/ ARTICLE: The Natural

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UKC Articles - on 28 Jan 2019
The Natural.Mick Ward shares a fictional story of a talented female climber, whose course was altered by the dark side of 1960/70s hedonism...

"She's a natural, a complete natural… the best climber I've ever seen."



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jon on 28 Jan 2019
In reply to UKC Articles:

Well done Mick! Weaving a line between the believable and almost believable... the factual and the almost factual... A great read!

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Rick Graham on 28 Jan 2019
In reply to UKC Articles:

Simply brilliant.

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BALD EAGLE - on 28 Jan 2019
In reply to UKC Articles:

A fantastic and beguiling article Mick! Great stuff! Cheers Dave

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David Lanceley - on 28 Jan 2019
In reply to UKC Articles:

Inspired by Take it to the Limit perhaps?

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Ally Smith on 28 Jan 2019
In reply to UKC Articles:

Lovely Mick - very evocative.

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Mick Ward - on 28 Jan 2019
In reply to David Lanceley:

A perceptive comment! It's only occurred to me, this morning, how strongly Joe and Barty echo Bob and Luke in 'Take It to the Limit'. For me, 'Take It to the Limit' and 'Climbers' are probably the two most authentic climbing novels I've ever read. I found 'Climbers' terribly depressing, although it's a superb novel and faithfully reproduced the climate of the time. But I loved the early chapters of 'Take It to the Limit'. And, in an eerie coincidence, at the time it was published, I was in a remarkably similar 'eternal triangle' relationship, which imploded in spectacular fashion.

The primary inspiration for 'The Natural' was Elizabeth Coxhead's marvellous 'One Green Bottle'. When very young, I fell hopelessly in love with 'whining Cathy from Birkenhead'. And when she went up to Cloggy and burned off 'the toffs' (actually rather nice young boys), well, I was in heaven! 

I always yearned a kind of 'Cathy upgrade' - to put a young woman on something properly hard for its time - also on Cloggy. And I've always been intrigued by the notion of unfulfilled promise, how people try to get through their lives, knowing what might have been. (Something I've got to live with.)

My thanks to people for their kind comments (though, it appears, at least a couple of people disapprove). But you can't please everyone. Natalie did a brilliant job of delicately editing the nastiness at the beginning. And (hope I'm not breaking a confidence) the utterly apt initial photograph is of her, at Pen y Pass.

Mick

 

 

 

 

 

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paul__in_sheffield - on 28 Jan 2019
In reply to Mick Ward:

I’m very envious, you’ve a great way with the words..

paul

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Mick Ward - on 28 Jan 2019
In reply to paul__in_sheffield:

Thanks, Paul. Am really grateful to you.

Have spent nearly all of my life at it, though. Not sure it's the best use of a life but hey, what do any of us know?

Always think Chris Craggs has maybe made the best use of a life of any of us - facilitating so many people's climbing days in the sun. Came across his first Costa Blanca guidebook yesterday. The spark that lit the flame!

Mick

Post edited at 18:35
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Sean Kelly - on 28 Jan 2019
In reply to UKC Articles:

Talking about Great Wall in those times, the big thing was to get the first all free ascent. Many tried before John Allen eventually managed to tick the route. It was probably summer 1971 when I walked up to Cloggy with a couple of Americans with the same idea. One was Steve Wunsch, but I ambled over to Carpet Slab with his mate, 'Drew'. Wunsch had just done a very early free ascent  of Left Wall. 'Mo' Anthoine was probably with the party, but I didn't know him by sight. We were all dossing in 'Humphreys' at the time, so very much a chance meeting. Enjoyed the story Mick.

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Mick Ward - on 28 Jan 2019
In reply to Sean Kelly:

Many thanks, Sean. Yikes, coincidences, natural, I suppose. Put my time in, at Humphreys, in '71, I think, and '74. More of that later.

In the early '80s, I met a guy (Drew?) who'd belayed Steve Wunsch on Great Wall and other routes. He was a right character! According to Jim Erickson, Wunsch was going for a free ascent but fell on the first hard move and then bailed. What a pity. He probably just wasn't warmed up and would almost certainly have nailed it, second go. 

According to Bill Turner, the late Iain Edwards and he did the FFA of Great Wall, shortly before John Allen - and four more extremes on Cloggy, in the same day! Would obviously believe Bill and Iain was certainly well capable of it. He had good technique but, my God, he also had fire in his belly!  Another character - sadly missed.

