“No adjective for terror” – I am Legend

I found and read a copy of Richard Mattheson’s “I am Legend”. This is the 1950’s pulp fiction novel that was made into the 2007 Will Smith film of the same name. Towards the end of the book the hero notes that “he has no adjective for terror”. This struck me deeply, and I looked into it. What the man meant was that terror was so much part of his everyday life that it excited no comment, no adjective, and certainly no superlative. His life was so terrible, so full of terror, that the terribleness of it was quite literally unremarkable.

There is a lesson for us all here in the West, where to a degree, thus far in recent times at least, the reverse has been true. Our lives in general are not terrible. Today, in the West, terror is not everyday and unremarkable; it is exceptionally rare and very remarkable indeed.

But I got to thinking in particular about water, and also about life in general in a country like the UK where there is respect for the rule of law. We do not generally use adjectives to describe drinking water – or at least, not too often. Water is water. It is mere; it is taken for granted. There is, in the West, no “good” water nor “bad” water; there is merely water. In general, water is just water. It has no adjective. We have an implicit understanding in the West that water is always good, it is something that we have always completely took for granted.

I’m reminded of one of Freya Stark’s stories; on a yacht off Arabia sometime in the 1930’s, she welcomes an Arab on board, and the Arab drinks some water in her cabin. “What sweet water” he says – of the tanked water on a yacht! So accustomed, is this Arab, to water of widely different and perhaps much poorer quality, that he considers the water served to him by Ms Stark, to be “sweet”.

As with water, so with the rule of law. We  take it for granted that we can (at least in broad daylight in the leafy suburbs, not of the hours of darkness in some of our big cities) leave our houses and walk abroad without being armed. This quality of life, brought to us by the rule of law, is quite literally unremarkable. It has no adjective. We ought be thankful that this is so, and long may it continue.

Mortal engines

This is a short review of the film of Philip Reeve’s boys’ story, “Mortal Engines” which I watched on a flight, back before the lock-down, some three years ago.

I have gone full circle in terms of fiction. Eleven years ago I read my son’s copy of “Mortal Engines” whilst on a long-haul flight. I am just now sitting through the film version of the same story, also whilst on-board a long-haul flight. And to be perfectly honest the film is as weak and as thin as the original boys’ story. The original story was for children and I – as well I might as an adult – found it too thin. This film, however, is in effect not for children but for all (PG cert) and I found the same lack of conviction that I found in the original book, though perhaps for quite different reasons. The book and the series to which it belongs were successful in their time, doubly so really, in that Hollywood bought the options to make it into a film.

As a film, I found it cliched. It was a triumph of special effects over plot, as so many sci-fi films are these days. I confess I’m not a fan of Hugo Weaving’s work and he plays the baddie in this film. I did like his role as Agent Smith in The Matrix, but not his Elrond in The Lord of the Rings. As a fan of the LOTR I’m familiar with Elrond as a character and I didn’t like at all the way he played Elrond: not at all like the character in the book. Here in Mortal Engines, he plays the Bearded Sultry Older Man. There is a beautiful daughter, a geeky hero and a second male lead with a strong Irish accent. It was quite literally tiresome to watch.

It would be interesting to see who wrote the screenplay for the adaption of Philip Reeves’ original novel. I had to give up watching, about a half hour from the end. It was so predictable and conventional I literally could not be bothered to watch it. Yet, along the way, amidst all the usual adventure thriller science-fiction memes and tropes, were some very interesting nuggets. This told me something about the screenwriters, hence my earlier comments. I’ve spent some time studying the Bible, and an aspect of doing so is what is called “redaction criticism”. Today we think of “redaction” as removing text from a document for whatever reason. But “redaction criticism” is trying to understand the use by biblical authors, of earlier written material. Take an example from the “Lord of the Rings”: recall the character Aragorn. Do we know if Tolkien, in his youth, read “The last of the Mohicans”? For Tolkien’s character Aragorn so closely resembles Fennimore Cooper’s character “Hawkeye” that it seems likely that Tolkien would have, and may have been influenced thereby. There is no way of knowing, of course. This then, is redaction criticism. And my senses are alert to it here: what influences were there on the screenwriters for this picture? It matters to me.

The first was the Shrike. Where does this immortal android zombie come from? Does he appear in the original books? I cannot now recall. I ask this because “the Shrike” is a strange and shadowy character in Dan Simmons’s Endymion in his very readable Hyperion novels. A dread figure, often invoked, rarely seen, much feared. Could Simmons’s work have influenced the screenwriters here? The Shrike in this Mortal Engines film excites some sympathy; there is, deep within it, some deeply buried kernel of humanity, some taste-bomb of humaneness that emerges to save the life of the young hero.

The second was the use of the term “shield wall” – towards which the travelling city of London is making its way. The term “Shield wall” originates in Frank Herbert’s “Dune”. An interesting juxtaposition, particularly when we see that this “Shield Wall” is actually located in the heart of central Asia, in what is now the Tien Shan of China.

Then, we have the environmentalist trope. I got the distinct sense that these marauding, raiding rolling cities, using up resources, harming the environment, represent the west, whereas the fixed buildings hidden behind the shield wall, are the east – the home of the “anti-tractionists”. They are portrayed as somehow better, and somehow inherently eastern. It is all a bit naïve and simplistic, and it can be, for it can easily be passed off as being for children, or being “just” science-fiction. But actually it’s quite cleverly crafted cultural spin and I don’t care for it as such.

Ahead of its time: Robert Heinlein’s “Friday”

I first read “Friday” not long after it came out. It remains a remarkable novel, worth reviewing and unpicking even now forty years after its release. It’s a “Cyberpunk” novel published two years before William Gibson published “Neuromancer”; it was environmentally aware decades before the modern movement to environmental sustainability.  It posits a balkanised North America that to this day few if any other authors have dared describe. Its heroine, the female spy of the title, remains a relatively unknown icon of feminine power and ability.

“Friday” addresses racial prejudice and everyday sexism. It addresses police brutality, corruption amongst public employees, and – a favourite theme for Heinlein – the relationship of the individual with the state.  It upsets conventional storybook wisdom and in this respect is years ahead of its time. It would make a cracking film if only someone would write a screenplay for it.

Spoiler alert! Friday Jones, a female James Bond, calls herself a “combat courier”.  She is also an “artificial person”, that is, she is not born of woman, but a genetically enhanced superhuman rather like the characters hunted down by Deckard in “Blade Runner”.  She kills someone she finds following her while passing through an airport in Kenya. Hours later, the Nairobi Hilton is fire-bombed minutes after she checks out. She fails to connect these incidents. Arriving back at base in North America, she settles down for a ride in a horse-drawn carriage: in this world, fossil-fuel driven ground vehicles are not allowed. They are somewhere in what today is the Rust Belt of Illinois and Michigan: the chauffeur notes that “two hundred years ago, all these trees and fields were factories“.

