Doris Lessing:'what have I done!'
Congrats to Harriet Tuckey on winning this years’ Boardman-Tasker prize with her painstakingly researched biography of her father, Griffith Pugh. At first sight, a work titled ‘Everest-The First Ascent’ might smack of yet another Himalayan blockbuster winning over a cautious panel of judges, yet I found Harriet’s book was indeed a cut above the usual Everest fare in that the author didn’t hold back from offering some less than flattering observations of, until now, previously unassailable establishment heroes. Furthermore, her book was certainly no hagiographic portrait of a mountaineer who had had a raw deal from the mountaineering historians. Griffith Pugh was presented warts and all and there were certainly many aspects of his character and behaviour towards, not least his own family, which marked him out as-in the vernacular of the time-‘a bit of a cad!’. A fascinating read to be sure, but do we actually need a mountaineering ‘Brit Award’ to sell an above average book like this to the public?
I was pondering this over the weekend, just why Climbing/mountaineering as activities which are supposedly the preserve of anarchic and free spirited individuals actually needed literature awards at all? We’re used to a raft of awards ceremonies from the Oscars to the Soap Awards where essentially very rich and privileged people engage in an orgy of self congratulation and finger down the throat maudlin tearfulness . Do outdoor writers really want to engage in something so naff and mind numbingly awful as an awards ceremony? I suppose the main movers for mountain lit festivals are the publishers who would argue that as the audience for mountain literature is relatively small, then they need all the help they can get. Occasionally the odd work from the great outdoors will escape into the mainstream-‘Touching the Void’..’Into the Wild’ etc- but a lot of works count sales in the hundreds rather than the tens of thousands.
With self publishing becoming in many ways the only way an outdoors writer- in particular a lesser light- can get a book into the market, you have to wonder how comprehensive and inclusive mountain lit festival long and short lists really are? After all, a relatively unknown writer printing off a small run of work will never be able to match the power and influence of a major publishing house. Are they destined to be a voice crying in the wilderness? Unread and unappreciated to all but a tiny clique? With this in mind, just how reflective of quality are these lit bashes?
Perhaps an organisation like the Boardman-Tasker might consider a whole new concept to replace its current hit parade shin-dig. A more inclusive approach which involves the promotion and wider dissemination of minor works within the genre. Free from subjective appraisal and promotion by a small and perhaps not that representative panel of judges who concentrate on works by an often predictable list of usual suspects and promoted by publishing big hitters. Maybe the outdoor writers who operate on the fringes might take solace from the words of Virginia Woolf when asked why she had refused a honour from the King...’I was brought up never to accept sweeties from strange people’ or as Doris Lessing who died yesterday said on being told she had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature...’Oh Christ!’