Friday, 17 July 2015

Your lovely hills are very dangerous

There cannot be more than half a dozen real hard men, perhaps youthful aspirants to the Alpine Climbing Group, who have made the journey, on foot and by road, from the beginnings of Llanberis Pass to Beddgelert. To the best of my knowledge I am the only man living who has made this appallingly dangerous journey on two occasions. Of the second, on which I had a companion, I have already written in another place, but my solitary attempt has remained unchronicled. I now set out, below, what I recall of my experience in the spring of 1951. I was not able to make notes at the time, but the facts are essentially as I record them here. About ten o'clock one morning towards the end of March 1951, or it may have been 1950, I was sitting in the bar (since remodelled and renamed the Smoke Room), of that small hotel at the foot of Llanberis Pass which is known to all travellers in those parts.

I was sipping a whisky and soda, having just finished reading a most excellent article on the climbing situation in Wales in the 1940s called 'Return to Arfon'. On the table in front of me was a big blue-covered volume, 'Rock Climbing in the English Lake District', by a man called 0. G. Jones. Some people from a place called Keswick had taken some old-fashioned photographs to illustrate the work and I was finding it of interest. My presence in that hotel at that time of year was due to an obligation I was under to write a work of fiction containing a gang fight in Wales, preferably on the face of a steep rock climb. My thoughts had no connection with Beddgelert and were indeed focused upon the measurements of the bar. It had just occurred to me that a determined man, sitting where I had positioned myself, could hardly miss the landlord with a shot from a .32 Mauser pistol, if the landlord happened to be standing at the cash register. At that moment the door of the bar opened and the landlord's wife came in to join me.

She was not in those days much given to conversation, being endlessly busy about the house. 'I've come to have a little chat with you', she said, 'It's nearly eleven o'clock'. `So late', I said, emptying my glass, 'I was sitting here thinking'. `Not thinking', she said, 'Drinking'. `So I was', I said, holding up my glass, 'I must have another of these'. `That's what I want to talk about', she said. 'You drank a bottle and a half of Scotch last night in this very room, and here you are doing it again, or in a fair way to doing it again, before lunch. You should go out more, into our lovely hills'. `I did that from this very hotel, just after Christmas,' I reminded her, 'and I was ill for weeks. Your lovely hills are very dangerous.' I stood up, all the same, and returned the red Journal of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club of the English Lake District to the corner bookshelf in the bar which, in those days, had twenty or thirty of the Journals, but not one of them with anything quite so good as 'Return to Arfon.' I didn't know what any of it meant. It was just interesting to read.

The author was a man called A. B. Hargreaves, and I didn't know him either. I put 'Rock Climbing in The English Lake District' under my arm. It had just come into my head that my hero might well be reading it in his bath when a villain, still uninvited, thrust a gun through his bathroom window. The essence of thriller writing is that heroes', preferably unarmed, should invariably outsmart relentless thugs with guns in either hand. It seemed to me, as I weighed it in my hand, that 'Rock Climbing in the English Lake District' was at least throwable. `I'll get hold of my packed lunch and go', I said. I tried to sound a little hurt, a trifle wounded: I've always found that difficult.
The landlord's wife picked up her broom and duster. 'Don't forget to take off those red slippers,' she said. There was a packet of sandwiches lying on the hall table bearing the legend, 'Mr. Fitzgerald, no cheese'. As cheese makes me frightfully ill, I knew what would be inside the grease proof paper, but I shoved the packet into the little knapsack I used for carrying books, put aside 'Rock Climbing in the English Lake District' while I was putting on my shoes, and walked out into the icy conditions of a Welsh spring morning. A man with a coiled rope over his shoulder was standing motionless in the driving rain. He was wearing scarlet stockings, and what appeared to be velvet knickerbockers.

There was a look of total despair on his face. 'Have you seen Marcus'? he asked me. `There was a man in the bar last night they were calling Marcus' I said. 'He was trying to read the `Tractatus' of Wittgenstein, but they kept interrupting him'. `Sounds like him' said the despairing man, 'I was to meet him here at half past ten'. `And you've been standing here in the rain all this time? Come in at once and have something to drink'. To the look of despair he added a look of real horror. `I am a member of the Alpine and of the Climbers' Clubs' he said; 'I never drink in the middle of the day. We try to keep ourselves reasonably fit'. I bowed, silently. It seemed to be the only thing to do. `You'd have seen Marcus at breakfast, if he'd been there, wouldn't you, don't you think?' the despairing man said, almost to himself. It was clear to me from his constructions that he, at least, had not, spent the previous evening reading the `Tractatus', or even the 'Philosophical Investigations' of Herr Wittgenstein, but it was my turn for the look of despair and horror.

