"A pillock ... an absolute bastard ... that cunt Whillans"
These are some of the more blunt character analyses of Don Whillans by his friends (!) and acquaintances in The Villain. Even his widow Audrey (a woman for whom the epithet long-suffering might have been invented) described their long marriage as "no bed of roses". It would be safe for the reader to assume, then, that the subject of Jim Perrin's long-awaited biography was not held in unalloyed affection by his contemporaries.
In Perrin's own estimation, Whillans was both one of the greatest of British mountaineers and a wasted talent "soured by resentment and circumscribed by the more negative values of his background": and on the scales of this book, each of Whillans' achievements in rock climbing, alpinism and the greater ranges finds a counterweight in his moral delinquency, criminality and tiresome proto-laddism. His PA boots conceal feet of clay.
No more heroes any more as far as Perrin is concerned: indeed, he takes a brief detour from his narrative in order to debate the issue of whether there can be any intrinsic heroism in mountaineering. He concludes, in a somewhat clumsy sideswipe at Joe Simpson, that "if we want to touch the void, we should make sure that, in the event of our falling into it, we get ourselves out; and having done so, we should not pose as heroes..."
Despite going out of his way in an avowed attempt to demythologize climbers and climbing, Perrin undermines his own argument by unabashedly comparing Whillans to Achilles (sulky), Odysseus (wily), and Troilus (unlucky)1 successively.2 It's interesting that Perrin, consciously or unconsciously, draws on archetypes of the Trojan war, a byword for death and destruction in pursuit of vainglory, in his depiction of Whillans' world. Odysseus too neglected his wife and was psychopathically violent to her suitors; Achilles, of course, had his fatal weakness.
Perrin's description of Whillans as "flawed genius" has encouraged some reviewers to see in him the tragic hero, a Manc Hamlet, Andy Capp with ruff and skull. The Shakespearean hero tends to be undone by a single flaw, however: here we are confronted by a multiplicity of "negative values". Let us consider Perrin's charge sheet:
Item 1. Whillans was resentful of the success of others and believed himself to be the victim of various conspiracies. Thus when his friend Joe Brown was invited to join a Himalayan expedition and he was not, he maintained ever after that Brown had stabbed him in the back. The Salford Caesar likewise aimed an et tu Brute at Bonington (or "Christ Jesus Bonington", as Whillans bitterly styled him) when he made the first British ascent of the Eiger without him.
Item 2. Whillans had, by Perrin's account, the morals of his namesake Giovanni, and stands accused of "marital infidelities and crude passes at women." Whereas there are plenty of witness statements attesting to Whillans' tiresome habit of chancing his arm (in one case almost to the point of sexual assault) with any woman he encountered, there is little hard evidence here to tie him to the deed as opposed to the intention. Unfortunately for the prurient, Perrin is no Leporello, so we are not provided with a lengthy and detailed catalogue of the Don's conquests. Audrey, however, is not afforded such discretion, her dalliance with a chap called Harry being recorded for all posterity. It should come as no surprise that Whillans' pursuit of women is coupled with a distinct streak of misogyny: psychoanalysts may see the aetiology of both in an adolescent sexual humiliation described in chapter four.
Item 3. The fact that Whillans referred to the humble repast of egg and chips as "nigger's lips" should be sufficient to convict him of the charge of racism; Perrin adds to the mix some insensitive comments he made about an incontinent Sherpa, and an incident in Africa when he told some Masai men to "fuck off". Much as it goes against the grain to offer an apologia for this Thatcherist Little Englander, it must be remembered that the boundaries of racism (and sexism) were much less clear in the 60s and 70s than they are today. Those of us over the age of 40 will remember growing up with the casual racism of the likes of It Ain't Half Hot, Mum, Love Thy Neighbour and Mind Your Language, which if shown today would cause H M Bateman-esque uproar throughout the liberal middle-class. But it's an unpalatable fact that Whillans' attitudes and language would be unexceptional in undereducated working-class society even today.
Item 4. The chippy plumber's propensity for violence is in no doubt. Recourse to his fists from an early age was clearly a survival strategy designed to offset his lack of height. This would not explain his adult behaviour, which included the vicious beating of a man who dared say hello to Audrey; smashing a glass in another's face; and assaulting a number of policemen while being arrested for drunk driving, which act cost him an honour from Her Majesty. He was lucky to avoid a stay at her pleasure.
Faced with these charges, the case for the defence has a lot of ground to make up, but here goes: Whillans could be good company, with a dry wit. He was a cautious climber, but paradoxically a bold one too. He was prepared to risk his life in order to rescue fellow climbers in danger. He was responsible for first ascents of some of the hardest rock routes of his time. He restored the pride of British alpinism on the Aiguille de Blaitière and the Dru. He made mountaineering history in the ascent of Annapurna's south face.
But even in Whillans' climbs Perrin sees the skull beneath the skin: comparing the character of the rock with the character of the man, he uses the adjectives shadowy, forbidding, aggressive, unappealing, overbearing, insecure, flaky, fissile. In Perrin's account Whillans is weighed in the balance and, despite his latter obesity, found wanting. The result is a book which, although interesting, well-written and thoroughly researched, is not a wholly enjoyable experience. A melancholy shadow falls across this biography, and it is not only that of regret for its subject's squandered talent: here also is the shade of the author's son Will, who took his own life last year. It is hard not to conclude that Perrin's dedication to Will - "As gracious in his life as he was graceful on the rock" - is intended to be in clear contradistinction to his portrayal of Whillans. We can surely forgive Perrin if in his grief for his son he finds little time to weep for Hecuba, particularly such a small-minded, uncouth and graceless Hecuba. Jim Perrin's book is a valediction and a eulogy: but (to continue the Hamlet allusion) the sweet prince to whom he is saying good-night is not Don Whillans.
1 I would have thought that the more appropriate Homeric paradigm is Thersites, the uncouth rank-and-file soldier who is resentful of, and insolent to, his social superiors.
2 The pages of The Villain are spattered with footnotes like this. Whereas Perrin's obiter dicta are always entertaining and on occasion gobsmacking (try page 62, for example), the eye-watering font size is a distinct turn-off for myopic readers (and reviewers).
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