John Redhead:'There but for the grace of God go I'.
Forty two years down the line the ‘art of knee maintenance’ fell upon me. From a youth playing football, and at home on the couch haphazardly clicking the joint to some geometric pattern and ‘strange lights’ in my head, or to the beat of the Rolling Stones track ‘satisfaction’ on the radio, whilst my Mother danced with a mop, plus the early forays of cragging in Yorkshire, the tearing damage in the ball-joint reached critical. Whilst on the famous mantleshelf move on Carnage at Malham Cove, without the rock n roll backing, or weird mop work, the left leg took my weight from an acute angle, and a final ominous click locked the leg into a v-shape. It said, ‘No no no’. From there, my one-legged finish to a break and right into a groove saw my injured leg arcing behind me, wobbling like a puppet’s appendage, in an effort to unlock the badly serrated cartilage.
The walk into the limestone cove is, for me, like the entrance to an atrium of vertical delight. Ceremonial stage lights are switched on and ethereal props arranged like a visceral palette, provoking a feeling of expected good news and of anticipated wonder as if awaiting a performance from the spirits revealing a testimony of wisdom.
Formed from glacial meltwater, the volume cascading over the limestone pavement must have been awesome. Its wings always provided a movement of joy in my soul in my early days of rock climbing. Its central, overhanging body and capping roof system captured the imagination of possibility as if thinking of a moon landing or core strength unknown. Always a glance and a dream, of possibilities, looking for a tenuous way, at this time, a revolutionary stage-set, unbelievable from the wings…and, strangely, almost unnecessary as if wishing that dreams are dreams and needed as such and kept safe in that internal world, where to know your limits is a curse of adventure and a stopper of those ‘strange lights’. As unbelievable as thinking in terms of climbing as a sport, and yet as time gathered, Malham became host to Britain’s first 9b sports route, Rainman.
The fearful air from the cliff’s cutting-edge to Malham Beck, a glory for water fed up with levels, heavy with the rock below, had not yet witnessed John Syrett’s desperate stirring, beyond reach, beyond limits, a whiskey fuelled fall or plunge, either or…test pieces indeed.
So true that the awesome wonder of the Cove and its curved, citadel, ice-age magnificence should also be the sacred ground, attached to that troubled void, that vulnerable balancing of dreams, hopes and desires, where that personal inner logic of despair weighs in heavy to become manifest to the endgame as the fun dries out.
Unlike John’s final act and dark theatre exit, this particular walk out of the Cove, however, became a series of painful hops to the car and the pondering of a solution. Pete Livesey’s steamy-windowed chat room and cafe with egg beans and chips was not yet on offer. Indeed, truthfully, painfully, can the climbing culture offer anything other than a leaning towards the pushing of luck, even suicidal tendencies…almost poetically accepted, acknowledged as brave sacrifice…a smarting of misanthropic joking with death? When the release becomes the burden, perhaps no horrors can be side-stepped…?
I never met John, but must have surely met his energy bouncing about on the Leeds wall. He seemed obsessive, competitive and nostalgic, a party animal, and judging by his gritstone essay in Extreme Rock, caught in a halcyon day. This is no criticism however, as I write this from the comfort of remembering the internal landscape of my own youth, my own memorable ascents, ground up, of Western Front, Wall of Horrors and Big Greenie at Almscliff, it is easy to be ‘unclipped’ and talk of ‘halcyon days’. My ground fall from over the lip of John’s ‘Big Greenie’, almost remembered with glee and pride. My subsequent solos of Wall of Horrors can only be compared to the obsessive Paul Williams, who met his demise on Brown’s Eliminate, a route he had soloed many times. So, halcyon? That the climber loves the pleasure of the body moving freely and fluidly through a series of moves, and is elated at the successful conclusion…of course this is wonderful, and style its icing…but how sad to rely on excessive hubris for one’s well-being. If only it were that simple.
A loving testimony of John by his friend Steve Dean appeared in Climber and perceptively concluded…
‘…the overall experience of climbing both physical and mental, is so powerful and meaningful for some people when they are young, that it can seriously disrupt the remainder of their lives…’
John Syrett: Photo - Gordon Stainforth
The language of ascent is very much concerned with the minutiae, in much the same way that poetry explores the detail of subject through the intense looking through a lens, pairing down the words for essence and effect. It is the nubbins and textures under the nose that moves the climber upwards, filtering the moves and joining the dots to the rhyme. But not just. I guess both forays are a primitive search for that which threatens, for meaning, for some enlightenment through the dark violence circulating in our joints…? So, like a dark art, when ‘burden’ transpires and consumes the text, how to step back from the edge, when the edge led us in from the beginning? Upon venturing here, do not be surprised at what sits on your shoulders.
My nearest stirring, beyond reach, was to push my luck by soloing the fourteen flights of the Hull Royal Infirmary, after my emotional and complicated first affair of coming of age. I was literally ‘beyond reach’ from the third floor of the building as the extending ladders from the fire brigade failed to reach that high. But I was never alone clinging to the concrete pillars, as floors of infirm folk from inside flocked to the windows and stared in disbelief. I had left a little note in my blue Renault 4 in the car park below explaining why my sudden ascent was such an urgent affair…death by battle. But I soon forgot this ‘urgent affair’ as a perverse optimism took over the controls of my life. The concentration needed became pleasurable and the movement easier and more stylish than expected and a banquet of self-preservation took over. Not suffering but observing. I had curiously become detached. A narcissistic, petulant and foolish enterprise maybe, as I stared at my fourteen reflections superimposed by the shocked faces of hospitalised inmates. Again, upon venturing, do not be surprised at what sits on your shoulders.
