Friday, 30 November 2012

John Redhead's Colonists

John Redhead and photographer Tony Loxton:

‘Colonists out’ is the title of the latest book by rugged individualist John Redhead. I use that descriptor deliberately, rather than overplayed clichés such as ‘enfant terrible’ or ‘the controversial artist/climber’, because one of the main thrusts of the book (and it thrusts vigorously in many directions) is the author’s desire, nay insistence that the rest of the world accept him just as he is, and accommodate him without imposing upon him a need to conform, to adapt or to change in any way whatsoever in order to ‘fit in’.

At the beginning of the book, we meet Ochre, a lurcher pup adopted by the author. Ochre lives, wolf-like, in a feral state on the hills, feeding himself at the expense of the local wildlife. No tame hound he, Ochre refuses to do what is required to become that, to the extent that John sleeps out in the barn with this kindred free spirit in order to bond. One imagines they could be hard to tell apart.
Ochre makes other appearances in the book, not least on one occasion where he chases, kills and eats a new neighbour’s cat, an act which Redhead finds “beautiful to behold”. He almost comes unstuck though when the cat’s owners appear, searching for their lost pet, necessitating a hasty cover-up of the grisly evidence.

I found this particular anecdote not easy to swallow, being the keeper of several much-loved cats, whom I regard as friends and companions. I would feel some considerable degree of antipathy towards anyone who stood by and watched one of my furry friends be torn apart. His reaction when his young son is rudely snubbed, elsewhere in the book, illustrates Redhead’s empathic nature, but such empathy deserts him here, even though I’m sure he realises that a loved pet is (to many) as much a family member as a child, and no mere prey animal. But then John, like most of us, is a bag of contradictions.

His refusal to compromise even extends to a resistance towards actively learning the language of his host community, be it in the rain-washed valleys of North Wales or the sun-baked mountains of the French Pyrenees.

Ah yes, community. Another target of Redhead’s thrusts. In ‘Colonists…’ he examines and dissects the notion of ‘community’, questioning and even attacking what he sees as the wholly spurious need of people to be part of a wider whole, and their hiding of their true selves amidst a clique, a group, a tribe, a religion or even the concept of a nation, by willingly conforming to its ideals and codes.
Conformity, such a necessity for acceptance in a tribal context, enrages him, and early in the book he rails loudly against ‘Rehoboth’, the name of the squat monolithic Christian temple to an absentee god, which sits adjacent to his sometime home in Nant Peris, and which so directed and corralled the lives of the local people, people who, the author suggests, were already cowed and partly broken by the dank chasm within which they dwelt, and by the harshness of their working lives, making them easy prey for the church.

JR with an installation piece for The Caban, Bryn Refail, Llanberis, N Wales.

He views the more closed-minded elements of the local community through an unsympathetic lens, with no hint of rose-tint, and is contemptuous of their insularity, their inward-looking rejection and resentment of those who are not of their tribe. The nationalist mindset is nowhere as ingrained as here in these shadowed valleys, where the language is the hook upon which their hats are hung.
The language, ah yes, the target of yet another thrust from the thrusting pen of the author, who holds it up here as almost an anachronism, an affectation, a historical curiosity dressed as a cultural necessity, which is misused as a means to exclude outsiders, and as a secret handshake for those who are members of the club.

And yet he adds that, was he Welsh himself, he would speak the language, and be proud of it. Redhead relates an anecdote in which his six-year old son, Ryley, attempts to converse with two local men outside his front gate, only to be pointedly ignored. The implication is that Ryley is ignored for being English, or rather, for not being Welsh, as well, one assumes, as for being a scion of the bohemian Englishman living (the bloody cheek!) in their old schoolhouse!

He ponders somewhat on the great romantic vision, projected by the tourist industry, of noble struggle (largely against the English) in the early history of Wales and finds in the reality, as with similar Scottish strivings for nationhood, as many foreign protagonists as natives, playing walk-on parts in a now re-written story which is selective and overlooks many less admirable facets of that history. He points out that Wales, as such, did not truly exist until long after the squabbling minor kingdoms which occupied the land post Norman conquest, which are oft-times held up as heroic founders of the nation, had turned to dust. In a land filled with mythology, not least is the official myth of the nation’s founding, fed to those too lazy to dig out the truth.

