Peter Hodgkiss: Mountaineer and publisher whose Ernest Press extended the scope and ambition of climbing literature
Saturday 06 February 2010
Heaven forbid, but if my library of mountain books were to catch fire right now with just a few minutes to rescue treasured volumes, I'd rifle the shelves for those with the image of a Gutenberg-era screw press on the spine – the distinctive logo of The Ernest Press.
There would be none of mountaineering's best sellers among them, no Into Thin Air or Eiger epics, rather a collection telling climbing's story via The Ordinary Route, to employ the title of one The Ernest Press's real gems.
Of course, proprietor Peter Hodgkiss must always have hoped to make money from his titles, and to an extent he did, with a successful run of mountain biking guides. But look at the chances he took with new authors, even an extraordinary prose-poem imagining the final hours of George Mallory, and it is clear that profit was not his guiding star. Hodgkiss was a romantic who published out of a love of mountains and the climbing game, and a belief that if the writing was of quality then that book deserved to be in print. The result was that The Ernest Press enjoyed critical acclaim, its authors picking up a disproportionate number of mountain literature prizes without anyone getting rich.
However Hodgkiss's presence in the background of British climbing went way beyond the output of The Ernest Press. Ask about him in the senior clubs – the Alpine Club, Scottish Mountaineering Club, Climbers' Club, and Fell & Rock Climbing Club – and many will know the name without knowing precisely what this modest man did. "I think he helped with the guidebooks," would be a likely reply.
All four clubs produce climbing guides – the AC to the Alps, the SMC to Scotland, the CC to Wales and southern England and the FRCC to the Lake District. But to say Hodgkiss "helped" would be to understate his role. For decades he provided the link between club guidebook editors (often amateur volunteers) and printing firms; advising editors on what was practical in terms of format, paper quality, reproduction of diagrams and photos and so forth, meanwhile negotiating an acceptable price with printers, usually these days in the Far East.
The happy conjunction of two strands of Hodgkiss's life made him ideally suited to this task – a long career in print and a passion for climbing. Born in Leeds, Peter Hodgkiss was one of three brothers. The family moved to Nottingham, where Peter attended school in West Bridgford. Hodgkiss senior was a printer; Peter followed him into the craft, serving a six-year apprenticeship.
Tall and lean, at school he was an enthusiastic rower; his introduction to climbing came at 17 on an Outward Bound course. In addition to climbing and hillwalking, he became a keen cyclist and he and his wife Joy would go on cycling holidays, Scottish islands being a favourite destination.
He and Joy both came from Catholic families and the romance began at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Woodthorpe. Hodgkiss was certainly blessed in the partnership, Joy supporting Peter when the vicissitudes of the printing trade brought unemployment; her computer expertise was a boon to The Ernest Press and she endured his frequent absences in the Alps or Highlands. The couple moved to Glasgow in 1961, Hodgkiss working for the Clyde Paper Co and later for other firms. Apart from an unhappy 12 months' exile in Blackburn in the early 1970s, the family have remained on the South Side of the city, first in Netherlee and then in Giffnock.
Before the founding of The Ernest Press in 1985, Hodgkiss's work, or lack of it, followed the fortunes of his troubled industry. But climbing and the hills were a constant. Joining the Glasgow section of the Junior Mountaineering Club of Scotland in the mid-1960s, he found partners for long days on Highland crags. His determination to get out whatever the weather could cause exasperation. If the rock was too wet for climbing he would urge companions over a clutch of Munros (hills exceeding 3,000ft in height). Rain was dismissed as "just condensation".
A Hodgkiss day on the hills would usually start and end in the dark, plus two or three hours' driving from Glasgow and back. He loved the classic lines. One long day, recalled by Mike Thornley, they linked the great "trad" routes of Ben Nevis – climbing North-East Buttress, descending Tower Ridge, ascending Observatory Ridge and down Castle Ridge. One of those routes would constitute a "good day on the Ben", let alone all four. "Actually that day was a bit untypical for Pete,'' Thornley added. "It was a bit showy."
Hodgkiss wasn't interested in pushing the grades or in self-advertisement. He rock-climbed up to Very Severe and operated on snow and ice at around grade V (roman); Ron Hockey recalled a great day on Eagle Ridge – "the Queen of Lochnagar's winter routes" according to the 2008 edition of the SMC's Scottish Winter Climbs guidebook, one of the last Hodgkiss would have a hand in.
