Category Archives: blog

A trip to Singapore – November 2019

Outbound: 24/11/19 LHR – DXB

I am in Seat 23K, in an obscure part of the right-hand side of the upper deck of a pretty old Emirates Airbus A380. I would have chosen a different seat had I known I’d be so close to a bulkhead. Rather like this aircraft, I am tired and jaded; it’s late at night and I probably ought to try and sleep, but I’ll probably eat and drink instead.

Sometime on Monday 25th, on EK 352 DXB-SIN

Seat 18K: another business class seat in another upper deck on another Emirates Airbus A380. You start to notice tiny differences between them after a while. On the last leg, for example, we disembarked using the front stairs down to the lower deck and out the lower door. Unusual. On this flight – unusually for Emirates – the selection of films is excellent and watched some of Di Caprio in “Romeo + Juliet” (a favourite of mine), and also watched “Blade Runner” and “The Damned United”.

I’ve done some work too. I’ve boxed myself in, to a degree, workwise. I have to prepare a presentation for delivery to my CEO and the Board on next Tuesday morning. But I plan to take a long weekend with this coming Monday, a day off. I have this business trip to deal with and this important presentation to sort out. Even as I write out the dilemma in long-hand, the solution becomes clear in my mind. Get the slides for the Board sorted first, and all else follows.

Tuesday 26th November, Fullerton Hotel, Singapore

I don’t think I’ve been this engaged with the details of my work for some years. I just took a fairly good night’s sleep in this hotel, sleeping from just before midnight to 5a.m without the night confusions or interruptions that often plague me when I’m in a strange hotel and under pressure. I kept off the drink on the outbound flights, which probably helped, but getting to this hotel room late last night, almost the first thing I needed was a pint. I had to go down to the bar to fetch it, a rather excellent and satisfying IPA, but cruelly and outrageously expensive at S$21 – about £9.

I feel no urge to visit the gym in this hotel. Although it must have a pool, because it is in the inner city and a historic building it seems unlikely to me that it will be open air (in this I was quite wrong.) This room is exquisitely furnished and appointed – but quite inadequate nonetheless. There is no way of plugging your phone in on either side of the bed. The room lights are software controlled – a great cost-saving to modern hotels but a pain in the neck for guests in my opinion. The controls are on one side of the bed only. Though this is a double bed, the room is in effect a single room, designed for lone occupancy. The bathroom is outrageously over-appointed – I mean how much marble do you need in your bathroom? but the shower is cramped and ordinary.

This is the 14th different hotel room I have been in this year. My wife and I stayed at Ettington Hall in Staffordshire. Then, I visited the Mariner Hotel in Aberdeen. There were two places in Italy while on holiday. Inner city business hotels in Jakarta, Bangkok, and Ho Chi Minh City. A hotel in Jebel Ali in the UAE. Two small places in the Scottish Highlands. The Park Plaza Amsterdam Airport and a Novotel in Paris. Busy year. I know hotels and lodging places.

I seem to have energy when by rights I should be feeling jaded from jet lag. There will be, there must be, a reckoning. Am not sure why I am feeling so strong. There are lots of reasons why. In William Gibson’s novel “Count Zero” his character Turner “could only score for the edge at the site of a major defection”. Right here, on this trip, I can score for the edge – I have it, right here, right now. Notwithstanding that, I just found out that I did not make the short list in a story competition I recently entered. I can’t even remember which story I submitted. I’m relaxing after work now: I want the section meeting tomorrow to go well. I know it will, but it is definitely not a foregone conclusion.

Wednesday 27th November, Fullerton Hotel, Singapore

The section meeting went well – a tour de force. It’s always a tour de force when I’m involved. It’s what I do. Everything went well and even when it didn’t go well, it was quickly, professionally and discreetly fixed. This is what I do for a living. Work is work so I see no need to discuss or describe it overmuch. Members arrived and sipped coffee. I made small talk and made sure everything worked. I introduced the chair, and then I spoke at length on various technical matters. Speakers gave presentations. We finished and broke for beer.

Drinks were provided by a supplier member with offices a few blocks away by cab. I got some cash which I didn’t need, and had a couple of pints and some nibbles. For some of those drinks, I took care to ensure I drank what was effectively shandy: I’m still on my master’s ticket at this point. Post-event drinks like this are NOT a leisure activity. I exercised some diplomacy and allowed a few older fellows to bend my ear as the representative of IMCA out here in the east…”and another thing…” A chain-smoking Russian lady of about half my age, someone’s personal assistant, began talking to me. She was very beautiful; she had cheekbones like razors. She was painfully thin and as mad as a bag of rabbits. I found it necessary to make a swift escape, and I retreated back to the hotel for a Club Sandwich and a deep bath – two of my favourite indulgences after a busy day in a far country. A long day.

Thursday 28th November, Fullerton Hotel, Singapore

It’s ten to nine in the morning and I’m sat in the lobby overheating slightly in business dress. I’ve checked out and my task is almost done. Shortly, I and others will pay a professional courtesy visit to a local industrial facility. This hotel has as its patrons, dark-suited men in white shirts, the Grey Pound (wealthy older white folks), and a handful of local Singapore Chinese. The coffee is absolutely shocking; the service, adequate; the atmosphere, wonderful.

Friday 29th November, EK 011 DXB – LGW, seat 7J

The film “Arctic” makes me stop – literally. I have actually paused the film to take up pen and paper. “Arctic” – reviewed here – is a remarkable Icelandic film about prevailing in adversity. There were two characters, and possibly twenty words spoken in the film. It was a remarkable movie about how humans deal with adversity and challenge. Not only the physical adversity and challenge associated with being lost in the Arctic and having to survive, but also the deeper issues of emotional adversity and life challenges.

How ARE we prepared? Our hero has a coat, hat and gloves – equipment for survival in harsh conditions. This is what the safety professionals call PPE – personal protective equipment. PPE guards and protects your physical health. Is our emotional and mental health likewise well guarded?

Wild camping in the Lake District – October 2020

Part 1: To Windermere

I set off from Surrey around 3pm, starting a 300 mile drive in to the Lake District. Whilst without incident as a drive,there was very heavy rain in the Chilterns and then again around Stoke-on-Trent. The M6 Tollway I think highly of – belting along there cost me £6.90 and probably shortened my total journey time by six minutes. What price money? There are people – quite a lot of people judging by the emptiness of the toll road – who refuse to use it as a matter of principle. I confess I cannot get my head round that attitude. Arguing that you can’t afford it, for a one-off journey, cuts no ice. Commuting might be different, of course. Maybe they object to the principle of roads being private property rather than public infrastructure.

