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.

Under the apple tree – a concert at Cadogan Hall

Yesterday to London, to see a concert at Cadogan Hall. We took train in the grey afternoon at 1623, accompanied mostly by homebound schoolchildren. We dawdled a little near Victoria. We popped into the “Turkmen Gallery“, a wonderful, rich, deeply colourful shop on Ecclestone Street that is quite literally an Aladdin’s cave of carpets and artifacts from central Asia. Then we went for an early supper at the Thomas Cubitt on Elizabeth Street. My wife had the fish pie, and I chose the fish and chips in order to try the “triple cooked chips”, which did indeed live up to high expectations. We shared a dessert as the light faded outside and the nearby shops lit up.

Thence through the gloaming towards Sloane Square and Cadogan Hall. The hall is a rather beautiful former church, built in the early 20th century, tastefully converted into a venue with 900 seats. It is the home of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and hence a venue with a rich and deep musical tradition.

This concert was hosted by “Whispering” Bob Harris, the DJ, under his https://www.undertheappletree.co.uk/ brand “bringing attention to amazing artists who deserve to be heard by everyone”. I confess that whilst of course I’ve heard of Bob Harris, I’ve never listened to his programmes. In person an affable older gent, he introduced four very different artists: Judie Tzuke, Jamie Lawson, Emily Barker, and Catherine McGrath. The four of them came and sat in a semi-circle on the stage. Judie Tzuke and Catherine McGrath were accompanied by professional guitarists, although the latter did play guitar herself.

They each sang in turn, and the rest of the time, sitting politely and listening. They spoke of it being the first time they had played live since COVID-19 changed everything. Their singing was delightful; there was no bad nor weak song in the entire set. I think each artist sang four times.

Judie Tzuke sang clear and bright. Jamie Lawson spoke rough and ready and a little vulnerable, perhaps, but his singing voice blew the room away and to be honest, for me, he stole the show – even in such august company. A very powerful and distinctive voice. Emily Barker is also a powerful and distinctive singer whose voice soared out into the hall. We saw her play at a benefit gig at a church in rural Surrey some years back, and well I remember her voice from that night. Catherine McGrath proved to be a listenable and engaging Country music singer, clear and sweet in tone, a daughter of the Emerald Isle.

All the songs were accompanied by some outstanding and exceptional guitar. Notwithstanding Jamie Lawson noting in a self-deprecatory tone that he “only knew three chords” his playing, and perhaps that of Emily Barker, stood out for me – but that’s not to do down the other players. As a guitarist myself I found all the guitaring excellent, inspirational and encouraging. Bob Harris did note at the end that Country music has advertised itself as “three chords and the truth”. It was ever true that most modern guitar-based pop and rock music is just three chords – but that misses the nuance and technical brilliance of some of the arrangements we heard tonight.

In conclusion, this was a great show, with four very different artists singing a range of very special songs. I was touched by the relaxed, accessible, normalness of the artists – not megastars, but people who sing and play for a living to bring pleasure and joy to others. If I took anything away as stand-out special, it would firstly be Jamie Lawson’s powerful singing voice – particularly when he got passionate and really let go – and Emily Barker’s songs: her guitar arrangements and sweet singing. A great night out for a first after the time we have been through.

High Street wet and dry; camping on a mountaintop

By Pendolino to Oxenholme, tilting through the heartland like an aircraft. In Lancashire the weather deteriorated, to pouring rain as the train called at Preston. At Oxenholme, to the Station Inn for a pint and then to camp in their garden. We were the only campers on a wet and windy Thursday evening. Next day, after a breakfast of champions prepared on a Trangia stove in a pub car park, to Sadgill at the head of Longsleddale.

We were away onto the hill before 0800. It was absolutely pouring. I’d not walked a hundred yards before regretting not fetching waterproof trousers. I stopped to put my gaiters on, which helped somewhat. Earlier in the week I had hurt my heel slightly mowing the lawn while wearing big boots with inadequate socks. I was now on the hill with both heels dressed in prophylactic, pre-emptive dressings, a kind of talisman, perhaps, to ward off blisters.

We plugged away up the valley to Gatescarth Pass. I read after our walk that when a railway through these lands was first proposed, back in the 1840s, one possibility considered was a route through Kendal and along Longsleddale, with a 2-mile tunnel under the Gatescarth Pass and into Mardale – the valley now filled with Haweswater. In the end of course, the route chosen for what is now the West Coast Main Line from London to Glasgow, took the much longer and steeper route over Shap and through the Lune valley. What might have been, eh?

