INTERVIEW: Reading Between the Lines - Ed Douglas

by Natalie Berry - UKC Aug/2017
This article has been read 4,481 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; the extractions from the quotidian that encourage us to reflect on life as we sharpen our political or philosophical beliefs and calibrate our moral compass.

Ed on one of several expeditions to western Nepal, 157 kb
Ed on one of several expeditions to western Nepal
© Ed Douglas

With ample space and time to think, it's no surprise that the most captivating climbing stories are ones that go beyond gear and grades - ideas and commentary on wider society permeate mountain literature. In this 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 of other genres that have informed their thinking and writing.

Ed Douglas' award-winning words have graced the pages of magazines, journals, books, newspapers and many a website over the past 30 years. The breadth and depth of his work - published in both mainstream and climbing media - make Ed a highly respected voice in mountaineering and climbing writing. As a student at Manchester University, Ed launched the popular On the Edge magazine and has since published eight books about climbers, mountains and the stories that surround them. A journalistic eye for detail and a profound interest in the human psyche's complex interaction with the mountains has compelled Ed to write about Himalayan mountaineering's most controversial characters and tragic heroes, alongside some of Britain's rock climbing greats. Ed's ghost-written autobiography of Ron Fawcett, Rock Athlete, won the prestigious Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature in 2010.

photo
Puppet Crack: 'There are amazingly few photos of me climbing. Ray Wood says I’m the world’s worst model.'
© Ray Wood

Ed's latest book, The Magician's Glass - currently shortlisted for the 2017 Boardman Tasker Award - is a collection of eight recent essays exploring the paired themes of talent and tragedy, ambition vs failure, performance vs art and ego vs humility within a wider study of character and fate in the mountaineering world. The eponymous 'magician's glass' refers to that alluded to by Moby Dick's Captain Ahab, when he describes mountains as mirroring back 'to each and every man in turn' their own 'mysterious self.' Ueli Steck, Tomaz Humar and Patrick Edlinger are amongst the personalities diligently analysed in the collection.

Although described by Alpinist Editor Katie Ives in the foreword as 'reticent about himself' as a writer, Ed nonetheless insisted that I include 'some tough ones' with reference to the questions I would send him. What would Ed - typically otherwise engaged in the lives of others - see in his own reflection in the mountains?

'Writers aren't whale hunters. They're more like oysters, filtering the world to make pearls. And mostly failing.'


What was the first book that you ever read?

I have no idea. I remember a lot of bible stories, and war stories. There were comics like The Victor, which were excellent fuel for Viz. I remember reading C S Lewis at primary school, and then J R R Tolkien at around 10 or 11, but haven't looked at either since. By coincidence I was taught English, very well, by Tolkien's grandson, Michael, who retired early to become a fine poet.

You studied English Literature at the University of Manchester. What made you choose this course of study? Was it down to aptitude, interest or having a specific writing career in mind?

I was passionate about writing from a young age, to the extent that it never occurred to me to look for anything else. In retrospect, had there been less of a divide between science and the arts at school, I might have steered sooner in my current direction. Then of course I discovered climbing when I was 15 and became obsessed with that.

Whilst at university you started editing the mountaineering club's magazine, The Edge, which eventually became On the Edge. Was this your first foray into writing about climbing, or did it start at a younger age?

I had written a few things already, clunky pastiches of Jim Perrin, who is a wholly different sort of writer to me, and sent them to Tim Lewis, who was then editing Mountain. To his immense credit and my benefit, he didn't ignore me, or even reject them outright, but took time to point out what was good and what wasn't, and was generally encouraging. Many writers live in an atmosphere of vulnerability, so hearing all of that at a relatively young age was helpful and very welcome. His widow Pat Lewis, who ran a printing firm, rescued me later when I was starting On The Edge.

photo
Ed winning the Boardman Tasker with Ron Fawcett for Rock Athlete, alongside Vertebrate Publishing’s Jon and John.
© Vertebrate Publishing

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

The school library had a few mountaineering books so I imagine it was one of those. I remember Dougal Haston's memoirs, Everest: The Hard Way, that sort of thing. I don't really do favourites, but I do think Joe Tasker's Savage Arena had a direct honesty about it, a kind of plainspoken intelligence that appealed to me.

