Dark Eden, by Chris Beckett

I picked this up in a charity shop in Aberdeen: I’ve been in that shop a dozen times and bought nothing. Then, I go in on a rainy September morning, on the way from one meeting to another, and find not one, not two, but three books. I’m reading all three at once; this one I have finished already.

“Dark Eden” explores what might happen a few generations down the line, if a very few people – in this case, just two – found themselves having to scratch a living having landed with little or no equipment on a deeply unsuitable world. Stephen Baxter covers similar ideas in his “pendant” short stories “Earth II” and “Earth III”. Heinlein touches on it in a brief aside in “Time enough for love”.

Beckett neatly side-steps the science. It is not necessary to explain the biology and geology of his strange sunless world, quite literally enlivened by bizarre geothermal trees. But we’ve seen the life on geothermal vents on the seabed – such things are more than plausible. His forests are islands full of life and light, in a sea of darkness, snow and ice. In the story, the protagonists travel from one such island to another, to make a new life where there is more game, more space, more resources. It is an ancient story, going back a million years on our own world.

Where the story excels, is in dealing with human relationships. It deals head on with the very serious consequences of inbreeding several generations in from just one man and woman. Many of the population have cleft pallettes, hare lips and club feet – and are looked after by their healthier, luckier siblings. Truly a dark Eden, but with the warm light of compassion only now starting to flicker. The primitive society that has formed from the original couple is matriarchal, and the heroine can see that the time for this is ending, and that “the time of men” is coming. The hero, John Redlantern, as well as being a visionary, a Moses who leads his people through the wilderness, is also the first to commit murder, a destroyer of tradition and stability, and also inherently self-centred – it’s all about him.

Wikipedia describes the novel as “Social science fiction” which may not be flattering. But, “social science” is all over the story. Many important ideas are discussed. We see how hunter-gatherers can lay waste to swathes of forest over generations. We see how a matriarchal society can work where there is plenty – but how such a society begins to break down when resources are scarce. We see the effects of inbreeding. We see the importance of tradition in retaining knowledge in a society where there is little or no learning.

What I liked is that this is no dystopia: though things are going wrong, though things are changing, from beginning to end, there is a positive dialogue with what is happening and what has happened. In a genre where so often we find stories focusing on the negative – the very dark but excellent work of Richard Morgan and Alistair Reynolds are just two examples – it’s refreshing to see a positive outlook.

Lorien street

“In winter here no heart could mourn for summer or for spring. No blemish or sickness or deformity could be seen in anything that grew upon the earth. On the land of Lórien, there was no stain.” – Tolkien

A wave of grief washed over me as I crossed the street. Just as I stepped off the curb, I noticed a young woman walking along the other side. She couldn’t have been 20. She was showing a little too much leg for such icy weather, and she didn’t give a damn. The look on her face, at the same time confident and fragile, so reminded me of my daughter, I had to bite my tongue to stop myself from crying.

It was that time of day in deep winter when the light was just starting to fade. When evening and late afternoon are one. The wind was harsh and unkind, cutting at my neck. I pulled my scarf tighter about me. The legs of my trousers whipped about my ankles. Bits of litter spiralled around in eddies. It was the sort of day when snow always seems imminent, but never actually falls. Pushing south, walking blindly, almost at random, I continued into Mayfair. Here were antique dealers, discreet fine art shops, vendors of ancient vellum manuscripts.

All I knew, in my mourning, was to walk through the winter streets of this great city. It was my therapy, my treatment, my medicine. If I stopped even for a moment, I should end up thinking. And if I allowed myself time to think, I’d be lost. I would think of my daughter, who was gone. I could not bear to do that, not just yet. I knew that, in time, I would: I would pause, own what had happened, and move on. But not yet.

I found myself in Berkeley Square, walking down the west side. The trees were bare, and brown, twigs and branches flung accusingly out against the grey sky. I barely noticed myself crossing Curzon Street and continuing into the little maze of secret streets that led out onto Piccadilly. Here, my best efforts not to cry failed me, and the tears came flooding out. For a few moments, I stumbled along in tears. A big city is no bad place for a grown man to cry: you can be on your own, lost in the crowd. Maybe you want to cry alone; maybe, really, you secretly long for someone to notice.

