Jim Curran v Jim Perrin (part 5 of 6)

Jim Curran has spoken with jacssisters at length on the subject of his recollections of Jim Perrin over the years, and told us he has been following our posts regarding him with great interest. Now he has kindly given us permission to use, however we wish, the information in his own absorbing autobiography Here, There and Everywhere, and we are particularly grateful to him for this freedom.

Not only has it enabled us to make public yet another aspect of what in our opinion is Jim PERRIN’S perfidious nature but also, through this sequence of posts, to give greater exposure to a major example of his modus operandi — extra ‘coverage’ of his now notorious scheming — and ‘to set the record straight’:  in this case, for Jim Curran’s sake.

Jac’s sisters.

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The following is taken from Chapter 28 of Jim Curran’s autobiography:


“During the 1990s I was involved in a protracted saga of litigation that provoked an astonishing amount of vitriol and ill-feeling throughout the British climbing world. During, and ever since that time, I have remained silent and only now, 20 years later, am I prepared to comment on the issues involved, and I do so now with some trepidation. However, as my side of the story has never been made public, I think it is now time to do so. Before I start, I must make it quite clear that the magazine with which I took issue, ‘Climber and Hillwalker’, has since been sold, is now called simply ‘Climber’ and is now under new management and control, with whom, obviously, I have absolutely no quarrel.

My problems with the magazine concerned the writings of Jim Perrin, who, over the years, has contributed to all the British climbing press but his writing has, in my opinion, been flawed by a streak of bitterness and vitriol, and over the years many of his contemporaries have been at the receiving end of wounding comments or jibes, often made about events apparently long gone and forgotten.

When Jim Perrin joined ‘Climber and Hillwalker’ after an acrimonious departure from ‘High’ magazine, it became apparent from his column that he felt that everything that came out of Sheffield (where ‘High’ was based) was bad news. His magazine had also coined the phrase ‘the Sheffield mafia’, referring to a nebulous group of elderly climbers who apparently exercised a malevolent influence over climbing politics through the pages of ‘High’ and ‘Mountain’ magazines. What started as a tongue in cheek joke in the pages of ‘Climber and Hillwalker’ soon began to be referred to as an accepted fact.

Over a period of two or three years I grew progressively more irritated at Jim Perrin’s snipings, but refused to rise to the bait, though I became increasingly puzzled as to why I was being singled out. I could only assume it was due to my friendship with ‘High’ Editor, Geoff Birtles, though I still don’t know if this was really the case. Then in March 1991, Perrin wrote an article explaining what it was like to climb with some of the greats of British rock-climbing: Joe Brown, Don Whillans, Johnny Dawes, Martin Boysen and Ron Fawcett. It was, I thought, a rather sycophantic piece, but at the same time implying that Perrin himself was in that league. Towards the end of the piece, and quite out of the blue, he also wrote about the worst climbers he’d ever climbed with and named Joe Tasker, Nick Estcourt, Alex McIntyre and me. I was astounded that he could cite Nick, Alex and Joe who were, of course, all dead, and almost flattered to be named in their company, except that the words he used about me were, “in an incompetence league entirely on his own – Big Jim Curran who once put the fear of God into me on a first ascent in Pembroke by starting up the 5c crux before I had even managed properly to belay on the top of the crag”. He was referring to our first ascent of The Voyage Out which we had done in 1979.

I was bemused, hurt, and baffled when, 12 years later, Perrin made his comments in ‘Climber and Hillwalker’. Others were more shocked than I was, and pointed out that, as a climbing cameraman often employed by TV companies, I could have a problem with insurance. The word ‘incompetence’ and the phrase ‘put the fear of God into me’ could be cited as evidence that a TV company should not have employed me if, in the event of an accident, blame was attached to me. The article seemed to have been read by lots of people and when I was accosted in a Bristol street by a climber I scarcely recognised, and asked why Jim Perrin seemed to be carrying out some kind of vendetta against me, I reluctantly decided to at least seek legal advice.

A QC recommended a young solicitor, Rhory Robertson, who worked for a firm called Swepstone Walsh in Lincoln’s Inn Field. His opinion seemed to be very reasonable. He thought it was clearly a libellous statement that could be damaging to future employment if it were not retracted and a full apology printed. His words were to the effect that, while it wasn’t exactly the crime of the century, a solicitor’s letter should do the trick, plus a few hundred pounds for my trouble and anxiety.

