Thursday, 23 October 2014

The Swimmer: running and swimming through London

Lining up for the first plunge of the day at Highgate Men's pond
In The Swimmer, John Cheever's celebrated 1964 short story, Neddy Merrill decides to swim home via a dozen or so of his neighbours’ pools. Of course, to link this chain of water, he has to run across lawns, through woods and down busy roads.

Inspired by Neddy’s watery journey, two south Londoners, Will Watt and Jonathan Cowie, came up with the idea of The Swimmer, a relaxed half-marathon that takes in a number of London’s finest parks and open-air pools. Starting in Hampstead in north London, the route heads down through the centre, crosses the Thames and ends up “back home” at Brockwell lido, near Brixton.

Running across the Heath
After months of admiring it from afar, I finally signed up for the October Swimmer. It’s a brilliant event and I’ve written up the day – or rather early morning – for the Guardian’s running blog: The perfect joy of swimming and running through London.  

Continuing the theme of transplanting great sporting feats to the streets of London,  someone has also invented a London version of the Bob Graham Round. Heights of Madness is a run that takes in all the inner London boroughs - 41 miles, 12 summits in an amazing six hours. Now if they combined this with the Swimmer...

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Sir John Franklin: From the archive

The news that one of the two lost ships from Sir John Franklin’s doomed Arctic expedition has been found generated plenty of comment and speculation. My own contribution was digging out  a few 19th century Manchester Guardian pieces about the 1845 Northwest Passage expedition and the various attempts to rescue the crew: Sir John Franklin: From the archive

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Ice-climbing in Rjukan, Norway

I recently wrote a piece about ice-climbing in Rjukan, Norway, for the Guardian's travel pages. Obviously I mentioned the famous World War II  heavy-water raid and it was interesting to discover that two new film versions of the story are said be in production. Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle has signed up to tell the story  in a 10-part TV mini-series called Telemark, while The Heavy Water War is a Norwegian television series featuring Anna Friel.  

The story has previously been told in The Heroes of Telemark, a 1965 film starring Kirk Douglas and which has been criticised for departing from the facts.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013


Climbers, the 1989 novel by M. John Harrison, has just been republished with a new introduction by Robert Macfarlane (recently reprinted in the Guardian's Saturday Review).

It tells the story of a group of climbers in the north of England who escape life's mundane routines by spending their weekends seeking out the perfect route. This is as likely to be found in an old quarry - 'a gloomy hole in the hillside near Bolton', as on an imposing mountain cliff. As Macfarlane puts it:
The climbing they do is impure, tending to the tawdry. It lacks the cleanliness of winter mountaineering, or the epic scale of big-range expeditions. It is mucky, thrutchy stuff that happens from litter-strewn crag-foot terraces, within eyeshot of cities and earshot of motorways.
One of the many strengths of the novel is that Harrison, a climber, goes into painstaking detail about some of the routes. He also has a sharp ear for dialogue but it's the sense of place, particularly when describing the northern urban and rural landscape in the late 1980s, that really makes the book. It went on to win the Boardman Tasker prize in 1989.

On original publication there was only one small review in the Guardian:

Christoper Wordsworth, The Guardian, 7 September 1989

Also in the recent edition of the Guardian was a review of All That Is, James Salter's new novel. However, it is Solo Faces, one of his earlier books that is probably of most interest to climbers. Set in the 1970s, it follows the fortunes of Rand, an American climber, as he makes his name doing big routes and rescuing people on the mountains of France.

Like Harrison's Climbers, the novel is considered a climbing classic (admittedly a small field). It did though  attract some criticism because, as Audrey Salkeld and Rosie Smith wrote in the introduction to One Step in the Clouds, Salter was  not seen as a 'true believer' - ie he only climbed as research for the book. Also, some got caught up with whether he explained climbing equipment properly. This though is a minor point set against his fine writing and story-telling. A small review appeared in the Observer:

Anthony Thwaite, The Observer, 10 February 1980. Click on image to enlarge.
 James Salter: the forgotten hero of American literature, an interview with the writer, appeared in the Observer New Review on 12 May 2013.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Rucksack fashions and fetishes

While digging around for Rucksack Club articles for a previous post, I came upon the following  piece from September 1930. Rucksack fetishists will no doubt enjoy the references to carpet bags and bad packing, but it does provide some interesting period details about outdoor equipment from the pre-war era.

The Manchester Guardian, 10 September 1930

Monday, 8 April 2013

The Rücksack Club

Sharp-eyed fans of the Guardian's country diary archive column (yes, there are a few) might have noticed that today's piece has a small news item about the Rucksack Club sitting alongside it.

The Manchester Guardian, 11 April 1913
The Rucksack Club was formed in 1902 after JE Entwistle and AE Burns, two "novices with a good walking record and a secret ambition to handle a rope and axe", wrote to the Manchester City News suggesting that a mountaineering club be formed in the city. There was a good enough response to justify a start and it is still going strong today. Read more about its history here.

There were strong links between the Manchester Guardian and the club, especially during its early years, with news of climbing activities and annual reports regularly appearing on the pages of the paper. Several members of staff joined the group including Laurence Scott, eldest son of CP Scott, the long-serving Guardian editor.

On 14 November 1903, a small news piece appeared in which an umlaut has been added to the club's name, thus turning it into the exciting looking Rücksack Club. I rather like this, but the use of the diacritic appears to have been very short-lived.

The Manchester Guardian, 14 November 1903

Read more stories like this in the Guardian Book of Mountains. Also available as an ebook.

Friday, 22 March 2013

The Black Cliff

Skimming through a March 1971 issue of the Observer the other day, I came across an Al Alvarez review of Chris Bonington's Annapurna South Face. Tucked at the end of the piece though, were a few words about The Black Cliff, a history of rock climbing on Clogwyn du'r Arddu, in north Wales.  As Alvarez points out, many of the climbers on the Annapurna climb crop up in Snowdonia book - including Don Whillans. Which is the perfect excuse to post a link to a footnote from Jim Perrin's The Villain, a biography of Whillans, that neatly illustrates the point...

 Alvarez was poetry editor and a critic for the Observer from 1956 to 1966, after which he continued to review books and write the occasional climbing article for the paper. See also Rock Climbers in Action in Snowdonia.

The Observer, 21 March 1971 (click on image to read)