Seconds later she is betrayed by that same chauffeur, captured by the enemy, and interrogated. Heinlein subverts the usual spy genre tropes and puts the obligatory torture scene (from which the hero escapes, as the climax of the book, right near the end) right at the beginning. Torturing a woman also is not normally the done thing. But Friday remains cheerful: she suggests to her torturer that he go and do something which she believes is anatomically possible, for some males…

She’s rescued, and nursed back to health. Her boss, the character in this story representing Ian Fleming’s “M”, sends her on break, and she goes to New Zealand to see her adopted family. Heinlein has always had innovative and unusual (and indeed questionable) ideas about marriage and sex. Friday belongs to a “line” or “group” marriage. Men and women, but in a line, as if for a dance. The difference is, all of the men, maybe 2, 3, 4 or eight men, are married to all of the women. Like Don Henley sings, “this could be heaven or it could be hell”…

All seems well until the “senior wife” in the marriage (the oldest wife and in this case one of the founding members of the marriage) finds out that Friday is an “artificial person”. Friday is summarily divorced. One minute, in the bosom of her family, the next, out on the street.

On the rebound, our heroine has a fling with a handsome Canadian airline pilot. As you do…perhaps. While she is in bed with him, a terrible world event happens, something rather like 9/11 but many orders of magnitude worse. “Black Thursday” or something like that. All airline traffic is stopped. Governments collapse; martial law is introduced; the Four Horseman have a brief canter through the world, and tens of thousands of people die or are imprisoned. Armed police come to the airline pilots house, and there is violence: a policeman lays hands on someone. Friday kills him, and she has to flee.

She spends a long time travelling round what in our world is the continental United States, trying to get back to base and report in to her boss. In this world, the United States has long gone: it is several different countries – the Chicago Imperium; British Columbia, the Republic of California, and the Lone Star Republic.  The story is set in the late fifties – we know this because at one point a lady of a certain age buys a lottery ticket ending in “99”, saying that this is a lucky number – it was the year of her birth. But we don’t know what century – certainly well into the 3rd Millennium. There is faster than light travel and a dozen or so settled planets around different stars. All industry and all vehicles are powered by “Shipstone” batteries, which working in some unknown proprietary way. Commercial aircraft are “semi-ballistic” glide rockets undertaking transcontinental journeys in merely hours. 

A favourite device of Heinlein’s is to see society through its small ads: in this part of the book there are fascinating job adverts: “Tranuranics Golden Division on Planet Golden around Procyon-B wants experienced mining engineers. Five year renewable contract”…the reader is told that the advert omits to mention that humans are unlikely to survive 5 years in the job…

Eventually Friday makes it back to her boss and checks in: he sets her to work on something we take for granted with Google and the internet: completely undirected and unsupervised research. This would have been very difficult to do in 1982 without access to reference libraries of books. After some weeks of this he rings her up in the middle of the night, and asks her “when will the next outbreak of Bubonic plague be?” A voice tells him the answer, and she is astonished to find that the voice is her own. That knowledge is the side-effect almost, the fruit, of her undirected research.  A few days later, her boss, an old man, is dead of natural causes, and she is out of a job.

Friday gets another job eventually – couriering something out to the royal family on The Realm, a fabulously rich and infamously totalitarian space colony. On the starship voyage out there, she becomes aware that she is pregnant and being closely watched by bodyguards everywhere. She works out that the unborn child planted within her is destined to become a royal daughter. She will go into hospital alive, go under anaesthetic for what she thinks is a minor procedure, and that will be the end of her.

With some difficulty, Friday escapes: she jumps ship at a colony world halfway; more by luck and plot devices than her own skill and judgement. She escapes from her bodyguards, disappears into the woods, and settles down to a normal existence as a colony wife, Cub den leader and mother.

Magnum at Islington Assembly Halls

I’ve been listening to Magnum since the 1980’s. I first heard their single “Invasion” played off a cassette tape at a Venture Scout camp sometime around 1982, and I never looked back. Then, some years later, I heard and then bought their album “Chase the Dragon” with its opening song “Soldier of the line”. To this day, “Soldier of the line” still blows me away. Overblown, portentous and pompous dungeons-and-dragons style heavy metal music at its very best! Strictly speaking I think “melodic hard rock” is the more correct term – that probably just means heavy metal with keyboards.

In recent years I’ve been getting back into 1980’s rock music, whilst not neglecting other more modern musical genres. I can listen to classic old heavy metal, for example Judas Priest’s “Electric Eye”, as easily as I can to Linkin Park, Eminem, Faithless, Madonna or the Indigo Girls. And so it was that I bought myself a ticket to a rock concert, and on a blustery grey late winter evening, took myself off by train to Highbury and Islington, to see Magnum.

I came out the tube station and oriented myself, and set off. I do like the inner city; it is almost a “guilty pleasure”. Almost it were, I should feel bad, because I like the atmosphere – the seedy kebab shops, the little minicab offices, the harshly lit open-all-hours grocers, the rejuvenated Greek restaurants with little tables outside. People bustling up and down – couriers, workers going home, people out for the evening. I passed the venue on the opposite side, and walked on for a mile or so before turning back in the gathering darkness. There’s something about a city at dusk that attracts me, especially London.

Entering the venue, I find myself in a queue of older men and a smaller handful of women. There’s a fair amount of facial hair on show. Everyone is polite. Once inside, I found the bar and had a pint of some Italian lager in a plastic glass. Leaning against the bar, wearing a leather hat, I felt like Paul Hogan in the old Fosters advert: “Do you know any Rolf Harris, mate?” NO. “Looks like it’s gonna be a good night…”

The opening act were a two-piece called Theia, from Burton-on-Trent. I gave them the time of day because they were from my neck of the woods. Harmless; a drummer and a guitarist singer who was in good voice. It’s great to see new people being supported and championed. Not so much them supporting Magnum, as Magnum supporting them.

The main support act were a six-piece called VEGA, very much in the melodic hard rock tradition. Quite listenable though there is a limit to how much of this kind of thing I can take in one evening. There was a tendency for this vocalist (and the first vocalist too for that matter) to sound to me a bit like Jon Bon Jovi. Their final song was great; I was listening to it thinking, this has a great Def Leppard groove…at which point I became aware that they were covering Def Leppard’s “Animal”…

Bob Catley and Magnum came on and opened with a crowd-pleaser, their single “Days of no trust”. They followed this with “Lost on the road to Eternity”, and then the opening song to their new album, “The Monster roars”. Guitarist Tony Clarkin is Magnum’s lyricist, and I’ve been an admirer of his work most of my adult life. In “The Monster roars” you hear the words “stark reality“…these words also appear in their classic song “How Far Jerusalem” – “In stark reality/thy will be done/for you, for them, for me.” It’s interesting to me to see writers re-using ideas and concepts over and over again.

A bit over half-way through, the keyboard introduction to their classic “Les Morts Dansant” rang out and the crowd went wild. This opened the part of the set consisting of very much older material. And unfortunately, “very much older” is also a description of all of us and not excepting Bob Catley’s voice. I had been in conversation earlier with a fellow fan, who reckoned that voices could fail as one grows older, and singing in a different key might be an answer. “Les Morts Dansant” though a great song, was too much for Bob Catley’s vocal chords to really give of their best tonight. They followed this with – by no means tongue-in-cheek – “Rockin’ Chair” – i ain’t ready for no rockin’ chair. Like Jethro Tull, we may be too old to rock-n-roll but too young to die…we’ll see about that. One may hope…

Then there was “Vigilante”, and during this song unfortunately I had to leave in order to get home in time. That ain’t rock-n-roll but it is working for a living. A shame to have missed the last three songs in the set. (I found out that these were “Kingdom of Madness” from right back in the 1970’s, “On a storyteller’s night”, and “Sacred hour” from the Chase the Dragon LP.) All told, a great night: great value, great fun, great rock-n-roll.

