Friday, 3 December 2010

In Search of Elizabeth Coxhead.

Liz Coxhead on Hope,Idwal Slabs,North Wales

In his review of One Step in the Clouds, Harold Drasdo makes a telling comment on Elizabeth Coxhead's novel One Green Bottle (which is included in that bulging omnibus): `Coxhead has that indulgent affection for her heroine that we sometimes see in the great novelists -especially perhaps in the women.

I hardly think you could call the ending of the novel indulgent, but the exciting, frustrating, moving thing about what Jack Longland called 'by far the best novel about climbing that I have read', is that Elizabeth Coxhead cares about her central character, Cathy Canning, the girl from the backstreets of Birk­enhead who wants to break out of the demoralisation of poverty and the sexual repression of both men and women. Elizabeth Coxhead, I have been discovering, was a person who cared, with enthusiasm and intelligence, in a remarkable range of dimen­sions and ultimately with her own life.

So who was Elizabeth Coxhead? Since she died in 1979 at the age of 70 I did not expect to get much impression of her early climbing. But I found that she had written a chapter called `First Mountain' for a collection of essays edited by Max Robertson  under the title 'Mountain Panorama', published in 1955.

In it she describes the difficulties of getting started in the early 1930s: 'The established climbing clubs froze the ill-connected female with a glance. Inquiring at Wasdale-head. I learned that if I made my way to the foot of Pillar Rock I might there fall in with a noted Lakeland guide. It was true. He already had five clients with him, and they were roping up for the Old North. With real kindness they included me, but naturally the did not change their plan'.

In fact Elizabeth's younger sister Alison still remembers the day in 1934 when the two of them were staying at Burnthwaite in Wasdale on a walking holiday. It was actually both sisters. the 25 and the 20 year old, who set out that day in search of their first rock-climb. Alison says, "I remember us going out rather laughing." You can imagine what she means.

Elizabeth was hooked and started going regularly on Jerry Wright's weekend meets, "more the working-class end of things" as Alison puts it, in contrast to the Fell and Rock. "He very much believed that climbing was a sport for everybody.' When I,put it to Alison that One Green Bottle is clearly a socialist novel, she confirmed that Elizabeth was a socialist who became firm friends with Tom and Madge Stevenson of The Workers' Travel Association, later the architects of The Pennine Way.

Perhaps this rejection of exclusivity explains why Elizabeth never joined a club, although her niece, Miriam. is a member of the Alpine Club today. In fact Jerry Wright's Mountaineering Association provided a kind of club which was orientated towards introducing beginners into the sport and probably gave Elizabeth a source of contacts who, like Maud Godward of the Pinnacle Club, went on the annual trip to Glen Brittle which for many years took up two of Elizabeth's three weeks holiday a year. By 1938 she had published her second novel. It was called 'June In Skye' .

It was Alison who gave me the key to understanding One Green Bottle when I suggested that the novelist seems to be firmly saying that there can be no easy happy endings in life. "But that", she said, "was the zeitgeist of the 30s. And we had that war which you're too young to remember!" I was chastened and convinced.

Although set in 1950, it makes sense to read t as a novel written in the spirit of 1930s socialism, with its vision of the freedom of the hills for working people, its pervasive disillusionment in the face of rising Fascism and its retreat in a commitment to domestic duty. What would also support the reading of the book is an observation by Elizabeth's niece, Miriam. Apparently Elizabeth was indignant when she heard that some readers were assuming that Cathy Canning was based on Gwen Moffat, saying that the character of Cathy was created before she had heard of Gwen Moffat. "In any case", Miriam pointed out, "Gwen Moffat was clearly of the next generation from Cathy since she was able to continue climbing and raise family."

