The Story of a Welsh Mountain
by Jim Perrin
Gomer press, £14.99, 240pp
Reviewed by Wynn Wheldon
There are longer novels than The Great Gatsby, but Gatsby is a masterpiece. There are buildings larger, taller, wider than the Taj Mahal, but the Taj Mahal is one of the glories of humankind. There are hills higher than Snowdon, but Snowdon is, emphatically, a mountain. One of the few bones to pick with this tremendous book is the author’s occasional description of Snowdon as a hill.
Hills are passive, mountains are active. This last April alone saw two climbers killed on Snowdon. Snowdon - by which is meant the three peaks of Garnedd Ugain, Y Lliwedd and Yr Wyddfa – is perhaps the most visited mountain in the world: its summit is reached by almost half-a- million walkers a year. It is both hostile and welcoming.
Jim Perrin has been under the mountain’s spell “all [his] outdoor life”, and, “better to understand this enchantment”, he goes to the church at Nant Peris on the northeastern flank of the mountain, or more particularly, its graveyard, where three gravestones mark the deaths on Snowdon of a child, a mountain guide and a man of God, and finds in them “the bones of a story aching to be told”. *
Perrin’s narrative is both thematic and chronological, but he begins with a circumambulation of his subject. Much of the tone of what is to follow is established here. There is rich simile: Snowdon on the 1:25,000 Ordnance Survey map “looks animated, starfish-like, pinky-beige”. There is anti-colonial outrage at the same Ordnance Survey map’s misnaming of Nant Gwynant (it should be ‘Nant Gwynen’, and Perrin, defying the “tyranny of custom” calls it that). A footnote suggests the reader look at Brian Friel’s play Translations, “should you want a view of the historical and colonialist process at work here”. Perrin is marvellously inclusive in this way, digression becoming part of the form of the whole, both in the body of the text, but more so in the glorious profusion of footnotes (all very properly to be found at the foot of the page rather than irritatingly among the end business).
In this first chapter, too, we find Perrin’s sardonic wit at work on John Boorman’s film Excalibur (“codswallop”), on goat-culling “career-conservationists…who… countenance the slaughter of indigenous species [and] are, to my mind, the ones with the cloven hooves”, and on the Health & Safety Executive who would be “(obviously a good thing)…driven to terminal apoplexy” by the reintroduction of wolves to Eryri.
Other agencies, persons, publications and so forth that will come under fire in succeeding chapters include Granta magazine, windfarms, the National Lottery, George Mallory, the Central Electricity Generating Board, contemporary Welsh academics, people from Surrey who retire to Wales, books with ‘wild’ in their title, tourists, and sheep. To really pass the Perrin test you would have had to be a member of the Independent Labour Party, while at the same time living in close proximity to the mountain, preferably a fairly long time ago. There‘s a touch of the Tebbit about him. Having grown up in Surrey, but hoping to retire to Wales, at times I felt bullied.
This first chapter also touches on myth (Yr Wyddfa as the tumulus of the giant Rhita), on flora and fauna (the Snowdon lily), on geology, on climbing and on history, themes expanded on in the chapters that follow.
Born in England, Jim Perrin has, like Jonah Jones and Jan Morris, become Welsh, and writes (as Jones and Morris have done) with the zeal of the converted. This book, while erudite and scholarly (there are references to Longinus, Burke and Sebald, among others), has the heft of its author’s own life in it. Its expansiveness and generosity, the carefulness and grace of its descriptions, the occasional anger, and the sheer love for his subject add up to what is in effect a kind of treatise. There is a moral ardour here that occasionally borders on the sanctimonious (he finds the idea of “conquering” mountains “odious” – well, OK), that makes him do some dirt on Mallory and his companions (anyone who has read Wade Davis’s monumental Into the Silence will know that they were not negligible men), but which also gives energy and life to prose that mixes the demotic and the academic with pleasing idiosyncrasy.
Perrin is, in other words, a Romantic. Snowdon can teach us how to live. A regret, one I share, is that Coleridge left no record of his time on the mountain, probably due to inclement weather. However, Perrin’s account, while perhaps not as “audacious, swirling and bizarre” as the great poet’s might have been, stands easily beside those of Pennant, Bingley and Borrow. It is a classic. It should not, however, be attempted without a good map. An index would have been nice, too.
* Your reviewer’s ancestors are buried here too: a tax collector, a preacher, an educationalist, with their impressive wives. For a Wheldon, to be on Snowdon is either to be very much alive or to be very much dead.