I knew I should have slotted in a session at Arch North between Christmas and New Year. Because the first week of January slipped by to become the second and now here I am struggling up a V3 with my winter stomach providing a bulge more difficult to work round than any of the volumes on the wall!
It’s amazing how quickly you lose climbing condition – particularly as you get older. I check with my climbing partner Matthew (who at 51 is even older than me) and he confirms that all those grunting and sweating most profusely around us are also of parental age, whereas the under 25s are cruising up the white or green routes with their usual effortless grace.
To paraphrase Ruby Wax – life is cruel; it takes months to get fit and days to get fat.
Not that I’m particularly bothered about my appearance. Being blind it’s been a long time since I last saw my reflection in a mirror! – but I do take pride in my climbing and get frustrated when a route I know is within my capabilities defeats me because I’ve overindulged or under-trained during the past few weeks.
As my fingers slide from a yellow crimp to send me thudding for a third time into the mat, I consider that the chalk ball I received for Christmas is scant mitigation for all the butterball turkey I ate.
But then as Matthew reminds me, remember how much worse it was in the days before we had indoor climbing walls – something the under-25s will never have to suffer.
Back then, unless you were into ice-climbing or had the time and money to go to a crag in the sun, the dark days of winter stretched interminably from mid-October till early-April. And the only way of maintaining climbing fitness was at the gym – which was fine for strength but did little for technique…and it was boring!
How well I remember those brutal first trips of the year; dogging up some still damp VDiff as if it was Longhope because the muscle memory and the mental agility you need to climb decently had dissipated during my months off. Back then it would take at least a couple of frustrating weekends and the goodwill of the British weather to get back into any kind of form at all.
Thank goodness for indoor bouldering centres! Now all I have to do is hop on the tube and head to Arch North, or The Biscuit Factory, and within a week I’ll have worked off the Christmas excess, ensuring that none of what I learnt or perfected last year is lost for lack of practice.
So now my only problem is trying to decide which of the climbs on our wish-list Matthew and I will work towards conquering this year, when the weather is good enough to get back outdoors again? I’m thinking something Scottish and coastal….
The words Annual General Meeting once bored dread into my heart. But in the case of our resident’s association at least, they now fill me with anticipation.
Founded in 1984 The Gayton Residents Association (GRA) has an illustrious history.
It’s thanks to the GRA that Gayton Road (although alas not Gayton Crescent) has retained its Victorian lampposts; and due to the tireless efforts of a small bunch of GRA members those lampposts are adorned with hanging baskets of flowers throughout the summer.
And of course then there’s the legendary GRA Street Party – a festival with a history nearly as venerable as Glastonbury but with none of the mud!
So as you can see, we know how to party. Like many other resident’s associations the GRA has an active social side and over the years we’ve gathered together at quiz nights and book groups, and made full use of local amenities like the Highgate bowls club, the skittles alley beneath The Freemasons, and even enjoyed a few nights sampling the food and drink on offer at Hampstead’s various hostelries.
But somehow our AGMs, despite the lovely venue provided by Burgh House, just didn’t generate the same enthusiasm…no matter how much white wine was on offer!
And then someone hit on the brilliant idea of including food on the menu and nights that were wearisome perked up no end.
That was about five years ago and membership, which had stagnated, has grown like fuzz on a Camembert, spreading to include parts of Willow Road, Well Road and Well Walk.
Fortunately we Gaytonians don’t have any crypto-Faragists or separatist Sturgeons to contend with and the trumperies that get built here tend to be basements, not walls.
That sense of community was ebulliently evident at last month’s AGM that, fittingly enough took place at The Hampstead Community Centre.
It’s somewhere we all take for granted I realised as I enjoyed a pre-prandial pint with my neighbours at the newly spruced-up King Willy. Next-door Victoria, who runs the Montadito Original Spanish Delicacies stall was preparing a feast for 40 in the Community Centre’s kitchen. Using ingredients sourced only from Community Centre traders: cod from Hampstead Seafoods; chicken from Meat Naturally; fruit and veg supplied by Jenkins & Son; and of course her own mouth-watering morsels.
