The Angry Corrie 63: Dec 2004-Feb 2005

From IKEA to A'Chir - Perkin Warbeck explores his coffee-table

The Ed was round my house the other day. Nothing strange there, you might think - surely TAC's senior executives are thrashing out policy all the time? Indeed, before the peregrinations which have taken the Ed to his current address, he was round my gaff every week. Usually samosas in hand and just in time for the football. But after that we'd get down to some business. "Tell Swan these toggles he draws on Murdo's cagoule are unrealistic," he would bark. Or: "We're having no more physics in TAC for five years." But now, we're an electronic cooperative.

I saw him recently for our combined ascent of the In Pinn (ha! - got that in) and also one night drinking with a strange woman in the Phoenix - him, not me. (She was a bit of all right - Ed.) These are rarities, though. Mostly the editorial command drops out of the ether into a browser. But I digress. That evening in my house, it so happened that there was some new furniture from IKEA. Let's make it clear that this also is a rarity. I regularly pass the IKEA queue on a Saturday on my way to the Cobbler, and I yell as I drive by: "Get a life. IKEA is not a day out. There's a world out here." But needs must, and I had spent an evening assembling two bookcases and a coffee-table. It was upon this latter once-flatpacked item that the Ed's gimlet eye alighted. "A-ha," he said, "you've got a new coffee-table." His Holmes-like scrutiny continued: "And you've got some genuine coffee-table books. Write about them."

Now, I would be the last person to suggest that the somewhat random collection of books jammed into the crevices of the IKEA item are of sufficient TAC-particular interest; but the command had come - and with it temptation. We have various bookcases and the coffee-table accumulates a somewhat arbitrary overflow. It was tempting to do as Woody Allen does in Play It Again, Sam and scatter the most impressive books. However, you'll just have to take my word for it that I haven't.

Let's start with the king of the hill. The Cuillin - Great Mountain Ridge of Skye, by Gordon Stainforth, the espresso-drinker's coffee-table book. The first copy I ever saw was at the Ed's and I instantly coveted it. It took me several years to justify purchase and I finally succumbed one day on Skye when I noticed that, aside from the peerless photos, there was enough detail for it to double as a guide-book - Stainforth grades all the scrambles, for example. You have to love the Cuillin, obviously, but that's not saying much in these pages. Photographed over eight visits and 150 days, there are several pictures taken in winter which must rank among the best-ever photos of the Cuillin. Most TAC readers' first Skye coffee-table book will have been Walter Poucher's, and it is interesting to try and make a comparison. Poucher remains well-loved, but he was a somewhat prosaic photographer. Maybe I'm dissing him unfairly - and there might have been fantastic advances in reproduction since his days - but Stainforth's pictures are somehow more sumptuous, more luminous. Plus he has a much bigger canvas than Walt. There's a double-page spread in Stainforth, 47cm x 29cm, where the In Pinn is top-left in the mist, Sgurr Mhic Choinnich towers top-right, and towards the middle of the page a tiny figure lurks on Collie's Ledge. The scale is epic.

As with Walt, Stainforth gives photographic notes. Quite a lot of his pictures are taken at a thirtieth and quotients thereof, which must mean he was lugging a tripod as well as everything else (ropes and ironmongery one imagines). The only time I have heard a bad word (and it's not really a bad word) about his work was when talking recently to Jed Scott of the Skye mountain rescue team. "You get these guys," Scott said. "They see something in Stainforth and off they go, then we have to haul them off." That's what this book does. It makes you want to be there.

Next we come to Golden Gate, by Richard Misrach. This chap has a house somewhere in the Berkeley hills and has pointed a giant telephoto lens at the eponymous bridge and its bay every day for years. Sheila and I happened to see the Misrach exhibition last time we were in California, and the book came from chums there as a wedding present. San Francisco Bay has a very changeable weather system with regular fogs, and with the bridge as a constant element the book is a study of these. The bridge sits very low in the composition, much as discussed in "Great Photographers of the Mountains" in TAC12. This allows the sky to dominate in a manner that is sometimes quite Turneresque.

image from The Angry Corrie

We now come to Everest: Summit of Achievement, by Stephen Venables and others. I got this from my brother Henry at Christmas. I had given him a 20-quid Helly Hansen and this thing sat there with a price tag of 35 notes. I was torn between joy and guilt, and Henry took about half an hour to say he had got it in some bargain-book-type deal. I then swung to hoping it didn't cost less then the Helly. It is a fantastic book, almost up there with Stainforth. It's a 50th anniversary commemoration and claims to be the first and only publication with unrestricted access to the Royal Geographical Society's 20,000-photograph archive. So there's lots of stuff that looks familiar, but a vast amount that doesn't. The level of detail goes as far as the Fortnum and Mason invoice for the quails' eggs and larks' tongues taken on the early expeditions. A huge section on the triangulation process will be interesting to TAC pedants.

