Fifty-one in 22 – reading this year

At the start of 2022 I was reading a dense tome called “Railroaded – transcontinentals and the making of modern America” which was all about the development of the railroads, the growth of monopoly capitalism, and the effect this has had on American culture. I had to skip whole chapters; it was fascinating – but alas, rather intermittently and unreliably so. I was at the same time re-acquainting myself with the pulp science-fiction of Philip Jose Farmer (his “World of Tiers” series), and Sven Hassel’s “Monte Cassino“, a story of the second world war in Italy as seen from the German perspective.

In January I read Simon Sebag Montefiore’s historical novel “Red Sky at noon” about – cough – war in the Ukraine. Reviewed here. His novel opened “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“. What an opening! I read Tim Marshall’s “The Power of Geography“, a weaker book, perhaps than his earlier outstanding “Prisoners of Geography”.

In February I finished another historical tome, Ray Allen Billington’s “Westward Expansion – a history of the American frontier”, which I’d recommend to anyone interested in this topic, an abiding fascination of mine. This book covers the whole, from the early Spanish incursions to the closing of the frontier at the end of the nineteenth century. Also in February I found time to read William Gibson’s “Agency” – one of his stories involving computer-generated “stubs” of a somehow alternate past rather like the recently filmed “The Peripheral” which I read years ago and am watching now.

In March I found myself enjoying John Julius Norwich’s history of “France” (how many of us in England know anything other than the very basic facts about that country?) and also military historian John Keegan’s “History of warfare“. I was then a little ambivalent about the highly recommended “Humankind – a hopeful history” by the Dutch philosopher Rutger Bregman. Very readable and informative but not a book whose conclusions I could whole-heartedly agree with – a bit like the work of Yuval Noah Harari in this respect. It’s not all about nodding sagely in agreement, nor all putting the book down in frowning consternation.

A short interlude in May saw me reading a book called “How steam locomotives really work“. I’ve still got that one – not given it away. It’s a gem in that it conveys an understanding of a very complex and difficult technical subject without resorting to advanced mathematics. In May I read the first novel of a friend of ours, Mrs Ruth D’Alessandro’s “Calling WPC Crockford“, an engaging memoir of rural policing in the 1950’s. We eagerly await both a sequel and watchable early Sunday evening TV adaptions thereof. Keith Robert’s “Pavane” – reviewed here – I had never heard of, despite its publication as an “SF Masterwork”. I thought I know my SF – but perhaps not? A pavane is a kind of Latin dance. This Pavane is a remarkable alternative history, a work of writing craftsmanship, a finely shaped bow or arc of story from beginning to end.

In June I read another sci-fi classic, Doris Lessing’s “Shikasta“. Shikasta is our earth, as seen from the viewpoint of those who try to settle it from afar. Like much great work by her and other female science-fiction writers such as Ursula le Guin, there are much deeper ideas at play here: this is not guns and heroes space-opera. A key idea explored in Shikasta is the importance of collectivism and community. At the far extremity of her argument in this direction, we see the idea that individualism itself could actually be a form of mental illness. You may be sure I don’t agree with that.

I was Between East and West – that is, touring in Eastern Europe – with Anne Applebaum, and then, I travelled from Portugal to India with Roger Crowley for an eye-opening account of “how Portugal forged the first global empire”. Remarkable to read what happened when men from Portugal – a primitive and feudal middle-ages culture – arrived at length in the Indian Ocean. They entered a sea of traders, free markets, and if by no means a democracy, then certainly, a functioning multi-cultural melting pot. The Portuguese, possessed as they were of vastly superior military technology but a much weaker moral and cultural understanding, swept the lot away and as good as destroyed everything they touched. There is a lesson there for us all.

