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.
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.
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.
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:
Here’s a look back in the diary, to a baking hot June day, the start of a walking trip round the very toe of Britain. We walked from Penzance to St Ives over five days.
On that hot June day we took train from Paddington to Penzance. A journey that started with selfies taken in front of a statue of Paddington Bear; a journey through the very heart of England. We arrived in Penzance, and we found our Air BnB, settled in, and then strolled around the town, visited a chinese chippy, and bought a bottle of cider on the eve of our walk along the Coast Path.
The following day we shouldered our packs, and set off through the optimism and sunshine of a June morning. We walked through suburban Penzance, through lanes and past white houses. Through greenery and parks, and out onto the coastal path. Plenty of money evident here; these are houses built for wealthy merchants. There’s plenty of money here still. Onwards, along the beach, through Newlyn in the breathless hot morning, to that place we spell Mousehole. Rather like the name of a certain well-known port wine, the name of the delightful little village has to be pronounced responsibly.
At Mousehole we stopped for morning tea at a café owned by an Englishman from the north country. No Cornishman he. We stopped for lunch at Lamorna. I’d never even heard of Lamorna until I planned this coastal walk. Sat on the seawall, we had bread, tomatoes, and cheese. Water was sufficient to wash down such a simple repast in such a beautiful setting.
This was our first day carrying big rucsacs. At Penberth Cove, labouring through the unrefreshing heat of the afternoon, we found an unlooked-for and most welcome supply of cold fresh water. We filled up our water bottles and walked on out up the valley. Tired and worn, we walked through potato fields to Porthcorno, another place I’d never heard of. At the village, the telegraph station was prominent – this was where early telegraph lines from across the ocean, emerged from the heaving waves. The “Cable Station Inn” was the former works social club; it looked and felt like a works social club still.
A young woman of about 22 in a skirt so short I hardly dared even look at her, showed us to our room. Refreshed after a shower and a nice hot cup of tea, but oh so tired after this our first day’s walk (and in such hot, sunny weather) we made our way to the bar for supper. The staff prepared long lunch baguettes for us, to fortify us on our walk on the morrow. This was a shame, as we shall find out: we paid for ‘em, but we only ate about a quarter of them.
Next morning, the weatherbeaten and worn-looking proprietor Mick made breakfast for us whilst humming and singing in the kitchen. Bless him, he never so much as asked us what we wanted – it was literally – not metaphorically – “take it or leave it”. But a Full English was more than welcome: we took it.
After lingering to chat with the friendly and engaging Mick, we made our goodbyes and set off. Your actual “Lands End” was about halfway along our route today. We found it as dire and as commercial a place as ever we’d visited. That said, having hiked there through the blue salt sea air carrying a heavy rucsac, I found myself thinking, I could just murder a Cornish Pastie: So I bought one. My wife tasted it and liked it so much I had to go and buy another one for her. And that, my friends, was the end of the lovingly prepared baguette lunch from the Cable Station Inn in Porthcorno.
We hiked on into the afternoon and came to Sennen Cove, a magical place, and again, a place I’d never heard of. Turquoise sea, yellow sand, a little town comparable to Croyde in North Devon, but with a better beach, perhaps. We had ice cream, and we noticed a glorious cross adorning the wall of one of the surf companies. The first beach we passed by, though it displeased my wife to pass it without stopping. At the second beach – called Gwynmer – it was made clear to me that we would be stopping for a swim. Right you are! And so we did, stopping for a refreshing swim in the sea.
In coming off Gwynmer, we left the SW Coast Path and found ourselves navigating across country to St. Just. This worked, though full reliance on mobile phone mapping software was necessary. We got to St. Just and we were worn out. Our Air BnB host here, at a tiny terraced house on the main street, was a pleasant and outgoing lady. She recommended the Kings Arms and so we ate there. The following day we bought lunch baps from the pub landlady’s other business, a sandwich shop in the main square.
