A bit of Climbers, first blogged under the title “Lay Down Yr Weary Tune” to mark the passing of the Sony Walkman in 2010. Repeated here because it’s how I feel today–
My knee had begun to hurt again, and it felt stiff when I got out of bed; but effort seemed to ease it, so I took increasingly to the rocks behind Sankey’s house. There, a cheerful lad called “Red Haired Neil” to distinguish him from some other Neil who no longer lived locally, showed me how to solo with a Sony Walkman.
“Go on. Try it. Here.”
It was like discovering electricity.
“The big hazard at this crag is still falling in the dogshit,” said Neil;
but as long as I had the Walkman on I was invulnerable. I could thrive on risk. I played Brian Adams, “Straight From the Heart”: my intuition astonished me. I played Bruce Springsteen, “Ramrod”: problems succumbed so easily I was filled with energy. I played ZZ Top, “Deguello”: my aggression seemed endless. The music fell obliquely across the rock, illuminating it like a new wavelength of light to reveal brand new ways of climbing. It was still possible to be outfaced: but, burning magic fuels, I would know the end of the day had come only when my fingers let go of their own accord: I would look up suddenly, dazed with fatigue, adrenalin and rock-and-roll, to see headlights sweeping down Holme Moss and into the valley. My arms were grey with cold, the elbow joints painful from repeated pulling up, the fingertips sore and caked with chalk. Only then would I change back into my Nike shoes, turn the music up louder to combat a sudden sense of depression, and, shivering, walk down past Sankey’s cottage where the FOR SALE board had been up for a month.
I never saw anyone viewing it.
The front room curtains were down and all his furniture had gone: but you could see scattered across the bare floor the Subaru catalogues he had been poring over the month he died.
Towards the end of that fortnight the weather became strange and undependable. Above the Holme Moss transmitter you could see alternating bands of weak sunshine and low thick cloud; shifts of pressure pumped them down from the plateau one after the other to give first a cold wind then a blue sky that seemed warmer than it was. Resting for a moment at the top of some problem, I would watch the late sun burning the bare trees and mill chimneys, igniting the windows of the double-glazed barn-conversions all the way to Greenfield. One minute things swam in light; the next they were flat and wintered, ordinary.
“It cuts like a knife,” whispered the Walkman: “But it feels so right.”
By now my leg ached all the time. At about two o’ clock on a Thursday afternoon–in one of those lenses of warmth and sunshine, with the Walkman turned up full so that energy and excitement flooded up inside me from moment to moment–I made a high step on a problem I had done a dozen times before. Something seemed to lurch inside my knee, like a small animal trying to escape. I was twenty five feet off the ground. A bit desperately, I threw my weight on to that leg and tried to stand up. Nothing happened, except that the headset of the Walkman came off and dangled on its wire in front of me, so that I stepped on it. The knee wouldn’t straighten. I tried to reverse the move, but I was already falling. Each time I hit something on the way down I thought, “That’s my shoulder, but it’s OK,” or, “That’s my foot, but it’s OK.” I could hear myself saying, “Christ! Christ!” I finished up in the heather under the climb, where the ground sloped away suddenly enough to absorb most of my momentum, with a sprained ankle and a few bruises. The sun had gone in. I was shaking. I could hear the motor of the Sony turning over creakily: and Mick’s clear voice in my head advising me,
“You’re not fit to be allowed out on your own, you incompetent wazzock.”
Fluid swelled the ankle, crushing the soft tissues until they blackened. I could still get about on it, but my knee would lock unexpectedly. I sat in the house for a week watching TV with the sound turned down and the Walkman turned up until it hurt my ears, trying to infer the news from jumbled footage of tanks and elder statesmen, the weather from the weatherman’s smile. High winds and rain were forecast until the New Year. Sometimes the moves I had done recently would pass before my closed eyes. Or I would hear jackdaws, and see with sudden heartbreaking clarity some crag in the summer sunshine: Hen Cloud, Bwlch y Moch, Beeston Tor.
“You can’t be ‘more or less’ lost,” I remembered someone saying.
You’re either lost or you aren’t.
You can buy the rest of Climbers here, with a stunning introduction by Robert Macfarlane.
…forced into inhuman, expressionistic postures by its grim logic, Sankey strained and contorted up Wall of Horrors, until his impetus ran out just under the crux. He stretched up: nothing. He tried facing left, then right, grinding his cheek into the gritstone. His legs began to tremble. All the lines on the rock moved towards him, in a fixed vortex. When he lurched suddenly on his footholds everyone looked up: he was only sorting through the stuff on his rack for something to protect his next two moves. If he took too long to find and place it he would come off anyway. His last runner was lodged in a crack like a section through a fall pipe, fifteen or twenty feet below him.
“Can you get something there?”
“Can you get anything in higher up?”
He didn’t hear us.
He was fiddling about in a rounded break, his eyes inturned and panicky, his head and upper body squashed up as if he was demonstrating the limits of some box invisible to anyone else. Under the impact of fear, concentration, physical effort, his face went lax and shocked, his age began to show. By 1970 he had climbed all over the world; he had done every major route in Britain; the ‘new’ climbs were his only hope — violent, kinaesthetic, stripped of all aid. “Wall of Horrors!” he would say. “John Hart talked me up that, move by move, first time I led it. Years ago. It overfaced people then. Ha ha.” He was forty, perhaps forty five. As I watched him I wondered what he was doing it to himself for.
