© Dennis Gray, Nov 2005
Introduction by Mick Ryan
It seems that Dennis Gray has been around forever (he was born in 1935 and started climbing when he was 11). Climbers who have just started on the rocky road of climbing are perhaps not familiar with him. He's a well-travelled climber and mountaineer (he's visited over 60 countries), and a keen observer of the climbing world and its characters. From his early teens until injury slowed him down recently he shared ropes with the foremost climbers of the day, Arthur Dolphin, Tom Patey, Don Whillans, Joe Brown, Harold Drasdo, Robin Campbell, Eli Moriarty, the Marshalls and Graham 'Typhoo' Tiso....the list is probably endless. He was on such first ascents as Frisco Bay at Stoney, the Grond on the Cromlech, Wombat and Macabre at Malham and North Crag Eliminate at Castle Rock as well as in Kenya, the Andes and the Himalaya. Recently he has spent much of his time in China, although his climbing has been curtailed by injuries sustained from bad falls in Glen Nevis and Font.
But he is perhaps best known as the first General Secretary of the BMC. He's a Yorkshireman as true as Geoffrey Boycott or Jimmy Saville, except Dennis is not yet knighted. If you want to learn more about Dennis and the 1950's to 1970's climbing scene, he has authored two biographies 'Rope Boy' (1970, 1979, out of print) and Mountain Lover (1990), two books of anecdotes and stories, 'Tight Rope - the fun of climbing' and Slack, a book of verse Poems from the Edge (2003), as well as numerous essays and articles.
And now we have his sixth book, a novel, Todhra.
Terry Gifford, founder of the International Mountain Literature Festival at Bretton Hall and recently retired Reader in Literature and Environment at Leeds Univerisity says that Todhra is, "A good novel. A structured emotional and narrative development towards a complex ending.This should not be marginalised as a gay novel, but recognised as a version of what we all, if we are honest, experience in different ways with our various partners'.
We asked Marc Chrysanthou (Marc C on the UKClimbing.com forums) to give his opinion.
Todhra by Dennis Gray : a review Marc Chrysanthou
“What is straight? A line can be straight, or a street, but the human heart, oh, no, it's curved like a road through mountains.“ Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire
Todhra is memoirist and short-story writer Dennis Grey's first novel. Indeed, it is a double first – for, as the blurb on the back cover proclaims, “This is a first in the field of climbing fiction: a novel with a gay central character.” Confronted by this information, I felt akin to a climber standing before an obscure, ungraded route. How to approach it? First gay climbing novel! Taken to an extreme degree, the ideology of First-ism' courts absurdity. Earlier this year a team of American climbers claimed to be the first gay climbing team to 'conquer' Aconcagua. Where would this thirst for 'firsts' end? The first lesbian diabetic to solo Equilibrium? And where did it begin? Was Sappho, diving from the Leucadian Cliffs, the first lesbian attempt at Deep Water soloing? Was Empedocles the pioneer of Base Jumping – when he threw himself into the smouldering crater of Etna?
Setting aside the dubious merit of claiming to be a 'first', I pondered the significance of it being an overtly Gay novel. In what subtle ways had this already affected my reading of the book? Would I have perceived The Hard Years differently if I knew Joe Brown had wild sexual romps with Whillans high on the West Face of the Blaitiere? Would Touching the Void have the same resonance if Simon Yates had cut the rope because Joe Simpson had rejected his amorous advances?
Although 'Gay Literature' (e.g. William Burroughs, James Baldwin, Allan Hollinghurst) is a clearly established genre – with whole bookcases of Waterstones groaning under gay writers - climbing literature, by comparison, boasts only a small subterranean current of homoerotic climbing literature written by professional men of gay or ambiguous sexuality (e.g. Winthrop Young, Menlove Edwards and Wilfrid Noyce). But maybe I was being naïve, and the current was more of a torrent than a trickle? For isn't much climbing literature – given the physicality of the activity and the predominantly male camaraderie of climbing – a paean to auto-erotic or homoerotic body fascism? Had he been a climber Walt Whitman might have written of the sensuality of bouldering - "I will go to the crag by the wood and become undisguised and naked, I am mad for it to be in contact with me" – and of the disguised sexual intimacy of a climbing team absorbed in "love-thoughts, love-juice, love-odor, love-yielding, love-climbers, and the climbing sap."
