I first came across Nick Bullock at the 2004 Llanberis Film Festival, where his presentation left my young impressionable self wide-eyed with wonder: who is this maniac?!? He came across as raw, loud, brash, and unstoppable, with a style that drummed up a frantic sense of fervency amongst not just the audience, but also in himself. Here was a man on a mission, but one whose intensity was worrying (is this sustainable?). It's hardly a wonder he was either, because after leaving the prison service it was pretty apparent that a whole lot of energy, anger, and quite possibly confusion was bubbling away, and that he wasn't going to waste a moment longer.
Echoes, Nick's first book, documents the time in his life leading up to this moment and - in my opinion - ranks alongside the best of climbing and mountaineering literature, being on the Boardman Tasker short-list and receiving critical acclaim from across the world. The key to its success was that it wasn't just about the climbing, which although forming an important part of the book, was almost secondary to the intensity of his life working in the prison service. It compares with the likes of Paul Pritchard's Deep Play, Andy Cave's Learning to Breathe, and Mick Fowler's Vertical Pleasure, which in turn had their own idiosyncratic focus - coal mining, the dole, and (surreal though it might sound) working as a full-time tax collector in London (who says mountaineering literature isn't diverse eh?!?). However, maintaining this magic within the follow-up is a challenge indeed, and one that not all authors manage to achieve.
As a quick recap, Echoes finishes with Nick walking out of prison a free man (so to speak); moving out of his own home to live a life on the open road. Tides picks up from that point onwards (2003 and beyond) and begins, by what I presume is little or no coincidence, with Nick visiting his parents, who have also upped sticks from bricks and mortar to move onto their life on the water, living on a canal boat with no fixed address - free to roam the British waterways. Parallels to Nick's own migratory patterns throughout the seasons are not lost, with his similarities and dissimilarities with his parents playing a central role throughout the rest of the book.
Before we get too far ahead, let's have a quick look at the title, as not only is this a superb continuation of the theme set by Echoes, but it also sets the tone for the rest of the book, which very much focusses on life's ebb and flow: the coming and going, of people, places, friends, family, seasons, and… well… everything really. The transience of it all; everything changes. The cover, superbly illustrated by Tessa Lyons, crafts both a jagged sea and rugged mountain within a single ink drawing: beautiful, stark, yet somehow vibrant, and this sets the scene for the writing to follow. My only concern is that to a non-climbing audience (and I do maintain this book would be of interest to both climbers and non-climbers alike) it may be a little less meaningful than something more blatant (i.e. a picture of Nick actually climbing). Still, this is a review of the book written by a climber, mostly for the benefit of other climbers, so for us I think we can all agree that it is a wonderful and evocative cover.
What struck me about the writing was how much has changed within Bullock's style since Echoes was published. Whilst I wouldn't wish to take away the literary achievement of Echoes (it's a great book), it would suffice to say he has come a long way since then, maturing as a writer, climber and person; and this comes across in each and every line of Tides. Whilst I am not saying that age or time per se have improved his style (effort has), there is a high degree of introspection and analysis brought about by a lot of soul searching. Bullock is constantly looking back and forth at himself and others, most notably his father, who plays - alongside climbing - arguably the most central role in the book.
Moving from family to friends, it is clear that Bullock has spent a great deal of time labouring over the portrayal of his climbing partners. A great many of these will be familiar faces, but what may be less familiar is the characters that lie behind them - behind the news reports - and this is where something special occurs, as you really get to know them: Guy 'Robbo' Robertson's simmering (and at times explosive) anger, that is forever driving him towards the next project; Graham 'The Hippy' Desroy's almost sloth-like state, slow moving, yet incredibly graceful on rock; Andy Houseman's youthful yet maturing exuberance; Paul Ramsden's stern and sober sense of realism; and finally my own role as the 'Loud Young Youth' which is - for anyone that's met me - pretty accurate (although I am a lot older now). The painting of these pictures adds so much colour to the book, with Nick's analysis of each being a fascinating blend of fondness, whilst being completely candid about their flaws.
However, harsh though his analysis of others can be, it is in no way near the same level of criticism that he directs toward himself. Nick is undoubtedly his harshest critic, revealing a whole lot of doubt, almost like he's an imposter, a pretender, which rightly or wrongly is one of the things that has propelled him to do the things he's done. In stark contrast to this he seems, deep down, to be someone that is perhaps romantically hopeful, something that is suggested through the portrayal of his past relationships and partners, yet ultimately feels trapped (and perhaps even doomed) by his own unwavering sense of direction. As suggested in my opening paragraph: there is something driving this man to climb.
In terms of length, the book is formed largely of shorter chapters and sometimes I felt like I wanted more; however, it did mean that there was a certain sense of pace, and whilst it is undoubtedly a dark book at times, it never felt indigestible; furthermore, I highly doubt this is the last we hear of Nick, both in terms of his climbing or his writing. Threshold Shift, the last chapter of Tides, was the winner of the Mountaineering category in last year's Banff Mountain Book Competition and if this is a sign of things to come then I for one am looking forward to reading about it. No doubt Nick's forthcoming trip to the Himalayas with Paul Ramsden, or his latest first ascents at Craig Doris with Mick Lovatt, will yield some interesting thoughts from a man who is never far from a carefully crafted and thoughtful opinion...or a rant... One thing is for sure: both Nick's ascents and his writing are something we should treasure.
n.b. if you want to read more now check out the following article:
Tides, Nick's second book, is the much-anticipated follow-up to his critically acclaimed debut Echoes. Now retired from the strain of work as a prison officer, Nick is free to climb. A lot. Tides is a treasury of his antics and adventures with some of the world's leading climbers, including Steve House, Kenton Cool, Nico Favresse, Andy Houseman and James McHaffie. Follow Nick and his partners as they push the limits on some of the world's most serious routes: The Bells! The Bells! and The Hollow Man on Gogarth's North Stack Wall; the Slovak Direct on Denali; Guerdon Grooves on Buachaille Etive Mor; and the north faces of Chang Himal and Mount Alberta, among countless others.
Nick's life can be equated to the rhythm of the sea. At high tide, he climbs, he loves it, he is good at it; he laughs and jokes, scares himself, falls, gets back up and climbs some more. Then the tide goes out and he finds himself alone, exposed, all questions and no answers. Self-doubt, grieving for friends or family, fearful, sometimes opinionated, occasionally angry - his writing more honest and exposed than in any account of a climb. Only when the tide turns is he able to forget once more. Tides is a gripping memoir that captures the very essence of what it means to dedicate one's life to climbing.