A Dream of Edwin Drummond: Interview

Posted by Niall Grimes on 23/03/2021
James McHaffie re-creating the ascent of Great Wall for 'A Dream of Edwin Drummond'. Photo: Paul Diffley/Hot Aches Productions

Paul Diffley’s film 'A Dream of Edwin Drummond' sets out to sketch legendary climber Ed Drummond with his words and climbs and through the impact he made on others. Incredible interviews with Drummond and his family, with his peers, and stunning recreations of some of his great climbs all come together to breathe great life into Drummond. Niall Grimes catches up with the director himself to ask about Drummond and Diffley’s visions.

Climber, poet and performer Ed Drummond was one of the most significant climbers of the 1970s in the UK. He pioneered new climbs of great difficulty and boldness in the UK and abroad but perhaps his greatest asset was his visionary nature. This sought to discover boundaries, physical, mental and emotional, and push against them as hard as he could. 'The Longhope Route' on Orkney, 'Archangel' at Stanage and Gogarth’s 'A Dream of White Horses' are just three of a wealth of routes to his name.

Paul Diffley’s film, 'A Dream of Edwin Drummond' - now available on Vimeo on Demand - sets out to sketch Drummond through his words and climbs and through the impact he made on others. Incredible interviews with Drummond and his family, with his peers, and stunning recreations of some of his great climbs all come together to breathe great life into Drummond who died in 2019, ages 76, having suffered from Parkinson’s Disease for many years.

A film Diffley created was shown at Kendal Mountain Festival in 2019 along with musical performances from members of his family. These have now all been combined in a beautiful and moving film, 'A Dream of Ed Drummond'.

The full film is available to watch on Vimeo On-Demand while some of the recreations are going to appear on the BMC’s YouTube channel. Ahead of their appearance, Niall Grimes caught up with Paul Diffley to ask about Drummond and Diffley’s visions.

You have made films that have focused on past eras in climbing before. What is it about some eras that attract you enough to make a film about them?

I guess I'm lamenting a golden age of British climbing and mountaineering. A time before sponsorship and magazines, let alone Instagram and YouTube. Back when climbing wasn't something to be done to show other people or sell product, it was done for the sheer joy, the sheer adventure of it.

I started climbing in the mid-80s and I grew up with stories of Brown and Whillans, real characters of climbing. But of course the 80s was also a time of great change, the start of sport climbing, sponsorship etc. I have to confess at the time I was hugely excited by all that; I couldn't wait to don lycra and start clipping bolts. However, now I wonder if climbing has lost something. Has it lost some of its soul?

Many climbers today are, and I include myself in this, obsessed with performance, obsessed with trying to climb 8a. Or if you have climbed 8a then you should be aiming for 8b, and if you’ve climbed 8b then why haven’t you climbed Mecca yet? The idea of climbing ‘merely’ for enjoyment and adventure seems to have been lost somewhere. So, when I make these films, I'm celebrating a time or a concept that I myself wish to go back to.

The film and performances very much take the viewer back to an earlier time. What do you think the climbers of that era would have said about the time they lived in?

I think it's very hard to imagine how a previous generation of climbers might have felt. When you look at old photographs of climbers, old black and white images, it’s easy to presume that these are different types of people and have different goals and objectives, but they were all just people, just climbers like ourselves.

It reminds me of when you see old photos of soldiers from the world wars, and your try and put yourself in their shoes and imagine how you would feel heading to war. It’s almost easier to believe that folk back then didn’t feel about things in the same way as we do now, but people are still just people, we haven't genetically changed, we still have the same kind of dreams and ideas.

Photo: Behind the scenes filming the recreation of 'Dream of White Horses'

What draws you to Ed Drummond?

I'm not sure I was actually drawn to Drummond as such. I was aware of him of course, I first climbed 'A Dream of White Horses' in the late-80s, but I didn't know too much about him. It was only when I started making my film ‘The Longhope’ in 2011 that I got to know him and his climbing. The film was initially going to be a film about Dave MacLeod climbing a first free ascent on St. John's Head on the Isle of Hoy in the Orkneys. It’s 350m high and the biggest continuous cliff in the UK.

I remember my initial interview with Dave. He told me the story of the first ascent and how Drummond had made an epic seven-day ascent of the route, spending five nights sleeping on the wall with very little food or equipment in back in 1970. I’d just recently also made the film, 'The Pinnacle', set in 1960 with Jimmy Marshall and Robin Smith winter climbing on Ben Nevis. What made that film special was the interview I managed to capture with Jimmy Marshall and so when I set out to make 'The Longhope', I wanted to get an interview with Drummond and tell his story. Drummond was living in America, so having found his email address via Ken Wilson, I began a wonderful email exchange which resulted in not only capturing an interview, but also facilitating and filming his return to Hoy to visit St John’s Head one last time.

Ed Drummond was a very big character from his era. What had you expected him to be like and, having spent time with him, how did you find him?

I really wasn't sure what to expect when I met him at Kirkwall Airport on the mainland of Orkney. I can remember waiting at the airport arrivals and worrying that I might not recognise him, but then this old man wearing a multi-coloured beanie and an old bright blue fleece walked towards me with a strange gait and I knew immediately that was Ed. I found Ed to be great company, but a little intense.

He would have been in his mid-60s when I met him and had been living with Parkinson's Disease for well over 20 years by then. He was calm and softly spoken and his eyes still sparkled with intensity and curiosity. I think because of the situation, he was in a very reflective mood. I like the line of interview where he says:

I think I most fundamentally wanted to come here to be able to feel at peace and I can accept myself for all the amusing shortcoming that I may have had and be able to move on with my life, happily as the years get shorter… a kind of rite of passage, I think. Can I come back here and look at something peacefully that caused me and brought me such anguish at the time?

