Are You Not Entertained?

Are you not entertained?

Can corporately sponsored climbers or professional adventurers make a living with integrity? The recent sentiments of Nick Bullock, the pioneering alpinist, and Mark Kalch, independent adventurer, are honest and open in answering this question and identify a trend of opinion: if one does not hold, what would be recognised as, a traditional occupation alongside engaging with adventure activities, those activities are by default flight of fancy, pure frivolity. The aim of this short piece is to counter these criticisms with three observations: entertainment, the mob and self worth. Firstly, man has always intrinsically needed entertainment, regardless of the form it might take; secondly, though this is considered to be the sophisticated and enlightened age, the mob is still alive, and the mob rules; thirdly, what one does is not defined by the words of others, but in the fulfilment of personal accomplishment.

Western civilisation is built on the foundations of the Romans, who recognised the deep-seated need for entertainment; in Latin, the differentiation between work and leisure is subtle and fundamental: negotium and otium; ‘not leisure’ and ‘leisure’. Work cannot exist without leisure, and throughout the ages humans have sought numerous ways in which to relax, some more constructive than others: theatre, poetry, games, singing, drinking etc. All are entertainment, but who can say one is more legitimate than the other? In the same way, is the profession of an actor, for example, superior to that of an adventurer? The livelihoods of both depend on whether they entertain a crowd and stir emotion; the manner in which this is done is irrelevant. Consider the Romans again, in Rome, pure, visceral entertainment lay in blood sport. Who can forget when Maximus berates the crowd in Gladiator for its indifference, having clinically dispatched his opponents: ‘Are you not entertained?’ he screams.

The mob is the people, and the mob has its needs: to eat, drink, sleep and laugh; basic needs which need to be met. Forget about anything else – a man functions better on a full stomach and with a light heart. We are all one, then, connected through our basic human instincts, whether ancient Rome or modern London. No wonder, then, that the mob acts as one. Because of its needs it can not only be controlled but also exercise its own control: politics, war or in high street consumerism. The experience of Pericles, the great Athenian leader during the Peloponnesian War, typifies this delicate balance. He enjoyed the mob’s full spectrum of feeling, which ultimately turned against him:

παντί τε τρόπῳ ἀνηρέθιστο ἡ πόλις,καὶ τὸν Περικλέα ἐν ὀργῇ εἶχον, καὶ ὧν παρῄνεσε πρότερον ἐμέμνηντο οὐδέν,ἀλλ᾽ ἐκάκιζον ὅτι στρατηγὸς ὢν οὐκ ἐπεξάγοι, αἴτιόν τε σφίσιν ἐνόμιζονπάντων ὧν ἔπασχον.

The excitement in the city was universal; the people were furious with Pericles, and, forgetting all his previous warnings, they abused him for not leading them to battle, as their general should, and laid all their miseries to his charge.

Thucydides, Historiae, 2.21

The mob is fickle, and by its very nature, does not think or act rationally, but votes and behaves according to instinct. In the age of the internet and commercialism, the sponsored climber and professional adventurer should know this above all. Publicity is their life blood – enticing the mob to consume a product – but it is also quickly poisoned when that same group is not pleased or runs out of patience.

Finally, the modern qualification, ‘it is your opinion and you are entitled to it’, is ubiquitous, but does not diminish the hurt of criticism levelled at something one holds dear or involving personal attack. Ultimately, one’s self worth and identity cannot be derived externally, but internally. As seen above, the mob is a fickle and transient beast, subjective and irregular, providing no reliable source of fulfilment. In reality, climbing and adventuring do differ from the acting profession, for example. An actor is reliant on his audience, whereas for a climber, the audience is secondary. He climbs fundamentally because he loves it, and then, if he is a professional, gambles that he can create a living from the ensuing publicity. Perhaps this distinction is what causes resentment among the armchair critics, that commercialism can veneer a sport which thrives on a delicate strain of purity absent from other sports: the style of ascent, the line chosen, the ethics of the climbing style and, of course, the fragility of the environment are all hugely important. However, if one acts with integrity and with pure motivations the question ‘why’ becomes irrelevant. George Mallory’s motivation for mountaineering was, ‘Because it [Everest] is there’. His identity as a mountaineer was clear and arose from an inner conviction not an external pressure.

