Catastrophe turned into a work of art

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

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.

One thought on “Catastrophe turned into a work of art

  1. Our Response to a Review of “West:” by Jan Morris

    We have read the review of “West:” which Jan Morris wrote for the current issue of IWA’s journal, Agenda. When Sir Andrew Motion wrote his review of the book (Guardian, 24/7/10) we commented that “we relished the element of damning with faint praise”. This review, we feel, might have similarities. There are several, what might be thought to be “tongue in cheek” ideas, and we were intrigued.

    Certain words and phrases struck us, written as they were of a book in which, as Sir Andrew Motion pointed out, our deceased sister is a main character. “…fertile imagination” … “a wife died.” She was not his wife and she planned to terminate the relationship had she lived.

    “Given the imaginative genius of its author, though, and the somewhat elusive substance of his recollections” … “That dreaded moment of diagnosis.” … “and he himself was diagnosed with terminal cancer.” We have learned that Jim Perrin does not have cancer.

    “The Wren” wrote (on “To Hatch a Crow”, 12/9/10) “I get the impression that A.M. felt he had to let J.P. off the hook due to the apparent declaration of his illness at the end of the book. This seems like an underhand way to gain sympathy and detract from any possibility of any literary criticism.”

    We have ourselves noticed the “cast” of wild creatures, “on call” as it were, in Jim Perrin’s books – one of his specialities. But we find surprising his observation that a jay “sears”. A swift or a kingfisher might be thought to do so – or the hirundines – but the jay is a corvid, a noisy bird with undulating flight. They tend to clatter about.

    The point “proprioceptive” is most pertinent to our sister’s story. Jim Perrin has, we believe, made cleverly “libel-less” statements in these passages. We know very well to whom he refers – others do, also. He knows that we know (as they say) and it is a serious matter which we will be writing about in a future blog.

    Jan Morris says “Perrin knows a lot about the effects of LSD …” and yes, he seems to be proud, almost evangelical, of his drug use over the years – surely the possible consequences of his great consumption cannot be discounted? – imagine, from a “pre-eminent” writer – “the sun goes out with a plop”!

    As to the “references”: part of this author’s modus operandi – it seems to us – is the copious use of quotation and the lavish, if not excessive use of reference notes, they might, it could be thought, add volume and gravitas to his work. Jan Morris: “Freud is big of course” and Stevie Davis also picked up the “Freud” quotes, writing (in the Independant, 23/7/10) “Perrin quotes Freud to demystify (and subtly endorse) the story’s compulsions and stratagems”.

    “Persiflage” was interesting, and yes, “Who is the real Perrin?” He has, over the years, consistently and with great success, thrown out an inky, camouflaging cloud and we believe that he has used other people’s e-mail addresses to place comments and reviews under names not his own. e.g. “Melangell” on the Guardian thread following Sir Andrew Motion’s review. Ref: our blog – Jacssisters – “A Question of Identity” and “In Poor Taste”

    We acknowledge that he is gifted, and capable of the most delicate prose when describing landscape etc. in his “lyrically lovely mode”, but it seems to us that he lacks, very often, real sensitivity when writing of people, and his denigratory style and his willingness to (as we can prove absolutely) subvert the truth to furnish his own literary endeavours – “Writers will write”. ! – is in our opinion, a major flaw: and when writing of people he shows, we believe, an essential lack of empathy.

    Jan Morris says “But it is an obsessed book, too – obsessed not simply with Perrin’s sorrows, but I suspect with his own self too”.

    And Stevie Davis wrote “The tempest grief is so loud, so egotistically sublime, as to drown out the qualities of the persons lamented.”

    We are inclined to agree with Jan Morris, “For my mind the best writing in this book is not to be found in its celestial passages of fantasy, but in its exact nerve-tangling accounts of rock climbing.”

    Certainly, where our sister is concerned we feel that for Jim Perrin to have “used” her in this book (when the real facts are considered) as he has done, is tantamount to abuse, if not betrayal.

    We are very determined “to put the record straight” and we do hope that those who ask themselves, as does Jan Morris, “Who is the real Perrin?” may find some answers in our blog. – ie

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