TAC 31 Index
That rare beast, a TV series about hillwalking, has recently stalked our screens - and networked on BBC2 at that. Wilderness Walks featured Cameron McNeish and was produced/directed by Richard Else. Knowing this to be in the offing, your Ed thought that rather than simply blanket-review the series as a whole, it might be interesting to commission mini-reviews of each programme. Hence six writers - the five members of TAC's first team plus jinky trialist Pete Drummond - were each given 400 words to focus on smaller aspects which gave pleasure or proved irksome. The resultant spotlit analysis and mix of opinions will hopefully prove enlightening, provide some kind of overview, and give a feel for the series.
For openers, McNeish and Chris Brasher trekked across the Cairngorms, via Braeriach and Macdui. The chat seemed too sporadic for a chat show, and the hills too occasional for a hill show. At one point, the pair seemed to teleport from Braeriach to Corrour, with never a sign of Cairn Toul on the way; just a slightly startled duo saying, "Well, here we are!" and looking only a little unlike people who had just dropped from a helicopter. There was a moment of inadvertent comedy on the summit of Braeriach, with Brasher spouting lasciviously and at length on the resemblance of the Cairngorm mountains to enormous breasts. Meanwhile, the camera panned slowly across the far side of the Lairig, where Macdui and Cairn Gorm shuffled their figurative feet and looked, well, rocky and irregular and entirely unbreastlike, actually.
Both Brasher and McNeish came equipped with walking poles, which they used in the manner of Victorian swagger sticks - touching them lightly and irregularly to the ground without looking where they were planted. Pretty much the way most people use them, in fact. It was incongruous, then, to hear McNeish offer up the old chestnut about how walking poles can take 30% of the load off the knees.
Now look, I'm sorry; I know you've maybe heard me on this theme before, but here's a wee experiment I urge you to try. Stand on your bathroom scales with your poles planted on either side, and push down on them until your measured weight drops by nearly a third. That's 30% of the static load on your knees. But when your heel hits the ground as you stride along, knee loading rises briefly to three or four times body weight, so now push down until your weight drops to zero. Relax. Do it again. And again. And again. Keep going like that, once every couple of seconds, alternating poles. Is that how hard you work with your poles? Of course not. So does anyone out there know the source for this amazing number, or why otherwise sane hill journalists keep trotting it out?
Willie Whitelaw once accused a Labour opponent of "roaming around the country stirring up apathy", and that is largely what Chris Smith gets up to with Cameron McNeish on Mull. The Islington MP and Munroist appears to be a nice chap, as does the presenter: but their conversation, based on such topics as Smith's enjoyment of the journey north by sleeper and his PhD thesis on Romantic poetry, hardly enthrals; that is, until, high on Ben More (in both senses of the phrase), Smith suddenly discovers George Bush's elusive Vision Thing.
"The ordinary people of this country need to have a right to walk freely in open country," he pants. "I think we ought to have legislation ... people have fought for over a hundred years ... but it's still possible for ... " he spits the words, "a landowner to stop you walking freely ... ".
Just at the point where it seems Smith is about to promise wholesale nationalisation of land, aristocrats to be arrested, Smirnoff Blacks all round, McNeish interrupts him. In a nod to the spirit of fair play, the presenter lobs the softest of underarm balls at the MP: "But surely, Chris," McNeish offers almost apologetically, "landowners have rights too? The right to shoot deer, to shoot grouse?" He only just stops short of adding and Mr Pol and Mr Pot: surely they had their good points?
Suddenly, Smith realises that he has trespassed on to controversial ground. Instead of hitting the question for a boundary, he tucks his bat under his arm and heads for the intellectual pavilion. "There can be reasonable agreement not to go up particular sides of a hill when shooting is in progress, when stalking is going on ... " he continues, without explaining exactly how this Reasonableness on the Hills Act is to be enforced.
One other disappointing feature of the programme was yet another reference to Hopkins' execrable poem Inversnaid. It would appear that this is the only bit of verse that outdoor writers know, probably because it is quoted in every single book about the West Highland Way; nevertheless, McNeish and Smith still conspire to get the line wrong, in what must be the first ever televised routine of synchronised misquotation. Smith even gets Hopkins' first name wrong, calling him Gerald instead of Gerard. A PhD Smith may be: he can't tell his Rs from his Ls, though.
The Ed and I were discussing the other day my habit of starting every review with a huge digression. Well now's the time to change all that. I loved this programme. Was it Matty's engaging personality and adventurous stories? Was it McNeish's witty banter and searching interview technique? Was it Baffin Island's snow-crested peaks and awesome scenery? Or was it my perennial favourite, The Wildlife? It was none of these. It was the dogs. McNeish himself admitted "the real heroes are the native Canadian Eskimo dogs" (not a very technical-sounding breed). They were filmed the way John Ford used to film covered wagons and stampeding cattle, with a camera at ground level and dogs running over the top. They settled down for the night in minus 100 degrees of wind-chill. And got up every morning, wagged their tails and scampered off. Ninety miles in all, over six days. Matty waggled a whip at them and shouted "hike hike": apparently "mush" is "too mushy". They had once even chased away a polar bear that was crushing Matty's tent. And at journey's end, McNeish helped drag them howling on to the plane to fly back. One got the impression they would rather run all the way. And they were cute as cuddly toys. (That's enough dogs - Ed.)
