All Change At The Top

Friday, 7 May 2010

Exciting, isn't it? No, not the election, silly, but news that Dave Pickford has taken the helm at Climb magazine. There aren't many full-time jobs in British climbing journalism, so when one of them changes hands, tongues do tend to wag. Anyway, it set me thinking about the state of climbing writing – in periodicals, rather than books – and its relevance in the new media world. Of course, I'm biased, being a magazine writer who has worked for British climbing magazines for over 20 years. I love magazines generally and good climbing magazines in particular, so of course I can see a future for them. Webzine fans will say all that stuff is just right for an old git like me, but I beg to differ.

I still think a good story with a bit of depth is best served up on paper with a liberal sprinkling of good art for extra flavour – and appeals to all ages. But there's no question things have changed. I think this is for two reasons. Magazines have become much more consumerist. They're very different beasts to publications like Mountain in the 1970s and 1980s. In those days, people were more serious-minded and thoughtful about what they wanted to say, or coldly factual. The former often led to cloying pretension, while the latter was just boring.

On occasion, however, something special was served up, the best of which was collected in Ken Wilson's books of essays, Games Climbers Play and Mirrors In The Cliffs, the latter being superior in my view. Driving out to a crag the other day, the conversation was all about how you couldn't produce a book like that anymore because all the great writers have disappeared. (Thanks, I thought, for the vote of confidence.) It's a gloomy thought that climbing doesn't have the cultural richness it used to have, but I don't think that's necessarily true. A lot of younger climbs are into film-making now, and there are other routes to self-expression than the comics.

But I do think there's a real problem with British climbing journalism specifically and outdoor writing generally, and it comes down to one issue – money. Running a more consumerist magazine requires journalists. Nobody wants to produce the kind of material required for nothing. Its functional, not self-expressive. Yet that is increasingly what publishers want – something for not very much or nothing at all. That squeezing of resources is undermining not only good writing, but good journalism too. Good material requires investment.

So it will be interesting to see how the appointment of new editors are Climb will change things. There's plenty of inspiration out there: Rock & Ice and Alpinist in the US are leading the way in English and some of the European magazines are very strong. Perhaps one day we'll find the right business model in this country to do the best kind of work.

Posted by Ed Douglas at 4.25 PM