Friday, 9 December 2011

Wainwright the biography - book review

Wainwright the biography
Book review by Hunter Davies
December 2011

I have a long held appreciation of Alfred Wainwright, or just Wainwright as he known to the thousands of his devotees - fell walkers who follow in his footsteps via his seven lovely hand drawn walking guides to Lakeland.

I came across Wainwright in the late 1970's, ten years after he completed the guides and about 15 years before his death - stumbling over his books which covered the central and north eastern fells. I came to love those high high peaks which became as familiar to me the the BCN does today, Haystacks, Red Pike, Pillar and Great Gable giving way to Titford, Ryders Green, Engine Arm and the Curley Wyrley.

I was a young 18 year old taking my first tentative steps into those majestic but forbidding peaks as he was taking his last, age and failing eyesight limiting his expeditions to escorted trips organised by the BBC. I fell in love with his little pocked sized books with their idiosyncratic maps and engaging prose. I am particularly reminded of the time I made my way from Scafell Pike to Scafell via Mickledore and was confronted by Broad Stand, which presented a seemingly impossible barrier to my progress. Out came Wainwright and I was soon making my way round the edge via Lords Rake and then across the climbers face via the West Wall Traverse. With Wainwright on my pocket I never felt really alone. Then there was the time I wanted to get to Pillar from Great Gable. Wainwright persuaded me to stray off the main track and descend a steep gully to the 'high level route' which offers great views of Ennerdale as you cross the Shamrock Traverse and the back of Pillar Rock. All the way Wanwright sat on my shoulder whispering hints and suggestions to help me get the most out of his beloved landscape.

So what of the man himself? If I am absolutely honest I am not entirely sure I would have liked him very much, certainly not in his rather anti social pre retirement phase. The biography does not paint an altogether flattering picture of an anti social accountant who played a full part in creating a deeply unhappy marriage which lasted 30 years and ended within weeks of his retirement. I tried to keep reminding myself that he was a man of his time,  born in 1909 - half way between my grandfather and my fathers years of birth. The world was a different place then.

He was a man of intense solitude, shunning social  events and public gatherings. Its said that his preoccupation with his guide books caused the breakdown of his marriage but in fact the cracks existed from the start and its probably fairer to say that his obsession was more a symptom than a cause. 

The biography is a patchy read, intensely interesting regarding his passion for the fells and the creation of his books but slow and downbeat in its coverage of his family life. His books are his lasting legacy, and there are so many of them. Most were published by the unknown Westmoorlond Gazette and later by Michael Joseph of London.

Its amazing that his guides remain in print and as relevant and attractive as ever. They remained unaltered till his death after which they were edited and updated - but carefully to retain the quirky essence which has appealed to generations of walkers. 

Then there is the animal refuge. Wainwright was never motivated by money and all his profits were donated to the creation of a refuge in Kendal. If you are a stray Kendal is the place to be!

All in all its a good and insightful read which will appeal to lovers of his books. My advice - get hold of the guide books first and only after you have fallen under their spell should you tackle this book. If you appreciate his guide books you will soon find yourself forgiving the man his very significant oddities. He has left the world is a richer place.

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