The following article was written for 'On the Edge' magazine in 2002. The then editor, Neil Pearsons, although he liked the article, declared that its subject, multi-media artist and Rasputinesque demi-myth John Redhead, had been "done to death" in the climbing press. It wasn't published.
“I have just returned from the Kendal Film Festival after putting on a show...and it caused quite a riot with 59 complaints and somebody threatening to sue the Brewery Arts centre, DMM and me! I judge the success on the amount of people who feel threatened and walk out shouting obscenities...I must have pushed the scalpel in the right direction...climbers are just so precious...and yet they listened like zombies to John Dunne account for himself as a career climber spueing grades and numbers and ego...! Bernard Newman was outraged......as someone said They suddenly realised that the audience was the art!”
(personal email from John Redhead: 17/11/02)
I met a singular man recently. A man whom some people; those who inhabit the microcosm of the Arts, or the nanocosm of the climbing scene, may have heard of but who is simply another anonymous grain of sand to the average player on the beach.
John Redhead, known for twenty-odd years as a climber and also as an artist (or “image maker”, as he calls himself) lives, for now, in a converted schoolhouse in Nant Peris, Gynnedd, North Wales; an Englishman abroad, in this most fiercely foreign corner of the UK, eating his meals where the sons of Glyndwr once learned their times tables. He lives in this scholastic pile with his partner, Mel(anie), their young son, Ryley and a cat, apparently known only as Cat.
To most people in the climbing world, John Redhead was best known as arguably the finest rock climber of his day. Some of his routes had to wait for up to ten years before a second ascentionist had sufficient madness or bottle (not to mention ability) to repeat them, and were characterised by lethal seriousness combined with cutting-edge technical difficulty. Many have had no third ascent and Margins of the Mind remains unrepeated, eighteen years on (“What does that say about the youth of today?”, says Redhead). However, his primary means of self expression was his painting; big canvases which mattered more to him than his climbing did, and which was a side of him hardly revealed to the often un-artistically minded climbing public.
He was perceived by many, including me, as an intense, potentially unstable madman, screaming at the periphery of the technical, wild-eyed and wild-haired; sexually obsessed and in constant homage to the fecund, menstrually prolific Earth Goddess. Just look at his route names: The Tormented Ejaculation, Cockblock, The Clown (a potent symbol of male weakness), A Wreath of Deadly Nightshade, Womb Bits, Menstrual Gossip, Manic Strain, Sexual Salami. The fact that he called one of them Margins of the Mind perhaps indicated where he was operating from.
He is maybe best known (and most notorious) for the saga of his routes on Great Wall at Cloggy: his painting high on the crag, about which the howls of outrage reverberated from every cliff in the land: his allegedly knocking on Johnny Dawes' door to present him with the “crucial” flake from the Indian Face, of which more later.
Equally legendary and surrounded by such rumour that they are almost mythic in quality are his routes on North Stack at Gogarth: following Fawcett’s example (The Cad), but taking it “out there”, to put up The Bells, The Bells – E7 6b in the days of EB’s – and The Demons of Bosch E7 6b, on which a krab unclipped itself from the peg, bringing about fear-induced hallucinations of leering demons who mocked him as he continued to climb, when a fall would have been the end.
Equally symbolic of the man was his televised solo climb up the tower of Norwich Cathedral, culminating in his having a tantric wank in the bell-tower. I wonder if he shook hands with the Bishop afterwards?
I (and most of us) can never know what it involves to climb the routes Redhead has put up, much less to experience them as he experienced them, and I would not pretend to know. There were other climbers operating at a similar level but, with the odd exception, one always had the feeling that they approached it from a different perspective to his, and that there were broader and deeper elements of his psyche being expressed through his climbing, which were wholly his. It is these elements, which are not directly to do with the climbing per se, which perhaps are key to seeing him as a whole, and to gleaning a little insight into his attitude to climbing.
Of course, he has outstanding physical ability, coupled with a psychological make-up which allows him to enter these vertical arenas. But he has a close emotional and spiritual bond with the rock and with the places he climbs. It’s this spiritual, holistic approach to the climbs which intrigues me most and sets him somewhat apart from many other climbers. You will never hear him call climbing a sport. Indeed, he decries the very notion of sport. In his book: ‘And One For The Crow’ he writes: “Sport and leisure pastimes neatly fill a painful present with style and artefact. Escape is very often the venture. Generally, I see sport as an anathema.”
