Walk the city – a poem of praise for London

See the centre, feel the heartbeat
Chance encounter on the street
Quiet moment, stop and eat
Here a station on a bridge
Here a roofer on a ridge.
Jewelry shops, quiet streets
Little cafes, people meet.
A cyclist has a little dog
In a basket – just fantastic.
Bearded men, well-dressed ladies,
Electric cars and tenements.
Leafy streets and Asian grocers
Seedy dentists, Boris bikes.
Students walking through to lectures
Old facades and building sites
Just one policeman standing watch
A vaulted station roof,
A hotchpotch:
Different buildings, places, people.
This is London, Dr Johnson’s London.

Walk the city, see the centre, feel the heartbeat

An old aunt has gone home to glory, full of years; the last of her generation. I travelled to the funeral to honour her memory, respect my family and to catch up with my cousins. Today, to Derby for the funeral of that last remaining aunt: I travel to London from my home and walk north across this great city toward St Pancras. After my walk I sit in the Black Sheep Cafe on the Pentonville Road, within sight of the vaulted roof of St Pancras station, and reflect on what I have seen. I’ve walked almost at random through the city streets. Why? Because I can. Because of what I might see, because of who I might meet, what I might learn.

First, Blackfriars: a railway station built on a bridge across the Thames. I walk up towards Holborn viaduct, crossing Fleet Street. At one set of lights, the first six cars to pass me were electric vehicles. Ladies and gents going to work. Beards and bare legs: it is warm weather. Buildings I never saw before; streets I never walked along. A man rides past with one of those dignified little lap dogs sat in a front box on his bike. I consider renting a Boris Bike, but decide not to. Men are working on rooftops. Here in Holborn, a jewellery quarter. Further north, leafy residential streets and red-brick tenements. A junior school. Dentists. An Asian grocer. This is inner London. On Grays Inn Road, I even saw a uniformed policeman.

St Pancras International: this station is like a church to me; it is a temple of all that the railway should be. Also, it has been close to the start and end of dozens of significant journeys, right back into boyhood. I first came here, to my knowledge, for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebration in 1977. Now it is Her Majesty’s Platinum Jubilee, 45 years later. Most of all I recall coming here in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, to the tired, grimy and neglected station of the old London Midland Region of British Rail. I remember the old high-ceilinged booking office – now a fancy restaurant. There are railway nostalgists who prefer the station as it was then, but I think it is tremendous, and a great improvement. Today, in my view, St Pancras is in its pomp.

Sitting upstairs in front of the silent electric Eurostar trains all lined up in a row, I can see two grey-beard older brothers taking brunch together at Carluccio’s. A warm wind blows food smells over me, and outside, it is sunny. But here amongst the marble floors and under the magnificent pale blue roof, all is quiet save for the murmur of electric motors and the occasional explosive hiss of compressed air from the trains. Here, I am off the beaten track. Recently a colleague of mine was lamenting the Lake District as being “too busy”. Get off the beaten track, I told him. It’s not difficult. It’s certainly not difficult here at St Pancras.

Arriving in Derby, I walked through the “Castle Ward” and the shopping centre, bringing me out onto East Street. I detoured around a bit, having time to kill. Derby is my home town and I would visit it even if it was rubble and ruins, but like many British provincial cities, its heart is blasted, wasted, almost dead. It is unfortunate but it is not unique: Southampton and Aberdeen, provincial cities whose centres I know well, are not that different. The reasons for the death of the inner city are complex, but the collapse of walk-in retail – people going into actual shops – through the rise of the internet, will have played a part.

I walked down Sadler Gate, along Bold Lane and up St Mary’s Gate. Up past the Cathedral and onto St. Mary’s for a Roman Catholic funeral mass, something I don’t do very often. Then, with some relatives to the crematorium, and onto a wake. The wake was held at a pub named after a railway – the Great Northern. The pub stood on a road built to access a railway that no longer exists. It’s still called Station Road, but you’d have to have an interest in industrial archaeology, if you weren’t from round here, to know where the railway station was. That’s modern Britain for you.

Pavane, by Keith Roberts

This is one of the “SF Masterworks” series which has re-issued, over the decades, some absolutely classic titles. Some of them are well-known to me; others, like this one, I had never heard of. You can see the list yourself here. I’ve read 21 of the 73 titles in the softcover list. It is necessarily some editor’s subjective choice, and there is a tendency for Philip K. Dick to appear rather too often in my view.

