Writer Jeff Connor remembers the Scottish author Alastair Borthwick (1913-2003) … and his collaboration with climbing publisher and editor Ken Wilson. Borthwick's works recorded both the popularisation of climbing as a working class sport in Scotland, and the Second World War from his perspective as an infantryman.
'The guy who sounds like Brian Blessed is on the line for you again,' said the editorial secretary. This was obviously an exaggeration, but Ken Wilson did have rather a loud voice.
He also had a habit of phoning close to deadline, but because it was him I always dropped whatever I was working on to listen because whatever he had to say was always worth it. He did all the talking with a diversity of subjects: the Blair landslide (this was 2001), S Club 7 (not a fan) and the Tate Modern ('an improvement on a power station'). It was hard to stop him, whether you wished to or not and these calls always reminded me of the dinner party in Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel in which guests attempt to be the first to leave, but never can.
When he did get round to the reason he'd called in the first place it was always about a new title, or a re-print, for his Baton Wicks publishing company … and I was going to plug it for him. I always gave him a positive review and in return I'd get a free book and a few quid (plus expenses) from my newspaper for the 1,000 words. Back scratching (logrolling if you prefer it) is quite common in the publishing business.
The strength of a review depends on the author and, odd as it may seem, not all are positive or even co-operative when you get to meet them. Anne Murray, widow of Scotland icon W.H. Murray, whose The Evidence of Things not Seen was published by Baton Wicks had made Ken's life hell by all accounts and she wasn't exactly welcoming when I met her at her home in Loch Goil. Anne was a writer and poet in her own right and I think Ken had realised for the first time then that some authors don't write books just for the royalties.
With our memories of Mrs. Murray in mind Ken had promised this time: 'There'll be no problems with Alastair Borthwick. He's a lovely old guy and an interview with a Jock would be great for your paper. I assume you've read Always A Little Further?'
I had but pointed out that Always A Little Further had been written in 1939, was on its seventh re-print (the last time by Baton Wicks) and the editor wouldn't go for the '62nd anniversary' of a climbing book, however famous and beloved it may be.
'Oh, it's nothing to do with climbing and Always A Little Further,' said Ken. 'This one's called Battalion.'
It seemed odd for him to take on a book about a Scottish regiment in the Second World War – a bit like Dove Christian Publishers signing up Harold Robbins - but by all accounts Battalion had been part of a package for the re-print of Always a Little Further. As you'd expect, a publisher who specialises in climbing, walking and the great outdoors, had struggled to sell a book about a war in hard cover and Ken was now going to sell it as a trade paperback; hence the phone call.
Not that this mattered to me. Whether it was a book about Raeburn or Rommel I'd still go and meet the author of Always a Little Further.
Alastair and Anne, his wife of 60 years, were living in a nursing home in Beith, Ayrshire. He was 88 and still reasonably healthy so the nursing was for Anne, who was suffering from dementia. He remained remarkably sanguine about this and life in general.
'Anne doesn't really know what's going on,' he said. 'It's no a bad thing if I were honest. I was actually dreading having to move here, but you get used to that in the end, too. I quite like it here now. In any case you can't climb and walk forever and you have to get used to the idea.'
Originally Battalion was titled Sans Peur (the battalion motto) and was intended only for members and family of the Seaforth Highlanders until people began to realise how good it was. Alastair wrote it in four months, just after the armistice. He regarded it as a better book than Always a Little Further, which took a lot longer.
In their own ways one could be seen as a sequel to the other as both cover the progress of a young man in an unfamiliar world: the 'wee, naive laddie' who stumbled upon adventure and survived it and the hardened soldier who survived war, too. His 5th Seaforth division saw as much action as the much vaunted Easy Company of Band of Brothers with operations in Italy, Africa, France, Holland and finally Germany. Unlike Band of Brothers he wasn't given to moralising.
'I hated the war and I hated the army too. If I were soldiering today, I would probably hate it even more. War will soon reach a stage where people just sit and press buttons. In North Africa, at Roumana Ridge, maybe a dozen Seaforths held off over 100 Germans for eight hours. Now they would be wiped out in a few seconds.'
I stayed two hours and though tired at the end he did move on to Always a Little Further, a book I'd always seen as the seminal history of walking and climbing in pre-war Scotland.
'I'm proud of it,' he said, 'but you may not know this but I rarely went back into the hills after the war. As far as I was concerned something had been lost forever by then.'
I asked about my favourite chapter: the night in Arrochar Youth Hostel where 60 'drowned rats' sheltered from a downpour and four beautiful German girls sang Muss i' Denn (Wooden Heart) and by morning everyone had gone. Always a Little Further was written in 1939 and though not intended at the time, the allegory must have been obvious.
He smiled, reached into a desk and pulled out a faded postcard on which Swabisher Volkslied (Swabia folk song) had been scribbled in that funny German handwriting. He didn't need to say more.
He signed my copy of Battalion: 'With regards to Jeff from Alastair Borthwick, October 2001' and a week later I got a graceful letter thanking me for the piece. It must have taken an effort because in there was the alarming news that he had been suffering from a chest infection that 'has taken away most of [his] retinal vision, the bit that does the fine work'. Then, right at the end: 'Writing is very hard now.'