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Review: Of Caves and Caving: A Way and a Life by John Gillett

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The following review has been reproduced here from Descent (168), Oct 2002, by kind permission of the reviewer Chris Howes:

What is caving? Caving is fun.... Caving is a minority sport for idiots.’

John Gillett is a British caver with more than four decades of experience underground and, in Of Caves and Caving, he delights in the question: ‘What is caving?’ Of course, he is not alone – plenty of other authors have attempted to find an answer – and to label the book with this search (as, in part, the dustjacket suggests is one of its functions) is unfair.

The book is presented more or less chronologically (each trip is dated, beginning with Dow Cave in 1958), but the intent is not so much to reveal what makes a caver tick as to relate a series of stories based on John’s exploits. Even ‘exploits’ is an unfair term – John is not one of these super-hard, expedition-hero cavers; he is one of us, of you and me. If the reader is able to unravel the reasons for going caving, it is accomplished by deduction rather than by reading outright, bald words. But those words that John offers have been written with style and authority; John tells his tales from a caver’s viewpoint – and he does it extremely well. Not for nothing is the subtitle: ‘A way and a life’.

So, those lucky enough to take this tour through John’s caving career will enjoy his account of making an OFD through-trip (with traditional soakings in the streamway pots), dropping Gaping Gill, visiting Cueto-Coventosa in Spain and descending Notts II in the Dales. Interspersed between the caving accounts are sidelines, such as those where John makes his observations on a BCRA Conference, considerations of the ‘unknown’ and why we make up nicknames.

Is everything perfect then? For what is, whether intended or not (though John does suggest reading the tales in order that they might reveal something of a changing caving world), in part a historical account – this is caving as it was in the 1950s, then ’60s, then ’70s (and mostly in the ’80s) – I felt frustrated that many cavers are mentioned by first name only; who are or were these people that John caved with? Perhaps we know them in common, perhaps not; we know them better from his tales but – who are they? Some are identifiable from nicknames – such as JV in the US (the late John Van Swearingen IV) – and others might be guessed as they are less common, but for the Dons, Daves and Trevors ...

It would also have been nice if the book’s production quality had been better, particularly in respect to the illustrations. Most of these are attractive pencil drawings, perhaps a section through the cave being explored (that for OFD is perfect for the story) or a fun piece of graffiti, but appear grey on the page; the colour cover is not appealing. Shame ... This is one of the new generation of ‘print on demand’ books which can be ordered over the web and, when I heard of its publication, I had hoped for a better physical product (though the paper quality is good). Nevertheless, this is a slight criticism: Of Caves and Caving’s content is well worth both the price and the read. ‘A way and a life’ indeed it is, and a life that we can all identify with.

Chris Howes

Any further use or reproduction elsewhere of this review requires the permission of the the reviewer Chris Howes. The review is reproduced here with the kind permission of Chris Howes.

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