David

Samuel said “The Lord sees not as a man sees: the Lord looks on the heart” 1 Sam.16:7

When he was anointed as a youth, David was a shepherd boy of good family, the youngest of eight sons. He “had beautiful eyes and was handsome” (16:12). As a shepherd he fought lions and bears to defend his father’s sheep (17:36) and he must have had plenty of time for prayer and for lute practice. Samuel the prophet risked his life anointing David. The Spirit of God was upon David from the moment he was anointed (16:13). As a youth David then worked for Saul as a court musician. Then there was the matter of the encounter with Goliath (ch. 17). After that, of course, David’s stock at court rose considerably. He was able to marry the king’s daughter Michal. He became close friends with the kings son Jonathan. And everywhere David went, in everything he did, he met with success. This was because God was with him (18:14). Saul became jealous, even as David became more and more esteemed by the people (18:16). They fell out and Saul tried to kill David several times (18:11, 19:1).

David fled, aided by his close friend Jonathan. He became the leader of a band of rebels and adventurers (22:1). He sent his parents into exile in Moab to protect them (22:3). David prayed to, and enquired of, the Lord (23:4 etc). Saul’s attempts to kill him continued, interrupted by war with the Philistines.  But in all of this conflict, David was careful never to let Saul be harmed or raise a hand against Saul.

Eventually he could take it no longer and fled to work for one of the kings of the Philistines (chapter 27.) But war broke out again between Israel and the Philistines. The Philistine generals didn’t trust David at all and sent him away (29:9).  David and his band trudged back to their base at Ziklag, but when they got there, they found it burnt and raided by desert raiders, and their families kidnapped (30:1). David was at rock bottom here. He was “greatly distressed, for the people spoke of stoning him…but he strengthened himself in the Lord his God.” (30:6). His prayers were answered in full. They recovered their families and property, and even got loads of plunder from the raiders. (30:18-19).

Meanwhile, in the war with the Philistines, King Saul and his son Jonathan were killed in battle. You might think David would rejoice at this, as his enemy was finally dead. But no – they mourned deeply (2 Sam. 1:11). David sang: “The beauty of Israel is slain upon thy high places: how are the mighty fallen!” 2 Sam. 1:19

After Saul’s death, David became king over the Tribe of Judah, based at Hebron, for seven years. During this time there was civil war between his party and that of Saul. Abner, the leading politician of Saul’s party, defects to David, and delivers the other tribes into his hands. Three of David’s nephews – the sons of his sister Zeruiah – are introduced to us. David’s complex and stormy relationship with them persists to his deathbed – and theirs. Abner kills one of them, and in return, the two remaining brothers kill Abner. But David is astute: he positions himself well, carefully avoiding getting the blame for this killing, and he remains popular with the people. David is diplomatic and sure-footed, and sometimes acts in a counter-cultural way to do what he sees as right. He was crowned king over all Israel aged 37, and reigned for 33 years.

His first act as king of Israel was to attack and win the fortress of the Jebusites, the city called Jerusalem. He lived in it subsequently and it became known as the “City of David” (5:9). God was with David (5:10). He had military success, and became more and more powerful.

His second act was to bring the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem. Initially, he acted impetuously, and he did not do it God’s way. A man died as a result (6:7). But, David learned the lesson: doing it God’s way is costly. (6:13). He worshipped with all his heart, mind, soul and body. If you were to read just ONE chapter about God, about David, and about what we can learn from his life, it should be 2 Samuel 6.

He decided to build a temple, and it was made clear to him that he should not do so – it would be for his son after him, to do that. But God made a covenant with David, that his kingdom, his house, would endure for ever. This is why Jesus is sometimes referred to as the “Son of David”, as he fulfils this promise.

David went from strength to strength (8) – everything he turned his hand to went well. Then came the matter of Bathsheba. Nathan the prophet was told by God what had happened, and brought God’s terrible punishment down on David’s family.  But the Lord took away his sin. (11:13). Later David showed his remarkable ability to change his heart and mind – to repent, in effect – that is in my view a key to his being a “man after God’s own heart”. (11:15-23).

David for all his greatness as a warrior-king, statesman etc, was no father. His sons were a mess; spoilt and arrogant sons of privilege. His beautiful son Absalom killed one of his own brothers, and later conspired against his own father. David had to flee for his life. Even then David could see no wrong in him and mourned when his enemy, his son, was killed – stabbed when he was caught in a tree by his long hair. His prime minister, his very able nephew Joab, told the mournful king to put his house in order, wash his face, and face the people – and again, David repented and moved forward.

Things started to fall apart: there was rebellion after rebellion. There was famine, and endless war with the Philistines – God’s promise to David that blood would follow him after the matter of Bathsheba, was coming true. But in the midst of all this, a startling song of praise in chapter 22 (which is also Psalm 18). David was a man of contradictions.

One of the last things David did was to buy a threshing floor, with his own money (24:24) in order to build an altar. It was a significant threshing floor, because on that very site, David’s son Solomon built the Temple.

David’s life and greatness dribbled away into old age. His final act was to install his son Solomon (rather than another of his sons) on the throne, as a shrewd means to avoid more civil war. On his deathbed, he encouraged Solomon to exact revenge over Joab, his nephew. (1 Kings 1:5-6). But in spite of all that…

God testified concerning David: ‘I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do.’ Acts 13:22

Red sky at noon, by Simon Sebag Montefiore

I saw this and I picked it up on the instant: Years ago I read Simon Sebag Montefiore’s “biography” of Jerusalem, and more recently, his non-fiction work on Stalin, “The Court of the Red Tsar”. A most readable and engaging writer, and Russia is a subject of abiding interest to me.

This book is the second of a trilogy, but it stands up well as a novel on its own. I found it a deeply human story, celebrating the worth of individuals, very much in the style of Alan Furst’s novels about pre-World War II Europe. And yet, the story encompasses one of the titanic struggles of all history, that between Stalin and Hitler on the great steppes of western Russia.

Great opening lines matter. William Gibson opens his novel Neuromancer with “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” Simon Sebag Montefiore opens here: “The red earth was already baking and the sun was just rising when they mounted their horses and rode across the grasslands towards a horizon that was on fire”…how could you not be hooked by that opening line?

He does does not shrink from the full horror of war on the Eastern Front. Yet, he manages to draw into his characters, qualities of humanity and gentleness that, while perhaps testing one’s suspension of disbelief, provide an important emotional and individual counterpoint to that titanic collective struggle.

Here we read of a political officer or “politruk”, an unpleasant fellow like all his kind, giving his life (though perhaps inadvertently) to save the life of a Jewish comrade. We read of the dictator Stalin, murderer of tens of millions of innocents, working himself to exhaustion to save Mother Russia from destruction at the hands of the Germans. Here we read of a man’s live saved several times over, because of his relationship with his horse.

This is the only book I’ve ever read other than the pretty much non-serious war novels of Sven Hassel, that mentions the dreadful German war criminal Oskar Dirlewanger. He has a small and unimportant part to play in this work. But of him we will write no more: over some of the deepest evils committed on the Eastern Front, a veil ought be drawn.

This then, is the story of a brief love affair between an Italian woman and a Russian man. It is the tale of a huge and complex intelligence operation almost ruined by a well-meaning man in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is the story of a man who somehow survived the GULAG. It is a story about prison and about war, and love and about combat, and primarily, about Russia, about the Cossacks and the Don steppes.