John (I feel able to use first name terms, having once enjoyed his tremendous hospitality) reserves particular ire, bile and vitriol - as he did when I met him ten years ago - for the despised hill-farmers.
These people, sepia-tinted and widely romanticized by the tourist board as hardy characters eking a hard living from the moors and mountains, keeping ancient traditions alive, are (he says) nothing of the sort. They care nothing for the mountains, whose slopes are nibbled bald by their “vermin” sheep, and they understand and appreciate those mountains less than do the weekend walkers and climbers, who come from outside the region. They care nothing for them, says John, yet claim custodianship over them, and resent those who venture onto their slopes for leisure and adventure, a point he illustrates with anecdotes of bug-eyed confrontations and the destruction of a grounded parapente by an enraged little man who claims he owns the mountain. Lunacy!

He recounts such unnecessary aggression as a commonplace thing, sometimes involving bulging veins, Welsh curses and loaded shotguns. Despite this, he is often amused by the farmers, finding likeability even amongst this antagonistic rabble, perhaps sensing the person that might have been, beneath the materialism and behind the nationalism.

He alleges that most farmers are as blind to the true nature of the environment that surrounds them as they are to the wellbeing of their sheep, which are no more than commodities to them. Not that John has much time for sheep. Farmers should fuck off and let trees take over! Graffiti artists spraying tags on crags do less environmental damage - way less - than farmers. Begone the lot of them, squatters where squatters should not be! Colonists out!

A controversial view? Or a view that many of us, lovers of the mountains, share, whether overtly or otherwise? I suspect the latter prevails more with each passing generation.
Although there is much criticism and denouncement of nationalism, and the attitudes which are fostered by it in some quarters, running through his narrative, I do not want to give the impression that JR has a downer on Wales or the people amongst whom he dwells whilst living there. On the contrary, he is at pains to point out that, as with anywhere, there is the usual quota of “sound people” in Llanberis and the surrounding area, many of whom he counts as his friends. Some of these ‘sound people’ make appearances in the book; ‘Barry Biscuits’, ‘Dangerous Phil’, ‘Goaty John’ and ‘Peter Poetry’ featuring amongst the more memorable names.

He contrasts attitudes in his part of Wales with the Wales of the South, where he sees a thriving culture of change and creativity, inclusive and cosmopolitan rather than exclusive, and which gives the language a true international context, a language offered and explained, rather than held up as a political badge or flag, draped over backs turned to the outside world.
Are such closed minds directed to that state by the closed mountains which hem them in? The influence of the land, where John believes the true spirit of Wales lies, on the people who abuse it, is brought into the light, leading to suggestions that the evisceration of the “sacred mountain” of Elidir Fawr has brought some karmic revenge upon those who wrought such violence, people who have for the most part lost any connection they may have once had with the land. The hill farmers aren’t the only ones blind to the bigger picture!

And yet, all is not lost, as John firmly believes that art can remake the lost connections between the land and the people. Art. But not politics. Perhaps therein lies the reason why right-leaning governments continually restrict and cut funding for the arts. Art encourages individualism. Art breeds questioners and rebels, free thinkers. The likes of John Redhead!

Redhead makes the point throughout the book that his true affinity is with the physical reality and inherent spirit of the land itself, rather than any artificial, imposed ‘nationhood’. He senses that the land, the mountains, the very bedrock, are like a living thing, bearing a soul or spirit which is in equal parts ignored and maltreated by the nowadays out of touch humans colonising its surface.
And yet, he finds beauty, terrible and savage maybe, echoing his admiration of Ochre’s cat slaughter, in the “great grey holes” of the deserted quarries: beauty to his eye and ear, and not least to those elusive senses which served him as a climber, stealing up the Rainbow Slab, on the margins of his mind.

A note here: anyone expecting gripping tales of his exploits on rock may be disappointed. Better to seek out a copy of his earlier book ‘and one for the crow’ which is a climber’s wet nightmare, complete with lots of epic photos (there are none here) and made ‘controversial’ (i.e. unstockable by some booksellers) by the cover-art; a photo of John as a grotesque figure with a giant papier maché cock (which also pops up - snigger - in ‘Colonists…’).

No, this book is about belonging and alienation, roots and rootlessness, and perhaps because of that, it speaks far more clearly about the author than anything else I’ve read about or by him.One of the surprising aspects of the book, given Redhead’s previous tendency towards the oblique and the abstract, is the straightforward autobiographical narrative. We learn much about the author, from his unhappy childhood, punished harshly for failing to memorise his times tables, through to the beginning of his climbing interest in the chalk quarries of ‘Little Switzerland’ near Hull, where he spent more time looking down than up, as his eyes followed the plummets of snapped holds into the trees below.

The evolution of the man from the boy provides us with a fleshed-out timeline of his various migrations and the phases in his creative outpourings, be it climbing, painting or, more latterly, soundscapes.                                                                                      

And in this timeline perhaps, we have a sense of what drives him; the magma chamber, hot wellspring of John Redhead’s volcanic spurtings. He seems permanently driven to let out that which he finds within himself, opening himself up, quarrying his soul like the ruined flank of the mountain he loved, ripped asunder above the gloomy defile of Nant Peris.

