TAC 40 Index
Another six Wilderness Walks, another six reviews. Friday nights, BBC2, 8pm (really stupid scheduling for videoless outdoors-goers), Cameron McNeish and friends. As before (TAC31), The Angry Corrie's finest are let loose on the former Footloose editor's patch.
Veterans of the last series of Wilderness Walks will not have switched on to this first programme of the new batch expecting great profundity. The revelation that nouns (such as wilderness) can be used adjectivally set the tone.
The main surprise for me was that this was billed in the press as an exploration of the Red Cuillin, but Cameron McNeish's walk with Donnie Munro soon left Marsco for Loch Coruisk, the Bad Step and Bla Bheinn - not even vaguely rufous. A possible explanation is that the programme-makers are colour-blind. Why else would both McNeish and Munro have been wearing gamboge outfits?
Of the total of twelve programmes, two have featured Labour party politicians. I can't imagine that Charles Kennedy, for one, is too pleased about this. What next, one wonders? Peter Mandelson among the coal gatherers on Hartlepool beach? Tony Blair from the wasteland that was once Fujitsu? Even if the desire remains to equate wilderness with hills, there is still plenty of scope. Given that Munro had not previously climbed the Graham, Marsco, can we expect the next series to include Tommy Graham atop a Munro? Perhaps not, given the additional erosion countermeasures this might necessitate. Alternatively, we could see Patricia Hewitt bagging Donalds, Calum MacDonald visiting an island Marilyn in his constituency, or Birmingham MP Robin Corbett sampling a Welsh Hewitt. (Back in the real world, the latest hills/politics link-up seems to have brought together six-times Munroist Robin Howie and Margaret Cook née Whitmore, ex-wife of the Foreign Secretary - Ed.)
This said, the political content was not over-pervasive. The interviewing style is hardly that of Newsnight. Dear Kirsty's eyes would have lit up at the prospect of knowing exactly what the members of Genesis said when confronted with condemnation of their forestry practices by the lead singer of one of their support bands. But we weren't told here.
If political balance has been lacking, so was its physical counterpart as McNeish juggled with those walking poles across the Bad Step. Munro looked much the more comfortable of the two here and came across generally as fit and at home in the hills.
It was worth watching for the great scenery, stunning light, well-framed images and the jagged Cuillin. If you videoed the programme, I would recommend that you view it with the volume down as the words added little. And that way, you'll be spared the singing.
Of all the things I really hate in life (there are 37), cons and rip-offs are right up there alongside bigots and rapists, midges and alarm clocks, rice pudding and The Archers. I certainly don't hate Cameron McNeish, but I regard his Munros book as a con trick, selling in thousands largely because of its phoney knock-down price (see TAC31, pp10-11).
So I suppose I wanted to be negative about this wilderness walk, perhaps hoping McNeish would fall on his arse and get lost. Well, he did both, but in Ireland, not the Pyrenees. In this programme he was bland but okay, and the overall effect was more than okay. The landscape was captivating, and Nicholas Crane was an interesting companion. His assessment of the chosen wilderness walk (from Gavarnie in France through the Brèche de Roland to the Ordesa Gorge in Spain) as the best walk in Europe was a bit startling, but from what I saw here I couldn't argue. It was so stunning that McNeish was forced to admit "I've lost the words to describe it", by which he presumably meant he'd forgotten his catchphrase "look at that". He's no Paxman either - I'd have liked more probing about why Crane always dossed or bivvied instead of camping. Was it just to save weight? Instead it was McNeish who was grilled by Crane about why he used a tent, though he defended this rather well.
I was immensely impressed by Crane's bivvying skills. Having spent two nights out in the same area, I know it's not that simple. In fact the night in the so-called hut at the Brèche de Tuquerouye, and the next under an icy boulder near the Brèche de Roland, rank as my fourth and fifth worst nights ever. I learned more on that one walk in the Pyrenees than on any since, including:
But one thing I didn't learn was what the landscape looked like, because it was all plastered in snow and ice, not to mention mist and darkness.
So, thank you Cameron McNeish and the BBC for this visual feast. Perhaps you did try to con us a bit though. After all, the Ordesa Gorge is hardly "undiscovered", the Pyrenees are hardly "neglected" or the "Cinderella" of Europe, and the innocent viewer would not have realised that Gavarnie is a tourist honeypot full of donkey shit, as well as being an amazing place. It also looked to me as though the descent to Ordesa was on a path, albeit an impressive one, not a death-defying new route as suggested. But all this is quibbling, for you have to have some artistic licence, and the camerawork and scenery were undoubtedly genuine. Like Nicholas Crane I too must go back one day, and not just for the scenery, as I have some unfinished business to attend to on Monte Perdido. Of all the things I hate in life, one thing I really really hate is setting off up a mountain and not getting to the top.
Next time though I'll go the easy way; I'll follow this wilderness walk route, and I'll stay in Crane's cave instead of the "spartan" Refuge de Tuquerouye. Not just a pretty and inspiring programme, but a holiday planning and accommodation guide too.
Not without preconceptions did I approach this episode - fascinated by Ridgway senior since the infamous documentary when he keel-hauled the middle managers. Imagination was running riot with images of what the offspring might be like - especially as she was touted as a chip off the old block.