Christopher Hibbert has published a life of Admiral Lord “Nelson – a personal history“. Nelson was a flawed man and not quite the untouchable English hero we see on the plinth in Trafalgar Square. I read the journal of Osborne Russell, a nineteenth century trapper: “nine years in the Rocky mountains“. I waded through Frank Snepp’s “Decent Interval“, about the Vietnam War. Upsetting. It put me in mind of a character created by the writer Richard Morgan who said “Anyone who still loves his country just hasn’t read enough history books yet”. Never a truer word wrote in fiction…

As summer turned to Autumn I had another good read on an upsetting and blood-soaked topic, “Partition” by Barney Spunner-White. This came about following a re-read of Kipling’s “Kim” and then a canter through Kipling’s short autobiography “Something of myself“. From upsetting and blood-soaked, to the engaging writing of Andrew Marr’s “The making of modern Britain”. Then, back to Norman times for “The White Ship” by Charles Spencer, being a history of pre-Plantagenet England, based loosely around the foundering of the aforementioned ship at Barfleur in 1120. Only two people survived. The king’s son and heir to the throne, William the Conqueror’s grandson, was drowned. This tragedy precipitated decades of bitter and bloody civil war.

Becky Chambers’ gentle and uplifting “social” science fiction “A closed and common orbit” tells the story of a woman – herself rescued from destruction as a child – who befriends and helps another woman. With Becky Chambers work it’s all in the emotional back-story: two plots move towards one another, only combining in the final pages. M John Harrison provided “You should come with me now“, being a collection of rather odd but compelling short stories about ghosts. Deeply strange, and rather reminiscent of the work of China Mieville. In the autumn, I re-engaged with the local library after many years away, and I borrowed and read “Thin Air” by Richard Morgan. You’ve read one Richard Morgan sci-fi/detective novel, you’ve read ’em all… Unremitting, gory violence. A bad tempered and ill-mannered former enforcer hero. Market forces gone mad. Explicit sex. All the usual Morgan tropes. Somehow unputdownable. More? Yes: Adam Robert’s “Bete” – another bad-tempered and irascible hero in a world where animals can talk – and do. Also, Sylvain Nouvel’s “Sleeping Giants“, a novel in the form of a series of interviews with a never-named representative of a shadowy and all-powerful government agency.

Moving back to non-fiction to finish, Jorge Cham wrote “We have no idea“, being a jocular, cartoony, sub-Bill Bryson account of how little science the human race actually knows. Refreshing reading, as I finished the year with Steven Weinberg’s (again highly recommended) “The first three minutes” about the birth of the universe. I thought it would be good; though he had a few good phrases, overall I was disappointed. I suppose cosmology IS complicated – see my comments above about advanced mathematics. I read Christian Woolmar’s “Cathedrals of Steam” about London’s great railway termini, which was a great account though it dwell on how things might have been better organised. I found Theodore Dalrymple’s anecdotes from the under-class (“Life at the bottom“) the more depressing for it being over twenty years old and knowing that little if anything has improved in that time.

Fifty-one books. Around a fifth of them, were re-reading. Only two-thirds I read in paper copy – the rest were on a Kindle. This year, a little over half of my reading was pure fiction. I re-read some old favourites: “The Lord of the Rings“, Heinlein’s “The cat who walks through walls“, and Stephen Baxter’s “Moonseed” and “Ark” to mention a handful. I finish the year deep in Nick Hayes’ “The Book of Trespass” which is troubling but exciting reading.

Snowdon Horseshoe by night

13-14/7/95 Hill walking in the dark

J. Parkinson and I, at this point in time busy people working for a living and raising kids, wanted to get away hillwalking, but we found that the time could not so easily be spared. After our successful overnight assault on Nevis of the previous year, we thought we might resolve this conundrum (and spend less time away) by the simple expedient of doing some classic hill-walking overnight. On this occasion we did the Snowdon Horseshoe; on another, we made a noteworthy attempt on Idwal Skyline, and bailed after rather too long spent on Tryfan – of which more later.

We left Derby at 7.35pm. We parked at Pen-y-pass and started up the PYG track at 11.30pm. The drive in along the coast road had taken 2 hrs 40 minutes. There was some moonlight on the climb up to Crib Goch. We had of course deliberately chosen a clear night as near as was practical to full moon. I walked in up the PYG track, and out along the Miner’s Track, in trainers, only using big boots for the actual route itself.

Unfortunately the moon disappeared behind clouds and our traverse of Crib Goch was accomplished in darkness without benefit of moonlight. It was windy; both of us found Crib Goch technically very demanding in the dark. Scary, in fact.

