Joe Brown remembered

by Ed Douglas

I remember the relief I felt when Peter Gillman told me how interviewing Joe Brown for the first time had left him dumbstruck. So it wasn’t just me. Peter knew how inappropriate it was to feel that way. He had worked for Harold Evans’ Sunday Times. You were meant to be hardnosed. On the other hand: Joe Brown. Bandy-legged, teeth like tombstones and hands like bunches of bananas: he was the very definition of a living legend. Gillman wrote how Joe occupied the same sort of space in his sport as the fighter Henry Cooper or the footballer Bobby Charlton did in theirs. Names to conjure up whole worlds. He seemed to me a kind of Renaissance master, his canvas blank sheets of rock, his lines elegant and clever.

Joe’s death at the age of 89 seems not simply the end of a defining era in climbing but the loss of an immense creative force. ‘I’m always happiest when I’m doing something new,’ he told Gillman in 1967. And even in his last illness, friends of his told me that the preternatural curiosity that inspired his extraordinary life remained undiminished. He could and did talk for hours in that searching, teasing way of his: always the explorer, but never overwrought, never self-important. It wasn’t just callow journalists who felt the weight of Joe’s reputation. Gillman was writing in 1967 about the development of Gogarth and Brown’s partnership with the newest young star to come for his mantle, Pete Crew. ‘I worship Joe,’ Crew told him. ‘He’s the best climber in the world.’ By then Brown was in his mid 30s and in the middle of another wave of era- defining exploration in North Wales. If Crew’s assessment was overstated, most climbers of the generation that followed Joe calibrated themselves on the routes he created, first in the Peak District and soon after in Wales. Martin Boysen described Cenotaph Corner, which Joe climbed in 1952, as ‘the Pass test-piece – the gateway to the hardest climbing,’ and his ascent of that route in 1959 as a rite of passage. Soon after he found himself climbing by chance with Joe on Cloggy; his assessment, as you might expect, was more measured than Crew’s: he could see Brown’s genius, his natural talent and creative mind, but his foibles too. Their motivation was more in sync as well: neither Brown nor Boysen were that bothered about hierarchies. It was the pleasure of climbing, how it offered a compelling way to live that meant something, the psychological doors it opened. These days the routes Joe climbed in the 1950s and 1960s are comfortably within reach for even moderately able climbers. That’s hardly the point. Read the list: Valkyrie, Right Unconquerable, Elder Crack, Right Eliminate, Cemetery Gates, Vember, Cenotaph Corner, The Grooves, Sassenach, The Rasp, The Mostest, November, Shrike, Vector, Dwm, Hardd. You don’t need to be told where these climbs are: you already know. And they are only a fraction of the very best of the myriad new routes Joe climbed in his long career. They are also a foundation stone in what British climbing is and means. When Ken Wilson was assembling the first edition of Hard Rock, so recently reissued, he pointed out how: ‘The reader may gain some idea of his ability by studying those of his climbs featured in this book. He has brought to climbing a

Bandy-legged, teeth like tombstones and hands like bunches of bananas

rare combination of attributes: keenness, patience, strength, technical ability, eye for a line, competitiveness and, above all, a subtle and mysterious charisma. Few would deny that his place in British rock climbing remains pre-eminent.’ This is without mentioning his deep and broad mountaineering experiences: the famous first ascents of Kangchenjunga with George Band in 1955, the only 8,000m peak first climbed by Britons, and Muztagh Tower, climbed the following year with Ian McNaught-Davis.

Joe’s emergence, with his younger partner Don Whillans, heralded a seismic structural upheaval in the social breadth of British climbing. The appearance of working-class climbers galvanised standards, and Joe was at the vanguard of that group, his upbringing having been unusually disadvantaged. Joe was born in the slums of Ardwick, then a heavily industrialised district of Manchester, the youngest of seven. His father was a jobbing builder who, during the depression of the early 1930s, worked as a merchant seaman. In 1931, when Joe was eight months old, he suffered a shipboard accident and his injuries became gangrenous, fatally so. His widowed mother took in washing and when Joe was old enough to be left in the care of his siblings, she went out to work as a cleaner. By the time war broke out, the family had moved from their two-up two-down in Ardwick to a large house in Chorlton-cum-Medlock. One night during the Blitz, hiding under the dining-room table, they heard the rattle of an incendiary device coming down the chimney and then a scream from next door. Moments later the windows of their

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