Review: Joe Simpson – Touching the Void

Touching the Void: The True Story of One Man's Miraculous SurvivalTouching the Void: The True Story of One Man’s Miraculous Survival by Joe Simpson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Long, long ago, I used to play pool in the Broadfield pub in Sheffield. I used to play another bloke regularly, nice guy – if a bit irascible at times – and, one day, he asked me what I did. “Writer,” I said, “but unsuccessful.”

“Oh,” he said. “I’ve written a book too. Published. It’s not doing too badly.”

He seemed like an interesting bloke, intelligent, given to philosophising, had seen a bit of the world as a mountain climber, so I thought I’d give it a shot – as much out of politeness as anything.

The next time I went to the Broadfield I found myself, once again, playing pool with the bloke. Conversation had come easily with him previously. Not now. “I read your book,” I said.

“What did you think?” he asked.

“I think I’m a bit too freaked out right now to even talk about it.” I meant it.

Later, he told me I’d got an unnamed-check in his autobiography. A single line. He knew how lucky he was when he met me, apparently, given he’d cracked it as a writer and I’d hacked away at it and got nowhere.


I got my revenge. He came in the Broadfield one day plastered up all over the shop. He’d fallen off another mountain.

This tale of a bloke with a penchant for finding large geological constructions to fall off is intense in the extreme. You don’t get a feel for the balls of this bloke from reading it any more than you do from meeting him – at least not directly – but balls he has. Much of the tale consists of him crawling back from the place he fell to his base camp with the hell battered out of him and, in it all, he is all too human; a wreck of a man just trying to survive in his confusion, and in his dogged determination. It’s an intensely personal book in that respect. Joe holds nothing back, strips himself naked in his predicament and shows us the man behind the challenge. There’s no heroism here, no ‘Didn’t I do great’, just that sense of someone pulling himself on little by little rather than just give up everything and die.

I heard a story some time later about Joe going into a television interview and tripping over the steps. A useless mountain climber, clearly. But one hell of a writer, the bastard.

2 thoughts on “Review: Joe Simpson – Touching the Void

  1. Not read the book, but I have seen the drama-documentary film version, which alternated interviews with the real participants with dramatic reconstructions using actors. Highly recommended.

    • I’ve seen it. Kind of weird seeing Joe ‘in situ’ as ’twere, talking about climbing. We never really talked about it much when we were pool-playing. Maybe the odd reference here and there. I found it easier to relate to him if I blanked my mind to it all. Bit difficult playing pool with a bloke when you’re standing there immobile with your gob wide open just staring at him.

      Sometimes I wonder if he fell off that mountain and wrote the book just so he could beat more people at pool…

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