Sunday 29 September 2019

John Burns' Sky Dance...Reviewed

Published by Vertebrate: £9.99 paperback or £24 in a case bound format.

John Burns is an almost unique polymath of the hill walking/climbing fraternity with a passion for writing and performance. Originally from Merseyside he moved over thirty years ago to live in Inverness to be closer. Pulled by a love of the Scottish Highlands. A keen winter climber and former member of the Cairngorm Mountain Rescue team, he commenced his writing career in 2002 with a book of his poems, ‘Wind Danger’ aimed at raising awareness of autism, a condition affecting one of his two children.

This led on to his participation in the Edinburgh fringe with two one man plays, the first in 2010 ‘Aleister Crowley: a passion for evil’ became an instant success to be followed in 2014 by ‘Mallory: Beyond Everest’ a portrait of a man torn between the love for his wife/family and his burning ambition to climb the world’s highest mountain. Both of these plays he has performed in different venues around the UK, including his Mallory drama at a Kendal film festival. I have watched this with both intrigue and enjoyment wondering if John had not missed his true vocation as an actor story teller. He then published in 2017 his first book, ‘The Last Hill Walker’ tales gleaned from over 40 years of activity in the hills of Britain and adventures further afield in the Rocky Mountains of the USA and Canada. This has quickly become a hill walking standard which received almost rave reviews, and its follow up in 2018, a volume of ‘Bothy Tales’, stories gleaned from the mountains and bothies of Scotland, testifies to the authors intimate knowledge of that countries wild places.
And so we come to ‘Sky Dance’ a novel which has for its sub title ‘Fighting for the wild in the Scottish Highlands’. It does just that for it is the most ‘out’ political mountain book that I have read, dealing with what are now ‘hot’ issues in Scotland and further afield including land ownership, re-wilding, and support for some form of limit on driven grouse shooting. There are no regulations pertaining to grouse moors; which are 15% to 20% of Scotland’s hill areas, and include estates which receive large public subsidies. And which means their environments are far removed from their original natural state. 
Sky Dance’ tackles these issues head on, with the two main characters of the novel being ‘Rory’ a young climber/hill walker trapped in the drudgery of his everyday life working in a factory environment, and ‘Angus’ an older more experienced mountaineer; a President of the Highland Mountaineering Club and a senior clerk serving the Council in Inverness. They get together and start visiting bothies at the weekends to walk and climb on nearby mountains. One of the areas they begin to visit regularly is the fictional Isle of Morvan, reached from the mainland by a short ferry ride on which the Muir and Purdey estates figure large in the story which enfolds in ‘Sky Dance’. The Purdey Estate is in the hands of Lord Purdey , a caricature of all that is bad in a hereditary landowner; of old money with over 300 years of ownership which he believes gives him the right to do whatever he pleases on that ground, bull dozing new access roads, encouraging his game keepers to kill anything which might affect his shooting clients; raptors, hares, voles etc..even though such as the first are protected and killing them is illegal. 

The Muir estate is the opposite run by a new money incomer who won his estate from Purdey in a gamble during a card game! Huge swathes of Scotland are ‘managed’ to increase the numbers of grouse and deer for sport (shooting) for little benefit to society and at a huge cost to wildlife and the environment. A coalition of bodies with interest in changing this has been formed under the title ‘Revive’, and they quickly won public support by organising a petition which received over 100,000 signatures, but which was just as swiftly rebuffed on submission by the Scottish government who stated ‘Grouse shooting is a legitimate activity providing benefits for wildlife and habitat conservation and investment in remote areas’. I do not think the five bodies now involved in demanding change agree this, and they are to meet shortly in Inverness to consider their response. 
Both Rory and Angus are married, but as the story develops these relationships are strained for they become ever more involved in the ideas around re-wilding, even receiving support for such from Sinead, a young Irish ecologist and the new estate manager for Tony Muir. They break into a private wild life park, steal two lynx and transport them back to Morvan, releasing them in a forest which is a part of both estates. Not being professional wild life thieves they are eventually caught and arrested, charged and out on bail for an act which in reality is currently a major topic amongst naturalists and environmentalists throughout Europe. 
Re-wilding is now on the immediate agenda in Scotland, and an organisation to investigate, promote (?) such was founded in 2015, and a National Conference took place on this subject in Stirling on the 21st September 2019. Already one land owner Paul Lister of the Alladale Wilderness Reserve of 23,000 acres near Inverness is planning to re- introduce such wildlife; lynx, wolves etc to the disagreement of many other Landowners and some local authorities. However this may be short sighted, for Lister believes he can show there is much more money and interest in managed tourism than in shooting, noting once again that this so damages the natural habitat of the Highlands. Which was once covered by 1.5 million hectares of Forest, but now boasts less than 16,000 hectares and where there are now bare open hillsides and valleys that previously were covered by Scots Pine, Rowan, Birch, Oak, Aspen, Alder and Hazel trees. 

