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Alfred Wainwright: Genius?

viewpointA 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, and sometimes, just sometimes, we’re a wee bit contemptuous of the Lake District too. Some have suggested the Lake District is no more than a great sheepfold that could be swallowed up by the Rannoch Moor. Anyway, I accepted the invitation, largely on the basis that I am fairly passionate about the Lake District fells and that Wainwright and I shared the same television company and producer.

Richard Else was the man who managed to persuade Wainwright onto our television screens and who would have believed that someone like Wainwright would have become an iconic television personality – although ‘personality’ might be too strong a term. Richard has also been making my television programmes since 1994 and we work closely together on various projects.

Initially Wainwright was reluctant to appear on television but Richard can be insistant, in a dripping tap kind of a way. Eventually Richard got a call from Wainwright’s friend and former colleague at the Kendal Burgh Treasurer’s office, Percy Duff, to say that some pressure had been put on Wainwright by his wife and friends and if Richard phoned him now, and asked him to appear on telly, old AW would probably say yes.

And he did. However, it soon became clear that Wainwright had his own ideas of what constituted a good television documentary, an idea that had bheen fuelled by his own television favourites, John Wayne films and Coronation Street.

When Richard arrived at Kendal Green he was met by a pipe-smoking Wainwright who said, unequivocably, “Right youth – I think we’ll treat this like a western. Get your cameraman on the roof, and he can film me walking out of the front door…” And so it went on.

Eric Robson tells a very similar story about Wainwright’s attitude to television. Richard Else had asked Eric to accompany Wainwright on his television walks – it was Eric’s job to persuade Wainwright to talk about his life and work and reminisce a little. I suspect pulling teeth might have been easier, but Eric fell for it, and went off for the first meeting with the redoubtable AW.
They met in a caff in Kendal and Wainwright soon made it clear what he wanted to do. As Eric said later in his book; “the deal was done, the dates were set and, unknown to us, Wainwright set about writing the script. So did Richard and the scene was set for manuscripts at dawn…”
“What we hadn’t foreseen was that Wainwright had decided to treat television producers in rather the same way he’d dealt with publishers and typesetters. He was going to keep control so we couldn’t screw it up.”

Wainwright: the Biography

Wainwright: the Biography

Now, in a sense, I can sympathize with Wainwright. Television is a very strange medium and television presenters have to live with the mushroom system of management – you’re kept in the dark and get shit thrown at you from time to time. Television might be considered as a very glamorous medium, but it’s not. It’s also an incredibly shallow medium. There simply isn’t time to go into much detail and stories have to be précised as short as possible to suit the perceived attention span of viewers. Mind you, from what Richard Else has told me about Wainwright, this didn’t create any problems. Some days he just didn’t talk at all.

You see Wainwright didn’t see the need for interviews. He couldn’t understand why the camera was on him, and not on the Fells. I suspect if he had had his way the television programmes would have simply been a series of long pans of his favourite hills.

On one occasion for ‘Wainwright in Scotland’, Richard asked him where he would most like to visit in the highlands. “Cape Wrath,” he said. “Never been there.” Now, it was out of season and the ferry that plies across the Kyle of Durness to take you to the Cape Wrath peninsula was being serviced in Ullapool. It had to be brought north again.

During the season a minibus runs between the ferry and the Cape Wrath lighthouse so that had to be arranged, and ferried across – and you’ve always wondered what your TV licence money was spent on?
Anyway, to cut a long story short, Eric and AW arrived at Cape Wrath and the camera began to roll as the pair of them gazed down on the tumultuous seas, the wheeling gulls and the distant views of the Orkneys. Eric turned to AW and said, “Well, here we are, Cape Wrath, a place you’ve always wanted to visit. What do you think of it now you’re here at last.”
AW puffed on his pipe before muttering, “Mmm, glad I’ve seen it,” and wandered off. End of interview!

