Friday, 29 April 2011

Gritstone Visionary

 I'll just do one more  move and see what happens! 
John Syrett (frequently and in increasingly precarious situations) Photo Gordon Stainforth©





John burnt with such an intense flame and yet in the end in some mysterious way, he'd become the moth to his own flame. Jim Perrin


In High magazine in November 1994, there was published an excellent article by Dave Pegg, called "Dangerous Crocodile Snogging" - a perceptive view of the dangerous world of modern gritstone climbing.  To most climbers it would have made for highly gripping reading, with accounts of extreme technical difficulty linked to extraordinary levels of boldness.  Dave's article made it clear that modern gritstone at E7 and beyond, is about as committing as British climbing gets, combining a huge demand for courage with the most sophisticated of technique, in awesome situations.  His own quote sums it up well:

"Real climbers are addicted to an intensity of experience which goes beyond the mundane, and the gritstone edges will always provide an arena which will appeal to those with the most excessive personalities.  And why not?  If you are going to be a bear, you might as well be a grizzly."

History will of course tell us that this has always been the case.  Gritstone has proved to be the cutting edge of climbing development in Britain for generations, and has always had its bold innovators; key figures pushing the current levels increasingly into hazardous situations.  Their names are rightly revered; Frankland, Dover, Ellis, Birtwhistle, Dolphin, Brown, Whillans, Austin, Livesey, Fawcett, Dawes leading to the current achievements of John Dunne, Seb Grieve, Robin Barker and others.  The process is usually a gradual one, but on occasions a quantum leap occurs that redefines a whole period.  To my mind, the world Dave Pegg wrote about had its true beginnings in the early seventies, when a vast leap in standards occurred initially on the Yorkshire outcrops.  The key figure in this process was, of all things, a southerner!  To some extent his efforts are now somewhat forgotten or overlooked by the modern cognoscenti but his contribution on gritstone, more than twenty years ago, was fundamental in the developments that resulted in the brave new world of Dave Pegg's article.

John Syrett came from a village in Kent called Green Street Green, near Dartford, and after leaving school, where he was an outstanding gymnast, he started a degree course at Leeds University in the autumn of 1968.  Despite no previous climbing experience, he became a regular visitor to Don Robinson's famous climbing wall at the University, and soon demonstrated exceptional natural talent.  He took to visiting the local gritstone crags with the University Climbing Club, and formed an early partnership with another first year student, John Stainforth (twin brother of the writer/photographer Gordon Stainforth.)  The two Johns made a formidable team with great keenness allied to considerable ability.  On their first day out on gritstone they cruised up the Sloth (still a big deal in the late sixties.)  John's ability on the climbing wall soon became legendary, although he was just one of a highly talented group that included characters like Roger Baxter-Jones, Bernard Newman, Alex MacIntyre, Ken Wood, Al Manson, Pete Kitson and Brian Hall.  Angela Soper (née Faller) remembers the period:

"John was brilliant on the climbing wall - he could do moves with a gymnastic grace and strength that no-one else could get near.  He was then able to reproduce this dazzling ability on the gritstone crags.  He was quite extraordinary!"
The climbing wall, the first important one in Britain, was fifteen feet high with a hard landing.  Some of the problems were very bold indeed.  Dennis Gray recalled seeing John in action there:

"To see Syrett doing his now classic roof traverse, laybacking at the top of the wall on small undercuts with a fractured spine as a real possibility if he parted company . . . I guess that was adventure by anybody's standards, and nobody in the early seventies seemed keen to emulate the feat!"

Syrett leading Shrike on Clogwyn du Arddu:Gordon Stainforth©

John was developing into an exceptional rock climber, and in the summer of 1970 spent several weeks climbing in North Wales with the Stainforth brothers and Tim James.  He set about repeating a large number of hard classics gaining considerable confidence.  That autumn, back at Leeds, he set about the local gritstone extensively, his standard rapidly rising.  At that time the absolute bench mark on gritstone was Allan Austin's Wall of Horrors at Almscliff.  Rumoured to be unrepeated since the first ascent in 1961, and combining the top technical difficulty of the time with no protection, the climb had an awesome reputation, not least because of some big falls Austin had taken on it before making his ascent.  Wall of Horrors gradually became an obsession for John, who continued to train hard on the climbing wall determined to make his breakthrough.  One late autumn day, John abseiled down the route, and found a possible point for nut protection beneath the crux.  The following day he made the first ascent of the Brutaliser at Brimham, and then the next day returned to Almscliff with John Stainforth and Chas McGuirie.  It was a raw, windy November day, but John was determined to make his attempt at repeating Wall of Horrors.  Despite the poor conditions, he quickly disposed of the very technical starting moves, and then spent ten minutes fixing two small nuts beneath the crux moves.  He then cruised the crux, and climbed steadily to the top with increasingly cold hands.  Repeating this famous climb was a marvellous achievement, for the reputation of Austin's masterpiece had grown with the passing years.  John's own quote in Extreme Rock is revealing:

Yes - I'm up - I've done Wall of Horrors - it will never be like this again (and it wasn't)."

John Stainforth remembered that cold day at Almscliff:

"Chas belayed, while I took photographs.  John climbed the route with ease, making it look like any other route.  Neither Chas nor I were able to do the starting moves, and abseiled down to recover the runners.  The rope was whipped out over the top of the crag by the almost gale force wind."

John's ascent was not surprisingly big news (although it turned out to be a third ascent, Tony Nicholls of the Rimmon Club having made a bold ascent in 1965.)  I remember a grainy full-page photograph of John's ascent in Rocksport magazine, John crouched below the crux as the wind bowed the ropes away to the left - a dark, sombre image from a past age.  The significance of this was considerable.  It did not represent the creation of a new route or the breakthrough of a new grade, but it was more importantly the emergence of a new attitude and from a strangely charismatic character.  As would be expected, others made plans to climb such routes, something of a spell had been broken and training crept into the equation.  By the mid-seventies it would be commonplace.  In some quarters John was initially marginalised as a climbing wall created star, but those long hours on the wall were coupled with exceptional talent, and increasingly a drive to make new climbs.  In addition to ability on the crag, John applied, and expected in others a very high level of safety and rope management.  Gordon Stainforth who climbed with him both in Britain and the Alps, recalled John's qualities as a very safe and encouraging partner.

Physically John was of average height, a graceful man with thick, dark, curly hair, striking saturnine features and haunting eyes.  In flared denims and EBs he became something of an icon of that period - a tough role for a sensitive personality.  In many respects a genuine child of the sixties, there was a strange purity about John, almost an 'other worldliness.'  Contemporaries remember him as great fun to be with, gregarious and yet somehow distant.  His approach to climbing was one of complete honesty, and nil bullshit.  During a period of confusing, and indeed dishonest, ethics regarding the use of aid on some free routes, John adopted a level of integrity that was greatly to his credit, particularly when one considers the huge jump in standards and attitude he was to be part of.

Over the next year the multi-talented and highly competitive Leeds group put the standard volcanic and grit test pieces to the sword.  A new era dawned, most particularly on the long neglected outcrops of Yorkshire.  Fierce training on the University wall, combined with the stimulus of group pressure, and the accessibility of places such as Almscliff and Caley, served to produce a series of superb new climbs, and with them the emergence of a new approach to the game.  Ron Fawcett put forward the suggestion that Yorkshire Gritstone was the true crucible of the huge leap in free climbing standards in the early 1970s, and the evidence was clear to see.  John was a central figure in this process, perhaps the most talented on rock of an exceptional group, that included gritstone masters such as Al Manson and Pete Kitson.  John was to enjoy a golden period from 1970-1973, when he produced over forty new routes on gritstone and removed aid points from a number of others.  Most of his new contributions were of the highest quality, and at the highest standards of the period.

Jim Perrin wrote of this time:

"The list of John's new routes reads like the recitation of a Yorkshire gritstone connoisseur's test pieces: Joker's Wall, The Brutaliser, Propeller Wall, Earl Buttress, Encore, Brown Sugar, Thunderclap, Midnight Cowboy, Syrett's Roof and The Big Greeny - the last of these, the impending, pocketed wall above Frankland's Green Crack at Almscliff, which he climbed in 1972, being one of the two or three most significant outcrop climbs of the post-Brown era."

Stories of the Leeds group abound from this period; superb climbing, combined with high levels of drinking, partying and drug abuse!  Competitive sessions on the indoor wall with John outstanding, and lively visits from characters such as Al Rouse and 'Hot' Henry Barber.  Hitching all over Britain to pick off hard and rarely repeated classics - the full flowering of the post-hippy climbing scene before it all got very serious by the end of the 1970s.  John soon reached the top standards achieved in Yorkshire and Derbyshire and repeated many hard classics in good form.  Mike Mortimer remembers him cruising up The Rasp with only two runners, at the end of a long day, while John Stainforth recalled John bursting into his bedsit in Leeds, having just repeated Our Father at Stoney Middleton (one of the hardest routes in the country at that time) and saying: "You've got to do it John, it's only about V.Diff!"


