Tides picks up where Nick’s previous work, Echoes, left off; the author has left a stable job with the prison service to live life as a full time climber. This is no simple ‘volume two’; it’s an artistic improvement and an impressive achievement, taken on its own or with it’s precursor.
Tides is a glimpse into the emotional and physical life of a man living more in tune with nature rather than with society. Every page is peppered with the natural world; the sound of water, the presence of flora and fauna and the relentless passage of time, the rising of sun and the coming and going of the tide. His new existence follows the annual migratory path of the itinerant climber, to spots well known to most of his readership: Llanberis, the Peak district, Aviemore, Chamonix, Alaska. Climbers will recognise the unique vibe of these places within the writing, like the scent of a favourite pub.
At times a connection to the natural world seems to comfort the author. Brooks babble, the sun shines and blackbirds sing. When he is at his most introspective though, contemplating the decisions he has made and the reality they necessitate, the physical world takes a darker turn. Rain beats on the top of his van, home for the majority of the year. Rock crumbles in his hands and his parents houseboat moves slowly but inexorably along dark, dank canal systems. Ice is thin and dark and shatters to the touch. The world outside mirrors the world inside.
Nick’s writing is at it’s best when he examines, with an honesty that is total and sincere, his sense of guilt and regret. His parents are at a time in life when he knows their time is limited, and yet he goes on climbing trip after climbing trip, spending months away at a time. To read such emotionally honest self-analysis is at times uncomfortable, especially when the reader can perhaps recognise some of their own behaviour. He is deliberate and breathtaking when it comes to showing us his fear, his shame, his worries and hopes as well as his failures, be they perceived or real. His relationships with partners, in climbing and romantic, come under scrutiny too. Flashbacks to childhood show the occasional odd interaction between father and son and how the differences between their world views have created a gulf between them.
This is far, far more between the eerie black and white covers than morose introspection though. Nick conveys well the physical sensations of climbing; forearm pump, cold wind, spindrift, joy and fear. The story of one winter ascent is almost over when Nick’s partner slips on easy ground and hurtles towards a cliff and a sudden death. The shocking sense of horror created by this had my eyes reading ahead of my understanding and my palms sweating. That doesn’t happen often when holding a book. The action and excitement that keeps the author and many others coming back for more are conveyed well, with passages describing many of Nick’s more memorable climbs. These chapters bring some much needed levity and drive to this work and help the reader to realise why, perhaps, Nick tolerates the rest of what he describes. The lows and the highs are shown as parts of a whole, the price and reward for truly committing, in climbing and in life.
Nick’s perspective on the life of a full time climber is a departure from most climbing writing in that he has experienced the more normal nine-to-five existence and can make lucid comparisons between the two. Going from the strict institutional mentality of the prison service to a largely unstructured and rootless existence chasing conditions provides the central theme of the book; is what he has gained worth what he has lost and will it be worth what he knows he’s losing, one day at a time?
Tides is a sobering and at times upsetting account of one man trying to make the most of life and worrying, as we all do, that he’s making a terrible mistake. But for the pull of the moon, Nick Bullock could be closing cell doors, climbing at the weekend and wondering, if he had dared, what he might have done or who he might have been. It’s almost certain that he could never have written like this. As the final chapters show, the decision to keep chasing his ideal existence is made every day with eyes wide open.