Through the looking glass (2) : David Wilson


(To start with, an afterthought…something I came across after this cobweb strand was published. A sort of oxymoron. A postscript that comes at the beginning. As so often, it’s an insight gleaned from Clive James’ Poetry Notebook 2006-2014.

He’s writing about memorable lines, ‘tightly integrated things’ and on achieving fame …or not achieving fame.

[On U A Fanthorpe]  “It wasn’t that she wrote one thing that put everything else in the shade. Though she had been awarded, very quietly, in 2003, the Queen’s Medal for poetry, her whole output was in the shade, and then suddenly it all came to light at once: at the very end of her life, and partly because Carol Ann Duffy, who has a gift for fame, was an admirer of hers. Thus, Fanthorpe’s gift for obscurity was overcome: until then, despite her having published several volumes with a faithful minor publishing house (the much lamented Peterloo Poets) she was was read mainly by her devotees, and it is one of the laws of poetry and of the arts in general that the instructed are an insufficient audience: one must break through to the uninstructed.)


That would have made a great title for this and last week’s post: ‘the instructed are an insufficient audience.

I guess that at the heart of last week’s post was this fond wish : What I want to do is to  consider those poets who break out of the bubble, this hall of mirrors that multiplies and multiplies the image rather than the reality, and are heard by folk who aren’t that interested in poetry as such. Who are they, and how do they do it?

So here’s another take on that question, and also an opportunity to share and celebrate the poetry of someone  who I met via The Poetry Business Writing Days, whose work I’ve always liked for its quiet precision…and also, to be fair…. because of a shared enthusiasm for mountains and the stories that surround them. Climbing them? Not so much; dodgy bones and vertigo put paid to to my climbing decades ago. But the literature of mountains and mountaineering. Oh yes.

That was reinvigorated by Robert Macfarlane’s ‘Mountains of the mind‘ and its exploration of the shifting imagery of our relationship with high places. It does a job like  Raymond Williams’ The country and the city did for the opposition of ideas of urban and rural in art and literature. It’s a job which Macfarlane continues to do with books like Landmarks, and Simon Schama in Landscape and memory. And I ought to namecheck Terry Gifford, one of my tutors on the MA Creative Writing course I did; apart from writing critical appraisals of Ted Hughes, he also used to organise international conferences on the relationship of climbing and literature. Clearly, I’m not breaking new ground here. Just setting a stage on which to introduce today’s guest.

David Wilson’s not the first by any means to write poetry that goes through the looking glass to engage the attention of folk not normally keen readers of poetry, and more recently there are other collections and pamphlets that occupy the same territory.

helen and yvonne (2)

Helen Mort’s recent ‘No map could show them’ has a double reach since it also celebrates those Victorian women alpinists, and ticks the boxes of both feminists and mountaineers. The backstory of Yvonne Reddick’s Translating mountains engages in another way because of its poignant personal family history . You can check it out via the link

I’m personally fascinated by epic tales of suffering and death on high mountains. Joe Simpson’s Touching the void showed how such a story can reach out to a much wider public, just as the myths that have accreted around Mallory will engage readers who have never set foot on a rock face. And since one of the poems that David Wilson wrote which proved a breakthrough for him is about Everest, it seems a good place to introduce him.

“David  turned to writing poetry a few years ago after being
inspired by Derek Walcott’s poem ‘Midsummer, Tobago’ on the wall of a
hospital waiting room in Leeds. He then discovered the Writing Days
run by the Poetry Business in Sheffield, leading to his first attempts
at poems since primary school.
David was born and brought up in North London and studied at the
London School of Economics, followed by a Masters degree at Leeds
University, which at the time had the only indoor climbing wall in the
country and was close to excellent outcrop climbing.

He has climbed
extensively in the UK, Alps and further afield, at a standard best
described as erratic.  In mid-life he got hooked on windsurfing, but
writing about climbing led him back into it.

