INTERVIEW: Reading Between the Lines - Gwen Moffat

by Natalie Berry - UKC 28/Jun/2017
This article has been read 9,058 times

Tales of climbing and mountaineering adventures have long been written, read and shared; stories of fleeting moments of fear, survival epics and questing on peaks unconquered. Our rich heritage of mountain literature has inspired climbers and writers of today to continue documenting experiences in the outdoors; extractions from the quotidian that often encourage us to reflect on life as we sharpen our political or philosophical beliefs and calibrate our moral compass.

With ample space and time to think, it's no surprise that the most captivating stories are ones that go beyond gear, grades and ego. Ideas and commentary on wider society permeate mountain literature. In this new series of interviews, we talk to prominent climbing writers about their reading habits between - or even during - routes and expeditions: focusing not only on the growing realm of mountain literature, but also on books in other genres that have informed their thinking and writing.

Gwen Moffat in the Lake District, 198 kbGwen Moffat in the Lake District
© Jim Herrington

As Britain's first female mountain guide, Gwen Moffat never chose the well-travelled or familiar path in life. A free-spirited, barefoot-climbing vagabond with no interest in adhering to traditional gender roles of the 40s and 50s, Gwen's quasi-existentialist attitude gave her life purpose in a variety of ways in order to fund her climbing travels around the UK and European Alps: as a driver and dispatch rider in the Army, a forester, winkle-picker, helmsman of a schooner, artist's model, mountain guide and writer. Gwen's atypical and varied career path eventually settled on crime writing in the 1970s, and she currently lives in a cottage in the Lake District. The recent film about Gwen's life, Operation Moffat, received critical acclaim from mountain festivals worldwide, picking up twenty awards and catalysing a reprint of her 1961 climbing memoir Space Below my Feet.

'It was the life itself that was frightening. The very fact that it seemed to be the quintessence of everything I had ever wanted: adventure, freedom and rejection of authority.' - Space Below my Feet

Now aged 93, the glimmer in Gwen's eyes certainly hasn't dimmed, as she looks out of her car and surveys her Cumbrian landscape. I wanted to ask Gwen about her climbing, writing and reading, as someone who has managed to fit in a fair amount of all three throughout her long life of adventures. Her quick and candid response to my enquiry raised a smile:

'I'm interested. If you have in mind an on-line interview, fine. I'm too old for the live stuff. So go ahead but, with Spring advancing, I may be slow in answering your queries.'

Between bouts of sunny weather, in avoidance of the rain and when not feeding her beloved cats, Gwen kindly took the time to answer some questions...

'It poured for three days. We ate until we were bloated, and we read until the print danced.' - Space Below my Feet

Special thanks to photographer Jim Herrington for providing the header image of Gwen in her car. Jim has photographed Gwen for an upcoming photography book project 'The Climbers' featuring 60 legends of 20th Century climbing, available in October. A Digital Feature about Jim's work is coming soon to UKC.

What was the first book you ever read?

I can't remember the first book I read. The first read to me was probably an American pseudo-folk story about Uncle Remus and Brer Fox. More relevant were the books in the house which I must have read before I was old enough to go to the local Library. My favourites then were Scott's "Ivanhoe" , Dumas' "The Three Musketeers" and the only Dickens I've never read since : "A Tale of Two Cities". All rip-roaring tales full of colour – and how relevant is that?

'It never occurred to me that a climber might read Joyce. What more did one want to read than Mountaincraft and the guide books?' - Space Below my Feet

What was the first mountaineering or climbing book that you read? and which is your all-time favourite? (and why)

Several came together. Kirkus' "Let's Go Climbing". I lost my copy and I forget its style. The title sounds as if it was aimed at the young. We were in our late teens, early twenties, naïve late-developers: straight from school into the services: from the services into civilian life in peace time: an alien world in which one waited idly: for university or Godot or anything – and we discovered climbing, then found the exponents: Kirkus, Bill Murray (a few years later, on a ridge in Glen Coe we saw a party in the snow-filled corrie below and someone said: "That's Bill Murray" and we were awed. We had seen Murray. "Mountaineering in Scotland" was the book that lured me north.)

photo
On the first pitch of Green Gully on Ben Nevis some time in the fifties
© Moffat Collection

Earlier, when we still lived in barns and hitched everywhere, and survival clothing was an Army gas cape which also served as a groundsheet, another delight was Alastair Borthwick, the one copy of "Always a Little Further" read aloud by headtorch on winter evenings in the noisome pill-box on the shore of Llyn Ogwen.

