Words Find Their Own Way
Slept on the living room floor of my ex-wife Mandy’s last night, laid out on settee cushions, smelly big wall sleeping bag as a duvet - getting down with the cats. The last time I slept on someone’s floor they had a big old shaggy dog. It wasn’t a good sleep and the next morning when looked in the mirror I was shocked to see my hair had begun to go grey overnight, which I put down to a lack of attention to mirrors of late. It was only working out later it was the dog’s hair that was grey, not mine. I think being able to sleep anywhere is one of the greatest strengths of an alpinist can possess - having had babies like EPO to that strength. I’ve slept in many strange places, laying down, sitting up, standing and even while actually climbing. Alpinists, like soldiers in combat, don’t ask for much, and can make do with what’s offered, knowing any sleep, even only a few minutes, is better than no sleep at all - like a single drop of water to a man lost in the desert. Being on tour probably also taught me the value of sleep over longer periods than a day or two, that you can push your body hard, such as when we stayed awake for 36 hours on the summit day of Ulvertanna (the strain of which left me deaf for a few days), but only for so long. Short term you can function for a few days pretty well on micro naps (a few seconds) and cat naps (five to thirty minutes, but no more than that, as going into REM is detrimental), but beyond that you begin to lose it, hallucinating and lose all ability to problem solve. When I was told Ewen had ADHD I did a bit of research, and sleep seems to be a huge factor in people with that shaped brain’s ability to function, something I recognise in myself. The less sleep the more negativity and confusion and inability to cope. A few years back I tried to do a one-day ascent of the Triple Direct on the Nose (we jugged up to heart ledges - so cheated), with me leading all of it. At about twenty-four hours into it - so tired I was taking micro naps in between placements (it was so cold we couldn’t stop to sleep) - I came across two guys sleeping in a portaledge at Camp 6, the ledge hanging from the belay and in the way of the next crack. My brain was able to just chug up the wall at a steady pace, but not able to work out what to do now I had this obstacle in the way. And so I just stood there looking at them like a stupid brain dead big wall zombie, well until one of them woke up and screamed, and asked “what the fuck are you doing man?”. When I told him I was speed climbing I don’t think he was convinced.
Anyway, waking up on Mandy’s floor. It’s funny when you tell people you’ve been staying at your ex’s house. “How does that work?” they invariably ask. “Ok” is always the response, and I tell them I was the wedding photographer when she got re-married, only a sentence - but one that tells a lot about both of us. I think when we’re young most of us lack to see the nuances, the greys, our beliefs in good and bad, right and wrong. In that world ex-wives and their husbands don’t talk, they are bitter and estranged, and only have time for hate. But as you get older, maybe when you find yourself doing “bad” things, or having them done to you, the stormy sea one day, the shipwreck on the rocks the next, these views change. With age I think most people go one way or the other, they either turn to stone, heart black like carbon fibre, or they turn to wood, that creaks and bends, snaps and buckles, but keeps on growing into the light (fuck I sound like some new-age wanker!). What I’m trying to say is hopefully age should teach the wisdom of pragmatism, and understanding, empathy and forgiveness, that almost all can be understood and forgiven, that there are no absolutes, and that your greatest enemies aren’t so great or so bad. It’s a very human thing that we want to condense and control and label everything around us, to take a young child’s brain and label as this or that, or have laws were guilty or innocent hangs on a single word when the truth is as complex as the solar system.
This morning, well only an hour ago, Mandy comes downstairs and makes me a cup of tea before going to work. We never really talk much. She tends not to ask about my life, the reason being I think it just stresses her out. When you’re a parent your kids are like heavy furniture, and the more hands you have the easier it is, a husband, grandparents, childminders. If you’re not a good parent or things get in the way, you end up letting go a bit - sometimes altogether - and so that burden - that weight of those you love more than any other, you would let crush you before you yielded - is suddenly all on you. I know this has often been the case, and I’ve written a lot about my worries as a parent - good at some things, a fish out of the water at others, able to hoist that weight on my shoulders but lacking the stamina of her. When I think about my mum it amazes me what she did when the state applied little leverage to those in need - how we turned out, but then although small she’d probably done well as a labourer (I often grab her shoulders and tell her she should have been a builder).
But this morning, sipping my tea, always a bit unsure what to say, always feeling like a child, her the parent, like I’m hiding something, or have something to apologise for, she says “why don’t you stick to writing just about climbing? No one wants to hear all your personal crap”. And of course, she’s right.
I write for a lot of people, people I hope will read what I write, that what I can’t say to them is hidden like an easy code between the words - but the one person I probably write for most all is her, Psychovertical and Cold Wars two long letters to her - apologies for who being me. You see Mandy is my hardest critic, both of me as a writer and me as a man.
“I guess so” I reply, a little crestfallen. “You’re too bloody obsessive” she goes on, “it’s upsetting and far too personal, just write about climbing why don’t you”.