The proponents of re-wilding point out that since wolves were re-introduced to Yellowstone National Park in the USA there has been a massive increase in visitors and income, and to consider within the situation in Scotland the benefit that tree planting might make to off-setting global warming and in some areas the threat from flooding and or future storm damage. Obviously to re-introduce lynx or wolves into Scotland would require careful management, but Paul Lister of Alladale is certain this can be undertaken safely despite objections especially from the local farming community.

Sky Dance skilfully brings into its sub plots all the above issues and several more. Trophy hunting is swiftly dealt with and somewhat lampooned by the case of a wealthy German client set up to shoot a stag on the Purdey estate, by its two gamekeepers Donald and Hamish who stalk a suitable ancient animal, beyond its normal life span. And then after its despatch, they build the client up with congratulations noting he was ‘so brave’, and smearing his head with the blood of the dead animal, a ‘Highland’ tradition. Another issue arising in the novel is the use and abuse of bothies; in the main their occupants treat them with respect, take their rubbish home with them but on occasion large groups arrive at the more accessible ones, leave their trash behind and destroy some of their features, scrawling graffiti within their inner rooms etc. This struck a chord with me, for I knew some of those involved in setting up the Mountain Bothies Association in 1965.

Bothying in the recreational sense is almost a modern tradition dating from the post world war two era-however some of these shelters do date from the Highland Clearances and the Highland potato famine years, in remote areas where the population declined over a period of two centuries moving away to the cities to work in their industrialisation and abroad.

Many such are perforce located in Scotland, but there are some in the Lake District, Northumberland, Snowdonia, The Black Mountains and the Cambrians. Over 100 are listed by the MBA, and the ones in Scotland appear in a recent book by Geoff Allan ‘The Scottish Bothy Bible 2017’. I wonder if Bernard Heath and his friends who turned the ruins of an old farmhouse in Galloway into a bothy shelter, which led onto the establishment of the MBA ever thought it would become such a feature of the hill walking and climbing experience in these Islands, basic howffs free for anyone or everyone to make use of. A distant friend of mine from his early mountain days was Irvine Butterfield (1936-2009) he hailed from West Yorkshire, but a posting to Perth as an excise and customs officer led on to his playing a major role in the MBA and popularising their use and hill walking. His book, The High Mountains of Britain and Ireland became a classic publication selling over 50,000 copies in a hard back format. 
Writing a novel is a real challenge, dialogue is so hard to put down onto paper and achieve a realistic result, climbers and hill walkers are not wilting flowers, so unless it is hard edged it can lose some of its bite, a case in point Rory in Sky Dance comes out against ‘lists’ believing they demean mountain activities. Angus not so, but their reaction to one of their club members completing the Munros , the round of the 284 peaks over 3,000 feet in Scotland is restrained. However both join in a celebratory weekend at the bothy on the Isle of Morvan attended by their club members. The novel becomes ever more action packed and there are so many asides it keeps on giving, and the way its author has planned it to illustrate a whole year of mountain activities, winter, spring, summer, autumn and winter is a positive device.

I will deal with only one other subject arising from the pages of Sky Dance; that is the one that the author obviously feels so strongly about, namely landowning! On several occasions he notes that a few hundreds of families own most of the land in Scotland. When I looked at the history of trespass and the life story of Benny Rothman this was a key to the fate that overtook him and his young friends, they had deliberately publicised the unfairness of the access situation by organising a mass trespass on Kinder Scout, and paid for this with jail sentences. John Burns cites this event in Sky Dance, and rightly feels that Benny was some kind of hero, in support of the outdoor fraternities demand for easier and more open access. In researching the trespass movement, it is so obvious that landowning in the UK is a source of great and ongoing wealth. Be it a shooting estate or land where minerals are discovered, with the spread of wind farms and mobile connectors, or that which can be developed for real estate development etc. And until poor people and those not quite so stop voting the rich and privileged into power this will continue to be the case. 

I recall here how the senior members of the climbing fraternity during my tenure at the BMC would insist that we had to be careful, not to upset the landowners. Most of whom were actually reasonable to deal with and allowed climbing /hill walking to take place freely on their land, but a few were not and on occasion such as the landowner who dynamited an outcrop on Bleaklow, Yellowslacks to stop climbing taking place, he was not and should have felt the same kind of censure and even more so from the law that was handed out to Benny Rothman and his pals!
Sky Dance is not War and Peace but it is a real page turner, and I will not spoil the reader’s possible enjoyment at the novels conclusion, and the come-uppance near its end of Lord Purdey. It is a good story which however includes the most important issues now facing the environment in which we follow our activities. I enjoyed reading Sky Dance and I am sure anyone who has climbed, hill walked, Munro bashed, bothied, and trekked in Scotland’s wild lands will feel the same about this, John Burns first novel.

