The Angry Corrie 5: Jan-Feb 1992


Lies, damned lies and guidebooks

You've just tossed your nice new picture-filled Christmas-pressie guidebook onto the bothy fire. Because it's a gey chilly night and you're starved of heat? No, silly - because you've quickly come to thinking that a packet of Zippo Firelighters would be a sight more use in finding routes up hills. And you're in good company. There's Gordon Smith for a start...

On a damp and dismal day when the smir drips down your neck and trickles up your sleeve; when you are so fed up that you cannot be bothered to avoid the emerald green patch of bog which you know fine will swallow your leg up to the knee and regurgitate it only after having artexed the lower limb with what appears to be the vomit of a Guinness-drinking black pudding-eater; when curse is laid upon vituperation like stones on a summit cairn; then you may find yourself pondering which bastard it was that recommended this shiteheap of a route (or vice versa).

Another day, even in more clement conditions, you may be clinging by the fingernails to a crumbling hold as you traverse above a scree slope, your confidence tumbling into the abyss with each displaced stone. Having at last reached safety, you will perhaps pause to reflect that the guidebook made no mention of this late difficulty; and you may well conclude that its writer probably spent less time researching routes on the hill than he did abusing himself in his tent.

This would, of course, be a scandalous slander on guidebook writers, who are honest, truthful souls. Unfortunately, despite what the religious fundamentalists tell you, Truth is a flexile concept: for if my version of events is true, then yours, if different from mine, must be untrue, or at least less true. And this is the problem with the guidebooks: each is its writer's version of the truth, which probably differs from yours and mine.

Take, for example, the character who suggested the route which led you into the Black Morass: he would doubtless be shocked to hear the names you called him, and would probably not understand some of them. For he is a gentleman, and as such approaches such horrors as bogs and sitka spruce plantations with appropriate equimanity. You will find that the selfsame route which has left you so encrusted in peat and pine needles that you resemble an incinerated hedgehog will have been described in his guidebook as a grand walk.

Just as the word grand caused Holden Caulfield to puke in Catcher in the Rye, so it should flash an immediate warning to the discerning guidebook reader that here we are dealing with a twat. For the type of person who uses such a word as grand is the very type who eats a hearty breakfast before pulling on his trusty boots and venturing forth onto the hill with his faithful hound and perhaps some doughty cronies. He will also be a member of the SMC, and enjoy hanging about peat bogs because it gets you away from the wife.

An example of the priorities and attitudes of this type of writer may be found in the latest Corbetts guide, in which we are assured that at the foot of Beinn Bharrain in Arran you will find an "excellent little tearoom". Personally, I would rather have been warned that Pirnmill contains no pub, and that the best you can expect drinkwise other than excellent little tea is a can of warm lager from the general store.

An altogether more pernicious guide, however, is the bastard who had you finging by your clingernails above the lethal scree. You found yourself in that position because your cicerone (also a member of the SMC, but of the younger Provisional wing) failed to mention the difficulty - doubtless because he encountered none to speak of himself. Another trick in this one's psy-war armoury is to undermine your confidence by finding out (how does he do it?) exactly the routes you are most proud of having done, and dismissing them in his guide as easy, over-rated or - worse still - unworthy of any comment whatsoever.

Just as grand is the key word of the Tea Set, so little more than is the phrase which should alert you to the fact that You Are Now Entering Tiger Country. Thus the Aonach Eagach (Aggy Ridge, surely? - pedantic Ed.) is in his book little more than an airy walk; and the Curved Ridge little more than a mild scramble (whereas this, technically, may be the case, who wants to pay good money to be told it?). The Tiger would doubtless consider the Hanging Gardens of Babylon to be little more than a window box.

The favourite adverb of this type is easily, which he particularly likes to use in the context of rock climbs: for example "step up over the crux and continue easily to the top". Now personally I have never climbed so much as the stairs easily, and the most moderate rock is a constant battle against vertigo and incontinence. It is not for noting that I am known as Feartie Mor or the Big Yellow Man of Ben Macrame (after the activity I would rather be doing at these times). The Tiger, however, shows no fear, for he has swallowed whole the macho ethos of climbing which, while it may bolster his ego, is to the rest of us little more than a pain in the arse.

Diametrically opposite Tiger in literary style is the Panic Merchant, whose mountains on closer inspection often turn out to have moles living in them. This type of writer, who is usually English, likes to warn of dangerous ventures, only to be contemplated by the experienced mountaineer. Indeed, these very words are to be found in Poucher's Scottish Peaks describing a fairly innocuous ridge walk on which (in summer at least) the only objective danger is mascara-smudge. Nevertheless, I must confess that were I writing a guidebook with the intention of making money, this is the kind I would write. I would tell you that the West Highland Way occasionally requires ropework and some rock climbing experience; I would say that you should be able to lead Grade III before venturing onto the Cairngorm chairlift; I would claim that you need a pair of wings to get you to the top of Buachaille (cf. Wainwright in Scotland). Your first reaction on reading this will be to dismiss it as so much nonsense; on more mature consideration, however, you will begin to succumb to my blandishments, and acknowledge the fact that not everyone might find such routes as easy as you do. Before long, you will consider my guidebook to be a trusted companion and well worth twenty quid: for nobody ever went bust appealing to the vanity of the public.

So having examined these three different styles expressing three different Truths, we may see that Objective Truth is a pretty tricky thing to define. John Keats, of course, famously defined it as "Beauty, and Beauty Truth", but Keats himself wrote what is probably his worst poem after climbing the Ben (sample lines: Upon my life Sir Nevis I am piqued/That I have so far panted tugg'd and reek'd/to do an honour too your old bald pate...).

Perhaps it just goes to show that there is a certain something about the Scottish hills: something magical and transcendental; some arcane and indescribable quality that inspires even the greatest writers to talk shite. What chance, then, do our Teapots, Tigers and Tremblers stand?


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