Had a great evening at the BMC London Area meeting tonight.
These are the regional quarterly get-togethers where BMC volunteers and members chat over things of interest to climbers and walkers in that area, have a chinwag drink a beer and catch up with folk.
The first friendly face I saw was Shirin Shabestari. I had met Shirin once before at the Kendal Film Festival. I was hosting BMC Breakfast Club, a bloody-mary infused Sunday morning film session where film makers showed their wares and answered the audience’s questions about their work. Shirin showed the film she had made along with Paul Diffley, Damavand, an Iranian Dream. It followed her as she travelled from London back to her native Iran where she climbed Damavand, the nation’s highest mountain, first shown to her as a child by her mountain loving father. Old photos showed a young girl free from the restraints of a male-led society, bare-headed on rocky summits. After she had shown her film, her parents joined her on stage and everyone was overjoyed. Her dad did that thing that people in Muslim countries do, touching their heart and making a small sideways nod. It was very touching, the highlight of the session.
She was along at the London Area meeting to show her film and talk about it as the post-meeting entertainment. We had a bit of a chat before the meeting kicked off.
There’s always a good vibe at the London Area meeting. It seems full of people who have most of their life ahead of them, young and old. Rik, the chair, called the meeting to order. Now, no one ever likes to hear themselves summed up in a few words by a stranger and this won’t be any different so here goes; Rik looks like the sort of person you would want to be on your side in the English Civil War. We all looked at him and he swiftly began to attack agenda and slaughter items items.
A common occurrence at area meetings is when the chair flags up the need for a new volunteer – a club rep or a youth rep or what have you – and there then follows an awkward silence. Many people would like to while few want to but somebody has to. The question hung in the air and people tried to avoid making eye contact with Rik. To his right was the door to the room. It looked like the only chance of escape for anyone who might be a potential candidate. Then to the assembled surprise, the door opened.
A man appeared. Everyone looked at him. He was well dressed, the way I only see people dressed in London, with very well-fitted wools, a long coat and a suit. He had tight grey and black curls and eastern skin. His head had a slight tilt suggesting a toughness and he gave me a sense of a Humphry Bogart character. He returned everyone’s stare, but did not enter the room.
“Hello,” welcomed Rik.
“Is this where the film about the Iranian mountain is?”
“Indeed it is.” Someone pointed at Shirin.
As I looked on I judged the situation; here goes. It appeared if he did not quite understand what was happening. I presumed he had been to a camping shop and seen a flier advertising the film. Perhaps he was one of those people who subscribe to National Geographic or something, who would turn up to talks by people like Julia Bradbury, Bear Grills or Andy Kirkpatrick. So when he arrived in a room that looked more like a 1979 TUC Conference than the local Odeon he didn’t compute.
Sharing my thoughts, someone chimed in:
“It’s a meeting for climbers and walkers. The talk will be on after.”
“I see,” he said, the stranger still framed by the doorway. “Do I have to stay for the meeting?”
“No, no! Run away!” howled many from the audience. Everyone was enjoying the situation, none more so than the potential candidates for roles as reps.
“Come on in,” ushered Rik.
“Very well,” he said, and made his way in. Almost immediately the non-climbing stranger was proposed and seconded as club rep and while his back was turned a quick show of hands sealed the deal. Suddenly everyone was in good mood.
Later in the meeting, as the representative from the BMC office, I stood up and told the assembly about all the good things that were going on. As another task, I was there to find out where Londoners actually went climbing.
I would call out the names of crags, see how many people stuck their hands up. The local ones, like Southern Sandstone, got lots of hands. The further away and more adventurous they became, the number of hands declined.
“Avon. High Tor. Cheddar. Swanage.”
Four or five hands. But I noticed that Humphry Bogart kept sticking his hand up. I reckoned he was taking the piss.
“Do you know what I’m talking about,” I asked him. “It’s climbing. Rock climbing.”
“Of course I do.”
“But you don’t go climbing.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Because someone had to explain what was going on when you arrived.”
“Of course I go climbing.”
“You’ve been to all these places?”
“Very well, if you’re sure.”
I finished my number crunching and the meeting carried on and was soon finished. In the break, while Shirin was setting up her show, I was sat near the front row having the crack with some gadge sat beside me. Then Bogart appeared in front of me and his look summoned my attention.
“Hey, I don’t think much of your prejudice.”
Although he didn’t use the ‘prejudice’. He used some word less loaded but more accurate, something like ‘bias’, but not bias either. He was calling me out for assuming he was a non-climber. Assumptions. Maybe that was the word he used.
He was tough and full of front and was calling me out for my judgements. But there was the tiniest hint of a smirk on his face that made me realise he was doing it for the crack. Instantly I trusted him because I realised he trusted me not to be threatened by his words. But still, I had to apologise.
“Well it was just that you looked like you didn’t know what any of this was all about,” I told him. “So you climb, then?”
“I did, man, I did. But I haven’t done in a while. Now I do more photography, and I have a little baby. Takes so much time. And you?”
“Yeah. But I struggle to get out as much as I used to, kids, life and all that.”
“Yeah man. But you know what. I miss it. I really miss it.”
He nodded, and I nodded, then something in him had to say it again.
“I mean, I really miss it.”
And as he walked away we looked at each other in the eyes. Then deeper, and I saw in him that amazing climbing thing and he saw in me that amazing climbing thing and we couldn’t help but burst into laughter at the sight of it.
I had to leave before Shirin did her talk and showed her film. I was gutted because I have seen her film before, but I hadn’t heard her talk about it. I went to say goodbye.
“And what about that guy?” I said to her, jacking a thumb in Bogey’s direction.
“Oh him? He contacted me in the week to say he wanted to come and see the film.”
“Yes, after he was in touch I googled him. He’s Iranian, cleared out of Iran years ago, but had done some climbing out there. Now he’s a photographer. One of the queen’s favourites I read.”
“I should say hello to him,” she said.
She waved, and he made his way over to her. I decided to let them talk so said goodbye, and gave him a wave as I went. He grinned, and I totally got it. Recognised his life and experiences and struggles and triumphs and joys and regrets and the mountains and all the great times they gave. No wonder he was tweaked when I suggested he wasn’t a climber. That guy’s tasted bear meat.
I left the cosy pub and made my way down to the riverside where people were handing out hot drinks to homeless people. At least, I assume that’s what was happening.