A trip to Bergen – January 2020

The Bar Amundsen at the Grand Terminus Hotel, Bergen

I’m sat by the fire, and slightly too warm in consequence, in this quintessentially civilised bar, all dark wood and deep seats, high ceilings and a crackling fire. It is slightly too busy and this is the only table free. This room could be in England or Scotland. It is a renowned whisky bar although God only knows what the merest shot of whisky would cost here in Bergen. I’ve had a rather excellent burger served with new potatoes, which, oddly, worked well, and pleasant conversation with a work colleague: I’m still here on business for the moment.

After supper I went for a walk in light rain. The rain rose to a crescendo towards the end of my walk, wetting my woollen coat, my umbrella, the legs of my trousers and my shoes. All was dry by morning, although for some reason I slept ill.

Next day, an excellent breakfast in a well-appointed but hard to find dining room. I could wish it were snowing – it was raining too hard for me to carry my bag round to my next hotel, the Hanseatisk Hotel. I’m staying here on business, drawing a clear line under the business part of my trip, and staying henceforth at the Hanseatisk Hotel with my wife.

The Festnings (Fortress) Museum

We never thought about it, it was completely natural. We had to set our country free” – Johannes Hellend (in Bergens Tidende, a newspaper.) Interesting to note the use of the word “tidende” in Norwegian, rendered in English as “newspaper”. Think of the archaic English word “tidings” and reflect on where it came from…)

A remarkable and moving visit to this Fortress Museum, which I found, if that were possible, more moving even, than the War Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. A chance to reflect on war and crisis, and our response to them both – both our personal response and our collective response. What would WE do? What would I do? What would any of us do? Not so easy to consider when you read a graphical description of what a person looks like after five weeks in the hands of the Gestapo.

“I will live”

The Norwegians are a remarkable bunch of people and generally supportive of the English. They are very forward-looking on democracy and human rights. My wife and I spent a considerable and wonderful time allowing the museum concierge, a friendly fellow in his sixties, to talk to us. I need now, after this museum, to read some form of summary of WWII in Norway. The concierge recommended a book, but I cannot now recall what it was! We experienced a moment’s peace in a modern, anodyne canteen, with a picture of Kongenes Norge on the wall, before moving on to the Mariakirche – St. Mary’s church.

Floybanen

A trip to Bergen should include a trip on the Floiban funicular railway. We went up the railway and had a good walk round on the mountaintop before riding down again in the dusk to take supper at a fine restaurant in the wooden Brygge section. I had reindeer; she had seafood. The English have to brace for impact when the bill – rekningen – arrives in Norway, but that’s just Norwegian prices. Embrace it – you can’t do nothing about it. Though it does take some getting used to…

On a catamaran on a “Fjord tour”

As I sit on board this vessel, my mind is drawn to other similar vessels. The ones on that rainy day on the Lei River in the karst country of China. Ten identical giant tourist vessels, where the lunch was served as if on an airliner. The hydrofoil and the more traditional transports on Lake Garda in Italy. Numerous pleasure craft on Derwentwater, Windermere, and Ullswater in the Lake District. Similar boats on the Trent, the Seine and the Thames, and on the Rhine at Duisburg in Germany, way back in 1980. After 17 years at sea, and after endless travelling, as I know hotels, so I know boats and ships. And if I know any nationality well other than the English, it is the Norse, particularly the Bergen Norse. I was seven years at sea before I met a deck officer that wasn’t a Norwegian from Bergen. If I had to identify a centre, a place of rest, a place to make a pilgrimage, perhaps as well as Brandlehow in the Lake District and Cromford in the Peak District, I should choose Bergen.

As I sit on board this vessel, my mind is drawn to other similar vessels. The ones on that rainy day on the Lei River in the karst country of China. Ten identical giant tourist vessels, where the lunch was served as if on an airliner. The hydrofoil and the more traditional transports on Lake Garda in Italy. Numerous pleasure craft on Derwentwater, Windermere, and Ullswater in the Lake District. Similar boats on the Trent, the Seine and the Thames, and on the Rhine at Duisburg in Germany, way back in 1980. After 17 years at sea, and after endless travelling, as I know hotels, so I know boats and ships. And if I know any nationality well other than the English, it is the Norse, particularly the Bergen Norse. I was seven years at sea before I met a deck officer that wasn’t a Norwegian from Bergen. If I had to identify a centre, a place of rest, a place to make a pilgrimage, perhaps as well as Brandlehow in the Lake District and Cromford in the Peak District, I should choose Bergen.

Munch

A visit to the museum of Munch. Munch proves to be a very innovative artist, a full century ahead of his time, creating selfies and video shorts in the 1930’s!! How will WE innovate, in art and craft, in life and in love? How do we break out of the box and abandon the rule book? Another area of innovation in this land, is that of bridge-building. Literally of course – these people build very advanced, very experimental bridges. But how will we build bridges to other people?

The Hanseatisk Hotel

I’ve written about this delightful wooden hotel before. Read my story Rekningen – it is not about the Hanseatic, but I wrote that story after staying here some years back. Staying here is productive to my creative life. Our daughter Josie discovered the place for us when researching a holiday for us back in 2015: We came and stayed, and it was great. Then, I came again and stayed here when I came to Bergen on business. To think of the times I have stayed at the very ordinary Scandic on the other side of the harbour, when I could have stayed here! https://www.dethanseatiskehotel.no

The Mariakirche

We visited the Mariakirche again. It was interesting to see white-haired old ladies in predominance. Where is REAL power? We are as a culture – as has been prophesied – kept afloat perhaps, by the prayers of white-haired old ladies. We owe our lives, perhaps, to our praying women. We went this morning to an Anglican Parish Communion which was literally (and refreshingly) “by the book”. It was a lovely service. The preacher spoke on John 1:35ff wherein the disciples, seeing Jesus passing, ask him “where are you staying?”. And Jesus tells them his address….NO!! He doesn’t tell them his address. He says, “COME AND SEE” – come and see for yourself where I live. Oddly, both the epistle and the gospel reading (though given in English) were both Scriptures I’d happened to read in Norwegian the previous evening.

After church a pleasant hour over coffee in a room nearby, talking with various people from the church. There were two distinct groups of people. Firstly, young foreigners mostly of oriental background, and secondly, white-haired English emigrants (my notes say “ex-pats” but the culturally more correct term is “emigrant”). Not all female, but mostly so. We spoke with a most delightful lady of 87, hailing from Sunderland, who had lived here with her Norwegian husband since the 1960’s. She was well-preserved and elegant; she was very open and most friendly. She told us her remarkable story of how she met her future husband whilst she was working as a cook on a yacht in Alicante. This elderly lady swam in the sea every day and accounted her continuing good health thereto. She told us that she was about to go into a time of three months when there would be no lifts in her apartment building. She had a dodgy knee, a dodgy heart and she was 87. What an example to us all!!

Afterwards, we took a walk in the upper, wooden streets, above the main town, taking a stop in a little park for cocoa and “vaffels”. Then, later, a sausage dog apiece from “the sausage shop”. This jam-garnished fast food marked the end of our holiday, and soon after, in the thickening dark of late afternoon, we took bus to the airport.

Fifty-two shades of…something better than grey

Well I’ve done it! I’ve read fifty-two books this year! I think I can be proud of that. Some of them I have even reviewed properly. We’ll not go through them all in excruciating detail here, but we will discuss broadly, my year’s reading. I never set out to read a book a week, but I did set out for sure, to read many dozens of books in the year.