As darkness fell, I stopped to look into the window of a little bistro. A few flakes of snow were just starting to appear.  Inside, an Italian looking man of about my age, caught my eye. I’m not an impulsive man, but I turned nonetheless and straightaway went inside, out of the cold, biting wind. The waiters’ gaze through the window had seemed to contain, in a single split second, all moments. Though nothing was said, something mysterious passed from him to me. Some complicit understanding, some unspoken empathy.

The first thing I noticed as I came in out of the cold, was a cheap framed print of Rembrandt’s “The raising of Lazarus”. So out of place did it look, my eye was drawn towards it. The waiter, already moving to greet me, noticed my looking at the picture, and murmured very quietly, almost under his breath, “anche Gesu piange“. Then he spoke in English, and louder, with words of welcome. I glanced at my watch, and saw that the time was a little after 4pm. I ordered coffee, and after a glance at the menu, some form of cake I cannot now recall.

It seemed to me that the waiter lingered when he bought my coffee, and we spent some time talking, but I cannot recall what we were talking about. Outside, snow fell, and the darkness was complete. But inside, in the warm pools of light, there was friendship. The waiter’s brother arrived, and we got talking. I talked my heart out, I spoke at length. They listened to me and they hardly said a word. I talked about my whole life; about my former wife, about my daughter. They nodded solemnly as I told them about the tragedy of her sudden death. One of them put his hand on mine. The other touched my shoulder.

I thought I ought to get up to leave. I was in a kind of daze. But not so dazed that when I moved to stand up and get my coat, I didn’t spot the lady behind the bar shaking her head minutely. Then she smiled at me like I was the only person in the universe. “But…” I started to say.

“Stay” said the waiter.

Later, more people arrived, and there was dinner. A hearty dish of meatballs in a spicy tomato sauce. Sphaghetti, Garlic bread. Red wine. I could never afterwards recall the conversation at that dinner. It was as if I was an honoured guest at an intimate family dinner, an outsider made welcome at a private occasion for just a few close friends and relations. For a brief while, the burden of my grief was put by.  It was laid aside, like the scarf and overcoat hung up in a little alcove by the door. It was like when someone carrying a huge and wearisome load for many miles, lays that burden down.

For a while I was sat at the bar, talking to the barmaid, the one who’d smiled at me so winningly. She was telling me about her profoundly disabled son, and the struggles they had getting him dressed, or strapped into the car. I sipped a glass of some Aniseed spirits – Pernod, perhaps, or more likely Sambuca, in an Italian restaurant. “Don’t miss”, she said, a London barmaid to her fingertips, “your train”. I gave a start. Then she did something quite startling. In a quite intimate way, yet somehow in no way suggestive or inappropriate, she took hold of my hand, and said something. She said this:

“Don’t look at your watch.” She looked right at me and said again, “Don’t look at your watch. Just put your coat on, and walk.”

I put my coat on. The wonderful Italian waiter shook my hand. I opened the door and stepped out of the warm restaurant, into the cold night air. The snow must have stopped a while ago; I must have been in the place for hours, yet there was just the merest icing sugar dusting on the roofs of the cars. At the corner, I saw the name of the street: Lorien street.

Walking away through that hidden quarter of lost streets, I turned a corner and found myself in the bustle of Piccadilly.  Something was not quite right.  It was too busy for late evening; I’d been sat in that bistro all night, talking, eating, drinking, until after 10 o’clock. Yet here were buses, taxis, pedestrians, tourists. Automatically, I shot the cuff of my overcoat and looked at my watch, and saw that it was just after 5pm. Thunderstruck, I wondered what had happened. Was it even the same day? 

I turned round, and retraced my steps. But of Lorien Street, or of that little bistro, I never found any sign. I’ve been back that way several times, and never found so much as a trace.  Nothing could be found of that hidden place of healing, where those people made me so welcome and were so generous to me in my time of grief. 

Waverley station

One of my favourite places to be “outdoors” is the concourse of a big city railway station.  To have coffee, or better yet, to be at beer, is an added bonus.

After an excellent breakfast at a little deli in Callander, I drove on southwards.  It was interesting to see clouds form over the central valley.  Coming into Edinburgh, there was heavy fog and drizzle, though it remained warm.

On the way down, I happened across an #Engineering #Marvel, and went out of way to go and see it.  Many years ago, touring with a friend of mine, on two occasions, we’d found ourselves at a loose end on a Sunday afternoon, and visited – quite by chance, as it were – engineering marvels.  One was a certain “nuclear installation” on the coast of Cumbria; the other, a radio telescope in Cheshire.  To pass within a few miles of the Falkirk Wheel, and not pay a visit, would be crass.  And I speak as someone who can allow the Flying Scotsman to steam unseen past the end of my garden at 5a.m on a working day, whilst I lie in bed.

