Sunday, 31 January 2010

Crowley: A Rotten Tooth?

Heroin, opium, ether and anhalonium addiction; deportation from France and Sicily; anti-Semitism; bankruptcy; bestiality; gonorrhea; sadomasochistic tendencies; Buddhism; a family brewing business; police investigations; scarlet women and mountaineering: Aleister Crowley wasn’t a bad climber. Indeed some would argue, his interest in chess and mountaineering were his only redeeming features.
Crowley climbed in British mountains, in the Alps and in the Himalayas… and at Eastbourne, where he was a real pioneer – making ‘epic’ first ascents of routes he named, Devils Chimney, Crowley’s Crack, The Needle, and The Tooth - on the White cliffs of Beachy Head. It’s clear that he had a special affection for chalk.
This is Crowley:
“The fantastic beauty of the cliffs of Beachy Head can never be understood by anyone who has not grappled with them… my association with the Head possesses a charm, which I have never known in any other district of England…I had the particularly delightful feeling of complete originality…On Beachy Head I was the only one – I had invented an entirely new branch (bristle even; read on!) of the sport.”
A soldier attempting to climb Beachy Head with a bicycle, 1898.

His account of actual routes on the Head (in East Sussex, remember) was contributed by some strange quirk of choice to the Scottish Mountaineering club Journal. With his friend Gregor Grant he climbed The Tooth and The Needle - the fabulous pinnacles of the Devil’s Chimney - on two weekends in July 1894.
Here's The Tooth, but spot the climber?
And here’s The Great Beast again:
After carefully reconnoitering The Needle, which lay beyond, and pronouncing it impossible… we then proceeded to do The Tooth, the summit of which, towered above me in all its rottenness. On this Grant  ‘fixed himself’- a humorous term we sometimes employ – and I went down the ridge into the Gash, ‘fixed myself', and began my steps…Five times I tried to cross The Gash, but with no decent handhold it is hardly to be expected that one can pull one’s self up to a vertical wall. One chance however, remained. I scooped a hole (in the soft chalk) out in the east face, inserted my chin and hauled. I had not shaved for a day or two, so was practically enjoying the advantages of face-spikes”. With this maneuver, Crowley not only avoided a close shave, he invented a new piece of climbing equipment: the chin-crampon.
The Needle was conquered. However, as it is not ‘built for two’ (and as everybody knows: you should never share needles), Crowley’s companion, much to his disappointment, had to stay on The Tooth.

Crowley’s avoiding a close shave through being unshaven reminds me of the time Baron Munchausen had to single-handedly get himself out of a swamp. The Baron had fallen into a swamp – was literally, up to his neck in it and sinking fast. But this fast sinking initiated some fast thinking. Munchausen lifted himself out of the swamp - single handedly - by pulling his own hair.
There’s also a Munchausen tale about a whale: a whale who swallowed an anchor and died of a swollen tongue. And don’t giant needles harpoon whales? And how about all those photographs in Boys Own books: of smiling men, sitting on teeth, in the jaws of a dead leviathan?
And thank goodness ‘floating whale theatres’ were never launched. The absurd idea (coinciding with Jarry’s altogether different concept of Theatre of the Absurd) was proposed at the Buffalo fair of 1901 – about the time Crowley was clinging on, by bristled chin, to a tooth on Beachy Head. If the floating whale theatre had been performing off the South Coast of England, and Crowley had fallen, the two great beasts might have met.  What a sublime thought: one Great Beast falling off a tooth, only to fall into the teeth of another great beast. 

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