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

Again, not one but several. I have a shelf of books that are important to me: poetry, essays, novels, travelogues and so forth. If you had to press me, then I'd take The Odyssey, because it's so strange: magical and sad. And it starts so much.

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

There's a cliché that men read more non-fiction as they get older. But I find myself reading as much fiction as ever. Equally, I write non-fiction, and am immensely interested in the world, so why would you not read that too?

On book jury duty at Banff in 2014 with Anik See and David Roberts. , 172 kb
On book jury duty at Banff in 2014 with Anik See and David Roberts.
© Ed Douglas

Which climbing or mountaineering biography or autobiographies have you enjoyed the most and why?

The biography of the 1930s rock climber Menlove Edwards: a highly intelligent, vulnerable and powerful man doing astonishing things, finding a niche for a while and then spinning off into madness. The barriers we put up in our minds rather melt away on a high mountain crag, but you can't stay there forever. The book is compassionate and largely clear-eyed, and of course has that attentive, lyrical style that's the hallmark of Jim Perrin's best writing. I hope, I really do, that society is now a little kinder and Edwards would find the world more tolerant.

'All human lives are interesting at some level, but I find myself drawn to people who are a combination of brilliant and flawed.'

Do you devour books whole or dip in and out of a few? How's your attention span?

Depends on the book. I'm quite laconic, as a person and a writer, but actually I love stylists. I read Colm Tóibín's The Master recently, which is about Henry James, who I adore. That was a case of lingering over something, being immersed in it. To reproduce the innermost thoughts of an imagined mind: that's something. Humans are too complicated to fathom. We frequently lie to ourselves knowing that we do so, while denying to ourselves that we do so. I'm also conscious that complexity can look like pretension, and this is a climbing website, so that's quite enough of that. I love playfulness too. I've just been reading George Saunders' first collection of short stories, Civil-War-Land in Bad Decline. Seriously funny, if you see what I mean. Quirky too.

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At Downing Street for a BMC reception in 2008: 'Clinging on to the stars, which is probably what Ray Wood is saying to me.'
© BMC

You are clearly interested in writing about the lives of others, as many of your books - Tenzing: Hero of Everest, Regions of the Heart, The Magician's Glass to name but a few - are biographical. What do you enjoy about writing biographies, or character portraits? You also seem to focus principally on characters who are/were surrounded by controversy, tragedy or those who are in some way misunderstood. Would that be a fair comment? Is seeking the 'truth' an important part of your writing?

That's totally fair. All human lives are interesting at some level, but I find myself drawn to people who are a combination of brilliant and flawed. Happiness writes white, as the saying goes. I think readers are also drawn towards drama and loss; they're curious about how people cope and react in the face of difficulty, and what draws people to do astonishing things like climbing a hard mountain solo. A lot of climbing journalism now is about how you too can be as good as the heroes. Be careful what you wish for! Sometimes people succeed because they're missing something, not because they have something extra. The truth is usually a lot more slippery than it looks.

From where did your interest in the Himalaya originate?

Good question. If I'm honest, I think my early cultural references, Middle Earth, Chalmun's Cantina on Tatooine in Star Wars, places like that, primed me to look for a literal equivalent, somewhere out of the ordinary, where anything is possible. I'm not the only one to have held such misguided attitudes. The Himalaya has been performing that function for centuries now, and still does, much to the West's immense discredit, although other Asian countries have their own fantasies about the place. I have to say, in my limited and humble experience, discovering the real thing over the past quarter of a century has not been a disappointment, even in these fast-changing times. It feels like I've had a whole other life.

photo
Ed and Mark Twight in Trento, after winning Grand Prize with David Rose for Regions of the Heart
© Ed Douglas

'The turnover of information in the climbing world, as everywhere, keeps getting faster: from expedition websites to blogs to Twitter feeds. Everything becomes condensed, exaggerated, hyper-mediated.' You were founding editor and publisher of On The Edge magazine, founding editor of Mountain Review magazine, a contributing editor to Mountain and associate editor of Climber magazine. On the Edge merged with High Mountain Sports into Climb magazine, which recently ceased print publication to go digital. You commented on Twitter: 'Having started two of the mags folded into Climb magazine I suppose I'll feel sadder than many. But still a shame.' What do you value in print media?' What is lost when a magazine goes online?