They’re all available, fresh on our doorstep, week-in-week-out – even if most of us can’t serve them up as deliciously as Victoria can.
The more we buy from them, or any of the Saturday market traders, or from the lovely flower stall, or even if we just pick out a few paperbacks at the Sunday book fair, we invest in local businesses. We will also be helping the Community Centre to survive. The reasonable rents it charges allow the Centre to be self-funding and keep costs down for the fun community stuff it provides; such as the parent and toddler clubs, life-drawing and Tai-Chi classes, as well as giving a free Christmas Dinner to 90 older local residents last year!
Having just signed a 20-year lease with Camden and with the hope of receiving a CIL grant to upgrade the kitchens the Community Centre is on a steadier footing than before but it still needs us to support it by using any and all of the amenities it has on offer. It’s all there, slap bang in the centre of our community and whether it’s tulips for our loved ones, more eggs for breakfast or a cheeky Chorizo to snack on, so long as it’s not bought from Tesco, every little helps!
And if you want somewhere to hold a local function then the big hall is available for hire on Thursday nights. As The GRA discovered it’s a great venue. With Victoria and her team working miracles in the kitchen and the wine and conversation flowing, it felt more easy-going than a restaurant and more personal than a gastropub – and it cost less per head!
Once business was concluded and (non-fuzzy) cheese served, the AGM began to draw to a close. Having toasted the spirit of unity that had brought us together, I shared a final glass with a neighbour from Well Walk only to be assailed by doubt. Perhaps The GRA should change its name to reflect its greater diversity? And if so, what to? Should we become The Well-Gay Association or The Gay-Walk Association?!
At that point my wife told me to get my coat…
You can contact the Hampstead Community Centre on 020 7794 8313 or visit their website www.hampsteadcommunitycentre.co.uk. And to find out more about Victoria’s delicious catering contact her va firstname.lastname@example.org.
It was curiosity born of happy childhood memories of Peek Freen’s biscuits that first led me to climb at The Arch.
I have to confess I’d always been a bit sniffy about bouldering. It’s probably my age (just turned 47) but when I was learning to climb in the 1980s there were no indoor climbing walls and a trip out to the crags was made with the intention of making as much vertical progress as rope, fingers and skin allowed. A day’s clambering over boulders was a consolation prize taken only when the weather was too bad to attempt anything else.
By the age of 19 I had developed a serious crag habit. I was leading my first HVSs and thinking that the sky was the limit. Then out of the blue I was diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease and told that I could expect to be fully blind by 30. My life went into free fall and after a brief struggle (ending with a nasty unprotected fall) I’d hung up my harness and begun a two-decade battle with my craving to climb.
Writer and climber Al Alvarez calls it ‘feeding the rat’, a gnawing compulsion in some of us to push ourselves to the limits of our endurance. Starved of action my rat was eating me up. I ached to climb and Pilates was no substitute.
I had tried a couple of climbing walls during the 1990s when they first came to the UK but they didn’t feed my need to get high at the end of a rope. So I wasn’t expecting much when in 2009 my daughter decided she wanted her birthday party to be at our local wall in North London. How wrong could I have been?!
While other parents were ogling the buff-body instructors I was checking out the bumps and curves of the top roped high walls, and I was hooked again.
I quickly discovered that climbing instructors, like climbers the world over, are born problem solvers. My blindness wasn’t a barrier, merely a hurdle to be worked round. As the weeks and months passed my confidence returned and the prospect of getting back out onto real rock seemed less absurd. One day as I lay gasping but jubilant having cracked a tricky overhanging problem I let slip my teenage dream of climbing The Old Man of Hoy, a 450ft sandstone pinnacle in The Orkneys. In his calm considered way my instructor rubbed his chin and said ‘well with a bit of work you could probably manage it’.
A bit of work turned out to be a brutal climbing fitness regime that saw me lose 12 kilos and gain the ability to hang from one arm like a chimp. By now I had acquired a climbing partner, Matthew, and he and I trained two to three times a week with a new instructor called Andres. We spent weeks perfecting a clock-face system so that they could accurately direct me to my next hand or foothold.