Of the 52, 15 of them were in my Kindle – I can do both paper books and e-reading. Eight of the books were re-reads. A few of those only, will I highlight. Nicholas Monsarrat’s “The Cruel Sea” which I re-read after seeing the film one Sunday afternoon. C.S Lewis’ “The Great Divorce” remains one of my favourite reads, being an account of a man who dreamt of going on a day trip to Heaven – from a certain another place. Another re-read was R.A Heinlein’s “The moon is a harsh mistress”, at one level, a story about a rebellion in a prison colony in 2075: at another, the greatest manifesto for libertarian political views, you will ever read. Eighteen of the 52 books were fiction – an oddly low number, although it just means that my interests have been well satisfied by non-fiction.

I started the year reading Dr J.H. B Bell’s “A progress in mountaineering”. Bell, as a 16-year old in 1910, cycled 47 miles from Newtonmore to the foot of Ben Nevis, and climbed Nevis alone. And then he cycled back 47 miles again: the account does not make it clear if he cycled 90+ miles in hobnail boots, or if he climbed Nevis in plimsolls. What seems clear, is that when compared with our elders, we have become a nation of wuss.

I enjoyed Jonathan Nicholls’ “Kittyhawk down”, a well-researched story about RAF pilots in the Western desert during WWII. In February I also read Murray Rothbard’s short pamphlet “The Anatomy of the State” (Murray Rothbard also wrote “The fatal conceit” about the errors of socialism), and a book called “The road to Mecca” by Muhammed Asad, a Jewish convert to Islam, who later became a senior diplomat for the government of Pakistan. In March I read Robert Winder’s “The hidden springs of Englishness”, and started Neil Sheehan’s “A bright shining lie” reviewed here – if you read one book about Vietnam, make it this one.

My sister sent me an old copy of Rich Roll’s “Finding Ultra” about an overweight man who turned his life around and became one of the fittest ultra-marathon runners in the world. As much for the appendices on plant-based diet, did I find that book interesting. William Wordsworth’s original travel guide to the Lake District proved oddly relevant centuries after it was written. Having tried and failed to source a copy of Varlam Shalamov’s rare Kolyma Tales, instead I read Hugo Jacek-Bader’s excellent “Kolyma diaries” and “White fever”, about travels in Eastern Russia – startling stuff about a very different world.

I read some science-fiction: Amongst others, Paul McAuley (“The war of maps”), Iain M Banks (“The Algrebraist” – again), an old Keith Laumer novel and two works of the modern writer Adrian Tchaikovsky. Also Heinlein – “Glory Road” (is that even sci-fi??) and “Harsh mistress” as already mentioned. Becky Chambers’ “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet” I review here.

I read three books about India: Shashi Tharoor’s (perhaps understandably) bitter and twisted “Inglorious Empire”, William Dalrymple’s account of the East India Company entitled “The Anarchy”, and finally Katie Hickman’s “She-merchants, buccaneers and gentlewomen: British women in India”. All very informative and enabling one to gain a more accurate perspective of world history. The lesson from Shashi Tharoor’s “Inglorious Empire” is that bitterness and negativity, however arguably justifiable, is deeply unattractive.

I have read much about America: I am a fan of America. I believe in what America stands for, though it seem to be in trouble in these times and full of vice and failings. Robert Kaplan’s “Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes America’s Role in the World”, reviewed here, proved very interesting at the start but perhaps a little disingenous towards the end. A great interest of mine is American history, particularly the westward expansion. I read Bernard Devoto’s; “1846: the year of decision” and John Anthony Caruso’s “The Appalachian Frontier” , was well as several of Dee Brown’s books – one on the Fetterman Massacre, the other on women in the wild west. Dee Brown’s greatest and most famous book, all should read: that is “Bury my heart at Wounded Knee”, an account of the destruction of the native American tribes.

Later in the year I read Tim O’Brien’s “The things they carried” – the Vietnam war as seen through the lens of what soldiers carried with them. One soldier carried a pair of his girlfriend’s tights as a neckscarf, and wore them even after she dumped him. Also, I read Stephen Hough’s “The Great War at sea” – most informative – and Alice Roberts’ “Tamed – ten species that changed our world”. Self-explanatory title there, and rather a lot of detailed biology which I had to skip.

I read Ed Husain’s troubling account of journeys in certain cities in the UK – “Among the mosques”. In order to get published, Ed Husain has to be upbeat and positive about what is happening with Islam in the United Kingdom today, but I find that he can’t possibly be as naive as he comes across in his writing. A deeply worrying travelogue.

Tim Butcher wrote “Blood River”. The age of great explorers, opines one of the reviewers, is not dead. Butcher attempts with only partial success to navigate overland by motorcycle and boat, from the eastern Congo through to the Atlantic coast. The Congo is a messed-up place, and it is deeply messed up for a number of very complicated reasons. It will get worse – much worse. Certain important minerals essential for modern Lithium-ion batteries, required for what some people call “the energy transition”, are most easily sourced in the Congo. In the coming decades the extraction of those minerals, to salve the western conscience and enable electric cars, will do as much damage to Africans in the Congo as King Leopold ever did in his extraction of rubber in the early 20th century.

I read a useful and informative biography of Sir William Stanier by the ever-readable and prolific railway author O.S Nock. This one I found in an excellent second-hand bookshop in Bridport. I read Ryzard Kapuchinsky’s “Imperium” about Soviet Russia – including an unforgettable two-page interlude on how to make peach brandy. What drives my reading, is this – not what is in plain view, but what is not. Sometimes something tangential – a fact or anecdote of paramount importance or of deep interest, is almost literally found “in between the lines”.

I ended the year with David Halberstam’s “The Coldest Winter”. This is a brilliant account of the Korean War. Another great Pulitzer prize winning author covering vast sweeps of American culture and history. Though some of the descriptions of battles are a little too detailed for me, what made the book is the wide arc of history, the bigger picture. In a book about Korea, I learned much about the “New Deal” and the life and times of Franklin Roosevelt. I learned about changes to domestic politics in the USA that are still very much of importance today. I learned about McCarthyism, and also about Douglas MacArthur – a horribly fascinating, perhaps deservedly reviled, but nonetheless important 20th century figure. What’s it like to have no self-doubt at all? Lack of self-doubt is not one of my qualities.

Earlier in the year, I chanced across Francis Rossi & Rick Parfitt’s “Just for the record”, being an autobiography of Status Quo. This rock autobiography was a disappointment for me; it was potentially great story written in the most perfunctory manner. You would think that lyricists could write! No, obviously not. One thing I recall though is Rick Parfitt writing of himself as a teenager (when his guitar teacher patronised him) “No-one calls me laddie“. See my point above about lack of self-doubt.

Over Christmas I was given “Rainbow in the dark”, the autobiography of Ronnie James Dio. We learn that as a boy he swore to himself that one day he would headline at Madison Square Garden, in his own name – and he did! A readable enough tale of ambition fulfilled, of the virtues of hard work and persistence, and of some of the other less agreeable habits of rock ‘n roll stars. Reading it, I’d like also to read a biography of the guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, if and when such a book becomes available.