Dennis Gray: 2019 

Monday 16 September 2019

Kill Them All

Caban: The Author on a recent trip back to another of his old stomping grounds.The Llanberis slate quarries.

Kill them all, the land will know its own…

Beziers 1209. This title is drawn from the alleged orders given by Arnaud Amaury, a Cistercian abbot and Pope Innocent’s legate, during the first military action of the Albigensian crusade against the heretic Cathari. When it became known that, in the throes of the bloody carnage, it was impossible to tell a Catholic from a Cathari, he ordered, ‘kill everyone, God will know his own’.

Liverpool 2019. My version of this infamous dictum comes from a recent visit to this northern port. Its raw, tribal energy has always instilled a vibrant feeling of ‘fuck off therapy’. Its healthy, socialist, militant fist is in your face demanding attention; loud, messy, with music at its core. It thrusts its weapon on the worldwide stage… I love you, yeah, yeah yeah, and a million such tunes with no sell by date. It is an expressive, inclusive city, and when I lived here for seven years it was probably the most active ‘social forensic’ of my life. Musing on Heinrich Harrer’s seven years in Tibet, I escaped via the Clywdian Hills of North Wales, not to escape war but to avoid the slings and arrows of a tight chapel attitude. I landed amongst parallel streets of red brick warehouses, vomit-slid and piss-stained, and the groaning of life forms intrigued. I adventured to a different, energetic drumbeat. Musicians and artists are bred here, flock here, find freedom and inspiration here, in a Liverpool reformed from three centuries of transatlantic human trafficking, redolent with humiliation, degradation and brutality. And the legacy of an oppressive regime is still manifest, as hardship, hunger and blankets greet those in the doorways of a shopping trip.

For a northern town built on commerce, trade and slavery, it has held its ‘family’, its pool of life sacrosanct and, sure enough, you will never walk alone here. The urban tribe is one animal, acting with one tongue, like the festival dragon whose long tail is held up by many; a red army, so to speak. All are artists. Enrollment is free for all.

When I lived and worked in a warehouse in the centre of the town, I wrote an article called Music of Decline. I refer to the studio warehouse as a precarious perch, a tree house, an observation post and a hunter’s hideout.

The communication is elemental, hyper, stricken with poverty. It’s hypnotic. They fight and grope together deep inside neon-lit, converted buildings. The bass sounds that escape to the outside are indeed a jungle beat. Wood street, Fleet Street, warehoused and heavy with light industry are transmuted from the Victorian Merchant era to the primaeval hunt – raw and hypnotic’. …and one for the crow

This vision was new to me, but I guess if you were on safari seeking out this ‘wilderness’, you would find it in every city in the world.

On the second floor, large doors opened out onto a fairly empty Concert Street and Fleet Street, still hanging in as a remnant of the merchant era and within sly-piss-distance from busy Bold Street shoppers. Opposite was a sweat-shop employing many girls on sewing machines and underneath me an upholstery business and a cabinet maker. Assorted businesses operated from Holmes Buildings: a web of practice rooms for budding musicians, cake makers and craft persons. I collected loose tea, spilt from the chests at the tea factory, opposite a convent up the road, where the homeless and drunk sank into the convent’s soup kitchen. No ships in sight. I dreamed as an artist should, furiously alert to the threads of humanity.

Frankie, the upholsterer was a broad, tough Scouse cookie. He had lost an eye in a fight and would be quite happy to summon his mates with metal plates in their heads to wipe out the growing number of ‘tossing arty wankers’ in the street, if he so wished. I liked him and his close, down to earth family ties. But he had his defensive, ‘manly’ moments in between cutting and sewing fabrics and stapling furnishings that others could relax in. He only hit me once and head-locked me another time over an argument about toilet roll…never again has toilet roll been an issue in my life. Pete, the cabinetmaker, had learned his craft during a harrowing ten years spent in jail in Johannesburg. He’d been caught smuggling diamonds across the border. When stressed about life’s grind, he would recall his black mates who had all died, beaten to death in the same jail, then just get on with it, rolling another number. Regardless of his ‘enforced’, nurtured feel for wood, his main concern was dealing hash. He wasn’t alone when 96 of his fellow supporters died in the Hillsborough stadium disaster. Lesley, a gentle soul, was a ceramicist working in the cellar, and when not totally bonged-out or playing the whistle, made slip cast Art Deco forgeries. The building was owned by a chap nicknamed Gollum, a dealer in antique furniture, bric-a-brac and household clearance or whatever. He was a small hunched man who walked with a slight limp, and always seemed to have a hand outstretched ready to take cash or cheques. He was known to deal in ‘dodgy’ items and large shipping containers arrived in the middle of the night to be loaded, destined to sail on the same old slavery route across to the Americas. So, as artist in residence, and the only person actually living in the street with the rats and pigeons, I was in good company with the gangsters of the inner city. 

