Sunday, September 19, 2004


Joe Simpson talking to Sue Lawley on Desert Island Discs this morning: he's the climber whose near-fatal accident the movie Touching the Void (2003) was based on. one of those stories that just makes you gape in awe at this ability to survive that some people have. all the usual questions about just what is it that drives a man to such extremes of self-imperilment and so on. he's a remarkably lucid and intelligent guy, and refreshingly modest, for a change, about his exceptionality.
but he turns out to be a coward.
his story epitomises the heroic virtues of courage and self-reliance in conditions that were as close to being impossible as it's possible to get. nothing can detract from that. but when he was asked why he'd never married, he replied, first, because he'd never had any desire to have children, but then, when further pressed, said it's because he 'didn't see the point in entering into the sort of commitment that's statistically very likely to end in failure' - and concluded that 'all that pain - it isn't worth the love'.
one of the bleakest confessions I've ever heard.
which isn't to say that he's wrong - just unusually honest.
and a coward.
we tend to look to people such as Joe to provide guidance about the Big Things - we regard people who've looked Death in the face as being automatically imbued with superior insight about the scary stuff; they're our latter-day shamans, a sort of conduit, given the palpable failure of the professional priests, to the Great Unknown. they have earnt the right to pontificate on matters that we lesser mortals can only philosophise about. so it's faintly disheartening to discover that Joe's brush with death, rather than heightening his taste for life, as we might expect, has, rather, blunted it into a somewhat bland pragmatism: given, he's saying, that the odds against love enduring are so demonstrably huge, why gamble against the risk of the inevitable pain of its failing?
it's too easy to explain Joe's fear of love in behaviourist terms: he was, after all, sent to Ampleforth (a famously repressive all-boys Catholic public school) as a boarder from the age of eight, and all parents who do that to their sons are effectively guaranteeing that they will grow into perfect fuck-ups (highly self-reliant, emotionally crippled fuck-ups). it's too easy, in truth, to judge a man on his own analysis of his emotional limitations: who knows what the full story is? certainly not Joe. what's interesting - and, I think, infinitely sad - is that a man who almost died in the course of betting his life against a mountain, and who returned, after recovering, to the same way of life, could never find it in himself to take the same risk for the sake of love.

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