The last week has been a pretty tough one, the first real tough one for a while, the kind of week you hold your breath, dive into it, and hope you can make it to the end without breathing in its reality. Of course you can’t - that’s the problem with reality - it’s real and has to be seen and touched and smelt and accepted. But hard times, well not hard, but not easy, are also an opportunity for reflection, education and healing - and most important of all - acceptance. Well that’s what I tell myself anyway - what a better version of me would say. But that’s not reality.
As soon as I came home from the US last week I knew I had to move house, and I guess I put off coming home until I knew I had to, moving on the day I was meant to be out. You see the house I was moving from was for a short time - at the beginning - a home - not just a house. It was full of hope and promise, of kindness and love, of laugher and dreams. It was home, and one where I’d hoped to make a new future for all of us, and escape from a long period of loneliness, isolation and what I now realise was depression. I can remember my mum once telling me that an evil spirit that haunts you cannot be run from, that it will track you down and haunt you again and again - unless you cross water. I used to think about this quite a lot as kid, and took it as fact, until one day in the back of a second hand book shop in Cork I flicked to the back of The Amithyville Horror and read those exact words. Never the less, fact of fiction, it turned out to be true. I learned, and quickly understood that perhaps what had caused me so much misery, the evil spirit of the last four years, had not been left behind, but was there with us in that house, and soon things began to fall apart. Kindness and love was unpicked thread by thread by it until a home was just a house. The spirit and I alone together on Xmas day - a day when I felt like the last man on earth.
Haunted by that hope I paid the rent each month, paid the bills, took a lodger, but I couldn’t live there - the ghost of ‘us’ and of me, too much to bare. And so I hid away, like I do - the coward I am - spineless - working, traveling, climbing, probably spending no more then 10 nights there in the last six months. Soon the grass she had cut instead of me grew long. The once tidy rooms grew dusty. The green of her well water plants brown and parched dead, food turned stale and twisted in the fridge, the ingredients of her left to wither and die. The signs of her disappeared bit by bit while I was gone.
Going into the house I thought I could do a moonlight flit, to empty all my stuff in a day, which comprised of about 10 blue barrels of climbing kit, a bike, a sewing machine, a pulk, ski bag and seven boxes of books. No furniture to move or cooker to shift . And I did, unpacking my kit from Yosemite first, its dirt and pine needles on the carpet, then packed everything away to be stored in my dad’s shed, telling myself it wasn’t worth finding anywhere as I’ll be away most of the year to come.
Nearly all packed up, the 80/20 rule kicked in, and although I’d packed up 80% of the houses contents with no trauma, physical or mental, now came the 20%, the little things, the boxes and draws and corners, the nooks and crannies where the remnants of that home clung . Now I felt the pain, the discomfort of the truth of this house. Like a crime scene I’d believe scrubbed clean, where I got away with it, bit by bit, in these boxes and draws, in the backs of cupboards and under beds I was forced to see it all.
I found letters and notes, little bits of love and kindness. I found tiny children’s pictures hidden in strange places, places a child had maybe hoped she would find again one day. A note saying “how did these get in here’ that had been rapped in a pair of nickers and hidden in my haul bag to find. I picked up and threw out things that would tell no story to anyone but me, a small red child’s school jumper to a school left mid term, a bottle of tonic water, only an inch empty but seven months flat. A book of ‘summer holiday’ memories that she had no doubt hoped to see filled one day.
Being forced to confront these things was tough, like I said, I’m a coward in this world, and so it was like shovelling a rotting corpse into a body bag with my hands. But I had too. Pick it up and bin it. To be hard, to not let it get to me - to get me down, to let the spirit in. If I hold my breath, and look away, I can do it.