Apart from the dogs we had Baffin Island. Fifth largest island in the world. I was expecting something awesome, but unless the camera lied, it looked a bit like endless Trossachs. Nothing very majestic, just white undulating wastes. "Hill-lookism" is an occasional crime of mine, so I'll say no more about Baffin Island. McNeish pestered Matty for tales of Wildlife, but apart from the polar bear story there was merely a dead caribou, which has five stomachs and eats only lichen. Why do humans have only one stomach when they have to eat ten pints of lager and a lamb vindaloo?
McNeish prods each guest for a philosophy of "wilderness", and Matty duly obliged with "the more we spend time in the cities, we really need that balance with the wilderness". If it's a genuine balance she's after, then she, who spends her whole time in the wilderness, should come over to Glasgow for a week. She would experience the minus 273 wind-chill which "The Bad Companion" blasts at me when I leave the jam out. Led by Grolsch (my faithful husky), we would undertake a 900-yard, 35-minute expedition to Maxwell Park and see the ducks. We would meet TAC artist The Swan who certainly looks as if he has five stomachs and who owns a copy of a book called Shag the Caribou (strange but true).
Did I say I loved the dogs?
John Mackenzie is Earl of Cromartie, Viscount Tarbat, Chief of Clan Mackenzie, etc, etc, but what did he want to be called by Cameron McNeish? John. What a surprise. I had thought that he was being included in this series to represent the acceptable face of landownership. He certainly did that, indeed he had been particularly active in negotiating access rights to Paul van Vlissingen's Letterewe Estate through which they were walking. But then he doesn't actually own (or even have guardianship of) any mountains, just two or three thousand acres (well, one does lose count after the first hundred or so) of farmland. It's much easier to approve wholeheartedly of freedom of access when your own backyard doesn't contain any Munros.
However, Mackenzie's genuine affinity for the hills was clear, which is more than can be said for the weather. Knowing how stunning views of the Fisherfield Forest can be, thanks to the cover of The Big Walks, I was looking forward to this section, but it wasn't to be. Credit though for resisting the temptation to splice in a helicopter-obtained good day view. In fact, the dramatic one-sided cloudscapes of An Teallach were a prime example of Mackenzie's opinion that hills are more interesting on "poor" days and that a view is a bonus. There were however a few shots where I couldn't be sure if the haze was natural or due to a fingerprint-smudged lens.
For such an experienced walker, Mackenzie seemed to be lacking in rucsac management skills. Twice we saw him tipping the contents of his pack out in search of elusive items. This may have been because the unacknowledged support crew were carrying them: throughout the series we kept being required to suspend disbelief about how much backpacking gear you can carry in a day sack. The other aspect which interested me was that everything seemed to have been thrown in loose, rather than using the standard carrier bag system which serves both for waterproofing and to help identify items with ease. This was a pity as it would have been useful to have aristocratic data for my forthcoming essay entitled "Kwik Save vs Schiphol Duty Free: what the bags in your rucsac say about you".
A final bonus point. The TV-Scrutiny Sub-committee of the Branch Bothidian need not worry: the series seems to have been scrupulously free of bothy-mentions. (But not for much longer - Ed.)
Irishman George Bernard Shaw once famously said of the game of golf that it spoiled a good walk; much of the early part of this film had trivia talk spoiling the walk. Cameron McNeish came across as a doted bodach asking a bright young thing about the modern world - "Who exactly are these Oasis, my dear?" Later, from Lesley Riddoch, came several serious questions.
One of the sharpest of these came on top of Carrauntoohil: that the process of making ascents was like life, in that apparent unattainabilities seen from below were easier when you actually came to tackle them - and that life seems safer once you're up high. (A good point: the best hill days are often those where doubt has clouded the outcome - weather or technical difficulty posing the question mark - but fortune goes on to favour the brave, a metaphor for life itself.) Cameron the philosopher responded less fully than Rodin would have hoped for: "Have you ever studied psychology?", and with gentle mocking about Riddoch "psychoanalysing everything" he continued "I come up here to empty my head". Exactly!
Throughout the film Riddoch kept raising interesting questions. In the pub it was she who prompted a local to explain the name MacGillycuddy's Reeks - the (hay) ricks of MacGillycuddy, a sept of the O'Sullivan clan. And she raised the inherent sexism of the placename Hags' Glen. On the hill she raised the issues of why wild areas were idolised by people who nevertheless chose not to live in them; why the Celts view the West as sexy and beckoning; she observed of the landscape that there was a contradiction between Ireland's soft accessibility and this "steely" but "elegant" corner of it; and that the Carrauntoohil summit had "so many different kinds of view".
