The Angry Corrie 43: Oct-Nov 1999

TAC 43 Index

Adventures in the Petzled dark ... two books by Ronald Turnbull reviewed

Long Days in Lakeland, 1998, 192pp, ISBN 0 9515996 7 4, #17.95

Lakeland Mountain Challenges - A guide for Walkers and Fellruners (with Roy Clayton), 1999, 160pp, ISBN 0 9515996 8 2, #6.95; both published by Grey Stone Books, Hoddlesden, Lancs

Work by Ronald Turnbull has appeared in these pages from time to time, while his previous book - Across Scotland on Foot - was positively reviewed in TAC24. The man's thoughts, particularly when in book form, deserve a wide hill-going public: he has a lot to say and often says it interestingly. Turnbull is that rare commodity: one of very few current outdoor writers in possession of a distinct and recognisable style, a voice that can be spotted from distance even in a co-authored book such as Lakeland Mountain Challenges. The only doubt over authorship of any of these chapters comes whenever Roy Clayton stops playing the straight man and makes an attempt at imitating his stylistic sidekick.

Walker-readers probably don't need both of these books. The subject matter is more or less the same in each - that bumpy corner of England's field forever known to TAC readers as The Ponds - and while there are certainly differences in structure, format and content, there is considerable overlap too. Turnbull is essentially a Lakeland writer and hillgoer (sorry, fellgoer) despite his exploits in the Scottish hills - eg the astonishing nine-day run over all the Donalds recorded in TAC25. To casually skim these books one would assume he lives in Coniston, or Keswick, or at least somewhere on the fringes of the Lakes as indeed does Clayton (in Fleetwood). Hence it at first seems puzzling to discover that Turnbull is based in Dumfriesshire, on the wrong side of the Solway from the hills he evidently loves beyond all others. This isn't so strange however: for a start it's only a relatively short hop from Nith to Greta, and a damn sight quieter as a base. But there is also the inbuilt writer's need for distance, for objectivity, and it could be argued that Turnbull would be a poorer, less interesting Lakeland writer were he to actually live there.

Ostensibly these are interlinked guidebooks (Challenges almost reads as a pocket edition of the Long Days coffee-table tome), but both have much more detail and comment braided through them than do the standard turn-left-here guidebooks with which the Lakes are so overloaded. The whole district is awash with rehashed, reheated word-fodder routinely carted up and down ridges in lieu of maps by vast numbers of unwilling-to-think walkers, books that are the bastard modern offspring of Alfred Wainwright's mid- century creativity. Fiddling round the edges of this devalued format is essential nowadays in such honeypot areas as the Lakes, but Turnbull's writing gives the feeling that were commissioned to write a guidebook to somewhere far more obscure then it would still come out much like this.

Long Days is a Turnbull solo effort and the more carefully structured of the books, broken down into ten main chapters each comprising three parts. First comes a short, wistful, mistful pen portrait of some particular area or ambience ('Borrowdale rain', 'Unhappy formations and natural melancholy', 'Starlight'). Not all of these work, feeling a tad precious and faintly twee at times even though the page layout (boxed-in prose with a line drawing alongside) clearly flags up the watercolours-in-words intention. After each of these miniatures comes the chunky bit of each chapter, the eponymous Long Days themselves: 'Lakeland east to west', 'Scafell scramble circuit', 'Ten tarns tour', 'Scafell slowly'. This is where the bulk of Turnbull's anecdote-meets-theory writing style lies. Finally each chapter includes a 'Daywalk' - more formulaic in style and generally failing to add much to the book other than bulk. It's not that the daywalks are dull, just that the this- stile, that-path description is more upfront and leaves the pieces feeling less inventive, less like Turnbull, more like the bog-standard mag-standard fillers that too many outdoor writers use as a means of paying their mortgage or child maintenance instead of buckling down and writing properly.