In a book I find three love letters from a time before, that I’d not had the heart to throw away the when last I’d moved, from Ella and Ewen and one from the woman I once loved, and thought I always would, given to me in Antartica. I sit down and re-read them, feel the love from nineteen months before from someone else, when I’d crossed so much water, three oceans, and thought I’d lost that evil spirit. I could see the love and hope I’d not seen at the time, the words gobbled down as I geared up to storm the summit of Ulvertanna on a trip which I think made me loose my mind for a while. Then there had still been hope between us, I could see it in her words, but hope which had been snuffed out the moment I read on my return her email, six words - which she told me later was stupid bluff designed to bring me back to her - “maybe it’s time we said goodbye”. With tears in my eyes I fold it away and pop it back in the book, and read Ella’s letter, no doubt written under duress, and to be given to her dad at the end of the world, a letter in which she mainly writes about Youtube, unsure what to say. And then I turn it over and read what Ewen wrote again. A boy of few words, there they are only four and a smily face - “Not bothered : ) Love Ewen”. Then as now it brings me back, his words a statement and a question.
Ben turns up to check the house before I give him the key, and tells me he’s going to sell it and I’m glad, but don’t tell him about the evil spirit. I’ve known Ben since he was a kid, and as he looks around at the mess still to be packed up, I feel like telling him how tough it is, to do this alone - but don’t, just laugh as the chaos of it. I tell him I’ll be gone soon.
Yet for three days the house holds me there, and escaping is like chewing off a limb. It takes a while, but with 20% of that 20% still to be done I have to go, and just leave - dropping my key through the door and walk away for the last time.
I arrive at my dad’s in Wales in a rainstorm, my step mum Iona the only one at home. “My dad said I could leave some stuff in the shed” I say, suddenly realising I never actually told him that ‘stuff’ meant ‘everything I own in the world”. “Your family” she says, and I take it as a sign I’m OK. She makes me a cup of tea and a cheese sandwich and I begin, passing cars splashing me each time I go back to the transit van. It doesn’t take long until it is all there, in one corner and I ask myself if to be 44 with so little is a triumph or a tragedy. I tweet this thought and people, people no doubt sat in houses full of stuff tell me that it was a triumph. Maybe it is, I may have only this, and no house or car, but then I have no dept either - a clean slate, a wondering minstrel I (only one on public transport).
Driving home yesterday… no not home, driving back to Sheffeild to drop off the van, I think about what I have - my alpine style life, something I spent a lot of time doing, something that fills up a lot of space on this blog. A few months ago, compelled, forced, the evil spirit, full of anger and indignation at what it told me was seven years of hard work, to make her a fortune as a sponsored athlete and speaker, that she owed me something, something that if it had been given, or even been acknowledge would not have destroyed it all. It told me we broke apart while still in love because she made me feel cheap and unwanted when I had helped give her the world, her only response being “I never asked you too”. And so, through the Scottish courts, I asked for a small part of what we had, what she had always told me was half mine, that was to be put aside for when we were old - when really it should have been an investment in the now. I had dared to ask for payment for seven years of my life, for what I had done, sitting with her when she made more money in twenty minutes telling her story - our story - then I made in six months. But promises made when your heart is unbroken don’t stand up in the court of life, they are no proof of the deeds you did. When a heart had been broken, when her goodbye words made me so afraid of being the one left I’d stabbed us dead in a single email - well when the pain is so great, no matter what love there had been, to even dare ask for my share of her poison would be denied by a broken heart. But I fought her. I paid to see her accounts and knew I was right, I collated every email in which I had built up this dream - an pain filled archeology, digging down and down, seeing as I did how we had fallen apart - a love affair in rewind. It felt grubby and wrong, like counting up every single kiss and asking for a fee. We did not talk, and I no longer remembered her softness, her kindness, the way things were always good when we were together, not an hairs breath into which that spirit could slip. But now we were an ocean apart, like each had died, when one day she rang and asked me why? And I had my answer, that the world would judge me as cunt if the roles were to be reversed - that people understood what I’d done for her, that this dept is the back dated payment for all the pain we had gone through because of it - but instead the words came out almost without me speaking them - “It’s all I have left”. But before I could give in, which I would have, hearing her voice, the sadness, imagining the tears on her wet cheeks, head bowed in the chair at the airport, hand held close to hide - my phone died. And so it goes.