Let’s slip back a couple of months: John Redhead, an artist who climbs, or perhaps just ‘artist’ will suffice, comes to Sheffield, delivering his ‘lecture’ at Niall Grimes’ Ape Index show: more of a performance than a talk, I hear later.
Jude Calvert-Toulmin sits in the audience and watches, then approaches Redhead afterwards and tells him he is “in tune with the song of the universe.”
“Are you taking the piss?” he asks, stopped in his tracks. But she isn’t. He realises she means it!
She asks him, straight off, to do an interview, online: to make direct contact with the great unwashed, allowing himself to be examined like a specimen, perhaps cut open, his innards poked with unpleasantly sharp sticks. No edited magazine interview: a live forum where you ask the question YOU want, straight to the unseen face of the rock god, at worst to be told to fuck off and, at best, to glean insight into why this man can do what he does, when you are still sweating up VS’s.
He agrees, of course.
A date was set. Weeks passed. The time duly arrived and Jude travelled to Wales as my passenger, tutting at my preference for loud guitar bands (but letting me play Husker Du anyway) and shifting impatiently in her seat at the slowness of the volvos which haunt the roads to Wales.
We arrived in Llanberis in the rain, having paused briefly in the Pass to glimpse the frowning faces in the rocks, dripping dark water and looking better without their swarming, naked apes, following cracks and aretes and crozzly pockets. Rock always looks good in a storm, bare and proud. But today, one piece of rock didn’t look good. It looked very bad. Across the widest of the Cromlech Boulders was sprayed lurid graffitti. It read: “Tibet Rydd Cymru” (Tibet free Wales - an extension of the Rydd Cymru slogan - that means Free Wales - drawing a comparison between the political oppression handed out by the Chinese government to the people of Tibet and the British government to the people of Wales; thankyou Simon Panton for that!).
Not being able to read Welsh, we looked at the crude sprawling letters with dismay. Just boulders, I reminded myself, but the sky went on weeping and a part of me wept with it. It just looked wrong. The fact that, translated, it’s bollocks, makes it all the more pointless. I hate vandalism, particularly when it’s mindless.
We got back in the car and slid down the empty pass.
Llanberis was still as grey and drab as I remembered. Parking up, we hunted for food. It was late, and only the Spar was open. We entered and some heads turned slightly as our voices filled the quiet. A woman talking at the counter with the cashier switched from English to Welsh. As we disappeared down the aisles, she went back into English, only to revert to Welsh once we approached the checkout, then silence as we stood next to her, to be served unsmilingly by the woman taking our money. Still the same as ever then.
What should we expect, I wondered, as we headed back up to Nant Peris? Who is John Redhead, really? This figure from before climbing became a marketable lifestyle. My mind fills with the mythic image: loner, madman, wild caveman hair and beard, cranking up crazy rock with no runners and no practice. Realistically, I knew of the legend, but nothing of the man, only some of what he’d done, so it was with interest that I strolled across the road, slightly behind Jude, towards a slim man of maybe what, Forty-five? Fifty? (never was good at ages).
He stands at his gate, grim house rearing behind, the lacerated flanks of Elidir fawr behind that. He looks tall; maybe 6 feet. Hair pulled back in a ponytail, not wild – no caveman this. For a moment I’m reminded of the bloke from the cover of Fleetwood Mac’s godawful album “Rumours”. He’s smiling with his mouth, and with his eyes, which are piercing, glittering, intense but not fierce.
He shakes hands with me and kisses Jude’s cheek. I like him immediately. He seems honest and intelligent and full of good humour; totally unlike what I expected. We indicate our readiness for camping on the site next door but he will have none of it. He’s made up a spare room for us. Somehow, I thought he might.
His house was once the school-house here. It’s big, hall-like. Jude pauses before the outer doorway. She says she senses a strong aura; a shimmering in the air around the door. John laughs but agrees. He feels it too: it’s always there he says. I see nothing and say nothing. Instead I shiver and my skin prickles slightly in the chill air. I don’t believe in ghosts. Redhead evidently does though.
