UKC

Climbers

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 Flinticus 16 Sep 2021

Looking into The Culture brings me to the Culture section of a climbing site to ask about a book on climbing...WTF

Was looking into a thread on reddit about whether any author had produced stories set in Ian M Banks' Culture universe. Seems not but noticed a recommendation for Light by M John Harrison.

Off to dig out my Kindle and download the book  Then see from Google he wrote a seemingly well received book, about a guy who takes up climbing, called Climbers. 

So.. anyone read and recommend this? Interested in the views of actual climbers, not just Goodyear reviewers.

In reply to Flinticus:

When I started climbing (1990/1-ish) it seemed to be often mentioned in the magazines. I haven't read it but it's meant to be really good I thought. Then again I've read other supposedly great works of climbing literature that I found a bit boring, so who knows - give it a whirl and report back!

In reply to Flinticus:

Macfarlane loved it and he knows a bit about climbing and writing. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/may/10/robert-macfarlane-rereading-climbers 

 Doug 16 Sep 2021
In reply to Flinticus:

Fairly sure its been discussed on here at least once over the years. I read it not long after it was published & thought it was a good read.

 Richard J 16 Sep 2021
In reply to Flinticus:

I think Climbers is a great book, both in the accuracy of its picture of the Peak climbing scene in the late 70's, early 80's, and as a fine novel in its own right.  It's not an enormously cheerful book, and the characters don't emerge as particularly heroic figures (probably why they seem so true to life).  But the writing is beautiful and its descriptions of the landscapes of the Peak and its urban fringes in the turning seasons are hugely evocative.  I think the construction of the book is formally very clever; you don't notice the important pivot points of the plot until long after they've gone past, much like life really.  Harrison was very much immersed in the climbing scene at the time, hence the book's technical accuracy in talking about climbs and climbing.

Harrison is still writing and, indeed, having some (well-deserved) late career success - 

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/nov/11/a-literary-masterpiece-m-john-harrison-wins-goldsmiths-prize-for-innovative-fiction

 bruxist 16 Sep 2021
In reply to Flinticus:

It's a great novel. By 'great' I mean what he does with the novel form is on a par with the great novelists.

It's as well to say, it's not a book about climbing. I don't think any novel could do that purely. The title Climbers is precise: it's a book about people who climb, their human weaknesses and motivations, the ways they relate to each other, the bonds they form and break, their attitudes towards death.

If you're not used to reading literary novels - I think of Zola, Dreiser, Camus, Ballard as bearing a family relation to Harrison - then make sure you get the edition with Macfarlane's intro. The novel's perfectly straightforward to read, and very enjoyable, but if you then read the intro afterwards you'll latch on to how multilayered it was, and how you missed a whole dimension of meaning on first reading, and you'll want to read it again.

 kmsands 16 Sep 2021
In reply to Flinticus:

I read it earlier this year. It's a brilliant novel, full stop - not just a brilliant novel about climbing. It's set in the dole & climbing culture of the mid 80s and he obviously knew that world well. It's pretty bleak, and plays some really unsettling narrative tricks on you... I can't recommend it enough.

 Stichtplate 16 Sep 2021
In reply to Flinticus:

Gritty, kitchen sink drama. Well written and a pretty accurate representation of the late 80s scene. Saying that,  it’s near on 30 years since I read it.

I think I’ll give it another go (once The Dog’s done with it).


In reply to TobyA:

> Macfarlane loved it and he knows a bit about climbing and writing. 

He might well, but I read (or rather tried to read) his introduction to Jan Shepherd’s “The Living Mountain” and I don’t think I’ve ever read anything as pretentious. 

I have a copy of “Climbers” and read it shortly after it was published, I dare say it’s a good read but I felt uncomfortable with it, knowing some of the people he’d based his characters on. 

 kmsands 16 Sep 2021
In reply to Flinticus:

Also, on the BBC Sounds app, there's a programme called "A Good Read" where Helen Mort talks about "Climbers" with some other writers. It's Mort's favourite book, I think, and her own (good) climbing novel "Black Car Burning" is influenced by it.

 DaveHK 16 Sep 2021
In reply to Mark Kemball:

> He might well, but I read (or rather tried to read) his introduction to Jan Shepherd’s “The Living Mountain” and I don’t think I’ve ever read anything as pretentious. 

