Andy Pollitt & John Redhead - Who Shot JR? Interview

© John Redhead

Andy Pollitt passes the microphone to another '80s legend...

Who shot JR?

Ha-ha, gotcha! [Well those old enough to recall the 1980s should figure out who we're talking with this time anyway].

John Redhead in his old Llanberis studio.
© John Redhead

A cunning, mischievous Rasputin-esque chap – or the misunderstood 'image-maker who climbs' as he once referred to himself? I'd say both quite frankly but let's not be overly judgemental, well not just yet eh?

A very handsome man John, – 'attractive' with great verbal eloquence and a warm Hull accent. 'Earthly' and drew his energy through the ground he walked upon and had a particularly potent 'pheremonic' magnetism. Just ask the ladies! And like all the 'beautiful people' we saw out and about, he bloody well knew it and played it to the max!

His moniker was "Cochyn" – or 'redhead' - from the Welsh language but he was oft called 'Cochion', which alluded to that primary colour that we generally associate with 'WARNING' or 'DANGER'. How apt. It was a nickname a few of the 'beris locals used occasionally and if they made mention of 'Coch' us natives knew exactly who they were talking about. Oh, and usually in awe, I should add. The latter example above is also Welsh for 'sex slave' and appropriate again as I always thought John was a slave to his own immense libido.

John Redhead 'burst onto the scene' in North Wales according to Geoff Birtles' 'Crags' magazine at the beginning of the 1980s, having made the First Ascents of Plas Berw then The Bittersweet Connection on The Great Orme's Castell y Gwynt which were much bigger, badder, bolder and butcher than Mayfair on Pen Trwyn that Jerry Moffatt and I had recently freed.

I asked my dear friend Pete Bailey if we could go there one evening after work and Pete – as always – was up for adventure. Plas Berw - Second Ascent. Onsight flash, happy with that and Pete bought me a pint of lager on the way home to Dyserth.

AP on FA/2nd Ascent of Klienian Envy/Menopausal Discharge 8a+.
© Glenn Robbins

I admired John from afar – to the point of adolescently mimicking his style by donning the old blue Helly Hansen clothes, wearing a red bandana, using a Black Belt and carrying my gear on a bandolier. There was a nod to the great Ron Fawcett too by way of my Union Jack ski hat and I drew influence and inspiration from both these grown up better climbers.

Mel Griffiths and Leigh McGinley had just beaten me to the FA of Axle Attack – an absolute classic, and when John and I'd repeated it he fancied a crack at the blanker faces either side.

What became possibly Britain's first 8a [Masterclass by Jerry] looked "very thin but it'll definitely go" John advised having ab'ed it, so we ended up with The Bloods [with Keith 'Big Willy' Robertson] and The Disillusioned Screw Machine instead and the [then] relatively obscure Great Orme slowly began to draw a much wider audience. Yet we were developing the scrappy, raking tier left of what became known as Parisella's Cave. John put up The Burning Sphincter [which Tim Freeman promptly soloed], I got Ape's Hit and Stevie Haston the big roof of Dumbbell Flyer.

Tell us about your image-making, John?

JR: For a couple of years I painted commercially. I sold to several tourist galleries and gift shops. The paintings were of local scenes in standard sizes. Menai Bridge, Fairy Glens, Tryfan and Snowdon were among the many subjects, painted in various styles under several pseudonyms. Assembly line, mass production techniques, force drying, varnishing and framing and 'biography cards' force-fed the eager punters. Joe Warren, a Hari Krishna devotee, builder and door to door salesman prowled the monied estates in search of more 'Bloods'… The Bloods were greedy, ignorant consumers, readily gnashing at Joe's smooth talking bait. The paintings, laid out extravagantly in their MFI homes fitted neatly into the colour schemes and patterns of a frighteningly dead and depressed world.

But John's 'gig' was predominantly the bold and adventurous stuff over on Gogarth and in the mountains of Snowdonia where he climbed mostly with Keith, Dave Towse and Chris Shorter.

Regrettably, he got slated in the magazines for sawing down Ogwen's last remaining tree to add a fifteen foot start to an old Martin Boysen route to produce The Wrinkled Retainer, possibly North Wales' first 6c. Except John was not the culprit and only brought in when the tree saw-er realised he couldn't do it himself.

Now we are harking back to the eighties again OK and John found some absolute belters down at Tremadog; Sexual Salami, Hitler's Buttock and probably his two finest, the Atomic Finger Flake and Bananas when Ron beat him to Strawberries. It was strange he didn't go for the obvious arête of the Sexual Salami buttress, so Jon de Montjoye steamed in for Cardiac Arête which subsequently featured on the cover of the new guidebook with JR as climber.