During our walk, which was again in very hot weather, we met a very heavily pregnant lady. She was trebly conspicuous, as being perhaps a little older than pregnant ladies usually are, and also she had a dog which had been paralysed from the waist down but had recovered: the dog had a very unusual gait. Our walk took us through an area of industrial heritage – in amongst the lovely green valleys, various ruins and workings. We lunched by a babbling brook nearby another glorious lost beach. As we did so, yet another heavily pregnant lady passed us, her bump out in the hot sunshine.
As the afternoon wore on, we found ourselves at the Tinners Arms in Zennor, where we thought we’d stop for a quick pint in the heat of the day. It was that kind of moment…just a swifty before pushing on suitably refreshed, across the fields to our accomodation for the evening. But in conversation with the bar staff it became clear that there was high demand for tables at the Tinners Arms at Zennor – even mid-week. It was in fact the only licensed premises for miles and miles. We booked a table on the instant! Later, when we did sit down for dinner, our meal was punctuated by the apologetic tones of the bar staff turning away casual enquirers. Glad we were to have booked in advance.
Onwards to Tremedda Farm, Zennor: We found ourselves sat outside on an Italian portico, not yet 7a.m and already quite warm enough to sit here in the shade. There’s a refreshing breeze and the wind is rustling in the nearby trees. This house, of Italianate design, is delightful. From where we are sat, it feels Roman, foreign almost, but we gaze out onto an English – or perhaps Cornish – garden.
Last night we had a conversation with the couple in the room next door, an American couple a little older than we. It turned out that she had been brought up in the same small town on Long Island as my wife. There followed a great “small world” conversation whilst they reminisced.
The weather has been very kind to us. Yesterday we met a lone young woman hiking the Cornish part of the SW Coast Path. She said that she had “not expected a heat wave” – and she was an Englishwoman. The peace and the silence has been enough too; the opportunity to slow down, to de-clutter one’s mind and consider what is, and what is not, important. The underlying issues may not be resolved, but being on holiday enables one to get before God, seek His kingdom first, and put things into perspective. Richard Foster writes, in “Celebration of discipline”, that we “must pursue holy leisure [Otium Sanctum] with a determination that is ruthless to our diaries”.
From Tremedda farm, onward through the fields, eschewing the strongly up and downstairs coastal path. Thus, we arrived in St. Ives late morning and refreshed, rather than late afternoon and jaded. We dropped our bags off at our accommodations, and went swimming in the sea, then we had a lovely fish lunch in a pub on the quayside. In the evening we took bus acoss the ithsmus back to Mynack, which we’d passed on foot some days before. We watched the Illyria Theatre Company perform “Pride and Prejudice”. There were only perhaps five of them, each taking multiple roles. Elizabeth Bennett wore a dress and Dr Martens boots. The whole thing was hilarious. The Mynack threatre is to be recommended, though the seats – stone benches cut into the hillside – are hard. One can rent cushions for a small fee. The atmosphere is magical, particularly for performances at dusk. It did mean a late finish; we were not back in St Ives til after midnight.
The next day, in cooler weather, we set off on our pilgrim walk north-south across Cornwall, from St Ives to St Michael’s Mount. The “St Michael’s Way”. We hiked on towards Penzance, across the width of Cornwall, in improving weather and improving mood, and then on the following day on foot to St Michael’s Mount – which I confess I found oddly uninspiring and somewhat disappointing.
Our return to Surrey was via a visit to relatives on the Devon/Cornwall border. Train from Penzance to Plymouth, and then later a rather excellent dinner at the Cornish Arms in Tavistock. G&T’s in what to my eyes were vases. I had the Ox Cheek. We raised a glass to my wife’s late aunt, recently passed away – for one might say that this fine evening out was to her memory.
And then we two took train from Exeter – but this time, a Southwest Trains service to Waterloo. We took this service, though slower, because it was less costly to travel first class, and because we could change at Clapham Junction. Everything was OK until we got to Woking when trespassers on the line caused massive delays. Never mind: overall, a fun time and relaxing. We were lucky with the weather though.