Challenges is the better book chiefly because it lacks such a rigid format. Again there are major undertakings - the main horseshoes, a Lakeland crossing, the 3000er rounds - but most of the raw data seems left to Clayton who handles it with quiet efficiency. Joint-authored projects notoriously fail to work - look at Roy Evans and Gérard Houllier at Liverpool FC, or Messrs McCartney and Wonder on 'Ebony and Ivory'. This one does work though, with Turnbull constantly trying to write inventive passages while Clayton keeps things orthodox and 'earthed'. It's like watching Lance Kluesner and Daryll Cullinan bat together for South Africa. Fine though the solid Cullinan is as a player, you find yourself sitting up, taking that bit more notice, when Kluesner is on strike in case something memorable happens, some spectacular and outrageously over-ambitious stroke. Turnbull plays the Kluesner role in the Challenges partnership but benefits from having Clayton as his straight (bat) man.

Any writer who settles into a style tends to have familiar themes running through the text no matter what the overall thrust of the subject matter. In Turnbull's case these books provide ample scope for his own likes and dislikes: the merits of the long day out (preferably extending to some kind of mad 24-hour 42-summit round), the quasi-religious joy of dossing high in a minimalist bivvybag, the sacrilege of referring to the hill north of Threlkeld as 'Blencathra' when it should really be Saddleback (although the B-word does appear a few times and there is even a B-picture on p72 of Challenges - perhaps Clayton and trusty publisher John Gillham are closet Wordsworthians). Then there is the Great Divide, the ultimate symbolic schism in Turnbull's Lakeland universe: Scafell Good, Scafell Pike Bad, with Mickledore slung between like some sublime Limbo. Forget the old SMC stuff about Ultramontane versus Salvationist; for Turnbull it comes down to these two neighbouring summits.

Scafell is one of several hills that feature again and again, whereas even some tops close to the Lakeland hub seem strangely absent - there is little tell of Pike of Blisco, for instance, and oddly little of the Langdale Pikes too. Yet these are not the kind of books in which it is easy afterwards to recall where specific hill descriptions or stories are recounted, as Turnbull happily immerses himself in the whole region and forever scurries down the back of one set of fells to pop up unexpectedly on another. The structure of these books is not linear, with Turnbull fond of the Grand Sweep both in terms of actual walking/running and in his way of looking at hills and writing about them. Fair enough. Think big.

He is also a continual advocate of the off-track, off- message expedition, starting up just as everyone else is coming down, sneaking round the side of things, circum- navigating honeypots and so on. A mini-chapter entitled 'Not Great Gable' is both self-explanatory and typical. His hill tales are full of healthily iconoclastic admissions such as scuttling up a snowy Lord's Rake in fell running shoes or wandering around half way down Skiddaw in the Petzled dark. Occasionally he comes across as slightly smug about these japes, and a tad put-down-ish about the plodding masses on Scafell Pike or Striding Edge, but at least he is trying things out, seeing whether the jigsaw of these fells can be put together differently from the standard way adopted by most 'offcomers'.

Typical Turnbullesque phrases abound in both books. Take these three, all from Challenges: 'The view from the West Wall is just as good when it's invisible' (p55), 'The long grass to High Raise goes shorter in running shoes, specially [sic] as we're cleverly going for Sergeant Man instead' (p57), and 'A village is a place with no cashcard machine, so Grasmere is still a village' (p86). The first two are prime examples of Turnbull's style: his is a prose of one-liners, the guidebook equivalent of stand-up comedy. Standard concepts and clichés are set up in the first half of a sentence, then spun and seen off in the second half. Repeated over time this becomes a bit wearing, and neither of these books makes an ideal straight-through read. But better that than the prosaic ploddery besetting so many publications, and no matter how strained some of the linguistic twists, you find yourself reading on in expectation of more phrases like this, from the introduction of Long Days: 'Walking up, you could console yourself with the hope that eventually you'd turn round and start to walk down. Walking down, there's nothing to look forward to but bed and death.' Guidebook writer as comic metaphysician: the outdoor world needs one of those, and Turnbull does the job more than adequately. There is really only one writer capable of writing this, about an attempt on the English 3000ers on the winter solstice (itself a very Turnbullean ploy): 'A thin mist drifted above Keswick, so that it shone through a plasma of electric orange to make a picture of the Birth of Streetlights out of the Primordial Neon Cloud'.

