We reached a significant milestone this month with the completion of the editing stage of our forthcoming publication, Tom Patey: One Man’s Legacy, which is scheduled for release this autumn. As we move on to the design and layout stages of the book, I’ve been reflecting with admiration on the sheer commitment of the book’s author, Mike Dixon, whose meticulous and wide-ranging research was conducted over many years before we received a first draft of his manuscript last September.
Ironically, Mike says that he had never been a Patey aficionado beforehand, but he found it incredible that nobody had written a biography of such an important figure in the mountaineering world, and who remains a hero to many British climbers. He wanted the book to ‘celebrate a time of greater freedoms and more spontaneity,’ and believed that Patey’s polymathic talents would make him a fascinating subject. ‘I wouldn’t have wanted to spend time researching someone who’d done thousands of routes but who drank orange juice and was tucked up in bed by 10pm,’ he said.
The response to Mike’s requests for information and photographs, even from younger folk who are not part of the Patey story but saw it as a worthy project, was ‘phenomenal’. Patey’s eldest son, Ian, also allowed access to a rich archive he had assembled. By now, Mike knew it was too important a project to pass up.
After turning down the offer to do a PhD many years ago because he’d ‘had enough of libraries and academic work’, Mike had written many, mainly short, journal articles but wanted to get his teeth into something more substantial. ‘I certainly got that!’ he noted wryly. In 2013, he began his quest to visit as many Patey associates as he could, starting with Joe Brown, one of Patey’s close friends. These interviews, spanning Sennen in Cornwall to Rosehall in Sutherland, and including Patey’s 92-year-old Sunday school teacher and fellow Royal Marines from his National Service period, provided rich insights and material. Sadly, thirteen of the interviewees have since died.
Meeting Patey’s old friends, many of whom are embedded within British mountaineering history, such as Joe Brown, Martin Boysen and Graeme Nicol, was a highlight of the process for Mike. John Cleare’s photography was a big influence in his own life when he started climbing, and he relished the opportunity to collaborate with Cleare and select images for the book. The stellar supporting cast in the Patey story is one of memorable, larger-than-life characters, all of whom add rich colour to the story and ‘will always live on’. Moreover, the anecdotes, funny stories and photographs helped Mike avoid becoming too bogged down in a list of impressive first ascents.
There were, of course, challenges along the way. He was met with a tight-lipped response from certain quarters initially, although most were only too happy to discuss their times with Patey and generously provided memories and photographs. ‘Any biography needs to be a balanced account of a life with acknowledgement of the flaws which all human beings have. Presentation of this material required careful consideration.’
Although Mike had completed the first draft by the end of 2016, he left it alone for a while to go travelling. An interlude between the second and third drafts stopped him from becoming weary of the project, but lockdown in 2020 finally made him ‘knuckle down and properly complete it’.
By now, though, he had amassed so much material that the manuscript was around 190,000 words, and he became so immersed in certain aspects of Patey’s climbing career, such as his Karakoram expeditions, that he found himself going off on tangents. He realised it had to be cut significantly and made more digestible before submission to a publisher. ‘You can’t be overly precious about what you’ve submitted. It’s difficult to be objective about your own work, so I looked forward to working with an editor and listening to another’s opinions,’ he said.
Mike believes that Patey has enduring appeal for the modern climbing generation because of his positivity and enthusiasm for adventure. ‘He eked as much out of life as possible, whether climbing, writing, socialising or playing music.’ Crucially, ‘he also never took it all too seriously,’ and the humour in his prose and verse was always good-natured.
Mike admits it’s been a considerable, but highly rewarding, challenge. I asked him how he defines Patey’s legacy: ‘[It’s] not only the outstanding routes he established but his writing and verse, which personify adventure, fun and friendships. Compared with some mountain literature that is intensely navel-gazing about the significance of the activity or its role in their own spiritual quest, Patey could see the glorious ridiculousness of the whole enterprise, while at the same time acknowledging it as absolutely vital and life-enhancing.’