I like a good outdoorsman’s travelogue, and this falls into the same category as Nicholas Crane’s “Clear Waters Rising” or “Two degrees West”. An Englishman of a certain age sets himself to do an all-but impossible adventure – what’s not to like? I’m an Englishman of a certain age myself – but Mike is older. I should admit early on in the interests of transparency that Mike is a relative of mine.
All that said, I liked the historical accounts in this work better. There’s only so many pints of lager you vicariously enjoy. Mike paints an interesting story of Eire today and in the past. My wife and I visited Kerry on our honeymoon in 1990, and we were told that almost no-one lives within twenty miles of the west coast of Ireland, except for those whose living depends on tourism. Mike’s account bears that out – there seems to be no-one there. A far cry from queuing up to walk along Crib Goch in Snowdonia, as you’ll have to do on any fine weekend in summer.
I learned much of Irlsh history. You’ll not be learning this kind of thing in English schools, not this last 40-50 years. I’d heard of Michael Collins, of the Easter Rising, and of the Irish Free State, and few would not have heard of Eamon De Valera. What Mike has done has coloured in the gaps a little, brought to life some of that fascinating past, some of the terrible suffering. From the medieval saints, through the Norman overlordship, and onto Cromwell’s atrocities, then the Potato Famine and the emergence of Eire, Mike has provided some insights into Irish history without ever being partisan or taking an obvious side.
I was minded to write about some of the great inventions we may yet see, and to look at the rich imaginations of some of our great sci-fi writers.
1. The diamond flechette gun in Alistair Reynold’s “Chasm City”. A small and easily concealed hand weapon, made out of diamond and exotic forms of Carbon – because there is no metal in it, of course, it can be carried with impunity through airport scanners and other such devices. It is clockwork and as well as being made of diamond, fires bits of diamond as projectiles. It might be clockwork but I don’t think the users wind it up. It is, as characters describe, a thing of ‘intense, evil beauty’. “Chasm City” is set in the 27th century.
2. The Turing Gate in Paul MacAuley’s “Cowboy Angels”. In an alternative reality, Alan Turing is not hounded to death by the state for being gay, but emigrates to America where he goes onto invent a strange gate or means to move between dimensions and alternate realities. The Americans of that reality (not ours) take it upon themselves to visit their particular brand of democracy on all other Americas in existence. All well and good until they visit the reality where President Nixon was elected.
3. The cortical stack, allowing Digital Human Storage, in Richard Morgan’s “Altered Carbon” and it’s two sequels. This memory device is about the size of a cigarette butt. The device is implanted in the spinal column soon after birth and records everything – sensations, memories, feelings. All can be backed up, everything can be uploaded into a computer as digital data. Humanity is reduced to big data – both freed from death and enslaved by eternal life.
4. Douglas-Martin sun-power screens in R.A Heinlein’s “Let there be light”. Two inventors in the 1960’s perfect bioluminescent screens that can be used to convert electricity into light, or, if stuck in the sunshine, act as an effective solar panel, generating electricity.
5. The Bobble, in Vernor Vinge’s “Across realtime“. A spherical and perfectly reflective indestructable minature cosmos, which can be created in any size from tiny up to tens of kilometres across. They can last for moments – or for tens of millions of years. Anything trapped inside endures NO duration at all, no matter how long they or it are stuck inside. They are effective one-way time machines. Vinge has his characters use them as perfect (if someone inconveniently shaped) fridges, as remarkable air bags to protect aircraftmen in crashes, as restraints for madmen, as time machines, and as a means to contain political prisoners. Oddly he misses using micrometre sized bobbles as a building material.
6. The piece of paper as a computer in Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age”. In the Diamond Age – late in this century – nanotech is all. An everyday piece of paper is many tens of thousands of molecules thick. It’s a small matter to design the inside of it so that those many molecules can act as a kind of electro-mechanical microprocessor, churning through sums, doing calculations – doing computer stuff, in fact.
7. The genetically modified millipede used as sutures, in William Gibson’s “Count Zero“, set in the early 21st century but written in the 1980’s. Our young hero is slashed across the back in a knife attack whilst on the run. The surgeon places a length of this millipede over the wound, ensures all the many legs are properly lined up on each side, and with a flourish, rips the spine from the brainless bio-artifact. It’s death spasm causes the legs to contract, neatly sewing a huge wound together in a split second.
8. Windows running on your clothes, and displaying in contact lenses, in Vernor Vinge’s “Rainbow’s End”. Vinge can’t call it Windows of course, but calls it “Symphony”. Your clothes are embedded with threads acting as powerful microprocessors, and they are able to send information to contact lenses. Augmented reality – you want the low-down on this neighbourhood? Just google it and the info scrolls across the top right of your field of vision. Communicate with your computer by sub-vocalising or just thinking what want to say,
9. The means to broadcast sound direct to your aural nerve – the “friend” device as seen in Stephen Baxter’s “Ark”. Developed before 2020, the device renders earphones obsolete. A small instrument in your pocket, or your mobile phone, broadcasts sound in perfect hi-fi direct to your brain. It’s a side issue in Baxter’s story which is about rising waters flooding the whole earth.