David’s poems have appeared in The North, Poetry News, Rialto,
Scottish Mountaineer, Climb, Alpinist and the Cinnamon anthology
Journey Planner. He has also been a prize-winner in competitions:
Poets and Players (twice), Kent and Sussex, Buxton International
Festival,  Poetry News and the Mountaineering Council of Scotland. His
first pamphlet, Slope, was published by Smith/Doorstop in 2016.


(Two things I’d want to highlight, because, I suppose, they fit the ‘looking glass’ argument. First off, his poems have appeared in serious poetry journals, but also in climbing and mountaineering journals, as well as winning a prize with the Mountaineering Council of Scotland. Second, you’ll notice that the endorsement on the front cover of Slope isn’t from a poet, but a world-famous mountaineer. You’d give an arm and a leg for an endorsemant like that. Or perhaps not, if you’re a mountaineer. But you get the point.)

David adds some thoughts on writing poetry which are relevant.

“Prior to writing poetry, I occasionally wrote fiction, both short
stories and a well-received novel.
In seeking to write about the experience of climbing, and its social
and historical context, Robert McFarlane’s Mountains of the Mind  was
one influential book, another was Wade Davis’ Into the Silence: The
Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest; and a third,  M. John
Harrison’s novel Climbers. The poets Les Murray and Norman McCaig were
helpful in gaining insight into writing about climbing and landscape.”

Praise for his poetry has come from the worlds of poetry and of mountaineering. Here’s a selection.

‘These poems bring back great memories. And I empathise with the
questions some of the poems raise.’
Chris Bonington

‘Both Helen Mort’s ‘No Map Could Show Them’ and David Wilson’s ‘Slope’
clearly show that great poetry about climbing is not only possible –
as Coleridge surely realised in his state of ‘prophetic trance and
delight’ when descending Broad Stand – but that it is very much alive
and well in Britain today, well over two hundred years after that
euphoric adventure on Scafell.’
David Pickford, Editor-in-Chief, Climb magazine.

and, to introduce the first poem:

‘A brilliantly imagistic rendering of a place. The finding of likeness
between Elvis and Everest …is truly spectacular.’
Paul Muldoon on ‘Everest’, which he awarded the 2015 Poets and Players prize.


Once it was Chomolungma,
Mother Goddess of the Earth,
a face whose veil rarely lifted,
its whiteness the White Whale’s.

Now it’s like Elvis near the end,
a giant in a soiled jumpsuit,
blank, useful for percentages,
a sheet from which the music’s fled.

What I like particularly here is how much is packed into an eight-line poem; the history of a mountain and of the death of legends; it charts a descent from the divine to the mysterious, to the popular myth, to the pathetic and shopworn. It has the kind of resonance I associate with Black Elk talking about Wounded Knee: the hoop of the nations is broken and the sacred tree is dead’.

The image of a sheet of staves which has lost all its notation resonates particularly with my images of failed ascents, the tiny black dots of climbers who vanished into whiteout.

Mind you, it would be doing David an injustice to suggest that he’s somehow caught in a niche subject. That isn’t remotely true, any more than it would be of Helen Mort or Yvonne Reddick. All I was suggesting at the start is that it does you no harm to be able to write about subjects that break the shiny walls of the poetry bubble. Because the odds are that then those readers will find all the other poems, and read them, too. Poems like this:


Duke of Edinburgh’s

After Biology’s birds and bees
Mr Palmer taught us Civil Defence,
how to raise a burned body part
above the level of the heart,
to recognise the four minute siren,
Duck and Cover if caught outside.

He prized his Mega-Death Calculator:
two cardboard discs, one over the other.
We’d offer a number in kilotons;
rotating the discs with two fat thumbs,
he’d read off deaths to the nearest ten k
within five miles of Camden Market.

The President gave his ultimatum.
Subs and missile ships sailed on.
Mr Palmer fiddled with his Calculator.
“Don’t giggle! It looks likely tomorrow
that most of our numbers will be up.”
Across a field the First Eleven trained.

