I have never read Touching The Void, Joe Simpson’s 1988 account of clambering, crawling, and hopping down a snowy Peruvian mountainside with a broken leg. It was recommended to me, by someone whose recommendations I generally trust, but for some reason I never got round to it. Today I learned, via the Grauniad, that the book has become a set text for teenpersons in our self esteem ‘n’ diversity hubs. I was startled, as I had no idea they were still encouraged to read. It was not this revelation, however, that was the point of the story. Rather, it was that various scallywags have been conversing with Simpson through the medium of Twitter. All this social networking and internettery can bring writers and readers together, you see.
(As I know myself. In a fit of madness, I once sent an email to Alain De Botton to berate him for not knowing the difference between deprecate and depreciate. He replied, the sensitive soul, within about thirty seconds, to protest that he did know the difference, and went into a lengthy and convoluted justification of his misuse. I was not convinced.)
Anyway, I am afraid I must report that, rather than taking the opportunity to applaud Joe Simpson for his valour and grit and gumption, the teenpersons have been whingeing at him. Much of this is not worthy of comment, but I have to applaud the youngster who coined the term “crevasse wanker”.
Now I tend not to use the language of the gutter myself, not from any sense of prudery, but simply because I consider it a bit lazy. I once knew a man whose every single utterance included at least one “fuck”, and usually more. It was very tiresome to listen to him, and after a while one wanted to stuff a rag into his mouth and have him whipped out of town, as they might have done in an earlier, less barbarous age. Or perhaps I mean more barbarous. If so, it would suggest that a certain modicum and type of barbarism is actually a good thing. I must ponder that.
Generally speaking, the rarer the fuckery the more effective it is. Pansy Cradledew, for example, a woman of great elegance and grace, lets rip with a “fuck fuck fuck!” about once a year, on average. So unexpected is it that jaws drop, glass tumblers shatter, and birds fall stone dead from the skies. Ms Cradledew’s last outburst, at some point in the year of Our Lord MMXI, was occasioned by some finicky faffing with thin strips of cardboard and adhesive paste in the course of constructing a cardboard model of an important building. She was not using the proprietary paste known as Cow Gum. Perhaps that is what caused the sudden fuckery.
If one must swear more often than annually, then I think one should at least approach the task with mad creativity. The baroque flights of sweary fancy in the scripts of The Thick Of It are a model here, but I think it is no accident that they are, precisely, scripted. Few of us could come up with those verbal fireworks spontaneously. The sadly-unnamed Twitterer who called Joe Simpson a “crevasse wanker” belongs, I think, in Malcolm Tucker’s company. It is a phrase of genius. I only wish I could think of occasions when I might use it myself.
Knowing not a jot about Joe Simpson, and not having read his book, nor seen the film documentary which was adapted from it, I have no idea if he deserves to be called a crevasse wanker. But without for one moment discounting the valour, grit and gumption of those who pit themselves against nature’s terrors – mountains, oceans, uncharted territories, polar wastes – there is something faintly laughable about the whole business, is there not? I have read more widely in the accounts of Simpson’s predecessors in earlier centuries, and part of the pleasure, if not most of it, is in the contemplation of the sheer foolishness at large. The following quotation, very dear to me, seems to sum up an entire ethos. In Ex Libris : Confessions Of A Common Reader (1998), Anne Fadiman writes
Who but an Englishman, the legendary Sir John Franklin, could have managed to die of starvation and scurvy along with all 129 of his men in a region of the Canadian Arctic whose game had supported an Eskimo colony for centuries? When the corpses of some of Franklin’s officers and crew were later discovered, miles from their ships, the men were found to have left behind their guns but to have lugged such essentials as monogrammed silver cutlery, a backgammon board, a cigar case, a clothes brush, a tin of button polish, and a copy of The Vicar Of Wakefield. These men may have been incompetent bunglers, but, by God, they were gentlemen.
Incompetent bunglers, gentlemen, and very probably crevasse wankers. It is a term we can also apply to the doomed Scott and his chums, perishing at the South Pole a hundred years ago. I am beginning to think it would make a splendid title for an anthology.
Incidentally, does one have to be British to be a crevasse wanker? Perhaps I am blinkered, but somehow certain foreign persons seem less preposterous when pitting themselves against the etcetera etcetera. For example, Werner Herzog’s various forays, and accounts of others’ forays, into inhospitable wildernesses are, to be sure, ridiculous, but there is a mad grandeur about them. Could Aguirre, The Wrath Of God be retitled Aguirre, The Amazonian Jungle Wanker? I think not.