|Above Corvus on Raven Crag, Borrowdale.|
Somewhere in our album of family photographs is a picture of my father being held aloft as a baby. He must only be a few months old and presumably, the arm holding him skyward is that of my grandfather. Turn a few pages and you'd find an almost identical picture of my elder brother in the same pose, his christening shawl bright against a Northumbrian sky. I've no memory of it being taken because I wasn't yet born, but I do distinctly recall my dad referring often to the images, and musing, in philosophic tone, how history repeats itself in families.
It's strange the incidents and words we remember. My father must have spoken of a thousand other events, sharing his past life (as we all do with our children) through recollections that would invariably shape mine, or at least my outlook on it. The reason some stick and others are lost is more, I suspect, a matter of chance and circumstance (was I hungry or distracted as he spoke) than any logic or weighing of import. Often, as in this case, it is particular images or phrases that trigger our recall. And with each repetition, what we actually remember is our previous recollections... such that over time, our memories become as fixed and falsely representative as snapshots in an album.
Quite why I was drawn to compose this introduction is in equal parts obvious and obscure. As will become clear, I've recently been revisiting my past by proxy, returning to rock climbing after a gap of nearly thirty years. I'd planned to open by describing how as a young man I was so determined to achieve and experience as much as I could; how even in my twenties there was a certain rage against the dying of the light— a feeling that our time was limited and that we a had duty to make the most of it; carpe diem, gather ye rosebuds... make hay while the sun shines...
I feel much of this urgency still, though as I grow older I find that I'm less concerned with pressing on than doubling back. Perhaps at some level I'm afraid the memories I hold most dear will otherwise fade or falsify, and hope that by re-experiencing them I might somehow remaster their clarity. There could be truth in that I guess... But returning to why I wrote the introduction, I sense my recent reliving of past passions is less about history repeating itself than a desire to come full circle.
Earlier this month I went with my eldest son to Raven Crag in Borrowdale. We climbed a route called Corvus that's about as old school as it gets. Tied together for seven pitches we ascended a line I'd last followed, according to the notes in my guide book, thirty-three years previous. The small blue volume has a grainy photograph depicting an exposed hand traverse that's the crux of the climb and an iconic image of mountaineering from a bygone era. What it doesn't show is the big ledge below and out of shot — the only part of the route I remembered correctly.
The following day we visited Langdale to climb Middlefell Buttress - ironically on a cliff also called Raven Crag. This time my old guidebook had no notes and although I distinctly recalled the situation and indeed my former ascent, I could not for the life of me— at least with any certainty— remember my partner. We joked about whether I'd climbed it with his mum or my first wife years before; 'awkward' he laughed. True—but in that shared humour we forged a moment that will live with us both and likely be more genuine than any memories of the holds or stances or sequence we followed.
I've long felt that the best and most satisfying journeys start and finish, if not always from home, at least from the place we began. In my father's case, his memories were invariably sentimental though in fairness, often funny too. What struck me at the time, and to some extent troubles me still, is how at odds they were with the depression and self-loathing that so coloured his adulthood. It was as if by seeking to forge a supposedly better future he'd severed all connections with the few happy years of his life.
Memories of course are not located in a physical place or moment in time, rather we carry them with us as bounty or burdens depending on our state of mind. I know that I will never again climb with the skill and strength I once possessed. I know too that my son must find his own routes and not live in the shadow of mine. Perhaps that's why I took no photographs of us roped together; because I don't want him to be tied to my past just as I don't believe that history must repeat itself in families. And yet, conversely, might sharing and showing him where I came from, be just enough for our circles to overlap?