‘Foolish man, what do you bemoan, and what do you fear? Wherever you look there is an end of evils. You see that yawning precipice? It leads to liberty…do you enquire the road to freedom? You shall find it in every vein of your body’ Seneca - teacher of Nero.
So, back to the limbs. The surgeon I chose liked my work as an artist and offered to do the deed for a painting. He had seen my work at the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull, and chose an exchange…a bonny number of a landscape, the view looking out from a rabbit hole, a perceived rabbit’s eye view. I came to see him hobbling into his surgery with the aid of an Interalp ice axe. He noted with nonchalance the little dents on his brown lino that led to his desk, like the dotted line of a route in a guidebook. Like Carnage was to climbing, this was my first historical landmark into injury. I just hoped that this pre-keyhole operation was not inspired by such a gnored-out, ivy-entwined, ragged view from inside the rabbit hole. I hoped his attention to detail and technique surpassed the trade off. Deal done, he gave me the sad, ragged, pale-cream cartilage in a plastic specimen bottle, like the canopic jar preserving the viscera for the afterlife…
Three, physically static months went by, painfully changing dressings and frantically facing the canvas with my leg propped up on a chair. Works poured out of the studio and my quads became stronger, and my leg bent a little more each day, inspired by the routes in mind. A trip was planned by the East Yorkshire Mountaineering Club to Agden Rocher in the Peak. Too keen for sure saw me cranking up a VS solo. I hadn’t realised how unfit I was as I indulged my appetite for rock. I became seriously pumped two thirds up with no strength to reverse. I had entered the arena too soon. Pain erupts from the end of my fingers and spreads into my core where mockery takes on a lead weight. My arms cannot hold on and I prepare to take an horrendous ground fall onto rocks. I shouted to the blurred figure of Pete above who was belaying his second. A loose slack of un-coiling rope flew over the edge as I departed from the rock. It somehow draped around an arm and leg unknown to me and dragged me sideways into a tree fifteen metres to the side of the climb. I fell chaotically through the tree and collected myself. It was a wonder. But my knee was a mess. It had opened up on the angle of impact and the internal stitches were all torn. This was carnage of a knee and not unlike the view out of the rabbit hole I had swapped, and envisaged for the operation.
Accidents and failures are remembered much more than a quick smooth ascent. Proven beyond doubt by a vast portfolio of adventure stories that have taken on epic movie status and captured imaginations at the box office. But there was more to this episode than met the eye. I mentioned to Chris who had been watching, “Did you feel that?
“No, but you fell diagonally across the wall.”
It seemed to me, in my extremis, that this wind had blown me into the tree. It felt like I had been pushed by an invisible playmate. I took a deep sigh. And there I left it. Left my invisible playmate, licked my wounds, and retreated into my studio in Hessle, put my leg up on a chair, and painted. And I forgot the script as the canvas remembered something else.
So, for my fancy, my brief example of a ‘halcyon day’ involving no beer on the crag, this extremis was but a few seconds of my life, but as combustable as shaking hands with a suicide bomber. Like one of those occasions where one stumbles out and wakes up way beyond one’s limits, at the end of an era almost, into a mythic landscape. Limp-tangled into a random rope, a hopeless plummet, a significant breath of wind into the folding arms of the tree-scape. Now, there’s a sport!
I realise that it is not the act that is significant, but a means of becoming awake to a wider field of consciousness. Such an act can only be thought of as food for this purpose. Resigning to a fall was not a passive resignation - I had not put my head in the oven encouraged by the rancid fat of dead animals and turned on the butane to escape confusion and trivialities. No, the arena was entered with the innate faculties of an artist overriding the bad judgement of a climber. Nothing more and this is how I climbed. I call it otherworldly. It seemed that I merely became neutral and unconditioned, in the hands of whatever had the time or inclination for play. I call it evolving. I like that. My studio likes that. The heart that is receptive to cosmic knowledge and not the chimeras of the intellect, also like that. Whatever it is…it doesn’t serve or call the politicians, bureaucrats or corporates or those who do not serve the planet well. As far as any sport goes or any new Rainman goes, they’re bank-rolled ventures. The more they shit gold the more the planet loses.
“it…calls for human beings who feel in their souls in fullest measure everything that can activate spiritual awareness…” Rudolf Steiner
Malham Cove, Yorkshire.
Well, there we have it, thanks Rudolf. But when it comes to this intimacy, I struggle with the narrative. And this is the most intimate struggle of humanity pressing heavily on world affairs. Direct mystical experience is not conspiracy theory, it is owned by the soul with evidence and identification at the deepest sense of being…but beware of anyone who has disciples. Call me a cynic, Rudy, but one hundred years on, the spiritual debate fluffs on and on with the ‘oracle seeking beings’, the mysteries for the brave, the cool thinking dudes meditating from Sprinter vans. This activation seems just another process, a pin code of acceptance, a means of commodification, to address nature as a named, fashionable miracle, a multi-million dollar miracle, style zone…washing its slaves passionately more than ever with the balms of self. Badges and scarfs all round. I maybe wrong but this awareness is lost more than ever in the bantering and bargaining with increased malevolence from the harmers and impotent yoga-mat vanity. To live or to die, no matter, murder it is.
So the artist once again gets to play in the mortuary of souls and more and more realises that the best thing for spiritual awareness and the planet is the spilling of blood on earth.
Thanks John and bless.
John Redhead, Lous Manes, Coustouges. November 2021.