And did I win you may ask. No. I’m not a fighter in this world. To go down that route was not me. I didn’t want anything not freely given. The law is a mantrap that would hold us bound in bitterness until there there would be nothing left, her softness gone - and my goodness. For a moment the evil spirit lost it’s grip and I let go too.
I turned up at Mandy’s house, a house I once owned, but gave away because that’s what was right to do, with my half empty van and begin hiding away the last little bits, and the stuff belonging to the kids. I have one box of books and Ella flicks through it as I work out how to get down to London for a talk this morning. In the box she finds a sketch book from when I was sixteen, a sketch book mainly full of words - not good ones - just wanky stuff you write when you’re a kid who thinks he’s figured it all out. She flicks through it, finding a few black and white pictures I’d not seen for a decade or two. One is of the interior if a body, maybe a whale, all dark and intestinal, but with a brilliant white harpoon blade set within it, the picture I think got me onto an art foundation course. The other is of an Arab child looking on in horror, framed by adults, another image I took to my foundation course. I look at them with a critical eye and think that maybe I did have some talent back then, if not actually in drawing, I did have a very good handle on composition. My young brain was not seeing things like everyone else, and I guess that remains true as ever.
“Oh my God dad - you were so disturbed as a kid” says Ella, shocked by the pictures and words.
“I lived in a house where the last person to live there hung themselves - is there any wonder!” I say, defending myself.
“It’s cool though” flicking on. “Why did you stop drawing?”
I look at the pictures and wonder the same, that I had drawn every day since I could hold a crayon or pick up dabs of paint on my fingers in a high chair just gone overnight, pencils and paper thrown away. Why did Is stop? Because I was rejected. I failed to get on a degree course because I had no A levels, and I couldn’t take it, and so turned my back on what talent I had.
I look at Ella, sat there, looking so pretty, her exams over, nothing to do. I think she amazing she is, that she is not disturbed, but is full of life, no dark spirit in her from childhood biding its time. I think again about that shed full of stuff, stuff that means nothing, that one day will be nothing but rust and dust or filler for some deep hole. It does not breath or shine or bring the only kind of happiness that can be put in the bank of tomorrows. “Do you want to come with me to London” I ask. And she does.
Sneaking out of Sheffield on the afternoon train, M&S salads and cake for the journey, we arrive in London in time to go to the pictures to see Amy, a film about Amy Winehouse by Asif Kapadia.
I think it was only after her death that I really cottoned on to what a talented writer Amy was, probably the greatest lyrical poet of our time (if you don’t believe me go and see the film) - her words full of pain and honesty and humour. Cut down to the bone. Raw. People always said she was wise and talented beyond her years, but she wasn’t - she just didn’t hold on so tight to her feelings like most people do. With age comes a sense that what’s the point in hiding, you’ll be dead soon - just let it out - let it go, be honest - nothing matters. Amy was like this, her secrets, her thoughts flowing. When you heard some of her lyrics it made you wince, uncomfortable in their sharing, but also exciting, dangerous, the sharing of each difficult moment like Christians to the lions. Amy was someone who’s biggest fear was rejection, something anyone who’s parents have split will know - something that seems small and trivial in these times, in the grand scheme of things, but in which is the spell of some hellish spirits for some. You see such people as Amy want one thing more than anything else, but this is at odds with something they fear even more . They seek love, they seek the certainty of it, concrete and everlasting, but they fear rejection more, that this love will slip through their fingers like did before and peel back that most terrible of wounds. What they cannot have they want to destroy so they can’t ever dream of having it, or having it again. They can be devout, give all they have to the one they love, but they can also be cynical and cruel and most of all afraid - to attack the second they sense the music of their love has stopped. Such a person is self destructive in most things, because they fear the destruction of rejection, a song unloved, a lover no longer loving, a bad review on Amazon, a mountain that turns you back, and so take control of it themselves. They are always afraid of the push, and so will always want to jump first - so that the death of what they once loved is their undoing. To be someone like this is terrible, but maybe to love them is worse, because they will love you more deeply and with more passion than anyone else could ever do - but they second they fear it’s over, they’ll burn it down.