JR: Hmm. Tremadoc. Men in the bushes! Always reminds me of my Mother and a coming of age speech were she described women waiting for you in the bushes to give you rhubarb sticks! Beware Johnny! Fond memories of Paul Williams picking me up in 'Beris, stinking to high heaven, "cant stop for a shit youth, someone will beat us to it". Gary Gibson claiming routes he hadn't done…Paul was the motivating force for much of the activity here and sooner or later you were called upon for choice cameos or a performance. Like Paul, I never took Tremadoc that seriously. Must go back one day and find a new route to call 'Rhubarb Sticks'.

Andy Pollitt on JR's Cockblock E5 6b, Clogwyn y Grochan.
© Andy Pollitt Collection

I guess most of us would associate JR with routes like The Bells, The Bells! – Britain's first E7 'chop route' and done with little pre-inspection and non-sticky boots while Gretel, eight months pregnant, watched on oblivious to the perilous danger her man was living through.

It could be called the stuff of nightmares but when I led the second ascent – onsight and with six years of fuzzy green stuff all over it, I wasn't scared in the slightest. I think attempting a route like that – back then, I'd psyched myself up to the point of being so scared I simply wasn't scared any longer. More a case of resignation that I might well die that day so better pull hard as this was him - John at his best - 'On The Hunt – For Survival'. Yeah, much more than just a deathly climb, more an experiment in finding how far he could 'push the boat out'.

JR: Too right Andy, can't be scared! Just got to deal with the job in hand and if a snappy pulls you have only a few seconds until the grin is wiped out. I have talked about this terrain. Some people call it trad-climbing. It's just climbing as it should be. The important question is to ask yourself what are you doing in this terrain to start with…? Is it natural, pathological, addictive, madness? Why not another pint or a hot chocolate? I, for one, know why I was there and it ain't any of them, honest guv! It also wasn't just to see my dog rip open rucksacks at the base of cliffs to steal food, although that is getting close. That all around you in the everyday can seem sanitised, manipulated, pedestrian, absurd and unreal is homing into some snippet. Even staying alive is not enough. Do you find God in the holds?! In these twists and stretches, the lies take cover, the blurred push, the life-close, the creature of soul is sharp and intent…perhaps? What do we have? We sit on the shoulders of winged giants occasionally pausing to remember a fragment… not only to redress a world in crisis but to be generous with oneself – for me, ultimately to weight one's imagination against what we perceive as circumstance…

'The image maker who climbs': John's early 5' square paintings were really quite staggering, I saw many, and he had a very particular style. Fine, delicate brush strokes depicting what appeared to me as rushes or reeds in a breeze but to this artist was most likely something completely different. Another metaphor for 'the hunt' or 'conflict' or a respect to a Savage or Wolf with tinges of Ebony and Obsidian (the names of John's children to Gret).

JR: In the blink of an eye eh Andy…all up to the beholder. I am a shape-shifter by trade, constantly re-addressing and re-creating. I am working from my recorded sounds at the moment. I record the landscape and then paint the landscape in a dim studio informed by the sounds. This is psycho-automism as a way of working. Do I not trust my eyes…and what is the landscape anyway? I believe that if you could experience the landscape as it really is you would freak!

John Redhead on Raped by Affection E7.
© John Redhead

Cloggy and The Tormented Ejaculation: Little pre-inspection. Rubbing resin into Asolo Chouinard 'Canyons', an eighty foot cartwheel down the face, leaping for a rescue rope and lowering off a tiny skyhook. The route's stature seemed to grow with every tale of John's attempts to [virtually] onsight his way up this immaculate sheet of unclimbed rock. Personally, I consider his attempts as the most 'out there' ever and doubt they'll ever be matched.

JR: Such is the joy of the process, offering - for me - way beyond that of a product. Hell of a rite of passage! Take it or leave it but my approach was ceremonial in essence, like the priest who is to carry out a sacrifice. Intense images then played out onto canvas as my skull opened a little to peer inside at creatures cracking their sides. Such a probe cannot be matched because the game rules changed as Indian Face geared up with all the trappings of a promotional product…up for sale with tactics of a commercial sport. No blame. All climbers touch this sacred element to some extent, because they are balancing their life in the natural world where eyes and spirit are upon them…I entered as an artist, and the experience was not that of climbing but of understanding, in a Gnostic sense, what that direct experience was attached to…

The Slateheads: This is perhaps where John becomes somewhat contradictory. For sure there were extremely thin and seriously bold routes in the quarries yet conversely there were his two 'creations' - Manic Strain and Menopausal Discharge - that were purely 'sport'. John rallied against that/this modern ethos and still maintains 'It's just climbing' but many – myself included, will beg to differ. Blindly following a line of tiny sidepulls and slopey footholds up on Cloggy – not knowing if it's even possible and b-all gear is 'just climbing', creating a fully bolted line of chips up a blank slate wall is actually 'sport'. Was he one step ahead of me or was I one behind him? I often asked myself that.