2nd that. I thought it was awful and it put me off reading anything else by him. I'm building up to giving him a second chance on the basis of enthusiastic recommendations by people whose opinion I respect but that's taken a while.

 steveriley 16 Sep 2021
In reply to kmsands:

Funnily enough I felt Black Car Burning picked up some of the Climbers vibe, albeit 30y moved on. Made me pledge to reread the older book. Meanwhile I’m faffing with my phone as per, failing on broader resolution to ‘read more’. I will though, really.

In reply to Flinticus:

One more enthusiastic recommendation for Climbers: it's an engrossing novel by a genuinely original stylist. Brilliantly captures the mania and obsession that climbing can become for some of us at times. Unsettling and memorable. 

Post edited at 22:24
 Sir Chasm 16 Sep 2021
In reply to Flinticus:

> So.. anyone read and recommend this? 

Yes, but it's grim and depressing, so no I don't recommend it.

In reply to Flinticus:

I found it almost unreadable. I'm not sure I even finished it (and I very rarely fail to finish a book). It was decades ago, so maybe I should try again.

In reply to Sir Chasm:

> Yes, but it's grim and depressing, so no I don't recommend it.

Yes, that's how I remember it; devoid of the joy of climbing.

In reply to Mark Kemball:

> He might well, but I read (or rather tried to read) his introduction to Jan Shepherd’s “The Living Mountain” and I don’t think I’ve ever read anything as pretentious. 

I've not read that introduction, but he did a really wonderful TV programme about the book and his "The Wild Places" is one of the few genuinely life changing books I have read. But I thought "Mountains of the Mind" was tedious and unoriginal.

In reply to Robert Durran:

> Yes, that's how I remember it; devoid of the joy of climbing.

This is certainly one of the criticisms that's been levelled at it. I think Harrison is far more interested in climbing's intensity rather than its joy, and many of the characters are alienated from normal society in various ways. I don't think this in any way diminishes it as a novel - but anyone looking for upbeat happy endings would do best to avoid. 

Post edited at 23:18
In reply to Andy Clarke:

> This is certainly one of the criticisms that's been levelled at it. I think Harrison is far more interested in climbing's intensity rather than its joy, and many of the characters are alienated from normal society in various ways. I don't think this in any way diminishes it as a novel - but anyone looking for upbeat happy endings would do best to avoid. 

Fair enough, but I just found it turgid. I've just taken it off my shelf and shall try again when I have finished David Roberts' extraordinary The Ridge Between Life And Death.

Post edited at 23:48
 Stopsy 16 Sep 2021
In reply to Flinticus:

Thank you for bringing this to my attention. Looking forward to reading it. It certainly seems intriguing!

 Bob Kemp 17 Sep 2021
In reply to Robert Durran:

I can understand criticism on the basis of the book being dour or depressing, although I personally think it's too rich and vital to be genuinely depressing. But I'm surprised you found it turgid. If anything it's a triumph of compression. There's no slack, no unnecessary wordage. At sentence level the writing is precise and compact, whether describing landscape, climbing or psychological states. 

In reply to Bob Kemp:

> But I'm surprised you found it turgid. 

Maybe turgid is not the right word; it was a long time ago. 

In reply to Flinticus:

Just started reading it yesterday (read the intro by by Robert Macfarlane so far) following a recommendation from a non-climbing friend.

 Jon Read 17 Sep 2021
In reply to Flinticus:

If memory serves, John Harrison ghost wrote Fawcett on Rock too.

Edit: just checked, it seems to be a Mike Harrison -- why do I think it's the same person?

Post edited at 09:26
 Richard J 17 Sep 2021
In reply to Jon Read:

You’re right, it was the same M (for Mike) John Harrison who ghost wrote Fawcett on Rock.  

In reply to Jon Read:

M. John Harrison (M is for Mike). Interestingly the lead character in "Climbers" is called Mike and there is reckoned to be an Autobiographical element to the book.

 Mick Ward 17 Sep 2021
In reply to Robert Durran:

> Yes, that's how I remember it; devoid of the joy of climbing.

That was exactly my problem with it. I was pretty active in the Peak around this time and, although things were grim (Thatcherism), there was still fun, laughter, joy in being out with your mates and struggling on routes. Otherwise I simply wouldn't have gone climbing. Better by far to be up on the moors on your own.

Clearly Harrison was (and probably still is) a highly talented writer. But, in terms of depicting the human condition, I found it hopelessly unbalanced. It takes its place with Down and Out in London and Paris and Dirty White Boys in a trilogy of the most depressing books I've ever read. (Perhaps in each case, the author was pushing an agenda too hard?)

