TAC 47 Index
Lonely Hills and Wilderness Trails, by Richard Gilbert
David & Charles, 2000, 319pp, ISBN 0 7153 0922 6, £16.99
ORDINARILY, I wouldn't ever pass up an opportunity to heap contumely on a mathematician, and I see no good reason to make an exception here. Most mathematicians choose that career path because they prefer solitary manipulation of abstracts than engaging with real life. They feel more comfortable with Arabic squiggles than with the nuances and felicities of language: as far as mathematicians are concerned, irony is just a synonym of ferrous. Their baleful influence even extends to this magazine, which they try to fill with pages of smug and densely argued crap which nobody ever reads about how the real summit of any given hill is not actually the bit you thought was the top, but this bit here where there should be another contour line on the map only there isn't, so you'll just have to go and do it again. Number-crunching bastards. Go read a poem, for Christ's sake! Personally, I wear my ignorance of mathematics as a badge of pride, a riband on my coat.
Richard Gilbert is a maths teacher.
Even if this were not a well-known hillwalking fact, like Jimmy McGregor's helicopter and Walt Poucher's maquillage, it might be deduced from a reading of Lonely Hills and Wilderness Trails. The style and language could be described as pedestrian, were it not for the fact that, etymologically speaking, this should be a bit of a compliment for a hillwalking tome. The book could also have benefited from more rigorous proof-reading. There is, for example, no such word as despoilation as the back cover would have us believe. There never was a Scottish Secretary called Malcolm Forsyth (p195). Neither did Marilyns derive their name from Marilyn Munro, as is claimed on page 300. Strangely enough, there are also wrong numbers, though these are historical rather than arithmetical: on page 140, Gilbert loyally plants a Union Jack on some Himalayan peak to celebrate the year of the Queen's Jubilee (and the Sex Pistols), 1997. Later, he claims that Hugh Munro stayed at the Aultguish Inn in March 1990.
There are 39 pieces in this compendium of articles from High and TGO. Some are too long, some are even too short, although all of them are about the same length. Gilbert admits in his introduction that "I have been much happier and more at peace with myself when waking up in a small tent in the Cheviots ... than on the Hispar La in the Karakoram to the menacing rumble of avalanches." This is a perceptive comment on his writing, too: the best and most evocative articles are those which describe the relatively tame and domestic, such as his pieces on Galloway in summer and Swaledale in winter. He realises, I think, that he is not equipped with the imagination or originality of expression to take on the description of the immensity of the Greater Ranges. Sometimes he tries manfully to ascend the slopes of Parnassus, only to run out of adjectives and fall into a crevasse of bathos. Here is his take on the spirituality of the hills: "...the glacier snow was frozen hard and virgin white, and we crossed to the Fluchtkogel in dazzling sunshine, with every ice crystal a flawless diamond reflecting the light in a kaleidoscope of colours. The air was sharp as a needle and a real tonic..." (my italics).
Neither is the book leavened with much in the way of humour, aside from one really good gag about misreading mauvais pas as pas mauvais in a guidebook. Jokes of a lower or coarser order are entirely absent except when he comes out (in all innocence, we presume) with innuendo such as: "That pole was a blessing for river crossings, providing the all- important third leg, and having crossed the troublesome burn I would throw it over for Trisha to use ... In addition, the possession of a stout pole was reassuring when confronted by snarling dogs." Call me sad, call me puerile, but the image I have of Mr Gilbert defying angry canines with a cavalier flourish of his all-important third leg is not the same one as I think he may have.
Having started this review with a splenetic tirade against number-crunchers, I would like to finish with a condemnation of cairn-kickers. I am fed up of sanctimonious twats banging on about artificial structures on the hill, and how God has personally spoken to them to complain about the abseil posts on Ben Nevis. The simple fact is that cairns, posts, painted arrows and other indicators have been put there to help people avoid getting lost and dying, dummy. The Pol Pots who advocate destruction of all such altruistic edifices should consider that fact and look to their consciences next time someone falls into Five Finger Gully or fatally misses the exit route into Coire na Tulaich. Ah but, they will say, if they couldn't navigate without artificial aids, they shouldn't have been there. Shite. What's a map or a compass if it isn't an artificial aid?
So what is Mr Gilbert's view on this sort of thing? Well, he's agin it, of course: red arrows painted on a Cuillin peak are "an act of vandalism which must surely be deplored by all British climbers." But then again he's also for it: one of the joys of the Tyrol, he says, is that "new peaks and glaciers burst into view, yet you are never far from a reassuring marker cairn or a red-blazed boulder...".
This, from a mathematician? It just doesn't add up.
TAC 47 Index