Johnny Dawes – Full of Myself

This reviewing lark is about objectivity I’m told, about presenting you, dear reader, with the unvarnished truth. However, this book is written by Johnny Dawes and how can anyone from my generation be objective about Johnny Dawes?  A climbing colossus, he bestrode the eighties and those of us climbing at the time were bewitched by his brilliance.

So what do we want from Johnny Dawes’ autobiography?  A gentle ramble through the high points of his career?  A glorified list of first ascents?  I can get that from a guidebook.  What I expect is what I get from this book, at times punishingly honest self examination, at others, rude, ungracious and one sided.

So stuff objectivity because I love this book, warts and all.  Only once or twice was I befuddled by Johnnie-speak, an obscure dialect that looks frustratingly adjacent to English.  More often I was left jealous at his ability to coin a subtle phrase.  His description of Lover’s Leap cafe in Stoney Middleton took me back twenty five years, ‘….dust from the quarry across the road slickened the lino, passing trucks shook your tea into a squall.’  Equally poetic is his description of searching for a solid hold on the exfoliating carapace of Strone Ulladale, ‘Like a mad archivist searching through one folio after another for a missing word, one solid looking plate levers easily off, only for another that looks the same to hold….’.  Dawes is one of the few writers I know who can describe a climb move by move without sending me to sleep.  His evocation is almost visual in its intensity, the technicality and boldness leaping off the page.

However, this isn’t simply a book about climbing, it is much more.  Dawes explores the roots of his sometimes brittle personality, his rebellious childhood and school days.  His mother tells him that she is always right, about which he opines almost wistfully, ‘This didn’t leave much room for manoeuvre, but it did set a wide frame for rebellion.’    Bullied and often lonely at public school, he finds salvation in climbing at which he is preternaturally gifted.  He climbs obsessively, finding ever harder problems on the walls of school buildings, a fixation that serves to emphasise the gulf that separates him from many of his contemporaries.

In the Peak District he finds another elite against which to rebel, the Stoney Woodshed Gang, of whom he says, ‘In time we’d all become good friends.  They just had a different way of being arseholes.’  Every morning most of the regulars head for limestone and the bolt bonanza while Johnny heads for the uncertainties of the grit.  Again he is the rebel, an artist among artisans.  The resulting routes, Gaia, Braille Trail, End of the Affair and the rest, redefine what is possible.

Moving to Llanberis Dawes finds his spiritual home amongst fellow adventurers such as Haston, Hodgson, Al Harris and Cliff Phillips, risk takers all – ‘The rock but with the roll left in.’    The Indian Face saga is re-examined and Dawes’ 1986 essay about the ascent is, on re-reading, the very apotheosis of route description – it still leaves my palms sweaty.  Of his lengthy spat with John Redhead, Dawes admits that time has been a great healer. There is a charming rapprochement between them on Llanberis high street during which Redhead tells Dawes,  ‘“You were gnarly you know” – praise indeed, cute even, coming from ‘The Beast’ himself.’  We begin to detect a mellower Dawes emerging, a theme that dominates the final third of the book.

Martin Veale’s heart-rending poem Gritstone Senna sets the context, “The real person, the one squatting behind those biggest numbers, is child-like and fragile.”  Dawes concedes that ‘Climbing hard does knock some of the rough edges off you’ but cautions ‘Becoming brilliant distinguishes one, invites competition even jealousy.  It is a pungent distraction.’   This is both bracingly immodest and insightful.  Armed with this new self awareness, a more contented Dawes emerges. Teaching a stranger to ride a bike is an uncomplicated joy, ‘I catch a reflection of a fresh smile that has replaced a sombre mood.’  Other passages written with refreshing simplicity describe teaching a Down’s Syndrome sufferer to climb and taking a bee for a walk around Llanberis.  The lightness of touch is startling and uplifting.  In those final few pages, I sincerely hope we see a new era for Dawes, one of inner peace and new directions because, as far as this reviewer is concerned Johnny, there’s nothing left to prove.