I allowed myself the luxury of complete dependence on the Google sat nav to get me to my final destination, with only one or two cursory glances at it to ensure that it knew what it was doing.  There’s no call when using sat nav to switch off your common sense or your sense of direction.  At one point I drove past Fettes College.

But back to the great railway stations: I love big stations.  Victoria, St Pancras. Glasgow Central.  The destinations boards, the bustle and hustle, the romance.  Better still – possibly – in the days of steam, with whistles, steam heating, clatter and bang.  I remember steam heated trains from my youth.

And what of the journey, the pilgrimage, the embracing of change, the understanding that things must change? Steam has gone, but most everything changes.  Tomorrow will be different.  The journey never ends. We must take nourishment from all aspects of it: the good, the bad.  From the  rest and the rush.  From the pleasure and the pain.

On a journey, we may do things differently at the end, than at the beginning.  On a journey we must adapt and learn, most especially from our mistakes.

Mhor 84, at Lochearnhead

I arrived at Mallaig off McBrayne’s ferry Loch Nevis, about 5.30pm on a hot sunny evening. I bought such things as I might need were I to have to camp, and set off south at ten past six.  Lovely motoring through delicate evening light – or perhaps late afternoon sunshine.  It would have been nice to stop, but I couldn’t really spare the time.  I was hampered in places by motorists “pootling”, particularly on the Mallaig to Fort William section, in Glen Coe, and on Rannoch Moor.  The practice of pootling is deplorable.  It is the practice of not driving as fast as the road will safely allow,  and not a mile an hour slower.  That this may be faster than the national speed limit is neither here nor there.  As an aside to the once delightful road across Rannoch Moor, I can see the authorities have found a very cost-effective way of restricting the speed of motorists on that stretch:  Failing to maintain the road.  A road that as recently as ten years ago was quite safe to take at 90 or even 100 mph is now so rutted and pot-holed as to be literally – not metaphorically – a white-knuckle ride at 75mph.

I got to Crianlarich at 8.15pm and I had every intent of staying in the Crianlarich Hotel, which I know had rooms available.  The restaurant was heaving with the Grey Pound, but the reception desk was abandoned.  I rang the bell. I waited. I left. Distinctly unimpressed, I pushed on down the Stirling road towards Lochearnhead.  I’d never driven this road, and it is over thirty years since I was taken along it in a minibus.  Lochearnhead itself has no licensed premises or hostelries of any form whatsoever. Slightly further on, and growing a little edgy as evening wore on, I saw and drove past “Mhor 84”. I stopped, three-pointed and came back.  It was 8.45p.m – the edge of the reasonable time for supper.  I could have ended up in some Travel Lodge in Stirling, or camping rough in the lowlands in some farmer’s field – this is not the wilderness of the Great Glen.

Mine host – a pleasant mannered and rounded Antipodean lady – said she had a room, for which the booked clients had not yet turned up.  On the basis that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, she promised the room to me, even as I stood before her.  Somewhat relieved, I went into dinner, and started a much-needed pint.  This meant that I wasn’t driving any further even if the Australian lady wasn’t good for her word.  But she was.

The room was small and white, with Venetian blinds which at this time of year at this latitude are not a lot of use. There were some great vintage signs on the walls – an RAC sign on one wall, and a training display of the Norwegian alphabet on another.  Some antlers had been salvaged from elsewhere.  I loved the fact that they had been wrenched by main force from a wall panel of that now lost building.  A little scrap of panel remained on the white wall.  A nice touch, was a flask of fresh milk to make tea in the morning.

In the morning I sat down for breakfast and it became clear to me that I had not paid £90 for B&B, only for the bed.  They wanted another £12 or so for my breakfast. I left on the instant, perhaps not with the greatest grace, and checked out.  Nice place, arguably over-priced.

Ten miles down the road in Callander I stopped in a little cafe – the Deli Ecosse – for a first rate Full Scottish with coffee, for a little over £6. Lovely atmosphere, great service.  That’s why I love the free market.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dune, by Frank Herbert

It is quite odd, re-reading Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel, to see his ideas  – written down in the early 1960’s and ahead of their time then – in relation to how we stand today in relation to Islam.

