Tuesday 31 May 2011

Coming up: Michael Combley's nut obsession !

John(Barney)Brailsford left: Mr Moac to you!

"The rising fear grows exponentially as the lead rope runs out, perhaps a couple of micro’s are shoved tentatively in a crack somewhere below but the reality is that those wires are just there to prop up the fast fading self confidence.

The single red 11mm rope creeps slowly out and the space below yawns, an open mouth waiting to swallow the hapless leader into oblivion.
The curtain of nuts on slings that hang from both sides of the harness right now are currently totally useless and purely decorative.Then, scrabbling over an edge and onto a narrow balancy ledge there is the crack, smiling sweetly and beckoning.
A shaky hand reaches down and selects a runner from the harness. With a satisfying clunk and a robust snatch on the 9mm double fisherman’s knotted sling, a Moac pops snugly into the crack and the lead rope snaps into the krab.

 A deep, deep series of breaths are inhaled and exhaled, the tension quickly evaporates and the gaping maw closes shut.'

This Friday;resident Aussie exile Michael Combley, waxes lyrical on the timeless qualities of the Moac nut. A simple wedge of metal still held in affection by those of a certain age.

Thursday 26 May 2011

Colin Kirkus: Gemini rising.

Legend has it that the Welsh cliffs of Craig yr Ysfa were discovered by telescope from Scafell. Perhaps through the same mystical -spyglass we can look back across more than half a century. to 1927, and focus on a moment of human drama being played out on this mountain situated in the remote Cameddau. High up in B Gully, a solitary youth has been struggling for some time, to overcome an awkward chock stone in the main pitch. His position has become quite serious as the normally greasy crack has been made even more inhospitable by heavy rain. Hanging by one hand he frantically scrapes some mud from a crevice in an effort to make it go, but it is now an uneven contest and as his strength gives out he slips backwards and falls about 15ft to the bed of the gully. Pride dented, though otherwise unhurt, he rushes again at the crack and is again deposited at the bottom, this time sliding dangerously near the edge. It was only then he decided to call it a day and make his way back to his holiday digs in Betws y Coed.

Later that week, after climbing solo on Tryfan. the young tyro found himself spread-eagled on the exposed crux of a climb called Lazarus. far above Idwal Slabs — once again, climbing alone, he became committed on a large mountain crag, with no one to help if he got into difficulties. Unable to make the hard move, he lassoed a small spike with a length of line and escaped by clambering up the rope. Anyone who has done the route will know exactly where this incident took place.Colin Kirkus, nudged by providence, miraculously survived that holiday. He was 17 years old and was serving his time in the hardest possible school of solo climbing. The following year he joined the Climbers' Club and with the guiding influence of more experienced climbers, especially Alan (AB) Hargreaves, this shy gangling youth. for the next seven years, strode like a Colossus across the British climbing scene. During this time he made about 40 first ascents, many in the upper grades of difficulty. he demonstrated, by example, what was possible on Welsh rock, and his routes, characterised by long, unprotected run outs on steep open rock, represented the aspirations of an age.

Then in 1934, a fatal accident to his climbing partner. Maurice Linnell, on the icy slopes of Ben Nevis.was a body blow from which he probably never really recovered and extinguished most of his interest in serious exploration.
He was born in 1910 and as a boy spent many of his annual holidays in North Wales with his family, often scrambling on outcrops with his younger brothers. At the age of 12 he acquired Abraham's British Mountain Climbs and it was this publication which, like so many of his generation, directed his interest in classic rock routes. It should be remembered that there was very little general climbing literature around at the time. Later, he worked as a clerk in a Liverpool Insurance Office, and during those early formative years would sometimes walk or cycle to the crags in Snowdonia — a round distance of 90 miles.*

*(Actually Liverpool to Central Snowdonia and back is more like 120 miles )

It was during one of Kirkus's solo outings when he met up with a group of CUMC members, including Ted Hicks,one of the Cambridge Club's leading climbers, and Charles Warren. Memories of that day in 1929 are tantalisingly rare, but Warren recalls the incident with some surprising clarity:" Hicks and I had been climbing on Tryfan and were at the foot of Terrace Wall, we were about to embark upon Ivan Waller's classic climb when a solitary figure appeared from below. Now, in those days, we were strictly brought up in the traditions of the Club and climbing solo was something to be deplored. And here was a climber on Tryfan unroped. We accosted him and invited him to join our rope. It was Colin Kirkus. We thereupon proceeded to climb Belle Vue Bastion. After that  we realised the fellow was no ordinary person and was the dominant leader throughout the rest of the day when we went to climb the Direct Route on Glyder Fach. Kirkus then indicated he would like to attempt a narrow groove on the East Buttress, previously unclimbed. At first he explored it on a top rope then led it soon afterwards. The crux being the last 20ft, preceded by a difficult overhang, when there is no looking back — the route was duly christened, Lot's Groove. Hicks was the only one able to follow".

The modern grading of Lot's Groove is Hard Very Severe 5a. The following day the party met at the East Face of Tryfan where Kirkus proposed to try a new line on Terrace Wall which resulted in Central Route, considered somewhat harder than Lot's Groove, even Hicks could not follow. This tour de force by an inexperienced 19 year old was remarkable, of his technical ability there was no doubt, but his apprenticeship on big rock walls was still to be made and someone was needed to keep him on a loose rein.
It was at Helyg, the Climbers' Club Hut in Ogwen, where he first met Alan Hargreaves; their first climb together was Holly Tree Wall, a polished, classic VS in Idwal which they did in nailed boots. Kirkus's reputation for solo climbing had preceded him and many established members regarded him as reckless. Despite this, the pair climbed together on a regular basis, both in North Wales and the Lakes. It is interesting to speculate how long Kirkus would have survived if ABH had not taken him on.

The diamond shaped Craig Lloer in the Carneddau range.Home of one of three classic 'Kirkus Routes'in N Wales

On first acquaintance they were an unlikely partnership, Kirkus, rather shy and remote, not easy to get to know, was in direct contrast to the diminutive Hargreaves, six years older than Colin, with a forceful personality and a prickly disposition, but tempered with an impish sense of humour.
When unable to reach Snowdonia, he honed his instinctive skills on the sandstone outcrop of Helsby Crag, where he reinforced his belief in himself and his ability to move up vertical rock, relying on finger strength and what ABH calls his 'extensible reach'. Supported by ABH, Kirkus and Hicks forced 25 climbs here and produced a new guide for Helsby.

He was not considered a smooth performer on rock, to some onlookers he gave the impression of awkwardness, almost akin to an ungainly colt. On Derbyshire gritstone he looked un-coordinated, yet he left, for posterity, Kirkus's Corner on the Flying Buttress at Stanage Edge. At a techni­cal grade of 5b, and now El, it was probably unrepeated for 20 years.
By 1930 Kirkus came of age and was acknowledged as the outstanding climber in North Wales. With ABH he made the second ascent of Longland's on Clogwyn du'r Arddu, taking four and a half hours in the process and removing vast quantities of rubble and vegetation — it had all the epic qualities of a first ascent. After that there was a sortie to the Lakes for a fifth ascent of Gimmer Crack and an eighth of Central Buttress. Although the year did not begin well when Colin took a 70ft fall from the Great Central Route on Dow Crag breaking his toe and turning ABH upside down on the belay stance. Apart from the fact that he was facing the wrong way on the South American Crack, Hargreaves thinks lack of fitness and over-confidence were the main causes. Kirkus later returned and became the first to lead the ex­tremely difficult Bandstand Wall without aid. It justifiably retains a technical grading of Hard Very Severe 5b — many modern climbers avoid this move and climb the alternative corner.

The next few years were memorable ones and under the stimulus of talented campaigners, such as Alf Bridge, Graham MacPhee, Ivan Waller and the brilliant Maurice Linnell, he was to change the face of Welsh climbing. In an analysis of pre-war climbing, Clark & Pyatt's Mountaineer­ing in Britain had this to say..........
 From 1930 onwards, Kirkus was, perhaps, the most outstanding leader operating in North Wales. He appeared dedicated to the creation of difficult and ever more difficult routes. Between 1930 and 1934, Kirkus radically altered the contemporary assessment of what was possible on Welsh rocks.

In June 1930, he pioneered Great Slab, the first route on the West Buttress of Clogwyn du'r Addu, with Graham MacPhee. Many had looked at this area of rock, especially Fred Pigott, but were intimidated by the rampart of over­hangs which guard the lower cliff. Kirkus, not to be denied, found a weakness which allowed a flanking attack. The initial traverse was the crux pitch and the key to the climb. Unlike Kirkus, modern climbers can protect this move, 'The traverse was Very Severe', he later recorded, 'there was one sloping hold where my rubbers would not grip at all, so at last I took them off and managed to get across in my stock­ing feet'.

