In reply to
< Apologies, meant to write this and add it several days ago but life got in the way. >
Other Men’s Flowers
Some further, probably last thoughts from me, mostly deriving from other people’s observations. ‘I have gathered a posie of other men’s flowers and nothing but the thread that binds them is my own.’ (Montaigne)
More than a week ago, Paul in Sheffield gave us a crucial insight, the one which had effortlessly eluded me for four decades. ‘If you blur out the EBs and 70s gear from the last three pictures, his body positions look very much like a boulderer in the modern idiom.’ That’s exactly what they’re like!
The frog position on Wall of Horrors, the very high heel/toe jam on Jokers Wall and the heel hook on the Mountain front cover shot of Encore were radical departures from almost 100 years of British rock climbing.
As with most people who started climbing in the 60s, I plodded around the hills for years in big mountaineering boots. Outcrops were practice for rock climbing; rock climbing was practice for mountaineering. That’s the way it was.
But that’s the way it wasn’t for John. He did something which is commonplace now but radical then. He started climbing at a climbing wall! Because he wasn’t constrained by all that plodding around in big boots, he could get good fast - and he did. The Leeds uni wall was the right place at the right time - a crucible of talent. Gymnastic ability, suppleness, dedication, peer-group competitiveness and support all fused.
When I saw John Syrett climbing on grit and sandstone, I couldn’t understand his style – dynamic, eclectic, flowing. I was looking for efficiency; what I was seeing was genius. I just didn’t get it.
But, with Paul’s crucial insight, suddenly it’s obvious. Think of a modern bouldering comp with all those volumes, forcing a gymnastic, dynamic, three-dimensional style. John Syrett had that immensely creative style characteristic of modern climbers – but he had it 45 years ago.
The very high foot move on Jokers Wall is the precursor to the ridiculously high foot move on Braille Trail Direct. The padding of the boulders below Propellor Wall is the precursor to pads. John’s purist approach is the precursor to our contemporary ground-up ethic.
Without the tendon injury, what might he have done? Certainly many of the Allen/Bancroft routes such as Profit and Nectar. (All that suppleness… he was made for them!) Probably many of the Dawes routes (inspired body positions, coolness under pressure). Maybe Midnight Lightning. Possibly, just possibly, Changing Corners. If there’s a pitch on the entire planet sculpted for his unique genius, it’s probably Changing Corners.
But none of this was to be. Within two years of John’s accident, there was a slew of first ascents that he’d missed out on. Then there were more… and more…. and more. It must have been galling for him.
He splinted his fingers together and carried on as best he could. But there were probably too many factors against him. As Gordon wrote, ‘He was a very unusual character, mysterious, mercurial, intense and a kind of ‘purist’ in everything he did. Didn’t get on too well with many aspects of the modern world. A complete one-off. And a massively talented climber. A very nice person indeed.’
We inhabit a world which is often uncaring of talent, dismissive of genius. For people who are different in any way, it can be hard to fit in. ‘They hate you if you’re clever and they despise a fool.’ (Lennon) If you don’t fit in, life can be grim. John died in the mid-80s, a brutal decade. The relative innocence of the 70s seemed light years away.
John Syrett showed us the future of climbing; he was so far ahead of his time. He touched the lives of many who remember him fondly. Andy Long’s lovely photo of him with Gordon captures the quick, instinctive joy of youth.
If John were still with us, he’d be in his mid-60s now. One imagines him running up Fiesta de Los Biceps with Steve Blake and the Smiths… long days out with Stevie Haston… going ground-up on grit, high above pads. And yes, he’d probably assure us that Font 7b is just Yorkshire VS.