyle depends on subsidies with absolutely no economic benefit to the community at large! And you simply cannot reconcile ‘any’ upland farming methods and wildlife habitats. Further, there is no tradition of hill farming practices in North wales, unless you consider a 'tradition' within three hundred years. A 'true' tradition would be to leave the mountains alone and appreciate and respect them for what they are. Wilderness should be on the agenda. The last thing the hill farmer needs is more power! Or poetic accolade! Or even a house to live in! In protecting the tongue, The National Park supports terrorism against wildlife! An idiot with an aerosol can defacing a crag with graffiti does far less damage!

Subsequently, I can no longer venture into the so-called wilds of Snowdonia without feeling a sense of loss and sadness. The subsidized practice of sheep hill farming has browsed the mountain to the bone. I feel isolated. And as I feel in my own bones, the mountain is no longer sacred. My bones feel browsed out too. I have hunger for this ‘food’, this wilderness, this other. This is an important issue. I think the space that is wild nature is connected with the health of society and are we not all creatures within this space? To me this is ground zero, the all being source of life - a collective oneness. The man-made Gods breed a conquering of nature from the granite box down in the valley. These chapels are not lost in the landscape but scream, “Shit off nature.” The effort! To me they are symptomatic of the damage, symptomatic of the ‘pollution’. The wilderness has been traded for a cheap unnecessary commodity. It became personal. I could only focus on the damage, perhaps in the same way as focusing on the beauty of the city streets?

wilderness of the streets.

‘From my tree house studio in the centre of Liverpool, I survey the surrounding forest throwing up its sounds - the breaking of bottles, hideous screams and delirious shouts and the endless groaning of the dispossessed.’

This is another occasion when ‘real’ time caught up with me whilst cleaning the street outside my warehouse studio in Liverpool. It is also to do with an intervention and researching where you are, homes and letting go. These streets had become my purposeful nest built out on a limb and exposed. It could so easily be torn apart by the surrounding life-forms that charge about with different stories and other intent. I am reminded of the fragility and exposure that threaten the daily life of the inhabitants of hedgerows that my Grandfather showed me as a child. I don’t think I ever forgot the magic I felt in examining the nests and the eggs found in these hedgerows on our many walks. Regardless of the ‘art’, I think the interventions are somehow part of this childhood magic to examine and ponder the apparent fragility and wonder of life.

“With the town empty and splayed with the fresh droppings of the previous night, I brush the streets bordering my little patch. This patch has its reference point on a global grid within a mephitic network. I feel the patterns of this network radiating out from an insignificant crack at my feet in this Fleet Street pavement... the homeless emerge upon a morning of last night’s thrown away takeaways with the rats and pigeons... briefly they warm themselves at my urban bonfire... I hold my sweeping and gaze into the yellows and greens, blues and violets that set free the dense black clouds of smoke. I feel close to an envy? An envy of the homeless. An envy of their proximity to this speeding and of their carefree throwing and picking in the shade of consumer life - of their honest back to the bone, close to the life and death of whatever total wastedness and degeneracy is... much more than mere vagrancy in which I often see my future...

I met Peter Poetry in the street, enthusiastically eating a pizza that had been thrown on the pavement. Picking off ‘street bits’, he enquired as to my familiarity with Sartre! He was a large, erudite gentleman of the road who carried two plastic carrier bags full of books. These bags of books were his home. At that moment he was residing in an enclosed skip around the corner to my studio. He would be politely outraged if anyone threw rubbish into the skip whilst he was in residence, “I say, do you mind, I live here, I am trying to read!” His books kept his intellect ticking whilst the man disintegrated slowly from years of tragedy, pain and misfortune. We shared many a ‘coffee morning’ in the studio as I struggled to grasp the breadth of his intelligence…sharing his wisdom and his ‘big city’ trickster that kept him moving…

It was from my warehouse home here that my involvement with E9 6c was filmed and recorded. This happened within the last few weeks of my departure from this special perch. John Mortimer’s son, Jeremy, produced an excellent piece for Radio Three called, ‘Between the Ears’. Dominic Clemence produced and directed the film for BBC2. This was the attempted story of The Indian Face, a fierce route on the cathedral of rock, Clogwyn Du Arddu, on the flank of Snowdon. I liked the bit where I am sat under my climbing wall in the studio flippantly explaining the image I painted on the scar where the flake had been. This small granite flake had come away in my arms whilst testing the peg that had been smashed into its side. I drew a quick sketch on the wall of ‘the hunt‘, something that had stayed with me from viewing the Lascaux Caves in France. Only two people had seen it. Paul Williams had photographed it and Johnny Dawes had scraped it off (or rather, an acolyte had scraped it off). One had died and the other had seemingly gone mad!

