The Angry Corrie 67: Feb-Mar 2006

Harry's game: A Lifetime of Mountains: The Best of A Harry Griffin's Country Diary

Edited by Martin Wainwright, The Guardian / Aurum Press 2005, ISBN 1 84513 112 6, x+198pp, £12.99

Review: David McVey

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Walkers and mountaineers tend to know the late Harry Griffin for his many books and contributions to multi-author works. But he had another readership, as between 1951 and 2004 he was one of the Guardian's squad of Country Diary contributors. Every fortnight, he contributed 250 (later stretching to 300 or even 350) words from Westmorland: fellwalking, rock climbing, country sports, environmental campaigning, shepherding, mountain weather, wildlife, folklore and a great deal more. This book presents 150 of these pieces in ten themed sections. Each section begins with biographical material by Martin Wainwright, northern editor of the Guardian. The book also has a foreword by Chris Bonington (neatly paired with a diary piece Griffin wrote in 1980, describing a chance encounter with the Imperial Viceroy of British Mountaineering at the Back o' Skiddaw) and closes with the first diary contribution by Griffin's successor, Tony Greenbank. Throw in some evocative photographs and pleasing drawings, and this is a nicely structured book, much more than a hasty heap of articles. Wainwright has selected well, themed wisely, and assembled a book with many joys and not a few heartbreaks.

Of course, the book will stand or fall on Griffin's writing. And there are hazards to writing a country diary: the ghost of William Boot, of Lush Places from Scoop, lurks around the corner - "Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole". Griffin, though, was already a professional and hard-working journalist who knew how to make the most of a meagre wordage allowance. His best pieces glow and tingle, the writing often memorable and inspired, but without purpling or straining for effect. The style is evocative but spare.

Playing with 300 words or so, there's no point in hanging about: Griffin gets right in there, hooks his readers and then packs in images, ideas, information and emotions. "Half a dozen of us sat in a bright, low-raftered room at the back of a pleasant, whitewashed inn that looks across an old bridge to the fells." Who could resist reading an article that begins like that? Griffin also displays a knack for knowing where to end these short pieces.

Most address walking or climbing in the Lake District, but Griffin goes well beyond mere what-I-did-today. Vivid but economical, he describes sunsets and breathless days of hard frost, explores (topically for TAC) the question of mountain memorials, watches drystone walling in progress and investigates wildlife ("Until quite recently I had never met owls of any kind socially"). There are mountain eyesores, historical sites in the hills, folklore and local characters. Sometimes he records roamings further afield, in the Dales, Scotland, the Alps, the Rockies. He liked Skye and the Cairngorms and thought that "on the right sort of day, Arran must surely come very close to the private picture, for many of us, of paradise."

One piece, from 2003, begins: "The realization that I have probably climbed my last hill only began to sink in a few days ago." Later diaries collected here hint that he did afterwards manage one or two lower summits, but this sombre piece still captures a fear that must haunt every hillgoer.

From 1987 onwards, Griffin experienced a series of personal tragedies; he lost his wife Molly, his second wife Violet, his son Robin and, finally, the companion of his later years, Josie. The piece where he recounts his final, painful walk with Violet - to Loughrigg Terrace, five days before her death - is beautiful and moving. Similarly powerful is the diary where he visits Lanty's Tarn to scatter Josie's ashes. His country diary sometimes resembles the Saturday articles Tom Weir used to write for the Glasgow Herald, but you can't imagine Weir, whose strengths as a writer are quite different, baring his soul in such a manner.

In June 2004, Griffin recalled an ascent of Red Screes in the early 1980s, when he met local walker Don Austin on the summit. At the time, Don was making his 199th ascent of Red Screes. "I can't guess," Griffin mused, "how many hundred ascents Don must have completed by now." In November 2004, I climbed Red Screes for the fourth time and met Don Austin on top. We chatted for 20 or 30 minutes until the mist began to close in. One of the things we talked about was the recent passing of Harry Griffin. At the age of 82, Don was climbing Red Screes for the 530th time.

It's difficult to find fault with this book, but I'll try. Despite admitting that Griffin was "not really a Guardian man" (to the relief of those of us who don't care for the paper), the editor takes every opportunity to push his employer into the foreground, claiming that "there is nothing finer than a traditional Guardian reader". Rubbish, Mr Wainwright, what about steak pies, the Cairngorms in spring sunshine and my bike for a start?

Secondly, a chance has been missed to provide a list of Griffin's other works - books and at least selected chapters in collections. And finally, an index is demanded, given the range of Griffin's references to people, places and events. But there isn't one.

A final warning: reviewers must read their allotted books in a oner, quickly, from beginning to end. But each of Griffin's miniature masterpieces is so packed, so tightly written, that this is not the best way to read this book. It should be savoured, a diary piece or two at a time. Soon, I intend to start re-reading it, slowly. And then plan another visit to the Lakes.

TAC 67 Index