After some initial setbacks, John soon became very capable indeed and began to produce bold new routes at a standard rarely seen before.  At Brimham, Joker's Wall and Brutaliser were hard test pieces that defeated many in the years ahead.  Joker's Wall was snatched in some desperation from the predatory hands of a visiting Al Rouse, and had already cost John a broken ankle on a previous failure.  At Ilkley he produced the extraordinary bold Propeller Wall in the Quarry.  So the story goes, John laid out his sac on the ground below the route and then set off up it solo, cruising the scary wall above the break and declaring it "a tough little VS!"  The route is now graded E5 5c, and sees few ascents today.  Other highlights were three new routes at Earl Crag, including the excellent Earl Buttress (E2 5c), and the technical masterpiece The Pocket at Deer Gallows.  At the neglected Guisecliff, he made two outstanding contributions; one was to free Dingbat of its two points of aid, to give a very steep and strenuous route (now graded E3 6a), while the other was the first ascent of the thrilling flake of Guillotine.

Ken Wood remembered the day at Earl Crag:

"Hatchet Crack and Earl Buttress were in fact done on the same day.  It was a sunny day so we went to Earl.  We both had scores to settle there.  I'd nearly got up what was to become Hatchet Crack (it was a chop route) and John had taken a flyer off Earl Buttress on an earlier occasion, when his fingers went numb on the crux one freezing day.  This time I romped up Hatchet Crack, and thus we went to the other end of the crag where John bombed up the superb Earl Buttress."

"John was a pleasant,modest and unassuming sort of guy.He was pretty intense too-not particularly ready or willing to talk about his background, himself or his aspirations.He was a powerhouse climber.We were at Burbage one day and I pointed him at Goliath, which I'd struggled up a few months earlier.It must have taken him all of three minutes!'    Ken Wood   

It is, however, at Almscliff that John best left his mark on gritstone.  Following his early ascents of Wall of Horrors and Western Front, he proceeded to add five new routes and numerous boulder problems.  Of the new climbs he added there, two are particularly spectacular and bold; Big Greeny (E3 6a) still retains a formidable reputation with a hard crux in a thrilling position.  Incredibly the route was led on-site with no prior top-roping, and was named after the Nº 56 Leeds Corporation bus.  On an early attempt, John was alone at the crag and persuaded a passing tourist to belay him!  John proceeded to plummet from the crux moves high on the face above Frankland's Green Crack, causing the tyro belayer to shoot up at great speed.  Appropriately Big Greeny is immortalised on the front cover of the current Yorkshire Gritstone guidebook.  A first ascent photo was taken by John Harwood on a beautiful sunny evening; the black and white image captures John pulling into the crux sequence, wearing an old jumper, flared jeans and battered old EBs (early seventies climbing chic!)  Big Greeny was bold for the time, years before the arrival of Friends and modern footwear, dependant upon technique and courage backed up by only primitive nut protection.  Further left on Almscliff's North West Face, John added Encore, an enterprising and gymnastic line through the overhangs above Finale Slab, a first ascent photo later appearing on the cover of  Mountain Magazine.  John also made a number of attempts on a thrilling line over the Goblin's Eyes Roof, but was beaten to this one by a bold push from Hank Pasquill (Orchrist E4 6b) later in 1973.  Almscliff already had a superb reputation as a bouldering spot and the early seventies saw a number of hard new problems created.  John was a star on the boulders as were several of the Leeds boys, and perhaps his best effort was Syrett's Roof (necky 6b).  On occasion he would dismay would-be suitors by cruising up it in the wet, the reward for failure a badly snapped ankle.

John was less active on Yorkshire Limestone, but did create two very fine routes at Malham.  Memory Lane is both fierce and technical, while Midnight Cowboy on The Terrace is quite brilliant, with a bold technical ramp followed by a very steep 'gorilla' flake.  The route only succumbed after a monster fall on an early attempt, and an unusual form of aid was required to complete the route in failing sunlight.  John Stainforth describes this ascent with some humorous recollections:

"I had spotted this superb, compact stretch of unclimbed limestone above The Terrace at Malham, which I thought would be just the thing for John: gritstone purity, made of limestone.  And so John waited patiently (with growing impatience) while Brian Hall and I took turns to strip ivy off the lower reaches of the wall.  Finally John grabbed a few runners and threw himself at the wall.  He went straight to our high-point (a small nut at fifteen feet) and then launched himself straight at the wall to the left.  Brian was belaying at the time, whilst I had a perfect view lying in a small tree growing out into space from The Terrace ledge.  John went straight across the ramp feet smearing all the way; he looked like he was falling and moving upwards at the same time!  In about ten seconds he reached a flake crack where he placed his only large nut - a MOAC; and then laybacked straight up the crack.  At the top of the crack he decided he needed a point of protection to do a hard move.  Trouble was he had used up his supply of runners so he down-climbed the crack, took of the one decent runner on the pitch, and climbed back up to the top of the crack, placed the nut into the crack and then fell back onto it!  For John this immediately rendered his ascent imperfect and was the reason he described the route as having a point of aid.  However, being John, he decided to give us something else - a gymnastic display!  So he arched over backwards, until he was totally upside down, waving his arms around waving his arms around and saying "this is great up here!" - forty feet above our heads.  I was thinking that this must be the mother and father of nut placements, since from where I was lying, I had a perfect view of this nut pivoting up and down in the crack.  Suddenly, John was flying out into space, as the nut ripped, and Brian was swept off the ledge, but to his credit managed not to lose control of the rope (in those pre-Sticht plate days, we used Woolworths gardening gloves and traditional belaying techniques).  Ah, John Syrett a wild party animal, and yet a total purist, a stylistic puritan on rock."

John also came very close to snatching the much coveted first ascent of Central Wall at Kilnsey Crag, but was just beaten to it by a determined assault by Pete Livesey and John Sheard.  In the early seventies Pete Livesey produced a whole string of extraordinary ascents all over the country that heralded in a major advance in overall standards.  Pete was subjected to a lot of early criticism, particularly in the Lake District  and Yorkshire, but John was a great admirer of his early efforts, and a quote of his summed it up:

"Wellington Crack is utterly brilliant - the first true extreme on gritstone".

"Hell! he's got big arms - and that blue-eyed god-like expression doesn't help either.'
Pete Livesey talking about John, in "Arms Like a Fly" (1972)   


John graduated in the summer of 1972, with a degree in Applied Mineral Sciences, but remained in Leeds for a number of years.  Perhaps his best year on the crag was to be 1973 by which time his ability and fitness were at their peak.  However, late that year disaster struck which was to have a profound effect on the remainder of John's life.  At a typically drunken party at Leeds, he cut his hand badly trying to open a can of beer (pre-ring pull days) with a serrated kitchen knife.  It is the kind of stupid thing we've all done when drunk or stoned, but in an instant the damage was done and the major tendons in two fingers were severed.  The accident was a very serious one, John delayed in getting adequate treatment, and it was to be many months before he could even attempt to climb again.  Despite prolonged and painful physiotherapy, the recovery was only partial and John was forced to confront the realisation that climbing at the level he desired might never return - he was just twenty-four.  He did visit Yosemite in the summer of 1974, and made a number of early British repeats, but he was to climb only infrequently after that.  The Leeds group gradually fragmented, and from here the story begins to darken.

John Stainforth takes on the thuggish crux of Sloth E1-(US 5.10) with John Syrett on belay. The Roaches, Staffordshire England.Photo G Stainforth©

Mike Mortimer recalled his last meeting with John, at Easter in 1974, some time after the accident.

"Bob West and I were up in Scotland, and had just reached the summit of the Ben in atrocious conditions, when who should appear out of the storm but John having just soloed up Gardyloo Gulley.  Afterwards, we stayed with him in a caravan he had rented off an American student at Leeds, somewhere in Glen Nevis.  He was up there throughout the winter, soloing classic routes on the Ben, and then hitching back to Leeds periodically to collect his dole.  In a strange way, John seemed to really enjoy that lonely period of climbing on the Ben and hitching to and from Leeds."

John spent much of the mid-seventies in Leeds working nights as a petrol pump attendant, and later stacking shelves at Safeways.  At this time he was living in a flat at Birchett Place, climbing very little.  By all accounts he developed an intense frustration at missing out on much of the development then taking place in Yorkshire, and became increasingly paranoid and bitter, gradually distancing himself from people.  Friends were aware of the complexities involved, but were unable to really help him.  Together with the anguish and frustration of the injury, John suffered a number of emotional traumas over relationships that complicated the situation.  Jim Perrin expressed the view that John's very considerable physical beauty and charm tended to provoke strong and often strange reactions from people.  This often led to a considerable instability in his emotional life, that caused great pain and anxiety to an essentially honest and straightforward character.  It was almost certainly deep problems in this area of this life, as well as the consequences of damage to his hand, that culminated in John's tragic decline after the age of thirty.  John had great integrity in his dealings with other people linked to a magnanimous spirit, but seemed by his late twenties to have become increasingly hard and unforgiving towards himself.