How could heroic tales of grown men with beards sharing a rope-bond; sleeping side-by-side in the intimate spaces of high-altitude camps; massaging each other's frostbitten bits, whilst scaling phallic peaks, not raise suspicions of latent homoeroticism? Paradoxically, the rope that connects also keeps one another at a distance. This ethos of 'stiff upper lip and hidden stiff lower limb' is parodied by Radio 4's The Consultants:
and it ain't just the frostbite that's making me blue
Dennis Gray deep water soloing in Pembroke, back in the day.
© Dennis Gray, Nov 2005
Often it is what is left unsaid that speaks loudest. In such classic climbing novels as M. John Harrison's Climbers, Simon Mawer's The Fall, or Roger Eubank's Hazard's Way – the predominantly male characters are (if I remember rightly) heterosexual – but a repressed homoeroticism can be detected beneath Desire's stern, still surface. Leaving the world of mountaineering for the microcosms of sport climbing and bouldering, narcissism and male-bonding become more manifest. As an article 'Minorities and Climbing' on Rockclimbing.com jokingly comments: “Oh c'mon - gaggle of boys flocking under a three-move problem with a twelve-inch mattress while 'spotting' each other is merely the prelude before being fitted for a leather codpiece with matching backless pants.”
So, as prepared as the trustiest Boy Scout, I turned the book over (no sexual metaphor intended – although the French verb 'tourner' does feature quite prominently in the Moroccan passages of the book). The fearsome snow-clad Paiju Spire in the Karakoram (btw, why this and not the Todhra Gorge?) loomed dramatically on the front cover. Then I set out on my own 'first' – solo apart from my prejudices and expectations - into the Great Unknown of a gay-centric climbing novel...
John Firth (a solid hero's name!) is a vertically-challenged, Olympic-lite ( 5' 8”, 62kg - we never learn any other personal measurements), brilliant and ethically-pure climber (hates competitions, loves free climbing) climbing with his friend Duncan in the Todhra Gorge in Morocco. After a bold new route, John finds his boyhood homosexual stirrings reawakened, and has his first fully-realised sexual encounter, with a young Berber called Lahcen, and, then in fairly quick succession is pleasured under the influence of a local hash-cake delicacy (known as Majoun – probably not one of Delia's or Jane Asher's cake recipes!) by another local youth. Todhra is thus the symbolic site of John's Damascene self-discovery. Whereas The Da Vinci Code centres on the revelation of an ancient secret, Todhra's central chapters deal with John's attempts to keep a secret - that of his sexuality - from a homophobic climbing community.
The reader is then taken on a whistle-stop tour through the British climbing scene - Mile End, Llanberis, Ben Nevis, a bouldering excursion to Fontainebleau (where a pof-assisted Johnny - no poof jokes, please - shows the Frenchies how it's really done). In Paris with an old schoolfriend Roger, John meets a wealthy young aristocrat, Vincent, who introduces an initially disgusted John to oral sex. Then an accident on the Walker Spur – and rescue by Vincent's private plane! – ends with John recuperating in England. It is during his convalescence that John is 'outed' by a hompohobic acquaintance. This unmasking is both liberating and threatening. For the first time, John can be who he wants to be, but his gay status promps rejection by erstwhile friends, and vilification by a heterosexist climbing community. Adding to his anxiety, he encounters a rent boy and experiences the threat of HIV/AIDS and STDs.
The second half of the book relates John's navigation of a new identity. His heart previously straightened artificially by the vice of convention can now assume its natural curvature. One constant is his passion for climbing: Bouldering at Caley, competition climbing at Leeds, expedition climbing on Nanga Parbat, soloing in the Shawangunks, and an emotional return to Todrha. In between climbs he develops a passionate relationship with Vincent and a more sedate loving friendship with his old friend Roger. John also achieves a rapprochement with his climbing friend Duncan – who had rejected him after he had 'come out'. I will not give away further details of the plot – suffice to say that John's new path is beset by tragedy and suffering. Like Frodo Baggins, John is a much wearier, worldlier, and wiser creature at the end of the book's journey.
So I've read my first gay climbing novel. How was it for me? Well, it doesn't rise to the heights (dreadful climbing pun) of The Fall, Hazard's Way or Climbers. As a 'serious' work of gay literature it doesn't convince. The characters lack psychological or emotional depth and the book is strewn with gay cliches - the tragi-romantic young French aristocrat who - unable to come to terms with his homosexuality - attempts suicide; a brutal gay rape/fisting scene that would have seamlessly fitted into the Turkish prison nightmare of the movie Midnight Express; the swarthy young Arab boys eager to pleasure gay white Western tourists (a la Paul Bowles or Joe Orton); homophobic Northern macho blokes using quaint phrases like 'queer as ginger beer'.