Because of the scarcity of stances MacPhee tied two ropes together and Kirkus found himself climbing, at times, on a vertical, grass roller coaster — it was an impressive lead by any standard requiring a combination of nerve, skill and an impressive degree of moral fibre. Today's relatively clean route, no more than Severe in its upper reaches, yet still inescapable, is light years away from the loose and vegetated ascent which he faced 62 years ago. It was probably Kirkus who coined the nickname, 'Cloggy' for the cliff.
Soon afterwards, he laid siege to the open section of slabs on the nose of Dinas Mot, the subsequent climb took five and a half hours in the making. The final crack was climbed in stockinged feet, where they took a battering — he then attached his bloody socks to a tree, like a 'talisman', where they remained. for a long time, above, what was destined to become, one of the finest of Welsh climbs — it was of course, Direct Route (Very Severe).

After Great Slab. there was an all too brief love affair with 'Cloggy'  which produced Chimney Route, with Menlove Edwards. and Pedestal Crack, which he climbed with  Maurice Linnell. On the 19th June, 1932, he led Linnell up Birthday Crack. (by coincidence they were born on the same day), then in the afternoon, a joint effort solved the dilemma of Curving Crack on the East Buttress.
The penultimate pitch of Kirkus' magnificent eponymous VS(5.8) climb in Cwm Silyn

Other notable routes which fell under his prospecting include a classic Very Severe, on the isolated Great Slab of Craig yr Ogof in Cwm Silyn, which bears his name. There was a return to Craig yr Ysfa where, perhaps seeking some form of retribution, he soloed a Severe line on the exposed upper cliff which he called Pinnacle Wall.
With Ivan Waller, he provided the solution to another outstanding problem on Dinas Mot — it required a typical Kirkus lead, requiring total commitment on the long serious runout, and was quite modern in its concept. It was eventually called West Rib, with a present day grading of Hard Very Severe 5a. After that, they went up and down the Nose of Dinas Mot. Waller, a few years younger than Kirkus, and a fine performer in his own right, found climbing with Colin hard. He told him that he was taking things too near the limit.

Some of Kirkus's contemporaries did question his judgment  on occasion. Ernest Wood-Johnson, recalled one incident on the East Wall of Idwal Slabs, when the face was running with water, and Colin was attempting to force a route up Heather Wall.... he was quite high off the ground and obviously in trouble with his feet sliding down this sloping ledge. Precariously balanced, he was unable to accept a top rope and had to be lassoed, cowboy style, before a rescue could take place'.

On another occasion he fell from Fergus Graham's Javelin Buttress, while trying to bring some circulation into his cold hands by flapping them about. Hargreaves was to save him again, in 1932, on Craig yr Ysfa, when a piton he intended using for aid, in an effort to make a direct start to Pinnacle Wall, popped out and Kirkus fell about 30ft, hitting a ledge on the way down, before he was fielded by ABH —to his knowledge this was the only occasion Kirkus had used pitons, which at the time was extremely controversial, 'I was shocked' Hargreaves wrote, 'because we two generally agreed that steeplejack's ironmongery was out of place on crags, British crags at any rate...'

He was the first to open up the East Buttress of Scafell with his magnificent Mickledore Grooves — a masterpiece of route finding. It was much sought after, attempted by many of Lakeland's leading climbers, including H M Kelly. Some years before, Kelly made a serious attempt to reach the big groove by traversing in from Mickledore Chimney. Kirkus led a direct attack by climbing the short, overhanging wall, below the steep grooves, which led to a platform, from where he was able to launch his assault on the undercut slab. Unhappy with the lack of friction in his sand shoes, due to the large amount of damp vegetation, he climbed in socks an took an hour to lead the slab pitch — there was no protection on the 140ft run out.

The cluster of pitons on the slab ap­peared after the first ascent and brought a sharp rebuke from Kirkus in the Wayfarers' Club Journal — he was not averse to the use of pitons. but he reasoned that if a climb is first led without them, their subsequent use could well tarnish the first ascent. The route today is considered delicate and sustained at Very Severe 4c. Pioneered in 1930, Mickledore Grooves, in mane ways. was a warning shot across the bows of Lake District climbing, reminding them that the balance of exploration had swung firmly towards North Wales, and it was to stay there for almost a decade.

Hoping to be named for the 1933 Everest Expedition he set himself an intense training programme, this included a series of stamina-testing walks and climbs. During a 24 hour period in 1932 he biked 135 miles to Capel Curig, from where he walked over to Pen Helyg, Camedd Llewellyn, Glyder Fawr, Crib Goch, Crib y Ddysgl and back to Capel Curig. Seemingly oblivious to cold and discomfort, he trained his body to endure hardship and slept in the open on Ben Nevis in winter conditions, probably to prove a point.

Although he did not show it, Kirkus must have been bitterly disappointed when he learned of his exclusion from the Everest party. His limited Alpine experience was one of the reasons given and there were reports he suffered from altitude sickness — this probably came from Frank Smythe who had climbed with Kirkus in the Alps and was an influential member of the Alpine Club. It is generally thought that Kirkus, who was not ex-public school or an Oxbridge graduate. was considered not the 'right stuff — It was elitism in the worst possible taste and an all too familiar example of the pre-war class system in this country.

There was some compensation when he was invited on the Marco Pallis Himalayan Expedition to the Gangotri Glacier in 1933. Among the peaks ascended was the unclimbed Bagirathi South (6,866m). Charles Warren remembers Colin's brilliant lead on the most difficult section of the climb, without which the party would not have have reached the summit. In a report in the Alpine Journal, Warren recalls:
`At the period when it was accomplished this ascent was perhaps deserving of greater recognition than it received at the time, because it demonstrated what could be done on a difficult Himalayan peak. of considerable altitude, by a small party carrying its own equipment'.
The Easter weekend of 1934 saw Kirkus and Linnell camping on Ben Nevis. They had travelled up on Linnell's motor cycle. overnight from Kendal. After spending Good Friday skiing. they embarked the following day on a me­dium-difficult snow climb in Castle Coire. Towards 3pm in the afternoon they were not far below the summit plateau, with Kirkus in the lead, the snow conditions were good as he prepared to negotiate the final pitch.

Without warning a snow-step broke below Kirkus. He fell, feet first, down the slope, attempting to brake  with his ice-axe but to no avail and Linnell was pulled from his stance as Kirkus was swept, a full rope length, over the cliff. They both plunged another 200ft or so and were only stopped when their rope became snagged. When Kirkus regained consciousness, he found Linnell dead, strangled by their climbing rope. Despite his injuries, including impaired vision, he secured Linnell's body and climbed to the summit for help. After the accident, Kirkus recovered in hospital at Fort William and Linnell was buried in a small graveyard in Glen Nevis. Sadly, Linnell's parents, no doubt overcome with grief, accused him openly of causing their son's death.

Kirkus was taken down to Idwal Cottage in North Wales, by Connie Alexander, a close friend and Warden of the Youth Hostel to convalesce. For a long time he did blame himself for the tragedy, suffering from severe bouts of depression A great deal of credit must go to Connie Alexander for his rehabilitation. Gradually he rekindled an interest in the mountains, soloing around the crags in Cwm Idwal, alone with his thoughts. There were a couple of modest, new routes on Cwm Cneifion,towards the end of 1936, and two years later, a trip to the sea cliffs of Cornwall. He was commissioned to produce a new Climbers' Club Guide for Glyder Fach, published in 1937 and described by Kretschmer as " perhaps the best liked and most useful guidebook for the average climber'. The project helped to show he had not lost all his nerve and ability but it was a passing phase, the real spark had gone.

A great deal of his time was spent encouraging and coaching novices on simple climbs. Later, he wrote Let's Go Climbing, a book for beginners in which he displayed his communication skills simply and clearly — like the man, it was without pretensions. When war broke out, in the autumn of 1939. there was no specialist training in mountain warfare. To counteract this, the War Office set up various military units in North Wales, Cornwall and Scotland with top climbers, such as Alf Bridge, Wilfred Noyce and David Cox as mountaineering instructors. Kirkus would probably have been ideal for this venture, but instead he enlisted in the RAF and was trained as a navigator and bomb aimer. It is said that he hoodwinked the military medical board, hiding the fact that his eyes, damaged by the accident on Ben Nevis, were defective — a surprising decision by him, considering his aircrew duties. Perhaps he felt the need to volunteer for the RAF because his elder brother was killed in 1939, when his plane was shot down over Keil in an early RAF air raid over Germany.

Colin Kirkus climbing at Bosingran- Cornwall

After training, he was transferred to Operations Bomber Command, eventually becoming a member of a specialist `Pathfinder' squadron, laying flares, at the target, for the incoming bombers. He took part in the first 1,000 Bomber raid on Cologne. All through the war RAF casualties, on night bombing raids, were depressingly high and a limited tour of duty was introduced. After 25 operations, aircrew were given the opportunity of standing down. Few thought they would ever make it. Kirkus, in the latter stages of his service, when he was approaching his 25th 'op', had a sense of foreboding as to his ultimate fate, and said as much in a letter to Connie Alexander, shortly before his plane was reported missing over Bremen, in September 1942.

