51 of 53 people found the following review helpful
A superbly crafted portrait,
This review is from: The Villain: The Life of Don Whillans (Hardcover)
This is a quite wonderful book. Jim Perrin is a rare man: a mountaineer from working class roots who's also a very gifted writer, in my opinion the finest of all the mountaineering writers of late. He's an averagely competent climber - no extreme gymnast or Everest-conquering hero - but has been in the "scene" for decades and knew Whillans personally, who, besides being a fabulously gifted climber armed with a devastating wit, was also famously bellicose. (Perrin's first encounter with Whillans was when Whillans invited him to 'step outslde' after he'd bumped him in a Welsh pub; people who didn't know Whillans often got into trouble with because he was so small - only five foot three. "But it's raining!" exclaimed Perrin, to his immediate embarrassment. "Aye, yer wet enough already", retorted Whillans, and walked away chuckling. They later became friends.)
The book is sublimely assembled and the acute poignancy of his subject - the "hardest man" in British climbing, who while broadly loved, revered and admired by the climbing community at large, was shunned in his later years by a sizeable minority of his peers - actually reduced me to tears in several places: each time, surprised by the sudden lump in my throat, I had to stop reading for a few minutes. This was a clearly a terribly difficult project (it took nearly twenty years to complete); in his preface he says the book was really written by the entire British climbing community, such was the quality and quantity of the material provided from every quarter. As I read on, quite unable to put the book down, I found myself increasingly admiring of Perrin's writing on what is a very challenging and unstraightforward subject - a respected friend, brilliant in many ways yet full of flaws and complexity, revered by the climbing community yet brim-full of contradictions. Some of the most moving parts of the book for me were the brilliant glimpses Perrin provided into the undoubted soft, sensitive, yet almost totally hidden core of this toughest and bravest of men: when he relished bouncing a balloon with a friend's small child (he thought no-one was watching); the great care he gave to those in difficulty in perilous and serious mountain situations (when he always came into his own; many described Whillans as the very finest mountaineer ever to share a tight corner with); the desperate hurt and betrayal he felt - and never got over - when Joe Brown, his old-time climbing partner and (some may say) nemesis, was invited to Kanchenjunga in 1953 but Whillans was overlooked; the times when as a small child he was a famous 'scrapper' but would always do the decent thing and own up when a friend was unjustly punished for one of Whillans' misdemeanours. For me, Whillans - in most, but not all, of his actions and behavior; the only exceptions occurred when he was drunk and a different, more violent and angry persona sometimes emerged - epitomises the very definition of 'integrity": when one's words, actions and beliefs are all in alignment, like it or not. The only aspect of the man that rarely broke surface was his own undoubtedly emotional core, which drove him in every way, and gave the lie to his sometimes apparently unkind, selfish or insensitive presentation of himself to his mountaineering brethren.
Here is one of a large number of impeccably crafted paragraphs:
"This vignette [the great Tom Patey's article for that year's Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal entitled "a Short Walk with Whillans'] by the finest comic essayist in climbing literature played a considerable role in establishing the persona of Whillans as doom-laded quipster and drollster, and in a mellow but perceptive way also brought out the character traits that were ultimately to contribute to the widespread disaffection with him among the companions on his later expeditions: the strategic indolence, the racism, the incessant scrounging, and the propensity for dogmatic utterance that would brook no contradiction. It also, in a brief and masterful final paragraph, captured beautifully the sense that here was a man who, for all his unique abilities and exceptional achievements, had hanging around him something of the atmosphere of failure, something of the sense of one unloved by those gods who bestow good fortune and easy chance on humankind; and perhaps also the sense of one who was growing 'tired of knocking at preferment's door': 'We got back to the Alpiglen in time for late lunch. The telescope stood forlorn and deserted in the rain. The Eiger had retired into misty oblivion, as Don Whillans retired to his favourite corner seat by the window.'"
If you appreciated this delicious little snippet, I suspect you'll greatly value the book: the finest and most masterful climbing biography I've yet had the pleasure to read. Jim Perrin deserves honours for his unswerving dedication to honesty, fairness, and some truly sublime descriptive writing in among it all.
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Initial post: 31 Jan 2010 20:21:11 GMT
P Draper says:
As usual Bill you did an excellent review.
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