We enter. Inside, the main room of the house is a high-roofed hall, smelling of spice and incense, filled with dark cleft wood and a gallery of sculpture and paintings alongside pieces of driftwood, stones, bones and, incongruously, a pair of garden shed sized speakers which sit, latent with threat of aural pulverisation, at one end of the room.
John’s son, Ryley, quickly sizes me up and auditions me into his band. I spend the next hour or so tapping drums and a tambourine somewhat arrhythmically as I take turns chatting to John, who joins in the drum workshop as he talks, slapping and kicking the heavy chest he sits on.
He answers questions about the house, its past and its ghosts. He talks of his experience here; of Wales, Welshness, his place amongst it, the resentments and rationality, or otherwise, of nationalism, stimulated onto this topic by Jude’s mention of the graffiti on the Cromlech boulders. The current of local resentment towards the English runs surprisingly deep in some people it seems, and the conversation hints at tragic, almost balkanesque prejudices in some quarters. No wonder the cliffs were frowning in the rain.
Ryley Redhead holds no shyness. He has commandeered me now. Exhausting my limited musical talents, I am taken out of the conversational mechanism and given a guided tour of his room. He lapses into that way that children have of seeming old, intense in a grown up, wise way, demonstrating his somersaulting cut-out macaw with a seriousness befitting a nuclear physicist showing his cold-fusion technique.
Tour over, we return to the Big Room to have a fight with paper dogs. I muse on this as I play. I’ve seen no electronica in Ryley’s play-world. Just paper dogs, fingermouse-style. Paper dogs and a child’s imagination.
The fight lasts almost an hour, neither dog winning, just two children; one young, one old, playing and laughing and making dog-voices, forgetting everything else.
Don’t grow up Ryley, I think to myself. This is too much fun. Don’t be pushed unwittingly down time’s measured mile into sober, sensible adulthood. Never stop being a child! I look round at John and realise that my fears are probably unfounded.
We eventually begin to tire. After a glass of whisky, Jude and I retreat to John’s work room, where a sofa converts into a bed (with black sheets), in which we fall asleep, watched by whatever real spirits live here in this place.
Sudden awakening brings that disorientation that comes with waking in a strange place – someone else’s house looking back impassively at your sleepy face. Jude stirs and wakes. We make love to entertain (and add to) the spirits cavorting in the place. Sorry about the sheets John. Maybe not black ones next time eh?
Dressing, we descend the spiral staircase, straight out of Jules Verne’s Nautilus, to the kitchen, all high school windows, herbs and corners in the diffuse morning light. Clutter and life abound, though the room is still and silent, suspended activity waiting to be resumed.
John reappears, still cheery. Cheeky even. A wicked glint in his eye hints that he’d let us know if he didn’t like us, and that we almost certainly wouldn’t still be here were that the case.
We wander into the cool of the damp garden and talk about the quarries and the rock and the life of the mountains.
John decries the eroding effect of the hill farms and their sheep, and advocates a phasing out of that poorest of industries and a return to their natural state of these abused hills, which at this moment seem to be listening to him, so great is the quiet around us, peaks dreaming in opaque mist. In his book, Redhead describes a conversation with a farmer, below Clogwyn Du’r Arddu:
““The sheep should be on lowland farms…the sheep are killing the mountain…look, no trees…desolate and barren…your product is creating a desert…”. Dafydd [the farmer] had heard it all before and was unrepentant.
“The sheep are not to blame for the lack of trees, because they had already gone before the sheep were introduced. The trees were felled for use in fighting the English…for building and for fuel…” "
I voice a degree of sympathy with the struggling hill farmers, but I concede that in the long run they are probably doomed and that the hills would be better left wild, to clothe themselves in scrub once more.
Jude longs to visit the fabled Pete’s Eats. John laughs and says ok, indulging her wishes with a friendly, almost paternal warmth, so we get into my car and go to Llanberis. John tells us that many of the younger climbers eschew the muggy air and fried breakfasts of Pete’s now, and opt instead for the sterility and easy modernity of “Electric Mountain”, where they presumably drink frothy coffee and munch paninis, instead of pints of tea and chip butties. Tut! No sense of their climbing heritage, these girls and boys!