This is for balance, for unfortunately, Dio’s account of those years is somewhat self-serving. It is a shame, for I regard him as a great lyricist, and the distinctive sound of his voice, be it in the heavy metal music of Rainbow, or Black Sabbath, formed a background to my youth.

The full list here:

Chris Anderson The official TED guide to public speaking
Paul McAuley The war of maps
J. H B Bell A Progress in mountaineering
Iain M Banks The Algebraist
Jonathan Nicholls Kittyhawk Down
Murray Rothbard Anatomy of the state
Muhammed Asad The road to Mecca
Robert Winder The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Adrian Tchaikovsky Cage of souls
Nicholas Monsarrat The Cruel Sea
C.S Lewis The Great Divorce
Neil Sheehan A bright shining lie
Jacek Hugo-Bader Kolyma Diaries
Rich Roll Finding Ultra
William Wordsworth The Lakes
Keith Laumer Doorstep
Jacek Hugo-Bader White Fever
Shashi Tharoor Inglorious Empire
Robert D. Kaplan Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes America’s Role in the World
Ryzard Kapuchinsky Imperium
Dee Brown The Fetterman Massacre
Bernard Werber Empire of the ants
William Smethurst Writing for television
William Dalrymple The Anarchy
Sven Hassel Court Martial
Becky Chambers The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet
Bernard DeVoto 1846:The year of decision
Len Deighton Blitzkrieg
Dee Brown The Gentle Tamers: Women of the Old Wild West
John Anthony Caruso The Appalachian Frontier
Larry McMurtry Lonesome dove
Larry McMurtry Dead man’s walk
Larry McMurtry Comanche Moon
Francis Rossi & Rick Parfitt Just for the record – autobiography of Status Quo
Michael Bonavia The birth of British Rail
R.A Heinlein Glory Road
R.A Heinlein The moon is a harsh mistress
O.S Nock William Stanier
Katie Hickman She-merchants, buccaneers and gentlewomen: British women in India
Stephen Longstreet War cries on horseback
George Orwell Animal Farm
Ed Husain Among the mosques
Richard Hough The Great War at sea
Tim O’ Brien The things they carried
Tim Butcher Blood River
C.S Lewis That Hideous Strength
O.S Nock The Settle and Carlisle railway
Adrian Tchaikovsky Children of time
Alice Roberts Tamed – ten species that changed our world
Jeff Long Deeper
David Halberstam The coldest winter: America and the Korean war
Ronnie James Dio Rainbow in the dark

Working at home – top tips

We’ve been working from home for twenty months now and it will be two years or more before it ends, if not more. For fifteen years before the lockdown, I was a Home Counties commuter up to offices in central London. Over those years, the biggest change I have seen would be that we take for granted today the availability of robust IT technology that enables us to efficiently deliver office-based services remotely from almost anywhere in the world.  

Some years ago I happened to fly to Aberdeen on business. I arrived at LHR and got to the security check: “please put your laptop in a separate tray“…laptop…laptop? LAPTOP? Arghh! My laptop was not present. But we had at that point, cloud-based IT systems that enabled me, without a laptop, to flawlessly deliver what my employer was flying me to Aberdeen to deliver. I was able to do this with no more hassle than logging into some other internet-connected computer. It was literally trivial. Today, changes have been forced over the last two years by the Coronavirus pandemic, that render the physical office itself barely relevant at all.

But we still have to work for a living. Working from home is not straightforward; it’s not obvious how to do it properly, and there are very good reasons why it is not always appropriate. This is something I believe: anything that blurs the distinction between work and rest, plays into the hands of the employer, not the employee. When Dilbert’s “pointy-haired boss” talks about “work-life integration” rather than “work-life balance”, that really is too true to be funny. Two things that blur the distinction between work and rest, both highly thought of by employees, both a potential minefield or poison chalice. Working from home is one of them. The other is the practice of “dress down Friday”, which we won’t go into here.

My top tips for working at home:

  1. GET UP
  • Maintain disciplined hours: get up more or less at the same time as you would have done if you were commuting to the office.
  • Dress properly – whilst slippers or bare feet is fine, for me, my clothes should be smart weekend casual at least – make an effort. I think a good rule of thumb is, if you needed to change to leave the house to go out for lunch, you’re probably not appropriately dressed.

2. START WORK, DO WORK, FINISH WORK

  • As far as possible have set hours for work, and follow them. Put the hours in. Keeping a record of hours to make sure you do, might be worthwhile, but don’t be a slave to the timesheet.
  • Try to avoid blurring work and rest.  Start work at a certain time, take breaks, take a lunch break away from your desk. 
  • As far as possible – and realistically it’s perfectly possible – finish work at a set time.
  • Don’t return to your desk “after hours” in the evening or at weekends – office hours is office hours.  At the end of the day you are the one granting permission to work evenings or weekends. Not your boss, your spouse, not your kids….YOURSELF. 
  • Do work
    • Have a written list of tasks for each day, do those tasks. Put a line through a task when it is done: make your work day about achieving small, discrete objectives, each one of them contributing to the greater objective of doing your job properly.
    • Don’t be afraid to close your door if you’re lucky enough have a door or a separate room to work in, and to make it clear that you’re busy and not to be disturbed.
    • Have breaks: make coffee, hang out the washing, talk to other people in your house, walk the dog, be flexible.
    • Acknowledge that you’ll have good and bad days: Not all days are good storming days; some days are bad days. It happens; roll with it. A storming productive day can often be followed by a slower, less productive day: it all averages out.
  • Finish work
    • Close down your work computer
    • Put your work equipment (laptop, papers etc.) away at the end of the working day – if you have the space, conceal it. Put it in a cupboard or somewhere it can’t be seen.
    • Mark the end of the working week with some small ritual or ceremony. For me this is a walk into town to buy a bottle of beer and a bag of crisps. It could be a take-away, or a movie night, or a longer walk, or whatever.
    • Try to avoid drinking alcohol on week nights – keeping off the alcohol in the week means the weekend becomes something a little more special.

3. LOOK AFTER YOURSELF

  • Create!! Do something different Engage your left brain. Do something that is not analytical, something that is not your work. It might be drawing, gardening, painting, sewing, cooking, learning a language, studying a subject, playing a musical instrument, doing a jigsaw. It might even be ironing! Anything is allowed so long as it’s different.
  • Be outdoors for some of every day. Ideally in daylight though this may be difficult in winter. Ideally alone though this may be tricky for parents! Get yourself some headspace.
  • Get plenty of exercise as clearly distinct from just a walk around the block. This is vigorous aerobic exercise 2-3 times a week.
  • Keep on eye on the calories: Don’t eat and drink more than you body can deal with.  A modern western diet is so high in calories that in a home-based “office” lifestyle if you’re not careful your weight will slowly and inexorably increase.

In all of these rules, don’t be a slave to rules, and do whatever works for you.

Backpacking in the Cairngorms

Part 1: To the Highlands by Caledonian Sleeper

When I began my journey from East Surrey at 1853 on a Wednesday evening, it was with a heavy heart, for a number of reasons. A lovely old fellow we all knew was dying; he did in fact go home, early on the Thursday morning. A little later, arriving at Euston, I went for a pint in that favoured spot, the Doric Arch at Euston station. This marked the start of my holiday. Later, as I boarded the sleeper train, there was an oddly sudden and very heavy rain shower. My wife informed me that this rain was quite extreme back in Oxted, shorting out house electrics and causing minor flooding.

