ANOTHER DAY, another book launch demanding TAC's presence. I turned up early for the affair in Glasgow Ottakar's and was sniffing round the free wine when a frighteningly gregarious wee man introduced himself and confessed to being the author. There was a huge crowd at the launch. It appeared that everyone Peter Kemp had ever walked with was there - including a substantial presence from "the Gleniffer", a walking club which features regularly in the book. Talking to one of them later, it transpired that these were the guys who once made the Hillman Imp.
I am going to try and say "rough-hewn Glasgow working-class humour" just the once here. Oops -I've used it right at the start. How am I going to get through this review now?
Of Big Hills and Wee Men is a chronicle of the bagging and bothying of Kemp, the eponymous "wee man" of the title and launch. And wee he is. We might as well get it over with: he's about five feet nothing. Not that this should even bear mention in this day and age - but Scots have always had a penchant for wee men, from Jimmy Johnstone to Jimmy Krankie, and Kemp has chosen to draw our attention to it anyway.
So what has caused Luath Press to publish his memoirs in the face of - one assumes - relentless competition from other would-be Hamishes? In a way, it's hard to put a finger on it. Kemp is no climber - he tells us that. He has only one round of Munros knocked up and his prose at times verges on parody of pawky Glasgow humour. But unlike some of us who write for this mag with our mouths stuffed with larks' tongues in aspic, he has actually had a hard life. His narrative of escape to the hills is not escape from the chalk face or slide rule but from the freezing cold of the shipyard or unemployment. Likewise his use of public transport, bothies and hostels stemmed from economic necessity rather then romanticism.
From Dudley Watkins via James Kelman to Irvine Welsh, many writers have grappled with the problem of turning Scots vernacular into print. It's not a job one covets. Take the simple expression much heard in the playground of my own alma mater: "punch his pus". Would it be "punch es pus"? Or does pus have two s's? Have I just committed a greengrocer's apostrophe? Who knows? Anyway, none of the above appears to worry Kemp. Almost every page in Of Big Hills and Wee Men contains direct speech of the utmost phonetic vernacular. I opened it at random and came up with "Hiv ye goat ra bearin?" Another random opening produced "Nivver mind yer toe! We wur nearly arrivin at the Fort stuck tae the front o yon train!" This might put you off, as the attempt to spell out our native tongue quite often jars. However, it shouldn't. Kemp is an engaging storyteller and has some good stories to tell - mostly arising from the company he keeps.
The book is a first-person narrative of his entire hillwalking career, culminating in finishing the Munros; but that is secondary to what most readers will empathise with: a desire to get out. I am writing this after a weekend wasted poncing about in London. The hills had looked magnificent as we flew out of Glasgow and they looked magnificent again as we flew in. How I would rather have been there than where I was. Kemp is the same. A Govan shipbuilder who experienced unemployment and economic migration but who was consistently dragged to the hills. The kindred souls with whom he climbs make the book, but only a few appear to be 100% boon companions. Many of the others, such as "wee Stukky", appear to stretch Kemp's patience to breaking point.
Breaking point is another theme. Although Kemp himself is never directly involved, there is a fair amount of fisticuffs in the book. While Kemp is the mildest-mannered of chaps (at least at book launches), he takes a certain amount of vicarious glee in describing the penchant of the likes of his brother: "James wanted to round off the night with a customary bar-room brawl. [He] got hold of one of the spades we were carrying in case of snow drifts. [...] While his spade was tangled in some rucksacks I shouted to John to lamp him with the other spade." All good stuff (as long as you aren't the target). There is an element of Kemp parading his no-nonsense working-class credentials about it, though - and the passage he read at the launch dwelled again on the contentious. A chap called Harry "wanted to round off his evening with a good old-fashioned punch-up". I have to say I have plied my hillwalking career without any good old-fashioned or even new-fangled punch-ups, but it should be pointed out that this Harry is not part of Kemp's entourage. The evening ends with Big Rab (one of the less aggressive of Kemp's associates) micturating on Harry's bed. Potential for mayhem, but it all ends well because the recipient was so drunk he assumed he had involuntarily been the cause himself. If it all sounds somewhat juvenile as recounted here, Kemp's own narrative is amusing and not without insight into the ludicrous nature of some of the altercations.
For a lily-livered, car-using, B&B-frequenting middle-class chap like myself, Kemp's book is a great insight into how it all might have been. Forced to use public transport or the cheapest of sets of wheels, hardship and incident were never far away. Likewise with bothies and tents. There is no inverted snobbery, however. When Kemp eventually graduates to owning cars and using hotels he grasps such luxury.
This is a great wee book full of rough-hewn ... oops.
TAC 64 Index