Left up onto Harter Fell (778m) and squelch down to Nan Bield Pass, where there was a shelter, one side of which was exposed to the rough northerly wind. We hid behind it. There was a great view of Blea Water, and Haweswater directly “above” or behind it. Then, on up Mardale Ill Bell (760m) and onto the summit of High Street (828m) where it was possible – just, for they are in a north-south direction – to hide for a snack behind possibly the highest dry stone walls in the UK. They weren’t dry stone walls at that moment, I can assure you.

Then the long walk downhill to Patterdale, past the very picturesque and shapely Angle Tarn (I call this one the “other Angle Tarn” to distinguish it from the arguably better known Angle Tarn high up in the northern corrie of Esk Pike.) This gentler and larger Angle Tarn has a little island in the middle with trees on it! Onwards, down to the Patterdale valley floor as the rain eased somewhat. At one point we passed a frenzy of foxgloves, almost as if someone had gone out of their way to seed the hillside with that lovely flower.

At Patterdale we found welcome at neither the Ship Inn nor the Patterdale Inn. Desirous therefore, of leaving the hospitality of Patterdale behind us, we walked with some effort down the valley towards Glenridding. We found St Patrick’s Boat Landing, a little cafe up a flight of stairs, serving tea and cakes. Here we remained, wet and dripping but welcomed by mine host, for a couple of hours.

Refreshed, we set off again, walking up the eastern and more wild side of Patterdale, through delightful woods – a generation or two ago, one might have camped wild here in these remote woods both with impunity and with great pleasure. Perhaps not today – not really the done thing. We crossed to the right-hand side, walking alongside Brotherswater, through still more lovely woodland. At the campsite at Brotherswater, we found no room for us. To be fair, it was a Friday afternoon in late June, whatever the weather. Jaded, we took a short snack and set off yet again.

We slogged through improving weather, our waterproof gear coming off by degrees, until we reached Hayeswater. Here we made the most excellent camp, along with at least three other parties. Our supper was tortellini with pesto, washed down with some very strong beer, followed by chocolate and fruit. A 32 km hike in two halves.

Hayeswater

The next day, we had a breakfast of porridge and coffee, and then struck camp in light clag. We reversed yesterday’s route, more or less, back over High Street. No rain this time, but it was windy in places. In improving weather we descended into Longsleddale, for a total round of 45km in less than two days.

Thence by car to Bowness, thinking we might rent a canoe and relax with some boating on Windermere. But Bowness was full of tourists and there was nowhere to park. It made Ambleside on a busy Saturday afternoon look like a deserted hamlet. Dreadful place, possibly only the second time I’ve been there in my life; I shan’t willingly go back. We left, and took the chain ferry across the lake, and sat with a pint in Hawkshead.

Later, we met up with some friends, and in the golden evening, climbed up onto the summit of Holme Fell near Coniston, and camped right on the summit. Very fragrant and heathery. Sat on the summit we ate well – this time we had a spicy dal, and some Farinata – spicy chick pea pancakes. Though the evening grew cold, there was tremendous visibility and glorious views as the sun went down.

Coniston Water from Holme Fell – evening
Coniston Water from Holme Fell – morning
the central fells seen from Holme Fell, late evening

The long way to a small angry planet, by Becky Chambers

A readable example of what some have referred to as “social” science fiction, that is, science fiction that (at least ostensibly) deals with the human or personal story rather than engines, guns, planets and stars – though all of the latter four items figure in this book. Other examples of this sub-genre would be Maria Dona Russell’s The Sparrow (reviewed here) and Dark Eden by Chris Beckett, reviewed here. We can include in this category, some sci-fi classics like Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness.

I found this copy in a pile of second-hand books in a church in the Peak District, and it did make for entertaining and satisfying holiday reading. To me, that is enough. However, once into it, one swiftly became aware of the rather conventional Californian left-liberal politics and moral philosophy of the author. It’s all co-operation and warm fuzzy feelings, and that’s fine, as far as it goes – even if it all seems a little far-fetched to this hard-headed and cynical reviewer.

At one level, this is exactly what I have long called for – science fiction that is positive, warm and encouraging, eschewing the dreadful dystopian vision of many modern writers. At another level, it beggars my belief at least – there are no convincing baddies in this book, save possibly for a few prison guards. There’s never any sense that things could go badly wrong.