John finally left Leeds in the summer of 1978, and embarked on a physiotherapy course in Newcastle that autumn.  He started to climb regularly again, and soon acquired a solid reputation amongst the Northumberland lads for boldness and skill.  Occasional stories drifted south of long solitary bike rides out to the remote sandstone outcrops, and courageous attempts to recover that magic touch that had been lost with the accident.  His last new route was in Northumberland, on the serious little crag at South Yardhope.  Stella (E4 5c) is a very bold line up some poor flakes - the grade says it all; something of the old drive was still there.  After completing the course at Newcastle, John worked on the North Sea oil rigs for some time - happy memories of sun-kissed Almscliff or Brimham must have seemed light years away from the austerity of this often dangerous work, and the almost constant cold.  He left the rigs in 1984, following a fatal accident to a workmate.  The event upset John deeply, and he blamed himself despite being officially cleared of any responsibility.  The gradual retreat into solitude, alcohol and periods of depression, already well advanced, now worsened.  With this process came the increased peril of perceived isolation.

Ken Wood remembered meeting John around this time:
"I last saw John in the early '80's.  He arrived at my place out of the blue (he had a habit of doing that) and we chatted about various things over a pint.  I happened to mention the blitz which had been taking place over the previous few years on Yorkshire Limestone.  He turned to me and said, with an indescribably sad tone in his voice: "Ah yes, but where were we when all this was going on".  Missing out on the great limestone revolution had really hurt him.  No doubt in my mind, but for his injury, he would have been there at the forefront."



"It never occurs to you that your friends could be alcoholic.  Even when he started to pack a bottle of Scotch to go out to the crag, you still imagine it's just for a laugh."

    Bernard Newman talking about John in 1987   

One evening in June 1985, John turned up unannounced at Pete Livesey's house in Malham carrying a sac containing only Scotch.  They drank and talked through the night, and the following morning John departed.  He spent the following night alone on the top of Malham Cove, and at first light next morning he fell to his death.  Suicide?  A misadventure caused by alcohol? - We will never be sure.  Angela Soper knew John during his years at Leeds, and commented:

"There were essentially two Johns; there was more than a hint of schizophrenia there and in the end the depressed side got on top, due to a number of factors.  It was a terribly sad business.  The Coroner took a very humane and considerate view.  He concluded that as there was no-one else at the top of the cove when John fell, and no note left behind, that it could have been an accident.  An open verdict was returned that he fell from the top of Malham Cove."

John's funeral was an occasion of particular sadness, and in just over a year Al Rouse had gone as well, lost on K2.  The inspired young gods of our generation on gritstone and in Wales, both taken in their mid-thirties.  The image of Syrett and Rouse, both barely out of school, battling it out on the Leeds Wall and on gritstone, or the time the two of them  'found' a crate of Scotch on the pavement in Chamonix and returned in triumph to the campsite for a mega party!  Somehow such things sum up much of the energy and flavour of the early seventies.  Both men were so talented, and yet both were seemingly driven by demons that would in time claim them both.  In the history of British climbing, John's place is assured as the torch bearer of a whole new and exciting era.   He combined a technical brilliance with a lot of neck, and the vision to create a series of wonderful new climbs.  In an obituary written in 1985, Pete Livesey remembered John as "an iconoclast,"  and indeed it is the perfect description; a breaker of images, someone who attacks cherished beliefs to pursue a savage freedom.  In climbing terms there is no higher praise.  By all accounts he was an intelligent and generous spirit, and would probably be highly impressed by the incredible boldness at the top end of gritstone climbing.  His own contribution and push more than twenty years ago, did much to lead to the current developments.



"He was the best climber to watch on rock that I have ever seen - only Boysen at his best coming close.  And he was rigorously honest.  Without once preaching the gospel of purism, John embodied it."
    Jim Perrin   

There is a not unreasonable viewpoint, that the overall experience of climbing both physical and mental, is so powerful and meaningful for some people when they are young, that it can seriously disrupt the remainder of their lives.  It is almost as if a deep restlessness is stirred that nothing else can satisfy.  It can develop into a dependency as strong and malevolent as any generated by emotion, alcohol or drugs.  Was such a situation the core of John's fate, or was it something much deeper?  In his essay about Almscliff in "Extreme Rock" he concludes with a poignant paragraph.

"The crest of the wave was soon to break, to quote Wood.  Oh those halcyon days!  On the crag with barrels of beer, parties in Leeds, the Stones, rasping and grasping at Brimham - it all seems a thousand years ago."

With the obvious benefit of hindsight, these words now seem tinged with a sense of loss, isolation and not a little sadness.  Perhaps John's particular genius was itself a function of that very isolation; an isolation that was to prove too much once his central form of self-expression was denied him.  It is now eleven years since he died.  Some of my closest climbing friends knew him well, and climbed with him.  They still talk about John frequently, as I'm sure do many others.  To our sport he brought a particular talent, grace and attitude that enriched it, and inspired others to follow and in turn make their own journey.  He deserves to be remembered.

Postscript:
I wrote this piece fifteen years ago and it is now some twenty six years since john’s tragic death at Malham.  Since the early 1970s, a major feature of British climbing has been the increase in technical standards and boldness on gritstone in particular.  John was a major figure in this process at the outset and his place in the history of British climbing is well established.  In his recent autobiography Ron Fawcett gives particular credit to John and to Pete Livesey, for the huge impact they had on Yorkshire climbing and the inspiration they were to him as a youngster.


Particular thanks to:
Mark Clark, John Harwood,Pete Livesey,Mike Mortimer,Bernard Newman,Jim Perrin, Angela Soper, Gordon and John Stainforth,Phil Swainson, Michael Ward and Ken Wood.

Steve Dean©: First published in Climber August 96



Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Coming up: Steve Dean on the legendary John Syrett.

John Syrett leading Cloggy classic- Shrike(E1-5b:US 5.10a)
Photo Gordon Stainforth©

"John was developing into an exceptional rock climber, and in the summer of 1970 spent several weeks climbing in North Wales with the Stainforth brothers and Tim James.  He set about repeating a large number of hard classics gaining considerable confidence.  That autumn, back at Leeds, he set about the local gritstone extensively, his standard rapidly rising.  At that time the absolute bench mark on gritstone was Allan Austin's Wall of Horrors at Almscliff.  Rumoured to be unrepeated since the first ascent in 1961, and combining the top technical difficulty of the time with no protection, the climb had an awesome reputation, not least because of some big falls Austin had taken on it before making his ascent.  Wall of Horrors gradually became an obsession for John, who continued to train hard on the climbing wall determined to make his breakthrough.  One late autumn day, John abseiled down the route, and found a possible point for nut protection beneath the crux.  The following day he made the first ascent of the Brutaliser at Brimham, and then the next day returned to Almscliff with John Stainforth and Chas McGuirie.  It was a raw, windy November day, but John was determined to make his attempt at repeating Wall of Horrors.  Despite the poor conditions, he quickly disposed of the very technical starting moves, and then spent ten minutes fixing two small nuts beneath the crux moves.  He then cruised the crux, and climbed steadily to the top with increasingly cold hands.  Repeating this famous climb was a marvellous achievement, for the reputation of Austin's masterpiece had grown with the passing years.  John's own quote in Extreme Rock is revealing:

Yes - I'm up - I've done Wall of Horrors - it will never be like this again (and it wasn't)."

This Friday; Steve Dean's revealing in-depth study into the life and times of the late,great John Syrett.

Friday, 22 April 2011

In the Beginning

It was my ego that drew me in initially.......

I had finally found something that I could do well. Something that I could do better than the soccer, cricket and rugby players because when it came to team sports I was called ‘A Spastic’. Soccer, tennis and rugby balls confounded me and the chasing of them seemed very pointless.
And then suddenly, on an outdoor pursuits course in a wet quarry at Vaynor in South Wales on a soggy summer day I climbed 40’ of damp limestone in a PVC anorak and over trousers and suddenly found the first physical thing that I could do  half well. And the monochrome photos of young men in crazy situations miles above blurred ground suddenly became places where perhaps I could be better than all of the other boys in my bullying grammar school.

Later in the course several of us decided to choose rock climbing as our special interest and we ended up camping at The Gower. Scavenger became the pinnacle of our achievement and the grade Very Severe rang pealing bells in our egos. We were seduced by the adult sophistication and brilliance of our instructors and the impish ribbing that they offered us. Suddenly we were good at something and they even appreciated us for it.


