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The Villain: The Life of Don Whillans Paperback – 6 Apr 2006
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"A packed and entertaining book . . . Exhaustively researched and beautifully written" (M. John Harrison The Guardian)
"Wonderfully crafted . . . One of the most gifted chroniclers of mountaineering . . . Perrin records it all with a subtle sympathy, laying bare British mountaineering's most mythologized figure" (The Independent)
"An extraordinarily rich and unsentimental vision . . . The genius of this exceptional biography is that it articulates both sides of Whillans' character . . . It is by turns funny and tragic . . . This is a fine book. It was worth the wait" (Climb)
"Compelling, beautifully written . . . There could not have been a better writer qualified to tell it" (Ed Douglas Climber)
"A kind of modern tragedy . . . Yet for all his failings, Whillans remains a legend" (Observer)
Don Whillans has an iconic significance for generations of climbers. His epoch-making first ascent of Annapurna's South Face, achieved with Dougal Haston in 1970, remains one of the most impressive climbs ever made - but behind this and all his other formidable achievements lies a tough, recalcitrant reality: the character of the man himself. Whillans carried within himself a sense of personal invincibility, forceful, direct and uncompromising. It gave him sporting superstar status - the flawed heroism of a Best, a McEnroe, an Ali. In his own circle, his image was the working-class hero on the rock-face, laconic and bellicose, ready to go to war with the elements or with any human who crossed his path on a bad day.See all Product description
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Whillans came from Salford and was a brawler and a rough neck, yet he found an expression in rock climbing. His love of exploration starting when his parents took him to stroll around Roman Lakes in Marple (so there's hope for my lot yet). In his life, which Perrin has been meticulous in researching, he climbs all over the world and with climbers who became household names - like Chris Bonington and Doug Scott. He becomes a popular lecturer and even appears on This is Your Life and other TV programmes.
My own personal interest in his story comes from my Mum's dear friends Ian and Nikki Clough, both no longer with us. Ian had died on Annapurna in 1970, an expedition that Whillans was on, and was described as epoch-making. Nikki had cancer and passed in 1983, which hit my Mum hard at the time, and it seems, Whillans too.
I love books that get under the skin of a culture and Perrin does this in great detail and with searing honesty. There was obviously a terrific bond amongst climbers, a counter culture and an establishment that weave between each other. There's also the prolific shoplifting, scrounging, grafting and hitch-hiking, behind this frontier banditry though are fierce rivalries and sniping that makes the comedy circuit look like a band of brothers.
The lengthy footnotes in the book make it a tricky read. It would have been better to weave some of them into the narrative as anecdotes and asides. But for all that it was a compelling book. It isn't a eulogy to a friend, or a hatchet job, but a careful and thoughtful portrait of a flawed genius with demons and very obvious failings. To his enormous credit, Perrin looks at many anecdotes and myths from all angles, he was earmarked for an MBE but it coincided with him fighting with police when he was knicked for drink driving. If I'm honest, I find Whillans to be a very unlikable character who hurt too many people. But they are judgements Perrin invites you to make, rather than forcing his view on you.
Could he have been a contender? Well, he was. For all of his status as "Whillans the Villain - the outsider" he had a great deal more recognition and respect than he probably wanted. The mark of a true outsider is that they place themselves there by choice.
Ok this is the story of a great man, but like many great men, Whillans is flawed. You don't always achieve great things by being nice, so the warts and all biography is welcome in its honesty. It's also a humbling tribute to real men (and women also) who pioneered routes I still can't climb despite having sexy modern kit. Whillans would really have ripped the piss out of me I am sure.
It's very very readable - I don't think you have to be a climber to soak up the ambience of Whillan's world, and Jim Perrin skilfully avoids excluding the nonclimber as a reader by avoiding excessive use of jargon. Perrin also takes time to gently lay to rest many Whillans myths - but in a fashion that makes him more human - Whillans being noted for his excesses of aggression which made their way mainly via Dennis Grey into full blown climbing myth. The real Whillans isn't necessarily nice - but is very human.
Only one small niggle - Jim Perrin slightly overdoes the northern working class hero element of his narrative whilst railing against the excesses of authority in the form of teachers, park authorities, the police, and even bus conductors. It must be hard to write without exposing your own feelings and prejudices - but if you're going to strip away the myths to find the truth, do so consistently and without favour to your own world view.
Thanks Jim for a great book - and the story of a great man.
The book is an interesting social history as well. One area which I noticed was the propensity for casual violence which appears to have been quite common at the time, something Don, (or at least his public persona) appeared to revel in.
Don himself was a complex character, flawed in many ways and perhaps ultimately a tragic figure, never able to achieve his full potential in almost any field of his life. That said, a product of his time and upbringing, tough as they come and the like of which we will likely never see again.
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