Could Drummond be a top climber of today?

I think that's a very interesting question and I'm unsure how to answer it. Maybe he would have thrived in the modern era of Instagram and climbing films. Maybe he was ahead of his time in the in the 1960s. He was certainly criticised for being a self-publicist.

Back then one was not supposed to talk of one’s achievements at all. British mountaineering has always had an understated culture and some folks saw him and his writings as boastful or self-publicizing and maybe today it's still considered a sin but there's lot more climbers doing it. Maybe he would have been a type of Leo Houlding, travelling the world and climbing amazing first ascents on big walls.

Or maybe he would have rejected the professional climbing scene and opted instead to just enjoy his climbing for recreation. I think he may have embraced the era of training, to quote from his poem ‘To climb or not to climb’:

“Today I got up early and began drinking: very black coffee, thinking… of weightlifting, before it's too late. Joining my local gym, learning to press, snatch and update Atlas.” 

I think that would make a great Instagram post, although I’m not sure all the IG kids would get the Atlas reference!

You chose to focus the film onto some of his routes. Why did you choose the routes you did and what did these climbs say about him?

As well as 'The Longhope Route', I also shot recreation footage of James McHaffie climbing 'Archangel' on Stanage, 'Great Wall' on Cloggy and of course his most famous route, 'A Dream of White Horses'. I do appreciate these are just a small selection of the climbs he was involved with. I’ve completely missed out all his climbs in the Avon Gorge, his epic climb on the 'Troll Wall', his climbs in Yosemite and the Himalaya. 

I chose to focus on the UK climbs for very practical production reasons of cost. Also, this film does not set out to document all the climbs and adventures of Ed Drummond, instead it attempts to understand how Ed saw and experienced the world.

One could argue that Ed saw creating a new route like producing a conceptual art project. If you take at looks at ‘Dream…’. Firstly, he had the vision for what is quite an audacious line and an almost a convoluted line. Then he had an artistic collaboration with photographer and filmmaker, Leo Dickinson, which resulted in one of the most iconic climbing photographs of the last century.

Finally, the whole artistic concept is encapsulated with one of the finest route names, ‘A Dream of White Horses’. Just imagine for a moment if the route had been climbed by someone else, Leo’s photograph of ‘The Wave’ didn’t exist and the route was called ‘The Wen Slab Girdle’. Would it really be the 5-star classic route that it is today? I think this illustrates that it’s not just the physical attributes of a climb that make it a classic, but also the conceptional elements. I’ve spoken to Leo Dickinson about this, and he believes the route was named a week after the ascent, once Ed has seen a print of Leo’s photograph.

The recreations are great. Were they difficult to create?

I am fairly pleased with the way the reconstructions turned out considering the amount of time and very small budget I had. I shot all three routes in just one three-day trip. I sourced all the vintage clothing, gear and theatrical facial hair myself in the weeks running up to the shoot, mostly from either friends or eBay.

I had to take a casual approach to the reconstructions; for instance, the climbers are using modern ropes and they're also using a little bit of modern gear. If you were to scrutinize the film, you would be able to spot the odd cam etc. To have shot this like a ‘proper drama’ film would have taken many more days and much bigger crew and budget.

I'm indebted to James Mchaffie for his work on the project and for being prepared to climb these routes or at least attempt to climb these routes with the old gear and boots. Ray Wood was also incredibly supportive of this project.

I really hope I’ll get to create more historical reconstructions again in the future.

WATCH: Great Wall extract from 'A Dream of Edwin Drummond' on BMC TV

Is there a line in the film – a quote, a line of poetry etc – that particularly moves you or resonates with you and if so, what one?

There are so many lines from the film which are just burnt into my head. I think my favourite section of the film and his writing would be the Great Wall essay taken from Ken Wilson’s ‘Hard Rock’: ‘Steel cold in my shorts I was feeling a little blue ... The camera shot me in black and white glossing over my burning cheeks, my knees were news in wild Wales.” And of course, it concludes with the classic line: “Lovely boy Crew, arrow climber. Wall without end.

I also find his account of 'The Longhope Route', ‘The Incubus Hills’, very emotive. I love all the talk of the food and drinking and just the physical discomfort of living on the wall for so many days.

Oliver gets up first to brew tea bag tea with tit-sweet condensed milk.” Or a few days later once they have run out of food, tea and milk: “We drink scalding hot orange at dawn. Sweet like a thin syrup with the last of our sugar in it. While gently we talk hopefully of food and success.”

One of my favourite poems in the film is the 'The Black Lake' (Llyn Du'r Arddu): "Our local black hole, a bowl of plums when the night wind comes."

WATCH: The Black Lake extract from 'A Dream of Edwin Drummond'

What involvement did Ed’s family have in the project?

I first met Haworth, Ed’s oldest child, at Kendal in 2011 when we premiered 'The Long Hope'. Haworth got on stage after and played ‘Original Rock Star’. The song expresses the juxtaposition of his relationship and feelings for his dad. On one hand he’s angry that his dad used to abandon him as a child to go climbing and went on to leave the country and move to America. But on the other hand, he has a huge bout of love and is incredibly proud of some of his dad’s actions, for example, his climb of Nelson’s column protesting against Barclays Bank’s involvement in the South African apartheid regime.

When Ed passed in May 2019, Haworth and I swapped many emails and we started to make plans for a special live event at Kendal to celebrate Ed’s life. This event was wonderful, and several members of his family were actively involved on the day, but it was a one off, 250 people got to see it and experience it, but then it was gone forever.  After Kendal I really wanted to repackage that show into a film to give a more lasting legacy.

That repackaging resulted in ‘A Dream of Edwin Drummond’… Wall without end.

BUY NOW: 'A Dream of Edwin Drummond' on Vimeo on Demand


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