Friday 8 July 2016

The Ballad of Idwal Slabs

Idwal Slabs: Artist Aled Prichard Jones 
Editor's Introduction *: The climbing world of thirty years ago seems a very innocent place viewed in retrospect. The days of Wall End Barn or Scotty Dwyer's annexe when climbing, boozing and laughing all seemed part of the same game, seems a million miles away from our competitive modern scene. Most of our songs then were culled from rugby clubs and therefore by definition dirty— but we did have our own 'poem': a doggerel verse by Showell Styles. It was recited and even acted at club dinners. I mean of course The Ballad of ldwal Slabs. It was published in The Mountaineer's Weekend Book, but that has been out of print for many years now— a pity, because the Ballad forms a distinctive footnote in our climbing heritage and shouldn't be lost. Others evidently feel the same, for it was revived at a couple of dinners this year, so I make no excuse for reprinting it here. I asked Pip Styles how it came about, and this is what he says:

"1947. Hemp climbing-ropes, clinkers and tricounis, crampons a bit of a snigger and piton a dirty word. Christmas at Glan Dena, the M.A.M.'s North Wales hut.Plucking and drawing of the Christmas dinner goose achieved with the aid of two medical students who insisted on dissecting its ear. Ears,eyes and nose full of goose down,muscles comfortably slack after leading Zigzag and Home Climb on Griben Facet.

Voice from the kitchen 'What about something to get the fun started after the dinner?. Ejecting goose down,collecting pencil and paper,invoked the muse of doggeral and 'The Ballad' was produced at a sitting.SS

* WU-1981 

THE BALLAD OF IDWAL SLABS (To be spoken dramatically in costume: deerstalker hat, side-whiskers, and with alpenstock)

I'll tell you the tale of a climber; a drama of love on the crags; A story to pluck at your heart-strings, and tear your emotions to rags. He was tall, he was fair, he was handsome; John Christopher Brown was his name; The Very Severes nearly bored him to tears — and he felt about girls much the same.

Till one day, while climbing at Ogwen, he fell (just a figure of speech) For the President's beautiful daughter, named Mary Jane Smith — what a peach! Her figure was slim as Napes Needle, her lips were as red as Red Wall; A regular tiger, she's been up the Eiger North Wall, with no pitons at all!

Now Mary had several suitors, but never a one would she take, Though it seemed that she favoured one fellow, a villain named Reginald Hake; This Hake was a Cad who used pitons, and wore a long silken moustache, Which he used, so they say, as an extra belay — but perhaps we are being too harsh.

John took Mary climbing on Lliwedd, and proposed while on Mallory's Slab; It took him three pitches to do it, for he hadn't much gift of the gab. He said: "Just belay for a moment — there's a little spike close to your knee—And tell me, fair maid, when you're properly belayed, would you care to hitch up with me?"

Said Mary, "It's only a toss-up between you and Reginald Hake, And the man I am going to marry must perform some great deed for my sake. I will marry whichever bold climber shall excel at the following feat—To climb headfirst down Hope, with no rubbers or rope, At our very next climbing club meet!"

Now when Mary told the Committee, she had little occasion to plead, For she was as fair as a jug-handle at the top of a hundred-foot lead. The Club ratified her proposal, and the President had to agree; He was fond of his daughter, but felt that she oughter Get married, between you and me.

There was quite a big crowd for the contest, lined up at the foot of the Slabs; The Mobs came from Bangor in Buses, and the Nob's came from Capel in Cabs. There were Fell and Rock, Climbers and Rucksack and Ramblers and the Pinnacle Club (in new hats) And a sight to remember, an Alpine Club Member, in very large crampons and spats!

The weather was fine for a wonder; the rocks were as dry as a bone. Hake arrived with a crowd of his backers, but John Brown strode up quite alone; A rousing cheer greeted the rivals; a coin was produced, and they tossed. "Have I won?" cried John Brown as the penny came down. "No, you fool!" hissed his rival. "You've lost!"

So Hake had first go at the contest; he went up by the Ordinary Route, And only the closest observer would have noticed a bulge in each boot. Head first he came down the top pitches, applying his moustache as brake; He didn't relax till he'd passed the Twin Cracks, and the crowd shouted, "Attaboy, Hake!" 

At the foot of the Slabs Hake stood sneering, and draining a bottle of Scotch; "Your time was ten seconds," the President said, consulting the Treasurer's watch. "Now, Brown, if you'd win, you must beat that." Our hero's sang froid was sublime; He took one look at Mary, and light as a fairy, run up to the top of the climb.

Now though Hake had made such good going, John wasn't discouraged a bit, For that he was the speedier climber even Hake would have had to admit. So, smiling as though for a snapshot, not a hair of his head out of place, Our hero John Brown started wriggling down — but look! what a change on his face!

Prepare for a shock, gentle ladies; gentlemen, check the blasphemous word; For the villainy I am to speak of is such as you never have heard!  Hake had cut holes in the toes of his boots, and filled up each boot with soft soap! As he slid down the climb, he had covered with slime every handhold and foothold on Hope!

Conceive (if you can) the tense horror that gripped the vast concourse below, When they saw Mary's lover slip downwards like an arrow that's shot from a bow! "He's done for!" gasped twenty score voices. "Stand from under!" roared John from above. As he shot down the slope, he was steering down Hope —still fighting for life and for love!

Like lightning he flew past the Traverse — in a flash he had reached the Twin Cracks — The friction was something terrific —there was smoke coming out of his slacks —He bounced on the shelf at the top of Pitch Two, and bounded clean over its edge! A shout of "He's gone!" came from all — except one; and that one, of course, was our Reg.

But it's not the expected that happens — in this sort of story, at least; And just as John thought he was finished, he found that his motion had ceased! His braces (pre-war and elastic) had caught on a small rocky knob, And so, safe and sound, he came gently to ground 'mid the deafening cheers of the mob!

"Your time was five seconds!" the President cried. "She's yours, my boy — take her you win!" "My hero!" breathed Mary, and kissed him, while Hake gulped a bottle of gin, And tugged his moustache as he whispered, "Aha! my advances you spurn! Curse a chap that wins races by using his braces!" and he slunk away, ne'er to return. 

They were wed at the Church of St. Gabbro, and the Vicar, quite carried away, Did a hand-traverse into his pulpit, and shouted out "Let us belay!" John put the ring on Mary's finger — a snap-link it was, made of steel, And they walked to the taxis 'neath an arch of ice-axes, while all the bells started to peal.

The Morals we draw from this story are several, I'm happy to say; It's Virtue that wins at the end of the day- long silken moustaches don't pay; Keep the head uppermost when you're climbing; if you must slither, be on a rope; Steer clear of the places that sell you cheap braces — and the fellow that uses Soft Soap!

Showell Styles

Original Cartoons: Ivan Cumberpatch

Republished in Climber and Rambler July 1981