But it soon became clear that top-roping had its limitations as far as teaching was concerned. The distance between climber and belayer makes communications difficult and the higher the climber goes the less easy it is for the belayer accurately to judge distances between climber and holds, to spot useful features and even to be heard. Frustration was setting in and we needed a solution.
That turned out to be bouldering. By now it was 2012 and Andres was ravsing about this amazing new climbing centre in Bermondsey called ‘The Biscuit Factory’. When I learned that it was on the old Peek Freen’s site and therefore the home not only of the Garibaldi and Bourbon biscuits but of Twiglets too!, I decided to eat my words and give bouldering another go.
Biscuit production may have ceased long ago but the emphasis on ‘virtuous activity’ to improve the health of those labouring within the building (which made the factory owners pioneers in Victorian England) remains.
On a series of cleverly designed and well-maintained routes I quickly discovered that there is no better way to improve climbing stamina and technique than bouldering.
Because the spotter is that much closer to the climber it’s easier for him/her to direct and correct their movements – and all without the need to shout to be heard. Without the security of a rope precise footwork becomes essential and because the routes are shorter they tend to be more technical and often designed to focus on one specific climbing skill. Matthew, Andres and I found ourselves returning to work on problems that exposed my weak areas – rockovers and laybacking – and enjoying the progress we all made up through the grades. My footwork and my ability to crimp on seemingly impossible slopers grew as did my confidence and, when it did go wrong I learned how to take a fall safely (which is really quite terrifying when you can’t see what’s below you).
In 2013 I became the first blind person to climb The Old Man of Hoy. The ascent was filmed by BBC Scotland and aired on The Adventure Show. I have since published a book detailing the background to the climb and how the camaraderie I rediscovered in the climbing community and the spirit of the London Paralympics helped me scale heights I thought were lost to me forever.
As a result of all the publicity an old school friend, Carl, who I hadn’t seen for twenty years got back in touch. Another keen climber he lives round the corner from The Biscuit Factory and so we meet up two or three times a month to climb there together.
And then last year The Arch North opened just up the road from me in Burnt Oak so that Matthew, Andres and I now get together every Friday afternoon for a three-hour session followed by a pint or two. We still try and get outdoors as often as possible and I’ve even started to lead on sport routes up to F6a (learning to fall indoors has proved invaluable!). We do still go to the top-roped wall we started at but as the three of us prepare for a trip to the sharp, white limestone fo Southern Sardinia this month it’s the edgy little yellow V3s and V4s at The Arch North that we’re concentrating on.
I am delighted to announce that from January 13th 2017, I will be presenting ‘Read On’, RNIB Connect Radio’s programme for those passionate about books and reading.
As the new host of this well-established radio show I will continue to bring listeners all the latest news about books in all their accessible formats, interviewing authors, reviewing new books, reporting from festivals and events across the UK as well of course as keeping listeners up-to-date with the latest news from the RNIB Talking Books Library.
But as a blind author myself I am also keen to bring other members of the RNIB community into the show, to discuss what we are reading, what makes a good audiobook and how books can be made even more accessible.
Talking Books were invented for ex-servicemen blinded in The First World War, they are now a major part of mainstream publishing. But with eight decades worth of accessible books at our fingertips RNIB members have a breadth and depth of reading that is unrivalled – and a voice that needs to be heard.
I can’t wait to hear it!
‘Read On’ is broadcast every Fridays at 1pm and repeated on Sundays at 2pm and Mondays at 6pm. With an audience of 154,000 listeners RNIB Connect Radio is broadcast on FM, via your TV on Freeview Channel 730, on-line at www.rnibconnectradio.org.uk and the programme is available as a podcast on iTunes. I look forward to welcoming you to the show.
I’ve heard it so often that it shouldn’t still bother me, but it does.
“Oh, so you’re not completely blind then?”
As if somehow this makes the ordeal of sight loss so much better.
I’m tempted to reply; “Oh, do you think zombies feel happier knowing they’re not completely dead?”; but instead find myself explaining, for the umpteenth time, that, like 97% of those registered blind in the UK, I have a little, residual vision – vision that fluctuates depending on how bright it is, or how tired I am.