There is often a vividness and precise energy to his writing, an awareness of everyone's place in the grand scheme of the hills, as with this description of Bob Graham runners scurrying up to their day's high point: 'Up the great path of Scafell Pike, we zip among the hillwalkers like motorcycle messengers in a busy street' - a lovely, clipped description that manages to combine the freedom-of-the-fells energy with the curious community feel of a popular walkers' hill on a summer Saturday - and all in 19 words. Beautifully done. Sometimes it backfires, as with his overly arty tarn description on p164 of Long Days: 'It's what the art critics call a 'rhythmic element' - and that's the function of the corrie tarn'. This seems overworked and overly philo- sophical in contrast to the sparse reality found, of all places, in a Hendrix lyric on a related subject: 'Waterfall ... nothing can go wrong'. But a successful phrase is never far away. In the same passage, Turnbull's 'Screes plunge in, and keep going below the waterline' has a simple more-than-this beauty that, for me, immediately evoked Heaney's celebrated 1975 poem to his mother, Sunlight: 'And here is love / like a tinsmith's scoop / sunk past its gleam / in the meal-bin.'

When Turnbull tones down his style and writes simple watercolour prose, he produces fine naturalistic-descriptive passages. There is a lovely example on p55 of Long Days, where he sets the scene with a typical bit of flashy rhetoric - 'Can you properly enjoy a sunset if your feet aren't sore?' - before thinning the words in synch with the gradual, spreading simplicity of what he is describing: '... deepest crimson, staining the clouds from the horizon right across Ullswater and overhead. It was one of those sunsets that makes you lower your voice and go all respectful, as in church'. Reading sections like this, and like the description of the Hardknott Pass toward the end of Long Days, brings the thought that Turnbull should move away from tying his writing to guidebook-style descriptions, no matter how elaborately he embellishes and subverts the format. People- in-context stuff, straight descriptive stuff, layered visit- after-visit-after-visit stuff, all these are aspects which he should pursue further. He has already had a brief spell as a columnist at Trail, but some glossy editor should immediately give him a free-form slot and let him develop and tighten his writing within the relative security of a kite-flying column. He would find a fan-base of readers looking for something more heartfelt, more considered than the endless adverts and the product placement dross. Such a scenario is unlikely to happen, however.

Perhaps he should now take a break from writing about the Lakes, at least specifically. It would be good to see him look elsewhere and then, in a few years, turn back to what he knows best. Perhaps he just loves the Lakes too much: there are clues to how deep this love runs in occasional references to 'venerable Fell and Rock ancients' and in Long Days being dedicated to 'my father Derwent' - a name that betrays northern English hill-lover roots if ever one did.

This outs Turnbull fils as the grandson of the 1948-50 SMC president, Herbert Westren Turnbull, since HWT's obituary told of his having a son named Derwent. (And if there is more than one Derwent Turnbull around, then my name is Wallowbarrow Thirlspot.) This in turn is hearten- ing: Ronald Turnbull has it in his gift to be a third-generation SMCer, with all the outlooks and literary idioms that could so easily entail. Yet he chooses to cash his creative cheques elsewhere and is very much a free spirit, a mind of his own.

Having started by suggesting that walkers don't really need both of these books, I should end by urging people to buy at least one of them. Turnbull is ultimately worth reading not because of the clever quirkiness of his thoughts and phrases but because his night yomps and his high bivvies and his off-beat, off-beaten-track jaunts show that he retains that most basic of outdoor-writer essentials: a simple love of being out there, somewhere, on the surface of the planet.

TAC 43 Index