Kirkus was 24 years old when he withdrew from the forefront of British climbing, probably we did not see the best of him — certainly his partnership with Maurice Linnell, which had all the hallmarks of greatness was, potentially, the best balanced team since the days of Herford and Sansom.

Perhaps it is appropriate for Alan Hargreaves to have the final word:

As a man he was a delightful companion on the hills, full of fun and interest in the things around him... to those who did not know him well he may well appear dull, but this was not so — he was a simple soul, not much interested in the complicated ways of modern life, finding his escape and true expression in mountaineering.

Ken Smith: First published in High September 1992 

Tuesday 24 May 2011

Coming up: Ken Smith on the legendary Colin Kirkus

Alan Hargreaves and Colin Kirkus circa 1930

" It was during one of Kirkus's solo outings when he met up with a group of CUMC members, including Ted Hicks,one of the Cambridge Club's leading climbers, and Charles Warren. Memories of that day in 1929 are tantalisingly rare, but Warren recalls the incident with some surprising clarity:`Hicks and I had been climbing on Tryfan and were at the foot of Terrace Wall, we were about to embark upon Ivan Waller's classic climb when a solitary figure appeared from below. Now, in those days, we were strictly brought up in the traditions of the Club and climbing solo was something to be deplored. And here was a climber on Tryfan unroped. We accosted him and invited him to join our rope. It was Colin Kirkus. We thereupon proceeded to climb Belle Vue Bastion. After that  we realised the fellow was no ordinary person and was the dominant leader throughout the rest of the day when we went to climb the Direct Route on Glyder Fach. Kirkus then indicated he would like to attempt a narrow groove on the East Buttress, previously unclimbed. At first he explored it on a top rope then led it soon afterwards. The crux being the last 20ft, preceded by a difficult overhang, when there is no looking back — the route was duly christened, Lot's Groove. Hicks was the only one able to follow'. The modem grading of Lot's Groove is Hard Very Severe 5a.'

This Friday, Ken Smith offers an in depth portrait of the remarkable life and times of the a true climbing legend- Colin Kirkus. An activist who with contemporary, Menlove Edwards, took Welsh climbing to new heights and established the region as the pre war crucible of hard climbing.

Thursday 19 May 2011

James Dickson Innes: Artist of the Sacred Mountain

James Dickson Innes:Ian Strang:oil on board
The night fell heavily across the valley of the Treweryn. Apart from the odd smear of light cast by the flickering lamps in the villages of Capel Celyn and Arenig, there was nothing to lift the grey shroud from the barren rough bounds of the vast Migneint.The sprawling wilderness of lakes,mountains and moorland in north Wales. For the young artist who travelled the moor that night- Welsh born James Dickson Innes-it was something of a voyage of discovery.For years the former Slade student  had been searching for a motif which would drive his art in the same way Mont Sainte-Victoire had captured Cezanne's imagination or the Pacific islands had measured Gauguin. For the frail 22 year old whose fragile body was already wracked and broken by TB ,it proved to be both a journey's end and a new beginning.

The evening journey across the moors had washed Innes up at the isolated inn of Rhyd y Fen which was a rare refuge for the weary traveller crossing the moors twixt Bala and Trawsfyndd. Mine host at the Inn was someone described by Augustus John as- 'the playboy of north Wales'- Washington Davies, who took in the exhausted artist and after providing a supper of 'fine local mutton' washed down with home brewed 'cwrw', showed him to his sparsely furnished but comfortable room and bid him.... rest well.

The following morning, the artist dragged a chair out of the kitchen at the rear of the inn,slumped down between its polished arms and drank in the scene before him.The
morning drew the mountain of Arenig Fawr from its cradle. It's twin peaks trailing wisps of cloud between its rounded horns. The hollows and gullies frothing with rain and mist. The mountain captured Innes's imagination in all its raw elemental glory.
Later,his close friend and fellow Arenig school artist, Augustus John wrote that at that moment Innes had arrived at the heart of his mythical magic kingdom....  ' His passionate love of Wales and the mountains of Wales was the mainspring of his art....though he worked much in the south of France,mostly in the neighbourhood of Mount Cagnion, Mynydd Arenig remained ever his sacred mountain and the slopes of the Migneint his spiritual home.  Augustus further reflected poignantly in Chiaroscuro...

But this happiness was not without a morbid side for his passionate devotion to the landscape was also a way of escape from the consciousness of the malady which then was casting its shadow across his days,ignore it as he might appear to do in an effort of a sublime but foolish self deception. This it was which hastened his steps across the moor and lent his brush a greater swiftness and decision as he set down in a single sitting,view after jeweled view of the delectable mountains he loved before darkness came to hide everything except a dim but indistinguishable glow,perceived by him as the reflection of some eternal city of the West

Arenig Fawr:JD Innes:oil on board

James Dickson Innes was born in Llanelli, South Wales in 1887. After attending Carmarthan art school as a 17 year old student,his talent was rewarded by gaining a place at the prestigious Slade School of Art in London. It was at the Slade where he first met Augustus John; already his fellow Welshman- nine years his senior- had established his artistic reputation and carved out his niche as the charismatic bohemian. For the young Innes,like so many of his fellow students,he was the moth drawn inexorably towards John's radiant light. Not that JD Innes was anonymous in his manner or attire. Like Augustus, he went out of his way to affect to air of the sophisticated romantic.As John attested upon recalling their first meeting at the Slade

He himself cut an arresting figure; a Quaker hat,a coloured silk scarf and a long black overcoat,set off features of a slightly cadaverous cast,with glittering black eyes,a wide sardonic mouth,a prominent nose and a large bony forehead invaded by streaks of thin black hair.He carried an ebony cane with a gold top and spoke in a heavy English accent

Like John, he might have been considered provincial with regard to his background but like his fellow Welshman,Innes played his Wildian role to perfection. Innes was said to have descended from Catalans on his mother side of the family.This was said to explain his dark Mediterranean appearance. His father by contrast was a Scot who had business interests in the local iron works. The Innes family was completed by two elder brothers; Jack who became a naval architect and Alfred who after gaining a degree in Zurich became a chemist.
Whilst at the Slade,Innes exhibited with John and developed a small circle of friends, many of whom would eventually join the Innes/John creative unit when they settled under the massif of Arenig Fawr. An association which became  'the Arenig School'.

After leaving the Slade,Innes left these shores and travelled through Europe with fellow Slade student, John Fothergill. Taking in Caudebec, Bozouls and Collioure. It was said that John Fothergill  was 'possessively homosexual' towards Innes although it is not known if their relationship was based on mutual interest or was more an infatuation on Fothergills' part. Nevertheless,it was Fothergill who first offered a biography of sorts after Innes death although it is considered tempered by their falling out and coloured by Fothergill's frustration and disillusionment with his object of affection. Fothergill lamented that  " Derwent Lees tells me strange things about Innes....He was wounded in the head in a back street in Chelsea along with John in a fight.What stupidities some people allow themselves to indulge in because they call themselves artists...And the company he kept! Bohemians,drunkards,practical jokers,known eccentrics.No wonder his mother cancelled his allowance.'

For the prim and proper Fothergill with his desire to manipulate and control a free spirit like Innes,little wonder then that their relationship fell apart. Despite the question mark over Innes sexuality,there is no doubt that like his friend Augustus John,he was strongly attracted to women. Even Fothergill acknowledges that he enjoyed 'several wild romances' during his short life. Like John he appears to have been strongly attracted to traditional Romany women; once buying and restoring a dilapidated Gypsy vardo to 'receive a ravishing gypsy girl'. Sadly,when she arrived,she directed Innes to the village pub and the Vardo was left to rot where it stood. As Augustus John tells the story,it was in fact a would be starlet who was the object of Innes's desires and the Vardo in fact got as far as Penmachno before the romance withered on the vine- literally!-and the caravan was abandoned in the inn yard.

Innes the artist

As an artist Innes was influenced by traditional artists like Coteman and Turner although later on,he fell under the influence of Japanese art,However, his work which began with watercolours essentially became primarily an oil based medium. His colourful post impressionist style marks him out as an early and almost uniquely British 'Fauvist'..literally 'Wild beast' . A term originally used and applied in an art context to Matisse.

The art history guide explains Fauvism as....

 The first of the major avant-garde movement in European twentieth century art. Fauvism is characterized by intensely vivid, unnatural paintings which utilize bright colors to convey a mood. The fauvist style grew out of the Pointillism movement and is characterized by its primitive style, and less natural forms. Artists such as Gauguin and van Gogh played a large part in influencing the movement. Fauvism is quite similar to expressionism in that forms are distorted and colors are used in order to create an intense mood. The fauvist movement was first recognized around 1905 when they had their first exhibition in Paris, led by the artist Henri Matisse. The fauvist movement was named by a critic who proclaimed that the painters were “wild beasts” or “less fauves” in French, thus giving the movement its name. The fauvist movement was short lived but represented the first break from artistic traditions; it was the first high-impact art movement of the 20th century. 