My warehouse was the last epicenter of ‘down to earth’ working practice before the town planning takeover of L1, advertised and marketed as the new creative quarter. These days you may not find much dereliction, nor much of its eager mate, the purple lilac Buddleja, programmed to seek a damp neglect, hanging from cracks, broken downspouts and rooftops. The street life had just started to ‘drip’ design and after seven years of dialogue with my own Dalai Lama, I was out of place – clean up, dress up or fuck off. My sketches writhed awkwardly and grotesquely around this style conscious ambience… this comedy, this tragedy, this subterfuge born from profit and fear?

‘…the energy is pure escapism.
There is no content apart from alcohol induced aggression and violence.
At 2am the happy funky clubbers are baring and gnashing their teeth on the threshold of a new era…’ and one for the crow

Creative quarter? My tree house was converted into a bar for that new era. This was 23 years ago and times have changed. Ryley was born in the warehouse and is 23. I have changed. The ‘one-eyed Frankies’ have had kids and operate businesses from more convenient premises out of town. The warehouse has had a new cool, consumer make-over; but if you read the red bricks, the slavery and slops remain. Concert Street has changed into an open-air arena of almost Shakespearean proportions. The concert too has changed and become more festival… the street concert booms the new tunes and refreshments to the new happy highway. Rejoice in the non-stop hedonism? I love you yeah yeah yeah – and I’m not the only one. Religion is still persecuting, killing and proselytising however. Wars, terrorism and pollution are always topics of main news. Pope Francis’s answer to the destruction of the Amazonian rainforest is to send in married priests. Derek Hatton, the Trotskyite Militant voice of the 80’s, back into politics, was then kicked out again after speaking his mind over Israel’s obvious and horrendous atrocities against the indigenous folk of Palestine. Freedom of speech, more than ever, hides behind the design label of a corporate voice. Greenpeace is still active but has been joined by a more timely and radical troupe, Extinction Rebellion. It is with thoughts and questions arising from my recent essay ‘What to do’, concerning a harmed planet and the violence of the day, that I visit the city. If there was ever a city that could push a few tangents and clues into your skull, headlock you with a few punchy jabs, the Pool of Life is it. 
I walked almost blindfold into the ‘concert’ and faced the familiar red brick. Gone was the ventilation pipe that connected to the main sewer under the street, the one we plugged a toilet into. I knew that Waterstones the bookstore, had been converted into a bar. Fuckin buzzin. I knew that my old café, Trading Places had gone along with its random artworks on patched up walls. I remembered Isabelle’s home-baked banoffi pie and the morning toast and marmalade after slipping out of the studio, groggy and barefoot. Gone was the broken, mended and shabby humanity, making ends meet but talking poetry, gone the frayed misfits who ran it and the homeless, not out of place, who would chance a free coffee and a chat, for me significant and of world importance. It had a sense of place, on earth, above and beyond what it seemed to offer at face value. Yes, it had become another bar. Fuckin buzzin. The waste ground where I had my bonfires of street rubbish: two more bars. Fuckin buzzin. The car park had gone: high-rise above another bar. Fuckin buzzin. I had no sanctuaries left. Neither had the grey wagtail. Designer wagging tails were on the humans now and how they wag. How busy, how clean, how barren. I was brought to a full stop. Was this the headlock I sought?

In 1995 I wrote –

As I am writing this, looking down on a battle of streets from my studio, I am reminded of the pre-literate truth that finds its release in the ‘hunt’ every night. However, this pulsating of the Earth offers no succor to the unsuspecting ‘mummers’ on the stage down below who remain in blissful ignorance of the ancient sapience to which they perform…’ and one for the crow

All cultures need a release of treatment, a Mardi Gras, a festival, a piss up, a get together, a rubbing of flesh, a peace pipe for a pause and respite, an alternate headspace… the spectrum of humanity’s “rules of the game”. The validating codes of a ceremony are here usurped by hashtag trending. I wade through a collision, flicking through pages of a Marvel comic, trying to grasp the familiar, the eternal, to pick up a few gems and try and understand its place in the psyche and on the map. This was one animal in loud voice, seemingly on social media, finger-clicking for life’s affirmation on Tinder and Facebook, for likes, for retweets, for selfies, brainwashed by the buzzword topics of the day…Game of Thrones…Women’s football…Billy Eilish … migrants… shopping... Brexit… Boris Johnson… Trump. No doubt Extinction Rebellion made a brief appearance of ridicule on the menu of this month’s bar conversation, but this animal moved and shook to the offers on sale in the city’s retail shops. Designer carrier bags dazzled and flooded out from under seats like modern chains around the ankles. But this is Liverpool, so rest assured there is an indifferent street poet not far away, probably chained to a lamp post, intuitively rhyming that mankind is ‘fuckin’ mad. 