But this is about Pavane. A pavane, we read, is a kind of Latin dance. This is important. Roberts has written a work with six “measures”; six long chapters, each of them meaningful, each of them drawing us onto an inevitable conclusion. We start in the late 1960’s, and we finish sometime near the end of the 20th century, describing the growth of, the antecedents of, a very English revolution. A humble engine-driver at the beginning, further on has become a rich business man. His niece becomes the mother of a firebrand aristocrat, the Lady of Corfe, whose actions bring the established order down in flames and ruin. Throughout, there is an older hidden England, a faerie England, at work. It is at work for good. It is a concealed spiritual England such as C.S Lewis hints at “That Hideous Strength” – although he speaks rather, of “Logres”, a spiritual Britain.

Pavane is an alternative history. And it is remarkable as such, for it is a work of writing craftsmanship, a finely shaped bow or arc of story from beginning to end. In this alternative history, Good Queen Bess is assassinated in 1588; the Spanish Armada is successful in its conquest of England, and the entire Reformation is brought to a bloody halt, unlikely as it may seem (more on that in a minute.) The Catholic church militant then reigns from Rome, supreme and unchallenged, for centuries down to modern times.

The story starts in the late 1960’s in Dorset. Part of the attraction of the novel for me was the writer’s clear love of and knowledge of Dorset, an area I know and love myself. Most of the action is set between Dorchester and the Isle of Purbeck.

We see how control of innovation can prevent progress: in this alternate 1960’s, steam traction engines haul goods along rough unmade roads, often threatened by bandits in the woods, and subject to the constraints of impending darkness and winter weather. The use of concrete is tightly controlled and even banned – because concrete can be used to create fortifications, and hence foster rebellion against Rome, which is ruthlessly put down by the Church Militant.

There is no electricity; there is no radio or TV. Petrol and diesel engines have been invented, but the church has circumscribed the use of these new-fangled devices by Papal Decree. But in this world, unthinkable rebellion is brewing slowly, in the woods, in the fields, in the quiet villages. It is a world where the strength of England is found in the countryside.

Writing as a believing Christian here, I sense that Keith Roberts perhaps has little time for church or religion – but he never becomes openly anti-Christian, as in the worldview seen in such work as the “His dark materials” trilogy of Philip Pullman. He writes with a light pen of the faeries, the “old people”, of the old religions and the older Gods – Wotan, Thor, Freyr. In this he prefigures – or at least reminds me of – the much later work of Neil Gaiman in his excellent “American Gods”.

Pavane was very readable, very engaging, and full of delightful and evocative language. If I had a criticism of it, it would be of the opening premise – that the assassination of Queen Elizabeth I, and even victory for the Spanish Armada, would have been enough to destroy the Reformation and the protestant energy and faith of north-western Europe.

I’d argue not. I’d argue for a historical inertia; doubtless there are “cusp” points in human history when much can change subsequently because of a single event. But I’d argue that there are far fewer of them than science-fiction authors might like. I’d suggest the assassination of JFK might have been one; I’d certainly argue that the death from disease of Prince Arthur, allowing his younger brother Henry to become Henry VIII, was another.

But I think, rather, that there is a kind of historical inertia. I don’t think it’s quite so easy to change history through the turn of a card or the flap of a butterfly’s wing. I’d suggest that there is considerable cultural and historical momentum, which is preserved and not lightly shifted. Consider: throughout history there have been many times when reactionary forces might have won on the battlefield, but didn’t – would it have made much long-term difference even if they had?

Realistically would England be that different now if Charles I had won in the English Civil War? Would America today be really that different if the thirteen colonies had failed to prevail in their Revolution? And even if the South had won on the battlefield in the American Civil War, as a slave economy competing in a free market it could never have prevailed against the North in the long term. When the conservative, the reactionary and the traditional meets the progressive, the proactive, and the forward-looking, in the long run, there can be no doubt about what the outcome will be. The status quo is never acceptable.

On foot across the Lakes: from Kirkstone Pass Inn to Great Langdale

About eighteen months ago I went to the Lakes for a bit of wild camping. In the final paragraph of my trip report here, I wrote this: “had I known that public transport in the Lake District was so comprehensive and so well co-ordinated, I would never have brought the car at all. From where I live in East Surrey, the train would be about the same journey time, maybe slightly quicker, and a good deal less tiresome than trudging up and down the M40 and the M6. The train might cost a good deal more than the cost of the fuel – but as any fule kno, the cost of fuel isn’t the true or full cost of motoring.

