Saga of a hero
CONSTANCE HOLT discusses a book about mountain climbing—with a difference
'Shin Kicking Champion by Norman Croucher (Barrie & Jenkins £2)
mOST of us have admiration, sometimes tinged with shame, for people who do what we have not the skill, or courage or need, to do. hadn't read many pages of this compelling book before I was well advanced in that state of ashamed respect— shame springing from a conviction that one would never have a fraction of the hope and courage even to contemplate the author's achievement. Perhaps that is a faithless observation: one can forget that hope and endurance are given things.
Norman Croucher, a Corn:sh boy who, as a child. had felt the urge to break away from the confines of his own country tradition, tells his own tale. The story opens in a hospital ward after the loss of both his legs at the age of nineteen, and closes on the summt of the Jungfrau to which he had climbed, ten years later.
Between those events is a long spell of work for downand-outs in Soho, drug addicts in Piccadilly, a varied procession of the lonely. lost, desperate. His working base was the Crypt Social unit of St Martins-in-the-Fields, London. The well-known therapeutic power of unremitting compassionate work did its job effectively for Normen, He soon learned that mental suffering could be more serious and hard to overcome than the discomfort of his own strap-on legs, which let in the rain and hurt in the heat. He gathers up the fruits of each experience with thoughtful conviction:
"There are in the West End many social workers who have some knowledge of what is going on there . .. but none can have the complete picture. All
the workers must . . continually try to improve their knowledge , . in the end the "scene" is composed of . .. individual, different, human beings, and no one, other than God, can know everything about them . . ."
The next undertaking, a walk from John O'Groats to Land's End, sponsored in aid of Oxfam, was planned as a toughening-up exercise in preparation for the assault on those mountains, and also as a brain-me after the years of social work.
"... Every fresh day tempted me on because I knew there was some adventure or experience waiting for me. Not once did I feel like giving
The book as a whole is uneven in literary style as the Alpine rocks. Sometimes work among the outcasts or Stages of that great walk are described almost awkwardly and in a string of bald anecdotes. But all this poignant true-life material would hold our attention even without the patches of very good writing We must stay with this man till he has won that mountain victory, and we almost forget, as he could not, those tin legs, '
Non-climber and expert alike will be held by the closeups given by this learner of the training process. Instant comparison with legless pilot Douglas Bader is inevitable That hero's book had found its way to Norman's hospital bed years before. The quiet organisation of time and energy is conveyed with clearcut simplicity: even the advantage of detachable legs is not forgotten. On the night before the "rehearsal" climb up Tryfan with a friend: "We . . parked in a layby
. . . for the night . . Peter, being over six feet, found the minivan an uncomfortable place to sleep in, while I was able to take my legs off and stretch as far as I liked ..."
When he finally reaches his goal, no lofty mountain-top philosophising for this conqueror of the Jungfrau: "On the mist-shrouded peak my thoughts did not turn, despite the literary fashion, to thoughts of the special closeness of God and Heaven, I expect to find God as easily in Inverness or inside a flower as at the top of a mountain. But I did thank God that I had climbed the Jungfrau ..."
I cannot picture the sort of reader who would not find this book rewarding — and entertaining.