But the jewel of those earliest days was Young's "Mountaincraft". Not one for the kids although we thought we understood it. And the night before my first professional engagement I got cold feet and (always with Geoffrey in my pack) I took out "Mountaincraft" and at last I understood the relevant part and my confidence came flooding back. I didn't tell him although I was to meet him, once in the Old Dungeon Ghyll, and he signed my book: the one that was really his.

What's your all-time non-climbing favourite book, and why?

The "favourite non-climbing book" changes with age and the times, but past and present candidates are beside my bed. Maugham's short stories (mainly for their honed English); Kipling's – but only bits of certain tales, skipping the fulsomeness which is far worse than the jingoism – but oh, his colour! (now I'm thinking of his poetry). Mitford's "The Pursuit of Love" for her exquisite treatment of comedy and tragedy. Wyndham's "The Kraken Wakes" – a rattling good tale of under-stated adventure, and worked in there: the portrayal of civilisation under siege. The start of Benchley's "Jaws" – like the film - is superb. I often read myself to sleep with favourite sections of old familiar books.

The crime novels are a separate issue. Ruth Rendell is the leader, not only in style but empathy. The climactic horror of her best work strikes home with pinpoint accuracy and without warning: no blood, no guts, no hideous torture, only a cast iron cover dropped on a manhole ("A Sight for Sore Eyes".)

And then, there are the deserts, desert mountains, all their solitary wildness. I have all of Hillerman's books. And Donna Leon's, for her cosy father figure Brunetti, a cop dealing daily with sin, whose environment is the crime-ridden canals and palaces of Venice.

All these writers: mountaineers and others, I choose for their writing. I deplore sloppy English although I have to read it for review. Someone has to and every book is the author's darling….

Fiction or non-fiction? Which do you find yourself reading more of?

I read more fiction than non-fiction because I have to. Given a choice it would probably be half and half, the one for information and to keep the surviving brain cells active, the other for entertainment and relief.

In Space Below my Feet you write about spending time in a Scottish bothy alongside 5 other girls: 'I spent my evenings in a corner of the big kitchen, writing: letters, stories, articles – and that wasn't very popular' whilst other girls in the bothy were 'reading True Romances and knitted.' You claim you were 'as different as chalk from cheese.' By writing, did you feel as though you were breaking out of more traditional gender roles? Your variety of jobs undertaken would also suggest this, perhaps?

From age eleven I had read Ella Maillart, Freya Stark, Gertrude Bell. And there was my aunt who had climbed in the Lakes and the Himalayas. Consciously I didn't aspire to emulate them and if I was driven I wasn't aware of it. I just wrote (a correspondence course in short story writing while working as a forester on the shores of Loch Ness), and climbed, and lived. But I did absorb, mostly by osmosis, the encouragement and the wisdom of more astute people, no doubt dismissing a lot of dross. Because if I hadn't done that, crime could have come quite easily. I worked to eat, although there were peccadilloes. I did steal cauliflowers from fields in Cornwall and one night I milked an amenable cow which approached me when I was sleeping in a field.

photo
Cornish barefeet
© Moffat Collection

If I broke out of traditional roles I wasn't aware of it except in being quite clear that I wasn't going to nurse or teach or "go into an office", nor in the event to go to university because by that time I was climbing and there was no room for training or further education.

Actually I wasn't without training. I could milk cows, cut down trees, drive; I could model for artists. And all the time I wrote. Poetry too. The morbid stuff I wrote only for myself: a release of tension which was destroyed shortly, having served its purpose.

'It never occurred to me that a climber might read Joyce. What more did one want to read than Mountaincraft and the guide books?' Were many of the climbers you met early in your career well-read? It goes against the 'dirtbag' impression!

Were my contemporaries well-read? I don't think so; judging from the enjoyment and wonder we had with those early climbing books; it was our elders who were well-read and were to enthuse us. My introduction to foreign classics came from the friends I lived with as a deserter. They were about ten years older than I. Subsequently on Skye we relied on Scotland's Student Library.

photo
Gwen's Skye Cottage and the Cuillin
© Moffat Collection

'Immediately I sent a letter to my mother asking for books, putting at the top the proud, lovely address, Isle of Skye.' - Space Below my Feet

In your own writing, climbers will most likely know of Space Below my Feet - the story of your climbing exploits. However, you have written significantly more fiction books; crime novels in particular. What is it about this genre of writing that you enjoy? You also mention writing 'morbid poems' in Space.

