Wednesday, January 27, 2021

the last book I read

Climbers by M. John Harrison.

Mike is a young-ish guy living in the Greater Manchester area (he has a house in Stalybridge for most of the novel), working various menial jobs but spending most of his time hanging out with a motley bunch of individuals who spend virtually all their spare time rock climbing in the various outcrops and escarpments within easy reach in the Peak District and the Pennines

Mike is a latecomer to the group and a bit younger than most of the others: Normal, Gaz, Mick and sort-of group leader Sankey, a middle-aged former semi-celebrity in rock-climbing circles. Mike soon immerses himself deeply in the esoteric world of rope, bolts, chalk and boots, and of laybacks, jamming and boulder problems.

But what has prompted Mike to locate himself here and take up such an all-consuming hobby? We learn, in some oblique flashbacks, that Mike came up here from London after the breakdown of his marriage to Pauline, a bookshop owner, probably slightly older than him (nothing as straightforward as a bald statement of people's ages is ever offered). It's unclear exactly what the cause or the exact circumstances of the marriage breakdown were, just as it's pretty unclear why Mike and Pauline chose to get married in the first place.

Mike and his climbing chums continue their relentless pursuit of thrills and novelty on various bits of rock around the country, sometimes driving hours in someone's knackered old car, the seats piled high with rope and reeking climbing boots, for a couple of hours supping tea out of a Thermos and contemplating a rain-sodden slab of rock too wet to climb, only to then have to pack everything up and come home again. Normal and Mick have patient and long-suffering wives; Sankey lives alone, so when he falls thirty feet to his death off a relatively innocuous climb he's scooted up several times before it falls to Mike and Mick to sort out his personal effects. Mike has started up a tentative correspondence with Pauline in London, but she seems to have pretty firmly Moved On, so he contents himself with discreetly boning Normal's wife.

Following Sankey's death the group drifts apart: Mick gets a job making professional use of his climbing and abseiling skills but which takes him away from home most of the time, and Normal acquires a new daredevil climbing buddy whose company he seems to prefer. Mike is left, as the novel ends, sitting on a Cornish clifftop he has just scaled, contemplating his future.

As I've said before, I have no particular interest in rock-climbing per se, although it comes close enough to the sort of stuff I do like doing for me to see the appeal of it, and as I said here, the gnarlier end of the sort of mountain scrambling I do like to do is only a fag-paper away from the more elementary end of roped-up rock-climbing. The key difference, I think, other than the necessity of putting your trust in other people's competence (i.e in terms of safe belaying procedure, secure placement of bolts, reliable rope manufacture) to a degree I find unappealing, is that the scrambling is a means to an end, that end being successful arrival at the summit of the mountain, rather than an end in itself. 

Nonetheless there's enough overlap for me to find the subject fascinating; whether someone completely uninterested would enjoy Climbers I'm not sure, but I think there's a good chance that they would. The central technical subject matter aside it's an odd, bleak sort of book; for all the outdoor activity portrayed here there's very little sense of the glory of the wilderness and being out in nature miles away from civilisation - most of the locations are within easy reach of cities like Manchester and Sheffield and occupy that odd sort of polluted hinterland where city and wilderness meet and you can climb up a wall of millstone grit within sight of old colliery workings and fly-tipped sofas, usually in grey drizzle. Published in 1989 and set at least half a decade earlier, there's a sense of Thatcher-era industrial stagnation and despair here which imbues everything with a sort of greyness even when the sun is supposed to be shining.

It's an oddly vague, detached group of characters as well: the central character, Mike, drifts through the narrative without us getting to know him very well or having much insight into his motivations, other than that he's clearly throwing himself into the climbing activity and its associated subculture as a means of avoiding confronting the reasons why his marriage broke down. It's only through a bit of careful reading between the lines that we deduce that Pauline's daughter Nina died in hospital after falling onto a glass-topped coffee table and that this may have been the event that precipitated their break-up, Mike having been very fond of her. Similarly it's only made explicit that Mike has been sleeping with Normal's wife right at the end when someone specifically brings it up in conversation.

M. John Harrison is better-known as a writer of quirky science fiction, Climbers being something of an outlier in his oeuvre. I enjoyed it very much, though, and I think what I said about The Moviegoer applies equally well here: it lingers oddly in the mind after you've finished it. Testament to the excellence of its recreation of the climbing experience (it's evidently at least partly autobiographical) is that it was awarded the Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature in 1989, a prize almost exclusively awarded to non-fiction books. 

This is the second book I got for Christmas which carries a foreword by Robert Macfarlane (whose own The Wild Places won the Boardman Tasker prize in 2007); as with its predecessor Rogue Male it's a book intensely preoccupied with landscape and the outdoors and people's relationship with it. As with Rogue Male the text of the foreword is largely reproduced in a Guardian article which you can read without needing to purchase the book; here it is

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