The class of '74 at Humphreys included Gabe Regan, Jim Moran, Dave Humphries, John Kirk and Paul Mitchell. Quite the line up. One day, Gabe and Jim invited me for an outing on a sodden Mot. After some dodgy ropework (they were very young), I gave the pair of them the most fearful bollocking and told them they'd never amount to anything. They slunk back to Humphreys and hid their young heads in shame.

In a lifetime of being wrong, I've never been more wrong. Wow - what routes they did!  And the others weren't far behind.

Happy days!

Mick

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Rick Graham on 28 Jan 2019
In reply to Mick Ward:

I first met Jim at Gogarth in Feb 1976, he was doing routes like mammoth that weekend. He was about 16 at the time.

A few hexes, moacs and a couple of wires.

Impressive.

Your bollocking must have  had not been ignored

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Chris Craggs - on 28 Jan 2019
In reply to Mick Ward:

> Always think Chris Craggs has maybe made the best use of a life of any of us - facilitating so many people's climbing days in the sun. Came across his first Costa Blanca guidebook yesterday. The spark that lit the flame!

> Mick

I was just browsing the threads and my name jumped out - such a kind thing to say - thank you.

It is unsettled in the Ariege so heading back to the Blanca in a couple of days to start work on that little sprog's Great Great Grandson

Chris

Post edited at 20:56
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paul__in_sheffield - on 28 Jan 2019
In reply to Mick Ward:

> Always think Chris Craggs has maybe made the best use of a life of any of us - facilitating so many people's climbing days in the sun. Came across his first Costa Blanca guidebook yesterday. The spark that lit the flame!

> Mick

I’m currently doing a challenge on Twitter where you post pictures of the covers of the 7 books you love the most, no context, no narrative, just the book. For me, in amongst the Kafka and Satre is the BMC 1978 ‘Froggatt Area’ guide which took this inner city kid who had never seen the countryside into a whole lifetime of dreams....totally agree about Chris’ work.

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john arran - on 28 Jan 2019
In reply to Chris Craggs:

> It is unsettled in the Ariege

Understatement of the year. It's full-on winter. Probably the snowiest week of the year. Pretty amazing for piste and off-piste sliding but notably less so for finding dry and warm rock.

Never mind, will be Spring next week!

 

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AP Melbourne - on 29 Jan 2019
In reply to Mick and everyone:

Even from Upsidedownland [hence standing on my head] that's a charming piece of writing Mick, really, really enjoyed it, thanks.

And if you're reading this Mr Craggs you owe me a reply to my PM.

Cheers,

Andy. x

 

 

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johnl - on 29 Jan 2019
In reply to UKC Articles:

Wonderful writing Mick, the sort of tale I could imagine them making a gritty TV drama of.

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Rick Graham on 29 Jan 2019
In reply to AP Melbourne:

 

> And if you're reading this Mr Craggs you owe me a reply to my PM.

Leave him alone ,Andy, he's busy writing guidebooks.

 

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David Lanceley - on 29 Jan 2019
In reply to Mick Ward:

Al Harris was doing some building work on my house while he was writing (with Lucy Rees) Take it to the Limit and progress on the book was a regular tea break conversation.  I read and commented on the early drafts and see some of my suggestions in the published book. 

It was around this time that Al did his first trip to the States.  Realising shortly before he left that he had no money he spent a day travelling round various friends with loan requests, each one carefully matched to his assessment of how much you could afford.  I was hit for £50 which was just about right, any more would have been too much and any less an insult.  This might have been the origin of Al's "one day I'll borrow enough money to get out of debt" quip.

Sadly missed but hard to imagine a 70-odd year old Harris.

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deepstar - on 29 Jan 2019
In reply to UKC Articles:

Wonderful stuff Mick, I'm sat in my favourite cafe enjoying your article and reeling in the years.

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Steve Ashton - on 29 Jan 2019
In reply to UKC Articles:

Just sat down to grind out another chapter when I saw this. Delaying tactics, I thought, but having read it, I've been inspired to get stuck in again.

I remember reading Take it to the Limit while working at Brigham's in Capel Curig one dismal midweek day such at this (sorry to whoever bought the grubby copy). Three customers per day was typical, so plenty of time for reading guidebooks and drawing up shortlists. Being a bit of a knob, I scoffed at the balance between action and emotional intrigue (the climbing equivalent, I thought, of the film Grand Prix from the same deadly era.) Never mind the romance, take another lob onto a badly placed rurp! By the time I came across the excellent One Green Bottle, I found the reverse to be true. Too much climbing and not enough rolling about in hay. If we read vicariously, then these days I like to read about action both on and off the rocks, if you get my drift. I don't think you mention The Fall by Simon Mawer. Good writer and a decent climber before an avalanche on Hadrian's Wall ended his climbing career. Similar feel to Take it to the Limit. Love triangle etc with authentic climbing detail. 