Arriving in Inverness, I was straight into gloves – it was one of those cold and blustery mornings. The train was almost an hour early. I recommend the Caledonian Sleeper; it is costly, but good value for money when you look at what you’re getting – return travel from London to Scotland, and two nights accommodation. You can of course just buy a seat rather than a berth, and sit up all night. This costs maybe £100 return and would be pretty much the equivalent of taking a 12-hour flight in economy. Sooner you than me: I say, what price money? If a journey’s worth going on, it’s worth going on in comfort.

Inverness is a long way from London and indeed, a long way from Edinburgh. The atmosphere is very different. I started by taking coffee and a breakfast roll in the bus station cafe. You can’t beat a bus station or train station cafe; no-one cares how smart or untidy you are, or how big your bags are. As a very tall man, I do sometimes value not being noticed.

To the co-op to pick up some groceries: I bought bread, butter, cheese, tomatoes, little oranges, an onion, fresh spinach, chocolate, fresh tortellini, and water. I carried in from home, coffee, sugar, spices and salt and pepper, porridge oats, red lentils, gram flour, and chorizo sausage, and also a trail mix of “date, nut and seed balls” – these were absolutely superb. Thence, by cab to the airport to pick up a rental car. Then I motored back into town, swiftly over Slochd and down into Glen Feshie, to park up at the road head and prepare for hiking. Leaving home, my rucsac was 16kg: now with food for three days and water, it must have approached 20kg.

date, nut and seed balls

Part 2: Glen Feshie to Glen Geusachan – across the Great Moss

After a climb through some pleasant woods, the route to Carn Ban Mor goes up the left-hand side valley of the Allt Fhearnaghan. I was feeling very fit and strong as I climbed, and I did notice far more snow than I had thought there would be. This seemed to be more than the Autumn icing-sugar dusting of snow I had anticipated, and was closer to real winter conditions. Up onto the Great Moss, I did not go to Carn Ban Mor, and also made the error of leaving the track, and thus wading through heather and fresh snow occasionally drifting a foot deep. It was blustery, showery weather. One moment, I could see Angel’s Peak and Cairn Toul, the next, there’d be a squall and a snow shower. I made my way to the summit of Tom Dubh – just a slight top in the midst of the Great Moss, though at 918m as high as most Lake District summits.

View from Tom Dubh

From Tom Dubh, downwards into an area of fens, marshes and little tarns where I found myself going in circles and doubling back away from half-frozen watercourses I could not possibly ford. It was an oddly blue-grey world, and the snow started to pile down. I got on down to Loch Stuirteag, where I had hoped to camp! This was a wild and inhospitable place, wholly unsuitable for camping in anything but summer conditions. In any case, a howling wind was at my back; I sought in vain for shelter. Lower down, at the very top of Glen Geusuchan, I thought I found shelter, and laid my tent out in a flat spot. But the outer was nearly torn from my hands in a violent gust. What was I thinking of? I should have been in grave trouble had I stayed there. I packed up again and struggled on downwards into a glen of deep, trackless heather. I fell over and picked myself up again; I found myself on the edge of steep slopes down into the river; my feet fell into hidden water; I stumbled, carrying 20kg. To be fair, I had bought a new rucsac, an Osprey Aether Pro 70, and it was an exceptionally good carry. Nearly 2kg lighter than my previous rucsac, this one sat very comfortably and caused me no problems at all.

I could find nowhere to get out of the wind. I didn’t feel desperate, but it was quite a desperate situation. Darkness was impending; I was already tiring. I could not realistically make it to the Courrour Bothy in daylight. I should have been left floundering uphill through the trackless heather, in the dark and the storm, trying to find Courrour – an unlit speck in the mountain fastness.

Eventually I found a place in the river bed – can I pitch a tent on sand and pebbles? Yes. At least this place was sheltered by an old river bank, a six-foot wall of peat and heather, and was as out of the wind as I could find. I struggled with the wind whilst getting pitched, and pitched the tent outer first, though it wasn’t actually raining at that point. Almost the last thing I did outdoors as darkness fell (apart from getting water from the river) was collecting heavy stones to pile onto the guys and tent pegs. Well that I did so now rather than in the dark. I had a good camp – I cooked dinner, ate, and turned in soon after. I certainly slept some, though the noise of the wind and the frequent rain showers kept me awake much of the time.

I was awake at 5a.m when the storm reached its crescendo. Lucky I was that it had not been earlier. The wind redoubled in strength and tore out the pegs on the windward side of my tent, though the guy-line held. This made the outer tent flap in the wind unto destruction, unless it was fixed. The noise of the tent flapping wildly in the gale, particularly in the dark, could easily induce panic if you allowed it to. I managed to fix it from the inside, with rocks and moist sand. Then the pegs on the lee side came out, then on the windward side again. Four or five times I had to jam the pegs back in again, getting wet sand all over my hands and in the inner tent. By this time I was awake and dressed for the day and had started to pack up against the possibility of ultimate catastrophe. I did manage to make porridge and coffee, and dress a pre-existing cut on my forefinger, whilst using one of my trail poles to keep one peg in place on the lee side of the tent. This was a remarkably difficult moment and I seemed to get through it without too much trouble. The tent flapped; I was somehow able to rise above doing so. Panic, worry or getting things wrong was just not an option in these conditions: everything had to be done quickly, methodically, correctly, and in the right order. I packed up, dropped the inner, and took down the outer, but by this stage as daylight strengthened the storm ebbed; the worst of the squall was over.

From Achlean to my camp on Geusachan Burn at around 974943, was about 17km, which took about six hours. It is a very great shame, but buried somewhere in the sand of that river bank, or blown off into the wilds, there is a small slice of thin flexible polypropylene chopping board, bright blue, about 6″ x 6″ – for I never saw that again. Breaks my heart to leave litter, but the wind must have carried it away. There was some slight damage to the ends of my tent poles, which was easily fixed.

Part 3: Glen Geusachan to Glen Feshie

Let’s look at the positive – remember that bit in “Apollo 13”? “what have we actually got on this spacecraft that works?” …er, let me get back to you on that, chief…actually quite a lot. I was warm, dry, clean, my kit was packed and complete and dry, I’d had a hot breakfast and even some coffee. The world was at my feet.

Glen Guesachan at dawn

In the glorious light of dawn, I walked out of the side glen and round into the Lairig Ghru. Fording streams and rivers is a serious challenge in the Cairngorms – it is rarely an issue in the Lake District. One cannot ford the Dee even this high up, certainly not in cold weather, though one might try in high summer. I had to detour all the way up the the Courrour Bothy to cross the river. It was an uphill slog through heather, with only the occasional hint of a path. I reached Courrour on a bright and pleasant morning, about 10a.m.

Courrour

I crossed the Dee on the footbridge, and had brief converse the only hiker I saw for two days, an older man from Edinburgh. He was in for the day to climb the Devil’s Point and Cairn Toul. Approaching Courrour at 10a.m in late October, he must have made a very early torchlit start from the Linn of Dee – that’s a long walk in. God only knows what time he started from Edinburgh! He did mention that there had been driving rain on the drive in – probably about the time my tent was getting hammered by the gale.

Bod an Deamhain – “the Devil’s Point” (although I understand “point” is a Victorian euphemism for another quite different word beginning with P.)

