Seventeen sterling books in, Jim Perrin, the rock ‘n’ roll rock climber and bard of landscape turns his hand to fiction, and ‘utopian fictions’ at that. And being an artist of a high order he does not offer creative-writing-course-conventional stories, with Joycean epiphanies or certain closure at story’s end. Being an iconoclast and tilter at windmills, Perrin follows his own rules, and they begin with the range of the material. Make it big, he seems to proclaim, span the world. So, in this debut collection, we have prose pieces set in the Himalayas, Pembrokeshire, the Polar North and not-so-Polar north Wales, and if there is one thing which connects these disparate tales it is a deep sense of place. Figures in a landscape are fully a part of it. Knowing the land is being the land.
Nowhere is this more true than in the case of Bryn, the Welsh-speaking student, hitchhiking to Aberystwyth, who is offered a lift by Beth, herself en route for a holiday in Porthmadog. Bryn is quite simply the best sort of guide to have riding shotgun next to her as she drives into Wales (a bit like picking up Perrin himself or Mike Parker). Their story, detailed in ‘The Burning’ is a tender account of a burgeoning love affair, but this long and lovely story also offers up a quiet hymn to the countryside, sings the landscape into being and warms itself at the hearth of close-knit communities, where there is always tea in the pot and cakes on the bake.
Inspired by a chance meeting with R. S. Thomas – who was buying large quantities of Haagen-Daz ice cream and Bell’s six year-old whisky in the Bangor Safeway at the time (!) – ‘The Burning’ also examines the context for the decade-long arson campaign against second homes, which R.S controversially supported.
Perrin does so much in this story. He concertinas a road trip, and, one feels, pretty much the whole country into a few pages. He writes, in English, about the Welsh speaking community in a way which feels true and telling, leavening the text with judicious quotes from Welsh song and verse, from Dafydd ap Gwilym through Hywel ab Owen Gwynedd to Meic Stevens. And he acts as the reader’s guide to the textures and felicities of the Welsh countryside, from the stark and lonely pines of the Begwns near Clyro through abandoned lambs being warmed back to life to the domestic hen that eats an adder. And, darkly, squatting like a poisonous toad in the centre of the story, is the threatening figure of Mabon Rhyngddwyryd, who, one imagines should be played by Jack Nicholson in the film, scaring the bejesus out of all and sundry. Nursing his shotgun. There is a whole novel’s worth of characters and tensions packed into this story and it is entirely absorbing and pellucidly told.
There are moments, reading Perrin, when a non-climber might as well be reading Wolof, or a textbook of quantum physics. He is usually describing, with fingertip accuracy, some climbing activity or other. Here is an example from ‘Incident At Mew Stone Point’…
He put the ropes into his belay-plate and I pulled up on to a block sticking out at the foot of the crack, squatting on it and sorting out the wired nuts on my rack, counting the quick draws on my harness in some sort of nervous ritual. I fiddled a big nut into a good slot at arm’s reach overhead, clipped a rope in, looked down and nodded to him.
But even though the nomenclature is unfamiliar, names for both kit and crevice, the writing is downright exciting. And there is plenty of climbing here, from the sea-girt cliffs of south Pembrokeshire to the massive mountains which acts as backdrop to ‘After the Fall’. This latter tale is a sort of update of H.G.Wells’s The Country of the Blind, with a dollop of Shangri-La ambrosia, courtesy of James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon with a sprinkling of Arthur Machen.
On one hand ‘After the Fall’ is the story of two climbers attempting to pioneer a fearful climb, where one of them becomes trapped in a community of Yetis, though these are far from the imagined and abominable snowmen of campfire stories and B-movies, for the Nunez are benign and telepathic, peaceful and impossibly ancient. On the other hand it is a critique of those very, very, very tall tales told by some climbers, and is Perrin’s attempt to puncture the balloon of their pomposity (and mendacity).
The closing story is one of the shortest, a story reminiscent of Barry Hines’s Kes, but in which the young boy hero covets a young peregrine and plots its theft from the nest. In the afterword, Perrin suggest that part of the dialectic at work is between two classic texts about peregrine falcons, The Peregrine’s Saga by Henry ‘Tarka the Otter’ Williamson and J. A. Baker, the Essex-based nature writer of the much-lauded The Peregrine.
Perrin doesn’t like the latter half as much as other folk, who, he suggests, may have been dazzled by ‘its apophthegmatic brilliance’ to ‘certain crucial questions of authenticity raised by his text’ (one imagines Perrin refers to the way in which Baker conflates many seasons into one, or manages to locate and keep up with these fast birds in an uncanny way) and so Perrin sets his story somewhere between the two. As the young lad steals the eyas the very land seems to grow angry, the earth quaking beneath his feet.
It is odd, perhaps, that Perrin has taken this long to explore the possibilities and freedoms of fiction. Based on this evidence, he should certainly write more. And tell us what happens next to Beth and Bryn, how their sustaining and absorbing love pans out.