Catastrophe turned into a work of art

Jan Morris celebrates a remarkable book published in 2010 that explores Welsh landscapes of loss






Jim Perrin

The author of West: A Journey Through the Landscapes of Loss is, by common consent, one of the most remarkable, gifted and enigmatic people in Wales. In his youth a celebrated rock-climber, Jim Perrin (born 1947) is the master of a lyrical English prose style, a much admired practitioner of the Thoreau-esque school of nature writing, and the leading mountaineering author of our time. After a life full of riddle, fuelled by constant travel, fertile invention, diligence, drugs, sex, climbing, wide reading, and nature-worship, in his late middle age catastrophe fell upon him. Within a few months a son committed suicide, a wife died, and he himself was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

This article is from the current issue of the IWA’s journal Agenda, issued three times a year. To receive Agenda and get unlimited access to the IWA’s online archive, click here.

These are the tragic events that give him the sub-title of his book, A Journey Through the Landscapes of Loss. In form it is partly memoir, partly travel book, the ‘West’ of the title referring to the western coasts of Britain where the sun goes down. Given the imaginative genius of its author, though, and the somewhat elusive substance of his recollections, it is best considered purely as a work of art, even a work of semi-fiction.

Countless authors have shaped works around the impact of grief, and it is all too easy for any of us to imagine the loss of a beloved wife, the death of a son (by suicide, in his twenties), or that dreaded moment of diagnosis. What makes West unique is the range of its reactions to the inevitable – the metaphors Perrin employs to express his emotions, the idioms he uses to intepret them, and at the end the reluctant serenity with which he contemplates them. He calls his book a happy one because its very sadness is a measure of the joy that went before, an insight introduced to him, Perrin tells us, by the Gaelic-language poet Aonghas MacNeacail.

And, indeed, the power of the book lies not in its melancholy, but in its ecstasies. Perrin’s belief in the regenerative power of nature is fortunate, because there is nothing in the natural world that he does not notice, absorb and take delight in, and the natural world seems always to oblige. Wherever he goes, swifts fly by, badgers snuffle, foxes or weasels or inquisitive sheep-dogs watch his passing, seals sing and blackbirds awake the brilliant morn. It is as though all the resources of creation are  combined to encourage him.

If he is sometimes repetitive in his enthusiasms, perhaps just a little too generous in his memories of those singing seals, it is only because of his marvellous conviction about the wholeness of all life, to which death itself is only incidental. This inspires the exuberance of his writing, which shows itself too in lavish quotations, a plethora of place names, and a virtuoso vocabulary (what is a gubbel, how do you dreich, is it good or bad to be proprioceptive?). Irresistibly he sweeps us across moorland or beach, up heathery mountains where the brown hares watch, with such dream-like enjoyment that we might almost burst into song ourselves, were it not that we might disturb the owls, the polecats or the seals.

So he is right – at a fundamental level, it is a happy book!

But it is an obsessed book, too – obsessed not simply with Perrin’s sorrows, but I suspect with his own self too. His tangled spirit finds itself in its almost hallucinatory identification with nature and, particularly, in the challenges of rock-climbing. “Do you know how it smells?”, he asks of the Old Man of Hoy, as he prepares to climb that iconic stack. “It reeks of sex. That salt, piquant musk when you slipped detumescent from inside your loves lingers on its every ledge.”

So his love of the rocks is not mystic or spiritual, as it has been for many of the more cereberal climbers, but is something more elemental and introspective. For my mind the best writing in this book is not to be found in its celestial passages of fancy, but in its exact nerve-tangling accounts of  rock-climbing. Perrin knows a lot about the effects of LSD – he considers it “one of the most valuable and educative influences of my life” – and he believes the flow of adrenalin that rock-climbing produces is akin to the powers of acid. “The colours suddenly coruscate”, as he wrote long ago, “shadows gape, weak rays of the sun flare violently, explode…The black dog, Melancholy, stalks my heel and the sun goes out with a plop”.

Yet just as LSD could act as consolation too, so a day on the rocks seems to leave Perrin the calmer for its perils. He knows well enough how real those perils are – dozens of his friends have died in the practice of their passion. But as the Gaelic poet taught him, there can be joy within sorrow. Or, as the comedian  said when asked why he kept hitting himself, “it’s so nice when you leave off”.

But there is no room for music-hall humour in this book. It is too thick with psychological theory and learned references. Here we consult a medieval Finnish epic, here the work of Lama Angarika Govinda is cited as a source. Sebald and Homer, Thomas Hood and Krishnamurta all get their footnotes. Freud is big, of course, and poor old C. S. Lewis, who once wrote about the “loathsome sticky-sweet pleasure of self-pity”, is foreseeably given his come-uppance.

Yet to me there feels to all this erudition an element of persiflage. It is not the real Perrin who speaks to us thus. Who is the real Perrin? What is the truth about this fascinating, confused and confusing writer? I prefer to think that it is expressed best in this book not in his heady flights of evocation, or his relentless self-analysis, but in a few simple words with which he describes a group of friends sitting on a grass verge in Derbyshire: “the lovely girl on the brink of womanhood, the beautiful woman approaching death, the quiet horse stooping to the long grass between them…”

That “quiet horse stooping” does it. In sadness as in joy, in sickness or in health, you can’t do better than that.

Jan Morris is an author, historian and travel writer. Jim Perrin’s West: A Journey Through the Landscapes of Loss is published by Atlantic Books at £18.99.