What’s the story? A young, well-born woman escaping from her past, takes a job as a clerk on a ship…a ship whose crew, all have their own secrets. The ship is then swept up into an escalating war, from which they narrowly escape. The plot, which is solid and believable, is pretty much used as an excuse for five or six essays or short stories on the secrets of the crew. We have a nod to Vernor Vinge’s “Fire on the deep” in that humankind are part of a pan-galactic community of sapient species, all connected by some form of galactic internet. We have a borrow from Ursula Le Guin in the use of her word “ansible” to mean a device enabling faster-than-light communication. The author must be familiar with the darker futures described in the works of such writers as Richard Morgan and Alistair Reynolds. She has worked hard to portray something better, and has brought us something – there’s no other word for it – more feminine.

Part of the back-story is that humankind has managed to completely ruin the earth, and yet somehow be technically able to escape to the stars and thus be rescued, as refugees escaping from a desolation, by compassionate star-faring aliens. There’s a strong theme of pacifism in here; the captain of the ship, an otherwise sensible and upright fellow, has pacifist leanings. The “Exodans” – the humans who have escaped from the dying earth, have learned lessons in that escape, ostensibly, about peace and war, about the importance of co-operation versus competition. These are, perhaps, important lessons. It is an interesting position to take, but it is a feminine position. It’s not a position I wholly share. I think aggression, chutzpah, arrogance, risk-taking, curiosity, and immense energy are some of the fundamental qualities that have brought humankind out of the dust. The meek will inherit the earth, as R. A Heinlein’s character Lazarus Long notes, “but only in plots about six foot by three foot”.

In the end, if the author is weak on engineering and logic, she is strong on relationship, on friendship, and on compassion. I’m happy for faster-than-light travel to be illogical or inadequately explained, in exchange for a series of sketches of broken people moving toward healing, towards a kind of very secular redemption. It works, as far as it goes. As a man I’m afraid my suspension of disbelief did fail in places. Humans are nasty as well as good, and the balance is a little too much in favour of the good here. No-one is that nice in reality. But well worthwhile and thought-provoking reading.

Earning the Rockies, by Robert D. Kaplan

The first Kaplan I read was “To the ends of the earth”, an account of travels through dusty, broken lands. I became a fan of his writing on the instant. This book is about the United States: dusty in places certainly, broken in places perhaps, but vital, he argues, to the future of our world.

It is a book full of quotable truism. “Comparison”, he opines, “is painful and not always polite, but it is at the root of all serious analysis”. This is something we learned in geography in school. Our teacher laboured to teach us the importance of the word “whereas”. Kaplan’s father, a truck driver, gifted Kaplan with what he calls a “cruel objectivity”. This work is neither cruel nor objective. Not a hymn of praise to America, more a reasoned defence of the American imperial project, which he argues, has grown out of the physical geography of the American continent. He seeks to “rediscover what is vital, yet forgotten, what is commonplace, yet overlooked.”

He roots the book in the influential work of an almost forgotten man of American letters, Bernard DeVoto. DeVoto’s understanding of the American West was like Devils Tower, Wyoming, towering over the surrounding plain of knowledge. Kaplan’s book is one whose moral and philosophical heart is west of St Louis, at the one hundredth meridian. It is a book that acknowledges the continuing power and importance of the frontier in American thought. Kaplan has to deal robustly with that depressingly popular school of thought that the settlement and conquest of the American West was just a terrible crime. Those grave injustices can’t be swept aside, of course. They are dealt with very well in such seminal works as Dee Brown’s “Bury my heart at Wounded Knee”, which should be required reading for all students of the American West.

I rather like his travelogue style of writing. His observations of places like Wheeler, West Virginia, and Portsmouth, Ohio, are fascinating commentary about the human condition as well as a discussion of the American psyche. Rather like Neil Sheehan in “A bright shining lie” (reviewed here), he draws attention to the Scots-Irish or “redneck” heritage, noting that “America as a democracy has a highly developed warrior ethos”. Americans are a fighting people, he suggests. Civil society in the USA has a far closer and more respectful relationship with the military than you’ll find elsewhere in the world.

Of the politeness found throughout the United States, particularly perhaps in the South and in the Mid-west, he suggests that it is just politeness – it goes no further than that. He writes that we must not confuse politeness with hospitality, such as that found in the Middle East or in Africa. Hospitality helps social stability, he writes, but politeness helps efficiency and production.

