The other day I saw a really generous comment to a blog I wrote from someone I’d always respected, but also someone I felt I’d wronged in the past - Gordon Stainforth. I’ve know Gordon probably longer than he remembers, being a customer at Outside when I worked there as a lowly shop assistant, being one of those customers who brightened my day - being a ‘name’. All customers in a climbing shop are generally interesting, sharing the same passion as you, off to do interesting things, but every week or so you’d get someone who’d make you sit up and take notice, someone who had the ‘secret’, a secret that would usually see me pestering them for the answer. Over the years these names including people like Jim Donini, Stevie Haston, Royal Robbins and locals such as Ben, Johnny and Jerry (the first time I heard people talking about these guys by just their first names, instead of Moon, Dawes and Moffett I just thought they were a bit up themselves, but very soon I started doing it too). There were others like Shaun Miles or Al Whilliams who would have me posing the question “what do you do to make a living when you’re climbing all the time and hanging out in this shop mid-week?’ - which of course was the secret. For some their star appeal was as deep or long-lasting as the front cover of On The Edge, living a hand to mouth existence, while others had reached the dizzying heights of sponsorship, which in the 90’s was pretty much a quarter of minimum wage, their fame and small climber’s fortune usually arriving in their waning years, the real world - something they had put off - just around the corner (some never made it that far, but ended up in desperate limbo). Gordon though was a grafter, a small group of people who could not trade on their finger strength and be paid to climb, and so instead made a living from working hard on different climbing trades (writers, photographers, gear manufacturers). Gordon was a climber of intellect, no one-trick pony, a great writer and even better photographer who had also helped edit The Shining with Stanley Kubrick (he even has a IMDB page!). When Gordon came in, maybe to buy something, sign copies of The Cullin or just have a brew upstairs I’d always pounce on him, asking him what he was up to, what next, drawing some inspiration, as he was doing just what I wanted to do, i.e. not working 9-5 in a climbing shop, and instead of hanging out in one. I’ve always had an insatiable appetite for knowledge and would ask Gordon about large format cameras, Hasselblad bodies and lens, making every minute count, one meeting leading to many hours of digestion and further inquiry (I was just getting into photography).
And so I made my escape from Outside, and in some ways, I became one of those ‘names’ who went into other shops, and had young shop assistants as geeky as me asking me the very same questions (I’ve never forgotten the times people answered my questions as if they were talking to a friend, and been funny and patient with me, and so endeavour to do the same in return).
And then a few years ago - two I think - I was posted a book by Gordon called ‘Fiva’ about him and his twin brother climbing the Fiva route in Romsdal. Now I really hate writing reviews, as I hate being negative or critical of other peoples, work as I absolutely can’t handle it when people are critical of me, especially when I know them (I still feel guilty about slagging off Al Lee’s film Moonflower!). I was busy editing someone else’s book and was a bit worded out, but seeing as I’d been sent it I thought I’d better review it. You can read the review here. Perhaps Gordon should have reviewed my review, but I never set out to be overly critical or harsh, but I think no piece of writing is beyond criticism, plus any review is subjective, and so the style of book I like, and style of writing will play a part. I think maybe misunderstood me when I said that Gordon’s description of a never-ending climb was so close to my own experience that I found it hard to read (I’d just spent 10 days trying to solo the Troll wall, so that rock was dark and damp still in my mind), that feeling that you will never get to the top, but when there you feel you will never get down again. I knew Gordon well enough to know his words would have been chosen very carefully indeed, the structure and pace set down long before writing a word. Fiva was a great book, and self-published too, but although being a first-person account, I wanted to know what the older Stainforth would have made of it all - but then too much of my writing concerns looking back.
The review was published and I immediately realised, as people rallied around the book that my review was seen as negative, that my review would not be helpful (maybe it was) but worse of all it may be wounding to someone I really respected.
Fast forward a few months and I found my book Cold Wars was going to be up against Fiva for both the Banff book prize and the Boardman Tasker. In my mind I was convinced that Cold Wars was a better book, more complex and much more than a ‘climbing book’ - but then I’m the author, that is my job, to love my book. Fiva was just as good, a simple story well told, taking one event and bringing it alive - giving a real sense of time and place. Both Cold Wars and Fiva were shortlisted for the Boardman-Tasker, and both myself and Gordon were invited to Banff to speak about our books - it was to be a fight to the death (only a friendly one). But then at Banff, I found out that Cold Wars had not even made it onto the shortlist, something that really hit me hard, thinking that my book was good enough to be asked to fly halfway around the world to talk about and read from, but not even good enough to shortlist (I subsequently heard from the judges that it had not even been picked for them to consider). The on the first evening there, standing in talking to someone at a party I was told Fiva had won, beating some very strong competition. To be honest, there was a big part of me that was genuinely happy for Gordon, he had written a modern classic and self-published it, and this prize was well rewarded, and my bitterness at not being shortlisted was offset in the knowledge that Gordon had won. But then - there was a part of me, that part that would feel aggrieved if my children were overlooked for something important, that just raged. Worse still it tapped into the deep seam of self-doubt about myself as a writer, and as I’m seen as a person - a serious person. Ed Douglas once said my problem was ‘I was cleverer than people realised’ that people see me as a joker, and so much of the subtlety of Cold Wars or Psychovertical is easily overlooked, were as a ‘serious intellectual’ writer can often trade on just that, and just bang out book after book of the middle of the road pap, which often lacked any real life in my mind. And so I sulked at Banff, and ranted, and was generally a little petulant about it.
This feeling of being badly done too continued, not helped my Bear Gryll’s book beating me at another event, leading me to throw my teddy out the pram and declare I was giving up writing (not realising it can give you up, but not visa versa).
Then the Boardman Tasker came around, and I knew Gordon would win that, and it took all my backbone to go to the event and sit at the same table as the other authors, knowing that for one person to win the rest must lose. Ella and Ewen sat with me as they began reading down through the books, my book coming second in order, my heart dropping until Ella pointed out they were just reading out the books, not who’d one. I could hardly look at Gordon, knowing him winning would be too much all that work for nothing (you don’t write books for money, but for love, love of writing and that some may love that writing). And then they said “but the winner is…” and I felt as if I was sinking into the ground, almost blacking out, waiting for Gordon’s name, the word Fiva to be read out - but it wasn’t, the words ‘Cold Wars’ coming instead, Ella and Ewen’s faces lighting up. I was so shocked I could hardly make it to the podium, but as I stood I looked at Gordon’s face I felt that same pain I felt in Banff, that he had given so much, but he had not won.
Since then I’ve often thought about Gordon, checked his Amazon page, and felt happy as his huge number of five-star reviews rise. We both deserve all we are given because in a world full of lazy people, people who just do enough, but have no real passion, we gave it our all, and both deserve that love - our trophies and medal and trinkets that remind us of the fact. And so I want to say sorry to you Gordon for being petulant and ungrateful, and also ungrateful to myself. I also want to say thank you for your unknowing guidance in search of the ‘secret’ shared back then at Outside, talking to me over the rock counter. If you had some talent, and a keen mind, and set out to never be lazy and do a better job than the rest, well you may get somewhere. You don’t have to be brilliant, you just have to be a little better than all the rest, and if you can’t be, then just be different.