Sunday, May 29, 2022

Full circle

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?  


  1. It's amazing to think of all the memories stored in one's brain, and utterly frustrating at times to not be able to recall them clearly and immediately. I have long been aware of how memory is subjective, as well. What my siblings remember about childhood events is often at odds with my memories, and theirs differ, as well. When raising my own children, I was aware that I could not predict which memories would stick, and which would drift off into a maze in the brain, and I tried to ensure that positive experiences would be more numerous than negative ones. My reasoning was that if only a certain percentage of memory is readily retrievable, then flooding the brain with mostly positive memories would surely result in more positive retrievals. I don't know if there's any science to that, but my children seem to have good memories, although some bad ones certainly do stick.

  2. I had all too few of my dad's memories, but a few family-history related haunt me still (like who the heck was the aunty who ran Princetown PO? I haven't her name and haven't tracked her down yet).

    I am always remembering odd things and sharing them with my offspring. Our son is currently retracing the Road to the Isles with his mate. We were last there over 20 years ago but his memories of the beach at the Back of Keppock have never faded.

  3. Memory is a strange and unpredictable thing. My lovely husband, now terminally ill, is travelling through many memories, going back to his old homw in Hampshire, and not being quite sure where he is in the here and now.

  4. How blessed you are to be able to share your memories and your love of climbing with your son. My mother once recalled how she met my father (at a party at Nottingham Squash Club) and he invited her to join him for a walk in the countryside the next Sunday afternoon. "What a nice man" she thought. All through my father's life, I enjoyed Sunday afternoon walks in the Nottinghamshire countryside with him, and on high days and holiday we would venture further afield to the Peak District and there was born a love of the wide open spaces of Britain's uplands, which endures to this day.
    Cheers! Gail.

  5. You are wise to look for ways to create overlap. My children are in their 30s, the oldest turned 40. They are moving in their own circles, and I'm finding that there really isn't a lot of overlap. It makes me sad sometimes.

    I love that stone circle.

  6. As I commence packing for a trip home to Devon next week - at long last - my old brain is gushing over with memories of childhood, a few not so good but mostly wonderful ones! My only sibling, my brother, will fly over from France and he, along with our two cousins (happily we have remained close in thought if not place) will spend some great hours together rehashing childhood times together in Torquay and Teignmouth, mostly happy thanks to our wonderful mums who were sisters, and of course talking about life now in our seventies. I am excited. I am also scared as this could perhaps be the last time!
    Mark, love that you have been climbing again, do it while you can.
    Stay safe - Mary

  7. The photo is beautiful and I wonder how long it took someone to make that circle out of stone.

    I find as I age, I spend more time with my memories which I know can be very inaccurate and colored by everything, stress, hunger, previous experiences, lack of sleep, etc. I find my memories comforting though and I wonder if all people, as they age, spend more time with memories. Is it part of the natural course of aging?

    I never wanted my children to experience the kind of childhood that I experience but I think they did. Looking back through my family tree I see a history of extreme poverty and I'm guessing violence and addiction which seems to go with poverty. Why wouldn't someone want to escape that kind of a life?

    When I was thirty-one I was told my baby girl was severely disabled and that changed my life. This year my middle daughter, at age thrity-one, was told she has a progressive neurological disease and that will change her whole life. Maybe some of what I learned I can share with her. I hope so. Thank you for this post. I know I seem to have gone of topic but your post made me think.

  8. A thoughtful post, we are indeed the sum of our memories. The Corvus circle must have the last final 'keystone' to hold it together. We know it is death and that is perhaps why keeping memories is so important. Best to live in the present....

  9. Geez I was so excited when I saw 'the bike shed' in Pixie's comments, for could it be my good fortune to finally discover someone in the vicinity who maintains and repairs bicycles? But alas you are in Wales; a bit far to hike with my bike. Here at home (in Saskatchewan) it's well past time I find an instructional video on YouTube and learn how to do it myself. And by the way, Greetings. -Kate

  10. As we grow older, I feel there is a need for all to share our past with our family members (especially with those who matter to us)

  11. The photo of the beautiful stone window, the blogpost title and the content of the text fit well together. I would have taken the pictures with my son - or got someone else to take them - without philosophising about the choice. That was you and that was me and it was back then. Do you remember?