It's probably not very fair to Bec Ridgway to dangle her old man throughout this review, and I would not want my own fortitude on the Fasarinen pinnacles judged by extrapolation from Warbeck Père bumbling around Broughty Ferry. However, would we know of Bec at all if it wasn't for the old man?
Anticipation was fuelled by the rather eccentric behaviour of McNeish in this series. Every cut in Episode One had him humming obscure folk songs in an effort to persuade Donnie that he was a brother under the Aran jumper. What would be the parallel with Bec Ridgway? Would McNeish threaten to feast on her liver? Or deliberately capsize the kayak to teach her fortitude? It seemed possible, because McNeish is much looser in this series. He makes little jokes. He trumpets the theme tune from what he describes as "Kirk Douglas's Vikings" as if it's some cultural touchstone the viewer will recognise. He wears an ear-ring and a bohemian wee scarf. He starts ranting in Episode Two about a perfectly innocent Spanish cairn, as if every viewer is supposed to know about his bizarre hobby.
But enough of McNeish. What of Ridgway? Rather reluctantly, I have to report that "Bec" (what confusion must reign at showbiz parties when she and the writers of "Hi-Ho Silver Lining" and "Devil's Haircut" are all there) was something of an anti-climax. Not her fault, but the father is just too hard an act to follow. Apparently there was no electricity in the family home and sadly this kind of applied to the walk. The north of Scotland did its bit, although the widescreen spaciousness doesn't quite translate to the little box. The stories were good enough - kayaking round Cape Horn and adopting children in Latin American jungles; but she was just too quiet, too nice I guess. This was Episode Three and I was ready for someone to take McNeish on. I was sick of the wee interlude where McNeish goes "so Donnie/Bec/Nicholas - wilderness - don't ya just love it?" And the two of them witter on about how we need the wilderness in this increasingly urban world. Bob Wilson doesn't come on and say "isn't football great." We know it's great, that's why we're watching, you tube. Peter Alliss doesn't soliloquise about what a great game golf is. His job is to say things like "I expect Seve will dig out the heavy furniture here", or "Elementary, my dear Watson."
Like Webster's Dictionary, Programme 4 was Morocco bound; but not before it had shown us the less luxurious binding of the Fife council scheme where Hamish Brown has his Scottish pied à terre. This homely setting seemed all the more incongruous when Hamish began speaking of warking erlong dert trecks in Ehfrica. Not having heard Brown speak before, I was surprised at how cultured, almost upper-class, his tones were. Reading his books, I had imagined a more rugged voice, perhaps because of the masculine prose style and frequent use of Scots: so it was a bit of a shock to hear him talk like the Scottish Tory MPs of fable and legend.
If Hamish, then, was Posh Bagger, Cameron was Scary: who on earth advised him that a single ear-ring would be an attractive or even appropriate accessory for a middle-aged, heterosexual, beardy man, rather than a source of incredulous mirth and ridicule? Is there anything else we should know about, such as a pierced nipple or a butterfly tattoo on his left buttock? Frankly, Cameron looks increasingly like Black Jake (Captain Pugwash's nemesis), twenty years on. The ear-ring itself has more in Common with Clapham than (say) Clisham, and he was wise to dispense with it before reaching the shores of North Africa, where such ornamentation might be taken as an indicator of proclivity: suffice it to say that Kenneth Williams was a frequent visitor to Marrakesh.
But enough of the carry-on: this was an interesting programme in that it showed the progression of landscape from urbanised desert to the high tops, via Land Rover and mule tracks. The mountain ridges were very inviting, offering easy-angled snow and warm rock under a caerulean sky; Hamish bestrode the Atlas under the shelter of a blue parasol, as if to the colonial manner born. In this environment, in which he is so clearly comfortable, his responses to Cameron's questions sounded even more authoritative and pukka than they did in Fife.
It was the questions, however, which were the cols in this particular mountain range: I wished that they could have been a bit more searching. I was reminded of the advert for One-2-One mobile phones, in which Ian Wright expresses a wish to ask penetrating questions of Martin Luther King. Now, forget the fact that it is a bit rich of the temperamental and intermittently violent Wright to align himself with the concept of peaceful protest (just ask any Premiership referee); and ignore the underlying egotism which allows him to see himself as a latter-day King (Peter Schmeichel doubling as James Earl Ray?): the basic idea of the advert works, because we're all interested in people, their motivations and contradictions, and we could all think of someone we'd like to put to the question. McNeish gets the opportunity to interview a bagging icon, but unfortunately doesn't ask him any hard questions, such as Aren't you a bit of a humbug, banging on about the despoliation of the Munros, while at the same time being their arch-populariser, and Aren't you now doing the same thing to the Atlas? Or even, Will you please stop claiming that you're not, never have been, no way, no sirree, a Munro-bagger, in the face of all evidence to the contrary?
In the absence of such a harder edge, we were left with pretty pictures, and the bland leading the bland.
I thought that the Ed had given me the Perrin Award, but maybe not. Here was one of the most articulate and passionate writers about hills, yet Perrin was almost taciturn; perhaps he needs the reflective mood before his usual fluent prose floods out?