His road journey is completed at San Diego when he reaches the Pacific and sees the gathered grey hulls of the U.S Navy. At that point he does get a little misty-eyed, like Natalie Merchant’s youthful soldier in her song “Gun shy”:

So now does your heart pitter pat with a patriotic song
When you see the stripes of Old Glory waving?

The final third of the book seems quite distinct from the rest, and was not quite as readable – although still interesting. The mordant pen of an observant and humane travel journalist is gone. It is replaced by that of the geopolitical analyst with a distinct, refreshing, and quite understandable bias for, and love of, the United States of America. Modern left-wing liberal culture, particularly in western Europe and in the UK, does tend to be dismissive of the USA.

He does mis-step on occasion and say some odd things. To describe Israel, the Baltic states and Taiwan as “robust, venerable and iconic democracies” (as he does on page 136 of my copy) is pushing it a bit, to say the least! But mostly he is right on the money, as when he writes that the European Union, and globalisation itself, would be impossible to contemplate without the “overarching fact of American power“. That’s the plain truth, if an unpalatable truth to some. The bill for defence of western Europe, from Pearl Harbor down to the present day, has been paid for by American taxpayers and in American lives. Because the Americans have 300 warships, the Royal Navy can get away with a few dozen. European nations are able to spend as little as 1-2% of their GDP on defence, primarily because the Americans spend twice that much.

A note on sustainability: he notes in one place that California and the great cities of the American southwest, use the water of the Colorado River in a wasteful, unsustainable way. In another place, he notes that most European countries maintain an unsustainable level of social welfare, broadly made possible because of American power. It’s the juxtaposition here that interests me. These two unsustainable practices may be connected or linked in some way. There’s no maybe about the fact that both will change.

What would America and the world look like today had the continent been settled eastwards from what is now California, rather than westward from the water-rich Thirteen Colonies in the east? Or if the USA had never existed at all? Or if the United States ceased to exist? Not many writers have dared to even think about that last. The continuance and survival of the USA is not inevitable.

The travelogue in the first part of the book is deftly observed and humane. The second part, his analysis of world order as seen from San Diego, is more partisan and more complex to read and understand. In places I don’t agree with his analysis and in places it is arguably disingenuous.

Kaplan’s central premise is that the world needs the USA, and that the USA is an exceptional country with exceptional, even imperial, responsibilities on the world stage. He argues that the reasons for that derive from the physical geography of the American continent – there is no other like it. Similar conclusions are drawn, on a more general basis, by Tim Marshall in his excellent book “Prisoners of Geography”.

This is a book about America, for Americans, and America-phobes need not pick it up. Their view, in the end, is not sought. “Finding the Rockies” was very interesting, very readable, clear sighted and instructive – one of the best books I’ve read this year.

The watermill

The watermill stood at the end of a quiet lane that wound along the valley side through the trees. One came round a corner and up a little rise, and saw it, red brick against the green hill. I first saw it a child, when I’d been taken there on holiday. In the back seat of the car, bare legs against the hot vinyl bench seat, I’d bumped and jolted along that road – no more than a dirt track in those days. When we got round that corner, I saw it, and like my parents before me, I was transfixed. I’d loved that place ever since.  I brought my wife there and introduced her to it, and later, our kids too.

We’d stayed near there on holiday several times in all the ensuing years, growing to love that sweet, familiar little land.  The steep, secret valleys, the winding roads through the woods. The lichen and the stone walls.

I’d stood and listened to the somehow tamed and domesticated sound of the river as it poured over the weir into the mill race. I’d watched as the water poured over the ancient paddles, listened as the tired old wheel creaked round, squeaking and grumbling with age. As if it were saying, Go away! leave me in peace, leave me to sleep in the afternoon sunshine

And we’d been delighted when someone brought that mill into life and made it work again, turning  it into a tourist attraction.  It actually ground wheat into flour. Again and again we’d returned to this place in the rounded hills, to the secret watermill. We’d smelt the flour being ground, the dust sharp in our nostrils. We’d bought that flour and carried it away with us, baked bread with it as soon as we could, on the Sunday after getting back home from holiday. We’d tasted that bread, made from flour we’d seen being ground ourselves. We’d seen the wheat, we’d watched it poured out, and we’d heard the flour ground out. We’d heard the rumbling rollers, the grinding grey stones. Almost like it was our own.

And then the chance came to own the mill. In the afternoon of our lives, the means to do as we’d always wished, coincided with the opportunity to do so as well. We could buy the mill. And so we did; we bought it and we went to live there.  We went down the quiet lane by the river, to sit and listen to the grinding stones and the weir, at the brick mill under the green hills.