I got to my B&B in Windermere in heavy rain, a little after 8.30p.m. Mine host was a rather eccentric and somewhat peremptory older man. Eccentric, in that he’d already admitted (as a businessman and B&B owner) to not possessing a mobile phone. To not own a mobile phone in Britain today, is in my view little more than a fashion statement. Not owning one as a B&B owner indicates an indifference to customers that I don’t find encouraging. Peremptory, in his attitude. Breakfast was exactly 8a.m and appear here in the hall and I’ll show you into the dining room. (This beats by some margin the narrow window “breakfast is 8.30 til 9, any time” offered by a cheery Australian landlady in Weymouth, which became a standing joke in our house for years afterwards.) Always remember – Fawlty Towers was not a sit-com: it was hard-hitting documentary.

My room was a typical B&B room, woodchip on the walls, a sink, no en-suite, comfy bed, tea-making facilities. I went out for a rather dank pint in a local pub, and went to bed, to sleep well enough.

Part II: from Great Langdale to Styhead

Next morning I went down at exactly 8a.m and mine host was waiting for me. He showed me into an empty dining room set for over a dozen people. He served me as good a Full English as ever I’ve had, with a pot of the strongest and tastiest coffee I’ve drunk in years. An excellent start to the day. Before 8.30a.m I had left – through the misty moisty morning to the head of Great Langdale, where I parked the car in some flat land near the road, a mile or so beyond the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel. Getting my gear right took some time, and it was probably near enough 10a.m before I set off.

My rucsac had weighed 16kg at home before so much as a bite to eat went in it. Now, it must have been well over 20kg. I hadn’t walked thirty yards before I wondered if I needed to take a longer warm-up. I considered walking the length of Mickleden, nice and flat, but that meant the horror of climbing Rossett Gill at the end. I decided to stick with going up The Band, so off I went towards Stool End Farm. And as I climbed, I came across the true deliverable of physical fitness. This last six months I’ve been running 20km a week. I walked up The Band in an hour and forty minutes, carrying a 20kg rucsac. I don’t say I didn’t break sweat, nor that it didn’t take it out of me, but my pulse stayed under 100 all the way. Happy with that!! At the top, a rest before continuing up Bow Fell, which despite it’s daunting aspect I found a straightforward ascent. At the top it was almost noon and there was a squall coming, so I stopped for lunch.

Scafell and Scafell Pike

From Bowfell I continued round the Scafell horseshoe. Ore Gap, Esk Pike, Esk Hause, but missing Great End. The weather was glorious, so I continued right on up to the summit of Scafell Pike itself, where I arrived at 4p.m.

Here you can see so much: an unnamed tarn on Middleboot Knotts, Great Gable, Styhead Tarn, and in the far distance, Derwentwater with Skiddaw clearly visible behind

It was cold. On a few occasions I had cause for concern that I should have brought mittens – as well as gloves. From Scafell Pike back down to the col and down the Corridor Route, starting to feel tired. But what wonderful light: Here’s the view down into Wasdale:

At one point, in the pleasant later afternoon sunshine, the path went down some very steep and rocky ground. You can do without that, when carrying a 20kg expedition bag. In Frank Herbert’s novel “The Dragon in the sea“, an old and wise submariner says to a more junior officer, “As a submariner, you only make the same mistake once“. For me as a man in my fifties carrying a huge rucsac, descending a rocky scree or boulder field, that was true. Here, I would only slip or put my foot wrong once. There would be no second chance. Taking the greatest care one does get down, though the thigh muscles ache. One has to be in the position of being able to lower, in a controlled way, your entire body weight, just on one leg. You have to keep your centre of gravity behind you – if it gets in front of you, you’ll topple over in an instant and game over man, game over…

Very tired, I reached Sty Head, and opted to camp there, on flat ground by a babbling brook.

Styhead

For supper I had fresh tortelini and some sausage, with onion, garlic and pesto. I use a very old and battered Trangia stove, the smaller “27” model. It has served me well for nearly 40 years. With this stove I feel rather like the proverbial man who has his father’s axe – I may have replaced some of the parts. On the hill I was munching through a small tiger loaf bought in Windermere, with Red Leicester cheese, butter, cherry tomatoes, and a satsuma. I was also using a trail mix of sultanas, raisins, seeds, salted peanuts and chocolate chips. This was inspired stuff – a mix of fast and slow energy. I learned this trick from a teacher when I was in school. And because I can afford the weight, a counsel of perfection for my evening meals was a bottle of Malbec, though wine and bottle weigh over a kilo. It’s an absolute fundamental to me that wild camping doesn’t mean rough or hard living. Camping doesn’t imply “roughing it”. Life offers enough difficulty as it is without adding further artificial complexity.

It was very cold overnight – an unpleasant cold breeze blew in through my air vents, til I shut them, at the expense of increased condensation. During the night the moon came out, which caused me some odd dreams and I did wake up briefly.

Part III: from Styhead to Buttermere – a round of Black Sail

My breakfast was porridge with a dash of Scotch, black coffee with a good deal of sugar, and a sausage. Breakfast of champions. Despite the cold and clear sunny morn, I had what was effectively a wet strike because of condensation. I shouldered my pack and set off towards the path. I passed a fellow out running with his dog, going in the Wasdale direction. It was about 9-ish. I reached the bottom of Aaron Slack and started up. The last time I was here, was twenty-odd years ago, coming off Great Gable with a friend of mine in absolutely dreadful weather: it was the time we met Todd, a lone American youth. Taaaarrrd, as he pronounced his own name, was rather over-equipped, we thought, at the time – probably August. I didn’t feel over-equipped now in October.