By contrast, I loved Black Car Burning - although I still feel that the best novel I've ever read about climbers (not climbing, per se) is Electric Brae. This aches to be filmed. As with le Carre, it starts from the edge of the circle and, with a terrible slowness, starts to spiral in. By the time you've realised what's happening, it's far too late. All you can do is watch in horrified fascination. Although Electric Brae is dark (my God it's dark!), it hasn't got the unrelieved grimness of Climbers which was simply too much for me.

And an honourable mention for Take it to the Limit. The first few chapters are beautifully done, particularly when they go to Hoy. With all it's faults, it's still for me the best novel about climbing. Best mates, deadly rivals, eternal triangle. Been there. Got the scars.

Mick

 Tony Buckley 17 Sep 2021
In reply to Flinticus:

I've read it.  It's most notable for being a book about climbers; that's all, for me at least.

Otherwise, didn't think much of it.  Don't remember it as being a good tale well told and would only recommend it as being, now, something of a period piece.

T.

 C Witter 17 Sep 2021
In reply to steveriley:

> Funnily enough I felt Black Car Burning picked up some of the Climbers vibe, albeit 30y moved on. Made me pledge to reread the older book. Meanwhile I’m faffing with my phone as per, failing on broader resolution to ‘read more’. I will though, really.

In an interview somewhere (probably UKC), Helen Mort cited Climbers as one of her favourite novels. So, I think you're correct that this was an influence on BCB.

Personally, I think Climbers is worth reading, if nothing else, for the evocation of being dragged to a department store cafe on a rainy day. There's a strong argument to be made that it is a "working-class pastoral" novel, intimately concerned with the people, places and texture of everyday life.

 Tony Buckley 17 Sep 2021
In reply to Robert Durran:

> I thought "Mountains of the Mind" was tedious and unoriginal.

You and me both.  Jejune.

T.

In reply to Mick Ward:

Your Experience of it echoes mine; there was no reflection of the fun and community of climbing at that time.  A very unsatisfying book.

 bruxist 17 Sep 2021
In reply to Andy Clarke and thread:

> I think Harrison is far more interested in climbing's intensity rather than its joy

Quite. I doubt any reader could get anything much out of the novel without grasping this.

Many of these criticisms - that it's grim, or depressing, or devoid of joy - aren't criticisms at all in the proper sense, i.e. they don't tell us anything about the novel, but only about the particular reader, insofar as they give us a clue as to what kind of personal difficulty that reader has that inhibits their ability to comprehend what they're reading properly.

For those who've found Climbers depressing, I'd say that's actually quite a promising initial response. It's not indifference, or boredom; it's an emotional reaction that indicates some depth felt but not understood. One of the clever things about the novel is that it's constantly prodding you to question the emotional reaction it's trying to generate in you by, for example, gliding past the death of a central character. What happened? Why did they suddenly vanish from the world of this novel? Why aren't they mentioned ever again?

Such reactions do give an idea of what personal presuppositions are getting in the way of appreciation: in this case it's probably what Richards called mnemonic irrelevances, as so many readers may have specific personal experiences of climbing, are not really interested in what Harrison has written, and are only looking for some sort of reflection or validation of their own memories. In other words, they judge the novel against another entirely imaginary novel that the author didn't write, and fail to see what's right in front of them. The best novels do tend to shake the reader's comfortable assumptions a bit. Anything else is just tummy-tickling in prose.

> anyone looking for upbeat happy endings would do best to avoid. 

Somewhere on the internet used to be the unfortunately-named Happy Endings Foundation, which was not a knocking shop in SE Asia, but an American religious foundation dedicated to campaigning for classic novels to be republished with newly-written upbeat endings.

E.g. Sydney Carton, at the end of A Tale of Two Cities, is not executed but escapes the guillotine; his speech "It is a far, far better thing that I do" is never made; and they all live happily ever after.

I always hoped the Happy Endings Foundation was a clever parody of readers who don't really like reading books and would prefer all art eviscerated and turned into a sort of comfortable Disney taxidermy. But I have the nagging fear that they were and are real.

In reply to bruxist:

Bloody hell! And somebody said that Macfarlane was pretentious!

 bruxist 17 Sep 2021
In reply to Robert Durran:

'Pretentious' is interesting, too, as a stock response; also one of the standard categories of misreading that critics often have to deal with.

