The Angry Corrie 46: Jul-Aug 2000

TAC 46 Index

The great and the Gielgud

LATE MAY was a sad time for the hill community, with the deaths of two pioneers of the outdoors, two of that ever-dwindling band of cragsmen and women for whom no hardship was too great, no pinnacle or buttress insur- mountable. First to go was the most celebrated of all lady climbers, Dame Barbara Cartland - "Krabs" Cartland as she was known to those privileged few within her inner circle.

Born scarcely a fortnight after Raeburn first climbed Observatory Ridge, Cartland's childhood in the leafier parts of the West Midlands gave little hint of the rugged, fell- striding persona that emerged during her débutante years. An early marriage to Sachie McCorquodale soon failed - not because "he drank furtively and was unsatisfactory in bed", as was rumoured in the press, rather because of the fateful day on Cloggy when he peeled off and saw all his young wife's runners pop out, one by one. A fortuitously positioned bowline saved the newly-weds by a whisker, but it was never going to save the marriage. "The indomitable cragtrix" mostly preferred to climb solo from then on.

At this remove, it is impossible to truly assess Cartland's technical merit on the rocks, but the oft-repeated claim that she was "all heart" is beyond dispute. As "Dibs" Daviot, her companion on many epic ascents, recalls: "Krabs was irrepressible. No matter the weather, she would be chiding me into making some dreadful exposed move lest what she liked to label 'those coarse bearded oafs' should beat her to the first ascent. Even the most severe of conditions held no fear. Once in Agag's Groove I gasped up to a tiny ledge, spindrift billowing around, to find her humming some music-hall ditty while nonchalantly stuff- ing a Pekinese down her climbing jacket by way of a muffler."

Cartland was one of the true innovators in hill-wear. Tiso, Lowe Alpine, Patagonia: all these and more owe her an enormous debt, and few modern hillgoers stray far with-out some garment based on her hand-designed fleece jackets. Naturally, all the early Cartland Sierras were in pink or turquoise - and her favourite colours gave rise to one of the most quoted examples of her morbid humour. "Should I ever fall on Gimmer or Pavey Ark and require to be taken down in a body bag," she told Michael Parkinson in 1987, "they had better make jolly sure it is a turquoise body bag."

Her influence was profound and far-reaching. So many scrupulously researched guidebooks flowed from her pen that in some quarters she was known as "Cartographic Cartland". This aspect of her work remained little known, however, as did her lifelong dedication to analysing the benefits of creams and powders as a deterrent to the High-land midge. The mountain photographer Walter Poucher, for instance, derived his habit of powdering his cheeks and wearing green eyeshadow from advice obtained during a chance meeting with Cartland at Glyndebourne, in 1931.

It will be as one of the all-time great hill writers that Cartland will be best remembered. Her output was prod- igious: 721 books in all, ranging from the 1922 Virgin Summits to 1989's poignant family-on-the-slopes memoir, Raine, Hail, Sleet and Snow. She expressed a rare flash of irritation that Nancy Mitford had "stolen" the title of her Changabang honeymoon expedition book, Love in a Cold Climate, but such petty feuds will be forgotten as the generations to come turn again and again to her undoubt- ed masterpiece, Pink Remembered Hills. This, above all, is a book which will be read by mountaineers for as long as there are mountains.

THE NEXT DAY, Gielgud had gone, too. For a period in the 1930s he was every bit the equal of Cartland on the winter crags, even exceeding the great dame when it came to the sea stacks and overhangs of the north-western coast. Patey, for instance, drew heavily on Gielgud's mid-century work off Hoy and Handa. It is true to say, however, that Gielgud never really "performed" on TV, reserving his greatest roles for some isolated cliff on a bleak October afternoon when most amateur climbers would have settled for the slippers and the smoking jacket. That he saw the sea crags as his vocation is beyond doubt, and it was during this period that he made his famous remark to Whillans as they rested on a grassy ledge between pitches on Stac an Armin. "This is my green room," he said, "and the blank wall above is my stage".

He even briefly enjoyed having a Skye summit named after him. Until the rise of the re-Gaelicisation mafia, Sgurr Mhic Choinnich was simply Sgurr Vic, a tribute to the host of routes established by a climber known, even in younger years, as Old Vic. But then, as middle age neared, he abruptly forsook the cracks and mossy recesses ("I have abandoned enough Friends for one lifetime", he wrote) and turned instead to long stravaigs between bothies, declaiming: "Oh how I yearn to tread the boards again".

It was in this context that Perkin Warbeck first came to know "Johnny", as he now recalls:

In an irony worthy of the Bard himself, Johnny will be remembered mainly for his ascent of Ben Arthur with the Gaelic child actor, Dudlaidh Mhor. Surely none can hear the lines "if you get lost between Dunoon and Gou-Rock city" without a wry chuckle at his portrayal of the imperious but faithful ghillie to Mhor's dilettantish laird. According to Halliwell's Guide to Modern Climbs and Routes, Gielgud and Mhor racked up only a couple of Corbetts between them, whereas it was common knowledge at the Garrick (and indeed on Garrick's Shelf) that Johnny was deep into his second round, having already knocked off Harry, Harry H, Ronnie and Matthew in one long and immensely tiring day.

The question of Johnny's reluctance to come out as a hillwalker was discussed openly in bothies and youth hostels, and it was rumoured - unfairly - that he was jealous at having seen his lifelong rival Tommy Weir make a success of big roles such as leadership of CnDo outings and Sunday Post bus tours to Pitlochry. This, though, would be a complete misreading of Johnny's career. After all, was it not he who uttered the immortal lines "alas poor Merrick, it is not a Munro"? Or who stunned tourists lounging outside the C J Taylor shop at Luss by loping off up Doune Hill wearing cross-gartered gaiters of a particularly virulent hue?

In the opinion of Jeremy "Thrutch" Irons, Johnny will be remembered as "one of the three great knights". Some see this as a reference to Larry, Ralphy and Johnny, but those more in tune with the rhythm of the hills recognise instead Sir Christian, Sir Edmund and Sir Johnny.

Ed. - What is certain is that with the loss of Cartland and Gielgud, only one of the celebrated triptych of mid-century climbers remains. Long may the Queen Mother stay active. The only sadness comes in knowing that her two rivals will not be taking their rightful places at her centenary pageant.

TAC 46 Index