Dune, at one level, is a sweeping space opera, an adventure where two noble families battle for supremacy in an imperial setting – but set in a strange and far future.  Imperial politics are what they usually are – but are also subtly controlled by a shadowy and all-powerful female priesthood, the Bene Gesserit.  Interstellar space travel is controlled exclusively by the Guild of Navigators – and they accomplish it only by use of a difficult to obtain mind-altering drug.  This drug is made from a strange spice available in one place only in all the universe – the desert planet Arrakis, or Dune.  The novel is the story of two families fighting for control of the spice.

But at another level, Dune explores the culture of desert Arabs, and draws heavily on Islamic ideas such as jihad or holy war.  I don’t think a publisher would touch it if it was written today.  Indeed, even writing such a work would put you at risk from those who see Islam as completely beyond or above discussion – much less actual criticism.

Whilst is is broadly sympathetic to Islam and to desert culture, we see parallels drawn between the rise of the prophet, and the rise of Frank Herbert’s central character Paul Muad’Dib, and the holy war or Jihad that Paul Muad’Dib is so keen to prevent.  He sees it in visions and dreams: war, suffering, warriors and fighting, spreading out unstoppable from Arrakis, across the known universe.  And it is the last thing he wants.

As a writer though, two things to note: firstly, Dune as pure story seems much less sophisticated than later science fiction, and second, there is some wonderful mixing of metaphor and adjective, which I record here.  The central character Paul – at this point just fifteen but the son of a Duke – and his mother are marooned in the desert after a plane crash, and “…he inhaled, sensed the softly contralto smell of sage climbing the night…it had brought a stillness to the basin so unuttered that the blue milk moonlight could almost be heard flowing across sentinel saguaro and spiked paint brush. There was a low humming of light…”

I was charmed by the idea that moonlight could be heard, or that the smell of sage could be contralto, or stillness, unuttered.

A visit to Rum

I made a short stop at Bellabeg, to the west of Aberdeen, and with eager anticipation, bought a “locally sourced” Scotch Egg. I thought, that’ll do me. I chatted with the affable English shopkeeper, who waxed lyrical about his local Scotch Eggs. But then he ruined the moment by telling me that his Alford-based local butcher had sent him a Scotch Egg with a Cadbury’s Creme Egg inside. “FFS” is the politest response to that!

I crossed Lecht, did not stop in Tomintoul, and went on through Nethy Bridge, and onto the long, long pull through the central Highlands to Spean Bridge. Lovely motoring; the weather was kind, not a cloud in the sky. I refueled opposite the Ben Nevis Distillery, with the snow-spattered majesty of Nevis behind, against the blue sky of late afternoon. I say late afternoon: it was 8.30pm. At this latitude, in late May, it doesn’t get dark until almost midnight.

I camped wild not far from the shore of Loch Eilt. Apart from midges, which were, to be honest, a bit out of order, it was all I could have wished for. Dry, quiet, beautiful scenery. A lovely gloaming. At one point, a train clattered along the Mallaig Extension, which ran along the other side of the Loch. As soon as my tent was up, I lit a fire, and also got my trusty 35 year old Trangia stove going. Camping, whether wild or no, should not mean roughing it. I had Fillet steak, mushrooms, courgettes and fried potatoes, with tomato and avacado. A bottle of Badger beer to wash away the dust of the road, and a bottle of Malbec with dinner. I sat outside until 11.30pm and even then it wasn’t fully dark. It was a moonlit night. As I prepared for bed, I was casting a shadow in the silent, silvery moonlight.

In the morning, the midges were biting. I flung the tent into the back of the car, and made a swift, itchy escape. I arrived in Mallaig before 8am, and had a full cooked breakfast in the Seaman’s Mission, served by a cheery Polish lady. The Mission here in Mallaig has a remarkable second-hand bookshop. I picked up a little book of photographs of Derbyshire railways (I was brought up in Derby) and Jeremy Bowen’s account of the Six-Day War of 1967.

Later, I sat with coffee as the terrace of the Tea Garden Café. A very expensive latte at £3.40, but worth it to be able to sit outside in this glorious sunshine. Sitting watching the people go by, it was interesting to be able to spot the tourists. Generally older, thinner, English, German. And the songbirds here are tame.

MacBrayne’s ferry “Loch Nevis” sailed at 12.30p.m. Crossing to Rum and Canna, my fellow passengers were young families on holiday, older and younger sea-canoeists, mountaineers, and quite a few hard-drinking holidaymakers.