Maybe the most telling moment in the film is when Tony Bennet tells Amy that “If you live long enough, life teaches you how to live it”.
And yet, what was her greatest undoing was what made her great, that fed her talent, the deeper the wound the deeper her need for love, to be loved, and not rejected - this need firing all she did. Music, like these words are for me, was a way of dealing with the ‘black’ - that every song was an exorcism, Amy taking the evil spirits in her head and spinning them with her talent into something too darkly beautiful to ever last. The very nature of what she created, why she wrote those songs, why I can never read any of this once it’s set down, and regret you you will once it’s posted, was why she didn’t want to sing those songs anymore - each a funeral to a personal pain.
Watching it I thought about how cruel people could be, so judgemental of her, someone who was and maybe had always been ill, who needed to be fed love in order to survive, even if she would never feel quenched by it.
I never shed a tear for Amy when she was alive, but last night I did.
This morning I crept out of the hotel early this morning and left Ella sleeping with some vague plan to meet up ‘in town later’ - out into the bustle of a city robbed of its main form of transport, the tube on strike. I love walking in London, and so wandered down familiar streets, and over bridges, going against the tide until I reached Guys hospital - my gig - to speak about risk to a theatre full of health professionals.
As usual I felt a little out of place, scruffy trousers and scuffed shoes, and hoped I’d be relevant, and if not, then entertaining at least. I have a thing about images with words on, where people have to read instead of listen, and always think it’s a strength to put over ideas with more complexity and nuance than can be fitted on a slide (that’s also a cop out, as anything can be interpreted as such if you’re in the mood - or ignored if you’re not) and thought at least I’d be a change from charts and graphs and slogans.
I took to the stage and kicked off by showing a slide of me working as safety man on Charlie and Chocolate factory, how I saved Johnny Depp’s life etc - which made them sit up a take notice. On I went, tales of the kids, of El Cap, Sea of Dreams, Ulvertanna, Troll Wall, the Dru, Greenland - learning to write, swimming in the docks - dead pigs that turned out to be hairless bloated dogs - the usual stuff, a tapestry of randomness that somehow held one long thread of me.
I spoke for half an hour, people laughing, some voluntarily, other against their better judgement, rounding up with the picture of me as a kid hanging off some scaffolding - my message that no event, or climb, can be viewed in isolation of any other, that all a part of one long fabulous story.
“Well Mr Kirkpatrick” said the compare for the day, a man who looked like Heinz Wolff, dressed in a green suit, “we have had many illustrious speakers in this theatre, but I doubt ever one like you” to which everyone applauded, like a Hollywood film - well at least I think they did - so I’ll take that as a compliment.
And with all such talks, five minutes later I was out the back heading to find Ella, who sat waiting in the portrait gallery, where soon we’d walk and talk about just what made something art, made something more than simply what appears to be on the surface - the glow of a good ‘show’ a spring through the crowds. Is it kind f madness that creates talent, that to be a sane man would to be safe and dull. I don’t know, but doubt there is such a thing as anyone who is totally sane. As I walked I thought how lucky I was, that life, although never anything less than uncertain, was because of that, full of surprises. For a while now I’d been thinking of making a bold move in my life, of leaving the UK and going to live in Dublin, a city I’d always loved - but also a city for new memories, the old ones all around me another mantrap for a sensitive soul. Maybe across the water I’d be safe, that there I could find the space and time to learn how to live, a future up for grabs for a man willing to let go of the past.