All the time Gaz was watching him too.
He had to predict when Sankey would go. He had to mother him. The runner in the fall pipe was too close to the ground to be much good: if Sankey boned off, could Gaz run back far enough quick enough to shorten the rope ? I didn’t think he could. He fidgeted it backwards and forwards through the Sticht plate, which clicked and rattled nervously.
Up in his invisible box Sankey twisted one arm behind his back to get his hand into his chalk bag. His shadow moved uneasily on the buttress over to his left, the shadow of the rope blowing out behind it. Chalk smoked off into the turbulence as he shifted his feet.
The sun went in.
“OK, kid,” he said. “Watch the rope.”
Suddenly we saw that he was calm and thoughtful again. He stood up straight and went quickly to the top, reaching, rocking elegantly to one side, stepping up.
Things have moved on now, of course, but Wall of Horrors was still a test-piece then. When he came down several people were waiting to congratulate him. Most of them were boys of fourteen or fifteen who would one day solo it; against that time they were willing to give him uncontrolled admiration. They were dressed in white canvas trousers, sweatshirts and pullovers with broad stripes, in imitation of the American and Australian climbers whose pictures they saw in the magazines; in two or three years they would be wearing silkskin dance tights, courting anorexia in search of a high power-weight ratio, exchanging the magic words of European-style climbing: “screamer”, “redpoint”, “Martin Atkinson”.
One of them said, “Are you Stevie Smith? I’ve seen you climb before, haven’t I?”
Sankey gave his nervous laugh.
“No,” he said.
He sat down tiredly among some boulders and began sorting through his equipment, strewing orange tape slings about in the dust as if looking for something that had let him down. Then he just sat, absentmindedly clicking the gate of a snaplink until Gaz brought him some coffee from a flask. As we walked away from the cliff the backs of my hands smarted in the wind. I saw the shadow of a dove flicker over the rock in the warm slanting light. These birds live in the high breaks and caves. They ruffle their feathers uncertainly, hunch up, explode without warning over your head; they come back in the evening. Sankey’s eyes were losing the empty, exhausted look that had entered them on the wall.
The notes on which I based Climbers were taken in situ in a series of cheap notebooks with puppies and flowers on the front, often given to me as presents by family members. I began gathering material in 1979. By 1983, this collection had become a rat’s nest, so I took to transferring each worked-up note–by then often a finished, polished scene–into a sort of journal, which also contained some commentary, structural ideas, lists of names and so on, along with polaroids, postcards, news clippings and other material. These notes, the earliest of which is dated 1st January 1983 and the latest 2nd November 1988, were transcribed in obsessively neat handwriting using a strict rota of coloured pens. Though I lost the original notebooks, I still have the journal. It stood in a complex relationship with, and served as a feeder for, the actual writing of Climbers, which went on concurrently elsewhere; also as a record of one of happiest and most productive times of my life. The pages were carefully numbered. The photographs, especially polaroids, have become faint and dark-looking at the same time, tinged with purples and greens not present in the lived scene.p101, 5.2.84, the earliest working synopsis.p116/7, 4.4.84, Tissington Spiresp191/2, 10.3.85, mentions a 35mm photo, long gone, of a child’s shoes “dumped at the edge of the road under Craig y Forwin.”197/8, 17.9.85: the photo is of the author, on “Toy”, Curbar Edge, a month later.
The new edition of Climbers, introduced by Robert Macfarlane, can be pre-ordered now from Amazon UK, in ebook and paper; or bought at a bookshop from May 10th.
While I still lived with Pauline we went to a “psychic” who gave demonstrations on most weekdays in the North London area. He appealed mainly to women who found they had nothing to do in that part of the afternoon which sags out — especially in winter — between the hairdresser and the children’s tea, and he preferred to work in clean but draughty modern halls, panelled with light wood and smelling of polish, used in the evenings for other functions: lectures, Bubuek films, political meetings. There would be a shrouded projector at the back, thick blue velvet curtains, a lectern pushed to the side of the platform.
Sleet touched the tall windows the first time we went. That was in Golders Green, and darkness was already drawing round some shrubs and a bench in the gardens outside. It was odd to sit there at three o’ clock in the afternoon among all those women. It had a kind of intimacy.
“Now give him the benefit of the doubt,” Pauline had warned me on the tube from Camden. “Or you can just stay outside. It’s only an hour.”
He was a man of about fifty five or sixty, tallish, who wore an old-fashioned tweed jacket and whose resonant but haggard professional voice sometimes took on a nicely-judged edge of irritability. He had a practical face: but it was so white and bony you thought immediately of a terminal disease, and of all his practicality committed there, to the control of his own panic. It was his own panic, I suppose, that enabled him to recognise theirs.
“I think we could have the curtains closed,” he said.