First, I like the smell of good paper and ink. It's a physical thing. I do read e-books, but only if it's absolutely necessary: say I'm on a deadline and need to read something too urgently to get the book. Also, I spend a lot of time in the bath. Dropping a book in the bath is not an expensive mistake. We were told that physical books would soon be a thing of the past, but the trend in that direction has bottomed out, for now anyway. But the main point is that climbing magazines are not books. They're journalistic, and the journalism trade has changed dramatically in the last decade or so. Specialist print media in particular has been gutted by the internet in general and Facebook in particular. It was always very hard to earn a living working for climbing magazines, so I don't want to be all misty-eyed about it. Things change and evolve, often into something better. Anyway, my time in that world is over, because I'm old and there are better voices more attuned to what's going on now. But my understanding of climbing was, and is, deepened by reading about it and if there's not enough money around to give good writers the time to work at things, then we will have lost something.

photo
Interviewing Simone Moro for the Observer magazine.
© The Observer Magazine

The Alpine Journal – of which you are also editor – has been digitised in recent years. This is a good example of online media complementing print, and helping to preserve and make history more accessible. Are the stories included different in some way than they were many years ago? What makes the cut these days, in a world obsessed with easily digestible news and sponsored heroes?

The Alpine Club, which took a bit of a kicking over the BMC business, quite unfairly as it happens, deserves a lot of credit for putting the Alpine Journal's back issues online, as do the other clubs that have done this. It's a remarkable archive freely available, and while the process is not yet complete, there are moves afoot to finish the job. I'm really passionate about climbing heritage and appreciate any effort to make it more accessible. As for the Alpine Journal, it's a great privilege, your forebears are often quite something: Leslie Stephen for example. The Journal is split into two halves, essentially: a snapshot of what's being done now, and then reflecting on what's gone before. It's a great place to write about art, literature, history and even science. Mountaineering culture is a substantial thing, and there are some interesting people looking at all that right now: Jonathan Westaway and Abbie Garrington being two examples. If I can get them to write for the Alpine Journal, then I'm very happy, but we don't pay, so it's not easy.

You have also contributed to various newspapers over the years, both in print and online. Have you noticed any changes in the way mountain and climbing writing is received by the mainstream media and readers?

That's true, and a lot of my income has come from that direction over the years, both from outdoor-related stories and more mainstream subjects. It's not something I do much of now. Freelance rates have fallen a long way and there's no real appetite among editors for getting properly to grips with climbing as it is, rather than the popular perception. There's only so much you can write about what a fuck-up Everest is. Climbing is fun and can be genuinely inspiring, yet the mood in the media now is to see it as some kind of consumerist dystopia. George Saunders could write a good short story about it. Unless you're an American on a big wall in Yosemite, of course, and then the BBC go all gooey eyed.

Ed training for the Matterhorn on the Riffelhorn, during the 150th anniversary of the first ascent, for the Financial Times., 148 kb
Ed training for the Matterhorn on the Riffelhorn, during the 150th anniversary of the first ascent, for the Financial Times.
© Alex Messenger

'I can't remember when I started working for American outdoor magazines, but a few years ago, not altogether consciously, I began to do a lot more of it, most probably because I adore and prefer long-form journalism and that was something increasingly difficult to do in Britain for specialist audiences.' - The Magician's Glass. Why do you think long-form is something that's difficult to do in Britain? Lack of interest/stories/subjects?

