Looking around for something to read recently, I spotted Alan Hankinson’s biography of Geoffrey Winthrop Young. It had been on my shelf for years and I didn’t even recall clearly who Young was. What the heck, I thought, I’ll give it a try.
It turned out to be totally gripping. Young had been a pioneer of mountaineering and a brilliant climbing writer, a heroic ambulance driver in World War I (where he lost a leg) and after the war pioneered mountaineering with an artificial leg. He had many German friends, and worked secretly with Germans opposed to Hitler to try and bring about the dictator’s downfall. His exploits were incredible, literally, and Hankinson’s book brought the whole thing to life, telling the story with such verve that I couldn’t stop reading.
But also the book reminded me of Alan. I first met him when I gave a talk on Thomas De Quincey in Cockermouth in 1981. Alan was a deep-voiced, jovial, lionlike chap with a mane of white hair: hugely well-read, deeply friendly, vastly intelligent and entirely likeable.
After that I bumped into him quite often around Cumbria (he lived in Skiddaw Street, Keswick); we talked about this project and that, and I was delighted when he won prizes for his wonderful book Coleridge Walks the Fells, in which he retraced the course of Coleridge’s great 1802 walk around the Western Lakes, comparing how places are now to how they were then. The book is a classic.
When I came to write my own Literary Guide to the Lake District he took a great interest – and showed it with practical help. One day I phoned him and asked if he remembered whether a particular plaque was still at the top of Grisedale Hause – because last time I was up there, I’d forgotten to check, and I needed to know for the book. There was something similar that I’d neglected at the summit of Great Gable too. The upshot was that Alan said ‘Don’t worry, I’ll go up and take a look, and let you know.’
When my book came out I was able to thank ‘Alan Hankinson, who with memorable generosity volunteered to climb both Grisedale Hause and Great Gable to find things I had forgotten to look for.’
Alan was himself of course a fine climber and The First Tigers, his history of the beginnings of british rock-climbing, is another classic and fascinating even if you’ve never set foot on a mountain. In fact, it’s hard not to keep throwing in the word ‘classic’ when writing about Alkan: he wrote so well, telling so many stories that needed to be told, and produced the perfect book on each one.
He was loyal too. Towards the end of his life he turned up more than once at poetry readings I gave at Dove Cottage and elsewhere, although he clearly wasn’t well and admitted that he was finding it difficult to write. And yet really I must have been someone he knew only peripherally, an occasional contact. But the thing about Alan was that when you met him his warmth and interest made you feel that you and he had always known each other.
Alan died, sadly, in 2007 and I didn’t hear about it until some time afterwards. Only when I read the obituaries and found out abaout his amazing career in TV, film, radio and journalism, and his war service with the Gurkhas, did I realise how many other aspects he had besides those I’d seen.
Earlier this year I was asked to run a course on English Literature for trainee Blue Badge Guides. It turned out that my predecessor in the job had been Alan. I felt proud, as well as a bit intimidated, to find I was stepping into his shoes. It certainly gave me something to live up to, though I didn’t do the job with a pint always at my elbow, as I’m told Alan used to!
Sadly his books (apart from two US publications on American Civil War battles – yes, he was an expert on that as well!) seem to be out of print. A bit of a scandal really when you know how good they are. Alan deserves to be better known. Some enterprising publisher should at least put out digital reprints of The First Tigers, Coleridge Walks the Fells, and his biography of Young. Meanwhile, I never go to Keswick without thinking of him and missing that deep-voiced laugh, and that encyclopedic knowledge of literature and the Lake District. Here’s to you, Alan, and thanks for telling so many great stories.