Although we had little understanding of the depth of literary and social culture that even by the seventies had grown around climbing and even though we were living in Oxford and there was no decent rock for seventy miles there were some practice climbing locations around the city. Scouring the city public library reference sections we found guides to ‘The Horspath Horror’ and an enlightened games master allowed us to cycle out there and practice climb during PE lessons. We developed remarkable finger strength and tenacity.
Several were invited invited to an ‘Advanced’ climbing course as an extension to our adventure course and we climbed at Sennen and Bosigran in Cornwall and along the way we learnt that our outdoor pursuits instructors were famous; Colin Mortlock was the Centre Director and Jim Perrin was the main climbing instructor. Suddenly we were rubbing shoulders with celebrities and climbing royalty. Mortlock’s philosophy on outdoor education was that in order for it to ‘work’ we had to experience an adventure, a place outside the comfort zone where the senses were heightened and the individual began to understand fear and enjoy the sensation of new experiences.

He told us about his ideas and philosophies and in the ‘try anything’ sixties and seventies we bought it all.Our dinner money became Moac nuts and Helvelyn boots, nylon 3 strand climbing ropes and hemp waistlines. The Henderson Geography Prize became guidebooks to Tremadoc and Llanberis. We pooled our money and shared petrol cash or hitch hiked to North Wales for weekends or weeks. Knowing the great Jim Perrin became a passport to the Padarn Lake Hotel and the Climbers Club Hut in The Pass. Our meager dinner money graduated to college grants and gradually we came to know in passing, Joe Brown, Mo Antoine, Roland Edwards, Breda Arkless, Al Harris, Denny Moorhouse and many of the extended Llanberis set of the seventies

Naturally, our college courses were located in North Wales or Sheffield and we became local along with all of the benefits and failings of a local; walking down to Cloggy after an illegal ride up Snowdon on the early morning hotel supply train, getting ‘bedayed’ on climbs after trying night ascents, winter ascents in The Carnneddu  and Cwn Silyn. There were the inevitable deaths of dear and close friends who pushed too hard or too stupidly. We climbed as hard as we could, we climbed a few new routes, we idolized Crewey and Livesey and only climbed a couple of grades softer. We lived the egg fights in Al Harrises’ Greasy Spoon and we watched in pure lust from the sidelines as the local Padarn Lake climbers girlfriend’s bums twitched as they played darts. We learnt how to roll cigarettes halfway up a route with just one hand. We had to, it was a skill absolutely essential to local acceptance.

Snowdonia was all winding B roads, wind bent oak trees, wet sheep and dry stone walls.  There were the odd remnants of the past, The Douglas Arms charged your drinks in Pounds Shillings and Pence, there was a strange little tea shack just past Ogwen Cottage that served boiling tea to you as you stood in the slashing rain, the Halfway Café on the track up to Cloggy served the most amazing lemonade that I have never tasted the like of since, there was ‘The Captain’ who stood on the bridge at Brynrefail in a sailing officers cap and black waterproof mac saluting all of the traffic that passed. The climber’s barn in Tremadoc was filled with straw and old tables to cook on, the barn up road contained three rusty Austin Seven’s rotting away in the damp. The pub in Nant Peris sold mild for 23 pence a pint and we played Pong once a night on the video game because that was all we could afford.

Technology arrived in the form of 9mm twin ropes, superb Clog krabs and micro Chouinard wires but the climbing was all on sight leads and no resting on runners. Guide books fitted neatly in the back pocket of a pair of  Levis and we stuck leather onto the sides of our EB’s to make them last longer. Someone created a Snowdonia friction boot called Gollies, they were bright blue but we never bought them, there weren’t as good as EB’s and in any case, they dyed your feet bright blue if you bog trotted in them.The waste tips of Llanberis faded into the deep blue haze on late summer afternoons and Centotaph Corner always looked down at us and asked the question ‘Are you still good enough?’ Decades have passed, the sport has changed; super athletes climb outrageous overhangs, everyone uses chalk and climbs E4, everyone rests on runners, you have to get used to falling off because you will and you can, but: The mossy smell of climbing ropes still evokes the sensation and rememberance of great days sitting high on the cliff and watching the matchbox sized cars crawl down the road below us as does that sensation as you pull the rope drag over the top and look out a decent belay.

Perhaps the only thing that is still missing is a mangled gold wrap of Golden Virginia, a crushed box of Swan Vestas and a bent packet of Rizlas (with the top flap torn off!)  Our ongoing search for eternal life does perhaps demand a few small sacrifices

Michael Combley©2011 



Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Coming Up: Michael Combley's 'In the Beginning'

Essential kit for the seventies climber.

"Several were invited invited to an ‘Advanced’ climbing course as an extension to our adventure course and we climbed at Sennen and Bosigran in Cornwall and along the way we learnt that our outdoor pursuits instructors were famous; Colin Mortlock was the Centre Director and Jim Perrin was the main climbing instructor. Suddenly we were rubbing shoulders with celebrities and climbing royalty. Mortlock’s philosophy on outdoor education was that in order for it to ‘work’ we had to experience an adventure, a place outside the comfort zone where the senses were heightened and the individual began to understand fear and enjoy the sensation of new experiences.
He told us about his ideas and philosophies and in the ‘try anything’ sixties and seventies we bought it all.Our dinner money became Moac nuts and Helvelyn boots, nylon 3 strand climbing ropes and hemp waistlines. The Henderson Geography Prize became guidebooks to Tremadoc and Llanberis. We pooled our money and shared petrol cash or hitch hiked to North Wales for weekends or weeks. Knowing the great Jim Perrin became a passport to the Padarn Lake Hotel and the Climbers Club Hut in The Pass. Our meager dinner money graduated to college grants and gradually we came to know in passing, Joe Brown, Mo Antoine, Roland Edwards, Breda Arkless, Al Harris, Denny Moorhouse and many of the extended Llanberis set of the seventies.'

Don Whillans.Master of the one-handed roll up.






This Friday;Aussie exile Michael Combley harks back to the halcyon days of yore when he began climbing. A time of roll ups,fry ups,punch ups with the odd bit of climbing thrown in!

Friday, 15 April 2011

Vestige d'Occitania

Ships of Bugaresh:
John Redhead©

We had talked a lot about the Cathari whilst in Nant Peris and had considered that the Pays du Cathars region could be an interesting place to look for property. We had also discussed Rennes le Chateau in the Aude department of Languedoc. The area is now popular with conspiracy theory tourists and those seeking all manner of a divine knowledge, spaceships and ufo’s since the publication of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code. Regardless of the hype and the hoaxes and the drama I feel there is something connected with the land here that is meaningful. Talk of sacred geometry, monuments and temples certainly fire the imagination and Henry Lincoln in The Holy Place calls it the eighth wonder of the ancient world. ‘A natural and perfect pentacle of mountain peaks surrounded by a titanic, man made temple’. I have spent time here and feel an affinity to the land, to the energy of whatever went on here, or continues to go on here. I feel like I have entered the mystery, the mountain, the tomb and without knowing it absorbed the signs and symbols of an ancient story. With these feelings came the realization that I had already started working here! I felt like the mountain had accepted me and invited me to work. I started a project called Remains of Occitania and started researching and sweeping the terrain for sounds.

I recorded first on the pog of Montsegur and the grail castle that clings to its rock pinnacle. It was the last stronghold of the Cathari. Just below the pog at Camp de Cremat, the field of the stake, is where 225 martyrs walked into the flames by refusing to renounce their faith. I then took the same tape and recorded sounds in Edinburgh’s Rosslyn chapel. This was supposedly a third Temple of Solomon for the Templars and a Grail chapel and is mysteriously connected to whatever ‘sacred’ was salvaged from the crusade. The Templars were ‘brother’ Christians to the Cathari in seeking the spiritual path. I then went back to the cone of Bugarach, close to the turbulent river Agly that throws itself down Galamos Gorge. This shapely, dormant volcano with its labyrinth of limestone caverns stands as a gateway to the Corbieres and for some, the lost Kingdom of Agartha! I was particularly interested in the sounds emanating in a rock feature that gave the Voie de Fenetre its name, on the upper flanks of Bugarach. I sat within this small window in the rock listening to all manner of ‘voices’ coming from one side or the other and let the DAT roll… Listening to the mountain whilst falling asleep is a divine luxury.

Back in the quiet, quaint bar of Bugarach a couple of locals were asking our intent. “Ah, you have been up the Pech de Thauze, the crossroads of the four winds! They say that in 2012, a spaceship will emerge from the mountain and take away the chosen ones.” The bar lady who was Finnish said that the 200 occupants of the village were made up of 13 different nationalities. I asked her what brought her here and she just shrugged, “I don’t know, must be the energy of the mountain?”

