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Savage Arena

Savage Arena

Joe Tasker

1982


Still one of the greatest mountaineering books ever written, all the more poignant for being posthumous. It's the book that first fired my imagination for the mountains.

The climbs that Tasker tackles (with a variety of "great names" from British muntaineering of the era) gradually grow in severity – although starting with the north face of the Eiger is hardly a normal progression! His honesty in describing his feelings is remarkable, not least because they're generally feelings of technical and emotional inadequacy. These are set amid quite epic descriptions of climbing challenges and the (often grim) reality of being on expeditions in the Himalayas.

Tasker often compares his own emotional state to that of his companions, notably the notoriously self-contained Dick Renshaw and equally notoriously voluble Doug Scott. It's hard to know from this book what they would have thought of him: he gives the impression of being rather inscrutable himself (an impression that Chris Bonnington reinforces in his forward). It's perhaps a trait that served him well on the walls when the going got especially tough, as it did frequently. He finds himself repeatedly questioning his motivations for climbing without reaching too much of a conclusion. He seems simply to accept it: it's what he does, there doesn't have to be a reason, and the dangers and isolation are simply part of the cost. It never feels over-examined.

5/5. Finished 08 June 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics

Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics

Stephen Greenblatt

2018


An analysis of Shakespeare's treatment of tyranny in several plays: the Henry VI series, Richard III, Macbeth, King Lear, A Winter's Tale, and Coriolanus. All fascinating discussions as they stand, written by an individual who's clearly a deep Shakespeare scholar – but also cleverly addressing contemporary political themes and events. Make England Great Again!

As with much such scholarship, it often begs the question of how much Shakespeare really meant what is imputed to him: to what extent is his writing a mirror onto which we can project any theme of interest? Perhaps that's not such an interesting question in this case, though, as the reflections cast by the plays – histories and tragedies, including a couple considerably less well-read or -performed in modern times – are really illuminating of the timelessness of events that sometimes feel like they're uniquely modern, rather than be reiterations at some level of eternal themes. The power of this is shown by the fact that this book was published well before some of the events that it parallels, such as the 6 January 2021 storming of the US Capitol. That I think makes clear the depth of the historical context.

5/5. Finished 08 June 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Everest the Cruel Way

Everest the Cruel Way

Joe Tasker

1981


A classic of mountaineering, although not to the same extent as Savage Arena, Tasker's other (later) book.

This is the story of an ill-fated expedition to climb Everest by an unusual route, in winter. The challenge was too great and the team had to turn back, plagued by illness and atrocious weather. But that in no way diminishes their achievement, and they laid the ground work for later winter expeditions to the Himalayas having exposed exactly how cruel the wind in particular made climbing in that season.

Tasker is quite an acute observer of his partners, especially of their strengths as climbers and team-mates. He himself comes through less strongly, and this is a far less personally revealing account than is "Savage Arena". It's probably best read as an inspiring tale of what can be achieved even when short of ultimate success.

4/5. Finished 07 June 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Labours of Love: The Crisis of Care

Labours of Love: The Crisis of Care

Madeleine Bunting


Part policy exploration, part history, part memoir, and part anthropological study, this is a detailed and deeply worrying take on the state of modern British healthcare – the most loved and trusted part of the British State that has been under constant attack for decades. Why is that? – why would politicians seeking the approval of voters nevertheless fail to support and recognise the one thing that all voters admire? And do so with such fake affectations of care?

The notion of "care" itself, both as a noun and as a verb. comes under scrutiny. It's a word that's replaced a rich vocabulary of terms, bring aspects of medical and social services that were all previously regarded as separate under a single rubric. And perhaps that's the root of the problem. By destroying the subtlety in search of management and measurement, it becomes easier to neglect the essence of what's being provided and turn social care (and mental health care in particular) into "Cinderella services" adrift from public attention.

3/5. Finished 05 June 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Living Mountain

The Living Mountain

Nan Shepherd

2011


Here then may be a life of the senses so pure, so untouched by any
mode of apprehension but their own, that the body may be said to
think. Each sense heightened to its most exquisite awareness is in
itself total experience. This is the innocence we have lost, living in
one sense at a time to live all the way through. ... The many details
– a stroke here, a stroke there – come for a moment into perfect
focus, and one can read at last the word that has been from the
beginning.


Jeanette Winterson, in her afterword to this edition, describes the book as a "geo-poetic exploration of the Cairngorms". That's a good description, though incomplete: this is a meditation on mountains and mountain-centred living in all its forms, often quite breathtaking in its imagery and always rather meditative and spiritual in its perception of the wholeness of the environment.

The style of writing itself is fascinating, almost Victorian but without the heaviness. The grammar is flawless, which in itself is quite dated and dating, and every now and again there are some passages that jump off the page with their insight and lucidity. It's a book I want to take into the mountains to read in the situation of its conception.

5/5. Finished 05 June 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)