`I never eat breakfast,' I said, 'I'm never well enough.' That man seemed not to like being with me. 'I think I'll go inside,' he said, and I stood alone with my problem in the heart of Welsh Wales. I could see no way round it; I would have to go for a walk of some kind. It had been on the tip of the despairing man's tongue to ask me to go climbing with him. I had only saved myself with my inspiration about breakfast. I embarked upon my journey. I still had no thought of Beddgelert. I don't suppose that I had, in those days, ever heard of it as more than 'a place'. But there was, as there still is, in a much altered form, a High Road and a Low Road for part of the way in which I was, merely by chance, going. I stood at the junction (there was no gateway then), took a pull at my pocket flask and considered matters. A blonde woman in Scandinavian costume who was standing beside me began to sing `Solveig's Song' from Peer Gynt.

As I turned to seek her advice she disappeared. There was a lot of loose gravel on the Low Road, and a little bird with a white rump was hopping about. It frightened me rather, and I set out along the High Road.

There was very little traffic on that road in those days, and it had not been straightened out anywhere. But there was a blinding flash every five or six minutes as a motor bicycle or motor car skidded upon me round unsuspected corners. There was an Admiral of the Fleet in full dress uniform walking beside me, making a rather curious clanking noise with his sword. I asked him if he thought our situation dangerous, but he didn't reply. I asked him if he would like a sip out of my flask, but he had vanished. Some time later I reached a Post Office in a place they told me was called Nantgwynant.

I enquired for licensed premises and was told that Beddgelert was my first hope, but that 'they might be closed by the time you get there'. I sat down by the roadside and opened my sandwich packet. Everything was made from cheese and onions. One of the misty people all round me said something that sounded like lucus a non lucendo', but I didn't know what he or she meant and just threw the sandwiches away and emptied my flask. It seemed wasteful in my desperate circumstances to pour a libation for the gods, and I did not. I struggled towards Beddgelert. It was a long journey, but I thought I could do it. I remembered dreamily that the night before someone had been talking about a man called Carr who used to stay in Beddgelert and run over Snowdon every morning, with a bicycle on his shoulders, on his way to a mountain called Tryfan. 'It's quicker that way', he is alleged to have said.

I supposed that was why I was without conscious design, now on the way to Beddgelert, and moreover, with an empty flask. I began to recite aloud the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, but when I came to the bit about measuring out my life with coffee spoons an Australian Aboriginal, who kept throwing a boomerang across my head, and snatching at it with his left hand as it came back, asked me to shut up. `You need concentration for what I'm trying to do,' he said. I made for the public house where Mr. Borrow was said to have spent a night or two on one of his missionary journeys, reaching it as the rain stopped. You could say I was wet. They told me the bar was closed, and that, at that time of year they seldom bothered to open it during the week until 'going on seven.' The barmaid was knitting a strange looking tube from a huge ball of grey wool. 'Nice not to see climbers,' she said, `If you and I were locked in the snug no one would know, isn't it?

'Not a soul', I said. We drank a bottle of gin together in the snug and quite soon the Australian went away and I was alone with her. Just before six o'clock I asked her if she thought a determined man with a .32 Mauser pistol could blow the lock off the snug door. 'You had better be getting back, isn't it'? she said. We embraced, a brother and sister in extremis. Perhaps there was a cousinly touch to the final kiss as she slipped a half-bottle into my pocket and kept the change.

 'Don't let them put you into one of those places, bach,' she said. 'I've a book to finish,' I told her, stiffly, and set off on my return journey. "You’re going to find this bit difficult, cobber", the Australian said. He'd been waiting for me outside, together with a man from a circus who had a herd of camels with him. I put my face towards Nantgwynant. I woke up just before it was full dark. I think I had rested, with a book, because, as I opened my eyes, a little man in a pink hat closed 'Esmond' for me and dropped it into my book bag. As I reached the hotel the guests were just coming out from dinner and the landlord's wife called out to me, 'Oh, there you are: You're just in time if you hurry up and change'.

'You look ever so much better.' In those days I preferred dining alone, and I gave any loitering diners all the time they needed. There was never a crowd in the early fifties, just a few climbers. When I reached the dining room the Wittgenstein man was sitting by himself reading, and absent-mindedly picking at a plate of Welsh mutton. 'Do you happen to know any German'? he asked me, 'I'm trying to re-write and re-translate a rather bad piece for the Alpine Journal.' I did once, long ago,' I told him, "But where the number 2 bus used to stop they've set up a kind of jungle with orang-utangs hung on the trees."

I must have spoken all Kastner's piece from `'Emil' in German because I heard myself saying Orang-Utans hingen in den zweigen and the Wittgenstein man stood up and held out his hand. 'Please don't bother' he said, 'my name is Marcus, and I'm a doctor. What you need is a nice long rest.' 

I go to that hotel rather a lot, now, and the other night a woman guest said, 'Don't you ever drink anything except tonic water'? 'Oh, yes' I told her, 'at Christmas time and Easter I quite often have a bitter lemon, or something like that. You see I'm a member of the Alpine Club, and the Climbers' Club, and we have to try and keep fit.' Then I went up to bed. There was a book up there waiting for me called 'Rock Climbing in the English Lake District' and I was longing to read it for the twentieth time, and to look again at the lovely photographs taken by the Abraham Brothers of Keswick eighty years ago.

Kevin Fitzgerald: Published in Mountain Life Dec/Jan 1975