Friday, 1 June 2012

The Rock

As a climber of course, it was the mountains and the cliffs that attracted me to North Wales. As the late Paul Williams, climber and journalist, used to say of his divorce, "It was the climbing, youth, the climbing." I bought Paul’s house near Penisarwaun, or rather Coq au Vins, as Paul called it, after it had become a hollow shell of post-family life. I think it had ceased to be a home and had settled into a base camp of primitive needs. An easy clue was the shelf loaded with cans of baked beans in the kitchen. “I prefer to shite in the garden, saves paying some fucker to empty the septic tank.” His real home was the search for new rock and his family ‘all that could put up with him, laugh and hold a rope’. A bold soul facing the dagger.

On our first day at the new home, Ochre had chased and killed and eaten a cat. I had just cleaned up bits of cat from the drive when the neighbours came round to say hello. Robin and Betty were local folk and easy going. He had been a preacher at some time and worked in the quarries. He showed me his hand where he had lost a finger in a slate-dressing machine. They mentioned that they had lost their cat! As Betty was affectionately describing it I noticed a cat collar by the hedge with a name-tag on it. I ambled over and put my foot over it. We said we would keep an eye open for the moggy! Cloggy had also been a favourite hunting ground of hers. From high up on the cliff hanging from my digits, involved in my own ‘hunt’, I often saw her doing the ‘rounds’ from rucksac to rucksac, converting someone’s lunch to scraps of paper and tin foil. She owned herself on such days. Her attempt to ascend Idwal Slabs after she caught sight of a goat high up was sensational! Our freezer was normally full of all sorts of ‘hillkill’!

I can relate to the rock as home. There is no boredom or ennui or obvious dagger. Moving on rock can be such an intense relationship. Perched on a cliff, your body frames that which keeps you alive. It is of the moment. One must relate to it and be easy and relaxed with it. As you move through the body re-organises itself to a new position, a new frame, a new shelter, and a new home. When I was being filmed climbing Norwich cathedral my internal dialogue was a cyclical - ‘this is my home, this is where I live, this is where I am happy and safe’. Resting my head on the crockets of rock on the spire and closing the eyes and slowing the breathing helped confirm my place on this Pierre de Caen limestone that thrusts up in mysterious allure.

My stumblings into climbing were fairly esoteric. It began by exploring the deserted, disused chalk quarries on the outskirts of Hull. Chalk, as a media, offers immediacy to movement like no other. I learnt to deal with each moment as it happens, unable to ponder or plan or map out a way up. As a general rule, more time was spent looking down following snapped holds and looking for a landing amongst the debris, than looking up! A new position, a new shelter, a new home is a transitory gift up its fractured and crumbling nature. It suited my impatience, waiting for paint to dry in the studio! Like painting, it was a solitary game.

The climbing has played its role and I am quite content now working out and moving leisurely on some boulder problem above a foam mat! In some ways this has brought me closer to the mountain, for although it is an intense activity, it doesn't consume the whole day. Also, you are closer to the earth, and the headspace allows for more consideration of the landscape and ones own interaction within it, not necessarily to do with a cliff seen in climbing terms. This is a dialogue with the rock in ways other than that of movement. It feels like the difference of a home with a lot of clutter that needs a lot of maintenance and consumerism and effort to one that is ‘honed-down’, to create in and make-out and pass through. Bouldering is like a social doss!

Sidelined and marginalised for too long, I seek out a culture that perhaps appreciates an alternative vision a little more. I think that when the society in which you live does not recognize or support you, there is a danger of turning into a bit of an outlaw, an outcast, a bit of an odd geezer. I have survived as such for too long in the mountains of North Wales and it is time to account for myself again, and work out in a situation that is more nourishing.

As a climber said to me while trying to break my fingers in a manly handshake outside Petes, “What the fuck are you still doing here - you’ve done it - you’ve been there – you survived.
Fuck off before it’s too late, before time replaces hero with cripple – keep it real, youth!” Thanks! So tabloid! Keep it real…! Hmm, as if some immortal image, some invincible memory keeps the energy real…like seeing an inspiring collection of photos…the need for immortality…as if hanging out doing other things, ‘in real time’, isn’t real! He made me feel like someone else’s property and I was letting him down!

Fuck off! His handshake was not greeting me but a memory of me. This was surely the ‘dead’ shaking hands. But for sure, being labelled is always an interesting human phenomenon – I will always let people down!

The rock is a sticky business when you have been actively involved with it, leaving you psychologically treading in an emotional wilderness, intimately still part of some movement, some bodily position on the rock face, hanging out there somewhere in the landscape. I see a nubbin of rock in a distant cwm high on the hill and my body inwardly wraps around its contours in a remembered, fleeting embrace. For certain, something watchful is left behind.

I received a letter some time ago from a climber who had had an odd experience whilst climbing on the Black Cliff of Clogwyn Dur Arddu. He had taken a fall on White Slab after being shocked at the presence and image of a man that had manifested behind him. Afterwards, he described this ghost apparition to his friend who suggested it could be me. I recall being pretty gripped on the ‘off-route’ first ascent of the direct. After being shown photographs of me, he shakily confirmed that for sure, this was the presence he witnessed.

 In the letter, he inquired if I had any suggestions or comments as to how such an abominable thing could have happened! It felt like he was seeking a claim for damages. Whether you take this stuff seriously or not, I firmly believe, and felt, that after the violent jarring of my near-death fall on Tormented Ejaculation, I lost something – dangling upside down with loose change spilling out of pockets! Perhaps that ‘loose change’ was a ‘life force’ left behind, only too happy to join the many who weren’t cheated? The two second negotiation ‘appeared’ to have avoided death, but it may have manifested something? How easy is that for the shadows to rejoice in Cloggy’s very own box of tricks?

John Redhead 2012

Extract from 'Colonists Out': Available to order from
Photos unless stated: JR Collection