Wainwright had his own ideas about television, and he wasn’t going to be beaten by any mushroom system of management. I mentioned earlier that Wainwright thought up his own script – he wanted it to be like a western, but Eric Robson recalls another script idea from AW.
“I’ll be sitting on the summit having a sandwich and you’ll walk up and see that I’ve got a Wainwright book lying beside me. You won’t know who I am of course,” said AW.
“No, of course not, said Eric, not having the faintest idea what Wainwright was talking about.
“And you’ll ask if you can join me,” continued AW. “It’s important to be polite, even on the hill and some walkers just have no manners.”
“Then you’ll say something like, ‘Oh I see you use Wainwright too, and I’ll say ‘yes, I knew him, slightly.’ And then we’ll walk down to Horton in Ribblesdale and when we get there someone will come up to me in the car park and say to me ‘Hello AW, haven’t seen you for ages’ and you’ll realise who I am and ask me to sign your Wainwright book.”
Eric records this as the longest statement Wainwright had ever made in his presence and when he finished there was a very long pause, a pause which Richard Else apparently filled by turning pale….
I don’t think there’s any doubt that television turned Wainwright into a household name; that those programmes that went out in the late eighties helped bestow on him the iconic status that he has today.

I find the Wainwright story an intriguing one – Hunter Davies’s biography is one of the most fascinating biographies I’ve ever read. It’s the eternal rags to riches story; of a man facing his own demons; a man who made mistakes and had to live with them; someone who discovered a creative outlet that allowed him to escape the drudgery that everyday life had become. At the same time this was the story of a man who was not particularly likeable; someone who mentally abused his wife over many, many years; someone who was often rude to those who cared for him; a man who, outwardly at least, was arrogant, a perfectionist; someone who had the ability to use well-constructed sentences to shock, or hurt, his friends; someone who almost despised the company of others unless it suited him.

And yet, despite all that, it’s the story of a man who achieved his dreams, dreams of a fairytale romance, fame and relative fortune. A man who could eventually say, “I can face anybody now, and not feel inferior to them.” But how best can we describe Alfred Wainwright? As a writer? As a draughtsman? As a cartographer? As a curmudgeonly old misogynist? As a randy old man in a dirty grey mac? He was probably all of these things and more – very right-wing in his politics; possibly racist; misanthropic; at times snobbish and… a supporter of Blackburn Rovers! But above all – and this is perhaps where he holds a claim for a place in the pantheon of great British outdoor writers, he was, in the long line that started with Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron and Ruskin, a romantic, and even more important than that, he was unique.

Wainwright did things his way, not because of any commercial pressure to be different, or any kind of bolshie attitude that suggested to him that his was the only way, but because he didn’t know any better. He used his unique talents, his own unique skills, to portray his own appreciation of a beautiful landscape that inspired him, and continued to inspire him. His work, as has been suggested by the Guardian’s Martin Wainwright, was a “love letter to the fells, a love letter which others might share.”

The 23-year old who stood in a stunned silence at Orrest Head in 1930, awed by his first sight of a landscape which he at once compared to Heaven, bequeathed his own unique gift to the national park. He is now a part of its history. “I have seen landscapes of rural beauty pictured in the local art gallery” Wainwright wrote, “but here was no painted canvas; this was real. This was truth. God was in his heaven that day and I a humble worshipper.

wainwright-booksI often hear people describe Wainwright as a great draughtsman, an artist, and he was, but it’s rare to hear Wainwright described as a great writer, but I believe he was just that.
There is love in his writing, and a surprising amount of humour. There is criticism and a certain amount of campaigning talk but through it all shines his great appreciation for these Lakeland landscapes that he was so passionate about.

In truth, his only great works were the seven Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells, The Coast to Coast Walk, The Pennine Way and Memoirs of a Fellwanderer. His later books, published by Michael Joseph, were flat and lacking in passion but perhaps it’s fair to say that those books were the first embarkations on what could be described as the ‘Wainwright Industry’, which continues to this day.

Who could forget those words with which he closed his final Pictorial Guide.
“The fleeting hour of life of those who love the hills is quickly spent, but the hills are eternal. Always there will be the lonely ridge, the dancing beck, the silent forest; always there will be the exhilaration of the summits. These are for the seeking, and those who seek and find while there is yet time will be blessed both in mind and body.”

I think I’d probably put him in the genius category…

Walkhighlands features a bagging map for the 214 Wainwright fells in the Lake District on which you can record your own progress. You can read hundreds of user reports from the fells and share your own. Check out our Wainwrights section

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