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Cameron McNeish viewpoint: Wainwright - Genius?

Cameron McNeish viewpoint: Wainwright - Genius?

Postby Paul Webster » Sat Aug 31, 2013 10:00 am

In his latest Viewpoint column, Cameron McNeish remembers and pays tribute to the celebrated Lakeland guidebook writer.

A number of years ago I was invited by the Wainwright Society to deliver their Centenary Lecture – I thought I was rather curious choice of speaker to talk about the legacy of Alfred Wainwright. For a start I’m a born, bred and patriotic Scot, and we all know that Scots hill-goers are a wee bit contemptuous of good old AW....

Read the full article.
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Re: Cameron McNeish viewpoint: Wainwright - Genius?

Postby colgregg » Sun Sep 01, 2013 11:03 am

A.W. Pictorial guides are a work of art brilliantly put together (even though some of the "fells" included are so insignificant they appear to be there as page fillers) . The Michael Joseph books popularity are as due as much, if not more, to the photography of Derry Brabbs. From the impression of him in his T.V. appearances a bit of a miserable old so and so. Also a bit rich to bemoan the increased popularity of the Lakes Fells when he was an integral part of making them popular, coincidentally by many people who helped to line is pockets by buying his guides, me included.
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Re: Cameron McNeish viewpoint: Wainwright - Genius?

Postby call of the cleg » Sun Sep 01, 2013 11:51 am

A passionately delivered article describing a frequently underrated outdoors author whose personality is all too often discussed in disrespectful terms.

Plainly a subject Cameron cares deeply about. :)
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Re: Cameron McNeish viewpoint: Wainwright - Genius?

Postby OpenC » Sun Sep 01, 2013 12:05 pm

He reminds me of Andy Murray (no, wait, hear me out) in that people wanted him to be a popular and communicative media superstar when in fact he was only really interested in what he was good at. I don't think it's an issue that he was pushed to appear on the telly and came across as a miserable old bugger. The way he (apparently) treated those near to him is less easy to overlook, but he's far from unique in this regard when it comes to artists of any genre (and who among us hasn't felt a pang of guilt as they close the front door at 5AM to sneak away to the hills, knowing that they won't be back to their family and friends until the whole day has gone).

The pictorial guides are works of absolute genius, and as the series went on became more and more likable - I agree with CM that he was a great writer, and I'm surprised that he considers this an unusual viewpoint to be honest. I went off the Lake District a long time ago but I still read his books, and I wish there was a real Scottish equivalent for them (Ralph Storer is coming closest so far).

Of course there are issues with popularising certain routes (and a certain Cameron McNeish is not entirely blameless in this same regard) to the detriment of the landscape. Of course there are issues with his favourites, and the places and things he had no time for, and his selections of what constituted a "fell", but that's really a question of personal opinion (if I can look at something the size of Sgor an Lochain Uaine and wonder about its munro status, I'm sure AW can be forgiven for one or two of his choices).

As an author of guidebooks and a mapmaker (and his maps are amazing for a solo effort, let's be honest), he deserves to be remembered fondly. His television appearances say more about television and the culture of celebrity (even back then) than they do about AW himself.
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Re: Cameron McNeish viewpoint: Wainwright - Genius?

Postby simon-b » Sun Sep 01, 2013 8:14 pm

AW's pictorical guides are still the definitive Lakeland guidebooks for the fellwalker, especially since they've been updated by Chris Jesty. Wainwright was an inspiration to those who hike solo, and to walkers looking for ascents of hills which avoid the main tourist routes. I still use a lot of the routes he suggested, and find many of them unfrequented.

It's doubtful that there could ever be another A. Wainwright. There will be those who have talent and dedication equal to his, but I don't think the modern market would wait as long as that of the 1950s and 60s for a body of work like the pictorical guides to be produced. Book1 was first published in 1955, and Book 7 in 1966. The media through which the public gains information about hill walking is now constantly expanding and changing. If such a popular and successful body of work were to be produced again, I believe it would need to be the result of a team effort, due to the time scale.

I enjoyed reading Cameron's comments about AW, and don't feel he was such a curious choice of speaker. There are many Scots who visit Lakeland and appreciate its beauty, just as there are many English people who enjoy the Highlands.
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Re: Cameron McNeish viewpoint: Wainwright - Genius?

Postby johnkaysleftleg » Sun Sep 01, 2013 9:17 pm

A good balanced write up on AW. The man was no saint but many of the negative aspects were a product of the time he lived. Britain was a misogynistic racist place back then and many of his views were those of the mainstream. That said I don't think when you're taking about his work his character comes into it, I'm a great one for believing that you shouldn't meet your heroes, just because an artist, writer, musician has produced work you love it doesn't mean you'll like them as an individual.

As for his work, it's magnificent. His maps, illustrations and approach to guide books is without equal. The fact the books provide you with the parts of the jigsaw rather than a ABC walking route is perfect. It is true several fells simply shouldn't be in there but in some ways it's part of the charm. An imperfect list that will never be changed, no mater what any surveyors discover.

It is ironic that a lover of solitude was instrumental in making the fells a busier place but I'm not sure just how much effect he has had. The honey pot fells, Helvellyn, Cat Bells, Scafell Pike etc were popular before he started writing anything. If anything his books mean that the throng of walkers who head for the lakes spread out across the park instead of concentrating on a few popular tops. Fell walking is probably more popular now than ever, AW certainly can't be blamed for the two hour long queues to summit Snowdon recently or crowds on Ben Nevis or Ben Lomond.

Finally the thing that made AW a genius (if such a thing truly exists) was his writing. His descriptions and most of all humor are simply wonderful and unique. I have spent many hours reading his books and occasionally laughing out loud at his words. My life for one has been enriched by his.
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Re: Cameron McNeish viewpoint: Wainwright - Genius?

Postby alan.sloman » Tue Sep 03, 2013 6:36 pm

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