Craig Hyrddod from Rhyd y Fen:JD Innes-watercolour

For a British artist who was born in the late period of The Pre Raphealite Brotherhood and the earnest yet uninspiring post Landseer school of landscape painting, Innes's embracing of a revolutionary continental school displays an acute understanding of where art was heading in the twentieth century.More prosaically,it can also be explained as an example of his technical weakness .In truth Innes was a poor draughtsman. Unlike Augustus John who could work wonders with charcoal and pencil, Innes' drawings could best be described as naive and primitive.

This would explain his emergence as an artist who used paint to both delineate, detail and texture a work without a drawn framework.  It would also explain his preference for landscape work over portrait or life studies. Most of his work was executed on small panels or canvas. He appears never to have had any desire to create large canvases or triptychs like John.

The Arenig School.

And so we arrive once again on the tumbling jumbled north east fringes of the sprawling massif of Arenig Fawr. It is 1910 and Innes having travelled extensively since leaving the Slade has in modern parlance 'found his mojo'. He arrives with his head full of ideas and influences which will coalesce as a painting style which today is instantly recognizable. After his Rhyd y Fen epiphany,Innes invites Augustus John to join him at Rhyd y Fen and share with him a landscape John would later describe as 'the finest I have ever seen'.. Writing of their first meeting under the mountain,John wrote in 'Chiaroscuro'...

" Our meeting at Arenig was cordial,and yet I seemed to detect a certain reserve on his part: He was experiencing,I fancy,the scruples of a lover on introducing a friend to his best girl-in this case the mountain before us which he regarded-with good reason-as his spiritual property. Had he not been the first to discover and surmount it?'

After settling into the inn at Rhyd y Fen, Innes and John set off to explore the district which impressed itself on John. Determined to find a base in the area,after finding several ruinous dwellings they eventually happened upon a little cottage- Nant Ddu which looked out upon the north east face of the mountain.( Note...the original cottage was demolished by the landowners in the 1980's)
Innes and John set about furnishing the hovel and were soon joined by a movable feast of fellow artist,friends and family,local Romanies. Indeed,anyone deemed 'interesting' and capable of enlivening the long evenings.

During this time,their main Arenig co-creatives were the Australian artist Derwent Lees and Ian Strang. Like Innes,both Lees and Strang suffered from physical and mental infirmities. In truth,the damp,cold north Wales climate is not exactly the ideal environment for someone suffering from TB like Innes or depression in the case of Strang. However, for Innes and John,the unique setting in the cwm folded between the hulking twin peaked Arenig Fawr and Moel Llyfnant proved an intoxicating creative setting. Taking advantage of any fine weather,the artists would usually set out on the individual courses with their brushes paints and easel rolled in a sack and strung across their backs. Seeking the perfect vantage point to capture the mountain and moors in its fleeting moods.

In this part of north Wales,the light and colours can change in an instant. Little wonder that Innes and John had developed a style of painting which could be described as 'studied freneticism'. The capturing of that fleeting moment of illumination driving and emboldening their actions.
It was a fertile period both in terms of paintings and drawings completed. As the driving force of the group,it was Innes who produced the greatest amount of work,although John painted some remarkable landscapes in this period and when he was joined by his lover and muse,Dorelia,he featured her in several outstanding paintings where she is revealed against the wild Welsh mountains in all her colourful bohemian glory. However, a life in the wild back of beyond quickly palled for Dorelia and she soon returned to civilisation without a backward glance.

For two years Innes,John and their eclectic group of fellow artists continued their Arenig campaign. Occasionally returning to London or on occasion,venturing abroad to recharge their creative batteries after,inevitably,being worn down by the long periods of grey wet weather which can depress even the most optimistic soul.

If Dorelia was the creative spark which ignited Augustus John's work,then for Innes,it was a woman called Euphemia Lamb with whom he had travelled extensively though Southern France and who Innes craved would join their happy throng at Nant Ddu. However, Euphemia was always her own woman and she flittered in and out of his life as she desired. Although she did stay with the Arenig ensemble from time to time,like Dorelia,she appears to have found the primitive conditions and the wilderness experience not to her liking and her visits were few and far between. Rather romantically,it is said that Innes,in the throes of failing health and tormented by unrequited love,carried a silver casket containing 'certain correspondence' regarding Euphemia and buried it beneath the summit cairn on Arenig Fawr although this has never been found.

Euphemia: Augustus John

The Arenig School in truth was a short lived affair. The artists Nant Ddu sojourn lasting just two years between 1911 and 1913 . It was Augustus John who made the break first. He moved his north Wales camp 20 miles to the north and took on a rented cottage at Tany Griseau in the Moelwyn mountains and close to the growing mining town of Blaneau Ffestioniog. He invited Innes to join him at his new creative base but Innes's roots in the Arenig soil ran deep and he remained there for several months longer. Mostly on his own but occasionally joined by artists like Lees and Strang. Eventually,Innes deteriorating health forced him out of what is an incredibly damp environment.Just about the worst conditions for someone dying with consumption.

His final year was spent travelling to Provence with John and taking in Tenerife and Morocco before returning to Britain and spending his last days at Swanley, South England. The year was 1913 and paintings by the Arenig School artists were exhibited together for the first time at the legendary Armory Show in New York.

James Dickson Innes died in August 1914 with Euphemia by his side, in Swanley aged just 26.
Augustus John his great friend and creative equal once said of Innes after his death...

In his short lifetime,though handicapped and tortured by a remorseless disease which finally put an end to him,he managed by heroic effort to make a name for himself as one of the foremost figures of his time in the art of landscape painting.He cannot be said to complete himself completely; he died too young for his powers to have reached their full maturity-and for that matter does not everyone? But by the intensity of his vision and his passionately romantic outlook,his work will live on when that of many happier and healthier men will have grown,with the passing years, cold,chill and lifeless.

One of Innes' last paintings.Innes,John and Lees under Arenig ?
John Appleby: 2011

Tuesday 17 May 2011

Coming up: Welsh mountain artist-James Dickson Innes

Augustus John's lover and muse-Dorelia McNeil in their Romany vardo.
Photo:Augustus John

"The evening journey across the moors had washed Innes up at the isolated inn of Rhyd y Fen which was a rare refuge for the weary traveller crossing the moors twixt Bala and Trawsfyndd. Mine host at the Inn was someone described at the time as 'the playboy of north Wales'- Washington Davies, who took in the exhausted artist and after providing a supper of 'fine local mutton' washed down with home brewed 'cwrw', showed him to his sparesly furnished but comfortable room and bid him... rest well.

The following morning, the artist dragged a chair out of the kitchen at the rear of the inn,slumped down between its polished arms and drank in the scene before him.

The morning drew the mountain of Arenig Fawr from its cradle. It's twin peaks trailing wisps of cloud between its rounded horns. The hollows and gullies frothing with rain and mist. The mountain instantly captured Innes's imagination in all its raw elemental glory.
Later,his close friend and fellow Arenig school artist, Augustus John wrote that at that moment Innes had arrived at the heart of his mythical magic kingdom....

'His passionate love of Wales and the mountains of Wales was the mainspring of his art....though he worked much in the south of France,mostly in the neighbourhood of Mount Cagnion, Mynydd Arenig remained ever his sacred mountain and the slopes of the Migneint his spiritual home.

This Friday,to coincide with a special BBC4 feature on The Arenig School of artists .. The Mountain that had to be painted. BBC 4 Wednesday.18/05/11: 21.00 hrs. John Appleby writes about the Arenig's schools creative mainspring- James Dickson Innes who with Augustus John created a unique mountain school of art situated in one of North Wales's wildest and least populated areas. The wild and lonely Migneint. 

Arenig Fawr and the rolling Migneint from the summit of Carnedd Filiast.

Friday 13 May 2011

First and Last Climbs....Reprise

On 7 October 1952, my twentieth birthday, I climbed rock for the first time - with a rope, that is - on the Black Spout Pinnacle of Lochnagar. As I stood staring up at the dark, impending mass of it- which looked impossibly steep and no place for humans- a voice called out of the sky, "Hiya, Davie!... Fancy seeing you here!", or words to that effect. And there was Bill Brooker, at ease on the rock face, his feet on nothing very much, a rope spiralling from his waist to an invisible belayer somewhere round the corner. Thirty years later I found out that his companions had been Tom Patey and Mike Taylor and they were putting up a new route called The Stack.

Bill was then a chief pioneer of the post-War wave in rock and ice climbing. I had been at school with him in Aberdeen from 1937 to 1950, at the university since then, although our ways had diverged in our teens. In the later 1980s, as we both approached retirement, I rang him from three hundred miles away in Cumbria and we renewed our friendship. In no time we were enjoying the first stages of climbing together into our old age.

Bare rock had not been my experience of the Cairngorms. I walked through them, round them, up them, feeling those rounded masses pressing in, slowly clenching on you, as a grain of corn might feel the embrace of the millstones. To reach the next unfolding of a glen, and then the next, became the most satisfying sort of journeying in the world, with that straightening-up at the end of it as you sloughed off your ex-Commando rucksack and got ready to make cakes out of powdered potato and griddle them on top of a stove stuffed with pine logs. The slow rising and massing of the summits became for me the most fundamental example of the Earth's bunched shoulders and the Earth's naked scalp.