I was carrying an MSR Elixir 2 hike tent, an Alpkit three season down sleeping bag, a Thermarest mat, the smaller (size 27) Trangia and about a pint of fuel. A full set of spare clothes, a first aid kit, maps and compass, a hip flask, two litres of water, and food for two more days on the hill. Don’t forget the (hic) half a bottle of Malbec. And of course a pen-knife. And a small pair of field glasses. Waterproof trousers and jacket, fleece, scarf, gloves, wooly hat. And I carried that lot up to Windy Gap between Great Gable and Green Gable. And there, I met a chap with a dog. “Don’t I know you from somewhere?” I almost said. Sure enough, it was the same guy. In the time it had taken me to grind up Aaron Slack, he’d RUN up Great Gable and down the other side. And I thought I was fit. He had a friendly and well-mannered grey dog, which whilst I was sat down, came over to see me.

Just look at the view: Pillar is on the left there. Ennerdale centre, and Red Pike just right of centre. Crummock Water is visible to the right, and the coastal plain beyond all.

From Windy Gap onto Kirk Fell: my first navigational tactical error of the day. Staying high is always good advice when hillwalking, of course, particularly in such beautiful weather. I could descend all the way down to the Black Sail hut and then back up the Black Sail Pass to Pillar, or, I could stay high on Kirk Fell, but come down off the fell to the top of the Black Sail Pass. I could see on the map that the descent went through “Kirk Fell Crags” but I didn’t pay enough attention to the detail. Coming off Kirk Fell, I not even see how steep; the land dropped away. The path descends very steeply through rocks and screes. Indeed, no-one could come up that path without actually climbing or scrambling – and I must descend with that huge heavy rucsac.

Mixing down-climbing – descent face-in (making one feel very exposed, but much safer) and going down face-out (you can see where you’re going and you feel safer, but it’s always more hazardous and you’re more liable to slip) – I got down. I recalled advice about visiting the Black Cuillin of Skye. It was simple: if you’re not comfortable climbing downwards, don’t. Don’t go to the Black Cuillin. Down-climbing is a tricky technique to learn and you have to learn to trust your hands and feet. It is the better way down steep places, especially if the rock is wet and greasy. Here, all was dry. Had it been wet I would probably have turned back. Concentration and effort took their toll and I was morally shattered by the time I reached the col. Were it not even 11 o’clock in the morning I should have been tempted to reach for the hip flask for a swift steadying double. I resisted. Climbing onward toward Pillar, I was starting to feel a little jaded. I stopped for my lunch half way up at a “Pile of Stones”. Again, lovely scenery and such clear air.

At Pillar I needed to think: whilst there was no pressing rush, it was decision time about my further route and my final destination. Would it be Haycock and Steeple and then down, or would I go down from here, and then up and over into Buttermere or onto the Haystacks? I needed to start curving round and positioning myself to be within 4-5 hours walk of Great Langdale by nightfall. Here, the second tactical navigation error of the day. Instead of dropping directly off Pillar towards Ennerdale, I dropped down to Wind Gap, the next col, and down from there. The paths looked similar even on the 1:25000 map. But the valley route was the steeper and rockier, down into a deep corrie wherein, to my ears, were nesting some raucous birds of prey of some kind. A wild and little-visited spot for Lakeland.

A boulder-strewn hillside above Ennerdale

Some way down, I found I had lost my fleece; it had fallen off my pack where it was strapped on. I dropped the bag and set off uphill in the sunshine to look for it. But how do you find a dark grey fleece on a boulder-strewn sunlit hillside? I had neither the time nor the energy. By mountaincraft and not by luck, there was nothing of any value in the pockets of the fleece – save for all my alcohol gel and a mask.

Downwards to the edge of the industrial forest of Ennerdale, crossing a stream on a fallen log, on through the dank moss-ridden woods. I do love a forest but this place made Fangorn look friendly. In the distance far below, orange. I emerged onto a forest road where three absolutely enormous tracked logging machines stood. This is a deeply industrial environment, in the heart of some beautiful countryside. Then, a long and tiresome five kilometre tramp uphill alond the forestry tracks to the Black Sail Hut.

The Black Sail Hut – probably the most remote youth hostel in England

After a brief snack of bread and cheese at Black Sail, my final climb of the day, through the Scarth Gap into Buttermere – this was familiar terrain. Down into Buttermere for supper and camp at dusk.

Part VI: Buttermere to Great Langdale by bus

I camped in a little dell by the lake. It was a warm night on the Buttermere valley floor – much warmer than up at Sty Head. The forecast rain started at 7a.m, so I had a full wet strike. My supper and my breakfast were the same as the night before – for supper, tortellini, with sausage and pesto, and for breakfast, black coffee, and porridge with chocolate chips and a dash of Malt Whiskey. Dalwhinnie, I think this was, though after being stored in a hip flask it might as well have been Grouse. The second half of the Malbec slipped down nicely and I did not begrudge carrying the extra 1.2kg. As I weigh 91kg, I feel I can afford it. Nor did I begrudge carrying 250g of butter, 200g of cheese, 400g or bread, or an onion. Camping wild and backpacking doesn’t imply living rough.

I walked out the mile or so to the Fish Hotel in light rain, and was very pleased to find a bus to Keswick leaving in half an hour! Just enough time for a quick latte in the absolutely excellent Syke Farm Tea Room. The bus was driven by an amiable scotsman who a number of times had to stop and grab a seat cushion which kept falling to the floor each time the bus went round a corner. It cost £6.40 and ambled through the rain along the shore of Crummock Water, before climbing over Whinlatter to Braithwaite and Keswick.

At Keswick what to me appeared to be luck continued: twenty minutes stood outside Booths in heavy rain and I was onto a big double decker, bus 555, for the journey over Dunmail Raise to Ambleside. Cost: £9.40. At Ambleside I got off a stop too early even that didn’t prevent me from catching bus 516 to the Old Dungeon Ghyll, cost: £6. My journey by road from Buttermere took barely three hours and cost £22. A private car couldn’t have made the journey in much less than half that time. I would have been ready – though perhaps not so happy – to have paid three or four times that amount for taxis.

Had I known that public transport in the Lake District was so comprehensive and so well co-ordinated, I would never have brought the car at all. From where I live in East Surrey, the train would be about the same journey time, maybe slightly quicker, and a good deal less tiresome than trudging up and down the M40 and the M6. The train might cost a good deal more than the cost of the fuel – but as any fule kno, the cost of fuel isn’t the true or full cost of motoring.

Back in Langdale, I swiftly changed into town clothes, under grey lowering skies and pouring rain, and retreated back to Ambleside.