I journeyed to Windermere by train. Leaving my home in East Surrey just before 0700, I was in Windermere just after noon. It is the Pendolino tilting train that makes this worthwhile and possible, from Euston to Kendal in three hours. The cost was not excessive at £133 return in standard class. After a scotch egg and a bottle of pale ale sat in a sun-soaked corner in Windermere, I took bus 508 up Kirkstone Pass, for £5.10, with a very cheerful and friendly driver who said, “It’s a while since I’ve driven this route. Let’s hope I can remember it”. There were two other passengers.

At the Kirkstone Pass Inn I hopped off in bright sunshine. As I was rigging my bag for hiking, seven or eight motorcycle warriors of one tribe or another roared through on their throaty Harley-Davidsons. It was 2pm. Grinning and confident in physical fitness, I set off up the hill, and was on the first top, Red Screes (776m). From there, along to Scandale Pass and little Scandale Tarn. Here there was a squall and in five minutes I went from using a sun hat to wearing gloves. That’s the Lake District for you – never underestimate the mountains. Further on, to Dove Crag, Hart Crag and finally Fairfield (873m) whence I arrived at 5.10pm. I’d been this way before, some time in the 1990’s. Here you can see the difference between winter and summer conditions:

The first time I was on Fairfield was in shouting rough conditions in about 1979 or 1980, with a school party on a YHA trip. It would hardly be allowed now. From there, down to the somehow ever-gloomy Grizedale Tarn. It is a long way down. Another location with deep memory for me, from that same YHA trip, only the second or third time I’d ever visited the Lakes.

It was with some difficulty that I found a place to pitch my tent. The aspect was geographically similar to that tarn in the Cairngorms (Loch nan Stuirteag) where I’d experienced difficulties last November. A high tarn flowing east down into a wild valley, no obvious camp ground at the outfall and a rising wind. But, a place to camp I found, by the babbling brook, and soon enough it was supper time: fresh tortellini and a tin of 8% stout. I was drowsy; I hardly thought at all. I was in bed asleep well before 9pm. I found that lying in my sleeping bag in the tent, listening to the babbling of the brook, I could be in a place where I was not thinking about anything: awake, but barely even conscious.

I was wide awake by 6a.m and set off at 8a.m, tent dry, ready for adventure. I was on Dollywaggon Pike before 9.30a.m, and from there to Nethermost Pike (891m) and onto Helvellyn (969m) before 10a.m. The first and strongest of the day-trippers were already there, some Scotsmen with good camera equipment. Absolutely stupendous visibility!! Just look at these below. I spent some time talking to the Scotsmen, reflecting that the last time I was here was in winter conditions in 1997.

Ullswater
Striding Edge from an unusual angle
Swirral Edge, Red Tarn, and almost the entire length of Ullswater in the distance

And then, down, through the long morning. Although earlier on there had been few enough people on the mountain, I passed many dozens of folk toiling up the long and arduous ascent of Helvellyn from the Thirlmere side. Why would anyone climb Helvellyn from that side? A dreadful slog, it is. I suppose the ascent from the Patterdale side, involving as it must, either Swirral Edge or Striding Edge, is not for everyone. And not for me, is that steep downhill to Thirlmere: by the time I got to the valley floor, about 11a.m, I was tired and I had stubbed toes. It was very warm and sunny – again, absolutely delightful conditions for photography.

I was starting to think, where will I fill up on water? Odd to be in a reservoir valley, yet for there to be no instantly available drinking water. Water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink…there was a long and somewhat tiring slog through admittedly delightful woods up along the eastern shore of the reservoir, as far as the dam, where I stopped for lunch. Boots off, charge my devices, and sit in a sun-soaked corner. Lunch was bread and butter, cheese, tomatoes, and a little Chorizo sausage. An orange, some chocolate and some trail mix. I drank the remainder of my water. Now I really needed to fill up.

As I set off again, a trio of hikers passed me, two young women and a young man, all festooned with clanking cups and pans and camping equipment hung on their rucsacs. I confess I don’t like it for there to be any stuff attached to the outside of my rucsac. I prefer the clean lines of climbers’ rucsacs and generally don’t even do side-pockets if I can avoid it. One of the girls stopped to chat. It seems that they perhaps, did not realise when they arrived last night, that camping is strictly prohibited on the Thirlmere valley floor. I was just pleased to hear someone speak in a Lancashire accent, whatever this youngster was telling me.