Pete’s is the same in feel, but seems larger and maybe cleaner, than I remember it from my last visit in the eighties. The steamy frying smells are still there though, and the mix of climbers, cyclists, walkers and other tourist species is pretty much unaltered. Jude is thrilled to be here, in this mecca, with one of its high priests as company and guide.
We order large breakfasts and sit by the window and chat. We are joined by two of John’s mates: Martin Crook, an impish, capering, sharp-witted jester as foil to John’s humorous but piratical free spirit. They obviously love each other and have that easy relationship that long and intimate friendship brings.
Martin makes us laugh; he’s a natural comic. The other is Tony Loxton, best known as a photographer of climbers and their environs. His presence creates a triumvirate of friends which excludes Jude and me slightly, though not deliberately, and we turn to each other for conversation as the three talk shop.
I feel at home. It was always one of the attractions of Pete’s. It is a kind of home, to any climber. It’s almost spiritual; the sense of belonging in here. The Church of the Chip Butty! How could one of our persuasion go anywhere else in town? Why would you want to? Only Bernie’s at Ingleton (caver’s answer to Pete’s) comes close. Maybe Eric’s at Tremadog too.
Large breakfasts stashed in stretched stomachs, we leave, heading for the gloomy defile of The Pass and stopping, almost within its dripping jaws, back in Nant Peris. Time to go to work. The interview is why we are here, ostensibly, lest we forget.
In the bedroom, which still reeks with the spice of sex, sits John’s computer. He logs on. Jude takes over the hot seat and goes to the Rockfax site, opening up the Rocktalk forum, where a silent chatter of expectant voices awaits us. We are late. Questions are being asked by people who want Mr Redhead to be there to answer them in person.
The star of the show reclines on the stained bed, as Jude’s fingers dance on the keys, giving first an apology for lateness to the unseen watchers, then offering to deal with some pre-asked questions first.
I sit by and wink at John, who winks back, as Jude fires questions at him and his face clouds and darkens in thought, then clears and smiles, like the sky on a windy spring day of racing cumulus and hard sunshine, as answers take shape in his head.
He ponders, briefly, over each question, sometimes rattling off instant answers and, at other times, referring to sheaves of typed notes or extracts from his book “And One for the Crow” before answering.
He seems to be having fun, wearing a more or less constant grin. At one point, I feel that he is enjoying colliding head-on with the questioner, addressing them “Hey, fucker!”, when they query the alleged misogyny of his route names, and visibly relishing their imagined reaction to his belligerence.
Some people on the forum accuse John of being obtuse and deliberately vague and incomprehensible. He is genuinely upset and bemused by this; puzzled as to why his replies are confusing to people. I can see why: his language, English though it is, is used in such a way that it seems full of ambiguity and implication, expressing things indirectly, rather than cutting straight to the point in the clear fashion most of the complainants seem to want. I can see how some people could be baffled.
Personally, I like his use of English; the way he speaks is rich and verging on the poetic at times. Others on the forum seem to agree, and arguments begin to break out in cyberspace, between those who understand, those who don’t and those who feel John is a pseud, a bullshitter who won’t give a straight answer. This isn’t confined to the interview: in Dali’s Hole, up in the quarries, Paul Williams named a route “John Verybiglongwords”, suggesting his language has long been a source of head-scratching.
The interview has started sprouting branches, developing a life of its own. It’s off the life-support.
Too many people try to pin John down as “A Climber”. He tries to point out that he isn’t really that: he’s an artist who climbs, and he uses the climbs as a part of his art, extension of and inspiration for. Not interested in grade arguments or favourite route or rock. He becomes very animated though, over the Indian Face saga, hinting at unhealed wounds but an uneasy respect between himself and the other John(ny). He tells of the loss of the flake, of how it was loosened by the peg hammered behind (not by him), and came off in his hands. It apparently stands in the bathroom of his old house now.
John allows his respect to show for the ascent of the Indian Face but says he’d have done it differently; that he never practiced moves on a route, or even trained specifically for it. He then digresses to talk about his approach to these hardest of his climbs-no training, no top rope practice, little or no cleaning and no warm-up beforehand, which in today’s calculated training environment is virtually heretical.
