Freda and Friend
The following essay by John Redhead is an exclusive extract from a forthcoming Gogarth Anthology, put together by Grant Farquhar.
The climbing was never ‘it’.
The keeper of the fog was an old soul and a man of the sea. He kept the time with the tides and talked weather and birds and told his tale. His kettle always singing on the stove, always ready to tempt the odd-climber or bird watcher inside to tell their own tale. He was also the keeper of a book that recorded climbing activities on the stack. He was interested beyond the surface of things, and I guess, being a sociable but solitary man, aware of more abundant life, he was eager to share the life-force. I gave him the peg that I took out of the Cad on the third ascent. The station became decommissioned and the telegraph poles across the mountain carried silence to a dead end. No more sirens. But still the fog. The keeper, in time, possibly became an inmate of a nursing home, and drifted away an unbound soul with hazy musings of white walls atop the white zawn - heads bobbing over the top like seals in the sea, washed with salty tales and jargon of ascent…E7? The Bells The Bells! Time to sound the siren on losing the grip.
The Telegraph pole totemic - wrapping your ropes around like a homecoming caress, throwing them over the cliff and hopping on down for a way up - so many lives hung from this bit of old wood unknowing of its depth - sadly gone. And the old canon from a bygone era, job done, wedged and at peace between boulders – sadly gone. And, from weathered disrepair, in time, an American lady artist bought the silent, whitewashed outpost. I guess no one had told her that not only puffins found this place fun. She drove her Land Rover purposefully over my ropes one day whilst I was half way down Parliament House Cave on the abseil. The jolt I felt was a lucky one but the ropes had been torn. Jesus lady, fuck off! Obviously climbers do not ‘flip her skirt’ and the fog station, built for a storm, her bought solitude, became a temple to her own affairs.
The clown smiles a clown’s smile.
Meanwhile, Punch wields his cudgel… a triumph of amorality and unworthiness, untroubled, rejoicing in yet another battle with the law…
For sure, the climbing was never it.
The climbing was never a game of numbers, apart from one occasion whilst soloing Pentathol with Captain Cliff Phillips. He fell asleep after rolling a little number on the sloping stance near the top, and I had to wedge his head into a crack to stop him rolling off and plummeting into the sea. Gogarth is like intravenous. It kicks in immediately and you have to deal with it. It is a robust domain without clippy-clips and Main cliff sums it up.
When you spend a lot of time on a particular piece of rock, an affinity builds up. One relates, one responds, pushes, probes and enters a dialogue like that with a friend or lover. North Stack is one such wall and for me the joy of moving around on the rock’s surface were conversations held deep in the body and bones. However, these joyful, playful little chats were in fact life threatening and could have led to termination at anytime. Attention, respect the enemy in your friend, and know there is more to this frisson-scampering on the rock than technique or self-preservation. The fragile placing of fingers and toes, chalked-talked the talk and there you have it…or rather not, because I am not just toes and fingers joining dots. And beyond the fear is another terrain that proves the climbing was never it.
It is this terrain that nourished the Trickster that fed me ‘visitors’ that filled my studio, and with each North Stack route, each breath stopped but held to a tiny nubbin, came a little death and with that came a bus-full more, just walking in, cheeky feely, bumping into my body, charging into my head and soul with images, form and colour. Like the climbs, the canvasses were a commitment to uncertain outcomes. No sketching and no planning meant an engagement with doubt, an entry into something unknown. The work asserted itself and moves were made. Once on the holds, it seems, one resorts to chance and an awesome awakening. Only by doubt can such forms enter the world, and only by entering this field can such vital ingredients be summoned. Like a hunt, it suited me. Summon and seize is always juicy.
I admit, I am not a strong climber, but had the strength in the ability to find what I needed on the way. It was my trick. It was like stepping on and summoning the strength from a third person, shuffling up as if ‘literally’ in a six-foot box with all the tools I required. For me, the passage and release upon survival nourished the creative process to actually open the box-lid, turn around and peer inside, be very alarmed, see the joke and act…back in a, hmmm, ‘safe’ studio.
I have done all the climbs here, many more than once and know, as the climber clings to his knowledge and life, that the prospect of death was not the most vital of forces acting upon me. It is an awesome wall and so much has been said about ‘trad’ climbing and anyone stepping on here with an on-sight in mind will get the joke pretty quick. I cannot say what ‘trad’ climbing means in these days of popular climbing vernacular born from institutional sport, but this stage exists for all to experience in their own way.
That force that I felt acting upon me, a ‘lifting away from myself’… is a divine conduit of poetic significance with a breathing planet, not what I consider to be a destructive regime that takes control, as is mostly the case with a sport.
‘Trad’ stands for traditional… unreconstructed in a way I am at odds. But perhaps it means to die… even if the new-born-brave peer down the grade and quantify a high digital readout with a clean gathering of beta, death is the bottom line, and the tidal rocks are the whispering of roots into the hinterland. It ain't gonna be clean with your name on a snappy when your beta talks swazzle. My routes at North Stack were never ‘trad’ to me, and the idea of a sport never entered the equation. Life was too ludicrous, random, still a dirty business with side-stalls of anarchy and nonsense, when rock was more a guide to thought.