Many thanks for posting this. Takes a lot of skill to compress a life story into so short a space while having the nerve to linger on those key moments that define that life. What to include, what to leave out? A fine piece of writing.    

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Christheclimber on 29 Jan 2019
In reply to UKC Articles:

Thanks Mick,

I really enjoyed your story. It’s well written and very evocative of the eras it is set in.

Keep up the good work.

Cheers

Chris

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Mick Ward - on 29 Jan 2019
In reply to UKC Articles:

Many thanks again to people for their kind comments. They seem to lead quite naturally to a consideration of climbing fiction. Ken Wilson did an amazing compliation of short stories and novellas, typically superb value for money. My brain's gone (and so is my copy!), can't remember what it was called (this was after 'Games Climbers Play' and 'Mirrors in the Cliffs', the 1990s, I think). And there's some lovely stuff in 'Games', particularly one story ('Breaking Through', by Bob Barton?) where the guy goes for it, old style, on gnarly trad, leaves his gear so far below, completely commits and... it doesn't work. I've sure many of us have had many similar experiences, where we got away with it. But sometimes people don't.

More about climbing fiction later. There's one book in particular I'd like to bring to people's attention, not so much about climbing but climbers. (Don't worry - it's not by me!)  But training calls. Time for some old school brick edges to meet my wrinkled, arthritic fingers...

Mick

 

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Steve Ashton - on 29 Jan 2019
In reply to Mick Ward:

> Ken Wilson did an amazing compliation of short stories and novellas, typically superb value for money. My brain's gone (and so is my copy!), can't remember what it was called (this was after 'Games Climbers Play' and 'Mirrors in the Cliffs', the 1990s, I think).

One Step in the Clouds (which includes, for example, the entire One Green Bottle novel).

https://www.amazon.co.uk/One-Step-Clouds-Omnibus-Mountaineering/dp/0871566389

 

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Mick Ward - on 29 Jan 2019
In reply to Steve Ashton:

Of course! Thank you. It sat on my bookshelves for more than a decade. You'd think I'd remember.

Re 'take another lob onto a badly placed rurp!' it doesn't really work unless the author has genuinely been there. And that's why I loved 'Take It to the Limit' - there's utter authenticity about hard climbing (for the time). There's a bit where Luke struggles in a nasty Lakes groove (Rigor Mortis?) and I remember reading it after struggling in the same groove, like Luke, losing patience and just going for it.

The bit where Bob runs it out on the enduro crack on the Salathe is very well done. And when Luke swings round the corner and confronts it, he knows, beyond any doubt, who is the better climber... and reaches for his jumars.

I noticed The Fall by Simon Mawer in a local library and read it, perhaps too quickly. Again, it seemed authentic about the Welsh scene. Didn't someone, in the book, fall off Great Wall, trying to solo it? Not a good solo prospect - a couple of parts not very positive. But maybe it was intentional?? I should have bought the book and read it slowly and lingeringly. You're right, though - it was a very good book.

Mick

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James Mann - on 29 Jan 2019
In reply to UKC Articles:

Excellent Mick, just excellent. 

 

James Mann

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eroica64 - on 29 Jan 2019
In reply to UKC Articles:

Well, I enjoyed that story a lot and wished it had ended differently. She was a good character Mick and your writing is lovely. Ever thought of writing longer stories?

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gooberman-hill - on 30 Jan 2019
In reply to UKC Articles:

Such a lovely piece of writing. I really enjoyed it.

More climbing fiction: "Happy Hamish's Book of Lies" ?

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Dave Garnett - on 30 Jan 2019
In reply to Mick Ward:

It's a rare bit of writing, Mick.  I have a pretty low tolerance of climbing fiction - it so rarely rings true (partly because in real life climbers are so notoriously undemonstrative), but this was very authentic.

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Mick Ward - on 30 Jan 2019
In reply to Dave Garnett:

Thanks Dave - and everyone else! I totally agree about climbing fiction. I've been disappointed so many times. (Never thought about climbers being undemonstrative though...) And there's so much true life writing in climbing which is more dramatic than anything you'd make up.

If you ever get a chance though, read 'Take it to the Limit', 'One Green Bottle' , 'The Fall' and, best of all, 'Electric Brae' by Andrew Greig. The latter book is more about climbers than climbing, per se. A bit like le Carre, it seems to take an awfully long while to get going but, again like le Carre, the noose inexorably tightens. Two lads meet on the Etive slabs, in the early '70s and the tale is told to its inexorable conclusion. At the end of the book, you've got nothing left.