When I wrote Psychovertical, which judging by eight years of pretty positive feedback, translations and awards must have some value, Mandy’s only comment was “I thought it was a bit self-indulgent” which has to be one of the shortest and most damming (and illogical) reviews ever for an autobiography.
And therein lies the dilemma of being me, being someone who puts down ‘writer’ when asked about my label in this world. Am I just a writer of kit and climbs, that I have neither the right nor the skill to write about myself, that it’s all just self regarding ego bullshit designed simply to elicit attention from you the reader? I guess that’s a dilemma everyone faces who broadcasts their thoughts, be it spoken or written, sung or scratched into a toilet cubicle wall. Worst of all perhaps what is lacking in skill or real art and value of what you have to say is made up in gore, that we are all gossips and life-mungers, that while you think what you write is opera, really it is only a soap.
But it seems that each time as I writer I doubt myself or the value me, I get a message from someone who makes me believe that there is value to what I write. When you write and blog you take a few hours to post something and then that’s it - it goes out into the world. It cannot be tracked or traced, given stars or ranking, but probably once a day something does come back, and sitting down with my cup of tea just now, full of the usual doubt and unsure what to write I get this message from Facebook.
Andrew, We bumped into each many, many years back. I am sure I am just one of many faces of strangers you will never remember. I wanted to tell you that your last blog post was life-changing for me. For what is worth, which might not be much, thank you. I used to be a pro climber, which quickly came to an end with a plummet down an alpine route. I did not walk for almost 3 years, my husband walked away, my friends, most of my life. After several very dark years, I moved to the big city, which hurts my soul every day and went back to medical school. Now years late I too sit on a pile of books this time in a house which used to be my home and I need to pack up. Yet another failed relationship, which none of my friends and family sees what it is ( an abusive relationship) which takes all of my strength to leave & I have to do it all by myself. As I read your post today over yet another cup of coffee after being up in a hospital for 34 hours I found peace and stillness in your words, which have been unfamiliar to me for a long time. Thank you & I hope one day we will meet again. Good luck!
Jim Perrin once said to me ‘beware of the audience’ and when I read such messages I feel a mixture of pride in that my words made someone’s life - if just a moment - a little better, even if only like watching a fat woman fall down a hole on Youtube. But I also get a bit of fear, that such messages invite me to go one, to keep sharing. Pasting that message above is about making a point, but it’s also ‘beggy’ as Ella would say, that what I get through writing is somehow confirmation of my worth, that subconsciously I live for Facebook likes and retweets.
And yes that is a little true, that if I’m firing arrows into the dark it’s good to know that some hit a target - even if they’re not bullseyes.
But - read or not - I am a writer and writing is one of the most important things in my life, one of the few things that has sustained in a life full of mini obsessions and fads. ‘Getting it down’ is as much about “getting it out”. It’s not a choice, it’s a necessity. When I said I was going to give it up in 2012, that it didn’t pay the bills but just sucked me dry I was stupid. But what else is there?
I know a lot of writers, people who work for mags and newspapers, write books, most of whom have always been able to write, who went to university and learnt how to write dead good. Maybe if that had been my path to words I’d be the same, maybe work for a climbing magazine and stick to kit and climbs - things I’m best qualified to do. But I didn’t and my path was an unconventional one, and maybe therein lies the reason I rarely write for money, but rather for myself - here on this blog, spending time I could spend doing something far more productive. One thing few people understand is that sometimes people solo really hard climbs because they don’t feel good enough to climb it with someone qualified to attempt it, that alone they can be crap in their own way, and piece a route together beyond the watchful eyes of anyone who could judge. Maybe blogging’s the same, no editor to check, its cost a defence against poor quality. You see when beginning your journey of words labelled as a ‘retard’, your mind a key, words the lock, only one that does not fit, your relationship to them and you as being a ‘writer’ is estranged. You are lower than the rest, stuck in rooms where there is no learning to be had, a zoo for doodlers and psychos, where marks that must be translated or set down just twist your mind until it throbs, untranslatable and uncommunicable, bent of making you know your place. Then one day, by some miracle, but most of all through dogged persistence, the key begins to turn. And then before you know it you’re a junky for words and can never give them up. They feed you and clothe you, give your life meaning and value that wouldn’t be there without them, focus and understanding and voice, open doors and invite possibilities you could never have imagined sat in that zoo. Yes, I beat myself up too much on this self-indulgent blog about being a father, a climber, a writer, but when it comes to words and what I choose to do with them I really think it’s out of my control. To follow Mandy’s advice and just write about kit and climbing would not be writing at all, it would be work - and I’m no good at anything my hearts into. If growing older and understanding words have taught me one thing, it’s that they find their own way, trickling out of your mind and down onto the page, like grains of sand, and I hope, every now and then, if you take the time to look, and skip over the mistakes - and I’m lucky - you may find a small piece of gold to make it all worth your while.