His method was to work his way along the rows saying to one woman, “You have what I call the artistic temperament,” and to another, “You have just returned from that so-difficult trip abroad you feared.” He stood awkwardly in the middle of the platform and picked them out by pointing to them, two or three from each row. “Well, there was nothing to be frightened of, was there ?” Clearly he was guessing these things from an item of dress or a sun tan; neither did he hide the fact that many of the women were already regulars of his, with habits and circumstances known to him. “Did he buy you that ring in the end dear ? And was it that ring ?”
Yet they sat so patiently, relaxed by the distant hum of traffic making its way down endlessly into the city, nodding and laughing and exclaiming to encourage him. If they couldn’t immediately relate to their own lives the things he said, they signalled by willing frowns that they were prepared to puzzle over it. It was after all an insight and they were not going to waste it. It seemed quite sufficient to them.
“You’re a woman of the world dear and you know how to help him. I can say that to you I think, can’t I, without giving offence ?”
As his hour wore on he sometimes prompted them openly. “I see a lady. An old lady. Yes, I see and old lady and she. Yes, she isn’t very well. An old lady in a room. In a room upstairs.” Used up in his own struggle to keep from evaporating away, he looked along the rows of seats for help. “Now does anybody here know an old lady like that ? I do sense her very strongly, very close. She’s very close to us now. Does anybody remember an old lady like that ? Yes dear ? Does that mean something to you, dear ? Does it ? She’s in a red dressing gown and she’s reading a book. I can tell you that if it helps. Is it a bible dear ? Does that mean anything to you?”
By now it did. Someone had recognised this spectre as her grandmother, seen once in childhood, after that never again.
“Well she thinks it’s time to sell that thing you were talking about, dear,” he said. And then, producing their previous exchange, at Belsize Park a week before, as if it was in itself a psychic sleight of hand: “You remember we talked about it last time ?”
“Oh yes,” she whispered, delighted.
The women near enough to hear her nodded at one another significantly, and also with a sort of angry commonsensical triumph. This was the advice they would have given, all along.
Whenever he felt their attention begin to wander he jerked his head up as if he could hear a voice and said impatiently: “It’s no good. I can’t tell what you want if you don’t speak clearly.” The effort to hear was costly, and made him seem even more ill. It gave his face the inanimate look of a mask, or a painted balloon on a piece of string which someone had tugged sharply towards one of the upper corners of the room and then released. He asked the women puzzledly, “Is there anyone here called Erica or Eileen ?” They stared at one another. This time, though they were sympathetic, they were unable to help. One of them had a daughter whose name was Eveline. But the message, elusive, garbled, fragmentary, sporadic as a twitch, didn’t seem to be for her.
[From Climbers, preorder here.]
If I’m delighted to have Climbers–certainly my best novel–back in print, I’m even more delighted to have an introduction to it by Robert Macfarlane, author of The Wild Places and The Old Ways, and chair of this year’s Man Booker Prize judges. Here’s a glimpse–
So let me try to express a little of the amazement I feel when standing in front of the work of Harrison … To read Light, Nova Swing, Empty Space or Climbers is to encounter fiction doing what fiction must: carrying out the kinds of thinking and expression that would be possible in no other form. I pass through his novels feeling a mixture of wonder, calmness and disturbance; I end them brain-jarred and unsettled. It takes time to recover. Metaphysical tremors and echoes persist for days afterwards…
It takes time, also, to realise that what feels at first like bleakness in Harrison’s novels is in fact something more like parity of gaze. He offers lucidity without pity, but without rancour either. Although the fierce ease with which capitalism husks humanity is one of his main anxieties, and although debris–emotional and material–is one of his chief preoccupations, and although rupture and damage are the textures that most attract his eye, his vision is devoid neither of tenderness nor of hope. His compassion will be unmistakable to anyone who reads him…
Robert Macfarlane’s engagement with landscape and the philosophy of landscape is acute, searching and in the best sense poetic. His work places him firmly in a tradition which stretches back to the Romantics, while his understanding of the anti-sublime makes him fiercely contemporary. To have this introduction isn’t just a thrill: it gives me hope that Climbers might in some way fit into and extend that tradition too. That will have made it worth being a writer.
Climbers is published in May, and available for pre-order, on Kindle or paper, at Amazon now.
After each thaw the view from Sankey’s upstairs window became much bleaker. The snow retreated to the edge of the fields and lay there piled up against the low stone walls. To Sankey, everything had a curiously unfinished look. Sheep picked their way over the steep fields in single file, unnerved by the re-emergence of this forgotten landscape. The old poached places reappeared at gates, black against the bruised grass. Nothing could yet be said to be green. It was less quiet. Starlings sat up in the house gutters and on the telephone wires to do poor, cracked imitations of other birds; after each effort, sneers, whistles and a kind of rhythmical creaking or scraping noise broke out. Later every afternoon as the days grew longer, the sodium lights came on on the other side of the valley, grouped in twos and threes near farms, following the line of a road. In the fading light the wooded cloughs struck diagonally across the hillside, very black and immobile. The next time he looked up it had all gone quite black, and only the orange lights were left. [Climbers, 1989: new paperback & kindle editions from Gollancz, May 2013.]