No matter what loose change is ‘salved’ into Greenpeace tins it is crystal clear that this release needs a release. It is also crystal clear that this voice is not a chant of freedom or joy, but a blissful addiction to a slow-sleep consumerism. It is state controlled through bankers and developers in a sham democracy. It is also crystal clear to me, as to a migrant, bobbing on the sidelines of this show, seeking an island on which to land, that this is a conflict zone. This is not to say that Toyota Hilux pickups are patrolling the streets with rocket launchers. This is not to say that armed militias are grouped behind the red brick walls awaiting a command. This is not to say that opposing factions will arrive to rape and ethnically cleanse. It is to say that something far more clever and insidious is in operation, something that is equally controlling and manipulative and life threatening – for everyone on the planet. Reading the scene, I cannot say that we are fortunate to be free of the horrors of war and the systematic transportation to extermination camps.

the life and joy you so energetically seek does not exist, it is really a blissful promise of death’. and one for the crow

So, facing this ‘death’, this hidden creeping death, this death wanting more and more of whatever this death needs, I go for a quick cortado coffee behind ‘enemy-lines’ and make a shopping list of my immediate wants. My coffee suffices. But even my coffee, is not a coffee as such, it’s an experience of place, sounds, textures, observations, insights and stimuli for the imagination…like my old café of 23 years ago, of world importance and transcendence.

In numerology, the number 23 is significant, often called the angel 23, carrying messages of a divine nature for optimism about your place in the universe. I will keep that esoteric gem under my belt.

But for the present it is very difficult to be optimistic having waded through the Concert Street soap opera, where every street is like a kids’ theme park, choked with ‘happy’ folk buying stuff, pretending to be adults, herded and surveyed. It is heartbreakingly obvious that this way of being is not sustainable either for civilisation or the planet. When I see this total submission to the soul of Mammon, to consumer slavery, orchestrated in the most evil and concealed corporate manner, I see the end of the world. Part of me wishes to hasten it on its way, for surely the health of the planet will recognize its own….?

And then I see the Toyota Hilux pickup, manned by Extinction Rebellion activists. Civil disobedience has taken a new twist. They are collecting consumers from the streets, admitting them to consumer decompression units for therapy, education, deep-ecology and blue planet retrieval. A better dream than a Jihadi, a religious consumer, forcing his will, hell bent on eliminating that which is other… Beziers was not a happy ending.

The biggest problem facing humanity is how to replace this monster called belief.

John Redhead, Lous Manes, Coustouges, Catalunya Nord. July 2019

Llanberis Photos-JA

Monday 2 September 2019

'Crazy Sorrow'. The life and death of Alan Mullin..Reviewed

Original Image: Heinz Zac
Crazy Sorrow. The life and death of Alan Mullin. Edited by Grant Farquhar. 264pages Paper Back. Perfect Bound. ATLANTIS PUBLISHING. £28 or £8 in e-book format. 
His hunger burns, he learns how to steal, and he learns how to fight’. In the Ghetto Elvis Presley

No price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning oneself. Nietzsche

I faced the thought of reading ‘Crazy Sorrow’ with some trepidation, for I already knew the Alan Mullin story climbing wise, and had read Ed Douglas’s article about his terrible death. I feared that in learning about what had led up to that, some of my own father’s mental breakdown would be in my recall, although unlike Alan Mullin my sister and I never suffered physical abuse at home.

The story begins with a short Forward by his brother Kevin, three years younger than Alan who also eventually joined the army, finishing as a senior NCO. There then follows an authoritative overview ‘The discipline of Suffering’ by the historical guru of Scottish winter climbing, Simon Richardson. This is replete from the earliest ascent of Ben Nevis to collect plant specimens in 1771, to a winter climbing Grade X10 and beyond two hundred years later. All the major historical figures and their climbs are included and the story finishes around the time Alan Mullin begins his ascents. Ascending unbelievably in two years to the top of the grading system; which Richardson explains of how it developed and its workings over so many winter seasons of trial and error. Being a pendant I found only one mistake in this excellent review, on page 20, the first ascent of the North Face of the Droites in September 1955 was by P.Cornau and M. Davaille.