Andrew Greig is a wonderful writer. His 'That Summer', about the Battle of Britain, will also tear your heart to shreds. And 'The Return of John McNab' is very good indeed. There are two, almost incidental paragraphs, where his writing transcends to utter greatness.

Mick  

 

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Mick Ward - on 30 Jan 2019
In reply to David Lanceley:

> Al Harris was doing some building work on my house while he was writing (with Lucy Rees) Take it to the Limit and progress on the book was a regular tea break conversation.  I read and commented on the early drafts and see some of my suggestions in the published book. 

Wow - would love to have been party to those conversations!

I remember going into Wendys, circa 1970 and being utterly bemused. It felt like I'd arrived! Harris was rushing around, probably just getting in the way. Although his wife/partner(?) was there, he couldn't keep his eyes off a very pretty waitress. Sure enough, a couple of hours later, the pair of them were having a deep and meaningful conversation in the Pen y Pass cafe. I thought to myself, 'Now there's a man who likes to live dangerously!'

Yes, I suppose he'd be about seventy, now. Apparently Tony Booth (Crag Rat) was in his seventies in the early Seventies, but he just seemed like us (well, apart from being older!)

I suppose our challenge is to grow old but not get too boring...

Mick

 

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Doug on 30 Jan 2019
In reply to Mick Ward:

surprised you didn't mention Dermot Somers, a while since I read any of his work but remember it being that rare thing, good climbing based fiction. Or maybe my memory is playing tricks again...

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Mick Ward - on 30 Jan 2019
In reply to eroica64:

> Well, I enjoyed that story a lot and wished it had ended differently. She was a good character Mick and your writing is lovely. Ever thought of writing longer stories?

Many thanks indeed. And sorry the ending was as it was. The last time I went to Almscliff, there was a lady of a certain age, in ancient clothing (not Angela Soper), soloing the same routes as me. Maybe it was Lorna? And maybe she cupped the cup hold on Wall of Horrors half an hour after I did. Who knows?

Re length, it's a tricky one. I think that all tales have their own length, which is what it is. Notwithstanding this, if people are reading on a screen, it's not like a book, you can get tired quite easily. So I try not to inflict more than a couple of thousand words on people. The Natural felt as though I was pushing it.

You've got me thinking, though. There is one (absolutely true) piece, about a third as long again, which I've sat on for over a dozen years now. (The Natural took almost 20 years in gestation.) It's a highly sensitive subject, yet ironically one of which many climbers will have deeply painful experience. And there's a lot of scary climbing in it, to stop people getting bored.

Re attention spans, with a book, my acid test is to open it at a page (any page), read down, then ask myself, 'Do I want to read the next page?'

Mick

 

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Rick Graham on 30 Jan 2019
In reply to Mick ward

> You've got me thinking,one (absolutely true) piece, about a third as long again, which I've sat on for over a dozen years now. 

Don't tease, you will have to get that one finished as well. I do not usually read fiction but always enjoy  your gems.

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Mick Ward - on 30 Jan 2019
In reply to Doug:

No, no, you're absolutely right, Dermot Somers wrote some great stuff. I wish he'd continued writing about climbing. He was 'discovered' by Jim Perrin, who opened doors for him.

Jim once wrote a lovely piece about meeting 'whining Cathy from Birkenhead' (from 'One Green Bottle') soloing, on Tryfan. Her green klets, her furry hooded parka... For some reason, the second half of his article seemed to be about something else entirely. Grr... I wanted more of Cathy!

Anybody who has aspirations of climbing writing - whether fiction or non-fiction - is massively in Jim's debt. He was out there, doing it, pushing the boundaries. I remember reading his 'Hubris' in the first of the two iconic Leeds Uni journals of the early '70s and being blown away by it.

Mick

 

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Mick Ward - on 30 Jan 2019
In reply to Rick Graham:

Rick, send me your email and I'll get it across to you. (It was finished in 2006.)  Would very much value your opinion about its suitability. It's about someone you'll undoubtedly have heard of, a brilliant climber, of legendary boldness.

Mick

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gooberman-hill - on 30 Jan 2019
In reply to Mick Ward:

If we are talking about Jim Perrin's pieces, there was one called "Fictive Heroes" in On and Off the Rocks. It blew me (and most of my mates) away at the time. Even now, thirty years on (is it that long?), the suggestion "Let's do the one on the left" has a certain significance.

And Andrew Greig - would I be right in recalling that he once wrote a long climbing poem, or book of linked poems - I remember bits of the gist of it maybe. Maybe I need to buy some of his poetry...

