Wilson Rides Again

Monday, 2 January 2012

Years ago, handwritten letters from publishers pushing their latest offering were a common occurence for me, and presumably lots of other reviewers. The doyen of this highly personal approach was Tony Colwell, Joe Simpson's editor at Jonathan Cape, who began his career in marketing and understood intimately how to cut through the avalanche of promotional material with a direct and proportionate approach. There was no gushing from Tony.

The world has changed and the pressures on mainstream publishers are exponentially greater. But I got a long hand-written missive from Ken Wilson at Baton Wicks before Xmas, full of news about his forthcoming re-publishing of the Boardman Tasker Omnibus, currently at the printers. "Hope all this will be of help in using the reprint as an excuse for a retrospective look at their contributions to climbing and mountain literature." I instinctively thought that the climbing world is already well aware of their contribution, but of course I keep forgetting how ancient I've become, and that the younger generation won't necessarily be compelled to find out more about these extraordinary men.

All four books have their merits, but the two absolute classics are Pete Boardman's The Shining Mountain and Joe Tasker's Savage Arena. Boardman's account of the first ascent of the West Face of Changabang has an intensity and focus that give it an energy that belies the fact it is now 35 years old.

Boardman was clearly a complex character, intensely ambitious and even prickly behind his diffident and literary demeanour. Wilson recalls changing the title on an essay that appeared in Mountain about Boardman's trip to Koh-e-Bandaka in Afghanistan. He called it Long Necks in the Hindu Kush, which Boardman thought gave the unfair impression that his team had been foolhardy. "It probably had a provisional literary title but he was very pissed off about it and was always cold towards me afterwards."

It's a revealing anecdote, and typical of Wilson that he should use it to promote a reissue of Boardman's work. Wilson loathes self-puffery, only giving credit where he believes it due after long and dogged consideration. Yet his own idiosyncratic version of the acid test is just one of the reasons his career as an independent publisher has been so successful. I cannot think of any other publisher who has had a greater impact on the sport, in Britain at least – even including the Victorians.

But I have a sudden mental image of Ken grimacing with distaste. Pissing in my pocket, he calls it. So enough of that.

Posted by Ed Douglas at 5.14 PM