But Cathy Canning's retreat to a life of compromise is see more autobiographically by Miriam. She told me that Eliza­beth's first love ("That's putting it rather strong - a friend", says Aunt Alison) was killed in a climbing accident on Skye. Elizabeth never married. Part of the reason for that seems to have been her commitment to caring, first.for five nephews and nieces whose parents were working abroad, and later for her mother and other elderly relatives. "She had a strong sense of duty and doing the honourable thing' said Miriam. Cathy is equally concerned about her own integrity when she asks herself at one point in the novel. 'How could a lass who was on top of the world be so unkind to a lad who was down?" Elizabeth Coxhead's nephew. the writer and journalist Robert Chessyre, who was first cared for by her when he was two, said at her funeral that she was "a rare human being who combined the highest moral, personal and intellectual integrity with a loving concern for everyone with whom she came in contact."

Elizabeth leads Oliverson's Variation, Langdale.

So who was Elizabeth Coxhead the writer and intellectual? Her father was headmaster of Hinkley Grammar School. At a time when few women went to Oxford, Elizabeth went to Somerville College and gained a first in French. (She was at Somerville after Janet Adam Smith had left and Janet tells me that they "met only once, for lunch, in the 50s.") She spent her working life as a journalist in London, first on the staff of The Lady and then as a freelance for the Fleet Street offices of The Liverpool Daily Post and The Manchester Guardian . Her grandparents lived in Birkenhead and were of Irish extraction. After her eight novels she turned to biography with a particular interest in Irish women. Lady Gregory (1961) has been her most important biographical work. She also served as film critic on the radio programme, The Critics.

These are the barest of facts. What they do not indicate are the qualities that could "make each of us children feel special" as Miriam puts it, or Alison's memory of her as "a strong personality who was extremely generous and willing to do anything for family and friends." That spirit seems to be what Maud Godward observed when she wrote that Elizabeth 'was a great one for encouraging young climbers'.

But how would Elizabeth Coxhead have described her own experience of climbing? Amongst her papers when she died, she left what appears to be an outline for a climbing autobiography. In the brief 'Foreword' she explains that she is 'a poor moun­taineer. I can lead a Difficult in rubbers on a fine day... For these deficiencies I do not even apologise... I started at twenty-five, have always lived in or near London, have never owned a car'

In her notes for 'Section 1. North Wales' two paragraphs in particular speak volumes between their terse abbreviations: The war years. Disappearance of cars and leading friends. Snowdon for full holidays of a fortnight, having it to ourselves. No one to lead but me - I am forced to - ecstasy of no longer being "a parcel". Beginners' routes and by-passes. At last getting to know the country and appreciate its quality - gaunt, austere. Night mountaineering....Start of the mass week-ending movement as the war ends. Genesis of One Green Bottle. Much haunted by Cathy Canning thereafter. Temporary abandonment - as of other scenes where I have laid novels'.

In her 'Foreword' to this proposed book Elizabeth Coxhead insists upon climbing as open to anyone of any age: 'It is not the prerogative of the strong and the. brave'. This may come as a surprise to many of today's young climbers. So here, published for the first time, is Elizabeth Coxhead's rationale for climbing: `A sport is advanced by the handful of people who do it brilliantly, but it is kept sweet and sane by the great numbers of the mediocre, who do it for fun

And this is especially so in the case of mountaineering, which is something more than a sport, being an atavistic hark-back to the original ape in us, or at any rate our nearest approximation to the way primitive man must have covered the ground. It is an urge, an instinct; there is nothing artificial about it; it is like discovering another dimen­sion, like flying, like gliding; it brings one, with senses sharp­ened by physical effort, into the closest contact with natural beauty in the most dramatic form'.

In September 1979 Elizabeth Coxhead took her own life. She had recently had a fall, fracturing a femur, and at 70, realised that she was probably going to end her days as a burden to others. Having spent much of her own life looking after elderly relatives, and being the strongly independent, supremely generous person she was, she wanted, as she wrote in a letter to the family, 'to go out with a bang not a whimper'. It was a brave act of caring. in her own way, for those whose sensitive kindness has helped me try to give climbing readers a little more understanding of the creator of Cathy Canning.

Terry Gifford©
The Joy of Climbing: Whittles Publishing