My intent is a loose-fun-wandering and broad, objective glance. As words become bald and the images played out, they take cover as the sounds take over, as Cosmic Karaoke! Sleep dances with me through the slaughter and images and stellar soundscapes appear and Occitan voices seep from the rocks of Bugarach. Biblical texts implode into shattered ribs and the Devil seeks a shoulder. Is there a whispering underground? The landscape reveals a supernatural audiovisual library – flashes of total ecstasy and multiverse belonging and a gaping hole of hellfire, where even the grass seems to think “shame”. Thought! Joy! Where is the truth in this labour of beliefs and symbolism and pain – in this trance of light, starships and cruelty – this theatre of Heaven!

Reading between the rocks I listen for fragments of riddle and fact across the landscape of the Albigensian Crusade. The mountain terrain of what is now Languedoc, Southern France, was the area chosen by the Cathari, ‘The Pure Ones’, to practice their dualistic faith. The Pure Ones were possibly a Manichaean, early Christian, Gnostic religious sect, separating from the Jewish Jesus and Paulician strands. The hilltop settlements became the fortresses against Catholic oppressors. Bringing the ‘Book of Love’ from the east, they became an heretical power that forced the Pope to send a crusade to rid them from the land. This is a land steeped in legends connected to whatever ‘The Book of Seven Seals’ and ‘The Holy Grail’ is.
I throw a few questions into the soup. Do we not all have an innate need to feel and try to understand our nature within our surroundings? At what point do the surroundings, the landscape, become irrelevant in this task? The Cathari worked for direct initiation and transcendance from the Earthly, the procreative and the bodily, through the ritual of the Consolamentum, believing the world is a subterfuge of ‘the devil’. As there is no omnipotent God, the problem of evil is fought for within the person, a battle between the soul and the body, between light and dark. The incorruptible soul is however under the domination of a foreign power…
Is it easier to conjure ‘the divine’ in an area of utmost passivity, tolerance and tranquility, or within the ‘active’, troubled world…? That the rocks are our home is an easy connection as regards the Cathari – not only for protection in the physical form but also, seemingly, as a medium for enlightenment and exploration in the metaphysical.
What progress have we made in seven centuries? Are totalitarian tactics still being used to force a belief on those who choose otherwise…?
From field recordings of Montsegur, Bugarach and Rosslyn, I hope an impossible music will emerge, a textural song, as part of a forensic that informs the words and images.
Zarathushtra sent a Gnostic-dual-carriageway west to greet the sun in Aragon, transporting the written word from ‘The Big One’. The vortex sent, the Stargate established, the Mary’s built their station. Tantric! With diamond hearts they spiralled jade-fire into the Cosmos. Heresy! But in 1244 the big boy Catholics interceded with their own story and genocide buried the book of love. Was the Cathars only crime that of hope and peace and transcendence? ‘Le Tresor Cathar’ went down and the Pope and feudal France ‘Killed them all’. Death to civility, chivalry and tolerance. French was imposed on Rousillon in 1700.

Eglise de Bugarach:Redhead Collection©

Simon de Montfort was the cruel and barbaric captain general of the French forces in the crusade, wiping out the whole of civility in Occitania. He became the biggest landowner in the region. His son of the same name became an ally of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd in the thirteenth century struggle for Welsh independence. I can see him brewing up in the Dolbadarn, plotting the schemes for an Independent Wales with his Welsh mates.

The Hunters.

The February St Laurent bear festival, Fete d’Lours, is the closest to a pagan carnival I have witnessed. Originally, the young men of these mountain villages would attempt to prove their bravery by capturing a bear. February being a good time for this task as the bears were weakened by hibernation. Nowadays however this task is purely symbolic as the proud men of the Pyrenees hunted them to extinction! Personally I think if the bear had been respected as part of the land here, then a wise and seasonal ritual of fertility and acceptance would be truly traditional. Bravo!

However, ceremonially speaking, the bear comes out of his lair, captures a young girl and takes her back to the forest. The villagers then begin to hunt the bear which is eventually captured and is led by a chain through the streets. The meneur or leader recites a Catalan poem that denounces the animal and praises the hunter. After a short dance the bear starts to escape, is brought down by the brave meneur and is ritually shaved before dying. ‘After death’ the bear leaps up with a human face, chooses a young girl from the crowd and the dancing begins! The ‘devil’ is dead! Long live the man!

In the procession there is a monster with two heads symbolizing the end of Winter and the beginning of Spring who terrorizes and chases young girls. There are men in prams dressed as babies who daub ‘pancake’ mixture over the girls! There are also two men dressed as an old kind couple who carry a copper bowl of burning pig’s hair. They then attempt to push this unpleasant smelling receptacle up the skirts of any girl or woman they pass!

Last year I saw the local butcher dressed as a woman, bulging out inside a pink tube skirt, legs wide open on the bonnet of a Land Rover. He was stroking a huge vaginal wig between his legs. Would you buy sausages off this man? The deputy Maire himself sucking a dummy in a pram tossing off the pancake mixture onto the face of any girl who ventures too close to see baby!

It certainly is an alcohol-fuelled fuckfest of manhood! As the fake sperm dripped off the girl’s bodies and the empty beer cans rolled down the street, my thoughts were with the brown bears and the ‘devil’ that is macho man who hunted them to extinction for reasons of ego. I rigged up a sculpture in the window of the gallery. It was the papier-mache torso of belly and breasts and vagina that I used to use in my Serious Clowning’ performances, the Belly-Ocean. I put a sheepskin over her gross head and lit her up with fairy lights. It looked quite hideous and implied the bears had fucked and bred with the Catalan women and produced ‘monsters’! I think it was appreciated that I was getting into the spirit of the thing? I invented a twelfth century quip that went – ‘the hunters killed them all, but the bears had already spread their seed into the bellies of the women’.

The hunting association is a powerful lobby here. They seem to rule the roost. If you fall out with a hunter you may as well leave the village. Even the Maire plays second fiddle. Geoff and Susan briefly fell out with the hunters over some trees the hunters had cut down on their land to make a bridge over La Muga into Catalunya. A complaint was issued to the Maire of Coustouges over this ‘illegal’ border crossing! It seems that the hunters are not enamored of the Maire who is a Parisienne. They didn’t take a telling off too well and next day threateningly gathered around Geoff and Susan’s house firing their guns like cowboys! Best to be on the side of the men with guns as they quickly found out. A previous occupant of our house was a hunter who somehow fell out with the fraternity and according to his friend and neighbour he was forced to sell the house and move on. The hunters are a macho race but generally I don’t have a problem with them. They are of the hill. No matter what land you may think you own the hunters are all over it! There is just so much forested land here that ownership is purely on paper. Nobody seems to be possessive. The land around here is generally not farmed apart from smallholdings here and there. People collect fruit, nuts, mushrooms and logs and just wander where they like. Sometimes you see bergers and nomadic shepherds with herds of sheep or goats. The hunter is a totally different fish to the farmer as there is no ownership of land involved and no commodity. They monitor and cull the wild boar. I am sure that they may encourage breeding to keep up stocks for the ‘sport’!

Whilst driving on the piste one day I came around a corner and saw a hunter asleep, slumped on a stool against a tree with his rifle pointing my way. I stopped the car. His finger was on the trigger! From a distance I shouted, “Salut!” He awoke with a start and with friendly gestures beckoned me over to join him with a bottle of Pastis! Pissed as a newt and gun in hand, this old Catalan hunter would get five years for this in Llanberis!

Bugarach Church: Redhead Collection©

John Redhead 2011© 





Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Coming up: John Redhead's Vestige d'Occitania

Summit of Bugarach:John Redhead Collection

"We had talked a lot about the Cathari whilst in Nant Peris and had considered that the Pays du Cathars region could be an interesting place to look for property. We had also discussed Rennes le Chateau in the Aude department of Languedoc. The area is now popular with conspiracy theory tourists and those seeking all manner of a divine knowledge, spaceships and ufo’s since the publication of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code. Regardless of the hype and the hoaxes and the drama I feel there is something connected with the land here that is meaningful. Talk of sacred geometry, monuments and temples certainly fire the imagination and Henry Lincoln in The Holy Place calls it the eighth wonder of the ancient world. ‘A natural and perfect pentacle of mountain peaks surrounded by a titanic, man made temple’. I have spent time here and feel an affinity to the land, to the energy of whatever went on here, or continues to go on here. I feel like I have entered the mystery, the mountain, the tomb and without knowing it absorbed the signs and symbols of an ancient story. With these feelings came the realization that I had already started working here! I felt like the mountain had accepted me and invited me to work. I started a project called Remains of Occitania and started researching and sweeping the terrain for sounds.'

This Friday; the concluding extract from John Redhead's forthcoming book 'Colonists Out'. This week, the Redhead family having left north Wales find themselves immersed in the ancient land of the Cathars in the Languedoc highlands of Southern France. A region rich in pagan folklore and customs. An inspiring land of stunning vistas and mystery. The perfect setting for a multi media artist to re-energise and touch creative base.
















