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The Ken Wilson files

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

‘Be careful Jon, he’ll turn on you like a viper and strike you like a cobra!’

Almost Ken Wilson’s parting words to me as he went through the great and good of world mountaineering and their books and of course their characters.

Delving into his archived files I’ve come across much to interest the mountaineering historian about Ken’s life and work, maybe one day someone will write his biography.

Here are a few snippets from the archive:

Before Ken Wilson died, his last words to me were ‘Tilman, you must read Tilman’. Says it all really, Ken was passionate about books, produced some of the best mountaineering books the world has ever seen including Classic Rock – and of course one of the most influential climbing books of all time – The Games Climbers Play. So what about a biography of Ken? There is an absolute wealth of fascinating material. Everybody has a story about the man who had an opinion, an opinion that mattered, about everything. Doug Scott picks up the story …  ‘He walked all the way from Kathmandu to Everest Base Camp, accompanied by a Nepalese guide, not a common language between the two of them, I met him upon his arrival – literally bursting with chat, frustrated by the last three weeks of silence.’ Well our files here are literally bursting with interesting Ken’isms. I wish someone would take up the challenge.

Ken on famous climbers
Ken Wilson interviewed Doug Scott. Doug as always deflected the difficult questions with a few anecdotes, ‘Of course there’s the story of how Bonington went on a cooking strike with Don to try to force him to start helping and after two days he said, “it’s no good Chris, I know what you are doing and it won’t work”. I tried that with Tasker once, he never did anything either.'

Ken on designing covers

Ken on dealing with late payments

Ken on reviewing manuscripts
Dear Ken, thank you for your letter and returning my script. I haven't replied earlier because I wanted my temper to die down. In case it interests you I will tell you that your letter was one of the most depressing I have ever received. You get excited in the mags and claim to be concerned about the future of the sport, yet you can't even be bothered to read anything which has words of more than two syllables, sentences of more than three words, and where the argument cannot be summarized in a form every moron can understand in four seconds flat.
P.S. you're a bit of a bruiser, so I daresay that you appreciate the blunt approach.

The response is by return of post, and of course the recipient will remain anonymous. Ken writes…
Christ, what a savage letter. Was my response that uncaring? I am sorry if I didn't match up to your expectations but I read your text for two hours on the train and found that my third-rate mind just couldn't take any more. Sorry I bruised you but trust you will not indulge in public mud-slinging as that could have two results: 
1. Compel me and other editors to use bland pleasantries, and
2. Possibly invoke a backlash of embarrassing support for me, which I could well do without.

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