I was appalled when ‘Climber and Hillwalker’ immediately refused to apologise and horrified when they then employed Peter Carter-Ruck and Partners, the celebrated libel lawyers frequently lampooned in ‘Private Eye’, to fight their case. I imagine the magazine assumed that I would be quickly frightened off by the big guns, and they were almost right. The problem was that, from the very beginning, cases like this cost a lot of money and I couldn’t afford to lose. I felt that with each exchange of letters I was getting more and more committed – I simply couldn’t back out and lose what was for me a huge amount of money. The magazine, of course, and Jim Perrin, were covered by insurance and could go on fighting without any personal financial risk at all. I still had a small sum left over from my mother’s will which I’d kept for a rainy day. And this seemed to have just arrived.

Over the months the letters from ‘the opposition’ became more and more eccentric and wide-ranging. Initially ‘Climber and Hillwalker’s main line of defence was that the remarks were meant to be a joke, but, as they then spent a great deal of time and effort trying to justify them, it seemed that even they couldn’t see the funny side. In a tacit acceptance that the problems with Perrin and me went back a long way, the magazine then introduced a new and sinister element into the case.

In 1986 and 1987 I had served on the judging panel of the Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature and was chairman of the panel in my second year. During that year I had been shocked to find out that Jim Perrin had questioned my integrity in judging a book by John Barry on the events on K2 in which I had been involved the previous year. I offered to resign immediately but my offer was refused and my two fellow judges supported me, as did the Committee of the Boardman Tasker Award whose members included Chris Bonington, Dorothy Boardman and Charlie Clarke.

It is worth pointing out that my then full-time lecturing job at Bristol Polytechnic regularly involved assessing the work of art and design students. This is an activity that might seem to an outsider to be a particularly subjective activity and one prone to prejudice, favouritism, or personal animosity. In fact, after nearly 30 years of both participating in and observing assessment procedures, I am still impressed by the way in which we, the lecturers, could make judgements that, while not always unanimous, rarely varied significantly, and were supported by the external assessor who had no prior knowledge of previous grades. So the idea of my personal integrity being under suspicion was one I bitterly resented and refuted. It could even be used against me in my college life.

It came as a major surprise and shock when ‘Climber and Hillwalker’ produced a copy of a letter that Jim Perrin had sent to Chris Bonington which not only questioned my judgement over the John Barry book, but, worse, accused me of influencing the judges the previous year in order to ensure that an author who was also a contributor to ‘High’ magazine won the award. As Perrin himself had won the award the year before that, when he was still working for ‘High’, it would be two out of two for the magazine he now despised.

I must admit that when I saw the letter, which had been sent to Chris Bonington, Dorothy Boardman, and the then Secretary of the BMC, Dennis Gray, I was mortified. How do you refute something for which there is absolutely no evidence one way or the other?

What happened was that I had read some, but not all, of the books submitted for the 1986 BT award, then gone to K2 on what had been a far longer expedition than I had expected. When I eventually returned, all the books had been submitted and my two fellow judges, Bill Murray and Al Alverez, had tended to favour a book by Walt Unsworth on the history of Mont Blanc. I thought the book workmanlike, well-researched and written, but inevitably based on second-hand experience. The book that stood out for me was one by Stephen Venables called ‘Painted Mountains’ which described intense, first-hand experiences on two Himalayan expeditions. The writing was fresh, and, to my mind, the book was a far greater creative achievement than Walt Unsworth’s. I pointed this out to the other judges who, to my delight, both agreed and Venables duly won the BT award. At the time I had no idea or even interest , in whether or not Venables was going to work for ‘High’ magazine, my mind being fully occupied with the enormous tragedies on K2 that year, and the imminent task of writing my own book on the subject, as well as producing a film.

Now, five years later, I was made aware of all the undercurrents of suspicion and ill-feeling that I had been blissfully ignorant of at the time. I simply couldn’t think that anyone in their right mind would believe that I would risk fixing an award for someone I knew, but not particularly well, and who, like many other climbers, was going to write a column in one of the three British climbing magazines. I was frankly baffled. But I was on a steep learning curve and Rhory explained to me that, whilst I was suing Perrin and the magazine for libel over a couple of sentences, they would use anything to question my integrity. I became very depressed and anxious, wondering what else they would manage to dredge up.

There were, though, some good signs. Rhory kept asking ‘Climber and Hillwalker’ to settle out of court and at one point they offered to put a small sum into court as a compromise. But there was no offer of an apology, which was all I really wanted, and in any case, the sum was so small that I could still end up out of pocket. I decided to fight on, though by now I was losing both weight (no bad thing) and sleep. As Rhory kept telling me, the important thing was to keep your eye on the ball, and on the allegations that I was in ‘an incompetence league entirely on his own’. We had some fairly impressive witnesses who were prepared to refute this. Among them were Paul Nunn, Joe Simpson, Chris Bonington and Ian McNaught Davis, all of whom had climbed with me often enough to know what they were talking about. While I would never claim to be anything other than an average performer, I had over 30 years’ experience and was well able to look after myself in a wide variety of mountain environments.