 The late Paul Williams photograph of John Redhead's notorious Indian Face painting

I joke, but I had to get Johnny back in the script when he became defensive about my rant against top-roping. I stand by my argument that top-roping damages the rock! Bolt, peg, top-roping ego – damage done! The narrative needed his feedback and method of approach. It was important because it set the scene. My attempts on the line were foolish, naive and dangerously ‘pushed my luck’. His determination and intense, practiced approach won the day. I took a huge, very lucky fall. Warriors or not, I think we both enjoyed negotiating with our lives in our own way. Perhaps the rock was secondary to the psychopathy that we both moved through? And out of? I think it a great historical episode and one that the youths of today will have to take on board and finish off? Or perhaps not. Perhaps it was a full stop. The youths of today have moved on by doing their own thing that in turn moves on towards their own full stop. They are emerged in their own paragraph. An endless series of climbing’s punctuation. Perhaps a few will turn a few pages back…

Dominic and Jeremy and the film crew stayed in a caravan overnight in the car park next door. They likened the experience to a safari! They stayed awake all night terrified at the noises of the inner city jungle. This is the weekend hunting ground of frivolity and bravery with its resident shouting and groaning and the dark savagery of the pack on the scent. I always said there is more wildlife here than on the peaks of Snowdon! And there is also more humanity, working itself out without the trickery of a fairytale land that says all is well! It isn’t. I like the fact that the city screams, “All is not well.” Beware! Sturdy creatures dwell here!

From this ‘Pool of Life’, I turn on the tap and watch the water flow over an upturned spoon in the sink as if a river meandering over rocks – it seems to belong, and listen, in its flowing, to the great, grey rivers of the world. And surely, when I turn the spotlight on, the solar wind charges across the solar system in the ceramic bowl and the spoon radiates with the energy of a thousand stars.

Granada TV had previously invited me for a slot in their arts programme, Celebrations. A few months before I had tried to gain permission to climb the Anglican cathedral but had been adamantly refused by the church authorities. “This is a sacred house of God,” seemed to seal my aspirations. However, thanks to ‘financing’ from Granada TV, this particular ‘sacred house of God’ came at a price! Negotiations were made and I was filmed on my ascent of The Apostles at about E3 5c. Maneuvering by the third apostle, the pinch grip I was using on his nose came off in my fingers! I had chalked up the previous two Apostle’s noses and had laughed at the thought of them taking cocaine! I guiltily placed this sandstone appendage in my inside pocket and climbed on more gingerly to the centre of the huge, mullioned rose, the symbolic mandala above the high altar. I returned later and abseiled down with a tube of glue! I laughed again at thoughts of a glue-sniffing Apostle!

Tony Wilson

I was later introduced by Tony Wilson on the six o’clock news as the first performance mountaineer!

As a climber, this was taken further thanks to being invited to play with urban trash percussionists, Urban Strawberry Lunch. They were Liverpool’s noisy, energetic outlaws that banged anything for a musical jape. Climbing, rigging and playing buildings became my first incursion into textural sounds and electro acoustic compositions. Climbing and playing the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester was particularly challenging and inspiring. Home to the Halle Orchestra, this glass structure is supported by huge stainless steel springs which the auditorium is then suspended from. It is built to withstand earthquakes and reduce any external noise from the street. We were told that it would be like playing a dry sock! As sound terrorists, we were initially despondent. However, as we explored the structure for potential, it transpired that if you placed the sucker of a bog-plunger on the plate glass, a strange and eerie whining materialized from the passing of traffic outside. With fishing lines attached to the external structure, an Aeolian harp was established. Amplification brought these sculptural sounds into aural existence. Ambient recordings of doors, stairwells and voices added to the orchestration of the building that was anything but a dry sock, for the opening of the International Festival of new Music!

John Redhead 2011: Images J Redhead collection apart from Indian Face image