Saturday, 4 November 2017

The Summit and William Blake

Lakeland Fells: Delmar Harmood Banner-The Lakes Trust

The Climber
Climbing mountains was climbing
himself.  From the summit
he could look down and see below
the problems he had left behind

Thoughts were like flowers on
the ledges, high up and far out,
the best needing to be plucked
dangerously and smelling of courage.

At night there was this mountain
above him, dark as the cave
of sleep he would enter and emerge
from tomorrow to resume his climbing.

R S Thomas

William Blake spoke of spots of time; those fleeting moments in life when one escapes the fetters of ‘mind forged manacles’ to express and experience humanity in its complete wonder; to be alive.

Unusually this was something which Blake had in common with Wordsworth and the Romantics. Where their paths split, where they went their separate ways, was with regards to their understanding of the point of it all. Where they differed so radically was on process and purpose : on how one gets to the point, who could get there and, in the end, what is the point?

The ‘point’ for Wordsworth was precisely that; to reach a place, far removed from the humdrum of daily life. A place where one could see all, and put things into perspective. The preserve of the ‘cultured elite’; of those who had the time, money and temperament to undertake the arduous process of inner reflection and personal betterment. To be ‘good enough’ to view and order the world from an elevated position of superiority.

In sharp contrast, for Blake achievement and identity was never about the individual, nor rooted in personal introspection; it had little to do with getting away from it all. No, for him, to be human was a much more expansive process. For Blake personal identity could only be expressed in terms of communal solidarity and action. That is, the extent to which we can only fully understand ourselves through shared purpose, collective appreciation and communal experience. How it is that we can only truly be, through, and with others. Ultimately, for Blake it is not about escape but about engagement.

From what I know of R S Thomas I strongly suspect that his sympathies were much closer to those of Blake than Wordsworth.

RS Thomas
Blake was no climber, though he loved rambling, and all this may seem a far cry from our modern day sport, but the clue is in the word : the word modern. Blake was writing at pivotal moment in time; the very point when what we now take for granted as the natural shape of ‘modern man’ was actually being moulded and transformed into common sense. Blake had the extraordinary vision to see it coming; he railed against it and warned of the consequences. His non-conformist genius expressed itself in glorious picture-words, laying bare the life limiting contradictions at the heart of the emerging way of thinking. How universal empire would literally corral and constrict our capacity to live. He challenged the illusion of calculability, mocking the idea that value can be reduced to an equation, assigned a number and given a price. But most of all he challenged the authenticity and authority of the self-centred, self-regulating, self-satisfied individual; Mr Average Economic Man, at liberty to spend his pennies at any stall in the newly opened free market. The very person who Wordsworth waxed lyrical about, inviting him to wander on his beloved fells, free as a cloud; just so long as he wasn’t the type who came by train. Wordsworth detested the arrival of the steam train in the Lakes, bitterly resenting the hordes he saw it disgorging at Windermere.

By happy coincidence the day I received The Climber from a friend, I bumped into the re-printed article by Terry Gifford highlighting how narrow thinking by editors has squeezed the space for poetry within climbing literature. What is on offer here is less about poetry in climbing, but more about the poetics of climbing; the words we use to describe our experience, what this may say about how we make meaning out of climbing, what it includes and what it excludes. It is an attempt to develop Gifford’s proposition by exploring the inter-relationship between blinkered editors and a wider popular consciousness which I fear is constricted by its own vocabulary. 

Back in 1984, Terry Gifford wondered ‘how far British climbing writing has emerged from the Rock and Ice era’. His question is as pertinent as ever and the poem by R S Thomas’s helps us address the question. I think that the poem highlights tensions and contradictions within language, forms of thinking and visualisation which still restrict our view of climbing. If we look carefully we can see how Thomas’s language is both beautifully evocative and yet slightly constricted within the confines of romantic language and sensibility. It is only at the summit where the experience is complete, the impression of escape and how insight is derived from courage in the face of danger.

