Slatehead: The Ascent of Britain’s Slate-climbing Scene by Peter Goulding, was published by New Welsh Rarebyte in ebook on 4 June 2020.
Peter kindly answered a few of my questions.
1. Tell us a little about Slatehead: The Ascent of Britain’s Slate-climbing Scene.
Slatehead tells a few different stories. Firstly, it is the story of the first ascensionists who originally put up routes in the Dinorwig slate quarries in North Wales. A lot of really important climbing happened in the ‘eighties during the Thatcher years, the lost generation of young people on the dole. As well, the history of the quarries as a working landscape is important, the affect they had on Welsh language culture and the local communities, and needed to be paid tribute to.
To tie this together, I had to put some of my own story in. I resisted this for a long time, I didn’t feel like a good enough climber: I’m what most climbers would call mid-grade. But a few top-notch climbers who I spoke to – James McHaffie and Nick Dixon – said that although the level of difficulty was different, the emotional experience was the same whatever your level of ability.
So, reluctantly at first, I put my own wanderings through the quarry in, as a sort of a first-person tour-guide. As I did, a lot of stuff came out, about fatherhood, friendship, bereavement and freedom. I hope it adds something to the book, but one of the main things is being able to describe the landscape firsthand.
2. What inspired the book?
Slatehead came about because I love climbing in the Dinorwig slate quarries in North Wales. I knew they had a history, and that it wasn’t developed as a climbing areas other crags were: it was only in the eighties, after slate was no longer being quarried that a load of climbers found them. They had a lot of spare time, because most were unemployed, and the stories that I started to hear were outrageous and really funny.
Plus the names of the climbs were really funny. The first time I went I did Mental Lentils, Psychotherapy, Looning the Tube, Gadaffi Duck. I fixated on one climb called Supermassive Black Hole, which starts at the bottom of a massive big quarry hole, and there was another called The Take Over by Dept. C. because of some quarry-era graffiti. The names were like little micro-poems: Released From Treatment, The Very Big and The Very Small. Comes the Dervish. So creative.
3. Are you a plan, plan, plan writer or do you sit down and see where the words take you? How much research did you have to do?
If I started now, I would do my planning after there are a load of words down. I find it easiest for me, just to start writing – because a lot is from my experience so its just remembering and fitting it into words. If I’m stuck, I’ll write any shite for five hundred words, then save it. Then I’ll start the section again and see what comes out – it is always much better.
But with Slatehead, I originally was going to write a very standard climbing history book, so I just started reading the published accounts, and eventually had the nerve to start firing off emails and arranging interviews for anyone who would have me. I did a lot of research I suppose, but far from exhaustive, nothing like you would do for an academic history book. Plus, every climbing I went on became a research trip. The hardest bit about the research is knowing that there are still many more people who would have a story, or could shed light on an event and I think a skill is accepting when you aren’t going to add any more to it. It’s not a Phd.
By the time I had 50,000 words, the structure was just appearing anyway. The holes I needed to fill became obvious, so I went back and filled them. I was a builder for years, so part fit is that mentality.
4. Having been through the publishing process, is there anything about the process of creating a book that surprised you?
How long everything takes! I thought the building trade was prone to delay, but I helped refit an NHS cottage hospital in the time it took to go through the editing phase. Plus, I’ve been writing it for years really, what a labour.
I was lucky with the publishing process though. I entered and won a writing competition – 2019 New Welsh Rheidol Prize, the prize was publication of the essay I entered as an e-book. When I spoke to New Welsh Review, they offered to publish the full book, and the phrase that really grabbed me was ‘we’ll try and make it a sort of bespoke publishing process.’ I’ve been heavily involved all the way, and I’ve loved it, finding the cover art, and layout and editing. I didn’t have to hawk around the agents – I think the book is a tough sell, ‘what could be interesting about climbing on slate?’ until you read it.
5. What do you do when you aren’t writing? What do you do to relax and get away from it all?
One of the top climbers in the ‘eighties was called Johnny Redhead. He was an artist, and he said that the climbing was indivisible from the art, named a lot of his climbs after his paintings. I thought this was a bit of a pose, but his mates said that when he was climbing well he was painting well. The more I write, the more I think its something indivisible from other creative activities, and the climbing is too.
There’s a standard interview question that makes climbing writers groan – Are you a writer that climbs, or a climber who writes? Every time. It misses the point, they are the same thing: expression through labour.
I bet someone reading this will think that’s a pose, just like I did with Johnny Redhead. Find out for yourself.
6. If you could only read one book for the rest of your life which book would it be?
Papillon by Henri Charriére. I thought about this a lot. I read tons and tons, anything, everything. Papillon has got a lot of history for me, my Grandad gave me his copy before he dies, I read when I was unhappy as a teenager, I read it when I wanted to travel. Always go back to it, always find something in there to love. At this time of quarantine, I would be taking heart from the bits where he is in solitary confinement, working out how long he’s got to go, exercising, daydreaming and making sure he has enough nutrition.
Some of the book is now controversial and probably shocking, murder, attitude to women, racism – there’s plenty to dislike or be offended by. I wouldn’t defend any of that. It is still the book I would read for the rest of my life.
7. I like to end my Q&As with the same question so here we go. During all the Q&As and interviews you’ve done what question have you not been asked that you wish had been asked – and what’s the answer?
Dunno really. I suppose I’ll know it when I hear it.
There is one point: Does anything ever scare you about writing a book?
My answer would be – yes. In creative non-fiction, you are telling other people’s stories, and I always worry whether they will like the result. I don’t mean that I would libel someone, but I think it could be easy to write about someone and for them to feel stung by that. Which if you thought too much about it, you just could never write about anyone else. At the end, I think you’ve got to do your research and be honest about what you’ve done and how you’ve done it.
About the book
Bobby Drury left Liverpool after O-levels, knowing he had f***ed them up. Free now, he hitched to Snowdonia. His mum came crying on the phone, ‘You’ve failed them all.’ Bobby knew that. ‘No, Mum, I’ve led Vector.’ This was Thatcher’s lost generation. The slate quarries were walking distance; they’d have a smoke, a party in an abandoned hut, try and climb something. A small culture emerged of punks, nutters, artists and petty thieves, crawling up abandoned rock, then heading to the disco at the Dolbadarn. These were the Slateheads.
The people in these interleaving worlds – the punk dole dropout star- climbers; the Victorian quarrymen pioneers; the Welsh-speaking grandson of a ropeman, abseiling in to bolt sport climbs like Orangutang Overhang in the Noughties, Lee and his mates slogging west today – all are polished like nuggets in this 360° view over patience, pride, respect, thrill, movement, the competing claims of home and agency, and above all, a belief in second chances.