Up and over Crib-y-ddysgl, up the railway and onto the summit, which lost it’s cloud cap only while we were there, about 3a.m. We found that route-finding on the ridge was impossible by torchlight; there was no way of looking ahead. The light of dawn started to appear as we crossed from Snowdon (Yr Wyddfa) to Y Lliwedd. As we descended from Y Lliwedd, there was beautiful, transcendent morning light. We were back at Pen-y-pass at 6.40am. Seven hours on the hill.

On another occasion – I can’t find any paper notes for this but I remember doing it – we decided on an attempt on Idwal Skyline in the dark. We picked a moonlit night of course, and set off from Derby, arrived in Snowdonia, parked up at Milestone Buttress, and set off up the North Ridge of Tryfan.

The North Ridge…what we hadn’t bargained for, what we had not implicitly understood, was some basic astronomy. The moon shines from the same direction, more or less, as the sun. It is never found in the north in the Northern hemisphere. I ought have known this, having worked at or near the equator and seen the rather odd spectacle of the moon being DIRECTLY overhead – something you’ll never see the UK. Ever tried climbing the North Ridge of Tryfan in the dark? Don’t. A fit party might climb the North Ridge from the road to the summit in slightly over an hour. I’ve done it many times, summer and winter, in between 70 and 90 minutes. It took us three hours. That was a salutory lesson. Wisely we opted not to climb Bristly Ridge. We descended to Bwlch Tryfan and from there straight back down to the road.

The Sharp Edge of Blencathra

Here are a number of accounts of climbing the Sharp Edge of Blencathra, over thirty years. The first, in the mid-1980’s, and most recently in 2015.

The Sharp Edge of Blencathra - Dave Massey Photography https://davemassey.photography
This wonderful modern (2022) photograph of the Sharp Edge of Blencathra is courtesy of Dave Massey Photography https://davemassey.photography (permission to reproduce, applied for)

25/7/85

From Castlerigg into Keswick. Then we tramped out, eventually hitting the disused railway. It was a hot, hazy, blue sky kind of day. Under the big A66 bridge, and some of the old river bridges had a very Canadian feel to them. Splendid scenery. We left the old railway and crossed several fields to a road, which we followed down into a ravine. We stopped in the shade by the babbling brook, a lovely spot encouraging lassitude, but eventually we had to push on.

Up the hillside as the sun beat down on us. This is your Mousthwaite Combe. We laboured up a grassy path up onto the shoulder, which offered amazing views. FM radio reception was quite remarkable – we were listening to Q102 Dublin on our walkmans – in stereo. We continued onto the summit, not taking the route via Sharp Edge on this occasion. We dropped back down to the road arriving at the Salutation Inn in Threlkeld for an excellent bar meal. From there after a pleasant drink, we walked back to Castlerigg in the gloaming.

13/10/85

A large party of ten for a mass ascent of Blencathra! From the inn we moved along a road and struck left into a short valley, across the headwall of which, could be seen our path, forming a diagonal upwards. Mousthwaite Combe. At the top, we found ourselves on a broad whale-back, with a deep valley below. In it, the gloriously Tolkienesque River Glenderamackin. [Tolkienesque to me that is, not to the younger fellow who wrote this account in 1985; he knew nothing of Tolkien when he was 20.]

Along the left side of this valley, before climbing steeply up into the corrie of Scales Tarn. This is really impressive rock scenery, particularly Sharp Edge. One member of our party, somewhat afraid of heights and exposure, went up the screes to the summit. The rest of us went up Sharp Edge, with K. and R. at the front, and myself and T. J Walmsley shepherding one or two less experienced walkers in the rear.

It was my first time here on what became and what remains probably my favourite route. I found it passably sharp, suitably impressive and very exposed, but too short. It looks a lot worse than it is from a long way off. When you think of the great ridge walks in the British Isles, the Sharp Edge of Blencathra is by no means least among them, though is one of the shorter routes, the crux of it being only a hundred yards long. Even Crib Goch is only a few hundred yards of really sharp rock ridge mixed in with a mile or so of reasonably narrow ridge walking. For sustained narrow rock edge work you have to go to the Aonach Eagach above Glen Coe, which is miles long. But that’s not passable in winter conditions for walkers.