The Cairngorms, sixty miles west of where I lived, defined words like 'highand' and 'mountain' and 'glen' and 'plateau'. The many other gorgeous examples of those that lay to hand – in Glen Clover or Donside or Invernessshire – were lesser, or junior.

The Cairngorms were the great charismatic elders and you came back out of them transformed in a hum of deep-seated contentment.I camped in the upper glen of Quoich under the south-east limb of Beinn a' Bhuird, in a blue October when rutting stags were roaring out of the hill fog like barbarous bassoons and put a bunch of curly kail from Mrs MacDougall's garden at Inverery into the burn to keep it fresh for cooking with mince and potatoes over a fire of branches gathered in the silvery ghost of a pinewood felled by a gale of 1893 (or possibly 1879); and shared the plateau of the broad brown mountain above us with a flock of snow buntings that skedaddled over the Alpine mosses like the first blizzard of the winter.

We walked through the Lairig Ghru, twenty-two miles from hostel to hostel (and back the next day),and saw the green haughs of Speyside far off through the shallow vee between Carn Eilrig and Creag a Chalamain calling us like the promised land; and ate Spam and tinned peaches for our milk-and-honey. We overnighted at the Corrour Bothy under Cairn Toul, swinging along the two-strand wire bridge over the young Dee like drunken gymnasts, then cutting heather with our knives to lay on the hard peat floor and ease our hips.

We climbed Ben MacDhui twice on successive April days, footing it effortlessly over the huge re-frozen snow that bridged every burn and hardened every bog. On another more wintry occasion, we reached the MacDhui summit (4296 feet) in a semi-white-out and committed the cardinal blunder of following footsteps in the snow  south-south-east, as we thought, to the Sron Riach ridge and the escape route to Glen Luibeg, and followed and followed them until we checked the compass and saw we had been following ourselves.

As we set out for the Lairig up Glen Luibeg on a day when the west was louring, we met an RAF Mountain Rescue party stretchering down a climber who had fallen hundreds of feet off an ice climb in the Garbh Choire Mor of Braeriach. He had landed on his feet in snow and broken both his legs. It was calm low down and blowing a blizzard in the Lairig — "It's another world round there", said one of the men, his eyes staring and dull. As we took turns with the carrying, we could just see the injured man's face amongst the clothes and blankets. It was pale yellow and blank with morphine, still as a corpse. When we reached Derry Lodge and the press came out to meet us, some of the RAF men were suddenly furious and hurled stones at the photographer.

One summer, in the gently dipping and rising semi-col just east of Einich Cairn, on the way round from Cairn Toul to Braeriach, I came upon what is still the most beautiful thing I have seen, nature's value in its purest essence: a shallow basin in the field of scree, in which water came gradually into focus only because there was a trembling in the few inches of it, the slightest perturbing of the crystal-clear image of the grey gravel that made its bed — Fuaran Dhe, the Wells of Dee. Here the river is secreted by the mountain and at once plunges more than a thousand feet into the Garbh Choire and pours towards Aberdeen. I had been drinking it and washing in it ever since I was born, enjoying it especially when it was peat-brown after heavy rain.

So the means of life flowed from the Cairngorms. They were my bedrock, and my boundary (between our Lowland corner and the Gaelic West), and my marker of the pre-civilised, my type of what came before us, the epitome of the unchanging. Which they are not — the granite crags are wrecks, many of them, like splintered and rotting timbers of colossal stranded ships. When spate water skelps them, it cleaves deep grooves, whose raw sides the plants have a job to re-colonise in this sub-Arctic zone. Unchanging enough, though, their skylines identical before our births and after our deaths, with their look of something that has aged so much, there can be no more ageing in it. As you rise out of Coire Garblach above Glen Feshie and the hoary cranium of Cairn Toul lifts bald and angular across the Mhoine Mhor, the Great Moss, it looks as old as Odin or some other power from that pantheon which feels much closer to me than the Graeco-Roman.

I rang Bill Brooker in the 1980s in the hope that we could climb The Link, in order to write about it for Ken Wilson's book on Very Severe rock-climbs. Bill had put it up with Kenny Grassick, another familiar face from school, whom I hadn't seen for decades. Bill felt that Kenny was more in touch with hard rock these days so in the event it was he and I who made a kind of recce by climbing Pinnacle Face with my eldest son Peter in August 1985. Next year I was back with Kenny under the towering prows of the corrie, after some wet and windy days. We started up Route 1, edged gingerly up the ramp, and retreated baffled by the soapy state of the rock on the short wall below The Springboard. Maybe we would have done better in boots with Tricouni nails, those biting elephant molars that my companions had been wearing on the Black Spout Pinnacle thirty years before. Across the Spout Kenny and I ambled up the Buttress, to have something to show for the long walk in. On the way back down to Fox's Well he kept sitting down on rocks 'for a breather, feeling 'off colour' and `not himself'. Within the year he had died of leukaemia.

I should have been with them in the mountains in my teens. Held back by shyness, studiousness and unnerving parental pressure, I had missed the sort of chance that comes just once. And yet ... and yet ... the Cairngorms were still there, they hadn't lost any stature to speak of, fugitive sun rays through cloud-dapple still lit their slopes and made a long rise seven miles away to look as though you could reach it in half an hour.In July 1990 I walked off round Cairn Gorm with Bill from the top of the ski-lift, and as I followed him down the Coire Raibert path into the great trench of Loch Avon and once again the place enfolded me, cradling me, I didn't let on that I was weeping tears for the youth I should have had.

Across the loch a burn zigzagged down the tawny mountainside in a fierce bolt like white lightning. On all sides the limbs and heads of the bens lay calmly, uneventfully, assuring us that nothing seismic or desperate had happened or would happen here for many millions of years.

The clouds were dry and high and bluish-grey like goose-down, the very look of July in Aberdeenshire. We were making for one of Bill and Kenny's classic routes, The Talisman on Creagan a' Choire Etchachan. After an hour's steady climbing up from Loch Avon, over the col past Loch Etchachan and into Coire Etchachan ('corrie of great space'), we off-loaded our sacks where a buttress sprang out of the northernmost slope of Derry Cairngorm and rose for three hundred and fifty feet, as hard and clean as steel to the touch.

From the guidebooks, always a mixed blessing, I knew that the climb started up a 'short crack', on which they spent few words. The first moves up it were like trying to wade in rock. A huge recumbent flake is propped against the buttress proper. The fissure between them was obviously what to use. I stuck my left foot crossways into it, knowing it would lodge, hoisted my right one towards the shelf made by the flake, and ... nothing happened. My foot sank into the crack, and in and in – my other one couldn't quite hook onto the top – I was half-riding an obdurate stone steed, or rather I was slumping back off it in a sweat of frustration. There must be something. I braced my left foot hard, pressed sideways on it and ... it kept disappearing into that narrow, seemingly bottomless shadow.

Whoever set this up for our delectation knew exactly how should be to look perfect for our use while denying us any help stone steed waited patiently while I mounted and slithered and recoiled and tried to make a sort of eight-foot standing jump onto its long suffering haunches. In the end I grasped the left-hand edge in a horizontal lay-away and pulled, and pulled and pulled –it was like trying to haul a goods train with your bare hands. As my strength drained into the rock, my body rose slowly-slowly. Gravity seemed ten times its  normal drag. At the end of it all I floundered onto the flake like a beached walrus. After that the real climbing began.

It was a joy. It was like singing an aria that lasted for two hours without a break – no repetitions, no bum notes – an unstoppable melodious upward-pour. The great leaning shield of the traverse slab seamed with lateral cracks, their lower lips rounded, not too slippery, fairly asking the edges of your feet to sense and sidle with the delicacy of a snail's horns. The angle is comfortable; it's easing us into the body of the mountain. Kenny, who had originally led this pitch, must have felt like whooping and laughing as the massive jigsaw puzzle fitted together, piece by piece.

Suddenly the picture completes itself. Beyond its edge there is nothing, or rather, there are the slopes of Sgor an Lochain Uaiirle a mile away, speckled with boulders, a handsome sight, of no interest to us at this minute. At our feet the crag drops so sheer that its face is invisable. This gulf creates a slightly dizzy vacancy on our left hand for the next hour or two. The crest of the buttress juts above us like a well muscled torso. Bill and Kenny knew, as they looked up at it, that a gem of a route was theirs for the getting. Everything centres now, like the converging sections of a dartboard ,on the `awkward corner' forty feet above us. I've been reading about it for twelve years, in Ken Wilson's Classic Rock.

The bones of the crest grind inwards, making two jaws like a giant's gums mumbling, or the nebs of a pair of pliers, or twin millstones set on edge. We are the grist – we have to squeeze through there. I move up, feet clinging as firmly as buckies to the sloping shelves and little floors of this beautiful granite structure.

