Coast returns today (15 July) for its ninth season and next week’s episode features an item about A Dream of White Horses, the classic HVS route climbed in 1968 by Ed Drummond and Dave Pearce, and the classic photograph of the first ascent taken by Leo Dickinson that did much to advertise the route’s appeal.
This glance back to Drummond’s heyday comes as an appeal is launched
to help him meet his healthcare costs in California as he struggles against Parkinson’s disease and cancer. The photograph of him with his daughter Fiume, still smiling for the camera, is as poignant as his appearance in Paul Diffley’s film The Long Hope.
Fate has not been kind to Ed Drummond, although in interviews
done after his Parkinson’s diagnosis he still comes across as optimistic and upbeat, despite this blow.
Still, it's been quite a ride.
In 1993, Drummond was the subject of a television documentary by Simon Beaufoy, now famous as the scriptwriter of a string of hit movies – The Full Monty, Who Wants to be a Millionaire, 127 Hours – but then at the start of his career. Drummond had been Beaufoy’s boyhood hero, and was then embarked on his most grandiose piece of climbing activism, Climb for the World.
The film was excruciating to watch. Drummond’s marriage was falling apart, his wife Lia and young daughter were struggling on benefits in Derbyshire while Drummond was saving the world in Switzerland. Their baby son Silvan was a victim of cot death. Ultimately, Climb for the World collapsed into a financial disaster and Lia returned home to Arizona.
In his review for The Independent, Tom Sutcliffe wrote: ‘Edwin Drummond is a climber and a poet, a man who speaks in a fluent dribble of abstractions about beauty and truth and value. He has an exceptionally good grip on the gritty realities of a rock face but a child’s conception of the challenges of the everyday world. Like Dickens Mrs Jellyby, exquisitely distressed about the natives of Borriooboola-Gha and blind to the needs of her own children, Drummond pours his energies into political stunts – climbing Nelson's Column and American skyscrapers as acts of environmental protest – while his wife and daughters struggle along on welfare…
‘At times his self-importance made you gasp out loud: “If I’d been able to write a poem for Silvan maybe he wouldn't have died,” he said at one point, a sentence which pretends to be a confession but is in fact a boast. Beaufoy’s uneasiness with this gave the film an odd vigor, his youthful admiration for Drummond struggling against the evidence of his vanity and evasion. In one beautiful edit he hinted that he had made up his own mind – cutting from a young baby on Lia’s breast, curling its hand round the neck of her jersey to Edwin reaching for a hold on a rock face, just a bigger baby with gratification on his mind.’
Drummond’s predilection for glib, self-important statements was well known among his contemporaries in Wales, along with his sly boastfulness. His obvious pleasure in his own phrasemaking was what undermined his talent as a poet. I remember him telling me, as he sat among the smoking ruins of Climb for the World, that it ‘hadn’t been about pie in the sky, but pie on the table’.
His extravagant and ill-conceived attack on Jim Perrin’s biography of Menlove Edwards was entitled Jimlove Menwords, the kind of wordplay that was a hallmark of his writing style, superficially dazzling, but ultimately distracting – like a firework in the middle of a sermon. The central argument, that Edwards’ lonely life and death, his struggle with his own sexuality, his mental illness, was nothing to do with society and everything to do with Menlove Edwards seemed to me when it was published monstrous and inhuman – and certainly wrong. (The truth, as in most things, lay somewhere in between.)
Even so, despite it all, I’m glad that Drummond was there. Climbing for Drummond was a way of experiencing the world, of feeling complete and engaged. Yes, he was egotistical, but then lots of climbers, poets, politicians and businesspeople – even television critics – are guilty of that. He was not an ideal husband, but those who fell in love with him responded to his grand vision of things, of himself – Drummond as visionary. If their agenda changed, then his did not.
Most of all, he was open, and open-minded. He talked about his experience of being the victim of child abuse, when such things were much harder to discuss. He talked about feminism. He was unequivocally himself. And he was a major creative influence within climbing.
Several contemporaries have wondered about Ken Wilson’s admiration for Drummond’s writing, but his memoir A Dream of White Horses remains essential reading for anyone with an interest in mountain literature. It’s a climbing life laid bare, as honestly as he knew how.