The drunks who cursed outside the tube
gone in a flash. Tufnell Park white ash.
The blast hitting Highgate Hill, Marx’s Grave,
the suicide bridge on Archway Road.
Helen Shapiro and her beehive vaporised
as she walked back to happiness.


We had teachers like that at the time of the first hydrogen bomb tests; we ghoulishly pored over diagrams that told us how our houses and our skin would look if an H Bomb was dropped on Leeds. Privately, I had nightmares.

David’s poem beautifully dramatises the mindset of intelligent teenagers (I guess they were all boys) at the time of the Cuban Missile crisis. It’s the precision of location and geography that makes this work for me…and that one telling bit of ephemeral history. Helen Shapiro’s beehive hairdo. It nails one generation’s priorities, (and maybe its uncertain preoccupation with birds and bees) and horrifies with the absolutism of that verb: vaporised. I love the art of this poem, the tying up of its narrative.

The Hydrogen Bomb UK civil defence poster

David generously sent me more poems than I can use in one post, but I reckon we can manage three more. The thing I notice as I read and re-read them is their concern with mortality, the fragility of human life. Most climbing literature will return again and again to reflections on the belief of great mountaineers. Namely, that putting themselves at risk in sublimely dangerous high and inaccessible places gives then renewed insight in the preciousness of being alive. I think these poems are illuminated by this core idea. See if you agree. The first is full of innocence. I love it.

Bivouac at Harrisons’ Rocks

Leaves turn from green to grey.
On the breeze a scent of hops.
A star appears. A bat.

Beyond silver birch trees
a train sounds its two-tone horn,
slows for a bend, disappears.

We’re fifteen years old
with apple pies, cans of Sprite,
and dreams of the Eigerwand.

Above our ledge a sandstone roof,
below us the drop. Not far
but far enough.

I read a lot into that ‘far enough’…meaning: far enough to be thrilled and frightened, for the adrenalin rush; far enough to be killed if you fall off. The thing about climbing is that it’s addictive. It’s never enough. There’s always something that bit harder, that bit bigger.


The next poem Palimpsest commemorates Rachel Slater and Tim Newton who went missing on Valentine’s weekend 2016, buried in an avalanche on the North Face of
Ben Nevis. Their bodies were not found for many weeks.


How softly we climbed last winter,
touching the snow as if it were skin
on the slope that led to the routes,

knowing they were somewhere beneath us,
partners who left their tent at dawn,
her in her red jacket, him his new boots.

It could as easily have been us,
lost beneath an unreadable surface
as layers of old and new compressed.

It’s yet another poem that does so much in a small space. The title, I think, is brilliant. Not just for the obvious whiteness of snow that covers imperfection and loss, but more radically, the scraping off of a record ready for new marks and tracks. How well it connects with the first lines

How softly we climbed last winter,
touching the snow as if it were skin

‘Softly’ is exactly right. That held-breath tentativeness, that fear of the surface fragility, that precariousness. And the the softness with which you might touch a loved one. And how you might pause to touch the dead body of a loved one. I find this powerfully moving.

The final poem I chose isn’t a ‘climbing’ poem. But the voice is one I want to end with. It’s a voice that says that being hopeful is  a condition of  being alive. And I’ll settle for that on this July Sunday.

The Day

You reminded me, how years ago on the school run
I said one day we’ll just keep driving,
past the railings and bells and latecomers

to see where the day takes us,
perhaps the beach, perhaps back home,
and I’d let you decide when it should be.

It didn’t happen but knowing it was enough
you said, the best thing I ever did.
And I wonder if the same is true for me;

perhaps, when nestled among flowers
with the rear door of my limousine shut,
you might ask the man in black

to keep driving, see where the day takes us,
to hills, the sea, or just around the block
like an uncertain bride taking her time.

So, thank you, David Wilson for being our guest and being, involuntarily, part of an argument I’ve been having about the place of poetry in the oworld.

Two things coming up. Midweek we’ll have two poems from a workshop I ran. Because I like them. And next Sunday (or Monday) a tribute to another small poetry press: Paper Swans. Hope to see you then.

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