The Mary Station:John Redhead

Friday, 8 April 2011

Dwellings and Yellings

Photo:John Appleby

Interactions and interventions from Yr Wyddfa to Canigou.

The voice of the substratum
Leaks a dark auditory aura.
A seizure
Over carpet
And
Curtain.



From - Canvas of a Dead Room Chiseller


My house in Bethesda was up for sale. I had recently bought a lurcher pup from Clark Mellor, the professional wrestler from Hayfield. He had to trap the animal to show me as it had been ‘running wild’ with its mother in the hills. He also brought out from the oven a tray of meats that the dog had recently brought home - rabbit, hare and some ‘bird’ I couldn’t recognize! Yep, this was the dog for me! A dog that could feed itself! I knew its half sister up in the hills in Dinorwig, ‘Face’, belonging to Clint, a cowboy friend of Clarks. ‘Ochre’ was a working animal, that is, to me, a robber! Lur is Romany for thief. Ochre’s home had been nature, running wild with whatever her smell could identify. She didn’t need a home to define who she was, she had a nose. She was unused to indoor living and I respected that, who wouldn’t? I related to this beast. Inside the house however meant only one thing to her - food that had already been killed! No amount of training could diffuse the hard-wiring of a savage spirit intent of eating or hiding any food, in whatever form she could find, including that in the bin. Nothing could be left. She even learnt to open a cupboard to get to the Palma ham at the ‘in laws’. This was a catastrophe as well as a mystery. There was no sight of the ham until I noticed a freshly dug patch in the herbaceous border in the neat suburban garden - she had waited until we were watching TV, stolen the ham and buried it. Fucker! Ochre! It was magic to see her operate. I tried housing her in the small stable in the garden that our old goat, Lady, had lived in - but she resisted all attempts to contain her, howling night after night. I persisted with the Alpha Male impersonation. Howl, howl, howl - no sleep for us or the neighbours! I guess in the wild she would have been with her mother sleeping in the hedgerow or under some tin sheeting or whatever. I decided to spend the night ‘bonding’ with her in the stable to calm her, if only for a better sleep for me. It was thankfully a reasonably quiet night and I awoke to the sound of footsteps and voices approaching. I was still snuggled up to my hound wrapped around my sleeping bag. The stable door suddenly swung open as my head popped up and Gretel, my partner, turned around to a couple in their mid fifties and said, “And this is the stable,” and pointing at me on the floor, “and this here is my husband.” I saw their faces in bemused shock as the door was closed.

The Vortex.

“Hi, h hello...Hi, h hello...” The six year old smiling lad continued, “Hi, hello.” There was no response. He edged further forward towards the three men and two dogs on the other side of the fence. I heard them talking amongst themselves, posturing to their pets, passing a brief neighbourly moment with a few menial words. They were not deep in meaningful conversation, well, certainly not conversation that precluded anything else and everyone else in the vicinity. They were complaining of bald tyres and untaxed cars, lumbago, the weather, that kind of thing, shuffling pavement talk in any language in any part of the world. Whatever. The little lad within the perimeter of his front garden and perceptions was ignored. He turned away with a puzzled expression. His few brief years on the face of this land were eager with happy, simplistic communication and given space and caring attention to explore ideas and thoughts within creative play. One of the three men, our immediate elderly neighbour glanced at Ryley, our little lad, but with no acknowledgement. Of course they all knew he was there. They didn’t care. Between their few words that tottered between them, there must have passed some morphic understanding that Ryley was not worth replying to. I came out from the side passage that had concealed me and hastened to Ryley, “Its okay, they don’t want to say hello”. We went inside. I thought about it. I wanted to go back outside and give them all a communication mouthful! How can three grown men not want to acknowledge the lad’s greeting and say hello? To not bother returning a smiling hello to a gregarious child? How can you explain to a child that these neighbours, the three men that one sees walking by the house every day, do not want to return a spontaneous greeting? How can you tell a child that there are people who do not wish to speak to you? How can you ignore a child?

Of course this wasn’t such a big issue. And actually, when all is calm with your world again, what a bloody luxury to think there is a problem at all! I certainly didn’t want to make it a big issue in front of Ryley. He would forget soon enough and continue his innocent approaches. There had been many times myself when communication with the ‘locals’ was futile. But I liked to force a return greeting, extract a smile or at least turn a head in some acknowledgement. But perhaps there would come a time when the little lad, becoming the less-innocent youth would himself turn away, head down and ignore a greeting from a small child? Why? Because that's the way the people are? Because that’s the way the community is? Because of the culture? What culture? Because of what? Is it much the same deal wherever you are? I’m not sure. Perhaps ignoring a child is more abusive than actually being abusive? But my life is relatively easy, and with all the problems in the world surely a luxury to define or even consider! Or is it? It could be the seed planted in childhood that starts a war thirty years later?

But there again as all my friends say, “This is Nant Peris.” “The Happy Valley.” Sure, happy! I have always referred to Nant Peris as the village with a cloud on top. Planet Peris has a micro-climate. Due to its position underneath the Snowdonia Massif (Yr Wyddfa), any cloud on the summit would cast its dark shadow down the hill to Nant and sink it to the chilled valley floor. The steep mountain sides imprison the village to dull days and early darkness. Yet only two miles away, Llanberis can be bathed in sunshine, and Bangor, seven miles away, tropical in comparison. Five weeks during winter the sun never rises above the ridge. There is no sun. There is no sunset. My realization that there is no horizon from which to project one’s thoughts seems to close the deal. You are ‘dug in’. People seem to live in their chimneys, and the only sky they know is tuned into a digital box, straight to their brain! Permafrost of the soul! It is hardly surprising then that any communication has to be fought for. Hello, where are you Nant Perishers?

 Photo:David Dear

I am sure that the Sun just being out of reach and out of sight has its effect. Also, unable to project to a distant horizon, I am sure boxes in your thoughts, cuts off the world beyond the perimeter and makes one introverted. Left unchecked in the passage of time, disturbed! I joke, but there is something real here - the mountains are dangerous in more ways than one. You have to know when to get out! Most don’t.  Augustus John wrote -

“ The changing skies reflect our temper more accurately than could a splendid but perpetual blue.”  living close by he must have travelled through Nant, and might well have changed his observation to -  “The changing skies of Nant Peris reflect the savagery of our species...”

Yr Wyddfa is the highest and busiest mountain in Wales and was first climbed by botanist Thomas Johnson in 1639 although there is mention of ‘a triumphal fair upon this our chief of mountains’, after Edward the First’s conquest of Wales in 1284. The original hotel on the summit was replaced by a restaurant designed by Clough Williams-Ellis of Portmeirion fame and bore a plaque that read –

‘Wanderer, wait a moment; consider God’s wondrous work and your short journey on this earth’.

The man had a penchant for splendor and believed that architectural good manners need not lead to a site’s defilement! After Prince Charles called the summit café, ‘the highest slum in Britain’, it was demolished. Hafod Eryri, a controversial new café and visitor centre was designed and built and opened in 2009. It is creatively embellished with a new, slightly more secular couplet by Welsh national poet Gwyn Thomas –

‘The summit of Snowdon: you are here, nearer to heaven’.

The philanthropist and mountaineer, Edmund Hillary trained here for his ‘even nearer to heaven’ ascent of Everest and the first E8 and E9 climbs in Britain were recorded here on the ominous Black Cliff of Clogwyn Dur Arddu.

I had some friends from Ireland stay for a few nights. They arrived in Nant on a bleak dark evening, so had no idea of God’s wondrous work, proximity to Heaven or the geological ‘lay of the land’. The next morning they looked out of the skylight in the bedroom and much to their entertainment could only see mountain. Steep sided mountain! They looked to the top of the skylight - no sky, just more mountain! Jokes were made about the house having fallen over in the night, like in some Winnie The Poo story! They laughed all the way back to the Emerald Isle. ‘Lift up my eyes to the hills’ means the iris is buckling-in under the force of its near weight!

The sky is limited in Nant. Framed by rock, concealed by cloud, the nightscape is rarely visited. I would gaze up in amazement when its jewels finely emerged, giving more than a valley, global, universal perspective, and a gift of exploration in the astral life beyond Nant. The divine, red-blue scintillations of Sirious and Stockhausen’s claim that it was his home! Orion, fallen angels and giants, descending to Earth to procreate! Nephilims, dog stars, warriors and Osiris, green God of the underworld messing around with cables and TV reception in Peris! Always childishly appreciative of a starry sky, it lifted me to a more life-affirming consciousness. I often caught myself laughing, unknowing why!