A major part of the book is detailing where and how Alan Mullin was coming from; beginning with his early life growing up on two different housing estates near Glasgow. His father was partly deaf, earned a living as a pipe fitter, but abandoned his family when Alan was 13, leaving him to fend for himself and his younger brother, with a mother who sank deeper and deeper into alcoholism, living off benefits, which resulted in Kevin being removed into care. It is warts and all, for his father was a Protestant, and his mother a Catholic, and once his father had departed he was moved from a Protestant School to a Catholic one and he became a Celtic supporter; and on one occasion actually attended at an ‘Auld Firm Derby’, Celtic versus Rangers. This was at the latter’s ground and wearing his Celtic shirt he was lucky to get away without a beating, for having lost a friend and transport home he was accosted by older, bigger Ranger’s fans who were ready for a fight having lost the game to their Catholic Rivals. He had the sense to get his shirt off and hide it from sight. For the uninitiated the Protestant versus Catholic rivalry between these Clubs supporters has in the past being the cause of much violence.

In the early Chapters there is also violence and much fighting for Mullin had to learn the hard way that he needed to toughen up, and assume the role of ‘The Hardest Kid In Our Street’. And although he was small physically he made up for this when challenged by his level of aggression. Unless you have experienced this kind of milieu yourself it may seem pointless but we are a product of our environment, and if you live in any such area throughout the UK, it is likely you too might experience such a culture. How do these sink areas develop? When I was 15 in 1951 I had met in Wales, Mick Noon of Glasgow’s Creagh Dhu Club (Mick is mentioned in Richardson’s review) and he had invited me to visit him and attend a Club meet on the Cobbler. I hitch hiked from Leeds and was met by Mick who lived in Denmark Street in The Gorbals; a sea of run down tenements and dilapidated saloon bars. It is from the redevelopment of such inner city areas out into Estates/New Towns on the peripheries of major conurbations, with many of their denizens moving there from these districts that some sink estates seem to develop? 

It is a National disgrace that in some of these poverty and depressed levels exist that no country should allow to-be so. But let me be clear here, there was nothing depressed about the members of the Creagh Dhu when I eventually met up with them. However as I was to find out later in the mid-sixties working for a firm in the Anderston District of Glasgow, that many of these places on the fringe of the City were just as Alan Mullin experienced when young, districts to avoid unless you were also willing to trade a Glasgow kiss or two!

Mullin was determined to get himself out of his troubled environment, and as soon as he was able, at 15 years of age he joined the army. But incredibly he joined an English infantry regiment, The Green Jackets. After one year of basic training as a junior soldier, he was posted into the regiments 2nd battalion. Having expected life to be so different in the army, he quickly learned that it could be just as violent as it had been at school and on the two Council estates on which he had lived. In another life, when I was forced into National Service, before I was posted to Manchester in February 1954, I had to undertake three weeks of infantry training in Wiltshire. This educated me on how such can dehumanise anyone who is of a sensitive nature, for one of those I shared a barrack with, Rosenheim a young Jewish teenager just could not stand the constant verbal attacks on him by the NCO’s and the antagonism from bigoted fellow recruits, so he killed himself. In true army style the ranks closed and though his parents along with their MP arrived at the camp demanding answers, the true situation as to what had happened was brushed away without any real consideration by the officer corps.

I think I need here to give an insight into how such training affected Mullin, by a direct quote ‘After almost a year of training, I had transformed from a scrawny young recruit into a finely tuned psycho with a thirst for violence: exactly what the army was looking for’.

Over the next 8 years Mullin served first in Northern Ireland at the height of the troubles, then Cyprus and finally in South Georgia. Good and bad things happened to him during these years, a positive one was meeting his wife Marion whose first husband had also been in the military, but who had died in a helicopter crash. But a negative one was when nearing the end of his tour in Northern Ireland, whilst engaged in the rumble of a game of indoor football. Rifleman versus NCO’s he was rammed into a wall badly fracturing a knee. This was so serious he was flown to the Woolwich Military hospital near London, resulting in an operation and a month in bed before returning to Belfast. His final posting in South Georgia perforce because of the terrain meant a course in mountain training, including some ice climbing and this is when he became fired up by a wish to become a climber. 
Unfortunately whilst on another exercise carrying a heavy rucksack he suffered a slipped disc which made continuing on with this outing a physical agony. It was a big mistake to go on battling this for he was doing himself real physical damage. I also once slipped a disc and I was likewise in physical agony, but I had this dealt with in 48 hours by a Neuro surgeon. It took me a few months to recover completely, but despite moving onto light duties, Mullin’s situation became ever more serious and eventually resulted in him needing a spinal operation. And this eventually led on to him being discharged the service, a decision which he found hard to contemplate, for despite all else, he loved the army and had no wish to leave a life which he found so conducive to his own attitude in living. By the end of his story I had to agree with a view expressed by his brother Kevin; that retiring him from the army on grounds of physical disability was truly a questionable action.