Your crime novels are set in wilderness environments, which makes a change from the typical inner-city crime thriller. Are these stories imagined whilst you are active in the outdoors, or do they come to life when you're sat writing at a desk, or elsewhere?

What do I enjoy about crime writing? Not the writing so much as the research, more correctly the field work. I prefer unfamiliar places; it's the initial impact that counts. You go there and start to wander: the Outer Hebrides, the Northern Pennines, the American West: deserts, coasts, mountains. You climb, watch animals, absorb – and at some point something, perhaps a feeling that morphs to a theme, evolves, or is suddenly there and starts to evolve. You start to home in on an objective which then suggests the plot: a grouse wing in an eagle's eyrie, so like the bones of a hand; the moving of a vital cairn in a maze of Utah canyons; abuse anywhere: of children, women, animals. Then you find a bolt-hole and write it. The writing's not so much enjoyment as satisfaction in creating characters, allowing them to play their roles, finally doling out justice. Then you look for the next place to find the next book.

You meticulously logged your climbs in written accounts. What was your writing focused on: the technicalities of the climbs themselves, or your thoughts and feelings during the climb? (or both!)

When I wrote up my journal shortly after the climbs (and the travelling and field work – 1000 words a night) I was noting the salient points: the interesting moves, weather, exposure, wildlife – my reactions to those and to the behaviour of the company (when climbing) and their obvious reaction to me. One wrote it as it was, regardless of style. For publication notes would be polished.

You contributed articles and writing to many climbing journals over the years - a form of reading material which is becoming less popular with the advances of online media and the decline of print media. Could you see yourself chronicling your adventures online today in the way people used to in journals? Does some of the intrigue of a tangible, printed journal get lost, perhaps?

Could I compose on a laptop? I do but not well. Writing for print is for posterity. It's a legacy and as such you take care. On-line stuff is ephemeral and too often careless.

photo
Superdirect on the Milestone (Tryfan) probably around 1960.
© Moffat Collection

Do you devour books whole or dip in and out of a few?

When I'm reviewing I read quickly but with old familiar books I dip and enjoy. If there's long enough I can read a much loved novel at a sitting but that could happen only during immobilisation or a sustained blizzard. (I forgot Apsley Cherry Garrard's "Worst Journey in the World" among revered books. I read it immured by winter storms in my mountain cottage.) Why read a familiar book? To enjoy the technique, the construction, above all the words and their music. The best prose scans.

How often do you read out of your comfort zone?

Read out of my comfort zone? Alas, often; it goes with the territory. The occasional discovery of a gem compensates for the grind.

To what extent does your reading influence your own writing?

Am I influenced by my leisure reading? Certainly, always. It's education, keeping in touch, a way of keeping one's own work up to the mark.

Which book on your shelf would surprise or shock us the most?

"Medical Jurisprudence and Toxicology", the King James Bible, the Book of Common Prayer?

What are you currently reading?

Buchan's "The Three Hostages".

'I picked automatically, thinking about plots and rejection slips, then slipping into a happy daydream of acceptances and money rolling in. We wanted to buy a ketch, but I needed a typewriter and neither of us had any shoes, only climbing boots. We went barefooted.' - Space Below my Feet

How did you keep up your motivation in the face of rejection slips?

There was no conscious effort. I knew (probably from reading of how other writers started) that rejection slips were the norm but I started low: with small magazines but (I realise now) with sensational stuff, milking my bizarre lifestyle. I'd cut my teeth in the school magazine but my first fee came from "Health and Efficiency" about having a baby on a boat. Similar items followed with magazines, working up to the glossies and big money, selling talks to the BBC and broadcasting them in concert intervals. After some years there were no more rejection slips. That decade was my apprenticeship and I was often hungry. Then I wrote the first book – because someone else had been asked to write my story and I had to get in first. To revert to rejection slips and motivation: it was a matter of maths. As acceptances increased, so rejection slips dwindled. The little successes bred success, it was an upward spiral.

Gwen's favourite slide: 'A gorgeous day, probably about 1990 on the Grey Coires', 223 kbGwen's favourite slide: 'A gorgeous day, probably about 1990 on the Grey Coires'
© Moffat Collection

Going back to the poetry in Space. Have you had any poems published, and do you read other people's poetry?

