Stone Play, the art of bouldering, review

The front cover.

Stone Play is a collection of bouldering photography and writing from around the world edited by John Watson featuring contributions from the likes of John Gill, Pat Ament, Klem Loskot, Bernd Zangerl, Dave MacLeod, David Craig, Geoff Dyer and Nick Dixon. John has previously written a guide to Scottish bouldering called Stone Country (review) and is currently working on a second edition. See a short interview with John below.

The book is divided into four chapters: History, Landscape, Technique and Futuristic. The first chapter takes us through the history of bouldering from the 1900's to the modern day and could probably justify a book of its own. All the essays are short and snappy which makes sense considering the subject matter, we will leave the long novels to the mountaineers. For me Grimer's writing stood out, like a good stand-up he saids what we feel but are unable to express.

Bouldering is simple, you just find a big boulder or small cliff and try to climb it. There is little that can be said about that. However there are things that hover around the periphery of bouldering (or anything) that renders the most superficially pointless activity relevant, it is these things that this book examines.

If I had one criticism of the book, and I feel compelled to have at least one, it would be that some of the writing has appeared elsewhere in one form or other (some on this website). However it's not an issue as the real value of this book is having so much motivation collected in one place.

The photographs are a mix of color and black and white from all over the world including Hampi, Scotland, the Peak, Font, Utah etc. John included two from Poll Doo Glen in Donegal and one from Wicklow Gap and its great to see bouldering in Ireland represented. The book is A5 landscape format with 160 pages of glossy paper and the layout is modern and sparse leaving the photos and words to stand on their own. Really this is a coffee table book in a compact format.

See for sample pages of the book and photos and news from the Scottish bouldering scene.

Stone play is a fine book, which I find myself coming back to again and again. Buy it here.

A beautiful black and white image from the book. Photo by John Watson.

John Watson interview

I asked John a few questions to get some background on him, his work and bouldering in Scotland.

TheShortSpan: So are you a full time climbing publisher?

John Watson: I am now commissioning authors interested in climbing to publish guidebooks and yes, I am a full-time independent publisher, having given up a mainstream publishing job to concentrate on my own vision. It's expensive and hard work, but the research is good!!

TheShortSpan: Do you make a living from it?

John Watson: Not yet, it barely keeps me in beer and petrol , I am living off savings and the limitless patience of my partner.

TheShortSpan: Was it a hard decision to make the leap?

John Watson: Very hard, as I knew money would dry up and it's a bit scary to give up on a regular income, company car and pension... I just saw myself regretting it a few decades down the line if I didn't jump into the deep-end holding my nose...

TheShortSpan: Whats your connection with Ireland?

John Watson: I was born there and grew up in the north, so am familiar with Antrim and Donegal. I moved to Scotland in 1991.

TheShortSpan: How do you see the bouldering scene in Scotland, are you happy with it? Is it important. Potential? How does scottish bouldering compare on a global level?

John Watson: On a global level, I am constantly amazed that some folk think there is no bouldering here! It's not as compact as the Peak, or as good as Font of course, or as dry as Hueco Tanks, but it has an unmatched variety of geology and really is more about adventure and landscape than pushing grades. That said, the development of remote hard problems by Dave MacLeod for example, shows the huge potential of Scotland. Other people are dedicated explorers and developers, but most problems being opened up are in the Font 6b to 7b range, anything harder requires long journeys, weather frustration, conditions, and bloody-mindedness (Chris Graham travelled repeatedly five hours from Northumberland to work a Loch Lomond V10, so that's dedication). You you can see why some bin it and go indoors or book a flight! However, we do have Dumbarton, which really is world class, despite the graffiti and broken glass. In the grand scheme of things, bouldering is not important, but in historical mountain terms, bouldering is probably the last golden age of climbing exploration...

TheShortSpan: First ascents, do you value them in their own right or are you more interested in your first ascent?

John Watson: Sorry, maybe I'm misreading this - am I only interested in my own first ascents? Not at all. I have done plenty, but they're not cutting edge exactly! I just concentrate on 'good lines', I'm keen to see others opening new areas and problems, especially the youth... it's what makes it all so much fun, and you need a frame of reference. Many poor problems vanish, but the quality lines will gain popularity, just like mountain routes.

TheShortSpan: Si O'Connor. Do you regret adding his problems to your first book? What do you think his legacy is? And are you trying to erase it?

John Watson: When I first published Stone Country, Si seemed an eager, keen and ambitious climber, with a great eye for landscape and words. Having visited him several times at great expense and time to film or photograph some of his grander lines, it was apparent he had no interest in taking responsibility for them. Really, I'm not interested in 'erasing' anyone, but it's up to all of us to keep our ethics to the fore and be honest to ourselves. Si has gone very quiet recently. Maybe one day he'll really surprise us... I wish him luck and feel sorry he might not be able to extricate himself from his own mythology.

TheShortSpan: Do you do much sport or trad climbing? Have you ever?

John Watson: My timeline has been Trad, Sport, Scottish winter and then Bouldering... in the last 15 years I've done hundreds of rock routes up to E5 onsight, winter up to Grade 7 (though that frankly scares the shit out of me now I'm getting older). I've redpointed up to F7c+ but recently I guess I have been 'dissolved' in bouldering, mainly due to the necessities of book research and also because I find it pure and absorbing. I haven't abandoned the other traditions and am in no way a one-dimensional climber. I'm not a strong or naturally talented climber (you should see my footwork!), I just try and maintain enthusiasm whatever landscape I'm in.

TheShortSpan: Do you see the exploratory aspect of climbing as distinct form the performance orientated?

John Watson: Not necessarily, though as I mentioned, it's hard to be explorative and cutting-edge in Scotland, due to distance, weather, midges, expenses. time etc... accessible areas naturally develop much harder climbing than remote areas and it takes someone very special to combine both. Dave Cuthbertson is an example of someone who broke boundaries in performance and exploration at the same time, following on from an earlier Scottish tradition fuelled by the likes of Murray, Cunningham, Patey, Robin Smith etc.

TheShortSpan: Do you think most boulderers are conservative about where they climb?

John Watson: In the sense boulderers have favourite areas and styles, yes, we all tend to be conservative. I prefer roofs and body tension and can't climb crimpy walls for toffee... I always end up on what plays to my strengths. In terms of exploration, I'd like to see more strapping mats to their backs and heading off up a remote glen. In terms of ambition... I guess we all have to accept we have limitations, but in some areas of climbing we can always extend our expectations and break down conservatism... it just takes a little imagination and dedication (trumpet riff). Personally, thinking and writing about climbing, visualizing it, is just as important as training... it would all be pointless if I didn't still dream of floating up Karma or Midnight Lightning

Thanks John.