At Armboth, I managed to fill up my water bottles, though I deemed it necessary to add purifying tablets. Onwards and upwards literally; the second ascent of the day, from Thirlmere up over the moor to Watendlath. I shouldn’t have cared to come through here in claggy conditions; the moor, as well as being boggy, was pathless and featureless; one should find oneself very soon resorting to the compass in poor visibility. Initially it was a very pleasant walk through steep meadows with unusual flowers, leading up onto a rather boggy moor. I found this hard going as it was now mid-afternoon and I was carrying 3kg of additional water. And so it was that for the first time in my life I found myself visiting the little hamlet of Watendlath, nestled in a hanging valley between Borrowdale and the Thirlmere valley. There was a tea rooms, and I stopped for a pot of some of the best tea I’ve had for ages, along with some rather nice tea bread. It was 4pm.

From Watendlath, one skirts the eponymous tarn and sets off up a good bridleway to Rosthwaite in Borrowdale. This was an ancient, traditional and much-trod road. It made me think of those many passes of Lakeland through which there is no tarmac road. Sticks Pass across these very moors. The Walna Scar Road between Coniston and Dunnerdale. The Black Sail Pass from Wasdale to Ennerdale. The Scarth Gap between Ennerdale and Buttermere, and the biggest and most important of them all perhaps, the central pass of the Lake District, Sty Head between Borrowdale and Wasdale. There will be others. I came down towards Rosthwaite late afternoon, again, in glorious sunshine, with the aforementioned Sty Head pass visible in the distance, as well as the bright specks of distant cars in the Honister Pass reflecting the sunshine. And all the time, the sound of lambs, and occasional cuckoos.

Sty Head is the notch in the middle of this picture, with the dark mountain behind it.

At Rosthwaite I stopped at about 5.20pm for a pint of ice-cold lager, primarily so I could sit in range of WiFi and update my wife on my location. Though the pint was very welcome, it was secondary to my purpose. Clearly EE don’t have a mast in Borrowdale.

Onwards: first, another tiresome road tramp along around 2km of tarmac, before turning left into the fields again on a path to my final destination today, Tarn at leaves, where I planned to camp. Though at best 2km from the road, it was strongly upstairs, really quite steep. The sun was at my back and though I was flagging towards the end of the long day, I knew I needed to get there. “You’ve got this” I told myself, and I had. I was a little concerned though, that there were no paths onwards from Tarn at leaves. This concern had some justification; the map, as far as it goes in terms of detail (which is not far even on the OS 1:25000 sheet) showed none. But this isn’t the Cairngorms in November. I finally got to the tarn and found it very boggy, going in up to my knees and getting my boots wet right in the last two minutes of an immense twelve-hour day on the hill. But it all dried out quick enough.

I was sat down to my supper quite late – about 8.30pm. For supper I had spicy red lentils, and a chick pea flour pancake – a “faranata” the recipe for which I learned from my son Nat. I can’t be doing with not eating and drinking well when camping wild. To wash my dinner down I had some remarkable and very tasty 8% proof “Sling it out Stout” (though to be fair after that walk of nearly 25km, even Carling Black Label would have tasted like nectar. Well, that’s pushing it a bit, maybe…

The place was well deserted. Though I was happy enough, it reminded me of a sad part of Tolkien. Hurin, released by the devil Morgoth after 28 years in captivity, wanders over the land trying to find the hidden city of Gondolin, whose king Turgon, was once his friend. He knew roughly where it lay, but not exactly. And on some deserted moor, where the wind whistled endlessly through the grass while no-one was listening, he cried out in grief and rage, “where are you, O Turgon, in your hidden halls?” But someone was listening…Morgoth’s hidden servants reported those words back, and the betrayal of Gondolin began.

This tarn is one of those past its former glory, slowly drying out. Slow by no human perspective – it’s climate change alright, but not as we know it. It’s nothing to do with man-made climate change. Tarns like these have been drying out in the Lake District since the ice receded these 10,000 years. There are dozens of them. The word “moss” is often a giveaway, for example, at the Great Moss under Scafell Pike: even a cursory glance at the map tells you there was once a lake there. For all the boggy areas in which went up to my knees when I arrived in the evening, it was a dry camp and a dry strike. After a breakfast of mushrooms, spinach and fresh coffee, I was away again by 8a.m the next morning. What I could not do, is find fresh water to drink. I set off onto the hill with less than a litre of water left, but with a few little oranges and tomatoes.

It was not clear to me where to go from the tarn; I did not want to end up scrambling up and down bands of cliffs: unwise at any time if you’re on your own, a recipe for a coffin or worse if you’re carrying a 20kg rucsac. Once you stumble, down you will go. Don’t stumble!! I pressed on, keeping the dark and seemingly endless (and appropriately named) valley of Langstrath on my left. I remember being in it once on a rainy day, thinking it went on for ever. And I found a fence. Where a man can build a fence, I can safely walk. I followed that fence for quite some way before leaving it, saying farewell as to an old friend, and striking uphill towards Glaramara (783m). I was an hour and ten minutes walking this morning before I encountered a path. That is unusual for the Lakes.