He’d simply climb, on-sight whenever possible, sometimes convincing himself he’d die there, but accepting it and being surprised, almost, when he didn’t. Only way to do it, he says, is to accept that you are going to die.
He talks of doing The Bells, The Bells in non-sticky EB’s (early rock boots, distinctive navy blue and cream - numb and lacking friction, by today’s standards) : how he climbed it within sight of his partner and their child yet believed he would die before them, broken on his beloved rocks.
Such is the inner strength of the man; that he could not only face that conflict within himself, but could subdue its capacity to breed fear and then go ahead and walk into those jaws of death under the gaze of his loved ones.
I sit and listen, appalled and awed.
“Today, darling, I shall die. Watch me do it.”
He didn’t die, of course, hence the interview.
Historical note: in 1987, Mountain (issue 116) reported the aforementioned Indian Face flake incident thus:-
“Now to a bit of controversy; Redhead is trying a new line up the Great Wall, a sort of super-direct Indian Face, coming into the small crux-overlap on that route from the left. While inspecting the line of his intended route in that area, he checks the Indian Face Rurp in the side of this overlap. Lo and behold, the peg comes out in his hand, but worse is to follow, the overlap is loose. Dave Towse abseils down and together the two climbers gently lift the overlap from the face, without reservation, and carry it down to Llanberis to prove that no undue force had been exercised, “It just came off in my hand, chief,” said Redhead,- and that would appear to be what happened! The flake seems to have been attached by three small areas to the mother rock but its removal has scarred the Altar of British Climbing…it also makes Indian Face just that bit harder…”
(for Dawes' oown version of events, see link at bottom of page)
People online are asking if he still climbs. He replies that he likes to boulder, and that he does so utterly selfishly, for his own ends.
He is asked what his favourite HVS is. “What’s that?” he answers. “I’ve never climbed a HVS!” He is grinning hawkishly. The impish arrogance! I’m sure he has climbed a HVS. He just likes to confound.
The interview is long. It starts at about half past eleven and goes on until nearly four o’clock. He seems to have enjoyed it but the audience is polarised. This bothers him. He considers himself transparent, or so he says. Perhaps he is, but if so, he’s transparent like old-fashioned distorting glass: not everyone gets a clear view of the man.
Jude loves the online disharmony: “Nothing like a good argument!” she says, viewing the sneering and the head-scratching and the Redhead defenders, onscreen.
She winds up the session, and John promises to answer more of the questions later, posting the answers in a day or two. He actually does so, too, showing the honesty underlying his wicked clowning.
He asks how we thought it went, appearing genuinely anxious to have performed well. He needn’t worry. It was a memorable one.
We had planned to leave and head back to Leeds. John asks us to stay another night. The ghosts nod in assent. We readily agree. He explains that the Heights Bar in town has opened a new bistro extension and tonight is its opening party. There will be free food! He invites us as his guests.
Jude’s eyes flash with fire at the thought of meeting new people; of being in luvvie mode with people who may even have heard of her. She likes to be recognised! I silently think that she’s forgotten whose guest she is!
It seems that John has enjoyed his pressing of the virtual flesh. He is enervated, sparkling. He shows us round his workshop/studio; the former school hall, all bare boards and hard light. Two wrist-thick ropes hang from a joist, about three feet apart; perhaps to climb on, or maybe just for fun. I imagine Ryley swinging on them, alongside his dad, both leering insanely and filling the hall with laughter.
Mel’s sculptures lie around: twisted metal, once part of a car body, now almost organic, non-planar. They resemble pieces of an auto-wreck. I expect to see bloodstains. I realise they are, in fact, seats of a kind, beaten so as to accommodate the lines of human form, as if a jumper from a high building had hit the roof of a vehicle, leaving their shape in the steel.
In a corner of the studio is a display stand - a fan of leaflets advertises John’s work and copies of the dust jacket from his last book “and one for the crow” are stapled to the backboard. I ask him about it. He tells me that he had originally sent the manuscript to Ken Wilson, for publication. Wilson deemed it “too diverse and multi-media” and refused to publish it as it stood, so John advertised the book on subscription and got money up front from people who bought it before it was printed: ”thereby giving me full control over content and design.”