There are plenty of stories and subjects. Is there an interest? I hope so. I'm very aware that many young creative types who take climbing as their subject are more interested in making films now. This book of essays will sell a few hundred copies, whereas a climbing film will tour the world and be seen by hundreds of thousands. That was part of the reason that I worked on a film with Ray Wood recently, about climbing in the West Bank. It comes down to money. I earn enough to survive and feel lucky to do so, but the truth is a 5,000 word or 10,000-word article takes time and doesn't always work well online. I want to dig down into stories, try and capture their complexity; these are not quick hits. The market for that is smaller here than in the US. Also, as I explained in the book's acknowledgements, the editors I've worked with in the States, Katie Ives, Alison Osius and so on, are a joy. I love climbing essays; I grew up reading Jim Perrin, David Roberts and so on. Menlove Edwards wrote some extraordinary pieces. Paul Pritchard from a later generation. It's a form that lends itself to rock climbing in particular.

Do you think there is an appetite for a different sort of print publication, something like Alpinist – a quarterly/biannual, coffee-table quality magazine in the UK?

Possibly. Something like Rouleur? But magazines are a young person's game, I think. They take a lot of energy and focus.

You have mentioned the lack of female voices in mountain literature, from books to online articles and essays. Have you noticed any trends or patterns in women's involvement over the years? Has online media encouraged or discouraged female writers, in your eyes?

Not just women, but a range of voices, have often been absent. I sense things are improving. I sometimes say, presumptuously, that I'm trying as an editor to encourage female voices, but it's a lot more complicated than merely sounding positive. It comes down to having a range of editors, and I'm happy to see that's currently more the case. As a reader, I want to hear from perspectives that are different from my own, how the lives of others intersect with my experience, and how they contrast. Diversity is inherently interesting. I don't want to read the same stories again and again. Of course, there will be a few older women rolling their eyes, because there have been strong female voices from the start of alpinism, Dorothy Pilley, Gwen Moffat and so on. My bigger concern is that while climbing used to be a bit of a social melting pot it's reverted to being for the more affluent only. But maybe I'm wrong about that.

'I've spent a lot of my life writing about immensely talented people or very grand ideas, both in climbing and in the world beyond. After a while you forget that how you see the world may have some value.'

In The Magician's Glass, you mention 'the story of modern alpinism and its fraught relationship with the media, which it both needs but often despises.' How do you see the media – both climbing and mainstream, as well as social media – shaping modern alpinism? Are chosen objectives being influenced by the reaction they might receive post-climb, rather than climbers simply choosing to do it for the experience itself – more so than in the past?

So much of climbing media now revolves around performance and gear: numbers, essentially. The strapline on a magazine 'Ten ways to climb two grades harder' is going to sell way more magazines than me waffling on. I'm very conscious of living on the margins of what is regarded as a marginal activity. Those alpinists and climbers who understand how social media works and have the energy to engage with it will do better from sponsorship than those who don't, which seems wrong somehow. Personally, I find all that stuff rather antiseptic and self-congratulatory. The last printed issue of Climb had a great Q&A with Caff. You can't fake that stuff. I've no doubt at some level all that will continue because it's got such intrinsic value as an experience. The consumer lifestyle stuff? Meh.

photo
The Magician's Glass
© Vertebrate Publishing

Sixteen years ago in a UKC interview about Alison Hargreaves, you said: 'My kind of climbing still exists and probably always will do and I feel pretty optimistic about things. It disturbed me at one stage that the things I cared about were too difficult or non-commercial to survive, but now I realise that the commercial stuff will have to prove itself or it will die.' What exactly were you referring to as your 'kind' of climbing, and has your optimism proved correct, in your opinion?

Yes, that does sound rather pompous. I refer you to my previous answer. I don't know Caff, but I suspect he's doing what he does because he feels it viscerally and can do no other, as someone once said. The game is still there and for those who can be bothered it's immensely compelling. It's beyond fashion and the reward is beyond money. I'm a very average climber but the pleasure I get from trad or being in the mountains has always been more nourishing and the difficulties more absorbing than fast hits. But each to their own.