Thanks for reminding me of the things I had forgotten...

Steve

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Rick Graham on 30 Jan 2019

 

> Jim once wrote a lovely piece about meeting 'whining Cathy from Birkenhead' (from 'One Green Bottle') soloing, on Tryfan. Her green klets, her furry hooded parka... For some reason, the second half of his article seemed to be about something else entirely. Grr... I wanted more of Cathy!

 

Obviously you have never met her!

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Doug on 30 Jan 2019
In reply to gooberman-hill:

 

> And Andrew Greig - would I be right in recalling that he once wrote a long climbing poem, or book of linked poems - I remember bits of the gist of it maybe. Maybe I need to buy some of his poetry...

Men on Ice ? possibly, loosely, based on Dougal Haston's life. I had a copy, maybe still do but haven't seen it in years. I think he also published a collection of shorter climbing related poems. Also of course his two expedition books

 

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gooberman-hill - on 30 Jan 2019
In reply to Doug:

That's the one! Thanks

Update: Just found and bought it on Amazon. £0.09 paperback, plus delivery

Post edited at 15:27
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Mick Ward - on 30 Jan 2019
In reply to gooberman-hill:

> If we are talking about Jim Perrin's pieces, there was one called "Fictive Heroes" in On and Off the Rocks. It blew me (and most of my mates) away at the time. Even now, thirty years on (is it that long?), the suggestion "Let's do the one on the left" has a certain significance.

Yes, I remember 'Fictive Heroes'. I think it was first published in Crags. At the time, I assumed it was about Jim climbing with Joe Brown. (What was that horrorshow they did, in Pembroke - Fools Rush In?)  Jim's done some beautiful essays; one, 'Outlaw Heart' (I think) made the case that hard-core climbers rarely fit into society very well. Would agree with that.

 

> And Andrew Greig - would I be right in recalling that he once wrote a long climbing poem, or book of linked poems - I remember bits of the gist of it maybe. Maybe I need to buy some of his poetry...

As Doug says, he wrote 'Men on Ice' - and, I think, other volumes of poetry. He was a poet in Scotland for twenty years before moving into fiction.

 

I've always viewed poetry as the highest technical expression of writing, analogous to bouldering in climbing. So easy to do badly; so agonisingly hard to do well. Not knowing this, foolishly I began with poetry and have a lifetime of it now. But have never bothered to try to publish any - and don't really understand the modern poetry world.

I love poetry even more than wine - but less than climbing!  It seems terribly sad that it's hardly read, any more.

Mick

 

 

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pneame - on 12 Feb 2019
In reply to UKC Articles:

What a superb tale - poignant, bittersweet, captures the whole of the last half of the last century in one sweep with a bit of this century thrown in for good measure. 

Great photos illustrating it. One of your best, I think. 

Right from the start it made me think of a real victim of the sixties - the singer Shelagh McDonald - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shelagh_McDonald

What might have been, Mick? You don't want to go down that rabbit hole! 

Cheers

Peter

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jon on 12 Feb 2019
In reply to pneame:

When I read it I didn’t know it was fiction. Throughout the whole essay I bounced from thinking ‘Nah, not possible’ to ‘Oh wait a minute, I know him or her’ to ‘Yes, I remember that’ to ‘No I don’t’!

As you say, one of Mick’s best.

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pneame - on 12 Feb 2019
In reply to jon:

It did have that feeling. I suspect that I would have thought "true story" if there wasn't that key word "fictional" in the intro. 

The "thousand yard stare" below the Eiger is just fantastic. As is the 2nd ascent of great wall - it has all the feeling that cloggy used to inspire me with. Slight dread, awe, a feeling of belonging (although the mountain never cares). And, in those days, with so few people, just the occasional squawk of a bird as the background track. 

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BusyLizzie on 12 Feb 2019
In reply to UKC Articles:

Marvellous, as ever

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Doug on 12 Feb 2019
In reply to pneame:

Shelagh McDonald - a name I've not heard for many years, never saw her sing but had one of her LPs (Stargazer), maybe still do if its survived the 20plus years of my books & records being in storage back in Scotland

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pneame - on 12 Feb 2019
In reply to Doug:

There is a double CD out there with Stargazer and her eponymous first album - my  sister bought it for me about 10 years ago. A nice surprise. It has aged well. 

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Bob Kemp - on 12 Feb 2019
In reply to Mick Ward:

Good to see a word for Andrew Greig. Both those books of his you mention are excellent. 'That Summer' was almost my mother's story, and I found it quite hard to read.

And congratulations on the story. Takes a lot to compress a life into such a small space, as somebody mentioned earlier.

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