“The divided country” by Michael Anthony

I was given a copy of this book by a family friend. She may have bought her copy direct from the author, for we read in the endpapers that Michael Anthony lives at Melbourne in Derbyshire, only miles from where our friends live in the big-sky country of the Trent Valley. The cover of the paperback has a drawing of a little African girl drawing the title of the book on the wall.

I had no expectations other than the recommendation of my friend, which was enough. I was not disappointed. The author covers a tremendous amount of ground. The action moves from Ulster during the Troubles, to South Africa in the time of apartheid, and on through to the modern era. We move from seeing things from the viewpoint of the Catholic Irish in Ulster, to seeing the position of native black and coloured Africans in the rural Transvaal, during the time of apartheid. SPOILER ALERT: Feel free to stop here if you don’t want the plot revealing!

The author is a former special forces soldier and will have seen and done much. Experience always illuminates good writing. We start, following a rough Belfast childhood, with the IRA’s guerilla war in the cold, damp darkness of Ulster in the 1970’s. Very “Harry’s Game” – there’s even a Catholic priest working toward the spiritual and practical support of the IRA. On that note, this would make an excellent film.

The action moves from the Emerald Isle to the Transvaal – a place not unlike Ulster in that it was fast stuck in the deep-rooted hatred, bigotry and intransigence of a Protestant overlordship. The story continues, skipping lightly over years, until suddenly, something dramatic happens. Then, there is a moment when you hear the sound of “lock and load” and you think the book is going to descend into traditional “lone wolf military hero takes on the baddies and wins” territory – as have a hundred lesser books and films.

But it never happens! Interestingly, the author puts some words into the mouth of a senior IRA officer, describing our hero thus: “he does not operate within the parameters of predictability”. I paused at that point to stare into space: do I act within “the parameters of predictability”? Am I predictable? Of course I am. For me and for most of us, it is no weakness to be predictable. But for the professional guerilla soldier, being predictable is death. For such people, to be unpredictable is an essential strength. Michael Anthony’s novel has this strength. It take unpredictable turns. The author does not always “operate within the parameters of predictability”.

From a moment of wild violence, to a court room drama – our hero ends up in prison. And you think, he’ll be out soon. But again, this is not a predictable book. It does not become a prison memoir, and he is not released. In the turn of a page, nineteen years have passed and our hero is a white-haired old man whose life has been spent in hard labour. I’ve not even mentioned the little girl on the cover of the book yet! She plays a central role. I will say this and no more: I mentioned “Harry’s Game” earlier; in Gerald Seymour novels, the hero always dies before the end…

The book covers the indomitability of the human spirit and shows human courage unto death. We see the deep-rooted nastiness and hatred that can arise when things turn sour for generations without end, even for centuries – as in Ireland, as in South Africa, as in the Balkans and elsewhere. Whilst this was an excellent and captivating read, in the end, I thought the author kept redemption and reconciliation under tight control. I think redemption needs letting loose – it cannot be kept in or caged.

A brief visit to Colombia

As the ship approached the coast, it was clear that an immense thunderstorm sat over this part of coastal Colombia, towering forty thousand feet into the sky over Santa Marta. The gloom grew as evening wore on, partly from the failing light, partly as we slid underneath this colossal storm. Lightning flickered, and the storm took all our attention as the supply ship Gulf Service lumbered along, rolling gently in the swell.

We made landfall at Santa Marta just as rain started in earnest.  The lightning was almost constant by this point. We waited patiently for the shore agents to arrive, listening to the warm rain lashing down. When three vehicles swung into the dockyard, we gladly ran out into the downpour to climb in and ready ourselves for the journey to the airport. The route lay along switchback mountain roads, during which the rain increased to an absolute tropical frenzy.

At the airport, we all checked in, and retreated to the café to drink beer. Outside in the darkness the rain came down.  Later, around 9.30p.m or such, the aircraft arrived, and we paid for our beer; a vanishingly small amount for the thirty or forty beers we had sunk, perhaps thirty bucks US. As we boarded the plane the rain was still falling, lightning was still lighting up the storm clouds, thunder booming away even above the noise of the engines.

At Bogota, we collected our bags, and almost immediately made the acquaintance of the security teams, the “Men in black”. These were smartly dressed, unfailingly polite, handsome and fit looking young men in dark business suits, all clearly but discreetly armed. Part of the experience of visiting a country like Colombia at our employer’s expense. James Bond eat your heart out! Swiftly then in MPVs to the hotel, where, after a swift check-in we went to the bar for more beer – as you do. It was after 11p.m when we arrived. I called it a night at 1.20a.m; some of my colleagues were still going strong at 5a.m.

After a troubled night’s sleep I didn’t go down for breakfast until 9.30a.m, and breakfast was superb. Freshly prepared omelettes with all the trimmings, fresh orange juice and black coffee. Can one ask for much more for breakfast? Together with a colleague I took a stroll around the enclave surrounding the hotel, buying a few trinkets in the process. Cash was easily available at the ATM, and it was conspicuous that the cost of living was low, in that the amounts of cash available in the machine corresponded to low dollar amounts. Also very conspicuous were the private security guards, everywhere, in various uniforms, all heavily armed, all polite and well mannered, and many with dogs.

Around 2p.m we set off for the airport.  As we arrived there, the depth of security was revealed.  We noticed the point car behind us as we’d motored to the airport, and as the five of us moved across the road into the terminal, it was clear to see four of the immaculately suited and suave armed security guards forming a box around us, and all very alert and attentive to his surroundings.

After another wait of half an hour or so we were all safely checked onto an Iberia flight to Madrid, and off we went. As we passed onto the airside, the security guards asked me if I’d thought their service was good. I thought it was and I said so. But as we passed through Customs and Immigration – and this is no lie – I knew it was going to be alright. The guy on the customs desk was a long haired youth in his twenties, and he was listening to Nirvana.

Twenty weeks of Coronavirus

We’ve had thirty days of lockdown; let’s review the diary since mid-April.

23/4/20: It IS the end of the world as we know it, and I don’t feel fine. It’s easy to have good and bad days in this lovely springtime lockdown. But don’t get bitter – get ready. The worst is yet to come; the slow-mo apocalypse is happening all around us. It’s pointless to mourn for old England, for she is gone. No use crying over spilt countries, or mooning over past glories. There’s no slow return to normality, where all the angst-ridden environmentalist Guardian readers can assuage their guilt whilst still going to Waitrose three times a week. There will be shortages, there will be privation. This time now, it’s like the “phoney war” in spring of 1940. Ask someone who lived through the cold winter of ’47/48 what they thought about that.