From immediately below, the squeeze looks quite as daunting as it does in those two photos in Classic Rock. It overhangs. The converging plates of it are splayed too much for chimneying. The join at the back is too flared for jamming – apart from the fact that if you did slot your hand in there, you'd need a fifteen-foot telescopic left arm to keep it lodged as you shinned up the right-hand wall.
Nothing for it but to cram some body into the narrows and edge upwards while looking for holds on the wall. 'There aren't any. Reach for the top. It's too far ... My memory of how I managed it can do no better than a blurred image of shrugging and flexing like some slug or worm. I think I remember a little vertical kerb to push against with the right foot. It isn't in the photos. Before this improbable system of levers and balances gave way, I reached my right-hand fingers over the top at their fullest stretch and found a providential lip. It was rounded, it was shallow; it was just enough.

I was never in the least scared, in spite of the near instability of it all, the drop on both sides, the absence of runners between Bill and myself some forty feet below. It was his presence that did it. He was at home here. He had never come to grief in all those years of rocky and icy exploration, with minimal protection- runners, often in cold and greasy conditions. Amidst all this exposure, this manoeuvring up unsunned greyish and brownish ribs and buttresses and cracked granite bones, I felt trapped in familiarity and friendship. The depth of the past, personal, historical, geological, was like a solid atmosphere around me and under my feet. Nothing could go wrong. An unbroken series of steps had led us to this point, and would lead on across the black of us.

'The Climber'- Bill Wynn

That day went on and on, because of the long light less weeks after midsummer at a latitude of 57° north and because we were tapping into more than forty years' acquaintance with these mountains, more than fifty with each other. We had been climbing with our rucksacks on. Now, after another hundred feet of pulling up the crest sometimes stepping down onto small ledges on the right-hand face just for the hell of it, we walked off at the top of the buttress and set our course west, then north-by-west, for the rim of the Cairn Lochan corries and the way back down and round to Coire Cas.

We had finished the climb at over three thousand feet and needed to gain little more than seven hundred and fifty in our two- or three mile stravaig amongst the gravelly uplands between Loch Avon and the Larig. We contoured above Loch Etchachan, a broad plate of greenslate rasped by the cool easterly, and crossed the wee burn that flows out of a lochan on the lip of Coire Sputan Dearg. It gurgled under a surviving roof of winter snow and reappeared four hundred and fifty feet below on the  verge of the loch. Around us was essence of Cairngorm, the plateau which Nan Shepherd calls 'a single mountain, the fissures and deep decents no more than eddies on the plateau surface!

The broad planes of it tilt this way, tilt that way, the waters gather and are tipped towards the Dee, towards the Spey. The grainy surfaces that swell around you, olive and oatmeal and jade, draw you in and surround you so completely that they become like the inner surfaces of your own head, the folds of your own brain. You never want to leave.

We were going at a kind of fast stroll, as the pigeon- coloured clouds began to flush with the setting of the sun, and talking continuously. How do you describe good talk? Of course it was about old climbing friends. Kenny Grassick, who had remembered me as one of  them, one of the prefects. Graham Nicol, who did great things with Patey – I remembered him as a sulky wee boy who walked along beside the gymnasium hitting his fist against the granite wall. Gordon Lilley, another Aberdeen pioneer, who had married my one-time sister-in-law. And it was about marrying and having children and not getting any younger, and how I had missed the climbing boat as a young man and why Bill had never gone to the Himalaya.

I was in the midst of fieldwork for a book about great rocks and Bill recommended the tor on Ben Avon called Clach Ban, the Woman Stone, where women used to come from far away to sit in the rounded neuks and ensure an easy confinement. He also repeated the explanation he had given me five years before on Lochnagar of how the 'crumpet formation' of those tors and the paps on Lochnagar had evolved their layered and thick-lipped shapes.

Such rambling rock-talk made the walking feel like gliding. We trudged effortlessly down and up shallow gullies and across fields of old snow darkened round the edges by grains of heather and peat. The sunset clouds were turning from vermilion to burnt orange to apricot to old gold as the last light came slanting through like a furnace door flung open and the silhouette of Carn Eilrig between the Lairig and Gleann Einich made a perfect triangle against the golden dazzle. We could just see our footholds as we stepped steeply down into Coire an Sneachda. From the cauldron of shadow below us a bird was chirruping and Bill identified it as a male snow bunting.

Minutes later we were wading through the heather hummocks on the corrie floor and a tousle-headed youth was coming towards us, laden with camping gear, weaving a zigzag course with the help of a pine branch. "Great mountains, man," he burbled dozily. "Like, what's up there? I mean, should I go up there?" A cold night was darkening over the 4000-foot plateau with its thawing snow-bridges and drops down massive cliffs. Bill advised him pressingly to turn back and stay low. He gave us a carefree "Okay, okay. See you around . . ." and headed on up the mountain.

Bill had been using a telescopic walking stick for balance, especially as he waded shin-deep through the Feith Buidhe where it flows into Loch Avon. For a year or two he had been bothered by a pinched nerve' in his lower back which gave him a bad time as he crossed broken ground. The day after The Talisman we came back up to the northern corries with Bill Birkett from Cumbria to climb Savage Slit on Coire an Lochain, a magnificent two-hundred-foot joint between towering faces of horizontally cracked granite, first climbed at the very end of the War. You can bridge at your ease all the way up the beautiful ladder. As I looked down I saw that Bill was having to contort himself in bunched-up back ­and-foot positions. His bad back was destabilising him. A year later his condition was finally diagnosed: motor neurone disease. The Talisman and Savage Slit were his last real rock-climbs.

David Craig©.2011

Tuesday 10 May 2011

Coming up: David Craig's First and last Climbs.

 "Across the loch a burn zigzagged down the tawny mountainside in a fierce bolt like white lightning. On all sides the limbs and heads of the bens lay calmly, uneventfully, assuring us that nothing seismic or desperate had happened or would happen here for many millions of years. The clouds were dry and high and bluish-grey like goose-down, the very look of July in Aberdeenshire. We were making for one of Bill and Kenny's classic routes, The Talisman on Creagan a' Choire Etchachan. After an hour's steady climbing up from Loch Avon, over the col past Loch Etchachan and into Coire Etchachan ('corrie of great space'), we off-loaded our sacks where a buttress sprang out of the northernmost slope of Derry Cairngorm and rose for three hundred and fifty feet, as hard and clean as steel to the touch.
From the guidebooks, always a mixed blessing, I knew that the climb started up a 'short crack', on which they spent few words. The first moves up it were like trying to wade in rock. A huge recumbent flake is propped against the buttress proper. The fissure between them was obviously what to use. I stuck my left foot crossways into it, knowing it would lodge, hoisted my right one towards the shelf made by the flake, and ... nothing happened. My foot sank into the crack, and in and in – my other one couldn't quite hook onto the top – I was half-riding an obdurate stone steed, or rather I was slumping back off it in a sweat of frustration. There must be something. I braced my left foot hard, pressed sideways on it and ... it kept disappearing into that narrow, seemingly bottomless shadow.'

This Friday- a beautiful and poignant piece of writing from the master of perfectly pitched climbing prose David Craig. Certainly a strong contender for one of the best articles ever published on this site.

Illustration from an original painting by Bill Wynn

Friday 6 May 2011

So briefly he roamed the gallery of marvels!

We British tend to take our many rivers for granted, living as we do, under the deluges of so much rain. It is often fishermen who first notice the deterioration of water quality and who understand the consequences for the subtle links in the ecological chain of a watershed’s total population, human and non-human. When such fishermen are also creative writers, culture can intervene on behalf of nature because such writers know that, in constructing nature for readers, culture is itself nature’s possibility for the human animal to adjust its way of behaving to its home in the rest of nature. When such fishermen have the imaginative resources of the novelist Brian Clarke (1938 -) and the poet Ted Hughes (1930-1998), their writing can penetrate deeply into British culture with profound insights from which perhaps we can all learn in our wider international culture.