Worse though is the incredulity I’m met with as a blind person doing anything visual. Notwithstanding my pebble-thick reading glasses and the array of light-emitting electronics I carry, I’ve been made to feel that a blind man trying to use his eyes is a fraud.
Not that the word “blind” discourages stereotypes. Quite apart from its pejorative association with naïve or wilful ignorance, its very definition confers the total inability to see on all those it describes.
The alternatives aren’t much better: “partially sighted” or the archaic “purblind” simply don’t cut the mustard. And the more modern “visually impaired” rings hollow with the embarrassment of whichever committee first coined it.
And to add bureaucratic insult to injury its two subsections – “sight impaired” and “severely sight impaired” reinforce the impression that sight loss needn’t be regarded as serious until it reaches a certain level.
I’ll confess I was amused the first few times I heard myself described as a VIP, or visually impaired person. But the happy coincidence of dual meaning has worn thin, becoming as predictable as comments about my lack of complete blindness.
So I’m asking listeners to help compile a new lexicon of meaningful words to describe how we want our sight loss to be seen.
To start the ball rolling I’m proposing “occluded” – meaning obstructed, particularly in terms of an aperture. It sounds a bit like “ocular”, making you think of the eye, and sits somewhere between included and excluded, reflecting how many of us feel. In meteorology an occluded front is formed when a cold front overtakes a warm one, often causing unsettled conditions.
Now there’s something I can relate to!
2016 has been another busy year of touring the country with the story of The Blind Man of Hoy. From The Edinburgh International Book Festival to The Petworth Literary Weekend, via disability awareness symposia and broadcast round table discussions I have been delighted to find audiences full of people eager to hear a blind person’s perspective on the world and keen to build a more inclusive society in which those with disabilities can take a full and active part.
It was the ‘can do’ spirit of the London 2012 Paralympics that got me off the sofa and convinced others I could climb The Old Man of Hoy. Just as in London the extraordinary success of Team GB Paralympians like Steve Bate, in Rio this year has caught the public imagination, encouraging people to look beyond the disability and focus on the individual; to see us as differently-abled not dis-abled; dented not written off.
It is vital that we act on this, not just from an equal rights point of view, but for our own physical and mental wellbeing. With a recent study reporting that over 40% of Blind & Visually Impaired (BVI) people suffer from mental health problems (myself included) and bearing in mind the well-documented link between physical inactivity and depression – it is clear that the mobility issues and low expectations associated with sight loss create a toxic cocktail. While it may work for some, there needs to be an alternative to the traditional model of passive stoicism.
So next year I will carry on beating the drum for active involvement by BVI people. Not only do we need to be visible but we need to show people what we can do and how they can help us do it better. With this in mind I am preparing a TED talk aimed specifically at secondary schools that examines perceptions of disability and the need to focus on what you can achieve rather than seeing only what might have been.
In between the book talks and tub-thumping I have tried to keep active with regular climbing and wildwater swimming trips (including a hypothermic attempt to become the first blind swimmer to complete the Henley Classic Thames swim) and a much more successful white-water rafting expedition down The Grand Canyon.
Having just returned from a bruising climbing trip to the white limestone cliffs of Southern Sardinia it is time to plan new challenges for next year and to devote some time to my (rather neglected) next book: a spooky, cautionary tale about a middle-aged couple who abandon their metropolitan life to live the rural dream in Dorset. Provisionally titled The Darkening World of Arthur Rouse.
I am also taking bookings for next year so should you wish me to speak at your literary festival, school, university, bookshop, library, climbing club or WI please do not hesitate to contact me via my publisher (email@example.com) or through the contact link on this website.
I am delighted to announce that the owners of The Arch Climbing Walls have kindly offered to let me do all my training at their excellent facilities. With winter approaching and the outdoor rock climbing season coming to an end what better way to maintain your hard-won climbing fitness and work on technique than with regular bouldering sessions? Read how my eyes were opened to the benefits of bouldering as I prepared to climb The Old Man of Hoy back in 2013.