‘Unknown Pleasures’ Andy Kirkpatrick. Vertebrate Publishing.... £24
‘I want to be me, I want to be free’... Toyah Wilcox... Jubilee.
I guess if anyone in the climbing world wants ‘to be me’ then that person has to be Andy Kirkpatrick, who grew up in straightened circumstance, on a Council estate in Hull. For so many years now he has been doing his own thing, almost a ‘Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner’, seeking out climbs where the danger is real, and safety questionable, confounding his critics and delighting audiences with his stand up comedy performances, that are based on his life and hard times on some of the gnarly big walls and mountain faces of the world. Having noted this, I expected ‘Unknown Pleasures’ (The title gleaned from a ‘Joy Division’ album) to be a laugh a minute, albeit couched in fruity discourse, but no I found this a serious and thought provoking read. I only laughed out loud once in digesting its contents.
There must be something in the water in Hull and its surrounds for besides this author, Joe Tasker, John Redhead and Alex MacIntyre all hailed from within its flat landscapes. It is interesting however to think on this author’s family name, not Yorkshire at all but lowland Scots. We are such a mixture in this country, but this Kirkpatrick is I guess almost a one off, despite the fact he is seriously dyslexic, which was not diagnosed until his late teens, and admits he cannot spell, punctuate or has any grammatical ability, yet he has twice won the Boardman/Tasker Mountain Literature prize. And for myself, his first such, Psychovertical is a modern classic about climbing and climbers.
‘Unknown Pleasures’ is a collection of 32 essays, and the range of subjects covered is best described as ‘diverse’. So much so that I had to stop reading on occasion to re assess my own thoughts on some of the topics included; yes there are some essays that are hard core climbing, but others that touch on relationships, parenting, mental health including suicide, the workings of the media and its misuse, abortion, Nazi atrocities in a French village in the last war and so much more. I do not think it will be ‘Big’ with those who get their kicks only indoors on plastic, but if you wish to be made to think about the meaning of it all then this might be the book for you. However already the trolls are at work on the so called Social media, which is not social at all, and often uninformed, but I think the author is of such a background that he can turn their ill thought out criticisms to his own advantage.
Maybe we should note here his 30 plus ascents of El Capitan, five of which have been solo, including The Reticent Wall which was the central theme of ‘Psychovertical’, his ski crossing of Greenland, and climbs in Patagonia, Alaska and Antarctica plus his writings about these adventures; which now it seems has enabled him to write, and unburden himself about events and relationships that have troubled in his past.
The essays carry so much feeling that at times I found myself wondering why the author had decided to let us in on the trials and tribulations within his own personal relationships. I cannot think of any other climber who has done this with such honesty. The climbing essays are as one would expect from this writer page turners, and the ones about his early life in Hull ‘The Land of Green Ginger’ and ‘High Marks’ when he was finally diagnosed with extreme dyslexia are interesting and in the case of the latter educative. What undiagnosed problem might we also be suffering, I was always unbelieving when Don Whillans confessed he suffered from an undiagnosed vertigo condition, but having read Kirkpatrick’s story, maybe we were unsympathetic to the Villain’s plight in that respect?
The two climbing essays I enjoyed the most were ‘The Troll’s Gift’ and ‘Queen Maud Land’, the first about attempts and a successful ascent of the Troll Wall in Norway, and the second about being some kind of guide to a party of Norwegians intent on climbing Ulvetanna, a difficult mountain which they wished to ascend and then Base Jump from its summit. In setting the scene about this, he decides that he must start thinking about the cold conditions like his companions. They seem totally inured to such, and I can vouchsafe for this myself when one winter in the 1980’s in Lappland, I made a winter climb with a Swede and two Norwegians. The latter spent each weekend in winter camping near some climbing objective, their secret in combating the freezing conditions they informed me was they slept on reindeer skin mats. I think the author’s writing in this essay is amongst his finest and, despite the fact that his Norwegian partners on this climb were novices they were successful in climbing a mountain, which had previously been regarded as extremely difficult.