On this day in history?

One year ago, 9 May 2020

My diary records this: Andrew Marr, in his “history of modern Britain”, writes that “in the New Labour years, as under John Major, a sickly tide of euphemism rose ever higher, depositing it’s linguistic scurf on every available surface”. True. That said, saying what I think is not part of the programme. There are even thoughts that these days I feel I cannot afford to have. I am someone with deeply libertarian and individualist instincts. I live at a time when authoritarianism and collectivism seems to be everywhere on the increase. Not only that, but authoritarianism and collectivism seem to be increasingly popular. In such a world I would do well to keep my opinions to myself. One of the things I fear most of all is being in a place where I have no time, peace, or private space in which to think. I fear being in a place where being a private individual or spending time alone is discouraged or even not allowed. Some might say, “why would you want to be alone?” but to that I say, “get thee behind me, Satan!”

Five years ago – May 2016

After business in London, my wife and I went to the Clarence on Whitehall, and had an indifferent supper in their excellent upstairs dining room with the skylight and the huge wall map of 18th century Westminster. I had a forgettable burger and a pint of Camden IPA, she had venison shepherds pie and a glass of Pinot Grigio. Total £40.  Good atmosphere, friendly waitress, ordinary food. Then, we strolled up Charing X road and outside the entrance to the Portrait Gallery, we encountered a large crowd, including paparazzi straining for a view with their cameras. We found out that they were awaiting a view of Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge.  In due course, limos and close protection police swept up, and the lady duly emerged to applause and cheers.

What struck me about this stroll in central London was that apart from mobile phones, cameras and the mechanisms used to propel the vehicles, there was nothing in the scene on Charing X road that someone from Pepys’ time would not have understood. What was going on? People were strolling, eating, drinking, chatting. Courting. Buying and selling. The fundamental activities that make up human life in any age.

Ten years ago – May 2011

Jargon: I don’t like the expression “X has a heart for Y” where X is a person and Y is a situation, a country or a problem. Someone at church speaks of having a “heart for France”, the sincerity of which, I do not doubt. But will we “get behind” their “heart for France”, though? Someone notes that as leaders in church, we must articulate a vision to the congregation.

I use the word “vision” here strictly in the modern management jargon sense of “Vision and purpose”, not at all in the prophetic sense of “dreams and visions”.

But leaders, particularly in a church, can end up with a vision statement that their people do not “get behind” – the people may not share that vision. That can be heart-breaking. We have seen all of this ourselves in the past. It’s all very well having a vision for the church if there is no room for discussion, dissent or even plain disagreement. Claiming that it comes from God, even as a clergyman, is a dangerous place to go. Because if you do, you can then brook neither dissent nor disagreement. And we have seen clergy getting into the greatest difficulties by refusing to discuss or entertain dissent. This is not somewhere you can go, neither as a clergyman nor as a boss or a leader in civil society, without the most profound and dire consequences.

Fifteen years ago – May 2006

A church men’s weekend at Wrotham, Kent: Good stuff throughout though more “martial” and less spiritual than I would have liked. That is not to do it down or minimise the efforts of the guy who organised it. In conversation on the Friday night someone mentions a book on courtesy and etiquette amongst the English which I ought to read. I learn that I must take myself less seriously, and also that I must think more deeply – I was comprehensively thrashed at chess by one who I have not considered to be a deep thinker. Clearly he is a deeper thinker than I!! I am encouraged to believe in myself – and to write more.

Twenty years ago – May 2001

Mike Breen of St Thomas Crooke’s Sheffield, spoke to us at a leaders weekend, on Moses, whose life was in three parts. He quoted D.L Moody who said that all people, all Christians, were in one of three phases of life. These were, being made or built, being broken – the desert place, and being used or blessed. It can be a cyclical thing rather than phases – we might be in the desert more than once, used or blessed for a season, made or built for one purpose or another.

Later, off to the Beardmore Hotel in Glasgow with Mrs. H, in a rented car. A pleasant and successful drive up there in a little over four hours. One thing I remember about the long haul up the M6 was the hills around the Lune valley highlighted against a dark and stormy afternoon sky, very beautiful. Visited a number of Charles Rennie Mackintosh sights including the College of Art. Next day, up Loch Lomondside, a nice long walk, cruise on the lake, then round down the side of Loch Long to Helensburgh to see “The Hill House” which was a remarkable place with the most excellent light, even indoors.