Cambridge’s Night Climbers Were Like Parkour but Cool
Thomas Mailaender is a Frenchman who seems to realize that people sometimes like their art to be fun as well as touching and evocative and all that other serious stuff. In his last book, Extreme Tourism, he dressed up in a Hawaiian shirt and superimposed photos of himself cooking pizzas over active volcanoes. Gone Fishing, the book that preceded that, is full of love letters to his wife in which he details his fishing jaunts with friends, while apologizing for being away too long and promising to return home soon. It also includes pictures of Thomas looking soulful next to a dolphin.
Thomas’s latest project, The Night Climbers of Cambridge, is currently on show at the Roman Road Project Space in East London. The exhibition is made up of 75 photos of Cambridge students climbing the town and university’s buildings at night. These were originally used in the 1937 cult book of the same name, which was published under the pseudonym “Whipplesnaith” by then-Cambridge student Noël Howard Symington.
Thomas is introducing these photos to a new audience by displaying them on temporary climbing walls inside the gallery. So if you were expecting a straightforward hour or so spent staring at art, you’ll need to rethink your expectations, fuck off down to Millets for a pair of climbing shoes and physically prepare yourself to spend that hour hanging off a wall without any safety equipment. I caught up with Thomas to talk things over.
VICE: How did a Frenchman like yourself get his hands on photos of Cambridge from the 1930s?
Thomas Mailaender: I bought the material from the son of Noël Howard Symington, author of the book The Night Climbers of Cambridge. He was at Cambridge University and was very bored, so he and his friends would climb the buildings of the university and the city at night. It was like the parkour of its day—if parkour wasn’t lousy. In the 1930s, climbing these buildings was a real act of disobedience. If they had been caught doing it, they would have been rusticated.
Yeah, and I know it still goes on at Cambridge. Did these guys invent it?
Yeah, those guys kind of invented it, and it only became a classic thing to do afterward, because of the book. Photographing it turned it into a political act. They wanted to advertise their act by making the book. They were sending a message to the authorities: “We are doing this at night. Please come and catch us.”