The route lies up over some gendarmes and up onto the summit where we had lunch. To the north there are many kilometres of wild moorland, but not particularly exciting hill country. At the top, it started to mist up. Blencathra has little to recommend it but Sharp Edge, and the descent was tedious. This being a Sunday, it had to be a short day – 4 hours on the hill. But satisfying for all that.

11/2/89

On a windy day, myself and J. Parkinson walked into Blencathra through low cloud. There was a fair amount of snow visible in the corrie of Scales Tarn. Sharp Edge itself was in cloud and the rock was exceptionally greasy to the fingers and to the boots. There was little snow on the ridge itself, but a fair bit on the face at the end.

We did not reach the summit: My friend noted that he was in his element roofing, sitting on the crown of a house in the urban environment, and had no problem with heights, but the conditions here put us both out of our element. The rock cold and greasy, we withdrew safely.

Always know when to turn back. A key lesson for the mountaineer, learned here at no cost. I’ve been fortunate over many years to learn some important lessons in mountaincraft at very, very modest cost.

9/1/91

Myself and R.C.E Ball, in heavy standing snow but clearing weather, climbed up into Mousthwaite Combe. It was windy; spindrift was troublesome to us the whole day. The path round to Scales Tarn was barely visible under the snow. In places, folds in the land caused very deep snowdrifts to form, hindering our progress considerably.

We got into the Scales Tarn corrie about 1.30pm. Scales Tarn itself was frozen. The main part of Sharp Edge was great sport, if spoiled somewhat by constant spindrift storms. There was hard frozen snow from previous falls, as well as fresh snow. The crest up to the summit was technically very difficult in winter conditions, as we neither of us were carrying ice axes or crampons. An axe would have been a great help. The snow was very hard, the rocks iced over to eliminate all handholds, and footholds were hard to make.

The summit plateau was lethal verglas. We got up and off quickly but with considerable difficulty, via Scales Fell, and good glissading (or bumslides in this case) down to Mousthwaite Combe. We were the first party on the hill after heavy snow.

The previous day, 8/1/91, we’d taken a short stroll from our camp at Braithwaite, up Stile End to Overside (1863′), before retreating before a blizzard in late afternoon. A warming up stroll terminated abruptly by a heavy snowstorm.

10/3/92

We were on the hill (that is, into Mousthwaite Combe) by 12.15pm. We arrived in the Scales Tarn corrie around an hour later. There was an attack of hail as we climbed up to Sharp Edge. The conditions were excellent. Up on the top of Blencathra we could see Styhead Tarn glinting in the distance. We detoured around for extra hill-walking – Blencathra is a short route. However, the weather worsened and a snow squall forced us to shelter. So we came down and were off the hill by 4p.m.

I think this is the time we went to camp at Castlerigg, but decided to go to a B&B in Keswick instead. I recall getting wet even opening the car door, at the campsite up at Castlerigg, and we thought, “No.”

26/6/15

We drove through to Scales and set off up Blencathra at about 2pm, in good weather.

As we got into the corrie of Scales Tarn, the weather broke big time, and our scramble up Sharp Edge was lethal. Conditions were very greasy and slippery underfoot. The mist was down, and for a time it rained quite heavily. My young colleague had never been here and struggled with confidence. We got up Sharp Edge only after long meditation and careful consideration. In any case, to withdraw from Sharp Edge in those conditions would have been more hazardous than going on. An ascent of the Sharp Edge of Blencathra is no mean achievement in any conditions.

So, on and up we went, and we were soon finished. We were further encouraged by three friendly men making their way slowly up the ridge behind us with much talk and laughter. After the summit we descended through pleasant afternoon sunshine to the car and drove directly to Honister Hause YHA. We checked in and had the cup of tea we as Englishmen had been desiring for some time. I saw that Youth Hostels are now licensed. Supper was at the Fish Hotel in Buttermere, taken outside, on a very clear and pleasant evening.