He spoke of his affection for Ireland, yet talked of "mainland Britain". That's guaranteed to raise hackles, except amongst a minority in the Six Counties. A minor point to some, maybe, but a real irritation to others. How can you describe another island country as "the mainland"?
Perrin was unusually reticent about his early life; he seemed almost shamefaced when he spoke of his previous membership of the Communist Party. That's nowt to be ashamed of, Jim lad; membership of the Conservative Party would be. Isn't it odd the way people jump from one authoritarian regime to another? In Perrin's case, from the Catholic Church to the CP. Does it mean that they need that strictness, that blind obedience?
I've never been on Cruach Phádraig (Croagh Patrick / The Reek), and never really wanted to; perhaps because of its association with the deep guilt-feelings that the Catholic Church instilled into us. (Or maybe just because of the crowds.) It's obviously not the easiest hill in Ireland, so there is a penitential element. I go to hills solely for pleasure. I don't see the point in using them as punishment.
Cnoic Shiofra (Sheeffry Hills) and Maol Ria (Mweelrea) looked more like it; the kind of empty external landscape that is the main attraction for lots of people. The sort of place where you get closer to your real self and away from the need to impress other people.
Dubh Loch is a still-tender scar on the Irish consciousness. It's only in recent years that the scandal of the deaths there has been officially commemorated. It seems that we feel almost guilty about An Gorta Mór (The Great Hunger), as if the people were responsible for their plight and were punished by a vengeful god. At school I was given the impression by the (Irish) Christian Brothers that the people were too stupid or too lazy to grow anything but potatoes.
I wish that more had been said about the causes of The Famine. That's a purely human reaction to the history of such events; nothing to do with my own political outlook. There was no shortage of food then, just as there is no shortage of food now. Yet people are still allowed to die of malnutrition and associated diseases while surplus food is piled up in warehouses. So I'm really surprised, and rather saddened, that Perrin didn't use the occasion to ram home the inhumanity of the capitalist system. We need to be regularly belted round the ears with the brutal injustice of it all.
More could have been said about the land and the people. A landscape is nothing to me without a sense of the people who live or have lived in it. Without that, even the most beautiful places have the feeling of desolation that deserts induce. The people of a place are not just part of the scenery; they are largely the shapers of the land, whether through industry or neglect. Inis Toirc was seen at the end of the programme; I've heard that the people there are wary of strangers, but no effort was made to explain their reasons. The two guys in the curach might just as well have been a bus crew, for all that we heard from them.
All in all, the programme left me vaguely unsatisfied; like a meal without seasoning. On reflection, perhaps I'm too emotionally close to that part of Ireland to be objective enough. There were a lot of things left unsaid, but the series isn't really aimed at the likes of us, is it? If such programmes help to explain our strange pastime then they're worthwhile. So long as they don't encourage too many people to go on the same hill at the same time as me.
In this episode, we followed Ray and Jenny Jardine through the Three Sisters Wilderness of Oregon.
I find that I like the Jardines, in spite of their floaty, tree-hugging style. Early in the programme, they intoned a rapturous bit of nonsense about the "alpha state" - a bizarre offspring of electroencephalography jargon and New Age Mind/ Body/Spirit twaddle. What was said was pseudo-scientific window dressing, but I think we all have at least an inkling of what was meant - the calm, focused sense of belonging that comes when you've had a bit of time to settle into a well- loved landscape.
To help themselves bond with the wilderness, the Jardines carry very little gear - they sleep under a single, sloping waterproof sheet, and build their fires from brushwood ignited with the aid of a traditional fire-bow. They walked the whole Pacific Crest Trail carrying only 81/2lbs of gear apiece.
Ray has hiked over twenty thousand miles, but he wafts along with his pack slung nonchalantly over one shoulder - no belly band, no walking poles, no ankle-supporting boots (at one point, I swear to you, he was wearing Hush Puppies). These folk live the message that human beings are designed for the wilderness environment, if only they are smart enough to keep themselves comfortable and alive.
McNeish was clearly impressed - the high point of the programme was his evident delight at being taught to start a fire from literal scratch. But there were questions that should have been asked. How, for instance, do the Jardines cope with a protracted period of really foul weather? How do they reconcile their disdain for the trappings of high-tech civilisation with their use of plastic bags, photochromic spectacles, and even shotguns? And they make their living, after all, by selling their experiences to the leisured classes - civilisation, in a sense, employs them as its wilderness correspondents. I'm sure the Jardines would have interesting, well-considered things to say on such topics. Instead, McNeish asked Jenny if she could somehow sense what a deer was thinking. She said a lot of stuff, but "not really" was her general gist. Well, there's a surprise.
During all this, the Oregon wilderness went by. We saw some bonny views, while McNeish and the Jardines puffed, and admired the scenery volubly. But the whole thing seemed irritatingly pointless - we learned little about Oregon, and less about the Jardines. So why, really, did we bother? As the closing credits rolled, my sofa-partner softly intoned the words, "Dull, dull, dull-dull-DULL!" She wasn't wrong.
TAC 40 Index