Michael Ward is 70. He lives in a cottage in Dorset. This is his story.
I was born in Ireland in 1952. We were a nice middle-class family: two parents, two children, living in a pleasant cul de sac named Ardmore Drive, on the outskirts of Belfast. On the surface, everything seemed fine.
As the only Catholic family among some 40 Protestant ones, the reality was very different. When our future neighbours heard that my parents wanted to buy our house, they presented the builder a guy named Charlie Hutchinson, with a petition arguing otherwise. Charlie Hutchinson was a fellow Protestant – and a decent man. His blunt response: ‘Their money’s as good as yours.’ In 1950s Northern Ireland he would have paid dearly for that decision.
Incidentally back then in Northern Ireland, if you didn’t own your house, you couldn’t have a vote. Landlords could have a vote per property, up to a maximum of six. So you could have fought in World War II, shed blood, come home and been disenfranchised. In petitioning against us having a house, were our neighbours also trying to stop us having a vote? Or did they simply want us to go away and live with ‘our own kind’, in other words, fellow Fenian scum?
A strong inner world
Because of the religious/ethnic difference, the other kids wouldn’t let me play with them. My sister, nearly four years older, was desperately jealous of me. My parents were unhappily married (my mother felt that she could have done much better).
The result was that much of my crucial first few years were spent in isolation. I didn’t bond with other children – or indeed anybody. I was an outsider, not part of the herd. When this happens at an early age, you will remain a loner for the rest of your days.
But there were advantages. Being so much my own, I developed a strong inner world. My imagination ran free. I quickly learned to read and write. At four, when school started, I was miles ahead of the other kids in the class. The teachers didn’t know what to do. After a few weeks, they moved me up a year. Then another. Then another. I was with children almost twice my size and age: a ludicrous situation. My lack of social skills intensified.
An interesting education
When my sister failed the Eleven Plus exam, my father lost confidence in the school and took me out of it. I was sent to the (un)Christian Brothers where brutality reigned supreme. Later I was packed off to a boarding school for more brutality. For instance, if you weren’t good at algebra, Father McGuinness, our maths teacher, would bang your head off the blackboard. On three occasions I saw people’s heads go straight through it. Fortunately I was good at maths! Unfortunately I had little interest in team games such as football. And the school revolved around Gaelic football, Catholicism and Irish nationalism which were inextricably entwined.
At 14, by some strange chance, I discovered climbing. In the 1960s there were only a couple of dozen active climbers in Ireland. I didn’t know any of them. So I went out into the mountains on my own, with no equipment and no training. My first proper foray lasted 14 hours. I didn’t see another person all day. Consumed with what’s now termed ‘summit fever’, I grievously overreached myself. Realising that I couldn’t retrace my steps, I charted a bold direct route back. Although my navigation was pretty good for a beginner, my path took me across the upper reaches of a 500-foot cliff that wasn’t marked on the map. I didn’t realise the deadly significance of contour lines which were nearly converging.
A pursuit for misfits
That afternoon, when I was 14, I should have died. Instead I fought desperately for survival – and won. It marked a turning point in my life. Up until then, I’d been a shy bookish child, unfit for conventional games. On that far-off afternoon, I entered a game of life – and sudden death.
People become obsessed with climbing; I did too. In those days, it wasn’t the mainstream activity that it is now. Primitive equipment meant that it was incredibly dangerous. Normal people didn’t do it. It was left for misfits like me.
There was a high price tag. In my first four years of climbing, I knew four people who died. One was Arf, my climbing partner. I was going to bin him because he was too pushy. But I didn’t have to bin him because he was killed in Scotland with someone who was even more pushy. Unbeknown to me, Arf’s mum had terminal cancer. Ten days after he died, she followed him. Going to pay my respects to Arf’s father and brother, heartachingly lovely people, was an experience that’s indelibly imprinted on me.
By this time, Northern Ireland, ‘an apology for a State’, as I later wrote, was going up in flames. If the British Army hadn’t intervened, civil war might well have broken out. Over the next three decades, thousands were killed or maimed. And for what? Because we couldn’t come to terms with our shitty past and work together to create a better future.
Back then, choices were brutal. Support one side. Support the other. Or get out. I got out, went to Bradford, which was scruffy, Bohemian, delightful. I spent three years studying psychology and grew to loathe it. All the while, I knew that I was merely marking time, putting off what I should be doing.
Writers were magicians
Which was write. As a child, I’d realised that books were portals to other worlds, that we could vicariously inhabit hundreds, if not thousands of other lives. What could possibly be more exciting? Writers made this possible. So they were my heroes. I yearned to be one of this fabled elect. Writers were magicians. They created something from seemingly nothing. Their words had the power to cheat mortality.