JR: What? Contradiction or antinomy? The industrial wasteland among slate trinkets appealed to my anarchist 'other'. The place is a nightmare of greed, hardship and disassociation from the sacred land…Elidir Fawr, her flanks eviscerated for the slate, offered silicosis and torn limbs as a balance. I played on the Rainbow, offering chop lines with the most minimal of pro – Raped by Affection, a postcard for your loved ones. The energy totally alive. Manic Strain and Menopausal Discharge were both chipped on blank faces and played on with increasing tedium. The outcome was never in doubt if you kept at it like a geek remembering the sequences. Not my art! I was bored to Fxxx. With such routes you are following a procedure, joining the dots like a moron on a climbing wall. Pink blobs this way, green slopers that way and purple knobs in between. Robotic and sport in mentality. With sport you play with the stock in the paddock, not having to watch your back with predators.

2nd ascent of Manic Strain, Vivian Quarry.
© Andy Pollitt Collection

Let's finish with Margins of the Mind. John now resides in the Pyrenees of Catalunya Nord, with new partner Imi, new studio… and new work. The image-maker who no longer climbs … Over to you.

JR: Hang on mate, don't write me off yet… I am working out on virgin boulders near my house and Sadernes, a mind-blowing limestone gorge is a three hour walk through wilderness direct from my front door! Mind you I am more poised to watch the eagles and a lynx on the way. My house name is pronounced 'Loose manners'; the most southerly ancient auberge in France that was home to the Trabucaires who kidnapped gentry for ransom. I feel at home here as a 'difficult ass' among the caves and fecund wilderness and continue the legacy of anarchy and free-thought and touching and feeling that strange bio-mass called humanity…

So, Margins of the Mind. So called first E8. Entering the field of savagery, again, with little cleaning and little knowledge. The mythical Final Judgement Wall, claimed by a pretender back in the '70s. After 24 years of not having been 'repeated', I was asked to hold the ropes for Al Lee's film On sight. Neil Dickson hadn't been born back in the day of my four hour ascent!

Neil failed first time round after four hours on the wall. Stout fella. Fingers worn through. I realised for the first time how belaying on such a serious route felt. I entered my perch like a ferryman.

The Clown film at North Stack.
© John Redhead

I was persuaded to return after a month. Al wanted his film. Neil wanted his on-sight. I wanted to paint - from the sounds I had recorded at Montsegur, the last stronghold of the Cathari, the heretics, who were persecuted by the Catholics during the Albigensian crusade; where the last remaining initiates walked silently into the flames…letting go of their 'book of love' into a book of lore…

Neil succeeded after another four hours of negotiation. Al succeeded in producing his film.

Six years later, again on-sight, the extremely bold and reticent Caff, thrusting his own weapon, met with the same shapes, in the same place and was lucky not to fall, as the wall, again, laid down its great, stone tool. He returned in trainers to check it out but his prey had been wounded. Only Caff himself knows what his subsequent ascent means…with the earth, the stones, his breath. For certain, these super-technical 'heads' have more to battle with than just the rock… In the spirit of Edward Abbey, I feel like indulging in a graffiti campaign, just to push some dirt back into the outdoor environment.

For me, adventure starts in a dark studio… surely having a laugh! The green world scoffs.

Oh, so who did 'shoot' JR?

It was mostly Ray Wood, designed by JR of course, and brilliantly atmospheric and inspiring. Readers of this chat really ought to check out John's lavish 'culty and arty' book '….and one for the crow'.

Thanks J and when are you heading to Oz for a visit?


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23 Nov, 2017
Very enjoyable. James
23 Nov, 2017
"the game rules changed as Indian Face geared up with all the trappings of a promotional product…up for sale with tactics of a commercial sport. No blame" No blame? Plenty of sour grapes though. A pity, because it demeans an otherwise intriguing interview
23 Nov, 2017
I'm not seeing that text in the interview. Has it been edited? That said JR's thoughts on Indian Face are pretty well known. Suspect he wouldn't give a toss. Definitely one of the most intriguing climbing characters. Great interview AP.
23 Nov, 2017
Great interview! Almost certainly the case. There's 'brave' and there's 'something else...' Seems as though he went far, far into the dark world of the 'something else...' I guess we were all just so relieved that he survived. Mick
23 Nov, 2017
It's still on mine, in the response to the bit about the "tormented ejaculation"
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