In reply to bruxist:

> 'Pretentious' is interesting, too, as a stock response; also one of the standard categories of misreading that critics often have to deal with.

I agree. It annoys me when people describe Macfarlane as pretentious. I shall reserve further judgement on Climbers until I have reread it. I shall be interested in whether there is anything of the joy of climbing in it, however tangential.

 Bob Kemp 17 Sep 2021
In reply to bruxist:

Stephen Poole, in a review of Dan Fox's book Pretentiousness for the Guardian does a  fairly succinct demolition job on the use of 'pretentious'. 

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/feb/11/pretentiousness-why-it-matters-dan-fox-review

In reply to Robert Durran:

I really wouldn’t waste your time. I found it disappointing as a book regardless of the use of climbing as a vehicle. Shortly afterwards I read the Magus; a challenging book in many respects, but one that at least made me think.

 Richard J 17 Sep 2021
In reply to Robert Durran:

I do think amidst the bleakness the book does convey those moments of joy in climbing and (perhaps even more) in being present in the landscape, sometimes transient but no less intense for that.  But it's worth bearing in mind Bob Kemp's very perceptive comment above; the writing is so compact that this is often  conveyed in just a few words.  The other thing I'd say to those who think the book is just too bleak, is that in many places I think it really is very funny, albeit in a black kind of way.  Anyway, in a literary universe that contains "Jude the Obscure" I find it difficult to understand Mick's opinion that it's in the top three depressing books of all time.  But everyone will have a different reaction.  

In reply to C Witter:

> In an interview somewhere (probably UKC), Helen Mort cited Climbers as one of her favourite novels. So, I think you're correct that this was an influence on BCB.

Helen was heavily influenced by Climbers, she gave me a copy some years before starting work on BCB.

 C Witter 17 Sep 2021
In reply to Robert Durran:

> I agree. It annoys me when people describe Macfarlane as pretentious. I shall reserve further judgement on Climbers until I have reread it. I shall be interested in whether there is anything of the joy of climbing in it, however tangential.

Who said that "the joy of climbing" was either the aim of the novel or something we desperately need to read about?

Although... wasn't The Joy of Climbing a hit book in the early 1970s? Or am I misremembering...? I'm sure you can correct me.

Post edited at 23:21
 C Witter 17 Sep 2021
In reply to Jon Read:

I think it is! Mike John Harrison, right?

In reply to Mick Ward:

Ooh, thanks Mick.  Summit Fever is one of my favourites, I'll give Electric Brae a whirl.

In reply to C Witter:

> Although... wasn't The Joy of Climbing a hit book in the early 1970s? Or am I misremembering...? 

You may be thinking of The Joy of Ticks, which was a surprisingly popular analysis of the psychological deficiencies which drive many climbers to record obsessively every detail of their struggles with the recalcitrant rocky world.

Post edited at 23:34
 C Witter 17 Sep 2021
In reply to Andy Clarke:

Sounds unlikely. I can't imagine people obsessively recording details of their climbs, e.g. on some sort of oversized database of global climbing routes. You'd have to be particularly sex-starved to engage in such elaborate forms of sublimation.

In reply to bruxist

> I always hoped the Happy Endings Foundation was a clever parody of readers who don't really like reading books and would prefer all art eviscerated and turned into a sort of comfortable Disney taxidermy. But I have the nagging fear that they were and are real.

One of their founder members may well have been Nahum Tate, who rewrote the ending of Shakespeare's tragedy King Lear so that Lear gets the kingdom back and Cordelia and Edgar get all loved up. This remained the most popular and performed version for many decades. I think it was called The Joy of Kinging.

In reply to C Witter:

> Who said that "the joy of climbing" was either the aim of the novel or something we desperately need to read about?

It doesn't have to be, but, from memory, its lack was one of the things which made the book unrelentingly unappealing and unauthentic to me when I read it many years ago. Who knows, I may love it second time round.

In reply to HighChilternRidge:

> I really wouldn’t waste your time. I found it disappointing as a book regardless of the use of climbing as a vehicle. Shortly afterwards I read the Magus; a challenging book in many respects, but one that at least made me think.

Funnily enough, The Magus is one of the few books I have read twice. Probably a bit of an adolescent thing though - I'm not sure I would enjoy it so much now though. 

 ivysicily 18 Sep 2021
In reply to Flinticus:

I have heard of it, it is a good book worth recommending, maybe you can give it a try!

In reply to Flinticus:

It is quite grim, but then most of his work is.