Unfortunately, the subscription money didn’t cover the full cost of publication. At around this time, however, Redhead was “bludgeoned on the head by a madman with a crowbar” at the back of his house in Bangor, and fortuitously received a payout from the criminal injuries compensation award scheme. The attacker was charged with ‘intent to kill'! As John himself says: “The money I received was exactly the shortfall for the book. An amazing coincidence! But not one that surprised me...I saw the injury as Karmic payment for putting words on paper (I am an image maker). I often wonder what the next payment will be for the next book...perhaps that is why I keep spending all the money from the subscriptions!”
John also recalls that certain major retailers refused to stock the book, once it was published, judging it too controversial, so it remained available by subscription only.
He is visibly bristling, his eyes gleaming like volcanic glass, as he recounts all this, his ebullience now coloured by indignation. He is evidently and obviously angered by the idea that anyone should attempt to alter his work, to remove its sharp edges. His attitude seems to be “if they don’t like it, fuck ‘em!”.
I ask if there are any copies of the book left. A few, comes his reply. May I buy one? He ponders, hesitant: “You can have one for twenty five quid.” He says. “That’s less than the normal price. I think it was thirty eight in the shop.” Always one for a bargain, I relieve Jude of a pony and John sorts through the few books he has left, looking for a nice clean copy. I ask him to sign it. He thinks carefully, eyes misting, so I go sit in the kitchen, John following with the book, still silent, in thought. He bends over it and his pen waggles. He closes the book and hands it to me. I don’t read what he’s written. Anticipating, I decide to savour the not knowing and read it later.
I examine the book’s cover. The dust jacket is smooth, with a dull black sheen, like water-worn basalt. In the centre, a figure, which I presume to be Redhead, squats on a rock, wearing a grotesque mask and a monumental papier mache cock, managing to appear simultaneously comic and sinister, menacing, even diabolical, like the mummers in undiluted English folk celebrations. Comic yet frightening. John Redhead.
He tells me of his next book 'Soft Explosive, Hard Embrace', which is again held up by lack of funds to get it printed. It has grown from just a book into a multimedia venture, incorporating a CD of sampled sounds, turned into a sort of music of the quarries, which John has spent a lot of time composing; wandering the great grey holes and recording the voices which now replace the human ones which shouted and shrieked and chattered in past ages, now only a sussuration of ghost-echo in dim caverns. He has collected sounds of wind in tunnels, tinkling spoil, disturbed and sliding, the booming, clanging of rusty steel plate and the clatter of chain links.
He plays the CD, composed by he and Philip Beauvoir (AKA 'Spongebrain'). It is haunting, the sounds bridging the natural and the industrial. It is essential listening for anybody who entertains a wish to really experience the quarries as anything other than a climbing playground. The eerie, ghost-thronged ambience of the swallowing grey pits reverberates in oppressive waves from the huge speakers, raising echoes in unfamiliar, little-visited corridors of my brain.
It is impressive and moving. My whole mood has shifted simply by this exposure to it. The yawning gulfs reach out to me through the sounds, and I am there, flying in the roaring air and tumbling amongst the violently born rubble.
Jude walks in from the garden. John turns the music off and the dark magic stops distorting the room. Things return to normal, but the ghosts which are trapped in those sounds continue to pass through me, silently. I’m almost glad to be leaving as we pile into my car again, and head off down towards Llanberis and The Heights. It’s party time.
We reach the bar. As we enter, I notice a large crowd of youths eyeing us from across the road. They don’t look friendly. My mind strays to thoughts of nationalistic prejudice, the graffiti, but I dismiss it and enter the pub.
Inside, a spanking new conservatory structure has been tacked onto the building. This is part and parcel of its new bistro. An adjunct to the pub; a pleasant place to eat, well-lit and airy. It is the focus of this; its opening night.
The place is already filling up. JR is absent. He has gone up to some friends house with Mel and will be here later. Jude and I find a table and sit, peering about. A few acquaintances wander in, surprisingly and much to our delight.
There is a commotion at the door. Apparently the local youths are trying to get in. The doors are locked. We inform the landlord that John has yet to arrive. He says he will have to phone to be let in but, as we discuss this, John suddenly appears, with Mel, and sits at our table, having got in anyway, by some dark art.
