Aiming high What makes people keep doing something that at least twice has very nearly killed them, and that has killed many of their friends.
Mountaineer Joe Simpson ponders these questions in his new book, as
Sue Wilson found out.
I‘ve never understood mountaineers. I‘m
generally feart. having been known to bungee-jump in my time. but somehow for me the thought of all
that huge height to fall off after one false
too freaky to contemplate. (‘ontemplatc doing. that is; l'vejust discovered. thanks to Joe Simpson‘s
Touching the Void and his new book This Ghosts. that it's enormously intriguing to
contemplate when it‘s confined safely to the printed
Anyone who climbs very steep. high mountains, attempts first-time assaults on particularly forbidding faces. will come a lot closer to the Big Questions The number of deaths scattered throughout Simpson‘s memoir will jolt anyone not used to losing friends at that rate. Even among this small coterie. however. Simpson
than those of us who keep to the valleys.
has more cause to ponder than most.
In I985. attempting a new assault in Peru with Simon Yates. Simpson fell and smashed his knee. Lowered slowly and agonisingly down the mountain in stages over many hours. he was inadvertently let
tnove is just
Joe Simpson: touching the void down into a deep crevasse. too far for his partner to pull him up. Eventually. Yates did the only thing that would save him front falling after Simpson — he severed the rope. Simpson survived the fall. and over the next three days managed to crawl the long miles down and back to base camp. Several operations and lots of painful physiotherapy later. he started climbing again; eventually he had another shattering fall; several operations and lots of painful physiotherapy later . . . He definitely owed himself. if no one else. an explanation.
This (lame ofUhosts is a strange. beautiful. bewildering and often very moving book. Simpson describes his life from childhood — ‘l wanted to make myself appear like a normal human being. not just a climber" — probing at what might have led him to the mountains. what has kept his heart there so firmly _ ever since. firmly enough to withstand the most ‘ dreadful challenges imaginable. Not that it‘s angst-
. ridden. far from it — Simpson paints a warm. vivid picture of the climbing fratemity. and approaches a fusion of poetry and philosophy sometimes with his
2 descriptions of the impact on oneself of facing down 3 the fear of dying; through this coming closer to I understanding death. and thereby. joyously. life. Ultimately. though. it remains mysterious —- the answer lies in the doing of it. it seems l mystery changes over time. ‘I found it extremely . difficult to write.‘ Simpson says. ‘I think partly what ! l was trying to say was that a lot of us don‘t ask these , questions. because they‘re unanswerable. and they don‘t really get you anywhere. But as a writer I think they should be asked. should be looked at. partly ; because the attrition rate is not something you can : ignore. It doesn‘t have to be something you dwell on morbidly but it's certainly something that is significant about the nature of what you‘re doing. l . always find writing about climbing frustrating. because what seems true as l'm writing I feel will change in a couple of years‘ time. While l was writing the book four friends died. and my , conclusions changed. left tne . . . confused. really.‘ lt’s evident frotn the book. however. that confusion altemates with transcendent clarity. and when Simpson describes such moments it almost makes me want to head for the heights: ‘Armed with such certainty. l discovered the indescribable feeling that comes with stepping into a new perspective. . . . Taking heed of all i know and
5 sensing the spectral figures frorn the past posting
ghosts. " '
é at £16. 99. | l l 7.30pm.
I their simple wamings. i start the journey with a separate part of my mind that doesn't understand
why I atn doing this but seems to whisper. “I'll go with you. then. since you must play this game of
This Game of Ghosts is published by Jonathan Cape
Joe Simpson will talk about his climbing and writing at Waterstonefs. l3 Princes Street on Tue 13 Aug at
‘It’s not the same thing, Dad! i’here’s a difference between fiction and autobiography! Or at least there should be.’ ‘Strange Passenger’, the first and longest story in Brian McCabe’s new collection, deals with his response as a student to the death of his father.
It is an overtly autobiographical piece but, as in several of the stories which follow, the memories have been heightened, shaped, by fictional touches. One such is the narrator’s recollection of the battle of wits quoted above. As he, the narrator, fails to make a convincing case for his assertion, in face of the feisty belligerence of his ex-mlner father, the question is left to reverberate in the mind of the reader.
The density of signification here is typical of McCabe, who describes his best short stories as those in which
Brian McCabe: dwells on difficult relationships
‘everything is working, pulling its weight, relevant - and cohesive’. But the skill of the author is such that these stories do not seem like highly wrought literary exercises; rather they are intensely human, evoking with great sensitivity and insight the self consciousness of the bereaved son who is unable to summon the ‘appropriate’ emotions in the midst of his mourning family.
McGabe is particularly adept at capturing moments of detachment, that feeling of being ‘a stranger
amongst friends’, and many of the stories are about people trying to communicate and failing. McCabe is conscious of having concentrated more than in previous work on problems in relationships between men and women, and boys and girls, and upon the broader issues of sex and love.
In ‘Botticelli’s Flytrap’, for example, an art history student confronts the very different attitude to women of the men he works with on a factory night shift; in ‘Spirit, Tinder and i’aboo’, two young boys fantasize about the semi-naked pin-ups on their bubble gum packets.
Typically, the latter was inspired by McCabe’s personal experience: ‘as a kid in the scouts I had this Baden Powell book with two pictures of girls and one was a nice girl and the other was the wrong kind of girl. Well, the nice girl looked like a kind of psychopath really and the naughty girl had a beret, sort of tilted, and a cigarette in a cigarette holder and earrings, and really looked quite interesting - French or something. I think we are inevitably confronted with these different archetypes and it
was maybe the difficulty in handling these that l was trying to write about.’
Other stories are written from the point of view of women - an elderly cleaning lady based on McCabe’s own mother; the drunken, frustrated fiancee of a young academic - or deal with the problems of maintaining a relationship and being a parent. In all of them, one of the most striking things is McCabe’s ear for the ldiosyncracies of speech, which he successfully translates into dynamic dialogue and the distinct thought patterns and rhythms of his protagonists.
McCabe suggests that his interest in speech is a peculiarly Scottish thing, possibly born of the rich variety of languages and manners of expression here. McDabe lives and works in Edinburgh, and his stories, which have a great sense of place, are all set in and around the city - a note of familiarity, which for local readers, only enhances their rendering of the strangeness in everyday situations. (Catherine Fellows)
In a Dark Room with a Stranger is published by llamlsh liamllton at £14.99.
The List 30 July-l2 August I993 55