Even if you don’t like the story, his writing is great.

Maybe try “signs of life” a good collection of short stories, which has a climbing focussed one IIRC

 Bob Kemp 18 Sep 2021
In reply to Dr.S at work:

Signs of Life is one of his novels - well worth reading. I think you may be thinking of Things that Never Happen, which is a very good collection of his earlier short stories. That has several stories that involve climbing or climbing locations- you'll never look at Pavey Ark in the same way again after reading 'Running Down'.

 Bob Kemp 18 Sep 2021
In reply to Robert Durran:

If you found the book inauthentic I suspect you never spent much time hanging around the Pennine crags and quarries on the miserable days when the clouds lowered and mist dampened your face and the holds, and you stumbled over the dirt and the debris wondering if it was time to sack it off and retreat to the nearest cafe! 

In reply to Robert Durran:

I read it a second time just to make sure it was as strange as I thought.

In reply to Bob Kemp:

Ah yes, of course! 
 

his climbing background shows through in a few books - there is a great description of a climb in one of the Viriconium books.

I think John Meany must also climb - his SF work has some climbing ( and also a good Banks sub for the OP)

 steveriley 18 Sep 2021
In reply to Flinticus:

I’ve just poked through my bookshelves to retrieve and interested to read again. It’s a grubby, dark, witty book. It’s a celebration of northern life, but not a celebration of climbing. Expecting it to be everything you love about climbing is kind of missing the point. This is stepping over nappies to get to a quarried Lancs quarry crack rather than sunset in the peak with Sibelius playing in your head. More Standedge than Stanage. I love the fact he talks about routes I’ve done, A roads I’ve faffed on but that just helps ground it and resonate. The Climbing’s a vehicle but not the point of the book. 

Those dry witted introverts of the book are still out there doing it, now pushing 70. Loving climbing but not doing much hashtagging on Instagram. Though funnily enough MJH is pretty active on the Twitter. 

I retrospectively recognised one person flicking through (used to be busy on here) and I take the point I might feel differently about the book if I felt a mate were being done over.

 aln 18 Sep 2021
In reply to Richard J:

> I think Climbers is a great book, both in the accuracy of its picture of the Peak climbing scene in the late 70's, early 80's, and as a fine novel in its own right.  It's not an enormously cheerful book, and the characters don't emerge as particularly heroic figures (probably why they seem so true to life).  But the writing is beautiful and its descriptions of the landscapes of the Peak and its urban fringes in the turning seasons are hugely evocative.  I think the construction of the book is formally very clever; you don't notice the important pivot points of the plot until long after they've gone past, much like life really.  Harrison was very much immersed in the climbing scene at the time, hence the book's technical accuracy in talking about climbs and climbing.

> Harrison is still writing and, indeed, having some (well-deserved) late career success - 

I pretty much concur with all of the above. Light is also fantastic, in my top 10 sci fi novels list. In fact it's in my top 10 any novels list. 

 bruxist 18 Sep 2021
In reply to C Witter:

> There's a strong argument to be made that it is a "working-class pastoral" novel, intimately concerned with the people, places and texture of everyday life.

That's a great point. I hadn't thought of connecting the things that are intentionally missing in Climbers with that tradition, but now you've made me think of Henry Green's Living - an equally compressed, terse tale (even if Green wasn't really of the same class as that he wrote about).

 C Witter 19 Sep 2021
In reply to bruxist:

Thanks! I was connecting it with ideas expressed here, re: NY Lower East Side working-class writers: https://www.jstor.org/stable/26920344

Post edited at 17:49
 Lankyman 19 Sep 2021
In reply to ivysicily:

> I have heard of it, it is a good book worth recommending, maybe you can give it a try!

Yes, the rest of the 'Janet and John' series is excellent too

 bruxist 19 Sep 2021
In reply to C Witter:

Ah, excellent. Have downloaded & will read later this week. I've taught Paley as part of courses on '30s US Lit, so that's a most fortuitous link!

In reply to Flinticus:

Well, as I mentioned earlier in the thread, I had started reading “Climbers” almost to the day that this was first posted. Being a slow reader with limited reading time (lunch breaks at work is about it at the moment) I have only just finished it.

I have to say I enjoyed it a lot. I had been warned that it could be a ‘bit bleak’ but perhaps because of that warning, I didn’t find it so. There were some very funny bits in it and I found the descriptions of places I knew pretty well and it was superbly evocative of the time.


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