One of our acquaintances, Gruff, has a friend with him, Chris Doyle. He starts to talk to John. Chris is young, and a good climber. He tries to engage John in conversation, asking about his climbs, but John seems to verbally toy with him, taking a seemingly belligerent, almost pugnacious stance in reply to Chris’s innocent questions, to his discomfort. I begin to see another side to John here. Not cruel, exactly, but a John who perhaps enjoys having harmless fun at the expense of others, echoing some of his replies in the interview.
Chris is embarrassed and maybe a bit self-conscious, but persists with his questions. John is taking the piss: not in a malicious way but in a mischievous way. At any rate, Chris gets nowhere and gives up trying.
No harm done? A hero debunked perhaps? A star fallen in someone’s eyes; god become man. That was perhaps the intention of this awkward lesson. An unwanted education has been delivered.
John later tells me he is uncomfortable in group conversations, especially with people he doesn’t know, and this can lead to him being a little blunt, but he refutes the notion that he may wish to deliberately offend anyone.
The bar is packed. We talk to Martin Crook again, and to Ray Wood, a youthful Howard Marks lookalike who seems to know everyone and be everywhere, to judge by the profligacy of his photos in magazines and books. Both these two are clowns; sharp and funny, bouncing off one another.
A third character joins us. I try and catch his name, as he’s very quietly spoken. “Dangerous Phil” quips Redhead. Is that his name? I wonder, racking my brains for Phils who might fit his description, by now not wanting to appear rude by asking his name again.
“Phil” has a strange air about him, and speaks slowly and gently. His eyes are soft and honest, pale blue in a pink face under a shock of almost white hair. I’d guess an age between thirty five and forty, but could be younger.
He carries wounds, scars from a huge ground fall a while back. He almost died, but is calm about it and has no hesitation in discussing it. He acts, he says, as John’s lawyer. John is looking at me, grinning. Are they pulling my leg? Apparently not. Phil is a lawyer; the Samoan attorney to Redhead’s manic Dr Gonzo. Fear and Loathing in Llanberis.
I drink my drink, getting drunk. I chat and laugh with Jude. John is off again, talking to trees in the forest of bodies which fills the room.
It’s now late, and John says its time to go, though the bar shows no sign of closing. He gives us and Phil a lift back to his place in his semi-fragmentary Transit Van, leaving my car in Llanberis. I sit in the creaking cab of the van, trying to remember if I’d removed the England flag from the car window. Ah well. If not, I’m sure someone will remove it for me.
Back at the house, there’s no sitting up late. We’re drunk enough already. Phil is almost paralytic, as Mel tenderly makes up a bed for him in the studio where he, scarcely comprehending where he is, settles down into a stupor (at some point in the night, he disappears from the house. No one seems worried, so I guess this is not unusual).
Myself and Jude fall asleep almost immediately; the sleep of the drunken man. The ghosts cannot penetrate the fog that envelops us tonight.
Next morning it isn’t raining. We go out and sit in the garden and look up at the still cloud-swallowed hills. Jude hates it. Hates the oppressive, crowding bulk of the mountains, so close to the house. Hates the wet and the cold.
I am bemused; I like it here. Like all those things she hates. And anyway, it isn’t cold.
John tells us he intends to move to Barcelona sometime soon. Jude’s ears prick up: this is more like it! She loves the light and warmth of Spain. She says we must visit him when he is there. He says we’d be welcome.
It’s time to go. We pack our things and haul them out to the van. John gives us a lift to Llanberis and drops us by Pete’s Eats. He hugs us both in turn and urges us to stay in touch. We promise we will. Jude’s good at that-a natural communicator. I’m not, but I will try.
The hero leaves the scene. We go into Pete’s and order two breakfasts. We savour the only bit of the town which seems truly friendly.
Bellies full and fingers greasy, we stroll along to the Heights. It’s the day of the World Cup Final, and we aren’t going to miss it. Even Jude, avowed footyphobic as she is, has caught a dose of world cup fever. We smirk as Brazil defeat Germany, laughing at the Old Enemy’s tears of defeat. The irony of this in light of my musings on Welsh nationalism is not lost on me.
