To Ben Nevis by Bentley

A Camera in the Hills: The Life and Work of W A Poucher, by Roly Smith

Published by Frances Lincoln, 2008, pp192. ISBN 978 07 112 2898 6, price £20

Review: Perkin Warbeck


THE EDITOR RECENTLY SPENT a couple of days at the licence-payer’s expense, lotus-eating in the Sligachan Hotel. I’ve written in complaint at this flagrant misuse — dare I say abuse — of public money, and I suggest you do too. The Ed was keen that I hear news of his sojourn, because the Slig is a significant place for us. Don’t get all homoerotic on me here. You can have a place without it being A Place. Difficult area. The biggest fight I ever had with Mrs Warbeck was when I didn’t realise we had A Song.

At least twice in the eighties the Ed and I camped in the paddy field outside the Slig, and after the Trangia tortellini and the Guardian birthdays game (one of the Ed’s idiosyncrasies), we would adjourn to the Climbers’ Bar. It was always mobbed, so we chanced our arm, hid our wet cagoules and took our repose in the winged armchairs of the residents’ lounge that had once, we mused, been occupied by Poucher and Collie.

After appropriate fortification and having exhausted the subject of how wet the campsite was, we took to writing our diaries. Some of it involved juvenile comparisons between success on Marsco (me) and heroic failure on Banachdich (the Ed). Another theme was taking the pish out of a posh hotel resident who was obviously on one of Gerry Akroyd’s courses. He opined loudly about “Cuillin Fever” and the round of Coire Lagan. He demanded parody. We delivered. The style in which we delivered was that of Walt Poucher’s The Magic of Skye. This was possible because we both knew whole chunks of The Magic verbatim. I think that even now — at risk of boring you — I could recreate a reasonable version of the piece where Walt lingers in Coire Lagan as the sun descends: “If like me you had dallied as Apollo’s orb dappled the Titanic Walls of the Coolins”, etc.

We were not taking the pish out of Poucher, however. We loved him.

I can’t speak for the Ed, but I loved Poucher at least partly because I once climbed Bidean nam Bian armed with not much more than The Scottish Peaks. No map, no water. This may sound very naïve — but who hasn’t been? Joe Simpson’s first fall was because he went ice climbing armed with axes without loops. In contrast, I was only risking a millimetric kidney stone. The Ed had a more orthodox hill apprenticeship, but we shared a love of Walt’s chiselled good looks (sorry, his devotion to the golden fraction).

I THUS CAME to Roly Smith’s A Camera in the Hills with high hopes. Poucher is occasionally a caricature in TAC, leaping from perfume laboratory to Bentley, pausing only to stock up on film for his Leica and to apply his Yardley’s eye-shadow. But for all his eccentricities, the man was a serious player in several fields: in his profession, for instance, he gave advice on makeup to the Queen, to Elizabeth Taylor and to golfer James Braid. (I made one of these up.)

In A Camera in the Hills, Poucher’s status as a photographer seems to be up for grabs. Both sides of opinion are represented, more or less with parity. Ken Wilson, for example, states: “In my view, he was never in the pantheon of great mountain photographers like Vittorio Sella…”. Wilson then lists a few more, including Ansel Adams “…and he [Poucher] also lacked the creativity of other UK photographers like Robert Adam, John Cleare or Gerald Lacey.”

It maybe depends on whether you are looking for art. Quite a lot of hillwalkers just want to know what the hill is going to look like — preferably with a massive white line up it.

Poucher’s service in the Great War is covered extensively. As humanity staggers into another century without having quite launched the apocalypse, it is still valuable to read of how someone famous for completely unmilitary heroics (if you can call lounging in the Slig in full makeup and elbow gloves “heroic”) had to drag himself through the ordeal that was the 41st Casualty Clearing Station. Much as Michael Palin was encouraged by John Cleese to get into lion-taming via banking, so Poucher got into perfumery via pharmacy and may have saved many lives by bringing professionalism to that discipline as the casualties piled up in the field hospitals.

The perfumery is covered in detail. I was reminded of the bizarre importance of ambergris, an exotic substance found in the guts of sperm whales after they’ve eaten giant squid. This is so valuable that if you are strolling along a beach in the Caribbean and step on some ambergris, you might as well retire on the spot. Poucher had no worries about the need to retire — he was only ever half-time at Yardley’s and appeared to enjoy lecturing Liz Taylor on the thousand smells his nose could detect. This allowed him all the time he needed for his photography, golf and general sybaritic pleasures. Actually, a thousand smells doesn’t sound all that difficult: fish and chips, the Shieldhall sewage works, coconut, coffee, bread, petrol, Evo-Stik, first day back at school, Ron McLeod’s golf shop… I could go on, but you get the idea.