The date for the case was arranged. I was beside myself with worry for by now I was arranging to re-mortgage my house to pay the solicitor’s and barrister’s fees. If I lost, I would have to sell everything, as I would then be faced with the legal fees from both sides. Rhory (and common sense) suggested that this was highly unlikely, but once a case goes to court anything can happen. Two weeks before the trial, Rhory took me round the High Court and we stood in the actual court where it was to be heard. It seemed quite small and very intense; even the lighting gave it a sense of drama and seriousness. I didn’t know whether to be appalled or encouraged and tried to imagine being cross-examined by a hostile barrister. I just couldn’t understand why the opposition were going through with it and prayed that they would offer a decent out-of-court settlement.

Throughout all this time, the climbing rumour factory had been working overtime. Popular myths were that Mac was paying all my bills for me, that I was doing all this at the behest of ‘High’ editor Geoff Birtles (who, in fact, had always tried to warn me off taking legal action) and that I wanted to see Jim Perrin bankrupt (quite absurd, since, as explained earlier, all his ‘Climber and Hillwalker’ costs were fully insured. What was undoubtedly true, though, was the fervent wish that the whole business would suddenly just go away which, only days before the case was due to be heard, it did.

What happened arose out of a terrible tragedy. Andy Fanshawe was the BMC’s National Officer. He was a talented climber and a very promising young writer. I didn’t know him well but had met him first at K2 Base Camp when he had turned up with a team of young activists attempting the traverse of Chogolisa, an ascent they completed in fine style. I had supplied a rather good photo for Andy’s book, and, though we never climbed together, I always enjoyed his company and boundless enthusiasm. It all stopped suddenly in March 1992 on Eagle Ridge, Lochnagar, when Andy suffered a horrendous fall and was killed outright. Hundreds of friends and family attended his memorial service and afterwards, over a pint, I found myself talking to Stephen Venables who asked me how the libel case was going. Strangely enough, I had never thought to involve Stephen in any way and it never occurred to me that he could be of much help. It wasn’t the right time or place to discuss it and I just said something to the effect that I thought it was a bit rich that Stephen’s book, which I still admired hugely, had been dragged into a legal battle, and left it at that. I drove back to Bristol with an overwhelming feeling that Andy’s death made my battles seem trivial and pointless. But they were real just the same.

When I got home to Sheffield at the weekend, I found an envelope with a Bath postmark. It was a letter from Stephen enclosing two of the letters he had received from Jim Perrin when Stephen was considering working for ‘High’. I read them, absolutely thunderstruck; I couldn’t believe what was before my eyes. For here was Jim Perrin wooing Stephen Venables and praising his book to the skies. Not only did he think it should win the Boardman Tasker award, but he, Jim Perrin, was prepared to try to influence the judges to make sure the award didn’t go to Walt Unsworth. He finished by expressing his hope that, for a second year running, the award would go to one of the ‘High’ writing team. How Perrin could have carried on his defence knowing that these letters might still exist is something I shall never understand.

It doesn’t take much imagination to realise that after this monumental own goal, ‘Climber and Hillwalker’ settled the case in my favour within days, and I was pleased to receive an apology and substantial damages. Sadly, references to the case continued to be made by people who should have known better, somehow implying that I, who had risked everything in fighting on my own against a large publishing group, was undermining the right of free speech in climbing writing. The whole episode left a nasty taste in my mouth, and it is something I would never dream of going through again if I could possibly help it. But when it happens and you find things in print that are seriously damaging to your reputation, you sometimes have to stick your head above the parapet. I certainly don’t regret what I did, only the protracted worry and stress it incurred. I certainly found out who my friends were (and weren’t) and I am eternally grateful to those who were prepared to stand up in court and defend me. But I’m glad they never had to.”

           — Extract from Jim Curran’s autobiography  Here, There and Everywhere.

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N.B. The ‘substantial damages’ to which Jim referred were substantial indeed, amounting as they did to a small fortune: of course, and much more importantly, Jim’s was the moral victory — which was the apology of the publishers and their libellous contributor. (And it was shameful that the defendants had been so willing, egged on by Jim Perrin and his perfidious words, to sabotage the reputation of an innocent man… )

We do thank Jim Curran again for allowing us to use these chapters. They clearly show yet more evidence of Jim Perrin’s truly wicked behaviour: his deceit; his malevolence; his evil-intentioned manipulation.

Jim’s autobiography is exceptional in the wealth of its material and remembered experiences and is truly ‘hands on’; and (as well as Jim Perrin being kicked comprehensively into the long grass) is a completely fascinating account of a man’s life and, with the additional welcome inclusion of another facet of his creative personality, many examples of his fine paintings.

Jac’s sisters.