25/4/20: Andrew Marr writes, “The most fundamental thing WWII changed was the political climate. It made democracy fashionable”. What will Coronavirus change? Civil liberties are no longer fashionable, that’s for sure.

28/4/20: It is possible that earlier reports of the demise of Merrie England, may (recalling our Mark Twain) be exaggerated. What is not in doubt is that that classic English quality of understatement, really is dead. And that, my friends, is moderately displeasing…

8/5/20 – VE 75: An action-packed day. We put up bunting, cleaned the house, made some party snacks, and had afternoon tea outside, dressed, so far as was possible, in 1940’s clothes, with red, white and blue in them. An absolutely delightful time of (socially distanced) fellowship all along the street in lovely warm weather.

16/5/20 Reading Margaret Attwood’s apocalyptic novel “Oryx and Crake” which has been a remarkable journey. Shouldn’t have done it really – not really appropriate reading for the current times, at all. Her story-telling draws me along and as an amateur writer, much I ought to learn from her.

18/5/20: The lockdown draws to an end, such as it is. This may be disastrous and cause a resurgence of the disease. Long have I maintained that the lockdown itself will cause more damage in the long run than COVID-19, so “disastrous” is a relative term. Workmen have returned to repairs on the aging railway embankment at the foot of our garden. A piledriver bangs its very necessary but distressingly loud way through the day. I’m informed that this particular embankment, between Croydon and Oxted, is one of the worst examples in the country, of cheap and nasty laissez-faire Victorian private sector railway construction. Who knew?

24/5/20 My latest read was written by my namesake Richard Hough, and is a biography of Captain James Cook. Very interesting reading. I made some oat crackers. We’re making a lot of our stuff bespoke now: bread, muesli, crackers, even pasta sometimes. Chutney when the apples are ready. With my wife to wish happy birthday to an old lovely older gent who lives locally. He has the habit of paying NO attention whatsover to anything you say, and yet he manages to do this without conveying offence.

31/5/20 This evening we had two friends of ours over for socially distanced drinks, at a table on our patio. It was the first social occasion for months other than the VE 75 celebration. Oddly enough, this couple were actually the last people we socialised with in the old times. We enjoyed a pleasant pub lunch with them in the White Hart at Brasted, on the weekend before the lockdown started.

5/6/20: This morning, on my walk, politics and moral philosophy are banging back and forth around in my head like my brain was an empty tin can with a handful of dried peas thrown in to make a rattle. Is it only me that happens to? I read in John Martin’s “Raid over Berlin” “…a long established group of five [prisoners of war] who…to some extent shared things, but not food. This was always individual as it was so precious“. An interesting observation of prisoners.

14/6/20: Last night I dreamed of writing a screenplay for John Wyndham’s classic novel about telepathy, “The Chrysalids“. I woke up and started fleshing it out from my recollection of the chapters. I ended up re-reading the whole book. Would anybody go to see such a film? Or watch it on Netflix?

21/6/20 Father’s Day. I receive some cards and a crate of beer. A good day. “…patiently with invisible structures he builds, and as patiently we must pray, surrendering the ordering of the ingredients to a wisdom that is beyond our own” – R.S Thomas, “Adjustments”, writing of a greater Father than I.

27/6/20 Today I made a cash purchase! I bought some shoelaces from the guy near the station. The first cash purchase since sometime in March. Later on my son and his girlfriend came to visit for socially distanced lunch and supper, and we had a feast of delightful food made by our middle daughter.

8/7/20 A morning of heavy rain. This is the first morning since all this began, that my early morning routine has been disrupted by the weather. So I’m sat in the bower at the end of our garden, listening to the pleasing and refreshing sound of rain on the roof. Looking out across the lawn, I can see it has prospered wildly from the rather smelly lawn-food I spread on it the other day. It is clear however that I did not spread it in an even way, for the prosperance is blotchy. A bit like all our lives!

Near Westminster cathedral

15/7/19 – a little over a year ago.

In about half of my ways, O Lord, do I acknowledge You…coming through to spend time in Westminster Cathedral in my lunch break, I take a back street behind the head offices of John Lewis – Ashley Place, SW1. This lunchtime two things struck me.

The first is, the large piazza outside Westminster Cathedral has no cafes – not one. It is remarkable and unique for that reason. London itself, outside Covent Garden and one or two other areas, does not seem to have the cafe culture it could have or ought to have – ’tis a shame. Cathedral Piazza may be one of the biggest and most prominent squares in the whole of Western Europe that has no cafes. In any other city in Europe, a square like Cathedral Piazza would be absolutely crammed with tables and waiters from Easter til late September. Every square foot of building round the square would be tenanted by cafes and bars. Even in northern cities like Oslo or Stockholm, a square like this would be full of people eating and drinking.

The second is the homeless: I have taken this back street for years to avoid the ubiquitous Big Issue sellers on Victoria Street. There is a limit to the number of times you can buy the Big Issue. Over the last few years, it has become a place for homeless people. It is out of the way, hidden from traffic, largely free of uniformed policemen, and hidden from the bustle of Victoria Street. Today, two derelicts, lying in the street. Where did they come from? They were always there – they are not, in general, very young people. They are generally white Anglo-saxon men of military age. Other ethnicities tend to be much rarer, and few women – though there are one or two. I bought the Big Issue at intervals from a gap-toothed but cheerful street lady round here, often from the front of Pret outside Victoria station. The whole issue of mental health – particularly for men – is highlighted by the unfortunate people found in these streets. To say nothing of social justice. But even though it seems an inappropriate question, it is a question deserving of an answer: why are these homeless derelicts nearly all white men?

21 lessons for the 21st century, by Yuval Noah Harari

If you can’t afford to waste time, you will never find the truth”. When you think about that, it’s either nonsense, or it’s the deepest profundity. Yuval Noah Harari’s book contains a handful of similar memorable quotes – another is “the problem with evil is that in real life, it is not necessarily ugly. It can look very beautiful”.