 Brian Clarke's The Stream won the Natural World Book Prize, the UK’s top environmental book award, and also the prize for ‘Best First Novel by a British Writer’, awarded by the Authors’ Club of Great Britain. It is the way in which the combination of fiction, journalism, science and activism come together to address the issue of water quality that gives The Stream its unique novelistic mode. The Stream has the issue of water quality and its implications at its heart.
The development of an industrial park in an economically depressed rural area will require new roads and a supply of huge amounts of water. At the same time a nearby farm, whose fields straddle the un-named stream, is to be modernised by the old farmer’s son with new drainage systems, new strains of crops sustained by new fertilizers and pesticides. But it is the life in the stream that is foregrounded in this narrative. The small and accumulative consequences in the stream of the stages of these two environmental developments are cleverly narrated in parallel, often with ironic effects made all the more poignant by the reader’s awareness that only an observer such as Clarke would be able to register the subtle changes to the life of the stream. The ecology of the stream is brilliantly characterised as the plan of ‘the law of continuing’: ‘the law that decreed all things, had made all life in the stream to fit in with this plan’. It is important for the reader to appreciate the subtleties in the details of the ecology of trout breeding that is at the heart of the novel. Clarke’s prose conveys this with both clarity and celebration:

Clarke and Hughes knew each other through fishing and Hughes had offered to read the manuscript of The Stream, but was too advanced in his terminal cancer at the time when it might have been possible. It is an indication of Clarke and Hughes’s common interest in writing about their passion that they both contributed in 1983 to a book of essays titled West Country Fly Fishing, although in this book they reversed the roles that might have been expected of them. Clarke, the angling authority, wrote poetically, as a visitor to the West Country rivers, about three memorable days fishing.  There is a life-enhancing attentiveness and poetic evocation to Clarke’s writing and it is Hughes who contributes an over-view of the history of the fishery through his two chosen Devon rivers, the Taw and the Torridge. Although Hughes evocatively celebrates sea trout night fishing, for example – ‘the least touch can be anything from half a pound to seven or eight – which is the difference between a swallow and a tiger.  This leaks an especially high-quality adrenalin into the blood – which is no doubt the drug we are hooked on’ . Hughes moves towards an account of the dramatic decline of the trout and salmon fishery in these rivers. An indication that the sub-text of this essay was really about water quality is revealed in an unpublished letter to his friend Keith Sagar: ‘Did you see my piece in West Country Fly Fishing? The hoteliers on the two rivers are friends of one sort or another. So the essay is an attempt to glorify the rivers while suppressing the knowledge that they are going down the drain. Even twenty years ago they produced 1/3 of all salmon in the West Country. Last year only 43 salmon were caught on the Torridge. (It used to be a thousand to 1500.) It’s become a farm sewer’. This last phrase gives a hint of a little-known practical and political concern that underlies the poetry of Hughes’s celebrated collection River.

Hughes was named Poet Laureate a year after publishing his collection, River (1983). At least two Hughes scholars believed that this collection was the height of the poet’s achievement at the time they wrote their books on his work (Robinson 1989: 205 and Scigaj 1986: 290). In his second book on the work of Hughes Leonard M. Scigaj wrote: ‘River will one day be recognised as one of the central literary masterpieces of the world; it should be required reading for all humans on our planet to help them attain responsible adulthood’ (1991: 133). This was Hughes’s ninth major collect and it was to be the last collection to focus entirely upon his major theme: the human relationship with the forces of the natural world.

The iconic figure of that relationship in River was the most primitive – the fisherman hunter, but in his most self-conscious twentieth century mode, as the poet himself. Just as fishing had always been a part of Hughes’s life, so too had a river. Although the two rivers of his childhood – first the River Calder in West Yorkshire, then the River Don in South Yorkshire - were so polluted that they contained few fish, as a child Hughes fished in the canal alongside the River Calder (‘big, but rare trout’) and in an oxbow lake beside the River Don until the first silage made in the area killed all the fish (Hughes 1983a: 184). In Devon, where the poet lived for most of his adult life, Hughes’s village, North Tawton, took its name from the River Taw, one of the rivers flowing from Dartmoor that he wrote about for West Country Fly Fishing and that also appears in River. Hughes’s belief in the symbolic value of a river as a ‘vein’ in the life of the ‘sea-spirit’ that regulates our globe, had already been established in the poem ‘December River’ in Season Songs (1976). So the River collection was, for Hughes, about more than simply his most intimately known part of our environment. It was also about a key indicator of the state of our relationship with it.

When I asked Ted Hughes to tell me the story of his ‘greening’ as a poet he linked his reading of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in America when it was first published in 1962 with his experience of the rivers of his childhood. ‘So my greening began you could say with everything that lay about me in my infancy’ (Gifford 1995: 132). The plight of the fish in those rivers of his childhood, as much as in those of his adult life, are, Hughes explained, an unrecognised indicator of human self-destructiveness: ‘these fish are simply indicators of what is happening to us’ (ibid.). Speaking more generally in an interview Hughes has said: ‘Most people I talk to seem to defend or rationalise the pollution of water. They think you’re defending fish or insects or flowers. But the effects on otters and so on are indicators of what’s happening to us. It isn’t a problem of looking after the birds and bees, but of how to ferry human beings through the next century.

The danger is multiplied through each generation. We don’t really know what bomb has already been planted in the human system’ (Morrison 1993: 34). For Ted Hughes, his poems about rivers and fish are also clearly about the links between water quality and public health. What has not been known by readers and critics of his poetry, and of River in particular, is the extent to which this ecstatic poetry was informed by practical political action on behalf of the rivers in the southwest of England. The Hughes archives in Britain and America reveal the hitherto unknown link between the poet’s activities in a range of discourses for a variety of forms of intervention concerned with water quality and health for all its dependents.

The first poem Hughes offered as Poet Laureate was about the rivers of Devon and appeared under the title, ‘Rain-Charm for the Duchy, A Blessed, Devout Drench for the Christening of His Royal Highness Prince Harry’. In fact, this poem had originally been intended for the River collection. The poet’s unpublished correspondence reveals that there was actually an environmental agenda behind this poem and that the poem had some effect on local politicians:

"Surprising what effect the Poet Laureate label has’, Hughes wrote to Keith Sagar. ‘The line [in ‘Rain-Charm for the Duchy’] about the pollution (quite mild and domestic) of the Okement caused great agitation in Okehampton (responsible for the refuse) – might even affect the Council’s laissez faire. These are the perks  Pity I didn’t leave in the lines about the Torridge – they were'

        “And the Torridge, that hospital sluice of all the doctored and scabby farms from Welcombe to Hatherlea to Torrington
        Poor, bleached leper in her pit, stirring her rags, praying that this at last is the kiss of the miracle,
        That soon she’ll be plunging under her sprays, splitting her lazar crust, new-born,
        A washed cherub etc” ......'But I thought it might seem in poor taste.'

Of course, Hughes was a well-known fisherman, so his concern for water quality in rivers is understandable. In a long letter to the Times in 1985 his concern had been for the effects upon ‘the employment and economy of their home rivers’ of the 77,000 returning salmon caught by the Northumbrian driftnet fishery (Times 13 Aug 1985). Hughes wrote a letter to me in answer to my enquiry about his justification for fishing , but in a letter to me written the previous day that is marked ‘unsent’ in the Emory University archive, Hughes points out that it is the fishermen, rather than the water authorities, who are most active in their concern: ‘All the river renovation down here has been initiated by fishermen – I mean the actual cleaning of waterways. At least, in the early nineteen eighties it was – before it became politically OK. (And in fact, the political resistance was unbelievable – to a degree still is).

The unpublished letters and documents in the British Library and the Hughes archive at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia reveal an impressive commitment of time and thought in attending committee meetings, site visits, reading scientific reports (with titles like ‘The effects of surfactants in the Rivers Exe and Creedy’) and writing in various modes – letters, notes, speeches, satirical poems – that go beyond the poet’s concern for water quality as a fisherman. Indeed, despite the economic significance of the riparian business in the South West of England, Hughes realised that perceived self-interest in a ‘hobby’ would undermine any arguments concerning water quality brought forward by riparian interests. In a letter to Trout and Salmon in July 1998 Hughes charted the history of campaigns for improved water quality in Devon’s rivers since the early 1980s and the 1985 Bideford estuary, but noted that ‘a river that is nothing but a fishery has a poor prognosis’. ‘Larger, social – in other words political - issues’ had to be engaged by the riparian industry, he wrote. In the archive there is a long note headed: ‘A NEW NAME FOR RIPARIAN ASSOCIATIONS’ which indicates the intensity of Hughes’s thinking about political strategy in the water politics of Devon. He has obviously been stung by the fact that

"a big chief of the Water Company attending the Taw AGM -made the comment; it’s wonderful to see what lengths a lot of old buffers will go to for their private hobby […] meaning ‘elitist hobby, pursued by rich snobs who want to keep the fishing to themselves’. We are stuck with an image problem [..] the bad effects are seen every time the Riparians try to defend the Sports fishery against some damage [… and] have great difficulty getting their case taken seriously.’ Hughes suggests ‘Taw Fishery Cooperative’ before continuing, ‘Suddenly the cider works at Winkleigh wouldn’t be occasionally brushing off its nose end the fly-like thought of the Taw Riparian Association – that amiable gang of ‘silly old buffers’. It would suddenly be contemplating the idea of a group of businessmen intent on developing […] a multi-million pound business of immense benefit to the whole of North Devon [… and] everybody else would be in a different frame of mind.