This isn’t to say that these sentiments and evocations are invalid or of less worth, but simply to put them in context. The context of Blake, of what he anticipated would grow into commodity and universal empire. A restricted way of seeing; a way of being built on the muscular ideals of personal achievement, fortitude and conquest; of being the best – the perfect specimen. The key word here is restricted, not right or wrong. Blake simply recognised that this way of being was just that; one way; not, the way.

What strikes me most of all in this is that while climbing continually portrays itself as a counter culture of outsiders, it expresses itself overwhelmingly within the mainstream idiom. We may actually ‘talk’ more like the ‘insiders’ we often scoff. Whilst it is easy to track the extent to which the practice of climbing has escaped the constrictions of polite society and the amateur, it is less clear on how far our talking and writing has progressed. Rock and Ice prised open the doors of the Alpine Club many years ago, quite literally changing the face of climbing, opening it up, making it more democratic in the sense of its ‘membership’. But the extent to which our chatter both then, and since, has escaped the confines of mainstream constructs is less certain. I personally detect a strong continuity of romantic sentiment which both feeds and feeds into a wider set of climbing constructs which are perhaps not as counter as we imagine.

To start with, whilst Rock and Ice clearly pushed the boundaries in terms of who could climb, ‘talk’ about climbing remained firmly rooted in male white tropes, when men were men; rites of passage had to earned the hard way and apparently nobody took themselves too seriously. Later, whilst this hard edge of masculinity soften and more athletic forms of practice were celebrated, the vein of hardness remained as core stratum. Indeed it has continued to be a rich seam within the literature, often expressed as nostalgia for those times of hard training, hard climbing, hard partying and hard womanising. On top of this, familiar romantic tropes such as the savage beauty of nature, trial by ordeal and courage in the face of overwhelming odds have provided the scaffolding for much of the spoken and written word. 

To me this remains as strong today as it ever was. For sure the language has softened, but the underlying sentiments remain present and remain visible within our current self-preoccupation with process and the journey. Just to give one current example. I couldn’t help but notice the latest ‘big number’ headline on UKC recently - “E10 7a” (UKC 11/Oct).  Reading the associated article, I was struck by what I interpreted as reticence : ‘for those interested in the numbers’. Perhaps a healthy ambivalence with regards to a perceived pressure to reduce a long and complex effort into a number; unease at the way in which numbers make good headlines in the same way that points make prizes. The climbing media and its editors are not totally responsible for this either. We can’t blame them for everything that is spoken and written.

Clearly there is much talk and many perspectives on climbing, but I think it is reasonable to suggest that one thing all these different conversations have in common is an insistence on climbing as counter culture. But I am left wondering how counter we really are? If we look carefully at our language then we see that we may be part of a counter culture which is almost wholly dependent on the language of the mainstream to articulate and describe itself. No wonder there isn’t any space for poetry.

Responsibility for where we are and where we go as a community of climbers rests on the shoulders of both the residents and those who purport to speak on our behalf. In this context I think it is great that the other Climber is seeking to add depth of analysis and breadth of coverage into its new format. I also chuckled this week to see that, characteristically, UKC appears to have risen to the challenge by re-defining “ESSAY” as no more than 3 paragraphs (UKC Oct 12 ESSAY: Why do Climbing & Mountaineering attract Outsiders?) . But it is easy to mock this lazy thinking. We should all think about our own language and how we can contribute to developing a more expansive and inclusive vision of climbing. 

William Blake never made identical versions of his Illuminated Books, each one was different. He went to extraordinary lengths to avoid ‘making copies’, refusing to be constricted by what he saw as the identikit cloning of commodity. Similarly, long before ‘extreme sports’ appeared, Terry Gifford was concerned that climbing was being reduced to the “physical and athletic”. We don’t have to go to the same lengths as Blake, but if we are to prevent the total commodification of experience within climbing, then we can start by thinking more about the words we all use. This not about suggesting that all previous work and talk has been sub-standard; it is merely to suggest that it is a partial view, a view expressed largely in the tropes of the mainstream and to suggest that we should not only encourage more voices but also expand our vocabulary.

John Postlewaite: 2017