On the first evening, we took a stroll and walked into a First Response drama. A lady hillwalker had fallen ill, and advice was sought from the mainland. Modern mobile telephony can make these outlying islands much less remote and difficult to access than they formerly were.

The Air Ambulance was dispatched from Inverness. From far-off Inverness, realistically almost a day’s journey from here by ferry and road, in 45 minutes. The chopper swooped in and took the poorly lady off to hospital. It later transpired that she had a brain aneurysm. Whilst this drama was unfolding, we got talking with a gentleman I’d seen on the ferry – one of the hard-drinking holidaymakers. Turned out my sister knew him; a local electrician who had helped build the Rum Bunkhouse. A very friendly and helpful fellow with a strong Skye accent.

Next day, by Jeep over mountain roads to a beautiful and deserted beach, for a picnic. Pale sand, blue sky, hot sunshine. In the distance, the Black Cuillin of Skye could be seen. The sea listlessly gathered itself into miniscule ripples. Even in a full wetsuit, the water temperature could best be described as “Baltic”.

Someone noted of “island life” here, that there was not a glimpse of reality in any direction. Just this morning for a run out through the woods on the south side of the bay. There, for all to see, is a hidden village. Here is a complete village, concealed from view by trees planted some time during the 1950’s. The village is deserted, I’m thinking, since the Highland Clearances. People once lived here: hidden in the woods, are derelict houses, even a complete street facing the shore. Long overgrown, they are a testimony to an almost unwritten history of sadness and pain.

Rum was never a wilderness, even if it is a “national nature reserve”. As someone with strong ideological views myself, the hidden village acts as a reminder how far from reality, how far from the needs of real people, you can drift when you have the means to put your ideas before reality.

On the way back from visiting the woods, I passed the new wooden bunkhouse. A man was sat outside at the morning sunshine. He was nursing a beer. It was not yet 7.30a.m. We finish where we started: not a glimpse of reality in any direction.

A ride on a mountain bike, over a mountain pass, through rocky countryside oddly reminiscent of the macabre fiction of H.P Lovecraft.

Everything seems to be arid and brown, yet this is no desert – there’s plenty of water around. I went to a place called Harris, to see the “mausoleum” built by the previous owners of the island.

Deer appear everywhere, even in the garden, and particularly at night and in the early morning. These are huge creatures, not at all like the tiny Muntjac and Roe deer seen in Surrey. In recent years, the deer fence surrounding the village of Kinloch has fallen into disrepair. It is a big deal, and would be expensive to repair. It is pointless to keep any kind of garden here. Any growing fruit or veg they will consume. Once resplendent bluebell woods have been eaten up. On the plus side, there are no foxes on Rum: the chickens roam free. They can safely go where they please. It makes for tasty egg yolks – if you can find where they were laid.

I visited my sister Fliss Fraser, who runs Ivy Cottage guesthouse on the Isle of Rum.

A Winter in Arabia, by Freya Stark

Delicately, beautifully written.  Rather like Wilfred Thesiger, she draws attention to an Arabia that no longer exists, an Arabia she may have, however inadvertently, contributed  to the end of.  She writes of hidden pools hardly visited by anyone but Bedu shepherds, of strange castles on the dusty, arid, windswept plateau of what is now Yemen.  Of villages where few if any of the villagers have seen a European.  Of casual vendetta and war continued through generations, brought to a fragile and not entirely permanant stop by the “English peace”.  She writes of men with great vices and great virtues, of small men capable of much when tried; of big men who do mean and small deeds.

She is eminently quotable and copyable for inspiration in one’s own thoughts.  She writes, inter alia, “the fear of disturbing the peace tended to limit our plans more than the wars of the old days, when a casualty more or less could make no odds”

The point here being, war tends to collectivize us and dehumanize us, strip away our importance as individuals.  In war, the individual, at least ostensibly, matters less and less.  “One casualty more or less”, one more or one less dead person. But people do matter; individuals do matter.  One person dying matters.  “Jesus wept” – John 11:36.

Freya has a subtelty, a delicacy of tone, reminding me of the sky at dusk, that pastel shade that is so fragile and short-lived. She writes of Arabs, the sons of Ishmael, “a patient and pleasant people, not roused to petulance by the want of supper or by the fact that they had only a cotton shawl between them and the rigours of the night”.

How challenging for us in the west, to me, right now. In this respect for the bedouin she is also like Wilfred Thesiger, who acknowledged in the bedu true and deep nobility and greatness, to which he could not aspire.