Wednesday, 5 June 2013

A Harry Griffin: A lifetime of mountains...a Eulogy

The following is the eulogy delivered by the Reverend Canon John Hodgkinson who conducted the funeral of Lakeland mountaineer and writer A Harry Griffin at Holy Trinity Parish Church, Kendal, Cumbria 30 July 2004.

HARRY FELL IN LOVE at 18 and everything that he did stems from this. "For better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death us do part." Some just fall in love, but Harry was infatuated. He often spoke of the magic of the mountains, and Harry was spellbound by them. All other loves had to take second place to the fells.

In his book Long Days in the Hills, Harry wrote: "This book is also, in its way, a love story. Why so many of us have such deep-seated affection for great areas of uplifted land, the largest monuments of nature, is difficult to explain. So many things are part of our mountain heritage - the speech of the dalesfolk, the old stone walls, the smell of the wood smoke on an autumn evening, the wild life, the music of the becks, the silence of the woods and the cheery welcome of a country inn."

First of all for Harry, it was the daredevil adventure of rock climbing, the steep learning curve, the numbing fear and then the exaltation of success, the partnership, the teamwork, like that of men in battle. Fell walking was a means to an end, but then, as he aged, an end in itself. Harry climbed in the Lake District, North Wales, Scotland, the Alps, the Canadian Rockies and in the foothills of the Himalaya. He skied in the Lake District, Scotland, the Alps, Canada and the USA.

Harry had to earn a living so that he could pursue his passion of getting into the fells at every opportunity. He became a trainee journalist at Barrow and then joined the Lancashire Evening Post in Preston. In 1937 he was on the staff of the Daily Mail in Manchester, and he was their northern music critic. Music was very important to Harry, and he was a good pianist. In addition to covering Hallé Orchestra concerts he did many in-depth interviews with world-famous musicians including Rachmaninov, Sir Thomas Beecham, Paul Robeson, Richard Tauber and Paderewski. When Rachmaninov was playing one of his own concertos, Harry wrote that he played the third movement too quickly!

In 1934, young Harry Griffin and attractive Mollie Barker went to Skye. On the second day a boatman took them through a choppy sea on a very uncomfortable journey and they were drenched when deposited at Loch Scavaig. The aim was to walk into the heart of the Cuillin, climb 3000ft through a pass, then down the other side to Glen Brittle. The map didn't seem to help: this was much wilder than the Lake District. They climbed 2000ft, but they had to come back. Another mile's search along the seashore and they tried again eventually reached the ridge, but it wasn't the pass. Some 20 times Harry had to lower Mollie by rope. It was getting dark and still raining. "We scrambled, slipped and squelched in the darkness, fell into burns, tore our already tattered clothes, grazed hands and knees, tripped headlong in the heather."

Then it was just another sodden exhausted three-mile hike until they were welcomed by a very worried Mrs MacRae. Harry certainly knew how to woo a girl. In spite of this, Mollie Barker married Harry on 23 October 1937, suspecting that she would take second place to the mountains. Mollie gave birth to son Robin, who was to became a qualified mountain leader. He completed the ascent, with his wife Mary, of all the 2000-foot mountains in England, and climbed to nearly 22,000 feet in the Himalayas. His sudden death aged only 58 was a tremendous blow to the family. Daughter Sandra is now retired with her husband Tony in Vancouver. Not surprisingly, she also grew up to love both the Lake District and writing.

Now, back to 1939. Harry joined the army as a volunteer. He was commissioned in the Cheshire Regiment and then transferred to the Royal Artillery. As we know, Harry was a man of superlatives, so when stationed at St Margaret's Bay Harry claimed that he was the nearest British officer to German-occupied France. Harry spent one year in Orkney helping to protect Scapa Flow, and then a period in London during the blitz. After intelligence training, he arrived in Imphal, Burma, during its siege, serving also at Mandalay and Rangoon. He once nearly fell out of an aeroplane when taking part in a supply drop to troops behind the Japanese lines. On another occasion he was blown up in an ammunition dump, suffering only very minor injury, but he was never in any danger from the enemy. Demobilised in the spring of 1946, Harry had risen from private to lieutenant-colonel at 34 years of age.

A young Harry Griffin (right) and George Basterfield at Wasdale

After the war, Harry rejoined the Lancashire Evening Post in Kendal to organise new northern editions, ultimately becoming northern editor. Did you know that Harry was the fastest journalist in the world, on water? He attended all the water-speed trials in England of Donald Campbell, and was the only journalist to have taken part with him in an actual trial, when the boat had twin cockpits. They attained a speed of something over 120mph. Harry secured a world scoop for the BBC on the occasion of Campbell's death, a big scoop at the Williams pit disaster at Whitehaven, and several others.

