The Angry Corrie 55: Oct-Nov 2002

Haston, la vista

Dougal Haston: The Philosophy of Risk, by Jeff Connor
(Canongate, 2002, 211pp, ISBN 1 841952 15 X, £16.99)

Review: Robin N Campbell

"I will do many things for people I respect, and for fools nothing. They deserve to be trampled on ... Thus Spake DH."

No, wrong. Not the esteemed Editor speaking about a plagiarist. These are the words of Dougal Haston excerpted from diaries uncovered (he does not say where) by Jeff Connor in the course of his research on this Haston biography. Haston's diary entries, in the manner of Nietzsche's text, are written in a very forthright style which often startles and offends. But while they offer insight into Haston's character, their blunt and vivid nature invites sarcasm and caricature, and Connor - plainly not enamoured by his subject - sometimes succumbs to this temptation. These are the perils of biography: what to do when it turns out that the Hero has feet of clay; what to do with material meant to remain private. Are we what we do and say in private, or what we do and say in public?

Dougal Haston was a poor boy from Currie who rose to the top of the mountaineering world in the space of 16 years between 1959 and 1976. His progress was lubricated by taking Nietzsche's philosophy seriously. God died about 1800; Morality and Authority died about 1964; so what should men live by? Haston evidently liked the Nietzschean idea of striving to move along the bridge from Mensch to ‹bermensch by strengthening every virtue in him, and who is to say he was wrong? Not me. At least it provides a plan and purpose for life beyond the brutalities of procreation and grubbing for goods and money.

He took a long time to find his way on to the bridge, which involved turning his back on the comfortable sorts of climbing in which skill is what distinguishes, and seeking those miserable forms (the winter Alps, Himalayan faces) where force of will and physical condition are paramount. Haston's progress was also hampered by a degree of viciousness. Boozing, fighting, stealing and so forth were "normal behaviour" for many of the climbers of his formative period (see Harold Drasdo's excellent autobiography Ordinary Route for confirmation), but Haston carried these traits a little too far and came to grief in 1965 when, breaking about six different traffic laws, he drove into three pedestrians in Glen Coe, killing one and badly injuring another, and was duly and justly sent to prison.

Connor's account of the early period of Haston's life is well drawn and, until this disastrous episode, imbued with the sympathy and respect one expects from a biographer. But after this point Connor seems to lose heart and seems content to see the later Haston as merely calculating, selfish and self-serving - achieving much, certainly, in mountaineering terms, but flawed and wounded as a person. The final chapters, where one might expect some summing-up of Haston's life and character, instead merely discuss the circumstances of his death and the fate of the women in his short life.

It is plain that Connor has yet to find a mountaineer worthy of determined biography. John Cunningham (Creagh Dhu Climber) was an enormously talented under-achiever, and that biography gradually turned into a history of the Creagh Dhu Mountaineering Club. Haston was exactly the opposite, possessing only an adequate technique but purifying strength and will to the point where no achievement lay beyond him in his chosen sphere. Surely that is fascinating, and surely the key to explanation lies in Haston's commitment to the strange Nietzschean ideals which inform these wonderful diaries. To take elements of one's character, and to deliberately exaggerate and purify them, taking every opportunity to test the "improvements" in the field - this is a life of experimental philosophy!

From a technical point of view, Haston is not a very good book. There are many irritating mistakes (eg Tiso dying in 2000 rather than in 1992) and typos (poor Norman Dyhrenfurth never gets spelled correctly); the illustrations are rather thin and not well printed, and there is no index - an unforgivable omission in a biography. However, these faults are probably more Canongate's than Connor's. The book is nevertheless worth having. There is no other decent account of the Marshall/Smith Edinburgh group of the late 50s/early 60s, or of the days of wine and roses in and around Leysin's remarkable Club Vagabond - and the excerpts from Haston's diaries are riveting. It's just a pity that we don't have more of them, and that Connor hadn't the time or the stomach to treat them as the serious business they undoubtedly are.

Thus Spake RNC.

TAC 55 Index