Coffee-table books, by their nature, are for dipping into, and one such is Nick Hornby's 31 Songs. It's become mandatory for Hornby to be slagged as his oeuvre has expanded, but I can still remember when Fever Pitch was the year's must-read and he's still as good a writer. Among the interesting aspects of 31 Songs are the surprises - a reggae version of Puff the Magic Dragon, for example. Hornby starts as he should with Thunder Road. Some lunatic on the Amazon review pages slags him for being stuck in the past and not keeping up with "dance" music. Yeah. Right.

Usually when given a book you are already reading one - so, unless it says "Joseph Heller" on the spine of the new one, it's going to have to wait its turn. (Heller's dead - Ed.) Thus it was with Stargazing - Memoirs of a Young Lighthousekeeper, by Peter Hill. I didn't get round to opening this until the Ed's commission, and thought I would skim it just to write a paragraph. But it starts in Dundee, in the Tav Bar, and includes an authoritative aid to pronouncing the Dundee word "peh", which most Glaswegians mistakenly rhyme with "pay". Hill correctly rhymes it with "yeah". And it involves lighthouses. So I ended up reading half of it and delaying this piece.

Who doesn't love the idea of the lighthouse? I remember touring the Ardnamurchan one as a wide-eyed boy, marvelling at the giant Fresnel lens, then seeing the business end years later from the heaving deck of Charles Sutherland's yacht. These days the lights are all automated, but Hill was a relief keeper just as automation was about to sweep his peculiar profession away. He was an art student with shoulder-length hair, an impressive Captain Beefheart collection and an atypical desire to exchange cosy Friday nights in the Tav Bar for 2am watches where the weights that spun the lights required winding every 30 minutes. His postings were eight weeks on Ailsa Craig, two weeks on Pladda and two weeks on Hyeskier. Hardly long enough, one might think, to form a memoir, but Hill's talent is to combine a document of the times - Watergate/Vietnam and the imminent automation - with some well-observed details of the keepers' lives.

image from The Angry Corrie

Three-course meals, permanently refreshed teapots and keeping awake figure highly. There were keepers who built boats and others obsessed with the telly. At the time of the 1973 Open, Hill's posting was Paddy's Milestone, only a few four-irons away from the action. Politely, the other two keepers listen to their colleague intone from Norman Mair's Scotsman reports of the tournament - even though, due to their isolation, the print is days out of date. Theories of Flannan Isle are batted around - who didn't learn the poem at school? Apparently a tsunami is the prime suspect. The overall feel is elegiac - ironic given that Hill was only starting his adult life, but appropriate for the keepers whose lives of comradely isolation were about to end. I am a somewhat gregarious type, but Hill succeeds in making even me pine for the sunset moments on the parapet of his lonely posting. He invariably invested these moments with meaning by smoking a roly-up and reading a poem. If it was me, I am sure I would think of something.

Finally, Mountains of the Mind - A History of a Fascination, by Robert Macfarlane, is a kind of cultural history of the human fascination with mountains. Scholarly - with accounts of the likes of Coleridge who finds himself trapped on a Scafell precipice (surely some exaggeration here - it is Albion's Plain after all). Coleridge deals with his potentially fatal situation by lying down and entering a state "of almost prophetic Trance and Delight" until he figures out a way to descend. This is an elegant book and has won awards from such as the Guardian. Heartily recommended.

There are various other books and magazines on the coffee-table, including the latest issue of Physics World, the CERN 50th anniversary edition. Arguably CERN does for particle physics what Bernhard Langer has just done for golf - beating the US at what they think is their own game. The web was invented at CERN, and the Higgs Boson almost glimpsed.

There is also an IKEA catalogue on the table, but I am only talking about my half of it.

Perkin Warbeck's coffee-table groaned under the weight of...

Also various golf and physics magazines (and I'm sure I glimpsed a video called something like Aunt Peg - Ed.).

TAC 63 Index