Following ‘purple blobs’ on the climbing wall brick-road will not lead you here, I don’t think, but more likely to lead you into staring at traffic lights, or a possible Olympic challenge for the GB team and ambassadors for the State of Rule. Hey ho, piss poor for the old rebel soul receptive to a stranger music, but cool for those who wish to play with the stock in the paddock, learn moves and earn badges! Sorry to tell you guys but what you have lost is greater than what you gain… and I will tell you from my little bit of scary spanning on the stack, from limb to limb, smearing, stretching, swazzling a ritual passage, that nothing in nature is clean, is watching you and writhing in its slime and waste for a better hold. The joke is not just on the stack… and I guess, to be honest, there have been times when the effort to stay on was almost too much, a dangerous slide into a blurred resignation, almost happy to let go of that we call land and that we call body…
So having experienced North Stack as an arena for thought and revelation, I think it’s also cool to die a little… tool up, step on, peer inside, it’s easy, and thanking Kali and her necklace of skulls, there is no sport here! Amen, and enjoy the show!
North Stack Wall – what an epic seaside stage!
As an outsider artist back in the 80’s I penned a few key words by chance and received a grant from the Arts Council. Yes, this was the eighties and proof as such. The actual ‘chance’ bit came while Bobby Drury was living in my caravan next to my studio and the previous evening a frying pan had crashed through a window accompanied by banshee screams from his girl friend demanding an orgasm. Tracy was a tough local cookie and took no hostages. Soon after, with glass shards still falling and tinkling musically onto the slate patio, my studio door groaned open and I was abruptly raped by the blunt-end. The lady of misrule gasps, “That’s the way to do it”.
The next day I coined the idea of a film, based on Stravinsky’s Petrushka and the three puppets imbued with half-life by a Trickster – where ‘no’ means a new caravan window and pan and brush, attraction, jealousy, hate and an audience warning about what’s going on behind your back. Petrushka, melancholic, a mythical outcast, headpiece filled with straw is both victim and perpetrator, messed up by post modern sexuality, blunt-ends needing satisfaction, and a flying, frying pan empty of sausages. A lycra-clad, homoerotic Bobby holds my strings on a North Stack Wall ‘big number’ as a venue. A ten-minute rock ballet was born! It felt like a real joke, dressing up some top climbers of the day, conjured from life’s rich tapestry. I pondered what I had done after I accepted the offer from the Arts Council. I could have picked a ‘safer’, more convenient route for all this theatrical prancing, but The Clown gave it a gnarly edge, an unwanted erection, some psychological trauma, an orgasm and a passage through snappy, surreal space on fingertips. Punch says, “Oh yes I will, it’s a winner”. Eh?
How poignant and enlightening to witness facsimiles of the human race that torture, hurt and abuse, but without the pain and suffering…where death can be imagined as a timeless tragedy.
Some friends of Romani origin had come back to their house in Bangor from the pub and found a stranger, curled up asleep on the sofa in front of the fire. Like the visiting images sliding in through an un-locked door, cheeky, he just walked right in. Being a race confronted by intolerance and hate, they know the worth of a fellow traveller obviously in need, and indeed this stranger made their tinker eyes sparkle with generations of hospitality and goodwill. An unlocked door is the way it is and in a peddler’s domain, way back to the ancient nomads of Asia, is worthy of man and good crack to boot and the show goes on. Thomas had somehow arrived from Sweden, picked a good door, knowing only a little English, without passport or documentation but became good friends with the scrap dealers and stayed in the house for several months. He had been a cameraman for a Swedish television company, and to me it was obvious, Thomas was to be the cameraman.
Martin Crook, well tuned to an outrageous joke and the secrets of the wall, was obviously contender to play Petrouchka the clown wearing a jester’s motley and sugarloaf hat, made by the Mother of his lover. Sawdust-headed and love-torn, he is wary that he is perhaps the subject of some cruel joke that he unknowingly created by wishing to be endowed with human feelings and emotions. And what of Freda Lowe, and how could the clown not fall in love with her?
As the late Harold Drasdo stated, “What is a nice girl like Freda doing in JR’s book?…”
Wearing a tutu, that’s what, Harold. Can’t do it at home, durrr.
“Wearing a tutu, well that’s my job”, said Chris Dale indignantly, the cross-dressing outdoor guide from the lakes!
“It’s cool Chris, I will paint you up proper in textured acrylic, as a grinning Blackamoor, and make sure the costume is made from soft, fluffy fabric, that your glammed-up persona, Crystal will adore, and so will the ballerina”.
At 6ft 6in he was the man-moor-woman, gender confusing star of slate climbing, and the climber of the last unclimbed summit in the UK. Crystal or Chris, sadly neither any more the bouncing characters of glam-rock.
Paul Trower, signed up as ‘safety’ man, no stranger to glam and cool fibres or to expedition hardship and exhaustion. Instead of avalanche, loose rock and bad weather, were the cast of a freak show, logistics of emptying bin bags of sawdust onto a falling clown, a Swede terrified of heights and wearing espadrilles, men in lycra who really should be sectioned, a nice lady, and no idea of how to drop Martin onto me without killing either of us. He found it hilarious!
Clinging to one of Britain’s hardest routes at the time was a feat of total piss-taking and nonsense! ‘I chose to arse’ is not a book I wrote however, and the film did not get BMC approval for how to climb at North Stack. The film was shown once only, at the Mountain Film Festival in Llanberis. And for Shiva’s sake, the 16mm spool and the one vhs copy have been lost in the annals of time and 80’s lunacy. I only have the photos to prove the film actually happened - to prove that the characters lived and laughed and loved. As with old copies of ‘…and one for the crow’ it will turn up one day covered with a dusty patina from underneath a bed, were only the silly trinkets and broken things find solace…
It really does beg the question, ‘Who really is holding the ropes’?
The insidious sounds of a tuba echo behind the flake, mocking. An image of horsemen riding by moves across the rock, horribly disfigured and deformed by the contours of the rock’s features. A clown appears and disappears, his painted face miming the words –
Real, unreal, safe, unsafe.
St Laurent de Cerdans-September 2016
Images-John Redhead Collection