The Long Hope
Producer Hot Aches
Reviewed byEd Douglas
DateFriday, 10 February 2012
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Not that you expect justice in this world, but the story of the Long Hope Route on St John's Head is – or at least was – cruelly obscure. Remote, time-consuming to get to even now, and with the usual problems of the Scottish maritime climate, this grand cliff was never going to be popular with the average climber, and its grandeur has appealed largely to connoisseurs.
The first ascensionists were certainly far from average. Ed Drummond is well known although his long sojourn in America and his long struggle with Parkinson's Disease have removed him from the British climbing scene for some time. For a while he was a provocative figure. He challenged the self-satisfaction of the scene he emerged into in the 1960s, but was no less self-admiring. A gifted poet, his route names alone deserve admiration – A Dream of White Horses, for example – but his relationship with the challenges he set himself are even richer ground for psychological exploration. You don't forget a Drummond route.
Oliver Hill I knew almost nothing about, but his first appearance in Paul Diffley's exceptional film had me riveted. The first acent of The Long Hope Route is one of the greatest achievements in post-war British climbing . A huge, dirty, loose, steep monster of a route on the biggest vertical sea cliff in the country that took seven days. I had imagined Hill to have been Drummond's innocent victim, and the fact he quit climbing for a while after this amazing adventure suggests that perhaps he was. But one glance at him reveals a steely character no less fascinating than Drummond himself.
At first I was concerned that Drummond and Hill would soon drop out of Paul Diffley's story, and we'd be left with a conventional climbing film. But they are woven into the fabric of the main narrative, an attempt by Dave MacLeod to free Drummond's original line, after John Arran and Dave Turnbull's free variation in 1997. We hear from these two as well, and they have a great deal to say that's worth listening to. MacLeod is a more relaxed figure on camera these days, a seasoned performer, and holds his own in some interesting company. In a way he is as obsessed and strange as Drummond, spending eight days cleaning this mammoth project and never giving in.
The juxtaposition of MacLeod, in the prime of his athletic life and among our very best climbers, with the shuffling, bent figure of Ed Drummond, a prophet from an older testament, is terrific. It's agonising too. I recall climbing with Drummond in the 1980s. He was past his prime, but you got a sense of his great, barrel-chested strength, his powerful hands and the intensity of his gaze. He was a magnificent poseur in his beret, a climber from the Left Bank, but tough with it.
To see him creeping past the sign pointing to the 'Old Man' is to see all our frailities, and all our courage, at a glance. His comments throughout the film are vintage Drummond, prepared in advance to dazzle. He describes the excitement he gets from "tying his shoelaces first go," and then we're back in the moment of his greatest adventure, a vital, ambitious young man, genuinely a warrior poet, making his mark. "Where did that strength come from?" he muses, have inched his way to the top of the crag. It's heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time.
MacLeod's achievement is a very different kind of beast, more about performance than survival. He knows where he's going. But it's just as inspiring, and Diffley's footage of the difficult 8b+ crux does MacLeod justice. We get a sense of how committing his project is, how close to failure he comes. It's just a shame there was no one there to film Arran and Turnbull, although some archive footage from Leo Dickinson is an unexpected treat. Among those 1960s faces I could see the late Ben Wintringham.
There are a few flaws. The voice reading out Drummond's essay on his climb was wrong. Drummond talks in a particular, fastidious way, and the warm, rolling Scottish accent of the speaker wasn't right for this. Ditto the music, which was too jaunty and light for an epic story with so much depth and perspective. But these are minor complaints. This is a great piece of documentary film making for a small specialist producer to pull off. More like this please.