Slatehead: The Ascent of Britain’s Slate-climbing Scene by Peter Goulding @Flatlandclimber @newwelshreview #interview

Slatehead: The Ascent of Britain’s Slate-climbing Scene by Peter Goulding

Bobby Drury left Liverpool after O-levels, knowing he had f***ed them up. Free now, he hitched to Snowdonia. His mum came crying on the phone, ‘You’ve failed them all.’ Bobby knew that. ‘No, Mum, I’ve led Vector.’ This was Thatcher’s lost generation. The slate quarries were walking distance; they’d have a smoke, a party in an abandoned hut, try and climb something. A small culture emerged of punks, nutters, artists and petty thieves, crawling up abandoned rock, then heading to the disco at the Dolbadarn. These were the Slateheads.

The people in these interleaving worlds – the punk dole dropout star- climbers; the Victorian quarrymen pioneers; the Welsh-speaking grandson of a ropeman, abseiling in to bolt sport climbs like Orangutang Overhang in the Noughties, Lee and his mates slogging west today – all are polished like nuggets in this 360° view over patience, pride, respect, thrill, movement, the competing claims of home and agency, and above all, a belief in second chances.

Author Website: 

Author Bio: Peter Goulding is a climber from the north of England. He has spent most of his working life in pubs, kitchens and on building sites. He currently works at Center Parcs as an instructor and is an alumnus of UEA.


Can you tell us a little about your publishing journey, please?

A few years ago, I was starting to be paid to write history reports, which I came to weirdly by being a builder and working with volunteers – that is another story.  I got onto a Creative Writing course at UEA – not the popular one, Prose Fiction which Kazuo Ishiguro and Ian McEwan were on, but the much less popular Biography and Creative Non-Fiction.  I’ve always preferred to do my own thing; I applied to UEA not even knowing it was good for creative writing.  It was just my local university.  I didn’t get great marks to be fair, but I was loving what I was doing and the people I was with.  

After I graduated, three people emailed me details of a writing competition: the New Welsh Writing Awards: Rheidol Prize for Writing with a Welsh Theme or Setting.  I was sure I wouldn’t win it, but I had to enter to prove that.  I very nearly didn’t.  I got longlisted, then shortlisted; we went to the prize ceremony at Hay Festival just for a small holiday really.  I thought the other shortlisted works sounded better than mine.  I had no clue, and I still hadn’t worked it out when they announced the third and second prize and neither was me…

Winning the prize meant I didn’t have to tout my manuscript around agents, with all the wasted work and rejection.  New Welsh Rarebyte were happy to publish the full work, so I jumped at the chance.  And here we are.  I was lucky.

How do you decide who to dedicate your books too?

This was easy.  I had interviewed a climber called Colin Goodey as part of my research for the book – lovely man he was, generous with his time, I really liked him.  I think he was ill when I interviewed him, but a little while later it was official that he had terminal cancer which he sadly died from in 2018.  Aged 82, mind, and he put up a new route when he was 80 called Octogenarian.

Later that year, a friend called Steve Gaines tragically died in a climbing accident in the Highlands.  This was out of the blue and devastating, especially I think for his son Stuart. 

My own father’s death back when I was 24 had been a fulcrum in my life.  It seemed natural to dedicate the book to these three men.  

What was the inspiration behind your latest release?

I started writing Slatehead because I fell in love with climbing on slate in the Dinorwic slate quarries in North Wales.  The guidebook – Llanberis Slate by Ground Up Publications – was a brilliant work of art in itself, had little bits of biography of the first ascensionists, most of who were on the dole in the eighties.  

The real killer was when I found a name I recognised as an obscure slate route – I recognised it as someone who my Dad had climbed with, and that got me to understand that the climbs had stories, the quarries had stories. I said to my mate Lee that I’d like to read a book about the history of climbing in the quarries and he told me to write it myself.

I read a lot, but I’d never picked up Climbers by M John Harrison.  When I read this, I realised that my own story – I’m not a great climber, more keen than talented – was valid, and that I could be a guide using my own experiences in the quarries.

Did you find it hard to know when to stop tweaking the manuscript and let the book go?

I could tweak the manuscript for ever.  Every time you go through, you find a different phrase, or something that needs re-wording or explaining better.  Then you wake up in the night and think ‘fuck, I left that bit of an interview out.’  You would never be done.

Sooner or later, you’ve got to say – that’s enough.  You polish a lot, you work it a lot, but the returns diminish, and you don’t want it overworked.  You’ve just got to go – it works, it’s doing, it’s doing its job.  Leave it alone.  Once it’s out there, it’s got its own flight anyway.

What was your favourite read of 2019?

I read Dadland by Keggie Carew, that was good.  About her Dad’s life as an SOE operator dropped behind enemy lines, and as he starts to slide to dementia.  Just a brilliant piece of work and it doesn’t seem to have had the recognition I think it deserves.

I read a lot.  I could bang on for hours about what I liked this year.  I rarely read books brand new though, I catch up with them later.  

In climbing books, I read The Bond by by Simon McCartney.  That was good, desperate stuff, but with a friendship that had been separated.  Very moving.

Who is your favourite author?

Can’t pick one.  At the moment, I love Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London novels.  M John Harrison for Climbers.  Keep rereading Patrick O’Brian.  Roddy Doyle.  Terry Pratchett.  Could go on for days…

Was there a point in your life that a book helped you get through, if so which one?

Papillon by Henri Charriére.  My Grandad gave it to me, his old copy, just before we left Liverpool to move to County Durham.  I found the move difficult, I was lonely and away from my old friends.  Grandad, who I loved – nightmare of a bloke though – died.  Reading Papillon was such an escape though, the spirit of having to overcome solitary confinement, finally escaping Devil’s Island by floating off on no more than a sack of coconuts.  

I would say – Papillon, his morality and all, attitudes, especially to women – do not hold up well today. But that is what it is.  You don’t have to approve of what Papillon does to read it.

Is there anyone that you would like to mention and thank for their support of your writing?

Many hundreds.  All the people I interviewed.  All my mates I climbed with.  All the people involved in the publishing process, especially Gwen and Julia at New Welsh Review.  All my writing group, and the people who’ve workshopped or edited my work.  Just everyone, really.  I only did the typing.

If you had the power to give everyone in the world one book, what would it be and why?

There’s not one book that does it all, is there?  Something about reducing carbon, but if you gave it away, would the people who don’t know it needs to change read it?  Doubt it.   Maybe I’d give out a really good kid’s book, Fantastic Mr Fox or Oliver and the Sea Wigs.  

What are you working on now?

I’m writing about chainsaws and growing up in the Pennines cutting wood for our fire.  The folk I worked with in forests.  Tree surgeons, men and women at work.  Normal lives that not everyone hears about.  I’m about 50,000 words in and I need to find a way back in to certain parts of it.  This is how come I’m writing the Q and A, because I’m dithering about what bit to write next.  

I hope it’s funny.  If you make people laugh, it’s worth writing.  

Plus, I’m following the Stephen King advice in On Writing about people’s jobs.  I agree with what he says, folk love reading out people’s jobs. 

Lastly, do you have any questions for your readers?

What made you pick this up?  What do you want Slatehead to tell you about?

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