Michael Moran has just retired as W.J.M. MacKenzie Professor of Government at the University of Manchester. His most recent books include The British Regulatory State: high modernism and hyper-innovation (2007); Business, Politics and Society (2009); and, as joint author, After the Great Complacence: financial crisis and the politics of reform (2011). Below Mick discusses Simon Thompson's Unjustifiable Risk? The Story of British Climbing.
Michael Moran on Unjustifiable Risk? The Story of British Climbing by Simon Thompson
Writing on climbing rivals that on cricket in volume and quality. Just glancing casually at my bookshelves now I can see David Craig's Native Stones, Jim Crumley's Among Mountains and - the new millennium's most distinguished addition - Robert Macfarlane's Mountains of the Mind. All these books, though, are part of a well-established mode: a mix of autobiography and cultural reflection. Simon Thompson's Unjustifiable Risk? The Story of British Climbing is less personal, more formally systematic - and for those very reasons extraordinarily revealing. And as I will show, the story it tells is much more than one about climbing; it is an exploration of wider changes in British society. Thompson is not an academic historian, but a weekend climber and a businessman. (There's an irony in the latter: he is a former chairman of Tarmac, a company which had done more than the most destructive rock climber to gouge out the rock faces of the Peak District, where I live.) But aside from his instinctive feel for the subject, and a sharp style, he is helped by the character of climbing communities themselves, which are obsessive in their concern with self-documentation. Can there be another recreational group with a wider range of journals than climbing, spanning the Alpine Journal at one end and the host of local club magazines at the other? And does any other group pay so much attention to the mournful business of publishing detailed obituaries?
The story Thompson tells can be summarized thus. The self-conscious activity of climbing was virtually invented by a small group of Britons in the 1850s (the Alpine Club was founded in 1857). For a few brief years British climbing led the world, conquering the main Alpine peaks. These early climbers were not, contrary to popular stereotypes, patricians. They were bourgeois, mostly drawn from the professional classes created by the new industrial society. They were hardly revolutionary, but they were certainly radical, in the manner of much of the Victorian bourgeoisie. Some of the important early climbers were women. And part of the attraction of climbing was that it created a domain that allowed escape from the stultifying hierarchy and conformity of Victorian and Edwardian Britain. A wonderfully informal photo in Thompson's book of the inaugural meeting of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club at Wastwater almost breathes relief at escape from these everyday conventions.
The brief pioneering moment soon passed. By the interwar years the Alpine Club had become the home of 'bishops, lawyers, financiers and polite spongers'. In other words, it had become a typical elite British metropolitan institution. Rock climbing developed independently and democratically, mostly on the faces accessible from the northern industrial cities. The elitist embrace choked innovation. Furious arguments about the role of technological aids, of a complexity that would defy the brain of a medieval theologian, obsessed the Club elite. British climbing became isolated; the most innovative climbs and climbers were now on continental Europe. The reasons for this decline are straightforward: climbing in Europe, especially in Germany and Italy, developed a mass, democratic base organized into well-endowed national clubs. (There was a dark side to this: these clubs were easily co-opted into German Nazism and Italian Fascism.) In short, climbing in Britain suffered the fate of the wider industrial economy. But unlike the wider economy, there was a way back. The post-war social settlement - full employment, mass education, cheaper travel - led to an extraordinary flowering of climbing talent. For a period in the 1970s and 1980s British climbers once again led the world. This generation of climbers revived in spades the anarchic tradition: Thompson vividly describes a world of sex, drugs, rock and roll - and climbing. The metropolitan climbing elite, meanwhile, blundered onward in a post-imperial delusion. The apotheosis of farce was the 1953 'conquest' of Everest. Hunt's expedition deliberately excluded the other ranks - who happened to be the best British climbers. The 'British' triumph was actually accomplished by a New Zealander and a local sherpa. And to compound the farce, in the gongs handed out afterwards Hunt and Hilary received knighthoods; the sherpa, Tenzing, received a lesser award.
Thompson is especially illuminating on the present state, and likely future, of climbing. As he says, it is fragmenting. Part of that is economic. It now spans a range from the corporatized worlds of the high streets with their fake adventurous brands, like North Face, to the self-conscious 'purity' of those who are still engaged in the age-old theological denunciations of technological aids. It is, like so much else, being globalized. The collapse of the Soviet Empire has opened up new worlds of mountaineering. Domestically, the most intriguing change also reflects a wider social movement: women are once again appearing in significant numbers. The post-war democratic explosion in climbing was overwhelmingly male: Thompson's chapter on it is called 'Hard Men In An Affluent Society' (my italics.) But now, nearly half the committee of the mountaineering club of my University are women. Thompson is particularly good on this momentous social change: on the attempt to market chick climbing, rather on the model of 'chick lit'; and on the extraordinary torrent of denunciation that accompanied the death of Alison Hargreaves on K2 in 1995 - a torrent that amounted to a kind of moral panic about gender, promoted not just by the usual reactionary commentators in the red tops but even by feminists like Polly Toynbee. Climbing, as Thompson's book shows, is quintessentially a world for outsiders: mystics, delusionists, masochists, jailbirds, and those who should have been in jail (on the last two categories, see Thompson, passim, on the 'hard men'). As women's participation grows, all these personalities will appear among women climbers; in the process they will force reconsideration of many notions of what it is to be a woman.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]