I powered on down the valley, consciously keeping the pace fast. I was fortunate in being very fit: when backpacking, many issues conspire to slow you down. Hips hurt, shoulders hurt, feet hurt, blisters, hungry, thirsty, exhausted etc etc. The last of these, when you’re very fit, is almost an irrelevance. Walking at 4km/hour all day long while carrying 20kg becomes merely doable rather than requiring a mighty effort.

A chopper searched the surrounding summits as I walked south. Early afternoon, I came into phone range and also into sight of the White Bridge across the Dee. I saw a couple with a pushchair and a dog – I didn’t realise how near the Linn of Dee car park was at that point – about three miles away. I saw two estate workers. The next part of my route lay for many miles along unmetalled roads, and in fact I was passed by a car once.

To the Red House, and on up the Geldie Burn – though no burn this, but another wide and deep river unfordable in cold weather or winter conditions. The Geldie Burn is technically a “misfit stream”. The valley in which it lies is glacial in origin, not carved by this or any river. Geldie Burn has enormous relict banks indicating that at some point in the geological past, when the ice melted, it must have been ten, a hundred times bigger than it is now – a torrent like unto Niagara.

Through the golden afternoon over lovely brown moorland, and endless path, which, once the un-made road ended, was never less than a clear trail. From the White Bridge, up the Geldie Burn and to the unnamed waterfall at the head of Glen Feshie, at least 12 kilometres. I started to experience muscle pain in my left shoulder; I found that Voltarol brought very swift and very effective relief.

Sometime before arriving at the unnamed waterfall, I fell over. I was negotiating some deep and evil-smelling pools of mud in one of the ruts of the road. Whatever…I twisted and slipped. Or I slipped and twisted…carrying 20kg, once you’re going down, you’re going down – there’s no stumble and recover with that kind of weight on your back. I ended up on my back in a foot deep puddle of thick, black runny mud. Desgustang! With some difficulty I got myself up and out again. Strangely enough, I personally was untouched – wearing a Goretex raincoat, gaiters and overtrousers, no actual mud penetrated to my clothes. My rucsac took the brunt of the mud and was very dirty. If I had a minor criticism of the light grey colour of the Aether Pro, it would be that the straps and hip-belt show the dirt very easily.

This remarkable waterfall was, to quote C.S Lewis, “a terror in the woods for miles around”. It was audible long before it could be seen. It has no name on the map; it is comparable to High Force in Teesdale, and were it within a hundred yards of a road in England or Scotland, people would drive 100 miles to see it. In the Cairngorms it is at least five hours walk up-hill from the road head in wild and remote Glen Feshie, and probably five hours walk from the car park at Linn of Dee. So almost impossible to access in a day-trip except in high summer. How remote! How excellent that remoteness is.

I was now in the descent into Glen Feshie and ready to look for somewhere to camp. Trees appeared, larch and other kinds. Suitable places to camp emerged, albeit far from water – the river was running in an inaccessible gorge. I had at this point run out of water, so I needed to camp right by a stream. Better yet, there was no breath of wind. I needed to stop a little earlier to allow enough daylight to ensure that my tent was OK after the beating it took this morning.

I found a place by a ford, and camped right next to the path, in as wild and remote a location as ever I have camped in…except for, oh, last night. The tent went up easily and the ground took the pegs well. Once established, I made a faranata – a pancake of chickpea flour, as recommended by my son. On a Trangia stove it worked a treat. For afters, some chocolate and a sip from the hip-flask. To drink I had litres and litres of stream water: slightly brown from peat. There’s no sheep up here – no need for any purification tablets. Though the colour was off-putting, and the water was so cold as to induce a blinding headache, it was like nectar, like Ambrosia, like ice-cold lager. It is a pleasure to be that thirsty and have a pure mountain stream in which to slake that thirst.

On day 2 I walked 30km in approximately eight hours. I used Black Diamond trail poles, Gore-tex gaiters and over-trousers, walking trousers, merino wool base layers, a thick cotton shirt and Berghaus fleece and waterproof coat. I get cold easily these days: a merino wool hat helps, and gloves are a big deal. I had a thin and a thick pair of gloves, and also some heavy mittens. I wore gloves at all times outdoors when walking; up on the plateau I found it necessary to wear all three pairs at once.

Part 4: Glen Feshie

I packed up in good order as the light started to improve, and was ready to hike by a little after 8a.m. I continued down Glen Feshie, through an absolute Eden, a veritable wilderness paradise. When I was a youth in Derby, I borrowed from the local library, an old book about the Cairngorms. And in that book, there was a snatch of an ancient Gaelic poem, which has remained with me ever since: Glen Feshie of the storms, I had the longing, to be in thy shelter…and now I had the pleasure of walking the whole length of this wild glen.

There were high and low spots to my morning’s walk. It took me until noon to walk out to the car, and on the way I got lost in the woods; there was a rain shower, and there was a washed out bridge over a tributary stream. There was much fording and crossing of streams, brushing through vegetation, and climbing up and down along the side of the gorge. For most – but not all – of the way, the path led along an unmetalled road. In places, where the road had been washed away, the path detoured up the mountainside.

On the walk out I found my hips were very sore under my hip belt. So I stopped on the path and took off my pack, and got out the Voltarol. I dropped my trousers without a moment’s thought, in order to put the gel on my hips. I’ve spent two days on the hill and meet one other hiker; I met no-one all day Thursday, and I met no-one after 10a.m on Friday. I camped in the wildest places where there was absolutely no chance of anyone coming past. Yet, no sooner had I dropped my trousers to apply the medicine, a man and a woman appeared from nowhere to walk past me. They never turned a hair. “Morning!”.

“Morning.”

I arrived at the car at noon: It took just under four hours to hike down the valley – a journey I’d estimated would take at least six hours going uphill. And my hike was over.

Kit

I carried approx. 20kg using an Osprey Aether Pro 70. This rucsac is one of the lightest expedition bags available, weighing 1.8kg – which is why I bought it. It feels lightweight, even flimsy, and I admit I was sceptical when it arrived, particularly given it’s relatively high cost. My scepticism lasted only until I got it packed and set off – on the hill it proved durable and a very comfortable carry, a much easier carry than any other rucsac I’ve ever used. This rucsac has replaced a much older Berghaus C7 1 series 65+10, nearly 2kg heavier, but with a good deal greater carrying capacity. I think we can safely say that when the manufacturer Osprey says 70 litres, that includes the hip-belt pockets.

The hip belt tightening arrangements are particularly inspired, and I liked the pockets on the hip belt. I will say, it’s not quite as clever as the manufacturer thinks it is with regard to attaching things to the outside, in spite of a wide range of straps. I could not easily see how to attach trail poles, and I still can’t obviously see how to put an ice-axe on it – the big first rucsac I’ve ever had where this is not completely obvious. Heavy items – tents, tent poles etc – may have the tendency to slide through the straps eventually. Also – as I found when I fell over – because the rucsac is light grey, it does show the dirt, particularly the straps and the hip belt. Getting it back home, it also became the first rucsac I’ve ever had to strip down and wash. Overall though I would highly recommend it.

I used a Trangia 27 (the smaller Trangia). I’ve been using Trangia stoves since the 1980’s and have never had a problem with them, nor been tempted away from them. Durable and reliable if a little heavy and – at least some say – a little slow. Two things I like about the Trangia – it has a low centre of gravity, and all the pans are included as part of the stove. I slept in an MSR Elixir 2 tent using a Rab Alpine Pro 600 down three-season sleeping bag.