Chapter One

A Long Time Ago.

all that David Copperfield kind of crap [J.D. Salinger]

Apart from Frankenstein I don't know of anyone who was just put together as an adult. We have all evolved one way or another into what we are, so I suppose it would be helpful to let you know where I came from and perhaps it may explain why I have become the monster my detractors believe me to be.

Having been described as a sort of belligerent court jester in Martin Boysen's "Hanging On", I felt some elaboration of my life and times was necessary. My only previous claim to fame in the climbing world had been a brief liaison with Pete Crew's fiance. The only other time I can recall seeing my name in print was in the mid to late sixties when I regularly appeared in the Salford City Reporter's annual listing of cases for non payment of rates at the Magistrates Court. Two of my strongest characteristics have been impetuosity and the ability to make bad decisions work. So far so good. It can't be an epic tome: nothing major has gone on. It will be just a collection of happenings around a hedonist who did a bit of climbing.

I have always admired stoicism as a quality: be it in a human being or right down the spectrum of life to the humble woodlice and beyond. Pick up a stone and you may destroy the habitat of hundreds of woodlice and expose them to the immediate danger of any number of predators. They scurry to the safety of concealment first and then look for a new home. They have no means or wish to attack you, they just accept their lot and get on with survival. In the same way that is the lot of peaceful citizens in modern warfare. Like so many others, I was nurtured through six years of war, in my case that was in my first eight years of life. For me it only seems to have had a positive effect; my recollections are largely happy and at times exciting, but for my mother it made what was already a difficult situation, very tough indeed. At times she must have despaired. She was one of tens of thousands, many of whom were much worse off.

1936 was a significant year in the history of Britain: it was the year of the last of the great hunger marches - the Jarrow March - and I was born. The two events had no connection and I have no recollection of either one of them. By 1939 my father was dead and much of the world was at war. Things weren't good but I was oblivious.


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More extracts from I'm Alan Hubbard, who are you?

Two entrepreneurs who made a big impression on me were performing artists who used the bomb sites as their theatre. I saw them on Market Street in Manchester. Stripped to the waist under a hot sun, pouring in sweat, muscular bodies, strong but not athletic: strength gained by years of toil rather than honed from training routines. Their props were a sledge hammer and flagstones left by the demolition teams after the bombings. One picked up a huge flagstone - a feat in itself - which he clasped to his chest. The other smashed at it with the sledge hammer. Each blow caused the man with the stone to stagger back a pace. They were good quality stones and it took quite a few blows to split them but the man clasping the stone never let it drop until it yielded. It was a hard and dangerous way to earn the few pence that were dropped into their caps laid at the edge of the pavement.

The memory of those Herculean artists remains with me. I can still see the face of the man who clasped the stone to his chest, the other one had his back to us during the dramatic action and I can't recall his face at all. Although it is the face of the man with the stone who stood unflinchingly before the onslaught that abides, the other was no less brave: the consequence of error would have been terrible.

*****

Of the social section Albert was the one who stuck it out longest, in fact he turned up in the Alps one year with Joe and his Rock and Ice mates and got on really well with them, Whillans took a particular liking to him. I was hitching back from the lakes with him one weekend when we were picked up by Whillans and Bob Downes. After we had got sorted out in the back of their van and got under way, Whillans turned round and asked me why I had been carrying my rope on the outside of my sack, I explained that I thought it helped with the hitching. Unimpressed he informed me, "It makes you look a cunt. If it hadn't been for your mate we wouldn't have picked you up." Albert chortled. No matter: they dropped us in Salford. This incident was typical of Whillans: he was a very forthright man. Confident of his capabilities, which were considerable, a man who said it like it appeared to him and wasted few words without being uncommunicative. Without seeking to impress, he impressed all who knew him. Joe told me of the time when they were doing a route on the Petite Jorasse and had to bivouac. Joe was quickly ready and settled having donned his plastic packamack while Whillans kept pulling layer after layer of extra clothing from his sack like a conjurer producing rabbits. As he pulled his anorak over his last layer he turned to Joe and said, "You'd better start looking after yourself lad, no fucker else will." With that he zipped himself into invisibility and never moved again till sunrise. Joe shivered through the night having learned a valuable lesson.

*****

When I got back from Skye my fingers had mended pretty well so Joe and I had a day out on Ravenstones . He was telling me that his Rock and Ice mates had shown him how to tie a bowline with one hand. I declined a lesson myself as I had always thought three would have been an advantage. I led the first route of the day and as I was taking the rope in I got a bit of a downcast feeling: the rope never stopped and I thought he'd left me behind, I'd been a bit pushed on that climb. As it turned out, the rope had left Joe behind; his one-handed expertise just wasn't up to the job. He didn't do sheepish, everything was just a good laugh, but he used two hands for the rest of the day. I told him that some of man's essential needs were best performed one handed but tying a bowline wasn't one of them.

*****

It was a beautiful early summers evening. I had the crag to myself but shared the moor with its residents. The moorland symphony filled my whole being with pleasure. The silvery notes of a lark were an exquisite background to the harsh warning calls of grouse and every so often the liquid warble of a curlew in flight; for me, a sound more beautiful than any other birdsong I have ever heard. It evokes a loneliness that is happy with itself, especially on those high moors, amidst the heather and the black peat. As I climbed, caressing, then pulling and balancing on that perfect gritstone, which many climbers believe to be God's own rock, I contemplated the eternity of nature and its forces that had created the art work that I was free to move over unhindered, so unlike a gallery, where you view from the other side of a rope. This was a creation of time and I was a part of it.