Being so physically dug-in during winter, the seasons have real prominence in your day to day life. But I like the fact that the landscape comes through your door and engages with the psyche. Like in some Celtic mysticism, the landscape imposes itself and demands that you have dialogue with it. Living simply with woodburners and candles has the effect of really respecting and appreciating the seasons. Winter certainly blocked you in, unfortunately not with snow, but with wind and bone-paining rain. I called the wind ‘The Vortex’. It didn’t just blow, it threw itself across the valley and down the hill. It seemed to fall with immense tonnage - a dense droppage of air that would hit the house with a thunderous surge and sudden vibration. The air in the house moved in sync and your ears popped with the pressure, like descending in an aeroplane from altitude. Exhilarating! But fresh? Strangely no! For all the violent movement of air it fell in cyclical stagnation. Some might say ‘bad Chi’. The same sawdust from my chainsaw would still be swirling about the house months, years later. On a typical stormy day the horizontal rain would be in the direction of west to east in the front of the house. But at the back of the house it would be east to west. We had the highest annual rainfall in Britain. Wild and scenic and atmospheric, the mountains are a savage and soulful place to live, but I think not to linger. People seem to have spent a lifetime complaining here, unable or unknowing of escape. Live goes on I guess in all its day to day - car tax, bald tyres, bad TV reception, poor health...what hope? I sure picked up on it - the wet, cold mountains adding to my respiratory problems, depriving me of vital energy and volition. I too started complaining!

Fynnon y Sant: Photo John Redhead

Is there a picture emerging here? I drew cartoon sketches of mutant web footed creatures, their skin blown to ribbons and their thoughts and words blown to shreds in the enveloping, groaning vortex - as in some Lord of the Rings creature reduced by geography and climate to gibbering moaning wreaks. Crashing white veins of rain foam headlong down the gullies, like white bars of a prison, or like fangs gnashing from an angry mouth-sky. The dark shades of nature scrape and scratch at lifeforms that attempt to move or reside. The Nant Perishers under the dark force. A dark energy. Perhaps the ancients knew not to reside here, only worship?

One should not forget the ancient pagan sites in the area. I believe Elidir Fawr a sacred mountain and even possibly a temple lost and forgotten in the mystery of time? But more easily understood is the ancient pagan well in Nant Peris, Ffynnon y Sant with its sacred fish, the Trout of Wisdom, a symbol of the water’s purity and transformative powers. Legends tell of folk flocking here with a desire of glimpsing these fish in the hope and purpose of healing.

Mountain as product.

The slate product extracted from Dinorwic reached the four corners of the world. As I believe it, the way the land is changed changes the people – and whether you believe of a land seeking revenge to its loss is possible, just or otherwise, the suffering with death, dust and ‘depression’ does not surprise me. The ills of the quarrymen are a curse for their acts and the adversity of endeavor gives strength to the community. It’s a no win! This is not the nature of a people at one with the land! What had been forgotten and sidelined in the name of progress and jobs is the powerful archetype and supernatural qualities of ancient sites. The sacred wells of the British Isles were, in fact, such popular places of worship in pagan times, that the early Roman Church went to great pains to either eradicate them or convert them.

‘The Nile is listening.
Listening to the worked-out levels and fought-for seams.
Listening to the trickle once a stream.
Scattered.
Echoing underground.
Sympathising.
Learning what she can along the way.
Continuing the dialogue as ligaments and tendons still twitching in the
Secrets of quartz veins, crushed bone and blocks of fat awash with
Chthonian talk.’

from - soft explosive hard embrace.

Saint Peris lived and died in this valley, then called Nant y Mynach, the Monk’s Valley. The hamlet then known as Llan Peris, took its name from the twelfth century church. It pre dated Llanberis where the first settlers arrived in five hundred BC.

It got me thinking about the poverty and practice of hill farming, the very nature of the people and their hardships with the land, the geography, the wind and rain and the low church, the education policy and the language as possible ingredients that can destroy so utterly, simple, natural communication with a small child? I tried to sideline my negative response and turn a blind eye. Life goes on. Ca la vie. But the issue asserted itself. Was I too becoming a gibbering moaning wreck under the influence of the ‘Dark One’? A child's development and his interaction with the world are important. We could integrate more, and be more a part of the local community? But on reflection, what is that? We are not ‘local’. Integrate into what...? My Father wasn’t Silicosis Sid and neither was my Grandfather Willy Two Fingers and they didn’t blow up the mountain or themselves on their doorstep! They did other daft things somewhere else. I have no traceable ancesters anywhere near here.

I am easy going and communicative, but appreciate my own space in which to do my own thing. I think that forcing an unnatural integration can only highlight the differences and lead to a wider gap with the community. I will never have a common thread with any ‘local’ community, let alone one that is built on intolerance and disrespect! I prefer my journalistic approach and be called mean spirited and cynical and talk openly about what ‘community’? The community by my fence ignoring a child? What culture? The culture that sees no problem with this? But this is everywhere isn’t it? If it wasn't, what would I work with? And who am I to condemn? You find your own tribe and do your thing. But I couldn’t let go of this. There is more. There is some damage. There is a problem when the anger and neurosis you feel becomes the subject of your work! I am past my sell by date here. Homes and anger and neurosis are a recurring theme!

Dark energy.

‘Home sweet home’, ‘Home is where the heart is’, are Common phrases relating to the pleasure and affection and self-absorbtion felt towards the place where one lives.

‘If there was one phrase symbolic of a childhood awakening... it drifted like a buoy, bobbing in a sea of banal, everyday terminology of order, routine and diligence, “Bottles in, bottles out. Washed up, dried up, put them all away.” The phrase rolled out as an evening declaration, an affirmation of ‘duty done’. The last daily responsibility before bedtime. This was my Mother or Father’s claim to a certain gratitude, like a magic rite of passage swathed in a tissue of resentment that must be acknowledged. Poignant and poetic, the words danced from the tongue like a tribal drumbeat and the house could rest and all could be thankful and content with the duty done.’

‘Hot water bottles in the beds, milk bottles cleaned and put out on the step, washed up the pots and plates, dried the pots and plates and put all the pots and plates away in the cupboard. All safe and correct and another day can start! The household can sleep. Sleep tight!‘                                                   

from – Bottles in, Bottles out.

As a child, this nightly, stock phrase of routine and habit conjured its own life force within me, and overtook the timely shapes of order into resonant, bedtime poetry. My imagination kicked in and composed themes from this basic format. It threw me headlong into a symphony of creative space where a questioning presence became a source of food. I realized that this source of food was really my home and all else an idolatry of shadows and ghosts.

My first exhibition on arriving in North Wales was entitled, ‘Of Mothers, Angst and the Black Light’, and attempted to portray this idolatry that not only didn’t sustain me, but I believed was ‘unreal’. From a very early age the cosy addiction of routine, order and stereotyped behavior were at odds with the virtual world in which I found myself. I realized that my home was somewhere other than where I lived with the carpets and curtains and I dwelled in the joyful ecstasy of an epic-stage that is indestructible, luminous and inspiring. I enter my home everytime I work! It is connected to all the creatures who work in this way, the land and beyond.
 
Years later, ‘Bottles in, Bottles out’ continues this investigation in ‘the causeway of addiction’, from squeaky clean suburbia to heroin addiction in doorways, of ambiguity, ritual space and society’s compulsion with objects not essences – and the eventual ‘push off the end’ for the chosen few.

A psychic recently told me about two of my previous lives. The first life I was crucified and the second I was a young boy of five running with or away from the wolves in the forest, having lost my parents. I don’t need a reason to be constantly on the move. I know I am antagonistic to settled living, angry at domesticity and restless. My Mother too was restless. Houses and contents changed hands like a pack of cards. She would sell the entire furniture in the house and then replace it all from the salerooms. The process was simply ‘same for same’, ‘garbage for garbage’. As long as there was an armchair and a newspaper in front of a roaring fire when my father came home from work, he was happy! Since moving to Wales I had lived and worked in sixteen dwellings and studios.

Change is important to me. I feel a definite correlation between ill health and stagnancy. For me, the time to move is linked to a timing device with a random, built in alarm. You have an idea when it might go off and when it does it presents you with a profile, pulled from the back of your lazy mind! From that point on all the comforting shapes and games and addictions of living that one constructs to camouflage this profile become annoying obstacles for change. This idolatry can be sticky! I call this the Ikea cloud! It is a zone to move through without deviating from the exit arrows! ! I have always thought that it is sedentary life that defeats us...the comforting shapes on one side of the checkpoint to freedom! You try going into Ikea to purchase one thing and one thing only!

The psychic also said that I wished to let it all go...

Nant Francon from the top of Central Arete.