He claims to have served neither climbing nor art particularly well, and sees his climbs as ‘a contained aesthetic’, akin to a caged animal, which ran wild only at conception and first ascent. Once can still enter the cage, for sure, and still with uncertain outcome, but the hunt is long since over.
This finds echoes in his attitudes to art, and even to such prosaic activity as building, where the real excitement lies in the creation, rather than the finished object or structure. He says he finds building sites, where there is a constant progression and evolution, far more interesting than art galleries. He has a constant need for change and flux, which gnaws at him and spurs him on. It is hard to imagine him ever staying still for long.

Incidentally, he still climbs, it seems, though now more for the sake of it, for the craic, than for the baring of souls.
Perhaps this personal need for change, for movement, for release, and thereby, for self-expression, is what makes him so angry when he sees people compromising their ‘selves’ in order to be a member of the gang, to be anonymous, allowing the purity of their souls to be colonised by convention, by religion, by the expectations of others, rather than exposing themselves to the world. He is frustrated by people’s failure to exorcise those devils which posses them. Colonists OUT!

In John’s world, we are all hamstrung to a degree and, at worst, we are blind to the realities of the universe, inarticulate of the soul, and we fucking well allow ourselves to be that way! He himself forcibly shuns that, resists the colonisation of his soul by exploiters and puppet-masters, opens himself up and drinks in everything around him, exulting, as the seed of his creativity sprays wildly. Mind you, he also loves a chip butty, so he can be lured, with the right bait.

Inward looking as much as outward, Redhead also recognises in himself an innate need to migrate, coupled with antagonism towards settled domesticity. All part of his thirst for flux and entropy. No wonder he bonded with wolf-dog Ochre.

He finds that the comfort and materialism of an established home eventually becomes an obstacle to necessary change. His newly completed sound studio in Nant Peris almost prevents him leaving for the Pyrenees, and it is with difficulty that his inner voice, “The Trickster”, persuades him to pull up those deepening roots and leave, although the argument is persuasive:
"It rains all the time, the people are miserable, you hate the hill-farmers, you can't paint here, you can't go outside without getting into an argument or fight, there is no money, airy spirits and deformed slaves, the bloody sheep shit in the playground, the neighbours are snoops and keep checking the car tax discs and tyres, the, the, the, the hill is a shit factory, there's no golden plover, shot foxes, dead ravens, moles pinned on barbed wire, you talk to yourself…you're fucked here!"

Fed up with the gloomy and oppressive valley and the mentality of some of those around him, he ups sticks and departs for the light and space of the Pyrenees, which really puts a zap on his head, perhaps thinking that he will find a people still spiritually connected with the land and the mountains. And so he does, or at least partly so, and he finds the Pyrenees less mutilated and subjugated than their smaller Welsh counterparts. He also encounters as much nationalism, tribal parochialism, small-mindedness, cruelty and maddening bureaucracy as he left behind. But at least the Sun shines.
In another anecdote, almost an aside, he tells of an incident which should perhaps have forewarned him that closed minds and intolerance are not the preserve of the sun-starved.

He encounters a group of friendly young Berbers on a train in Morocco. Curious about John and keen to practice their English, they quiz him about Britain and the conversation gradually turns to religion. Asked what his church is like, he replies that he doesn't have one, and is met by blank stares, followed by assumptions that he must be a Buddhist! No. Hindu? No. Communist then at least, surely? No!

Unable to accept a complete lack of adherence to a faith, or at least a political ideology, they become angry, calling him "a dog", finding it inconceivable that he doesn't 'belong'. The very idea undermines their own convictions, their own faith. How can a man be just…a man?! A man cannot be his own master! But John loathes 'God', their god, anyone’s god, and the damage such gods do to the human mind and, through the human mind, to the land itself. God has replaced nature, and god represents a dead end, leading nowhere, connecting to nothing.

The Moroccan encounter is echoed in North Wales, where a friendly local farmer, seeking a democratic consensus on ideas for new community projects, approaches Redhead with a questionnaire. Asked his religion, John gives the same reply he gave the Berbers and, once again, the questioner is unable to accept 'None' so he ticks 'Buddhist', reasoning (reasonably enough I suppose) that it is the nearest thing on the list to ‘tree-hugging hippy’.

There are many funny anecdotes and observations in the book, some of them drawing from a dark well indeed. The narrative is shot through with a fizzing streak of his cutting humour, rarely descending to sarcasm but always, always focused and shot through with barbs of wit. He draws laughter even from those things he rails against and which grind his gears. He is not the serious frowner some may believe him to be. Serious clowner, yes.