Perhaps mountaineering and adventuring will never be recognized as legitimate enterprises and the resentment professionals face arises from, as Bullock notes, ugly  ‘ignorance, frustration, guilt, jealousy or bitterness’ of the mob. Expeditions to the Poles in the early 20th century invariably had to be justified on a scientific basis, as did Wilfred Thesiger’s crossing of the Arabian Peninsula’s Empty Quarter. People justify their actions with a myriad of bizarre reasons in life, but let be enough that we live, work and play because it makes us happy; if one gets paid to do it, then let him consider himself lucky! Let the rest of us judge whether his endeavours are worthy of merit, after all we are the mob and we want to be entertained.

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7 Responses to Are You Not Entertained?

  1. Alistair says:

    A fascinating essay Simon, thanks for taking the time to ponder this area. Thinking back over the years, “professional” climbers did seem to go for high visibility and sponsorship, tackling hard routes with high odds but over the years there seems to have been a shift away from that era and no-one exemplifies this better than Dave MacLeod. His publicity is mainly through offering services to climbers, both technical and philosophical and to do so, he earns his credentials on the rock but in a much subtler way than, say the 80s. Have you seen his recent Indian Face ascent? 1980s test piece tackled in a completely different approach. The post is great for seeing two eras side by side as it concludes with a great video of Johnny Dawes who put up the route, the first E9 in the world at the time.
    http://davemacleod.blogspot.com/2010/06/indian-face.html

    • Simon Cox says:

      Hi Alistair,

      Glad you enjoyed it. My optimistic goal of posting once a week did not last long, but that’s what fatherhood can do to you!

      I had actually read Dave MacLoed’s piece. Very impressive, and I too admire his commitment to climbing, as well as teaching and enthusing students and others in a very humble and genuine manner.

      He and Dave Birkett are in my mind two great examples of climbers who just ‘get on with it’. Dave it a bit of a hero – living, working and climbing in Wasdale, near to where my parents live: sheep-farming and climbing in the same valley!

      I thought the Dawes video was very interesting too. I’ve not really seen much footage or many interviews with top-end climbers, so it was fascinating to see how they think and talk about climbing.

      Also, I like the way that Dave MacLoed is attracted to ‘adventure’ routes. His project on Orkney, Long John Hope, fills me with terror and wonder every time he blogs about it. A far cry from clean, warm granite. He is a true craftsman of climbing.

  2. Alistair says:

    Congrats indeed Simon on your new addition! It’s never about the frequency of posting, rather the quality. Glad you write this blog as I always enjoy reading your essays. Keep ’em coming 🙂

  3. A profoundly thoughtful post, thank you for sharing it with us. As for the mob, the words of Ronnie Coleman come to mind: “Everybody wants to be a bodybuilder but nobody wants to lift no heavy ass weights”.

    • Simon Cox says:

      Hi Chris,

      Many thanks for your comment. It’s a bit of a privilege to have you visit – I greatly admire your writing and photos.

      As you say, there is a lot of hard graft behind all great achievements and you can’t savour them until the ‘heavy-ass lifting’ has been done…

  4. Many thanks for this thoughtful and thought-provoking piece. I’ll be stopping by this blog often. As for whether sponsored climbing is justifiable or not, I think that the immortal – although, admittedly, deceased – Jacob Burckhardt nailed that one. He said that, in the future (he was writing more than a century ago) we would have no time to cultivate ourselves and that we would therefore have to pay people to be cultured for us, rather as medieval barons paid priests to do their praying for them. So, in the same vein, we pay folks to do our extreme sports so that we don’t have to do the, ah, heavy-ass lifting ourselves….

  5. Simon Cox says:

    Thanks Hyakumeizan, I stopped in at your blog and left a message.

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