Overall I found this work rather negative, much harder to read than his excellent “Sapiens”, reviewed here. Today we rightly go to some length not to notice or to judge the characteristics, background or ethnicity of people. It really ought not matter, and of course it doesn’t. Now, with some writers you have little idea who they are, or what their politics are. The author is invisible; the story, the writing, is all. John le Carre is one such. But Yuval Noah Harari is not. The reality is that when reading him, it is impossible to ignore the fact that he is gay, very secular, and a Jewish left-leaning university professor. He seems to have a very low view of the human race, which may be partly understandable, but it is not a view I share. I have no time for that depressing but popular school of thought that sees humankind as a Bad Thing.

An important point he does make is that this is not a timeless age, these are very changeable times. He notes that a man in 1020 A.D would have been able to predict, with a reasonable degree of confidence, that things in 1060 A.D would be pretty much the same. That would be true through much of human history perhaps, until the 20th century. Then the pace of change really does start to pick up. Exactly why that was, would be the subject of more debate still.

Harari argues that today, in 2020, NO-ONE really knows what 2060 will look like – and this was written before COVID-19. How much less now? I can’t even see what the state of civil society will be in six months from now, much less forty years. In 1920 you might have dared to predict 1960 with some degree of success. But he suggests that to dare to predict 2060 would be pointless. (Actually, there are a number of writers and philosophers who do make just such predictions, though Yuval Noah Harari, as someone working in this area of thought, seems oddly unfamiliar with their work.)

He argues that the central skill that our young people need today, is not (only) the traditional “three R’s” or even STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths), but the ability to deal with change. And that our schools – us in effect, we elders – have failed to deliver this. Resilience – the ability to adapt, to be open to change. To recreate oneself, to re-engineer who and what we are. As someone once said to me, “the jobs of the future are the jobs of the imagination”. How do we recreate ourselves, not once, but again and again and again over the course of a career? How do we earn a crust in a world we can’t even imagine now?

But for all Harari noting that the pace of change may be accelerating, it is worth recalling that developing technology rendered it ever thus. There are not many fletchers, thatchers, archers, or ostlers around today. When trains were invented in the mid-19th century, coachmen, coach drivers, owners of coaching inns and so forth fought long and hard to restrict or prevent the spread of railways. They knew – they knew! Their jobs were going to disappear. But new jobs emerged. New trades became necessary. Harari argues that new jobs will cease to emerge as technology develops and as machine learning and AI improves, but again, I don’t share that view.

Dealing with constant change is just one of a number of important themes and ideas emerging in Yuval Noah Harari’s book covering some of the great philosophical questions of our time. Overall, his analysis of dramatic and unknowable change for the next 40 years, is somewhat despondent and a little overstated. Rather like George Orwell does in “1984“, he underestimates the power of cynicism, inertia and idleness, to say nothing of snobbishness, pride and vested interest. It’s a bit like when classic mid-20th century science-fiction predicted that we’d be on Mars by the end of the century. It never happened – not because we couldn’t, but because we didn’t. We couldn’t be bothered, or because other matters (the Vietnam War for example) were more important.

But one premise does keep me thinking: what if you were ruined tomorrow? What if – as Harari wonders – everything changes and your livelihood completely disappears? What are the steps to reinventing yourself? How do we deal with ultimate change? We’re all going to die eventually, so ultimate change really ought not, at least for Christians, be too hard to deal with. But the post-Christian mind, or the un-Christian mind, has less training to deal with that, perhaps. How do you deal with constant change in life? Not once but again and again and again?

Seismic survey in the North Sea, 1989

Starting work at midnight, everyone piles into the instrument room at the absolute last possible minute. I’ve been on crews where you start work at 11.35 and your oppo leaves exactly at midday or midnight. On this crew, it was the other way round – you start work exactly at just before 12, and your oppos leave about 12.25 or so, earlier if possible. It doesn’t matter which you do – so long as everyone does the same thing.

We’re in a long line change. The first thing we learn is that all the starboard guns are on deck for repairs and the gun mechanics need a hand. Us two assistant observers head for the gun deck on the instant, followed later by the Observer, once the handover is complete. There are several problems. A supporting U bolt needs replacing and welding into place. One gun has a water leak in the umbilical line. Another gun needs it’s actuator replacing. This last we can do; it’s just heavy work with spanners. All three observers and all three gun mechanics work hard for a while, and eventually all the tasks are completed. The guns are launched at the last minute – only just in time as the survey line starts.

We shoot the survey line; it is mostly uneventful. An observer watches the tell-tales on various computers, of the seismic cable and the guns, and the navigator (or surveyor) steers the ship. It is 3a.m and blowing Force 5-6. There is some swell noise on our seismic recordings – that is, the sea is rough enough to start distorting the reflected noise from the guns when it appears on the seismic streamer, which is towed around 8m under the sea surface.

After the end of line, I perform a set of daily diagnostic tests on the recording instruments. This is a contractural requirement. It’s routine work but we do it for a reason, to spot problems as they crop up. After the test, it is 7.50a.m. My colleague replaces me watching the streamer, and I go for breakfast: sausages, bacon, tomatoes, chips, toast and marmalade, and tea.

We come round onto the next line, and prepare to start shooting, but the wind has risen to Force 7-8, and the swell noise in the direction of the line is unacceptable to us or the client’s representative. We have some options on this prospect – we can swing round to try a line in a different direction. The new information is programmed into the navigation computer by the trainee navigator, his boss keeping a watchful eye. Time passes: the swell noise is no better.

Then there’s a call on the intercom from the bridge, about the rising wind and worsening sea conditions. We agree; it is too rough to continue shooting. I’m despatched to the mess to tell the gun mechanics to stand by to recover all the guns. By now it is Force 8 outside and Seismariner is starting to move. The guns are recovered in stormy weather. Driving rain is hammering down, hissing on the surface of the sea. Because of the weather it takes a while, about an hour, to get all the guns aboard safely. Next, I accompany the chief mechanic and a gun mechanic up onto the quarter deck to help bring in the booms. These extend 21m either side of the vessel and are controlled hydraulically. It is pouring with rain and a sharp gale is ripping at our clothes. We’re all glad to get back inside afterwards and clean up.