Glaramara unfortunately has a short scramble which I did not recall from last time I was here (which to be fair was 36 years ago when I was a callow youth.) But keeping one’s weight forward works for climbing with a big bag; slightly less unnerving than climbing downward face-out, when the weight and centre of gravity must be kept back to avoid to avoid toppling over and down. I did not expect to see anyone here this early (9.30a.m) on a Sunday morning – way too early for day trippers to get to this location. The summit was deserted and cold. For a short while it was cold enough for me to wear my woolly hat. On the next summit I did in fact meet and have a pleasant chat with a young backpacker, who had camped on the shoulder of Scafell Pike at over 950m above sea level. We spoke of obtaining water; he noted that water flowing in streams off the central massif could be polluted and a problem: he was planning a two-night Mountain Leader Training exam expedition soon, and obtaining water in summer conditions, was a challenge. I was drinking water I’d carried all the way from Thirlmere.

Again onwards to Esk Pike and Esk Hause, the central col and cross-roads of all the Lake District. Also about as far as you can get from a road-head anywhere in the Lakes, although paradoxically enough, probably not the remotest location. Here there were day trippers, mostly up from Seathwaite, Borrowdale. Round here one reflects on the centrality, not of Esk Hause, but of Great Gable. It’s not the highest mountain of course, but it is the central boss, the ice-worn stub of whatever original mountain stood here millions of years ago. Near here I saw some classic “roche moutonnee” (literally “mutton rock”, rock like sheep) whereon there were clear scratches from the ice, quite at odds with the rock’s natural bedding plane, the scratches pointing towards Great Gable in one direction, and down-valley in the other. I do like the landforms left by the glaciers. The hanging valleys, the corries and cols. Truncated spurs. Misfit streams. Terminal moraines. Eskers and drumlins.

Drumlins in Langstrath

Round to Bow Fell, where I started to feel hungry and took lunch. On Bow Fell I encountered an older fellow with his young son, and he was teaching him the names of the summits on the skyline, testing him so he would learn them. I know them, and no-one taught me their names. But I am an older man and I’ve been coming to the Lake District for over forty years. My first trip was in 1977, to the Newlands valley with the Scouts, and we climbed Dale Head in claggy conditions. I remember it fondly. But it is something that would not be permitted today, for two Scouters with no Mountain Leader certification or formal training to take 16 young Scouts on a hike like that.

From Bow Fell, descending carefully, I went down to Three Tarns, where I saw that fellow again with his young son. I was most careful going downhill, though it seemed straightforward enough. I became aware that having climbed Bow Fell half a dozen times at least, I’d never come down this route, only up it. From Bow Fell, at a little after 2pm, I went down The Band, increasingly footsore, until I found myself very slow and very tired at Stool End Farm, about 3.30pm. A child was playing in the farmyard as I passed through, and my hike was over.

The geeky stuff

On day 1 I walked 9.57km; on day 2, 24.46km, and on day 3, I walked 14.28km, to a total of 48km in just a bit less than 21 hours total. On the second day, the 24km was taken over 9 hours and 49 minutes and involved four separate ascents, three from the road.

I used an Osprey Aether Pro 70 which weighed 14kg laden with no food or water. Add to that around 3.7kg of water, 900g of beer and all my food, means that at the start I was packing somewhere between 20kg and 21kg. This is a lot less than I was carrying with my previous rucsac which was about 10 litres larger but a good deal heavier. I’ve written about this before.

I slept in an MSR Elixir 2 tent, and used an Alpkit Skye High 700 4-season down bag, a silk liner, and a Thermarest self-inflating mattress. I used a small Trangia 27 and a small (750ml) metal bottle of bioethanol. I carried gloves and mittens (and used the gloves), a woolly hat and a sun hat (and used both), Goretex waterproof trousers (didn’t use) and Goretex gaiters (did use). I carried about 800g of Lithium battery power packs as well as a cellphone and a smart watch. Spare clothes, waterproof coat, fleece jacket, first aid kit, small pair of field glasses, and a few other bits and bobs, made up the kit list.

I found the Aether Pro too small for my purposes and the tent had to be strapped to the outside. But the extremely light weight of the Aether Pro carries all before it – I love that aspect of it. After a day or so I became adapt at re-packing and found things fitted better, and eventually the tent fitted inside. I have not yet had the Aether Pro out in heavy weather, so I don’t know how waterproof it is without a rain cover.

“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.