I spent most of the next decade writing, a couple of hours a day, five, six and seven days a week. I didn’t write for publication. I wrote – and endlessly rewrote – simply to get better. Eventually I found my voice and theme: a vast, sprawling novel about the 1960s counterculture. It was called ‘Delyth’, after a girl from the Rhondda whom I’d once known. To support myself, I ran a little cleaning business. The years went by; my word count grew.
With immaculate timing ‘Delyth’ was finished in the early 1980s recession, when small publishers were being swallowed up by conglomerates who wanted books on celebrity cookery. My dream died.
I sold the cleaning business, used the meagre proceeds to put myself through Business School. 37 people started the course; 11 finished. I came second. I’d have come first if I’d understood IT. But I had finesse. And finesse could get you places. After a couple of false starts, I became a specialist in helping companies become both more successful and more humane. I saved hundreds of jobs, made so many people’s working lives immeasurably better. There was an enormous sense of fulfilment.
A degree of success
In retrospect however, the outcome was inevitable. Rushing from job to job, no downtime, giving everything to my clients and having nothing left for myself. A colleague had a heart attack. I was luckier, simply ran out of energy, crashed and burned.
Recovery was protracted. I went back to writing, slowly build up an oeuvre. My first non-fiction book sold in five countries; the second sold in 29, I think. My reward from the publisher? My next four proposals were dismissed out of hand. Then the publisher put out four competing titles. They all failed. For year after year, my second book was their bestseller. The affair was a salutary lesson in the ways of publishers.
I also wrote dozens of articles and essays for climbing magazines. Twenty years before, I could have papered the walls with rejection slips. Now there was nary a one. After a fleeting brush with stardom in the 1970s, I’d matured as a climber and perhaps as a writer too. The price tag had increased though. By the 1990s I’d known dozens of climbers who’d died. Statistically it was one a year. As of now, I’ve climbed for some 57 years; the death toll is about 60.
The millennium: a time of change
Around the millennium, several things happened to me. I turned 50. I moved to Dorset. I lost my life’s savings though financial malpractice which was never properly investigated by the Serious Fraud Office. Week after week, I’d phone the principal investigator, trying to chivvy him along. He always had an excuse. In the end, the enquiry was abandoned, supposedly through lack of evidence.
A few years ago, on a whim, I Googled the aforesaid investigator. Surprise, surprise. He’d been associated with another financial scandal but this time he’d seemingly been acting in concert with the perpetrators. Of course he was far too cute to end up in the dock with the rest of them. But clearly he was a bad ’un.
You learn the lesson, get on with things. The magazine world of climbing writing was coming to an end. ‘Serious’ climbing writers scorned the internet. Having always detested snobbery, I embraced it. The internet brought a new, wider audience.
I also embraced what’s called new routing, where you create climbs which have never been done before. Probably less than 1% of climbers ever do a single new route. Probably less than 1% of that 1% do more than a few. When your new route tally goes above 100, it’s a rare game, with few players.
Another foray into the publishing world. Quite by chance, I came across a minor aristocrat, an old school gentleman. I ghostwrote five historical books for him. Some got rave reviews in literary magazines. Naturally the books were only reviewed because of my client’s connections.
Needing another way of earning a living, I found a mentor and commenced Forex (currency) trading. Here be dragons! Forex trading has at least an 80% failure rate. (My guess is that the true figure is somewhere around 95%.) And for year after year, I too failed, even though my mentor constantly regaled me with tales of his other pupils’ successes.
The struggle went on for nine years. That’s a long time when you’re losing, day in, day out. But I wouldn’t give in. Finally I broke away from my mentor and cracked the riddle on my own. As it happened and, as is the case with so many scientific discoveries, the solution was incredibly simple. Though you’d never work it out from scratch. Now I could explain it to anyone in a few minutes. Ironic.
The nine years of struggle had been all-consuming, leaving little energy for anything else. With the breakthrough, my pent-up creativity exploded. More ghostwriting. A book about my Forex struggle. Five books so far in a series of historical thrillers aimed at charting the entire 20th century. My 250th new route.
All of us have to find our individual places in life. Mine is creativity. What fulfils me is creating new climbs on rock and new combinations of words on a screen The juxtaposition of the world of action and the world of thought. Neither, on its own, would be enough. I need both.
At 70, I’m fast running out of time. There’s a feverish intensity. Sunset drives me away from the sea-cliffs. I’ll stumble back to the van, carrying most of my body weight in climbing gear. Clothes filthy. Haggard face. Mad, staring eyes.
Home. Shower. Food. Wine. And then, late that night or early the following morning, the perennial lure of words. Portals opening to other worlds…