I suppose I’ve been out of the British climbing scene for a long time now, I’ve not really been following the news. But the thing about blogging is that it opens up a wide world – and, through blogs like Footless Crow, I’m now back on the peripherals of British mountaineering again. A couple of months ago I read on Footless Crow about a new book by John Redhead, Colonists Out. John, back when I was still climbing in the UK, was putting up extreme and serious rock routes in North Wales and had the reputation of being somewhat of a loose canon in the anarchical climbing scene there. But a lot of water has flowed down the Llanberis Pass and into Lyn Peris since then, and seeing his name in print again awoke my curiosity about him – what’s he been up to?
But first, for those who may not know, North Wales is one of the most important climbing areas in the UK, it’s steep crags, such as Clogwyn Du’r Arddu, Dinas Cromlech, Dinas Mot and the Wastad and Grochan in Llanberis Pass and the Slate Quarries have been the stages for quantum leaps in British (and sometime World) climbing standards. Climbers are drawn to the area, as I was, and some, like John stay there. So on with the story.
I emailed John asking for a review copy – first surprise, he answered almost immediately with an enthusiastic yes. Second surprise, a few weeks later it came (it wouldn’t have been the first time that a review book has not been sent). The introduction page set the tone:
“ Dwellings and Yellings
Interactions and Interventions from Yr Wyddfa to Canigou
I noticed at the start of the book was that I could relate to it on many levels; so when I mix my own thoughts with this review, please bear with me. The second thing is that it’s not really that much to do with climbing, but about working as an artist, living as a stranger, a foreigner, amidst mistrust and animosity and searching for a home. “Colonists” is a rant, by the way – I’ve never seen so many exclamation marks in a book before!!!!!
As well as being an exceptional climber, John is also an artist, and as with his climbing style his artistic work is in your face (or so I think), he produces multimedia “interventions”, large scale paintings and sound works – even climbing a cathedral or wearing an artificial penis can be seen as an artistic statement. And, of course, artists who want to make a statement, get you thinking, “are in your face” can be unsettling neighbours, especially if the artist is living in the Old School in Nant Peris in the Llanberis Pass. Here John bumped and bumps into the North Welsh mind set. I can relate to this. The “Pass” is steep and narrow it can rain there with an intensity and duration of biblical proportions. The wind whips through creating a vortex, which as John writes, imprisoned the sawdust produced by cutting firewood for months on end. Although a wonderful and beautiful valley, the Pass can seem to press you, to push you down with the weight of it’s mountain slopes, the people who live there too. And here is an important part of his book, his interaction with the local people living in Nant Paris (“Nant Perishers”) and Llanberis. Again I can relate to this, I’ve only had problems with being English twice, once here in Germany when an African tried to pin the Empire on my coat lapel and in Betws-y-Coed, North Wales when I had a frightening run in with a Welsh Nationalist in a bar. The English have got a lot to answer for; they’ve subjected the Irish, the Scots and the Welsh, but coming from Liverpool, I would also add that the English have also oppressed the English. The slate quarries in Snowdonia slated the world’s roofs and filled the pockets of the English capitalist. The workers there were crushed by the hardship of the work and by the weight of the slate. The Welsh language was suppressed and barely survived. But that has changed now. The Welsh language has become a political statement, an exclusion zone. John rants about a teacher saying to a friend’s boy who spoke English “we don’t speak that disgusting language here”. He is rightly enraged by two farmers who completely ignored his toddling boy, Ryley, as he spoke to them over the garden wall – somehow treating this small child with contempt. Longer than I have been going to the Pass there has been an “us and them” there. Oddly enough there’s also a “them and them”, the Welsh who hail from a few kilometres up the coast at Colwyn Bay are not considered to be Welsh by some. It seems that the “true” Welsh land is only to be found in the valleys of Snowdonia. And these valleys are home to another factor that pisses John off – the sheep farmer. Their subsidies, black plastic trapping fences and their sheep enrage him, or so it seems. He writes about their disrespect for the land, the sheep killing off any chance of tree growth – and the sheep shit in the local playground – all things which I can relate to. But also he writes of the colourful mix of eccentrics who also populate the valleys there, Billy the Biscuit, Steve G. and Pete of Pete’s Eats. He also writes of the ones dead and gone, Paul Williams, Jimmy Jewel and Mo. Anthoine who, with Joe Brown, founded Snowden Mouldings, the now defunct climbing helmet company who, ironically, could not protect his own brain from a tumour. He also describes the breakfast scene at Pete’s Eats, the café in Llanberis. The breakfast rears up in the book on a number of occasions and I get the impression is very important to him.