So it is significant that when I began researching Hughes’s environmental political activity Carol Hughes drew my attention to her husband’s being instrumental in founding the West country Rivers Trust. What had begun with Hughes’ involvement with the Torridge Action Group, formed in 1983 to tackle a specific issue, led to his proposing the formation of the West country Rivers Trust with Ian Cook in 1993. This was the first Rivers Trust in England which was instrumental in forming, with thirty other Rivers Trusts, the national water watchdog organisation, the Association of Rivers Trusts.
In the Emory archive are holograph draft and typed copy of plans for legal action against the South West Water Authority which is accused of having ‘failed in its statutory duty to improve and maintain the fishery’. The notes begin, ‘A crisis committee has been formed to explore the possibilities of Legal Action in defence of the Rod Fishery of the River Torridge’ (Emory MSS 644, Box 166, FF 1). This is followed by eight and a half pages of holograph notes charting the decline of the Torridge fishery from the 1920s to 1984. The Torridge Action Group was formed to call for a public enquiry about the implications for the estuary and rivers that would follow from the particular form of new sewage works proposed for Bideford. In this it was successful and Hughes was asked to represent the Action Group by making a representation to the enquiry in September 1985, the text of which is in the Emory archive. Hughes summarised the concerns of the Torridge Action Group in a letter to Keith Sagar in 1984:

"I’ve been involved in a local battle, of sorts, over Bideford Sewage system. The Water Authority, mightily leaned on by local building interests, are putting in a type of sewage system that merely screens the sewage (takes out 20% “solids” – mostly cardboard, plastic etc […] 1600 new houses go in immediately. '

But a year later the depth of his involvement as he prepared for the enquiry was telling on Hughes as he wrote to Sagar:

"I made the mistake of becoming too involved in the battle over the River Torridge – fairly pointless. The battle is between the Water Authority and the Riparian Owners and fishermen. The Riparian Owners have lost collectively the best part of three million pounds and Albion will probably lose its run of salmon in the Torridge. But the whole business is perhaps mostly busyness and lies. I’m quite sick of it, but I don’t see quite how to extricate myself. '
Fortunately he didn’t extricate himself and he made a brilliant speech at the inquiry, of which one witness says, ‘You could have heard a pin drop. Nobody asked questions’.  For ecocritics the significance of this speech is that it expressses as much a concern for the health of local people and tourists as it does for the salmon population, drawing on a range of scientific evidence from both the human and the fish research into the consequences of raw sewage being discharged into the Torridge estuary at Bideford in an estuary that, according to Hughes’s research, ‘takes 12 days to change itself completely’. An indication of the concern for the effects on the human population can be seen from this part of Hughes’s presentation to the enquiry:

"A local doctor has been heard to say that of all the holidaymakers who stay here for a few days canoeing and windsurfing and using the estuary for similar sports, 75% contract an ailment that needs treatment. [9 doctors from the Wooda Surgery in the Bideford area had expressed their concern with the present situation.] Bideford Chemists prepare for the tourist season as if for a campaign. The chemist in Mill St displays a window sign, advertising his cure for diarrhoea. And in spite of their conditioning the local population does not escape. In general, they complain of an endless grumbling epidemic of throat and chest complaints and stomach disorders. In the 1984 tourist season 200,000 visited Bideford […] The effect of the estuary’s pollution on the state of mind of the local residents, is subjective and elusive. However, this depression is very real. Local people can feel in their bones that the whole situation is depressing […] And this depression accumulates. But it can be picked up quite quickly. You do not have to be a superclean German or American to decide, after one good look at the sludge, that the Torridge Estuary is no place for a holiday. '

Here is a poet and storyteller presenting vivid, detailed and elusive material as evidence at a public enquiry in a mode of writing that was not formerly known to be part of his discourse. Yet the self-inflicted human ailments recorded here - transmitted by water, but also symptomatic of human pollution of earth and sky – surface in the poem ‘If’ that was later included in the River section of Three Books (1993): ‘If you have infected the sky and the earth/ Caught its disease off you – you are the virus’ (137). The poem’s final line catches the inescapable ecological pervasiveness of human water pollution: ‘Already you are your ditch, and there you drink’.

Ten years later, following Hughes’s realisation that a new name and a wider remit was needed, a press release dated 2 June 1995 for the formation of the West country Rivers Trust states its aims more generally as ‘concern about pressures on natural water resource’ in the West of England and it intends to meet its aims through a broad range of activities, including education – ‘the trust has already acquired an area of suitable river, allowing free access and fishing to children’. Ted Hughes was a founding trustee. It should not be forgotten that one of Hughes’s most powerful and educational interventions on behalf of water quality and public health was the children’s story referred to earlier, The Iron Woman (1993). In a letter to his editor at Faber Hughes wrote, ‘We could send John Major a gold-backed copy. Present all the chieftains with one, maybe […] And all the cabinet’. In 1992 Hughes was a very visible supporter of Ian Cook’s court case against South West Water for their failure to regulate water quality on a stretch of the River Creedy in Devon which Cook owned. The foam on the river, which had a sewage works upstream, was likened by Judge Cox to ‘the face of a beautiful woman scarred by disease’. Hughes was quoted as saying outside the courtroom, ‘It’s an important case, an historical case because it’s reactivated the power of common law in this terrific issue of water quality in rivers’ (Guardian 16 April 1992). South West Water contributed £5000 for a research grant for the Institute of Freshwater Ecology to investigate the effect of the detergents on the River Exe. Here was another example of practical involvement, active concern, bringing about changes to river quality that would be unknown to readers of River.

There are some wider implications to my hope to begin to ‘reconnect all aspects of an artist’s work’. Latterly ecocritics have been moving away from deconstructing representations of nature in literature and turning their attention to signs of the linked effects of environmental change upon both external nature and upon people in the environmental justice movement. Both Cohen (2004) and Buell (2005) have most recently identified this as an important direction for ecocriticism. The lives of fish, local people and tourists are all affected by a quick-fix sewage system that will enable developers to put in 1600 new houses, as they are by the abstraction of the aquifer in Clarke’s novel. Hughes is still known primarily as a poet, and then as a writer of poetry and stories for children. In the last few years I have been researching the environmental agenda underpinning and sometimes explicit in his creative work. It turns out that informing the creative work is another kind of work that led to environmental interventions, of which I have indicated here only the activity concerning water quality in the Southwest.

In a previous paper I have documented a wider range of support and activity on behalf of other environmental causes (Gifford 2006a). Taken together, this so far ‘unknown’ documentation concerning Hughes gives a clearer sense of the ‘whole work’ of the ‘reconnected writer’, such as we ought to be exploring for other writers, including the novelist Clarke.
Secondly, we should perhaps give greater attention to, as well as celebrate more widely, the way the reading and discussion of science has informed the fiction and poetry of these writers, together with the way the metaphorical language available to the imaginative writer is used in the presentation of the science. Here is a fascinating confluence and braiding of culture and nature by which each defines the other. It is also an urgent example for our times of the need to collapse the Two Cultures dualism that so strongly separated Science and Arts for generations of intellectually disabled children in the English education system. It has been as though Dickens’ analysis in Hard Times of the educational distinction between ‘fact’ and ‘fancy’ has been enacted at the age of sixteen for all children in the UK choosing to study either Science or Arts subjects for A levels.

The view of science expressed by Hughes in his essays follows the Dickens line that scientific objectivity excludes ethical and subjective aspects of experience to the extent of holding ‘the human element’ in contempt: ‘The prevailing philosophies and political ideologies of our time subscribe to this contempt, with nearly a religious fanaticism, just as science itself does’ (1994: 146). Whilst this has clearly been true for the scientific developments that led to Rachel Carson’s need to write Silent Spring, for example, when Hughes needs to inform himself about what he calls ‘the chemistry of the Torridge Estuary’ it is to the latest available objective science that he turns, as we all must today to reduce our multiple forms of pollution, as Clarke’s novel demonstrates. Effective activism requires a wide range of discourses to raise questions about the variety of experiences for which we need to take responsibility in making our informed environmental choices.

If this investigation into the work of Clarke and Hughes demonstrates a need for the study of the deployment of a range of modes of knowing and modes of writing, the relationship between the science and the fiction, the polemics and the poetry, the memoranda and the myth making, the satires for fellow activists and the stories for children, there are implications for the academy. The cases of Brian Clarke and Ted Hughes confirm my argument in Reconnecting With John Muir (2006b): that by focusing only on the ‘artspeech’ we are ignoring an ecology of discourse in the whole ‘reconnected’ life of a writer. We need to explore the relationship between multiple modes of discourse that the academy so often keeps separate – those derived from our own scholarship, criticism, creativity and pedagogy.
When we share an urgent concern for the future of both our environment and our culture - our public health and our poetry, for example - we need to reconnect our modes of knowing and our modes of discourse to understand how these might inform each other in the service of both planet and people. This, surely, should be the purpose of ecocriticism, an activity of human imagination, which is, as Hughes says of the imagination of each new child, ‘nature’s chance to correct culture’s error’ (Hughes 1994: 149).

Terry Gifford©

First published as an extended academic paper ‘Water Quality in the Work of Brian Clarke and Ted Hughes’

Scott Slovic, Serenella Iovino, and Shin Yamashiro, eds.
Concentric. Literary and Cultural Studies. Special Issue on Water
March 2008. Vol. 34:1, pp. 75-91.
Dept. of English, National Taiwan University
ISSN: 1729-6897 print
ISNN: 1729-8792 online