Late evening. After a day in the route Stevie Haston calls the ‘Underworld’ – a cliff that I apparently climbed “like an albatross” – Haston and I are sitting drinking Belgian beer in the home he shares with his girlfriend and her two daughters. It is a comfortable modern apartment, set high above the port of Gozo – a balmy Maltese island outpost at the very edge of Europe, and the place of his mother’s birth. Haston has lived here since he split from his wife in 2014.
From the dinner table we have a clear view, through wide patio windows, down to the sea and the dark port that appears ringed with fairy lights. Now a few beers in, Haston is beginning to find his stride. Although he considers himself too young to pen an autobiography, as if this would signal the end of his life, Haston can look back panoramically on a career which began in 1970.
Haston is lean and hard-looking – not as massive as you would imagine from pictures online, but rugged, like an immense walnut. Although his verbal manner is often considered, internationalist even, he is still at root a roughedged cockney raconteur. At the moment he is talking fondly of his Swiss protégé Patrick, who Haston coaches here on the island, and he switches out of his default East End to mimic the achingly polite English of the Swiss schoolboy.
“He says, ‘Stevie can I ask you a question?
Do you know Ueli Steck?’
I said, ‘Yes.’
‘What is your opinion of him?’
So I said, ‘Why, have you had a problem with him?’
‘Can you please answer me the question.’
I said, ‘What… honestly?’
He goes, ‘Yes.’
‘He’s a cunt.’
He says, ‘Oh, thank you. I met him two weeks ago, and I said hello and the guy blanked me.’
I said, ‘Next time you see him, go over to his rucksack and lay an egg in it.’
He said, ‘But Stevie, I am a human being; I cannot lay an egg.’”
Unless you’ve spent some time with Haston it’s hard to recognise the pitch-black humour beneath language straight out of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s ‘Derek and Clive’ sketches; there are also echoes of Harold Pinter’s ageing Hackney patriarchs. It might have been Haston’s instinct, you feel, to have actually taken a dump in his fellow athlete’s kit bag, delivering a sort of rough justice to a man he thinks is overhyped and undeserving of his darling status in the media. This is one of Haston’s pet hates. Another is the entire UK climbing establishment.
Growing up poor, bright, hard and politicised bred a fierce sensitivity to injustice. Having done very well for himself since, Haston’s instincts have only been confirmed. As an anarchist, Haston has a diverse and impressive CV: a sometime bodybuilder, stoner, demolition expert, thug, charmer of women, pioneering dirt-bag, fan of Vladimir Putin – the list goes on. In parallel he can boast one of the most impressive and diverse resumes in the climbing world, containing everything from epic alpine solos to the magic climbing grade of 9a (it only goes up to 9b), at 59 years old.
Stevie Haston grew up on Cable Street, in the heart of London’s East End: the scene of the 1936 battle between Oswald Mosley’s black-shirted fascists and a ragtag coalition of banner-waving socialsts. Haston’s father, still a teen, was involved in the brawl. Haston also cites his uncle Jimmy as an influence – a well-to-do anarchist who was at one time involved with the IRA. Young Stevie learned to climb on the bomb debris that littered the East End after World War II, inspired by his famous namesake Dougal Haston, and Joe Brown, who he watched in TV climbing specials in the family’s two-room flat.
Haston’s father was a Scot, from whom he inherited what he calls “…an immortal gene. Even at the end, when he was in a home, with only one leg and a withered arm, he still had a hell of a grip… He was a great actor and would pretend to the nursing staff that I was beating him up, until I caved in and bought him some fags.” Haston’s mother was from Gozo and he holidayed on the island every year, applying the movements and fearlessness acquired during his gymnastic explorations of London’s bombed-out slums to the island’s limestone sea cliffs.
A clever boy, Haston passed the 11-plus exam “without ever seeing a paper”, and was transported from Cable Street to a world of contemptuous masters and corporal punishment – “I was the most caned kid in the school” – at the now prestigious London Oratory in west London (the school’s website does not list him as an alumnus). “When I got there I found that 80 per cent of the students there had been tutored,” Haston tells me. “This was one of the first times I realised how evil the world was, and how stacked it was against people like me.”
Ultimately, the school didn’t fit with Haston’s cockney sense of justice – he was expelled for throwing the headmaster over his own desk. This can be read as a metaphor for Haston’s later relationship with the UK climbing establishment. He also made a girl pregnant at 17 – the first of three children with two different mothers (Haston is now a grandfather with five grandchildren), which is perhaps a less obvious metaphor for his relationship with the UK climbing establishment.
Words: Ben Williams
Photography: Spencer Murphy
Read the full feature issue 5 of Avaunt, available to buy here.