I was excited when I bought this book and so wanted to enjoy it. The reasons why I did not, may say more about myself than the book. I have been climbing for a long time, I am widely read especially in climbing literature and I am also a complete intellectual snob.
If you are none of the above then please read all the other (favourable) reviews and ignore mine.
It is fair to say that nobody could be better qualified than Jim Perrin to have written this biography. He was a contemporary of Whillans, has been a major part of climbing culture over the years and is an experienced climber and excellent writer.
However, Mr Perrin as an author, should know better than most people that the truth should never get in the way of a good story. This book is meticulously researched and fastidiously footnoted at great length. In fact the footnotes for me are the major downfall of the book. They account for almost as much text as the main body, which doesn't make for a flowing narrative.
It's tempting to just ignore these footnotes but some of the best anecdotes regarding Whillans and other players are inexplicably buried in them e.g. Beating the Germans at their national game, twice and the man bites police dog story "because it bit me first".
I never met Don Whillans but like most climbers have heard countless legendary tales regarding this larger than life but undoubtedly flawed climbing genius. Why couldn't Perrin have concentrated on Whillans' outstanding climbing achievements? For example Gritstone and Welsh desperates and Alpine and Himalayan successes in addition to his famous one-liners delivered in the pub and on pertinent occasions.
Instead, Perrin mentions the climbing achievements but continuously undermines them by comparing them unfavourably to those of Joe Brown and younger up and coming climbers such as Doug Scott. He continuously goes on and on about Whillans' climbing career being in demise and the "bell tolling" for the end etc whilst denigrating his continuing climbing achievements. In fact he was still going on expeditions to the Himalayas and South America in his forties. That seems pretty impressive to me. How many athletes continue to perform at that age, even now?
There are a lot of descriptions of the negative aspects of Whillans' character but beyond visiting his childhood home area and cataloguing his movements there is very little attempt by the biographer to come to an understanding of how Whillans' personality was shaped by his childhood and adolescent milieu. His parents are mentioned only briefly so that the reader understands that they existed but that is about it.
Perrin makes a better stab at attempting to understand how Whillans' character and temperament formed the motivation and impetus for his amazing climbing achievements. However during these passages he invariably gets sucked in to elaborations around his own climbing which culminate in his triumphant showdown style confrontation with Whillans during their last (social) meeting.
Perrin spends a lot of time describing Whillans the drinker but misses out on the Bukowskian parallel which could have brought an extra dimension to this aspect of his character.
My impression from the text was that Perrin just did not like Whillans. Which is a strange feeling to get from a biography. You would expect some kind of affinity to exist from the artist to his muse.
Unfortunately even for a climber like myself who admires Whillans, this book was at times tedious with too much fastidious attention to detail accompanied by page long footnotes and at other turns annoying when the excessive criticism seemed over the top.
The most entertaing bits came during the passages when the author was quoting other writers descriptions of events involving Whillans, which made the reader want more of the same. In those passages, Whillans' personality rang through louder than any other parts of the book.
Despite the criticisms above, this book is extremely well researched and Perrin is a great writer. If you want to know more about Whillans and the rock and ice or be reminded of their great achievements then read it. However, for intellectual climbing snobs I don't recommend it.
Now, an anthology of writing about Whillans by the sources quoted in this book that might be worth reading.
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