For all the vaunted novelty of the central character being gay, the significance of this amounts to little more than him having a few brief same-sex encounters. Indeed, the central plot device - John's secret sexuality and the consequences of his 'outing' - don't ring true to this reader. I can't imagine a gay Ben Moon or Jerry Moffatt taking part in a climbing competition with hecklers jeering 'queer, queer, ginger beer'. Not in 2005, anyway. 1965 or 1975, perhaps. I suspect that the book has had a lengthy gestation, as there are slippages of continuity - e.g. at one point a character expresses the wish that Boycott be reinstated as Yorkshire captain (?). There's no real depth to any of the characters. Here I am reminded of The Da Vinci Code's one-dimensionality. There's no great insight into the mysteries of sexuality (gay or otherwise), no lyrical prose celebrating the sensuality of climbing. It's not even very sexy - the sex scenes are coy and perfunctory and involve people 'turning over' or hands going down. Non-climbing gay readers might well find the climbing content too heavy for them and the sex scenes too dull. Climbing readers would definitely be irritated by the author's attempt to 'translate' climbing equipment, jargon, and techniques for the benefit of the layperson.
However, it dawned on me that - distracted and preoccupied by the literary consequences of sexual identity and the responsibility of being a heterosexual reader of a gay book - I may have been taking the book too seriously. In climbing grade-speak, Todhra is no committing Extreme (not the brooding, menacing Paij spire or steep walls of the Todhra gorge), more a long, varied, and entertaining mountain V Diff - a Bowfell Buttress or Grooved Arête. Dennis Grey's accomplishment - and its real claim to being a first - has been to produce a 'cli-fi fantasy'- a Mills & Boon or Ripping Yarn with rippling abs. I don't mean this to be derogatory. What Dennis has given us is – and, perhaps this should come as no surprise, given his taste for entertaining embroidered storytelling and his deep knowledge of the climbing scene – is a smoothly-written absorbing yarn. John Firth (Captain Kirk? James Bond?) triumphs over woofter-loathing bigots, cheating Italian climbers, and treacherous Arab types. Varied and contrasting climbing locations (From Mile End to Nanga Parbat!) provide the backdrop and are convincingly conveyed. The climbing sequences are meticulously detailed - one long move-by-move account of our hero's progress up a competition route is utterly absorbing. Great fun can be had identifying famous real life climbing inspirations for some of the climbing exploits and escapades. It would make a great movie! You busy, Mr. Cruise? And, as with all romances, there is a thread of morality running through the tale. John Firth is the mythic all-rounder unifying the disparate warring elements of climbing - brilliant boulderer, bold free climber, first-rate Alpinist, Himalayan mountaineer – and British to boot! His only ethical crime is to occasionally get sticky foreign substances on his hands (and it's Pof that I am referring to!). At a personal level, our hero fights prejudice and deals with his own inner demons in order to achieve a personal maturity. His climbing/sexual awakening act as dual metaphors for a vertical/horizontal adventure that will set him free. And does our mountaineering hero succeed (like the fabled Mountie) - in finally getting his man and finding true happiness ?
Reader, my lips are sealed.
Dr. Marc Chrysanthou is a regular contributor to the forums of UKClimbing.com - in between postings he finds time to lecture in Sociology and to climb obscure gritstone boulders at a standard that would be impressive for someone twice his age. He was co-editor of the UKC-inspired 'The Owl & the Cragrat' poetry anthology. Later this month he can be seen at Kendal demonstrating his musical skills as part of the toproping song ensemble Up Where the Brave Go. Their 'set' will include Trad Loon Rising, Toproper Digby, Up Where the Brave Go, No Scare Man, Coward of the County, Ropin' all over the World, Bye Bye Mr. Never-Say-Die, Leading on a Trad Climb. Up Where the Brave Go are on from 12.30 to 1.30 at K Village on the Sunday (20th November)
'Todhra' is published by a writer's co-operative,' The Flux Gallery Press' based in Leeds in a limited edition print run of 300 copies. Signed copies are available from Dennis for £10 pounds (p & p included). Send a check to Dennis Gray, 16 Royal Park Avenue, Hyde Park, Leeds LS6 1EY. Copies are also available via Cordee in the main bookshops like Waterstone's or the specialist climbing shops for £9.95 each.
Dennis Gray will be at the Kendal Mountain Festivals appearing at the DMM "Rock and Ice Legacy" on Friday 18th November at 7:00 pm.
UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by Marc Chrysanthou: