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.