On beauty - and the joy of gritstone
This collection of Jim Perrin's climbing essays spans five decades and shows a great deal of passion and energy, says Ed Douglas
Like so much else in modern life, the world of adventure is now turbo-charged by celebrity and consumerism. Sponsored to the hilt and never far from a film crew, men and women with the correct appeal - accent, apparel, jaw-line - flog unremarkable achievements to media outlets too uninterested to figure out the scam.
Jim Perrin is part of a very different tradition, whose followers see hills and mountains as places of liberty and recreation, delighting in nature and the absence of rules and mocking the capitalistic hierarchy mountaineering has become.
This collection of Perrin's climbing essays spans five decades and requires at least a nodding acquaintance with the sport. That fact itself has frustrated Perrin down the years. His lyric prose and tough reasonableness have drawn favourable comparisons with the spirit of William Hazlitt. But in a rock climber? Perrin kicks against the constrictions of his subject, seeing the truth of things pasted to a gritstone cliff while knowing that many readers will feel excluded.
He prefaces this selection with a series of autobiographical sketches that are, by turn, chiselled and baroque, capturing the juxtaposition of post-war, working-class Manchester and the richly peopled world he found on the moors of Derbyshire and later in his spiritual homeland, Wales. Perrin grew up in fractured gloom, his parents forced to leave him with grandparents as they scraped a living and endured a joyless marriage. Highly intelligent, he earned himself a place at grammar school -'not a good move, given where I live' - and the consequent scrapping cost him an eye.
Abandoning the classroom, Perrin found his aggression and energy, along with his mind, fully expressed by wilder spaces and the cast of characters he returns to again and again throughout his writing life: playful genius Joe Brown; white-maned radical Len Chadwick, striding the moors with his boots held together by string; mesmerising Eric Shipton, sacked from the 1953 Everest expedition in the cruellest circumstances; and Al Harris, a prodigious master of the revels and Perrin's partner in a pissed-up round of mechanical-digger jousting.
The essays flick past in a sequence of intense bursts, conflating left-wing radicalism and lines of coke, the beat of a raven's wing with a horror at the limits we enforce on the world. Most moving of all is the agony and courage he shows in contemplating the suicide of his gifted son, Will. Perrin's mood and style are as mercurial as the weather on Bleaklow, but: 'There is a common element in all this,' he writes. 'It is beauty, and I am continually astonished how little is said about it in our modern world.'
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"I can't remember when I felt so eager to engage with a writer, and I urge this collection on anyone who thinks and argues about our reasons for doing what we do. Some of the climbing accounts are of the finest and there are warm evocations of sharply-observed hilscapes and their secret, foraging creatures ... his descriptions of the action of climbing are joyous, full of the love of life and grace on rock."
Paddy O'Leary, Irish Mountain Log, Autumn 2006
'Put an ear to this book and what will you hear?' writes Robert MacFarlane in the introduction to this exquisite collection of essays. 'You will hear the soft rasp of a chalked hand on a gritstone hold. You will hear the cow bell clink of hex on granite. You will hear the skirl of wind over wind drifted snow. You will hear the cry of a falling man and the seconds of silence after his death. You will hear the chatter in the Llanberis heights on a Saturday night. You will hear the jubilant shout of a climber mantling over the top of a big route, and into rich, quiet sunset light. You will hear a Himalayan ice fall noisily rearranging itself. You will hear voices raised in funeral song.'
The tonal range of Perrin's writing is remarkable. From the mellifluous, supple rythms of 'so I went on that shattered hillside in company with a certain fear. It was so beautiful, I was lost' to the cocaine-laced intensity of his infamous ascent of Coronation Street. From the hedonism to the heartbreak; all the highs and the lows of life on 'climbing's wildest shore' are here.Highlights from the book include his elegy to Fachwen bouldering which begins: 'It was on the back of Al Harris's bike that I was first introduced to Fachwen. It wasn't a Kawasaki, it was a Greaves Scrambler and Al loved to do wheelies on it in the field on the front of his house. One day he took me for a ride over the back of Bigil. By the time I eventually parted company with his pillion there was enough adrenaline coursing round my veins to have kept San Francisco tripping for the whole of 1967 which was the year in question.' He touches upon deeper issues; his style way beyond the workaday prose of the outdoor journalist: 'What is it we seek from these mirrors in the cliffs? he asks . He believes in climbing as an almost mystical experience. One through which the outer landscape comes to shape the inner. What he criticises, is climbing as gymnastics, a purified exercise in dynamics and musculature.In his profile on Stevie Haston he writes 'the direction that Stevie's going and the direction climbing's going are divergent Britain. The stuff he does needs balls whereas the sport in this country is mostly just for twats'. He seems to sympathise with Jack Longland: (of Longland's climb on Cloggy) who says of modern climbing: 'I find it intensely boring, all these chaps doing something with or without bolts to the left or right of where somewhere else has been.' In the course of their discussions, Longland, would often turn the conversation round to more scurrilous topics. 'He once told me of the menage a trios he'd enjoyed as a Cambridge undergraduate with both Geoffrey and 'Len' (Eleanor) Winthrop Young - extracting from me the promise that I'd tell no one before his death and as many as possible thereafter.'And because Perrin has been absorbed into the very heart of the climbing world for four decades, the footnotes are a gossipy, scurrilous treat into the motivations and personalities of the key players. For Jim has known them all: Longland and Murray, Tilman and Shipton, Whillans and Bonington, Dawes and Fawcett, - all 'the sports great mediators and regulators'.This collection of writing is Perrin at his very best. His writing has stood the test of time; his words just as compelling on the third and fourth read as they were on the first. Anyone who has ever tried to write will read this and know they will never create anything that is half as good as this. Read it and weep.
Oliver Metherell, Climber magazine, July 2007