10. The monomolecular spray-on hosiery in Iain M Banks’ “Against a dark background”. Others have said there are more ideas on one page of an Iain M. Banks novel than in whole books by other others. Here, he proposes a monomolecular covering for the female leg that looks great and feels great – spray on tights, in effect.
We took the sleeper from Euston, for a long weekend in the Highlands. As well as some hillwalking, there was a serious task at hand; the scattering of some ashes of a young woman who earlier this year, had taken her own life.
Our journey north was enlivened by about four fingers each of Glenlivet. We arrived at Glasgow Central after an adequate nights sleep, perhaps disturbed in my case by some rather odd whisky dreams. After a quick breakfast in the Gordon Street Cafe next to the station, we nipped off through the chill city streets to get our rental car. By 10 a.m we were parking up at Inveruglas on Loch Lomondside, in light rain.
Past the rather impressive hydro-electric power station, you go under the West Highland Line, turn uphill keeping some rapids in a gorge on the left, and up a private road into the brown valley. Up ahead, there is a black industrial-looking dam.
Power lines march off into the distance. Dodging some maternal cattle who were monopolising the road, we broke right straight up into the hills, a long slog. We stopped for a quick bite to eat in a draughty cleft in the rocks, and pushed on to the summit. As we did so, the weather broke with a vengeance. Another half an hour later in starting, and we’d have been forced to turn back from the summit. In a howling, lashing storm, we bagged the summit and retreated as fast as possible. Fortunately there’s a clear path, even in thick clag. We were off the hill before 2pm, meaning that we’d bagged a Munro in less than four hours. Rather pleased with ourselves, we got in the car and drove north to the Clachaig.
In Glencoe, we pitched our tents, not without some wind-related challenges, and retreated through the storm to the warmth of the pub:
“The evening shadows on the dry stone walls The night draws in and the ale house calls”
Around 10.30a.m, a party of eight of us set off up the Lairig Gartain. On the walk up the glen we had twice to ford streams that were running quite full and needed crossing with care. This was the largest group of people I’ve been on the hill with for twenty years. Six of the people present were university students less than half my age, and a handful of those young people were experienced hillwalkers. Everyone was quite fit, but the collective pace of such a group is slower than that of a smaller party. The route lay zig-zag up into Coire Altrium, negotiating through a band of cliffs and broken ground up onto the col between Stob Coire Altrium and Stob na Doire. We did not reach the ridge until after noon, and we paused there for refreshment. The day was wide open; whilst it was cold and windy, the weather seemed to be clearing.
The delicate light and remarkable visibility improved as the afternoon wore on.
Along the ridge, things seemed further away than they really were. We met two parties as we continued north-west. The first was two guys, one of them with a rope over his shoulders. He reassured us in a strong Italian accent that the summit of Stob Dearg was by no means too far away. The second party was formed of more members of the university hiking club.
As we moved up towards the main summit of Stob Dearg, we were visited by a very tame raven.
Strange, very strange, was this, to my eyes. I only found out later that this bird is a regular denizen of this summit. I should have known my local history better: A mountain with a route up it called Raven’s Gully might well have such birds lurking at the summit. The raven afforded some remarkable wildlife photography, with Ben Nevis prominent thirty miles away in the background.
At the summit of Stob Dearg – the shapely triangular mountain commonly referred to as “Buchaille Etive Mor”, the party paused for a moment of reflection. Earlier in the year, someone known and loved by members of the party had taken her own life whilst suffering from depression. Ashes were scattered. It was fitting that such an event should take place on the weekend of Remembrance Sunday.
And then onwards and down. First, down to the col, and then, the steep descent into Coire na Tuliach. Until the party went down into the gully, the light remained absolutely remarkable. One might go on the hill for two years and not see conditions like it. Tired now, the party descended to Lagangarbh, and crossed the river. Only as we approached the road on the long tramp back to the car, did we reach for our torches. Our timing was perfect – in more ways than one, for the following day was rainy too. We were lucky enough to do our hike in all too brief weather window as Autumn slowly turned to Winter.
Stand up, hold my hand I hope you understand Here where time is still, I walk the hill
Stand here, close to me Here for all eternity I wait as others will, I walk the hill
The train hisses through anonymous railway stations and anonymous towns. The stations fly past to quickly for me to catch their names. The towns? Houses and streets, industrial units, perhaps the odd ancient church standing out through the early morning mist.
Across the heartland the train goes, through the very essence of middle England. You don’t need to know what the names of the towns are, to know what they are like. The rails shine with use; the electrical wires and their supporting posts flash by. In the distance, green fields and hills under an early morning sky of pale blue. The molten sunshine of not long after dawn washes everything clean. It all looks idyllic. Frost-covered green fields, patches of ground mist.