"Mountain: Exploring Britain's High Places"
Reading history and reviews
Finished in 2008I picked this up pretty much on a whim at Manchester airport while waiting for my flight to New Jersey - I had just started reading "Rashomon" and I wasn't sure that it would last the duration of a seven-hour flight (my mistake: it was more than adequate, when coupled with viewings of Be Kind Rewind and Run Fatboy Run). This book is based on a TV series that Griff Rhys Jones presented in 2007, although I'd never heard of it before. It looked a bit thin for the price but I was intrigued by the fact that it has a section on the Pennines (which I thought of as more hills than mountains), plus it also has some nice colour pictures in a little glossy section in the middle of the book. So I decided to give it a shot.
The premise as sold is that Griff travels around Britain and climbs hills and mountains, but in fact he seems to spend at least as much time not climbing them but instead talking to people who live in these places, learning about how the landscape has been shaped by agriculture and industry over the last few centuries. It's quite insightful to realise that a lot of what we consider to be "natural" landscape is in many ways a man-made thing, and I was reminded a number of times of some of the themes in Rebecca Solnit's book on walking, Wanderlust. It's also interesting to read his encounters with the very diverse set of people who are making their lives in these places: some are following very traditional ways of living, like the farmers and shepherds, while others are finding new livelihoods.
Interspersing all this are various facts about the actual mountains and hills that Griff tackles, as well as his actual attempts to walk, run and climb many of them. I liked the fact that he approaches these exploits not as a seasoned pro but as an ordinary middle-aged man who is perhaps not as fit as he would like to be, in a way that was quite inspiring - as are many of his descriptions of the landscape and the climbs. (I also enjoyed his occasional asides acknowledging the fact that he's making a TV programme, which most of the time calls for him to ignore the fact that he's accompanied by a crew of cameramen and sound recordists and pretend that he's doing all this alone.)
It's not all fantastic though: as with all these books I miss having some handy maps to help me locate the various places, and I think it would have benefitted immensely from something like this. I also felt that Griff lacked commitment in some of his endeavors, which I suppose was the downside of him doing these things in order to make a TV programme (rather than the TV programme being a by-product of his passion to discover and explore these places); but maybe that's just another reality of how television is made.
I also read a review on Amazon which suggested that there are a lot of factual errors in the book, but I think that this bothers me less basically because I can hardly remember most of what I read anyway, and besides I wasn't reading it as a textbook or guidebook. In some ways it reminded me a little of reading Roger Deakin's Waterlog last year - someone journeying around a Britain that seems steeped in history and a degree of wildness missing from my suburban life. So at the very least I think that I will try to see the TV series, and (even better than that) I will try to visit some of these places myself.