Who among us could fail to snort tea and crumbs all over the pages at his attempt to purchase a soothing unguent for his itchy anus, an occasion when his resistance to learning the French language truly does backfire! I’ll leave the full details for your delectation.
Anti-establishment to a fault, the car-wrecks of John’s encounters with officialdom litter the highway of his narrative. Is it any wonder, given his world-view and his open resistance to rules and regulations, to being directed?

There is his exhibition at Electric Mountain in Llanberis, which provokes outrage amongst local councillors over a perceived slight to the virtues of the local womenfolk, and which leads to a torchlit Frankenstein-esque procession of angry mums, wielding billhook and rake, beating a path to his door to confront the monster.

John, of course - the charmer! - cuts off their outrage at the knees by taking the overheated ladies, none of whom have actually seen his work, to see it for themselves and make up their own minds (ahaa!), and their anger dissipates as they find truth and humour in his words and images. Crafty bugger. In this action, he impregnates the lot of them, in one go, with the sticky seed of independent thought and action, with a little bit of himself, in other words. No wonder he had to leave town! What offspring might he have fathered there, I wonder?

His initial flight from Wales actually takes him initially to the Basque country on the Spanish side of the border, to Catalunya. Here, he enlists the help of a motley crew of hippies, eccentrics and nut-cases, to help him find a suitable house. He mentions the sunshine frequently, in case you forget that this is not Llanberis.

 Twa Johns:Photo Tony Loxton

Endless visits to Catalan estate agents lead him to few suitable (or affordable) houses. However he keeps searching, perhaps largely due to the impossibly glamorous, perfumed, leggy young women who inevitably deal with the unwashed and slightly salivating Englishman who comes to them, looking for a run-down farmhouse in the mountains. 

Eventually, finding the Spanish side of the mountains to be too heavily farmed, and discovering streaks of nationalism there as hard and xenophobic as anything back in Cymru, he hops over the border to French Catalonia, which is also Basque and fiercely independent, yet with people somehow more open than their Spanish cousins. The mountains here are less tamed, wilder, and he senses that here at last is somewhere that will suit him.

Even there though, he finds unexpected and maddeningly familiar problems.
Petty French bureaucracy rears its frustrating head in the form of the cartoonish Didier, a humourless local Mairie official, who objects to the unsuitable parking of John’s truck. Didier makes it clear to John that he must conform and obey the rules, or he will not be welcome. Oh dear.

And it’s not just ‘official’ officialdom! In rural France, some traditions and attitudes linger sadly in the medieval, relative to Britain, and he almost starts a blood feud with the local Romany gangsters when he quite rightly points out the unacceptable cruelty of their caged circus lion. A caged fucking lion! In the 21st century! Unbelievable!

Unacceptable it undoubtedly is and JR, engorged with wrath, just arrived, speaking no French, has the audacity to attack and berate these gypsies, of whom the locals are openly fearful, and who (he discovers) have a propensity for violence and revenge. But it wasn’t just archaic attitudes to animal welfare, or clip-board Nazis from the mayor’s office which shot down John’s utopian balloon.
There was no “breakfast scene”!

No Full English - with extra banter - in a steamy café, just pastis, cigarettes and croissants, and at set hours only! The local way of life is hide-bound by custom and convention to the point of being regimented, and the lack of choice and availability staggers John. Croissants? Fucking croissants?‼ He can buy shit like that, he froths, at any time of day back in the UK, even in a backwater like Llanberis, which is a veritable melting pot of cuisines by comparison.  And the rigidity of the timings! Breakfast at 8 o’clock sharp! Like old English seaside landladies, the unwritten word is law.
'Zis eez not ze way we do eet, Rosbif! Not 'ere! Non!'

You conform or you starve. Not so much 'colonists out’, as colonists out of food.
It is at this point, one senses, that Redhead begins to realise that you can run, but you can't hide.
In growing frustration, and realising he can't get what he wants in either place, John ends up flying back and forth between France and Wales (must be bloody made of money); for fry-ups and good-natured insults with old friends in the greasy condensation of Pete's Eats, and sunshine and proper wild mountain country in the Pyrenees. He becomes a jack of all places, a manic figure straddling Europe, waving his giant fake cock, complaining and laughing at everything, fountaining his creative juices from whatever orifice is open at the time, incessantly in motion, goaded and coaxed and tempted by The Trickster towards his next move.

'It's a reet grand read' claims Northern author:Photo Redhead Collection

Brian Trevelyan 2012
Photographs:John Appleby(Unless Stated)

To order Colonists Out click here