To compliment the forthcoming John Redhead related material on Footless Crow I'm pleased to be able to republish Harold Drasdo's original review of John Redhead's and one for the crow. Originally written for and published in the UK's Climbers Club journal of 97 and not available in any other media or format until now. My thanks to Harold for permission to publish his original work online...
This is an easy book to describe or to talk about but a difficult book to categorise or to value. It's a sumptuous large-format production which would show handsomely in the book displays of the art galleries the author despises. It consists of text, artwork and photographs. It's loosely centred around forty of Redhead's first ascents in North Wales, 1979 to 1989, all near or at the limit of the time. The lifestyles of the hero and of the climbing community in Llanberis provide a background. The author's thoughts as climber, artist and moralist range more widely.
First the photographs. They're black and whites, one for each climb, and they're mainly the work of Ray Wood. They're the most interesting collection I've seen for years. Apparently they're posed, or at any rate staged, on repeat ascents but that's irrelevant. It's only when the photographer is clearly under the direction of a poseur that we register amusement and few of these bothered me in that way.
I'm familiar with only one brilliant book on the meanings of photographs, Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes. (Haven't tried Susan Sontag.) Barthes deconstructs a selection of black and whites from Niepce to Mapplethorpe with luminous clarity. Might the terminology he appropriated and invented be extended to handle climbing and mountain photographs, and could any collection survive so close an inspection? Possibly, this one might.
Redhead is an artist but calls himself an image maker. His thirteen reproductions are preliminary sketches for large screens, chalk pastel on cartridge paper. They feature humanoid caricatures or plucked battery chickens with human genitalia. They're no doubt designed as bitter satires on society but to me they're just obscure cartoons. On the other hand, tiny stick-like figures dance in glee across the Contents pages and elsewhere. These motifs resemble early rock paintings and they're quite endearing.
The text opens with a Foreword by one of his pals, a Commentary by another, and an Introduction by the author: then there's a piece for each climb,though these often forget what they're about with a dozen lengthier declarations inserted and poems by one of his ladies interposed. Before considering the book as a whole I'll attend to two large obstructions.
To begin with, this is not polite literature. Aside from the language, the content is strongly Rabelaisian. But the author doesn't want a fair trial. I have the feeling that if the book were banned, Redhead would be at once outraged and delighted. (Memo to the DPP: For God's sake don't ban Redhead's book. We'd never hear the last of it and you'd regret it. You'd wake next morning to find those monstrous copulating chickens painted all over your outside walls.) A strong anxiety is evident: the reader has to be shocked. So I'll look now at the book's private parts which are ostentatiously displayed.
The controversy started twenty years ago with the naming of Redhead's climbs. Examples: Menstrual Gossip, Menopausal Discharge, Cystitis by Proxy. This awkwardness has a long history (Kelly and the FRCC; Haworth and the SMC) but Redhead feels wounded and here explains what the words meant to him. What he doesn't explain is why he used them for rock climbs. Or why a half of his climb names are loaded or suggestive. This sensationalism was reinforced by his top-roped but naked ascents of two difficult routes, the rope attached to his genitals; and by the notorious acrylic, painted in place of the flake he dislodged on Indian Face.
The revelations about sexual mores in his circle are entertaining. The tales related aren't (I imagine) more startling than those most of us could offer, were we so indiscreet. They seem spicy simply because he names the cast — and what's a nice girl like Freda Lowe doing in a book like this? — the cast, apparently, being gratified to have its exploits recorded.
Other elements may be thought more distasteful. The author shares, with his lurcher, a keen interest in the bowel motions of his companions, who often have to halt on the path to the crag and scorn concealment. (If this nauseates the reader, and before he declares it an impermissible subject, he should try The Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies; here a great novelist shows how a similar scene can be turned to moral purpose). This ties in with Redhead's obsession with the animal nature he sees in man and with his reverence for the ancestral savage in us. The dog kills a squirrel in the quarries, he takes it home, cooks it, and the pair of them share it. He blows the brains out of his fattened pig and slits its throat not without grim satisfaction. His view of the place of women is somewhere between the Victorian and the Palaeolithic. At this point I'll save space by listing key words frequently used: 'blood', 'entrails', 'primal', 'rite', 'ritual', 'rutting', 'shaman.
