The English as inventors of alpinism

an interview with Will Self

Above (Issue I/2019)


Does coming from a flat country give mountains more allure?

I used to live in Suffolk, which is about as flat as it gets and I remember reading a lot of Reinhold Messner. You've got to ask yourself: What is it that draws the English to mountains? It is an English thing. The English invented alpinism pretty much as Robert Macfarlane explains in “mountains of the mind”.

I've read a lot of mountaineering literature. It was a certain kind of reading, reading, not for pleasure in the wider sense, but really for Schadenfreude (interestingly one of the few loan words from German in the English language, probably because there is a deep correspondence between the Germans and English laughing at one another's misfortune). There is something about reading about a poor fucker dangling from a rope above a fall to certain death on a glacier that is very pleasing when you are lying tucked up in bed in a really low lying part of the world.

You are a card-carrying walker and have written about walking a lot. Do you also do mountains?

Yes, I climb mountains but I've never wanted to do anything with a rope. I'm not into experiencing that level of vertigo.

I've walked Scottish peaks of over a thousand meters, hardly a mountain by continental European standards, but by British or Scottish standards they certainly are. There are about 300 of them and my aim was not to take it at any great pace because doing the Munros is the downfall of (British) left-wing men of a certain age. Both John Smith, the leader of the labour party, and Robin Cook, who famously resigned from Blair's government during the Iraq war, died of heart attacks while doing a Munro.

I thought I'd take it slower and do three or four a year. I was climbing one by Loch Lomond on quite a raw day in early spring. It was cold, wet, quite treacherous, quite a lot of cloud. I got to the top of this peak, I think it was Ben Vorlich, and on the top of the mountain was an old Scotsman wearing a shirt and who'd just wandered up there after his lunch. I had spent hours walking up the mountain and I found that so intimidating, that I stopped climbing them altogether.

What was it that got you into walking?

To the manor born: My dad was a big walker and he was more mountainy than me. As kids he took us up a lot of mountains and he had no fear, no vertigo at all. He loved standing right on the edge of a cliff. He taught us to do that. But somewhere along the line I got vertigo. It's not so bad, but I don't like standing on the brink anymore.

You wrote a book on “psychogeography” – what is it exactly?

Psychogeography is a term that derives from the Russian theorist Chtcheglov from the Situationalist International.

It really relates to Debord's concept of the spectacle, of the idea that authentic being under conditions of late capitalism is sacrificed to what Debaude called a succession of images, that we no longer really relate to where we are: Everything is mediated by the image. The main tool of psychogeography is the “derive”, or drift, which is the unpremeditated journey, usually in an urban context but it can be rural or semi urban as well, in which you abandon the metric of time and money which defines life under late capitalism. Your meter is running. How much time can I spend? How does it fit into my day? We are wholly mediated by a meter, like a cab driver, dominated by the correlation of time and money the whole time. The derrive seeks to break the stranglehold time and money have on us.

Is it applicable to mountains or is it an urban thing?

I think you can apply it to mountains. Our landscapes in western Europe are almost wholly anthropic so you can practice psychogeography almost anywhere. You can see the effects of anthropogenic climate change even in the high Alps.

So it applies to mountains, or anywhere else. I used to do a lot of walks with the artist Anthony Gormley and he had a different and interesting approach. He'd done a lot meditation and had been a Buddhist as a young man and he'd been given a coan – a Buddhist teaching or rule to live by- by a holy man. It was: if he's sees a physical obstacle he has to surmount it. If he sees a mountain he has to climb it, if he sees a lake, he has to dive in. So it's always very exciting to walk with him.

Is psychogeography a backlash to digitalisation and the fast-pace of modern life?

For me, the physical engagement with place and space – living in a physical reality, rather than through GPS or even paper maps – is the key thing. So you can do it in all sorts of ways. You just need to reengage your body, you need that one-to-one traction. I felt so claustrophobic, it became an issue in my early forties, I lived in a world where I was publishing a book every year or so, i'd be on publicity tours in the States and continental Europe. I felt completely alienated and developed my own psychogeographic practice. I didn't read about it until later.

And what is your most memorable mountain?

An odd one is St Kilda, an island forty miles west of Lewis in the outer Hebrides, way out in the Atlantic. It’s an archipelago of islands the main one of which, Hirta, is only about  a square mile but it forms a natural amphitheatre, with a circle of mountains, only about four-hundred meters high, which you may say isn't very high, but they have no backs to them – it gives way to a four-hundred meter high sea cliff. It's straight down, and then you're in the middle of the Atlantic.

It's so remote, you can't even get there. It was home to an almost isolated community for almost six hundred years, with its own dialect and its own religion. And when they were discovered in the 19th century they would have steamer trips from Liverpool that were advertised: “Visit Britain's living primitives!” Then the island was evacuated in the 1930s because the community couldn't survive any longer. I sailed there and then climbed these mountains. It's an extraordinary place.

an interview by Jess Smee



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