Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Report from Banff

It was T-shirt weather when I left Denver, and it's winter in Banff. But not winter enough, unfortunately. I called a friend upon arriving in town and he gave me the classic, "You should have been here last week" (when it was in the mid-60s and the rock climbing was fantastic), followed immediately by, "You should have come next week" (when colder, cloudy weather is supposed to bring some ice into shape). Well, I'm here now, and only for a few days. Oh well.

I'm here for the Banff Mountain Book Festival, and a bit of the film festival too. First time for me. It's really quite amazing to see a large auditorium with perhaps 400 people who have come out to see...an author. No slides, no video, no celebrity who just appeared on "Oprah." Just a guy talking about books about climbing.

Tonight I saw Jim Perrin, the British author of several fine books, including the new biography of Don Whillans, "The Villain." I liked "The Villain," which is extraordinarily thoughtful and literate, as climbing books go, and also is filled with lively footnotes, in which Perrin, an insider's insider for decades of British climbing, offers the backstory to his accounts. Tonight he gave the backstory to the backstory, explaining how one of his best footnotes actually wasn't what he wrote originally.

The footnote described his visit with Joe Brown, the greatest of all British climbers, who was at once a partner and rival of Whillans. Perrin went to Brown, a longtime friend, to tell him he planned to write a book about Whillans and to ask for his help. Brown sat him down in front of the fire, poured him a large glass of whiskey, and asked, "Why you writin' this book?" (One of the great pleasures of hearing an English writer read from his work is, of course, hearing him imitate his subjects' regional English accents.) Perrrin then "stammered some flummery" about his reasoning for pursuing the book, and Brown went silent for a full five minutes, staring at Perrin the whole time. He broke the excruciating silence to say, "You do know he was an absolute cunt, don't you?"

Except that's not what it says in the book. The backstory is that Brown asked to read the manuscript before it was published, and Perrin agreed. Brown liked it, but a month or so later he called Perrin back and told him that his wife had read it, too, "and she doesn't think I use that sort of language. She's a bit of a feminist." He suggested instead: "You do know that he was an absolute twat, don't you?" Perrin stifled a laugh and suggested, "You know, it does mean about the same thing, Joe." Brown thought some more and then said, "You better just say 'bastard.' But make sure you add this: 'One to one, he was the the best climbing partner I ever had." And that's the way it appears in "The Villain."

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