While Joy was at mass, Peter would be on the hill, excusing himself to the children as an agnostic. So regular was this routine that one daughter told friends her father didn't go to church "because he's an agnostic – that means he goes climbing on Sundays".
The hills had become akin to a religion to Hodgkiss; he loved their remoteness, a place to lose and stretch himself. It's no surprise that while unemployed around 1980 he became involved in the so far successful campaign to prevent the expansion of the Cairngorm ski area into Lurchers Gully. In the only book that bears his name as author, the SMC's district guide to The Central Highlands (1984) Hodgkiss bid all those who enjoy a sense of wilderness "to be both vigilant and active in protection of that value".
Hodgkiss's alpine seasons were a reflection of this mountain-wanderer approach rather than bagger of trophy routes. He shunned Chamonix and Zermatt, preferring the quieter valleys off the Val d'Aosta in north-west Italy. His partner in the 1970s was Ted Maden; they would camp with their families in the Gran Paradiso national park and take off every few days. One notable ascent was the north ridge of La Grivola (3,969m). The poet Giosuè Carducci called it "l'ardua Grivola bella" – the arduous beautiful Grivola, which seems to make it a natural Hodgkiss mountain. Later, he had seasons with Richard Gibbens, who contributed photographs to The Central Highlands. Gib-bens remembered days off the beaten track, Hodgkiss "gliding with absolute poise", and long conversations about classical music, photography and grammar. Leafing through Central Highlands as we spoke, Gibbens came across a note from Hodgkiss thanking him "for good company in the Alps, good conversation when required, peaceful quiet at other times".
Hodgkiss's entry into publishing grew out of his enthusiasm for mountain literature and the discovery at the bottom of a box of books bought at auction of some volumes on Antarctica that he didn't want. He was advised to contact Jack Baines, an antiquarian book dealer. The two met in the back room of Hodgkiss's house and sat drinking tea and talking about old classics they would like to see back in print. Each wrote a cheque for £1,000 and The Ernest Press was born. First off the press was a facsimile copy of Twenty Years on Ben Nevis by W.T. Kilgour, out of print for 80 years.
Today The Ernest Press has some 50 books in its catalogue – a good many of an esoteric nature that few, other publishers would touch. Top of that list must be Charles Lind's An Afterclap of Fate: Mallory on Everest, a haunting prose-poem in the imagined voice of George Mallory. It has not sold 1,000 copies but won the prestigious Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature in 2006. Hodgkiss has also championed the novelist Roger Hubank. Climbing novels are a gamble, but Hubank's Hazard's Way won the BT and the Grand Prize at the Banff Mountain Literature in 2001. Four Ernest Press titles have won the BT and others have been shortlisted.
I first spoke to Peter Hodgkiss in January 1997 before interviewing the critic Janet Adam Smith. Hodgkiss had enjoyed a long correspondence with Adam Smith and had just republished her engaging Mountain Holidays (1946). He warned me to keep my wits about me. Although in her nineties, this grande dame of the Alpine Club had an incisive mind and was a stickler for facts and grammar. And so was Hodgkiss, as I was to discover five years later when I was persuaded to become editor of the Alpine Journal.
Peter had been elected to the Alpine Club in 1988 and in 1993 the Ernest Press became joint publisher with the club of the AJ, an annual 450-page book of essays on climbing trips, mountain environment and cultures, reviews and more. It is the oldest mountain journal in the world, dating back to 1863; Hodgkiss gave freely of his time to ensure that the AJ looked its best. We spent countless hours on the phone, digressing from production headaches to recent climbs or books old and new. Had I read René Daumal's novel Mount Analogue? (A metaphysical adventure.) "Oh you must." And two days later it arrived in the post.
Our last meeting was at his home six days before he died. Despite cancer he remained erect and dignified, insisting that we talk in his office, business as usual rather than retiring to the sitting room. "Growing old isn't for softies," he would say when asked how he felt. Peter Hodgkiss was never a softie, and he was involved with production of the Alpine Journal until his final days.
Peter Hodgkiss, printer, publisher and mountaineer: born Leeds 7 May 1936; married 1959 Joy Pycock (two daughters, two sons); died Glasgow 31 January 2010.
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