It might appear by now that Freud or Krafft-Ebing would have fallen onto the book with joy as a case-study in morbid psychology. Actually, although there's much that's disagreeable or bizarre, I can't find a lot to shock. From time to time he names all the ills of civilisation, but these are too familiar for simple listings to stir us. His difficulty here is that he agrees with us. (If challenged for my latest book-mark for shock I'd cite Jill Paton Walsh's novel Knowledge of Angels.) But, in fact, it's not Redhead's aim purely to shock. His declared aim is to heal us — especially those of us who don't want to be healed or didn't realise we needed healing. This can only be done by first shaking us awake.
The second obstruction is the incoherence or stridency of some of the author's voices. He opens with the announcement 'I am not at ease with words'. In fact he's very free indeed with them, slapping them onto the page like paint. The problems partly stem from his satisfaction with the self-image he's constructed, typified in his view of his art: 'It is the nature of my work to challenge moral and spiritual values...' (p22); 'My work is not in the world to entertain' (p38); 'Expect to be bruised' (p 150). When he's not clowning he takes himself very seriously
From this range of voices I'll pick out a few. Sometimes he comes over as a crazed and sinister prophet, speaking in tongues or projecting such a barrage of wall-to-wall abstractions that only a generalised sense of his message comes through and neither assent nor dissent is possible. In more lucid moments he talks to himself or upbraids the reader. 'Never falter from the dictation of the thrusting need to consummate,' he tells us.
He can be cold or bitter and assessments of contemporaries, outside the inner circle, are often disparaging. The dead — Mo Anthoine, Jimmy Jewel and Paul Williams — are handled badly, those still around — Johnny Dawes. Rowland Edwards and Jim Perrin, amongst others — are carefully undermined. Writing an Open Letter to Care in the Community (the known villain who attacked him with a crowbar has been released on bail) he sounds like an aggrieved and indignant old age pensioner.
Periodically he offers murky dreams and weird fantasies or moves into experimental styles. These didn't move me. He admires the innovators and extremists in the arts. His climb names make allusion to Bosch (neatly), Baudelaire, Dylan Thomas and, he says, Van Gogh. The selection is significant. The writing, though modern in reference, sometimes seems derivative in style and mood. (This is a friendly review.)
I'll pass over idiosyncrasies in punctuation, carelessness in spelling and spectacular collisions in grammar and logic. By now the reader may be wondering why the book justifies so long a discussion. I'm coming to that.
To begin with, ...and one for the crow is a work of absolute originality. I can only set it beside Tsa by Michael Tobias, with which, as Menlove Edwards would say, it is not comparable. Its effect rests partly on its good looks. Redhead is a brilliant designer and knew exactly what he wanted. There's no reason why an inexpensive book on poor paper shouldn't be attractively designed but most book-lovers would feel great pleasure in handling this opulent production.
Further, the determined reader will find some excellent writing half-buried in the text. When Redhead forgets his missions — when he concentrates on the moves on one of his desperates or notices the outside world — his perceptions become organised. (His diary recording the salvaging and carrying of two thousand slates from an abandoned shed high in the Llanberis quarries will hit anybody who's shifted timber or building blocks for weeks on end alone.)
When he's not attacking the ethics of other contenders he's sharp and interesting on climbing style. His contempt for the consumer society is pointedly expressed
though it's a little odd to meet it in this expensive book.
He can be extremely amusing and his picture of the Llanberis climbing community in the eighties is fascinating and, I think, valuable. Surprisingly he sometimes permits his friends to upstage him. Those climbers who've repeated any of Redhead's prestigious routes (and who, beginning with the class of ' 79, must by now amount to a substantial company) will, of course, find the book fascinating.
In fact it's so various that it's not possible to assign it any fixed place. It's full of absurdities and yet its energy and inventiveness, together with a vein of poetry and an appalling honesty, are notable. I felt by the end that although he didn't sway me I couldn't help liking the author. I'd offer to help but know he'd resist help angrily so instead I'll caution him. Maybe he should be just a little bit more discreet. This island is a redneck outpost where healers and prophets are always at risk. He should remember Auden's epitaph on three of his precursors:
Lawrence, Blake and Homer Lane, once healers in our English land;
These are dead as iron for ever; these can never hold our hand.
Lawrence was brought down by smut-hounds, Blake went dotty as he sang, Homer Lane was killed in action by the Twickenham Baptist gang.
First published in the Climbers Club journal 1997: Thanks to Harold and the CC.
Published: To Hatch a Crow: 1/3/2011