Yes. The great poems are music that sing in the heart. Coleridge, notably "The Ancient Mariner": colour, imagery, despair – the ship becalmed "as idle as a painted ship/Upon a painted ocean." The sheer beauty of Gray's "Elegy", the promise in Clough's "Say not the struggle Naught availeth":

"For while the tired waves, vainly breaking,

Seem here no painful inch to gain,

Far back, through creeks and inlets making,

Comes silent, flooding in, the main."

There is Chesterton's "Lepanto", Tennyson ("La Belle Dame sans Merci"), Noyes' "The Highwayman". The list is endless.

'In the evenings, and in desperation, I turned to the books.' - Space Below my Feet

Who's your favourite non-climbing/mountaineering author?

I don't have a favourite non-mountain author. Probably the ones who had most influence were Kipling and Somerset Maughan.

Who's your favourite mountain literature author? You mention meeting G.Winthrop Young in Space: 'I would have liked to tell him how his book had influenced me recently, but I was too shy.'

The divine Geoffrey, of course.

Were you inspired by any female mountain literature writers? If so, by whom?

No. I read Pilley and admired her but wasn't inspired. Coxhead I found sentimental and had no wish to create a climbing heroine myself. "Hard Option" had a male protagonist, and "The Buckskin Girl" had no pretensions to mainstream fiction, it was an historical romp. (But I loved it. It had the essence of me, disguised: my loves and hates: lovers, horses, beauty, cruelty, intrepid women, battered women, gorgeous men. I revelled in the writing of it and can still cry at one passage but mostly it makes me smile.)

Skye Cottage and Oronsay, 209 kbSkye Cottage and Oronsay
© Moffat Collection

In which direction do you think mountain literature is heading? What do you think people want to read about in climbing and mountaineering these days?

By this you mean the best writing where people have a grounding in correct English, take care with words and communicate simply. Too much current writing is pseudo: transcendental, narcissistic, often careless, sometimes sloppy. The ability to publish one's own stuff, cheaply, to put it on-line with even greater ease, has produced an infinity of DIY authors.

It's a gimmick and one hopes it's cyclical. People will tire of the style when they're hooked on the content. Then they will turn to the proper writers, the authors who could take pride in conveying the essence of mountains without recourse to what was going on inside their heads. We've lost that but it will come back: both the art and the appreciation.

photo
Gwen celebrating her 90th birthday on Great Dodd
© Moffat Collection

The recent film Operation Moffat showcased your life and climbs and your philosophy towards life, and Space Below my Feet was reprinted. How did it feel to know that your writing was reaching a broader audience, over 50 years after it was first published?

First: the 50 years sound like a vacuum but during that time I wrote 34 more books, there are now around 130 editions and reprints. The reaction to yet another "Space Below my Feet" (it was the 8th edition) wasn't breath-taking.

The film was different. Initially it was just more interviews and new friends. The finished product produced surprise, amusement and trepidation, hoping it would do well for the team who are young and starting out. And when it did do well and there was media attention I felt I was a fraud. I was never a great climber (although a good all-round mountaineer) I just did my thing, was healthy enough to live rough; I'd had a superb English teacher - and the timing was fortunate. So I was a fraud with a gift of words. Now I'm more in balance and can acknowledge that there was a niche which I dropped into. I fitted. A job was there and I gravitated. So my current attitude? Content but still working on life.

Nog, the old 'un, 95 kbNog, the old 'un
© Moffat Collection
Cooper, the young 'un, 133 kbCooper, the young 'un
© Moffat Collection

Desert island books - pick some books that give an overview of your life with a short sentence describing why each one was important at each stage. Which one would you take to a desert island?

After Kirkus and Geoffrey it was Murray's "Mountaineering in Scotland" that drew me away from Snowdonia and the Lakes. Raymond Chandler's "The Big Sleep" probably had more influence on my crime writing than Christie. Francis Parkman's "Oregon Trail" lured me to the American West. And all the time, since I discovered her decades ago, Nancy Mitford's "The Pursuit of Love" has lightened bad moods.

On the desert island, if it had to be one book, it would be the Murray.

A luxury item would be a pregnant cat.

What's next on your reading list?

Next on my reading list is Margaret Mead's biography.
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