You are interested in the theme of performance versus art in climbing, which is the subject of 'Lines of Beauty: The Art of Climbing', the final essay in The Magician's Glass: 'That's what I want to capture, the art of climbing, the spark of creativity, the shift in perspective that changes the way you - and others - view the world.' It seems that your deepest reflections on why you climb came with age. Do you consider your writing as your own personal art form, something that has forced you to study mountains, their history and the lives of the people who climb them with 'an attentiveness to the world outside your own story'?

Writing has always been a way for me to engage with the world, reflect on it and organise my thoughts. As you point out, I've generally been writing about other people, because a lot of my career has been in journalism. I think in the last few years I've had a bit more time and space to develop my own perspective. I've spent a lot of my life writing about immensely talented people or very grand ideas, both in climbing and in the world beyond, and after a while you forget that how you see the world may have some value. That's what I'm trying to find out now.

Are you still climbing regularly? Is the relationship between your climbing and writing symbiotic – does one inspire the other?

Yes to the first question, it's like a wonderful unrequited love affair, although this year work has rather taken over. Climbing for me has always been the starting point in experiencing nature. I do think nature and my responses to it are at the heart of what I do and who I am. The older I get the more deeply I feel that. I'll be at The Works every week, sometimes twice, but I'm outside every day doing something. It's good for my psychological health. How we connect, or don't, to the living world seems to me one of the most pressing issues of our times.

Ed in his role as Vice President of the BMC at an AGM with Scott Titt and Dave Turnbull in 2012., 211 kb
Ed in his role as Vice President of the BMC at an AGM with Scott Titt and Dave Turnbull in 2012.
© BMC

You acknowledge the late Ken Wilson in The Magician's Glass as 'a great mentor, sometimes against [your] will.' What was his influence on you as an editor?

His energy more than anything. His enthusiasm. We actually shared the same birthday and were born in the same hospital. A bit spooky. He was very rumbustious, a very different person to me, but he could be quite vulnerable too. It can be a lonely job. He was respectful, made sure he did right by the material he had; you would be amazed at how uncommon that is, even in climbing.

Environmental writing could be considered one of the most important themes of today. You regularly contribute to The Guardian's Country Diary. What do you hope to achieve through writing on this topic? Are people reading, and are they listening? Nature writing seems like it's one of few areas untouched by fake news, ego or hyperbole at the moment.

There's a streak of overselling in the current flourishing of nature writing. If I see the word 'wild' once more in a book title, I shall sprain something. There are two approaches, one that is actually about nature, writers like Barry Lopez or Mark Cocker, and one that is autobiographical through the perspective of nature. One of the biggest influences on me as a writer has been my wife, who has been a New Scientist features editor for 25 years specialising in fields like evolution and ecology. She won't let me get too self-indulgent. But you're right: if you love the natural world, then you cannot help but recognise that you inhabit a world of near-constant loss.

If you could invite two climbing authors to dinner, dead or alive, who would they be and why?

I never met Kevin FitzGerald and would like to have done: a bibliophile, a haphazard climber and a great dinner guest. His memoir With O'Leary in the Grave has one of the best opening lines of a book I can remember. ('My father was usually a rich man.') And the alpinist Katy Richardson, because I suspect she would have a beautiful story to tell and I would love to hear it: she's the book we're missing. And Fred Mummery, because he was a truly original economic thinker and his My Climbs in the Alps and Caucasus is good fun. So three please. Bit of a party.

Ed deep in conversation with Nick Bullock while on assignment for The Times, flying straight up to Annapurna III base camp. , 173 kb
Ed deep in conversation with Nick Bullock while on assignment for The Times, flying straight up to Annapurna III base camp.
© The Times

How often do you read out of your comfort zone?

What else is reading for? I've been reading a lot of Nepali fiction lately, written in English: Prawin Adkhikari and Manju Thapa in particular. Fabulous. But then I read to escape too. I'm a journo, so Scoop makes me laugh.

To what extent does your day-to-day reading influence your own writing?

Dermot Somers once told me that if you don't direct your reading, your mind will be filled for you with whatever's around. Wise words.