All that remains is the journey home. Emerging from the bar, we amble back towards Pete’s, where my car is still parked, intact. A group of local teenagers (probably the same we’d seen the previous evening) stop their spitting and swearing at the other side of the street to eye us, without any trace of warmth, respect or humanity. Just cold, dull, stupid stares.
About fifty yards down the road, something flies past us, thrown with some force, and skitters dully along the pavement. Half-eaten mars bar as missile: hardly lethal, but not nice. It missed.
I turn and look back at the youths, who pretend it wasn’t them. I want to walk across and hit one of them, or call them inbred sheepshaggers, but feel it wouldn’t help matters and anyway, wouldn’t that be racist? Are the Welsh a race? We walk on. A cry of “GYPSIES!” comes from the ugly mouth of one of the youths, directed at us. I look at Jude, and she looks back at me: “I suppose we do look sort of like gypsies!” I say. We burst out laughing, which probably annoys the cross-eyed, gurning fools up the street, who want to annoy and anger us, and provoke us to abuse and anti-welshness, the more to justify their own surly aggression. Sorry boys. You had me going for a moment, but I’m not that easy.
As we stroll back to the car, I ponder on John Redhead, and on what I’ve learned about him; the insight into his character, gleaned from our too brief meeting. He turned out to be a friendly, open-minded man, but with a wicked streak of mischief running through him. A man who suffers not fools gladly, and seeks every opportunity to make fun of those he considers deserving of it. He talked of his climbing almost as an aside, but still with obvious pride and glee, yet seems to regard it in a different way from most other “ordinary” climbers. For that reason, I think that to understand Redhead is difficult for many in the climbing world. Most of us climb for different reasons to his. He sees climbing through different eyes. In trying to even approach some degree of comprehension of where he’s coming from, I think, not to my hardest (snigger!) climbs, or to some trial of mental or physical strength or endurance, but to a stormy day in early September, when frantic clouds were torn by a hissing wind and showers marched like sky-high phantoms across the cowed landscape.
On that day, sudden impulse drove me to seek out the lichenous, tree-shadowed, much abused gritstone pinnacle of Adel Crag, where I levered myself from the damp, leaf-strewn ground and bouldered mechanically for an hour, becoming dispirited and fearful, performing badly, at odds with the rock. I dropped to the ground and rested, thoughts fading away.
As I sat in the deserted woods, mind empty, I suddenly felt the rush of all my senses being assailed at once. The air smelt of oxygen and rot, the trees hissed and roared and tugged at the earth, the ground heaving around their roots. The scene flickered like a slow strobe, as clouds flocked across the sky, playing now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t with the departing sun.
The rock pinnacle squatted in the twilit woods and seemed alive, as if it could move from this place should it so wish.
Somehow, I had slipped into the landscape, where before I had awkwardly imposed myself upon it. That elusive and invisible opening through which I had unconsciously sought to insert myself into the scene had appeared under me and sucked me in, like a watcher in a gallery suddenly finding himself inside a painting.
I got up and climbed. And this time I was just a spiritual passenger in my own body, travelling with no fear, as the rock itself guided my limbs up, across, around its contours, its ancient spirit welcoming me and controlling my physical self, or so it seemed, allowing my mind to laugh and wander, and to exult in what the rock was showing me.
As darkness fell, I stood once more upon the ground, just touching the rough, green-skinned grit. At that moment, I belonged there as much as did the oaks or the ferns or the slugs and centipedes, and I loved, truly LOVED, this forgotten outcrop. But more, I felt that the love was returned. It is an insight I am sure Redhead would understand and which, perhaps, parallels and informs some of his own mind-processes when he stretches himself on those hard canvases. Redhead the climber is merely a detail within the vast canvas of Redhead the image maker, Redhead the man, and that should not be forgotten.
The car sits where I’d left it, outside Pete’s Eats. Before I get in, I open the boot and take out the copy of “and one for the crow”. I open it and look at the flyleaf.
It reads: ‘For Brian-“the eggs are hatching!” Enjoy. John’
I hope he’s right.
For Johnny Dawes' version of the Indian Face saga:-
Not necessarily about the Indian Face, by Johnny Dawes
To read an online 'live' interview with John Redhead, conducted by the users of UKClimbing.com, go to this site. The interviews can be found by scrolling down in the boxin the centre.