I sit down shortly afterwards in the instrument room with a cup of tea. Everyone is sat around, talking. The wind is still Force 8. It’s not a BAD storm, but storm warnings are being broadcast on the teleprinter. The words “cyclonic depression” are seen. It is 10.30a.m. Suddenly, Phil, the deputy party chief, makes his decision – “get the cable in!” We stare: it’s a three-hour job in the wet and cold, and hard work. We finish work at noon…

But Phil has a hunch about the weather; that’s what they pay him for and he is right. There’s a delay about then as a trawler crosses our stern about a mile back – on top of the cable. Crash dive the cable. Fire flares into the rain and wind. By the time we start recovering the cable, it is 11.15a.m. One or two out of every five waves or so is slopping into the back deck and getting us wet; it is quite rough. Progress is slow, pushing and shoving with no hydraulic support. It seems to be getting calmer outside. It IS getting calmer; the sun appears. We wonder at our bosses decision. He appears on the back deck, telling us that Seismariner is in the eye of the storm – the “cyclonic depression” he saw on the teleprinter earlier. The sea goes down to barely 8 or 9 foot waves.

All of a sudden though, just about noon, the wind comes up again, from a different direction. Foam and spray are everywhere all of a sudden; the sea is white. Phil’s boss, the Party Chief, makes a rare visit to the back deck and endorses Phil’s decision: “Get it in QUICK” he says. The wind is now Force 10 and gusting to Force 11.

Marine seismic in the Tropics – 1989

Getting up for work at 11.30p.m, I’m happy, because I know this is the last shift of the trip. At midnight I join my colleagues on the gun deck and help the mechanics with recovery of the starboard side seismic guns. For me this is mainly a business of pulling in towing strops, and fixing the hook of a “concertina winch” in certain places on the gun array to bunch the array up or “concertina” it. The gun deck of this old vessel is too short to fit the seven gun array when spread out to its full length.

By 12.30a.m the booms are raised, the big Norwegian buoys are stowed out of the way, and the towing strops have been tightened to pull the slack loops out of the sea to avoid them being caught in our propellor. Shortly, we will recover the seismic cable, and for that, the vessel must be driven backwards.

In a flat calm the single short cable is recovered swiftly. Mostly just a matter of pushing and shoving to keep it neat on the winch drum, which is driven hydraulically. Newer seismic vessels have fairleads and winches which can be used as ways to mechanise this pushing and shoving, but not the Seismariner. What can take hours of potentially hazardous and unpleasant grafting in cold and wind of the North Sea, is forty minutes of tedious work in a flat calm in the overbearing heat of equatorial Africa.

Cable recovered, the ship starts to steam towards Mayumba in the Congo, where we will off sub-contract navigation radio receivers by ship’s boat. (This was a couple of years before differential GPS navigation equipment became commercially available). We all adjourn to the crew mess for a well-earned pot of tea. An hour later, work restarts, and I join the mechanic Eric down in his domain in the guts of the ship. Starting at 3.a.m, I help him strip down and replace the big end bearings in four huge water pumps – 12 bearings in all. It takes three and a half hours and two pots of tea to finish the job.

By now it’s 6.30a.m and it is pouring with rain. This is quite usual at this time of year in this part of the world. Our FRB (Fast Rescue Boat) is made ready to transfer the navigation equipment. The sub-contractors gear – receivers, cables, antennas etc – is made ready on the foredeck. The rain stops, but oppressive clouds remain. The jungle close by is steaming and looks threatening. A short break for what we call “breakfast” (though working nights, it is the main meal of the day), and then the crew is ready. It is an assistant observer (myself), the mechanic (the late Eric Gray), and the Assistant Party Chief (Mick).

We lower the boat, and Eric takes her round to the boarding ladder. I climb in along with our client’s representative, the Texan Dave, and we’re off. The ship grows smaller in the distance as we move inshore. We can discern – with eyes, ears and nose – more detail of the jungle and the beach ahead. As the seabed slopes up to the shore, a huge swell develops, white rollers crashing onto a sandbar. We search without success for a way into the lagoon beyond, passing as we do so, the wreck of a coaster bigger than Seismariner. Her rusted bridge is all that remains above the sand and water. We know that getting into the lagoon will be easy – but getting the boat out again through the immense surf will be impossible.

It’s exciting stuff for a young man: the small boat, the sea, the strangeness of the African jungle close by. We can see people waiting for us ashore, but defeated for the present, we head back to the mother ship. On the way the outboard engine stops, and Eric toils to fix it in heavy, pregnant silence, except for the slopping of wavelets against the gunwhale. The four of us in the boat breath a sigh of relief when the engine whizzes into life; we make it safely back home, and are lifted out of the water.

A while later, a second attempt is made at a slightly different location, and all the equipment and the client rep. are safely dropped ashore. It takes three separate trips to move everything, but all is complete by 10.30a.m. The FRB is recovered once again, and we leave the bay at once, steaming for Pont Noire in the Congo, some ten hours journey away at 12 knots.

After another brief tea break, I spend the final 45 minutes of my shift conducting electrical tests on cabling removed from the gun arrays. My results recorded on a scrap of paper, it’s time once again for “Swarfega” at the close of my 63rd consecutive twelve hour shift – and the last one.

My journey home was instructive. I had no ticket for the last part of the journey (from Paris to my home) and more cash to cover this was offered. I was counselled by my colleagues to refuse this offer as the actual ticket would cost more than the cash being offered by the company administrator. Several of us were taken to the airport and flew in an antique 737 with Lina Congo, to Brazzaville. They did not even pressurize the 737 and it flew at 6000′ the whole way. As it was only the 4th or 5th time in my life I had been in an aircraft at all, this passed me by. Those who knew better were petrified. At Brazzaville we changed onto a 747-combi (half passenger, half freight) of UTA. This was in fact the first long-haul flight I ever took. The flight was to Paris via Doula in Cameroon, and Marseille. All was well until we landed at Marseille at 6a.m the next day, and that’s where we stayed. Owing to fog in Paris, we remained on the tarmac at Marseille for four hours, with neither refreshments nor breakfast served. We eventually arrived at De Gaulle early afternoon. It was February in Paris – foggy.

