In Defence of Armchair Caving

So that there can be no doubt as to my personal position on this subject let me first register an interest, in the parlimentary sense, in it.

To accuse someone of being an 'armchair caver' is a frequently used term of abuse in spelaeological circles. The implication is simply that only those who "actively" participate in the sport truly contribute to its furtherance, but is this an entirely tenable position? Just as some motorists seem to forget that they are also pedestrians much of the time, so too must even the most active caver be sedentary some of the time. It has to be admitted, however, that the armchair to action ratio in some of us is much higher than in others. The question then arises, "what do those who only sit and talk do to benefit caving?"

Firstly, there is the entirely negative contribution of not putting any pressure on the caves themselves. Armchair cavers do not get in the way of those who would be active, neither do they damage the cave environment. Their's is the purest form of cave conservation. They also add nothing to cave accident statistics. It might be argued that all of these benefits are also provided by non-cavers. However, the difference between armchair cavers and people with no interest in caving lies in the empathy that exists between the former and their active colleagues. For example, whilst a non-caver might be unmoved by the impact on cave sites of a quarrying proposal, it is quite likely that a good proportion of the letters of protest signed 'Disgusted, Bath and Wells' will come from armchair cavers.

Secondly, much of the organisation of caving is conducted by the armchair fraternity. To some active cavers this is the most dubious of benefits; they feel that they should be free to cave where and when they want with no restrictions whatsoever. Desirable though this ambition may be, the real world just ain't like that. Caving's politicians may sometimes seem to delight in placing organisational constraints on active cavers, to add to the physical difficulties provided by the caves themselves, but these are often the compromise response to the requirements of an unsympathetic wider world. In a crowded island such as Britain, encumbered with obscure laws of land ownership and tenancy, access has to be negotiated and the goodwill of other users of the land maintained. Increasingly popular expeditions overseas can raise the level of diplomacy involved from the parochial to the genuinely international. The successful conduct of activities such as these requires organisation. Whilst it might be desirable for active cavers to be responsible for all the organisation of their chosen pursuit, it is understandable if many of them prefer to spend their time caving rather than attending meetings of multifarious committees in the draughty upstairs room of some miserable pub. And, when the act of organisation degenerates into the processes of politics, then such committee meetings can require a peculiar form of sedentary stamina.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, is the contribution that armchair cavers can make to spelaeology. Caving is possibly unique in being both sport and science. Whilst the prime importance of active cavers in collecting field data, particularly from underground sites, is beyond doubt, even data collection is the beginning of spelaeology, not its end. It has been said that "science is so wide an activity that it can embrace field-workers and bibliophiles, experimenters and speculators, observers and theoreticians." It is clear that armchair cavers are well suited to at least half of these activities, particularly the more cerebral amongst them. Ideas once conceived have to be worked out, tests analysed, and examined in numerous ways. The point remains, however, that even a science such as spelaeology, involving as it does vigorous field work, is still, in part, a sedentary and cerebral activity.

To summarise: Whilst no one would deny that active cavers will always be in the vanguard of the sport, it is too easy to be disparaging about armchair cavers. They too have a contribution to make and it is one with worthy antecedents: As the biographer of J J Thomson reported, "the discoverer of the electron spent a good part of most days in the armchair of Maxwell."

Martin Hatton