Desert island books: pick six books that give an overview of your life with a short sentence describing why each one was important at each stage.

I read Crime and Punishment during my first season in the Alps, in case any clever girls watching in the Bar National would take pity on a spotty 17-year-old, which, amazingly, they didn't. Jim Perrin put me on to Richard Lattimore's translation of The Odyssey, which is always close at hand. I met Jim when I was 21 and he was celebrating his 40th birthday. He encouraged me to read Hazlitt and Montaigne, which I did. Sarah Bakewell's book How to Live is all about Montaigne and a delight to me. Michael Tolkien taught me T S Eliot's The Waste Land and I can still hear him pronouncing 'Madame Sosostris' in an outlandish eastern European accent. I'd have to have The Ambassadors, my favourite Henry James novel, which I studied first at Manchester. And I'd take Annie Dillard's The Writing Life, because she's so full of energy and optimism, while being clear-eyed about life, and I might learn something.

Which one would you take to a desert island?

What else would you read on a desert island? The Odyssey. While eating lotus.

Ok, you can take a luxury item too...what would that be?

Every six weeks I get a brown paper package from London full of coffee beans. I would wish that to continue.

What are you currently reading?

Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance.

What's next on your reading list?

I'm writing a weighty tome about the Himalaya right now, so have shelves of books to get through. In the evenings I'll be back to fiction.

Finally, you quote Captain Ahab from Herman Melville's Moby Dick as an epigraph to The Magician's Glass: 'There's something ever egotistical in mountaintops and towers, and all other grand and lofty things...which, like a magician's glass, to each and every man in turn but mirrors back his own mysterious self.' What do you see/have you seen in the mirror? What is the most important thing that the mountains have taught you about yourself?

I think, by and large, I've avoided looking too closely in mirrors. There's a bit of Prufrock about me. Climbing was about losing myself in a kind of unselfconscious bliss. Writers aren't whale hunters. They're more like oysters, filtering the world to make pearls. And mostly failing.

The Magician's Glass, 143 kb
The Magician's Glass
© Vertebrate Publishing
The Magician's Glass is available to buy here. Stay tuned for a UKC review coming soon. Vertebrate Publishing say:

'The Magician's Glass by award-winning writer Ed Douglas is a collection of eight recent essays on some of the biggest stories and best-known personalities in the world of climbing.

In the title essay, he writes about failure on Annapurna III in 1981, one of the boldest attempts in Himalayan mountaineering on one of the most beautiful lines – a line that remains unclimbed to this day.

Douglas writes about bitter controversies, like that surrounding Ueli Steck's disputed solo ascent of the south face of Annapurna, the fate of Toni Egger on Cerro Torre in 1959 – when Cesare Maestri claimed the pair had made the first ascent, and the rise and fall of Slovenian ace Tomaz Humar. There are profiles of two stars of the 1980s: the much-loved German Kurt Albert, the father of the 'redpoint', and the enigmatic rock star Patrick Edlinger, a national hero in his native France who lost his way.

In Crazy Wisdom, Douglas offers fresh perspectives on the impact mountaineering has on local communities and the role climbers play in the developing world. The final essay explores the relationship between art and alpinism as a way of understanding why it is that people climb mountains.'

Kendal Mountain Festival, 139 kb
Kendal Mountain Festival 2017

Kendal Mountain Festival is an award-winning event that has grown in size and diversity over the last 17 years. It is also the main social event for outdoor enthusiasts in the UK. Thousands of outdoor enthusiasts plus media industry specialists, athletes, top brands & equipment manufacturers, artists, photographers, adventurers, explorers and inspirational speakers gather every year to share adventures and celebrate the very best in outdoor and adventure sports culture.

We are delighted to be joined by award-winning writer Ed Douglas at the Festival, expect to be captivated by his exploration of the world's best known climbers. Ed will be discussing The Magician's Glass at an event on Sunday 19th November 10:30 - 12:00.

- Book tickets on the KENDAL MOUNTAIN FESTIVAL SITE

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