I spent the rest of the day trying without success to get a flight to England – anywhere – Heathrow, Birmingham, East Midlands. Late in the evening I gave up and took train into central Paris, and secured myself a train ticket to London via the Bologne-Dover ferry. This was 1989 – LONG before the Channel Tunnel. I remember several things about that journey. One of them, is buying a Croque Monsieur from a vendor near Gare St Lazaire, and the second, is sitting in a compartment on the train (that dates this story – compartments??) with a number of men – clearly pilots and aircrew – who claimed to be from Mauritius but who were clearly Scythe Ifrican. This was in the days of apartheid when everything and anyone remotely white South African was considered rather bad form in liberal society. These gentlemen, it must be said, were perfectly upright and pleasant fellows.

We took train from Gare St Lazaire (the first and only time I’ve ever been to that particular station in Paris), crossed the channel, and then on a cold winter’s morning, more trains, from Dover to Victoria and on home. I arrived home on 3rd February 1989, having left on 27th November the previous year. A good trip.

A holiday in Spain, and a visit to the wilder shores of Marx, by Theodore Dalrymple – 2016

Another bit of travel writing and a book review from the past – to help us all while we are all still locked down. In late summer 2016, my wife and I and our oldest daughter took a short holiday at a little village in Nothern Spain. We flew from Gatwick…

…interesting to reflect, sat in LGW (North) at least following my recent reading of Theodore Dalrymple on Marxist regimes, that there are no policemen airside, at least none in uniform and none that I could discern in plain clothes. Although as John le Carre (I think) writes, in a civilised country you will never know who the watchers are…

The flight to Barcelona was harmless. Passport control in Barcelona took a while, which ired me somewhat, but we were through soon enough.  It WAS a Sunday. An unusually pleasant and flirty rental car lady took us through the details of the car rental documents, and soon enough we were on our way to Barcelona in an Audi A4 – a quite dreadful machine….

Dalrymple writes very well, kind of like a superior English version of Bill Bryson, humorous but not as flippant or as coarse as Bryson can be.  He puts into eloquent thought, what I have long felt to be true of myself: writing of a visit to some long-forgotten tomb in Vietnam, he notes something that applies to every experience of my life, great or small, banal or timeless and glorious. “It is the fate of intellectuals to leave no experience, however ravishing, to remain in the memory untainted by theorising”. Me, I must think. To think, is to be. To be unable to think, is to be nothing. And going on holiday, allows time to think, amongst other things.

Leaving the airport, we drove right into the centre of Barcelona, and parked up in a tiny inner city car park within a few hundred yards of the Sagrada Familia.  It was a very cramped car park and used only with some difficulty, particularly with a shiny new rented saloon car.  Next door we found a café and stopped for a very welcome brunch.  For me, a croque-monsieur and latte.

The Sagrada Familia was wonderful, everything I expected and much, much more in terms of light, colour, space, columns, stained glass, carvings and architecture.  Later we had afternoon “tea” of coffee and cakes.  Then we navigated our way of the city, and thundered along the coastal freeway north towards the Costa Blanca.  We arrived in the village and were taken to a little village square, where we were very fortunate to witness one of the those “people towers” in the midst of a little party or carnival.

We lazed by the pool over a few beers, and then, in the gloaming, had a light supper, bought in the supermarket back in Barcelona.  The supper finished by candlelight and was enlivened by some great conversation. A good start to a holiday anywhere in the world.

Next day, we had a pleasant morning; we bought some groceries in the nearby shop. 40 Euros including some amazingly cheap San Miguel, six huge litre bottles for 7 Euros. Then, another ham/cheese/tomato/bread lunch about 1p.m – a slow and languid day on holiday. In the evening we went out for supper, to a restaurant down the street.  Plenty to eat; meat croquettes, frittata, rabbit, chicken, and fish, all washed down with Sangria.  There was a downpour whilst we were there, and there was much lightning visible in the distance – but it was never a serious thunderstorm. During the night the wind got up and was banging doors, waking us all up.

Theodore Dalrymple has written a number of very readable works, including Our Culture, What’s Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses and Not With a Bang But a Whimper: The Politics and Culture of Decline, and my favourite, Spoilt Rotten: The Toxic Cult of Sentimentality. He used to contribute a rather dry and amusing, if somewhat distressing column to the Daily Telegraph, covering some aspects of his work as a prison doctor. His writing leans to the view that in the west, liberal views can have a tendency to minimise the responsibility of individuals for their own actions, and to lead to the creation of an underclass. I don’t think you’ll see him at the same parties as Robert Fisk or George Monbiot.

But he has written here a very humane and gentle account of journeyings in forgotten Marxist lands. Cuba. North Korea. Ethiopia. Cambodia. Albania. Some of them are Marxist no longer; others remain under the jackboot. His travel writing can be a little superficial, but it’s not less informative for all that. Reading it only serves to reconfirm my opposition to all forms of Communism – Marxism, Leninism, Maoism, Trotskyism, call it what you like. Heinlein called it “malevolent silliness.

Next day dawned very fresh and clear after the rain. After breakfast we hiked up to the local hermitage, and thence round the mountainside in bright sunshine to a monastery.  The views were wonderful.  We had an excellent lunch at the monastery; there was a set three course menu for 16.5 Euros, and some San Miguel. Very good service. And so back through the late afternoon to the flat at Palau, whence we three lazed by the pool and had laughter.  An excellent, first rate day of holiday.

Another relaxing morning with a “holiday breakfast” feeling.  I come down dressed to find my wife and daughter relaxed, taking coffee. I buy croissants and we have us a pleasant breakfast in this little courtyard, tastefully converted from some light industrial premises of the past. In this case, it was once a blacksmith’s yard. It is cool, it is clean and it is quiet, and it is private.  A little fountain provides a constant background tinkling. Outside an archway at the rear are some rather ordinary flats, and a terraced garden with a tiny swimming pool.  To the right, the hills.  To the left, the coastal plain. The property, says mine host, has been in their family since the 17th century.  Whilst it ostensibly sleeps eight, there is only one big double room.  Upstairs, two rooms, a double and a twin, a good bathroom and a large mezzanine lounge which could be used to sleep more people at the expense of privacy.  Downstairs, a good kitchen, an indoor dining area and lounge (although at this latitude dining indoors is probably only necessary from late November to late February) and a second lounge room with a huge futon.  There’s a delightful second bathroom, open to the sky (through a window of course).  The skylight opens on one of the three rooftop terraces boasted by the house, which would make some people edgy about using the shower. You would want to be careful if the house was full.

But all good things come to an end. We had to go home eventually: