Article published on June 16, 2016.
Following his admiring review of Dan Richards new book, Climbing Days Paul Cheney was able to put his questions to Dan who was fulsome with his replies.
Do you feel that you know Dorothy and Ivor on a much more personal level now?
I do, yes. Before I began to write and research Climbing Days they were enigmas to me. A few family stories here, an unread apparently Delphic book by Ivor on a shelf there or a biography like a brick which made feel stupid and underprepared… in the main, the feeling I had was that here were two amazing people but their lives and interests were very different from mine and happened long ago; in monochrome or, possibly, Kodachrome… but I discovered very quickly that my assumptions were mistaken. They definitely lived in colour. They had amazing lives, friendships and adventures, travelling and climbing to an astonishing degree. It was a great pleasure and privilege to follow at least part of the story and routes of their early mountaineering lives — out in the mountains and landscapes they so cherished — and, thereby, I discovered the people behind the family myths.
One of the first things I learnt was the fact that they were both fantastic climbers — by the standards of their time and ours now. True greats. Pioneers.
The second was that they both possessed great zest and vivacity; they were not old people, you know? Ivor had a tremendous sense of humour and anarchic streak — climbing the rooftops of Magdalene College, Cambridge; the antic qualities at the heart of Practical Criticism itself — and Dorothy was a swashbuckling heroine, humorous and caring, a true trailblazer and a questing free spirit.
I grew to appreciate and love them both dearly.
What would you say was Dorothy’s finest quality?
Her energy and dauntlessness. She refused to be intimidated or browbeaten into being other than she was. After discovering the mountains of North Wales as a young woman she set herself to be a climber. That was it. And she did it; and in so doing she opened the door for other women to follow. Nothing and nobody could stop her and she enabled and empowered others in her wake.
I liked the generational link with your father having climbed the same peak, ‘The Dent Blanche’; have you inspired other family members to climb mountains now?
I’m not sure! We’ll have to wait and see about that once the dust has settled. Hopefully some of my cousins will be inspired to climb and follow but I really don’t know.
What was the toughest physical part of the research into the book?
Mountaineering can be pretty arduous stuff, made harder if you’re unprepared physically and almost impossible if unacclimatised — as I learnt the hard way when I visited Switzerland for the first time with my dad. The climb up to the Bertol Hut, whilst nowhere near the most strenuous part of the book, was a real shocker.
Both of us were healthy and enthusiastic but neither of us were in the right shape for that trek and we got caught out by altitude sickness. I’d never experienced it before but it’s a nightmare of sudden onset exhaustion, dizziness, and mal-coordination; you suddenly get hit with it once up past an invisible line — if you’re unprepared it can get you… it got us. And it was horrible.
What other climbs did Dorothy and Ivor undertake that you just couldn’t fit in the book, and do you aim to climb them one day?
They put up some first ascents in America, Canada and China which I hope to explore one day. The White Mountains near Harvard, Massachusetts, where Ivor worked for many years were a real stomping ground for the pair, as were Glacier National Park and the peaks of Hunan Province, China, in the 1930s and 40s. They were tremendously well travelled! Their passports are amazing artefacts.
Reconnecting with the Swiss mountain guides was a fascinating part of the book, have you been back out to see them again?
I hope to very soon, yes.
André Georges, Rosula Blanc and Jean-Noël Bovier were hugely generous, hospitable and patient with me. I was welcomed and my family’s ties with the Georges and that community were rekindled very quickly. It was a marvellous thing. They could not have been more welcoming, and the same goes for Joan Pralong, André ‘Dédé’ Anzévui, Dominique Anzévui and Mme Rosemary, Mme Laurence at Camping Arolla, and all the guardians of the various huts and cabins that I stayed in.
Do you have any more inspiring relatives to write about?
My grandfather is a fairly brilliant inspiring man! He was a motorcycle messenger in Bristol at the start of WWII before joining the army and being posted out to India and the East. He then spent many years working on the travelling post office between Temple Meads and Plymouth, that was his regular route, but he went all over the place — right up north with it on occasion — and he’s got some amazing stories.
Your last book, Holloway, was a collaboration with Robert Macfarlane and Stanley Donwood; was it much harder writing solo?
It’s funny, Holloway, came about as the result of connections and relationships established whilst I was writing a book named The Beechwood Airship Interviews which was published last year by HarperCollins but seems to have fallen through the cracks a bit.
Beechwood was a book about artistic process which I wrote after art school — a real labour of love which sought to counterpoint and juxtapose conversations with artists, craftsmen and technicians for a wide variety of genre and media. So I put Bill Drummond and Manic Street Preachers in a book with Dame Judi Dench, Jenny Saville, Jane Bown, Vaughan Oliver and Stewart Lee amongst others; and there are cameos from Bjork, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, and Richard Long, and I spoke to Stanley and Robert — they both had chapters about their work.
So Holloway was born of that book, an offshoot which rather eclipsed the original!
Can you tell us anything about the next book you are writing?
I’m just back from Iceland where I’ve been researching the next thing which is still nebulous at the moment but will probably revolve about ideas of wilderness and the structures man builds and has built in their interior and edgelands.
What other projects are you working on at the moment?
I’m Writer in Residence at Rough Trade for 2016/17 so I spend a fair bit of time in and around their shops, recording the goings on there and contributing whenever possible to their website and fantastic new magazine.
I’ve recently written pieces about Patti Smith, John Malkovich, Record Store Day and David Bowie.
I also write occasionally about music and other gubbins for the Caught By The River and Quietus sites.
Which author(s) do you turn to for inspiration?
I’m a huge fan of B.S. Johnson and Richard Brautigan — wonderfully funny, dark, humane writers — Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry and Sombrero Fallout are two of my favourite books.
Also James Salter. The Hunters is a brilliant book. Solo Faces — one of the best books about climbing I’ve read — is a masterpiece of characterisation, impulse and economy. He’s a very spare, deft writer which I admire and that’s also the reason I love Pascal Garnier and Han Kang’s writing in translation. Propulsive pith!
The Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky is a constant inspiration and will be by my side — and in my pocket! — throughout the writing of my next book, I suspect, as will Shooting Stars by Stefan Zweig, a dazzling book of historical vignettes by a true genius.
Recently, two of the best novels I’ve read were Beatlebone by Kevin Barry and The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky — a psychedelic faction Lennon Irish archipelago odyssey and a claustrophobic Russian sci-fi Fargo-esque heist saga!
Orison for a Curlew by Horatio Clare was a joy. A marvellous follow up to Down To The Sea In Ships, and another beautiful book from Little Toller… I return to his writing often, together with that of Jan Morris, George Simenon, Ted Hughes and J.A. Baker. All five seem to write fully formed immersive worlds, to my mind, rather than books. I adore the Maigret novellas, and am delighted Penguin have chosen to republish them in new translations and new covers.
The Book of Fame by Lloyd Jones is one of my all time favourite books which I no doubt pillage on occasion, together with The Seacunny by Gerard Woodward and The World’s Two Smallest Humans by Julia Copus, Ancient Sunlight by Stephen Watts, Happiness by Jack Underwood, and Deep Lane by Mark Doty — five collections of poetry which I’ve been enjoying and constantly returning to these past couple of months.
[Ed: Seems to me that Mr Richards is even better read on BookLife books than our own Mr Cheney!]
Which book(s) do you turn to for comfort?
I’ll happily read anything George Simenon, Stefan Zweig or Pascal Garnier has written in a state of bliss. They are masters.
But Beautiful by Geoff Dyer is a constant; a great touchstone and inspiration.
The True Adventures of The Rolling Stones by Stanley Booth is a case study in reportage and music writing and, again, for all its seeming heft, very economic and sharp. You can steam through it in a very enjoyable couple of days.
I’m grateful to Robert Macfarlane for introducing me to the world of Nan Shepherd — her vivid poetry and uniquely poetic prose… The Living Mountain is a fantastic book which I write about in Climbing Days and it was one of the reasons I travelled to Scotland to climb in the Cairngorms. Like those mountains, Shepherd’s writing seem to sate, challenge and change with every visit.
Do you have a particular place to write, or can you write anywhere?
I have a room in Bath where I write most of all, surrounded by my music and books. Also, there is a cafe in Norwich named The Bicycle Shop where I wrote a great deal of Climbing Days and I worked in the attic above a bookshop in the town for a few months as well… I mean, I think I could work anywhere but I definitely do have haunts and particular spots where I feel most comfortable and the words seem to flow best.
What book are you currently reading?
Whilst away, I finished Train Dreams by Denis Johnson — a recommendation from Ed at Mr. B’s bookshop in Bath — which was astonishing. Surely one of the great American novels of this century. Cinematic, surreal and tragic, beautiful and compassionate, it took me away completely, belying it’s slender size. I loved and was lost within every one of it’s 116 pages. I’m now going to go back and read all the rest of Johnson’s work. A treasure.
Now, today, I’ve just bought and begun Blind Water Pass by Anna Metcalfe and it’s terrific thus far.
Many thanks to both Dan Richards and Paul Cheney. Check out Paul’s blog here.
Climbing Days by Dan Richards is published by Faber & Faber and is out on June 16th
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