So it does: Scottish hillscape south, Welsh sandy estuaries west, Lakeland field patchwork north, all centred round an Alpine iron cross - but Cameron didn't pick up on that. Instead, he gave us just "fantastic" (twice) and burbled on "It's a nice feeling to know there's no-one else above us in all Ireland". Later on he described a Brocken Spectre with another "fantastic", a "good grief", and a "brilliant". The wilderness as a brain-emptying experience or a place to consider the more fundamental questions? The frustration of this programme was that there was no uptake of some of the whys - of walking or the wilderness - that Riddoch raised.
I have to admit to bias about David Craig, McNeish's final slightly-famous guest for a Wilderness Walk. His books might not suit everyone, but this is a man who once gave me 85% for a piece of coursework. All right, seeing as you asked, it was for a tape called "Pop and Protest in the Seventies" during a course on "Modern Life in Literature, Sound and Film" at Lancaster Uni. So I'll forgive him his poetry: to me he's definitely one of the good guys of life. But he'd never been to Knoydart before this programme, and someone really should have told him how to behave. You do not wear bright red trousers in Knoydart. You're supposed to blend in.
His voice blended in well enough though, sounding uncannily like Ivor Cutler (and he looked uncannily like Lord Longford - Ed.). Almost every sentence he uttered had poetic tendencies, without going off the scale. McNeish couldn't compete of course, but his occasional interjections of "wow" and "look at that" didn't disrupt the flow.
Craig managed to make all the historical gubbins seem more interesting than usual, perhaps because it was clear he really knew his stuff and didn't romanticise the past. But still the chatter tended to distract from the landscape, like DJs prattling over a favourite instrumental. And the talk remained rooted firmly in the past. After a healthy shot at landowners, they missed a golden chance to turn to current land issues. No mention of the John Muir Trust and its efforts to restore trees, wildlife and vitality to Coire Dhorrcail. No mention of recent landownership squabbles and crises. And no visit to Inverie to see how one of the mainland's most isolated communities is faring these days. Has the guest house owner patched up his differences with the pub landlord? I think we should have been told. Maybe it's easier to research the past, or maybe these issues don't quite fit in with the wilderness concept.
There's no denying that Ladhar Bheinn looked majestic and would have stolen the show given a bit more coverage. With that kind of weather they could have stayed high longer and traversed Aonach Sgoilte and Sgurr Coire Choinnichean on the way down to Inverie. We'd have gained some stunning seascapes, but I suppose it would have been a long day for the film crew.
"Best of the series" suggested my significant other. Possibly so. Riddoch was more entertaining I thought, but I'll give Ladhar Bheinn 100% for appearance and Craig 85% for effort for his historical essay. Just a pity about the trousers really.
Dear TAC - Has Grant Hutchison never thought of the age-old use of staffs (staves) by previous generations of travellers down the ages? Or of the continuing use of such aids by present-day stalkers and hill-shepherds? Fair enough, these are rigid, but they serve the same purpose as the telescopic staff. I use a blackthorn staff when walking the dog, but this would be too cumbersome when travelling to the hills, so I use a telescopic for that purpose. Listen, Grant, I admit to being on the threshold of the knacker's yard, but if I can stave (!) off the inevitable for a while longer, I will use a telescopic Zimmer frame (which was invented by Bob Dylan, wasn't it?) Your turn will come, mate, and then you'll be sorry you laughed at us!
Mention of shepherds brings me clumsily to something that has puzzled me for yonks. There seems to be little or no input to TAC from Wales. With the well-known sexual preferences of Welshmen in mind, I find it strange that they seem to ignore such a sheep-obsessed publication as TAC. I have it on good authority that the shepherd's crook was invented by a Welsh shepherd for pulling girlfriends, so why this seeming lack of interest? We know that TAC's obsession with ovines stems from the fact that our dear Editor hails from Derbyshire. That same county has a tup for its emblem; need I say more?
Yet another instance of sheep-obsession was displayed by Professor Fractal's woolly thinking in his latest memo (TAC30, p14). Since distance is defined as "the extent of space between two points", there cannot possibly be such a concept as "infinite distance". Further in the same memo, he states that "we all know that the sea goes up and down". No it doesn't; it goes in and out, which causes the land to go up and down due to the weight of water on it. It's obvious to anyone who stands on a beach that the land lowers itself into the water as the tide advances. Because of this effect, Scotland has a constant gentle sideways rocking motion which can often be observed far inland affecting human beings in the vicinity of licensed premises.
Mick Furey, Rotherham
Ed. - Welsh TACit Table out now: see p11. Space-pressure means Mick's promised article is held over, but while you're waiting, check out his latest letter - re Chris Smith and Highland depopulation - on p70 of the Weekend Guardian, 22/2/97.
TAC 31 Index