TAC 30 Index
by Ian Mitchell, Mercat Press, 1996, #8.99, x+126pp, ISBN 1 873644 5 3 1
- Reviewed by Gordon Smith -
According to the Ed, my last story in TAC caused great offence to swathes of Beatles fans, and in particular to one Rocky Raccoon of Arbroath. At first I laughed off reports of angry letters from pseudonymous ranters; but then the Ed reminded me that Mark Chapman had been a Beatles fan too, and suggested that I beware lest Rocky appear outside my house clutching his autograph book.
It was not, however, a vengeful smokie-muncher who arrived at my door the next day, but the postman bearing a book for me to review. And by strange coincidence, it was by a bearded, bespectacled relic of the sixties, who became famous as one half of a successful writing duo before going on to a solo career; who has occasionally espoused vaguely radical political views in his work; and whose wife's bare buttocks have made a somewhat gratuitous literary appearance ... *
I was relieved, however, to find on closer inspection that it was not by John Lennon, but by Ian Mitchell. That's good, I thought to myself, no problems here. I like most of Mitchell's stuff. In fact, I would say that his first book (co-written with Dave Brown), Mountain Days and Bothy Nights, is one of my favourite books about the Scottish hills: it not only evokes an era, its people and places; it almost smells of wet socks and woodsmoke. It is also genuinely, laugh-out-loud funny.
The pair's next book, A View from the Ridge, won the Boardman / Tasker Prize which they should have got for Mountain Days. Although it is occasionally evocative and elegiac, there is a feeling that they had already told all their funniest stories, and that recognition of this fact required the book to be given a rather sententious introduction which accurately predicts "nae jokes, and some meditations on man and nature ... " It also attempts to impose a somewhat spurious thematic unity on the stories, claiming that all of the tales are founded on their belief that nature is "not an escape from, but a reflection of, wider social issues and concerns."
Mitchell's first book without Brown, Second Man on the Rope, was all about Brown, and hence did not need such an artificial linking device (or karabiner?); and it was all the better for the lack of it. Jokes were, however, still in short supply, and were entirely absent from The First Munroist, a somewhat arid historical / biographical work about the Rev AE Robertson. This book, and the incredible spat in the columns of SMC Journals which followed its publication, confirmed that Mitchell saw his future literary path to be that of un homme serieux.
And this is his problem with his most recent book: while he clearly (and admirably) wishes to present a serious historical perspective to present and future hillwalkers, Mitchell also recognises that he owes his popularity to anecdote. Mountain Footfalls is an attempt to accommodate both styles within a single structure, employing the device of splitting each chapter into two parts, an anecdote and a related historical "echo".
So is it a social history leavened with humour, or a humorous work given depth by an historical perspective? The answer is unfortunately neither: for the historical content, much of which appears to be the by-product of research for his Robertson book and a forthcoming tome on proto-mountaineers, is not significantly lightened by the "insight, humour and antics ... " promised on the back cover. Indeed the feel of the book is relentlessly downbeat: the cover itself features a couple of somnolent old codgers, and is printed in the shade of grey rejected by Alex Ferguson because it apparently rendered his team invisible to one another. The dour, dull, dreich Dick-Donnelly-in-Dundee atmosphere is reinforced by the fact that the first three stories are set against a dismal, rainy backdrop; and whereas it could be argued that such a depiction of depressing weather is realistic, it has to be said it does little for the cause of variety and light and shade.
Neither are the anecdotes greatly enhanced by the historical pieces, which are at best worthy, and at worst have such a tenuous connection with the anecdotal introduction as to be exasperating to the reader. In the chapter on Galloway, for example, Mitchell comes to the somewhat polarist conclusion that it's not worth going south, and then proceeds to link this dismissal with a piece about Alexander Nicolson and his adventures on Skye on the grounds that Nicolson once worked in Kirkcudbright: He too had made a mistake in going to Galloway, Mitchell pronounces. The chapter on Mull contains a biographical sketch of John MacLean, justified by the fact that the Glasgow bolshevist's father had been born on the island. Mitchell tells us that MacLean visited Coll, Lerwick and Lewis, but not, apparently, Mull itself: perhaps it was too far south? So contrived are these connections that we half expect the chapter on West Affric to lead into a description of Sierra Leone or the Gambia.
As the MacLean piece would suggest, there is a political dimension to Mountain Footfalls. Its basic theme is the effects of feudalism on the Highlands, and in this class war Mitchell not unnaturally sides with the peasants. As in previous books, he appears to adopt an unreconstructed socialist position: it comes as a bit of a surprise, therefore, when he denounces some people who annoy him in a pub as "that mongrel crew of the Fort's housing estates - second generation Glesca keelies now on the dole with the pulp mill closed, and semi-urbanised tinker-types... " But aren't these folk just as much the dispossessed proletariat as the past victims of landlordism who are memorialised elsewhere in the book? Are they not, more so than (as Mitchell claims) we hillwalkers, the real heritors of the Highlanders?
* Endpiece: Proctophiles should note that Mrs Lennon's naked bum appears on the cover of her volume of "poetry", Grapefruit; Mrs Mitchell's appears on p75 of Mountain Footfalls.
TAC 30 Index