I find the accounts of his artistic work very interesting. As an aside, reading the book took longer than I thought, for the simple reason that I would read an account of something or a description of a piece he had produced, and I would go off on a tangent, thinking about it and how that might effect me – no bad thing for a book, I would add! His mixed media work is fascinating – the work he did with Liverpool prostitutes, the interviews with them and the layered sound pieces of recording from scouse doorways. I’m just sorry that I’ve never experienced them “live”. He also produced a soundscape about the quarries above Llanberis. Excerpts from these and also some of his paintings are to be found on his website, check them out it’s worth it. But few can live from art alone and John pays his way with building work, more of which later.
He reached a point were the weather, the brooding Chapel next to his studio/home and the “Perishers” became too much. So he and his partner started to look abroad to warmer climes and for a change of artistic scene and stimulation. They headed down to the Pyrenees. His accounts of searching for the right place are amusing but also thoughtful. They “house sat” for a somewhat unpleasant Dutchman who had a running battle with the French builders and police. And it’s the French builder who often ends up as the subject of his building rants. He is disgusted by their criminal disregard for building standards, quality and punctuality and often was called in to make good the substandard work of a French builder. When confronted with this they often just shrugged in a Gallic way which was as much a “fuck off” as anything else Eventually they found a place to buy on the French side of the Catalan border. Here he soon found that the grass might well not be greener on the other side. Again he ended up in constant friction with the life style, or more accurately, the wagging French finger informing him that “here we do it this way”. He ran foul of the local headmaster and his treatment of Ryley – “here we do it this way” – but why? Don’t even ask the question. He also missed his breakfast scene – a big breakfast sets one up for the day – and can never co-ordinate his hunger with shops being actually open, “here we do it this way”. This mantra of “here we do it this way” stopped me and I mused about my reactions to strange or foreign things. Do I tend to react like that? Sometimes I’m sure.
He’d brought over some of his large canvasses painted in his studio in Liverpool. The account of doing battle with them in his hot, oven like truck, until he had painted over them, created pictures in my mind’s eye of a manic battle, slightly comic, but also very serious. He soon started working on a sound project there –
‘…regardless of the hype, the hoaxes and the drama I feel there is something connected with the land here that is meaningful. Talk of sacred geometry, monuments and temples certainly fire the imagination and Henry Lincoln in The Holy Place calls it the eighth wonder of the ancient world – ‘a natural and perfect pentacle of mountain peaks surrounded by a titanic, man-made temple’. I have spent time here and feel an affinity to the land, to the energy of whatever went on here, or continues to go on here. I feel like I have entered the mystery, the mountain, the tomb and without knowing it, absorbed the signs and symbols of an ancient story. With these feelings came the realisation that I had already started working here! I felt like the mountain had accepted me and invited me to work. I started a project called Remains of Occitània and started researching and sweeping the terrain for sounds…’
He is often having a go at the establishment, the British Mountaineering Council getting it in the neck from him, for amongst other things, their rolling on their backs attitude about climbing restrictions in the Llanberis quarries – “It´s ours, sod off!”
Now for my opinion of this book. As I think I’ve made clear already, I’ve found it a stimulating read on more than one level. I can relate to the description of his work, the problems he has with the “wagging finger” and the desire, the need to work creatively. His anger and humour comes through very clearly. It’s a cracking book – buy it! You can order it direct from John at his website: www.johnredhead.org
Another neat touch is, because it’s print on demand – it’s “e-evolving”, he wants to incorporate comments sent to him at: firstname.lastname@example.org I’ll have to think of something for it. DIM COLONEIDDIO!