Saturday, July 25, 2009

Noel Symington and The Night Climbers of Cambridge

Two years ago Oleander Press republished The Night Climbers of Cambridge. The company's website describes it as follows:
The Night Climbers of Cambridge was first published in October 1937 with a second edition rapidly following in November of the same year. Reprinted in 1952, the book has since been unavailable and has built up a cult following with copies of either edition becoming increasingly rare. 
Authored under the pseudonym Whipplesnaith it recounts the courageous (or foolhardy) nocturnal exploits of a group of students climbing the ancient university and town buildings of Cambridge. 
These daring stegophilic feats, including such heights as the Fitzwilliam Museum and the venerable King's College Chapel, were recorded with prehistoric photographic paraphernalia carried aloft over battlements, up chimneys and down drain-pipes. The climbers all this while trying, with mixed results, to avoid detection by the 'Minions of Authority': university proctors, Bulldogs and, of course, the local 'Roberts'... 
The result is a fascinating, humorous and, at times, adrenalin-inducing adventure providing a rare glimpse into a side of Cambridge that has always been enshrouded by darkness.
It all sounds great fun. Such amusing young gentlemen!

The book has a blog and even a Twitter account devoted to it. More than that, you can find the full text of the 1953 edition online for free, and it is indeed hard to resist chapter titles like "South Face of Caius" and "Diagram of the Escape from Marks and Spencers".

The book is credited to "Whipplesnaith". Some sources suggest that it was the work of more than one hand, but all agree that the prime mover behind it was one Noel Howard Symington.

Symington is a familiar name to us here in Market Harborough.

For much of the 19th and 20th centuries the family owned the two most important factories in the town. One made corsets and the other soups and other packet foods - there is a website that will tell you all about the Symington family's business ventures.

But the Symington family did have a black sheep. Noel Symington stood for Harborough in the 1950 as an independent Mosleyite candidate, winning 273 votes. In 1958 he was to produce the book "Return to Responsibility: A New Concept of the Case for Fascism in the Post-War World". The book was published by Earlibra of Market Harborough, a firm otherwise unknown to the literary world.

So are the author of The Night Climbers of Cambridge and Harborough's Mosleyite candidate the same person?

I was going to argue that they were, because two Noel Howard Symingtons would be too much of a coincidence. Then I found InsectNation, which confirmed my suspicion:
In the somewhat “heady” university atmosphere, I was not unduly surprised, in January ‘37, apparently on Wilfred Noyce’s recommendation, to be approached by a recent graduate of King’s college, Noel Symington who, while an undergraduate, had done some roof climbing, and had evolved the idea of producing a book based largely on flashlight photos of climbers in action on University buildings, and was looking for climbers to help put his idea into practice. 
I had never climbed buildings in daylight, let alone in the dark, but I was intrigued by the invitation, which I accepted, and soon began to help plan operations and to enlist further volunteers. 
Noel’s father owned the well-established firm of “Symington’s Soups” of Market Harborough, so sufficient funds were available to cover the quite considerable costs involved, due, particularly to the flashlight equipment required.
Besides Night Climbers and Return to Responsibility, Noel Symington did publish a third book. It was called A Drop of Water and was published by Wellandside (Photographics) Ltd of Market Harborough in 1970.

It begins as a work of philosophy, its short paragraphs perhaps influenced by Wittgenstein's Tractatus (though perhaps its content is less inspired):
Wherever we can, we try to indicate the wider setting with a capital letter. Do not raise your hat in awe to each new capital. The bath is flat; the ocean is Not Flat. A circle is round; a sphere is Round. This loses its awe if we say that a sphere is spherical, and it is also more exact. But we must say Round until we have a word for spherical.
Soon it turns into a strange sort of poetry book with numerous stanzas with only two or three words:
Strike two
tennis balls
with equal
forward velocity,
giving one
undercut, and
the other
top spin.
The ball
with top
spin will
strike the
ground first.
This effect
can only
come from
their rates
of rotation.
I bought my copy of A Drop of Water years ago at a secondhand furniture shop that also had a shelf of books from house clearances. I had always thought it purely of local interest, but now I could advertise it as "By the author of The Night Climbers of Cambridge".


David said...

Despite the dictum "A Greek is a long climb in politics" there is no evidence that Arianna Stassinopoulos climbed anything taller than Charles Clarke.

Anonymous said...

Contour & Cream mentions Noel S. under 1943 (joined the business) and 1951 ("left to spend time on his farm”, which may be a euphemism for something or other), but is otherwise silent about him. Whatever became of him? Can he (or his ghost) still be seen on moonlit nights, clambering across the roofs of Market Harborough and waving a poster of Oswald (and Diana too, of course) at his former employees in the streets below, or is that too much to hope for?

dreamingspire said...

Does the book include the Austin 7 hoisted up? Maybe that came later - could have been around 1960.

Anonymous said...

Another member of the family, the Leicestershire cricketer Stuart Symington, is mentioned in 'The View from King Street' by Christopher Hurst (available on Google Books). He captained the side in 1949.