This is a surprising fact of some of Kirkpatrick’s climbs, he climbed the Nose route on El Capitan, with a scratch team of Irish climbers including his second wife, some of whom had never multi-pitched previously, and another stand out adventure was in the ascending of El Capitan with his 13 year old daughter, Ella. As someone who was in the Valley in 1966, and can still recall the awe that such routes were held in at that time, I can only gasp in admiration at his chutzpah! However Warren Harding the pioneer of the Nose route over many days/weeks of effort, would in my experience as I knew him quite well and actually climbed with him on Yorkshire gritstone, no doubt be falling about laughing at the Downward Bound standing now of his climbs in the Valley, including the Dawn Wall.
One essay, ‘Celebrity Abuse’ that I am sure will be read with interest, is the ascent of the Moonlight Buttress in Zion National Park with the BBC presenter of ‘The One Show’ Alex Jones, for all such live TV presentations, have a potential for spinning out of control. The author had no idea who Alex Jones was when he was phoned to lead this event, mistaking the name for Aled Jones the former uber choir boy. Only one training session was managed at the Castle Climbing Centre in London, and poor Miss Jones who was not a climber was taught how to tie in, prussik and move up and down the wall.
However despite everything the climb was successful, although we learn from the essay that several juicy bits were cut from the broadcast, it was well received and raised £1.9 million for Sport Relief. One matter which the author does not avoid in his Big Walling stories, is the business of toileting, and one can imagine that such as Alex Jones finding that on this wall in Utah, she was expected to poo into a paper bag, it must have been off putting for such a none climber, and a media star!
The later essays do take on ever more serious themes, especially such as those listed under the heading ‘Life, Death and in Between’. The death of Dean Potter, in the essay ‘The Artist’ affected the author deeply for he was by any standards an amazing adventurer. Climber, Base jumper, slack liner and much more, a Yosemite legend but true to his Yorkshire roots Kirkpatrick does not endorse empty eulogising, just remembering the meet ups, the banter, the friendly support from such an outstanding personality. Nor has he any wish to be involved in climbing circuses like those now surrounding TV personalities or Everest junkets, hitting home hard and true with his views in the essay, ‘Everest sucking in a barrel’.
His final essays which he classifies as ‘Unidentifiable’ have little to do with climbing and much to do with life, in all its different forms. The essay ‘Roger Godfrin’ is disturbing for it deals with a terrible massacre in a French village, Oradour-sur-Glane by men of the Waffen-SS. ‘Roger Godfrin’ of the title, a young boy who disobeyed the orders to line up, and who said to a friend ‘They’re German’s, They will hurt us. I’m going to try and escape’. And he did whilst the hundreds who obeyed orders from their teachers, priests and the SS were all murdered.
The book finishes with an Epilogue ‘What I’ve learnt’ and notes about The Essays and their origination histories. In the first of these ‘Not Your Man’ you get the essence of what Kirkpatrick is about. He is not a made over, Instagram warrior. He certainly try’s to tell it without flim-flam as it appears to him, and for instance now living in Ireland with his second wife, who is from that country he is not afraid to give us his views on abortion, in another judgement piece he lets rip about the CIA, the Contras, Nicaragua, drugs and the secret Iran arms deal and much more. He also tells us that a Gay contact had told him that if he also was such, he would be a BEAR. His wife likes to refer to him as ‘Polar Bear’ for he is physically solidly built! And typical of his roots in the East Riding he is an avid tea drinker.
So I leave it at that, a most unusual book from a talented writer. I guess it is not going too far to declare him an artist? I have no doubt that some will find this book controversial, demanding and challenging. But I enjoyed reading it, and would recommend others to do the same. It is well produced, and is a case bound book that meets the high standards Vertebrate have set for this type of production.
Dennis Gray: 2018