Harry couldn't have done half that he did without great backup from Mollie. They celebrated their golden wedding in 1987, and Mollie died a year later. Harry was desolate. He left his house with its superb view for an apartment in Kendal. I called to see him and he greeted me with "Welcome to Colditz." Two years later Harry asked me to officiate at his marriage at Holme Church. The Master of Ceremonies announced the entrance of the bride, "Violet Macaulay MBE, JP." Harry was aged 79, whilst I was two weeks into retirement, a mere 63. At the reception Harry was in great form. He said that he was sorry to bring this poor old vicar out of retirement to take the service. He added that he was transmogrified. I had to look this up when I returned home. "Transformed in a magical and surprising manner." Harry had written so often of the magic of the fells, and now the magic of this special day. "Magic" was a word that Harry used again and again

The spell was broken all too quickly. Violet died of a sudden heart attack some five months later. He wrote in his Guardian column: "Our last little walk together was five days before she passed away. It was a crisp, sunny afternoon with ice on the track and streaks of snow on the tops. She struggled on bravely up the rise, stopping now and again to look at the expanding view. At the last stop a robin alighted at our feet, suddenly appearing out of nowhere as robins do, and Violet talked to it. The robin, bright red, perky and friendly, accompanied us up the track.

"A week later, re-arranging her possessions and trying to decide which of three large flower pots to retain, her friend told me: 'She always liked that one - the one with the red robins on it. She loved robins.' So I kept that one and it now stands halfway up the stairs, full of her favourite flowers with the little red robin peeping out." Harry wasn't afraid of sentiment and rich colour, and this endeared him to his readers. Seven months later there was a new partner, Josie Barbara Clegg. She was a great carer and of course she spent a lot of time with Harry in the fells. That was essential.

After seven years, the death of Josie brought Harry close to despair. "She wouldn't let me do a thing." Knowing Harry, I don't think that he would have done a thing anyway, but what he meant was that Josie didn't mind. Harry told me that he was helpless, that he couldn't even boil an egg. I told him that he was idle, but he replied, "No. I am a writer."

Harry was indeed a writer, and a writer who was captivated by the mountains, with 14 hardback books about the Lake District to his name. He told me that he had written more books about the Lake District than any other writer, including Alfred Wainwright. The weekly feature article, "From a Lakeland Notebook" was published in the Evening Post for 46 years, and Harry has been contributing to his Lake District Country Diary in the Guardian for an unbroken 53 years. This is the longest continuous feature of any newspaper in the world.

And yes! Harry had worldwide fans. He brought pleasure to thousands, especially to those who were locked into city tenements or exiled in other lands. He described the sky, the wind in his face, the light and shade and rich palette of the fells. The readers were very grateful. Many wrote. All received a reply. But Harry had a short fuse and could even be irascible. Stephen Greenwood tells of how at Dow Crag, Coniston, there was hue and cry nearby. A man off. There were six able-bodied men available and with the help of a big heavy iron stretcher they took the injured man all the three difficult miles down to Coniston to the Black Bull. The man then sprang off the stretcher and said, "Now then, what will you all have to drink?" Harry's comments haven't been recorded, but I wouldn't be surprised if he had wrapped the stretcher round the man's neck!

Modest in writings but also proud of achievements, Harry's Guardian column was headed "A Harry Griffin". It should of course, said Harry, be "The Harry Griffin". He rejected the naming of a tarn after him, adding that anyway it was a pretty undistinguished and dreary pool.
An MBE was awarded in the New Year's Honours List 1996, "for services to literature and the Lake District", and there is the Griffin Bar at the Beech Hill Hotel, Windermere.

Alfred Wainwright gave us his splendid maps and pictures which opened up the Lake District, but Harry gave us its living heart, and he has become a legend in his own lifetime. Harry died in harness, beating his former Guardian colleague, Alistair Cooke, in this respect. His last article was published [on 12 July 2004] along with his obituary.

I visited Harry in hospital. He greeted me warmly and was then very still whilst I blessed him. I whispered "There are still many heights to conquer, Harry". He died the next morning.
I like to think that he became young again, and that when he saw the sheer beauty and infinite challenge of the heavenly mountains, he was ... transmogrified.

Illustration from 'A lifetime of Mountains'The Guardian-Editor Martin Wainwright

Reverend Canon John Hodgkinson. 2004