After the war and the perfume, I was keenly anticipating Smith’s analysis of the hillwalking. Being such a fan of The Magic, for example, I was hoping to learn more of that holiday. Who actually were the Good Companions? Poucher gave their names, including “Mr and Mrs J O Fenwick who were on their honeymoon”, but this hardly tells us why and how he knew them. What did they talk about in the Sligachan’s winged armchairs after dinner as Walt’s cigar glowed?

Unfortunately, though, for a whole chapter A Camera in the Hills really just becomes a list of titles and publishers. What it lacks are anecdotes, such as how Walt came to take up hillwalking in the first place. And why did he spell Cuillins as Coolins? Smith does mention the night when Poucher, as one of the other guests, looked on as Grace Jones slapped Russell Harty on live TV, but more on this would have been welcome. The incident appears regularly on “TV’s greatest this and that” (it topped a 2006 BBC poll of “Most shocking TV chat show moments of all time”), but with no mention of Poucher. Here, in a book dedicated to the man, we could have had interviews with the surviving participants. Smith confines himself — admittedly amusingly — to crediting Christina Stuart of Yardley’s for Walt’s own makeup that night.

And how well did Poucher know the aforementioned James Braid, five times Open champion? Braid was a fellow member at Walt’s “much loved Walton Heath”, so surely they met — Walt did after all dedicate his 1949 book The Surrey Hills to the golfer.

In James Dodson’s Ben Hogan: A Life, there is a story where Nick Faldo makes some sort of pilgrimage to Hogan’s Shady Oaks retreat in Texas. Faldo wants the great man to watch him practise, as does Hogan Company president David Hueber. There is a cart waiting for them right outside the door. “Does he play our clubs?” asked Hogan. “No,” replied Hueber. Hogan swirled his Chablis. “I think I’ll just finish my wine.”

A year after reading this I was idly thumbing Faldo’s autobiography and found a picture of Hogan with Sir Nick, obviously intended to imply a more intimate connection than the above. Without Dodson’s scrupulous work we might never have known the subtext, and this is my slight problem with the Poucher book. It doesn’t quite communicate to me the immersion in the subject I got from Dodson. Of course, there are probably marketing and format reasons for this.

A Camera in the Hills does include a whole chapter of anecdotes towards the end, but they are all relatively predictable: Janet Street-Porter, Jim Crumley, Paddy Dillon etc describe their first or only meeting with Poucher, the surprise at the full makeup, the generous lunches, the critique of his photographs and so on.

Smith does however mention an interesting spat over access between Poucher and a correspondent to Mountain Life magazine. The correspondent — Tom Dale — had suggested that the hunting and shooting fraternity deserved “contempt and hostility”, to which Walt thundered: “[This] smells strongly of left-wing socialism which is always steeped in ENVY.” He went on to say that access problems have always been solved by “a couple of whiskies with the head ghillie”. (Note to self — always carry map, compass, 12-year-old Springbank, and educate self in the sartorial differences among the ghillie strata.)

A Camera in the Hills must be close to being an authorised biography. Poucher’s son John was involved, and offered the critique that “Dad always seemed to take his pictures from the same spots […] though with different lighting”. This is a fascinating revelation — Walt decided that The View of Liathach is the one from Loch Clair, and all future snappers were destined to follow. For the posthumous The Best of Poucher’s Lakeland, John Poucher (who himself died in 2007) took the radical step of adding some photos of his own — taken from different vantage-points. (Different coigns of vantage, surely? — Ed.) One infers from the rest of the book that this would not have happened in Walt’s lifetime.

In summary, I thoroughly enjoyed A Camera in the Hills. A strong impression of Poucher comes over. Aristocratic and generous, in love with fast cars and fine dining; possibly a bit of a grumpy father and probably a bit right-wing. When asked by Sue Arnold about the makeup, Walt assured her: “If you mean do people think I am a pansy, never. Elizabeth Taylor said she wished more men took as much trouble with their appearance.”

My main complaint would be that A Camera in the Hills is a bit light. As mentioned already, some background to various books would have been welcome. There are many photographs, but apart from the family snaps, most Waltophiles will have these already. Having said that, the snaps are a rare treat and welcome images to add to the canon: Walt waggling his mashie niblick or staring, matinee-idol style, through the smoke of his Peter Stuyvesant.

I suppose I am coming from a somewhat quirky appreciation of the man. On page 118, Smith provides a reproduction of the photograph of Walt wearing a silly hat while gazing up at the Quiraing. To me, the caption should be something akin to the perfect line in The Magic of Skye — “I scan the gigantic precipices”. Instead, Smith has gone for “Poucher at the Quiraing”.