BOOKS: The balm of nature

WAINWRIGHT: The Biography by Hunter Davies, Michael Joseph pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
NO "19th-century hagiography" for Hunter Davies. "Readers of today's biographies expect inner longings and sexual turmoils to be revealed. We want to know it all, because to know all is to understand, so we like to think."

His very readable search for the man behind the gruff old recluse of legend turns up two Wainwrights. One was Borough Treasurer of Kendal ("always support the mayor"), a lad who climbed out of the slums to become a Tory hanger and flogger, concealing a life of domestic misery beneath a shiny carapace of respectability. The other was a self-proclaimed dreamer who hankered after the fame and the girls and the money from an early age, and who perpetrated "funny" cartoons and reams of sub-romantic purple prose at the drop of a pencil-sharpener.

The two selves found some sort of reconciliation in his uniquely English do-it-yourself pocket-book guides to the Lakes, which combine meticulous topographical detail with odd little dithyrambs on the ineffable, filtered through Wordsworth and the stale pastoralism of the Georgians. "I still consider his Seven Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells to be works of art," says his biographer. "I'll go further. I think they are masterpieces."

Born in Blackburn in 1907 to an alcoholic father and a Bible-toting mother ("Don't be a fault-finder - unless you are a fault-mender"), Wainwright got himself to a Higher Elementary School - as opposed to starting work in the mill at 12 or 13, like his sisters - where his aptitude for "facts", arithmetic and drawing made him a natural for an office job. He got a toehold in Blackburn Town Hall and soon moved up to the Treasurer's Department, where the neatness of his ledgers became, on his own account, a "fetish". While his ex-mates slipped into a ritual of work, drink and football, the six-foot youngster with flaming red hair worked his way through night school and nourished secret ambitions to do something of note in the world.

He married Ruth Holden, a cotton weaver, in 1931, largely because she was the first girl he'd met who'd allow him a kiss and a cuddle. Their honeymoon was a two-bob night out at the local pictures. A son was born in 1933, and soon Wainwright was extending his holiday walks as far as the Pennines and the Isle of Arran: "I left Arran very, very reluctantly, like a lover torn from the arms of his bride." The walking expeditions were always taken alone, or with his young son Peter. Much later he wrote: "My wife, a mill girl, had no wish to leave the bottom rung ... Women may all seem alike with a blanket over their heads, but they are not."

As that last sentence indicates, he was sublimely unaware of his own chauvinism, yet happy to babble on about that "mystical quality of beauty and tranquillity" and the "glorious panorama" of his beloved Lakes. Davies maintains: "It wasn't fellwalking that caused the bad marriage but the bad marriage which caused the obsessive fellwalking." Nature was applied to for balm - not the real thing that struck terror into the heart of the young Wordsworth, but the picture-postcard variety.

By the late 1940s he had got himself to Kendal, the county town of Westmorland, and swiftly rose to the top of the Treasurer's Department. The job was "a doddle", and soon he was into his lifelong routine of walking and sketching the fells, eating fish and chips with HP sauce, and fantasising nightly about "the girl of my dreams", who would redeem his suffocated inner life.

Long before he began work on the seven pictorial guides that made his name he wrote: "Future generations, when they think of Wordsworth and Southey, Coleridge and de Quincey, will think of Wainwright also." He tramped all 214 fells several times over, in his third-best tweed suit, travelling only by public transport and keeping meticulous notes. The result, after three years of labour, was The Eastern Fells, published in 1955 in an edition of 2,000. It was followed by six others and the rest is, as Hunter Davies would say, history: two million copies sold to date and something like pounds 5m in sales.

It was a phenomenal and deserved success, which at one time kept the entire Westmorland Gazette printing works in business. Wainwright wrote out each page by hand, in different scripts, made all the drawings and maps, and attended lovingly to the layouts. The drawing is largely mechanical, the prose boy-scoutish, the maps and skylines competent. Taken all together, however, they resulted in books with something of the charm of Beatrix Potter for grown-ups, with a dash of Swallows and Amazons and a touch of English nature poetry. Wainwright's pawky humour peeps out from a mass of useful information about routes and how to avoid the human race.

"Walking alone is poetry, walking in a group only prose." "No animals have chips on their shoulders, unlike all the people I have ever met." The wit and wisdom of AW extended to another 20 or more picture-books - mostly bestsellers - and finally secured him his dream girl, after a messy divorce. "The Happy Wanderer" naturally turned up among his Desert Island Discs, along with "Lara's Theme" and "There's an Empty Cot in the Bunkhouse Tonight".

The ever-increasing royalties all went to animals. His long-suffering first wife got nothing, and nor did his son. Animal Rescue Cumbria, founded by AW, spends about pounds 3,000 a year on each of the waifs and strays that comes its way. The guides still sell 25,000 copies annually, and the other books probably more. This biography, appallingly edited and peppered with spelling mistakes, bounds along in Hunter Davies's cheeky-chappie prose, and provides food for all sorts of thought. The commodification of "nature" goes on apace, colliding with "the dearest freshness deep down things" and that English propensity for emotion by stealth.