On returning to civilian life he moved with his family (his wife Marion had two children via her first marriage, and they had a son together) to a village near Invergordon, and for a time they seemed settled. Although Mullin was drinking heavily, and on occasion experimenting with drugs, and getting into fights in Clubs (he acted as a bouncer for some short period); he unfortunately found that life in what they had thought could be a honeyed existence in a traditional Highland village, turned, out not to be so. Resulting in confrontation with a family of local trouble makers which ended with criminal charges in court, over which Mullin and his wife were completely exonerated. They then moved 20 miles away to another village where they did find the lifestyle that they had originally sought, with an environment for their three children to safely grow within. However his heavy drinking, drug taking, with bouts of anger and worries about where he was heading; he had been only 23 years old when he left the army, made him begin to question his mind set. And so he booked himself into a series of appointments with a psychologist and confessed that despite his apprehension about doing this, he found the meetings worthwhile and even enjoyable! 
He then almost by accident rediscovered what he was good at; climbing. In the 1990’s mixed winter routing was taking off and after what was, an unbelievable short apprenticeship of two years, he went from soloing at grade I to climbing at grade VIII. For Mullin, the hardships that are hand-in-hand with Scottish winter climbing seemed no worse than those he had come to expect in the army. Initially he was very much self-motivated and self-taught, but in 1997 he teamed up with Steve Paget, a highly talented but relatively unknown winter climber. Together they focussed predominantly on mixed climbs in the Cairngorms.

Making full use of the equipment revolution then under away, and the new technique of dry tooling, over the next few years either partnered by Steve or climbing solo Mullin repeated many classic Cairngorm mixed climbs. Simon Richardson noted that he was rapidly moving to the forefront of Scottish winter climbing. Ascent followed ascent, a standout climb being The Needle on the Shelter Stone Crag in a 17 hour push in 1998. A ten pitch route, the first to be graded IX. They bettered this the following winter with an ascent of The Steeple also on the Shelter Stone, seen by many at that time as the ultimate last great Scottish winter problem. Again Simon Richardson opined that this ascent was ‘without question the most sustained technical winter route climbed in Scotland to date’.

But others were not so complimentary, for both these climbs were made early in the season, in the case of The Needle in late October, and I know when I lived in Scotland it was rare that routes were in winter condition so early in the season, but conditions in an area like The Cairngorms change so much from year to year, and even from day to day. However not all the responses to these ascents were critical; Andy Kirkpatrick noted ‘Alan was a revolutionary in the history of Scottish climbing, a total outsider who shook a closed scene to pieces’.
He further upped the ante by making an incredible on-sight solo first winter ascent of Rolling Thunder on Lochnagar in December 1999 (V11 8). This in summer conditions is a four pitch, E1 5B and there was no doubt about the cliff being in winter condition on this occasion, for other climbers were in the area and took pictures with long lenses of the Face on which Mullin appears as a red dot in a hanging sea of white.

One Chapter I really enjoyed reading was about Mullin attending the 1999 BMC International Winter Climbing meet based at Glenmore Lodge. As the person who organised the very first such BMC International Meet in Wales in 1973, it was interesting to note how much had changed. I do not remember any of the attendees then being prima donnas; although some of the 51 climbers there from 19 countries had made major first ascents in their own countries and the Himalaya. It seemed by 1999 some of those who were in attendance were such and one of them in particular did not rate high on the Mullin personal behaviour acceptance scale. However good came from this for Mullin met Kevin Thaw and Leo Holding with whom he did gel and before the meet was over he had an invitation to climb in the USA and Patagonia from Thaw.

During 1999 and 2000 Mulin’s desire to widen his experience led him to the USA, the Dolomites and Patagonia. In Yosemite he climbed his first ever big wall climb and aid route The Prow. His first trip to Patagonia with Kevin Thaw, an expat Brit based in California in January/March 2000 was very successful and the pair made a free ascent of the Czech Route (V1, 5ll+) on Fitz Roy’s West Face. This was Alan’s first of three trips to Patagonia, the other two were to be attempts on infamous Maestri Egger line on Cerro Torre. The first of these attempts, climbing again with Thaw but also accompanied by Leo Holding, ended when the latter took a leader fall badly fracturing an ankle, and the second attempt was totally bombed out by the constant bad weather. At least some good came out of these last two trips for Mullin made friends with the Austrian climber Peter Janschek and visited him to do some ice climbing of which there is plenty in that country. The famous photographer a friend of Peter’s, Heinz Zak accompanied them resulting in an impressive picture in Crazy Sorrow of Alan leading an iced up route at the Rudolfshutte, winter ski and climbing area.