Another house, which I had converted and lived in was an old inn, as mentioned in George Borrow’s, Wild Wales. He mentions, ‘After drinking some tolerably good ale in the public house’, he went on his way. This was placed in the next valley to Llanberis, Nant Ffrancon, between the Glyders and the Carneddau. There was also horizontal rain here, but the valley had a wider sweep to it and a more pastoral layout, giving more space to stretch out and observe one’s idiosyncrasies. It offered blends of the finer details like a smoothie. But this wasn’t a house to flourish in, nor a space to linger! Whilst working on the roof I found scrawled into the cement rendering on the chimneystack, ‘This is my house! signed Helen’. Obviously pertaining to a split up! I also lived here with a Helen! I too drank some tolerably good ale and went on my way! The house was sold to another Helen, who subsequently split up and sold it on…and went on her way…

I had been living with Mel and Ryley in the village of Nant Peris within the Snowdonia National Park for the last four years. Four years in one house is a good stint for me! The clock ticked! The alarm heralded my duty some time ago! It really was decision time for change, even though I had no idea of how or where. These decisions are only now trying to resolve themselves! Had my job been done? There became an overwhelming need for me to 'escape'. I felt desperately claustrophobic. It wasn’t the house that made me feel like this. On the contrary the house seemed to give me a freedom from this ‘oppressive nature’. It came from outside! I have lived and worked and touched many places, but nowhere quite as strange and alien as Nant Peris. Analyzing exactly what this is is difficult without condemning that which is just different or other. The non-conformist chapel next door emitted an energy that made me physically sick. The chapel’s name was Rehoboth, carved in a granite slab above the door. Rehoboth by the Euphrates is mentioned in Genesis as the birthplace of Saul. These Biblically named God’s sheds are a cultural icon but a plague on my sensibilities. What does Rehoboth mean here, damn it? Saul, first king of Isreal, battles with the Philistines, jealousy, rivalry, bloodshed and suicide? Smash and grab! The oppression has no end. The horror continues. Do we need this reminder in Nant Peris? David and Goliath is an inspiring tale but what does Nant Peris make of the bride’s price that Saul put on his daughter to marry David – one hundred Philistine foreskins! He comes back with Two hundred! The chapel of ‘two hundred foreskins’ engraved in granite above the door is more apt!

The Welsh sectarian chapels have always given me angst, but living so close to such ugly and vulgar vernacular more than reflected the bigoted nature of the few occupiers. Hold fire! Do not forget it is within these domains the communities grew strong - and defiant! Fortresses for the quarrymen and hill farming community! There was a need! I am not judging that which is ‘other’, and I feel demeaned for trying to put my finger on this angst...but...can we see the difference of a man cutting and fashioning a slate block for a cutting shed on the hill’s torn flank and a man doing the same to build an Aztec temple on a hill? Perhaps both slaves nevertheless and doing a job they are told to do but surely the intent and significance of approach can be judged? Is one destructive and one creative? Does one take and one give? Can the effects of love and hate be attributed?

God has replaced with bald words and pitiful, odious ‘singing’ that which was already rich in their souls, vital dialogue with the environment.

Anything beyond the preacher is out of reach. Cymraeg, the ancient tongue born from this reverence for the blessed earth is replaced with Christian and capitalist domination over nature. The ugly chapel has outgrown the anger and rage of men seeking solace and fuel for their hell. It feels out of place anywhere, but here in this valley it looks so foolish and unnecessary - like a portaloo used for praying to Tesco’s or Sky TV. I am sick with chagrin at pointing it out!

The mountains always produce a hardy more recalcitrant occupier. But there is more to it than this. The mountain guides and outdoor sector people who choose to live here are not like this, and yet they understand and appreciate and interact with the hills far more than the hill farmers. ‘Choosing’ to live here could be significant? They seem to belong, even though still using the hill for gain. I am particularly interested in the sense of place, community and landscape and their interaction. Without doubt the effort of enterprise that dug into the hill goes back a long way - still wired into the local psyche. I personally have no romantic vision of the mountains. Their nature is brutal and animistic, part of a living process with or without our presence. I am at odds with both sides of this coin.

I have a friend who walks the land as a way of life. His name is Barry Biscuit and he likes custard creams! He walks the land as one would go to work. I believe his lone wanderings and meditations on the hill give him a strength and knowledge that no ‘whistling to sheep’ or ‘climb when you’re ready’ junkie can reach or comprehend! He has an internal map that dictates his passage across the mountains. He avoids certain areas and rests in others he feels safe in. On one of our many esoteric talks, whilst snow drifted down through a hole in his caravan roof, he mentioned that Nant Peris is a ‘grade one’ place to avoid. It must be detoured at all costs if you wish to stay healthy. The energy is so dark. He thought it unbelievably stupid to enter, let alone climb in the slate quarries!

So, homes and anger and neurosis - what is it this time? If not aware it is easy to tip-toe into something’s open jaw.

As I said, when all is calm with your world, what a luxury to think there is a problem at all...but I don’t have this luxury, and I am not protected from it and am I fuck calm! My anger needs to take somebody or something down. Ochre would have known what to do when something smells funny – killed it, eaten it or buried it!


"The steep mountain sides imprison the village'.Photo David Dear


From Colonists Out: John Redhead©
 

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Coming up: Exclusive extracts from John Redhead's 'Colonists Out'

Do not go gently into that good night: Photo David Dear©

" But there again as all my friends say, “This is Nant Peris.” “The Happy Valley.” Sure, happy! I have always referred to Nant Peris as the village with a cloud on top. Planet Peris has a micro-climate. Due to its position underneath the Snowdonia Massif (Yr Wyddfa), any cloud on the summit would cast its dark shadow down the hill to Nant and sink it to the chilled valley floor. The steep mountain sides imprison the village to dull days and early darkness. Yet only two miles away, Llanberis can be bathed in sunshine, and Bangor, seven miles away, tropical in comparison. Five weeks during winter the sun never rises above the ridge. There is no sun. There is no sunset. My realization that there is no horizon from which to project one’s thoughts seems to close the deal. You are ‘dug in’. People seem to live in their chimneys, and the only sky they know is tuned into a digital box, straight to their brain! Permafrost of the soul! It is hardly surprising then that any communication has to be fought for. Hello, where are you Nant Perishers?

I am sure that the Sun just being out of reach and out of sight has its effect. Also, unable to project to a distant horizon, I am sure boxes in your thoughts, cuts off the world beyond the perimeter and makes one introverted. Left unchecked in the passage of time, disturbed! I joke, but there is something real here - the mountains are dangerous in more ways than one. You have to know when to get out! Most don’t. 

Augustus John wrote - “ The changing skies reflect our temper more accurately than could a splendid but perpetual blue.”   living close by he must have travelled through Nant, and might well have changed his observation to - “The changing skies of Nant Peris reflect the savagery of our species...”

Yr Wyddfa is the highest and busiest mountain in Wales and was first climbed by botanist Thomas Johnson in 1639 although there is mention of ‘a triumphal fair upon this our chief of mountains’, after Edward the First’s conquest of Wales in 1284. The original hotel on the summit was replaced by a restaurant designed by Clough Williams-Ellis of Portmeirion fame and bore a plaque that read – ‘Wanderer, wait a moment; consider God’s wondrous work and your short journey on this earth’.

The man had a penchant for splendor and believed that architectural good manners need not lead to a site’s defilement! After Prince Charles called the summit café, ‘the highest slum in Britain’, it was demolished. Hafod Eryri, a controversial new café and visitor centre was designed and built and opened in 2009. It is creatively embellished with a new, slightly more secular couplet by Welsh national poet Gwyn Thomas –  ‘The summit of Snowdon: you are here, nearer to heaven’.

The philanthropist and mountaineer, Edmund Hillary trained here for his ‘even nearer to heaven’ ascent of Everest and the first E8 and E9 climbs in Britain were recorded here on the ominous Black Cliff of Clogwyn Dur Arddu.

I had some friends from Ireland stay for a few nights. They arrived in Nant on a bleak dark evening, so had no idea of God’s wondrous work, proximity to Heaven or the geological ‘lay of the land’. The next morning they looked out of the skylight in the bedroom and much to their entertainment could only see mountain. Steep sided mountain! They looked to the top of the skylight - no sky, just more mountain! Jokes were made about the house having fallen over in the night, like in some Winnie The Poo story! They laughed all the way back to the Emerald Isle. ‘Lift up my eyes to the hills’ means the iris is buckling-in under the force of its near weight! '

Who shot JR?... In this case Keith Robertson.John Redhead on some outrageous Cloggy thing.K Robertson©





This Friday,the first of two extracts from John Redhead's forthcoming new book...... Colonists Out.
A work that will no doubt prove controversial as the author deals with the darker elements that run through communities where distinct cultures and values clash. In part one, the author describes his experiences within a community where the dead hand of pious Non Conformism stirs a potent brew of mistrust and resentment of outsiders. The following week finds the Redhead family in slightly warmer climes. Now living in the Languedoc region of Southern France,the author describes a culture which pulsates with atavistic customs and values. Culturally a million miles from cold,dour North Wales....or is it ?

Thanks to Keith Robertson and David Dear for the photographs