Back in winter Scotland, the first ascents or difficult repeats continued, ‘Centurion’(VIII,8) solo on Ben Nevis, The Demon Direct (IX,9) in the Northern Corries with Steve Paget, and Crazy Sorrow (X,II) with Steve Lynch in Lochnagar. Over this latter, the first so highly graded, a storm of criticism erupted. ‘Pre-placed gear, abseil inspection, aided moves etc’ being the screams from the keyboard warriors but also some of the protectors of the Scottish winter climbing ethic, but Mullin either did not care or pretended not to. An innocent enquiry about this controversy by Simon Richardson hit a raw nerve and resulted in an unfriendly response to be followed by three abusive e-mails. And that was the last time Simon communicated with him, although he writes that despite everything he still regarded Alan as a friend, and that he was the best winter climber of his day. Interestingly Dave MacLeod who also climbed with him gives him the same high rating, but noted he was without a doubt ‘the most intense person I’ve ever spent time or climbed with’.
(For those interested the name ‘Crazy Sorrow’ comes from a lyric by Bob Dylan, but it is also a book title by Susan Bowes about a deadly family feud in the Appalachian Mountains)

In 2004 Mullin, abruptly announced he was giving up climbing, his injuries suffered during his army career had caught up with him. He had an operation in a private clinic in Sheffield to try to alleviate this in 2003 but he had to accept that his injured knee was ruined. He also still suffered from his spinal injury for which he had continued to take an opioid pain killer.
Stopping climbing in which his star had Shone so brightly despite the fact it had been for such a brief period seemed to be as Kevin Thaw writes, ‘the beginning of a downward spiral’. Marion his wife noted ‘he became very withdrawn and we could see a dramatic change in him’. He was admitted twice in 2004 on an informal basis to the local psychiatric hospital in Inverness. He was diagnosed with ‘Bipolar Affective Disorder-manic phase, Personality Disorder and possibly drug induced problems’.

He then became an outpatient but in August 2005 he failed to attend an appointment and thereafter had no contact with the hospital until his next admission in 2007.He had stopped taking the antipsychotic medications he had been described citing bad side effects. He tried to find new directions away from climbing by studying philosophy and psychology via the Open University. He was very enamoured of the writings of Nietzsche. He trained as an alcohol counsellor, but quickly gave that up, later enrolling on an anthropology course at Aberdeen University.

The whole terrible story then unfolds, and no one is better qualified to give insight into its development and causes than Grant Farquhar the books editor, for he is a practising psychiatrist. I will leave the reader to follow this to what may seem an inevitable demise with first a suicide attempt by slashing his wrists and walking in front of a car on the A9 road suffering an ankle fracture, damaged ribs and multiple soft tissue injuries. He spent eleven days in Raigmore Hospital in Iverness before being admitted in the care of his wife as a voluntary inpatient at the New Craigs Psychiatric hospital.
Ten days after admission the medical staff wanted him to stay but he wished to go home so on his own instigation he discharged himself ‘against medical advice’, although once again he was prescribed a suitable antipsychotic- medication. There was much more suffering for his family and Alan before the final breakdown, when he became so delusional his wife drove to the Dingwall police station to seek help. Two police officers followed her back to her house, and managed to enter but Alan told them to leave, moved himself upstairs to a bedroom warning the policeman that to come up to him would be at their own peril. Knowing he had been in the army and was a trained combatant the coppers then called for backup. 15 officers arrived at the house, five in riot gear along with negotiators and dogs!

Eventually after five hours of stand-off, and Alan threatening, under orders of the area commander they removed him from the house. Instead of having him sanctioned and entered into hospital, due to multiple misunderstandings he was held in police cells and appeared the next day at Tain Sheriff Court charged with ‘a breach of the peace!’ Instead of being removed to a psychiatric hospital he was sent down to prison. And on March 9th 19 days after this, again due to a series of calamitous decisions, including the stopping of ‘special observations’ and the removal of his cellmate to attend court; when officers did check his cell they found him hanging by a radio flex. He could not be resuscitated. They discovered a number of suicide notes in his cell.

There was an inquiry held into his death eighteen months later, but it appears nothing has changed and throughout Britain there have been numerous inquiries, but the sad conclusion is that the culture seems to be in many cases like Mullin’s, that suicide is inevitable. I do not think Grant Farquhar thinks this is so and there is much more to his analysis than I have written. Preventing suicide is difficult, but rates vary within different countries prison systems and real effort should be made to bring the best practice into our service.
There is then a final chapter of reflections and thoughts about the subject, but for me my view is that Alan Mullin was the classical case of an Outsider. Throughout history such people have appeared, disrupted, and changed how other people think or behave about the meaning of their lives or the approach to their activities. They are often difficult to know but they usually make a positive contribution to our lives, often like Alan Mullin at great cost to themselves and those who love them. 
Photograph: Ian Parnell
Crazy Sorrow is well illustrated with many outstanding historic colour prints and contains contributions from many other climbers and sources. It is well produced and though highly priced is unlike any other climbing book I have ever read; think Irvine Welsh and ‘Trainspotting’ or Colin Wilson’s ‘The Outsider’. It is a hard read, but it touches on a subject that we all need to know much more about. So my recommendation is despite the sadness at the terrible outcome do, buy and read it!

Dennis Gray: 2019