After a work-related evening in The Dutch Mill in Aberdeen, the following morning I set off up Deeside towards Braemar. My first stop was Gordon’s Tea Rooms in Braemar, an excellent little gaff where I had a latte and some rather tasty fruit shortbread. I did like the lamps each hung on a miniature sheave.
From there, over the blasted wilderness of Glen Shee. A typical Scottish ski-station at the top of a pass – deserted other than under winter conditions. On the Aberdeenshire side, deep, thick mist. Oddly enough, a change in the weather meant that the Perthshire side of the pass was much clearer – an odd effect of the mountains. Thence, through to Pitlochry. Amidst rain and tourists, I sought lunch. Pitlochry has not changed for the better; the retail trade is in deep recession, and the main road through the mountains has long since bypassed this town – and it shows. I went to see the Fall colours at Garry Bridge, but it was no weather to be outdoors in town clothes. I pushed on towards the central Highlands, toward the dreary 55mph treadmill of the Pass of Drumochter.
Long before I got there, I happened upon the Atholl Arms Hotel on the north side of Blair Atholl. I like an historic coaching inn every now and then, and I turned into the car park with no further ado. Grey stone, an imposing frontage and large display windows that seemed almost Mackintosh-esque to me. Coats of arms prominent, yet not covering itself in tartan, nor in the cross of St. Andrew. So far so good. In a cosy little reception area to the right of the front door, a blonde lady in blue suggested a single room for £50, or a double for £75. I opted for the single. It was off to one side, clearly an erstwhile room for students or staff. The room looked dreadful: it was ill-lit; there was woodchip on the ceiling; 80’s pine furniture, and a single bed jammed against the wall. I liked it. It also had a perfectly excellent shower, a fluffy white bath towel, and the makings for tea included a little teapot. I was set up! I went out for a run up Glen Tilt.
It’s the touches of old that endeared it to me…the wooden sash windows, the 1970’s light fittings, the domestic patterned glass in the windows was probably older than I am. For £50, it was atmospheric and excellent. But I could not hope for a great breakfast. I went down with low expectations, and I was disappointed. I had as good a full breakfast as anywhere in the UK, served by friendly and engaged staff in an enormous baronial hall fully two floors high – the recipient of light from the aforementioned large display windows. The ceiling was Robin Hood green, the walls, a deep maroon. Crossed swords and pikes were hung on the walls, interspersed with stags heads.
The following day at noon, after trundling through rainswept countryside along single-track roads, I stopped in Kingussie and took coffee in the “Sugar Bowl” cafe. I was luckier with the second-hand bookshops and picked up Geoffrey Household’s “The Sending”, Iain Banks “Raw Spirit” and Christopher Sommerville’s “The January Man: a year of walking in Britain”. I happened to glance at my phone, looking for information about a heritage railway I knew was somewhere near here, and I saw that there was a Diesel Gala Day – today. I put on my coat and hat and left for Aviemore on the instant.
A few musings on totalitarianism, brought on by a work-related visit to Vietnam. I have juxtaposed this with a recent re-reading of Orwell’s “1984”. I read a lot of books at once, mind, and I am also ploughing my way through a collection called “From the Gulag to the Killing Fields: Personal Accounts of Political Violence and Repression in Communist States”. It has been put together by an academic called Paul Hollander, himself a victim of the political violence of the Hungarian uprising of 1956. It’s certainly not bedtime reading. It makes uncomfortable reading for me, much less for anyone with remotely left-wing sensibilities. We tend to look at Russia and China as the worst offenders in terms of the sheer volume and quantity of communist political oppression and violence, and this book tends to support that view. But reading books these upsetting personal stories, other places take the record for sheer horror and human tragedy (Cambodia and Vietnam). For the ill-treatment of political prisoners, I’d look at Cuba, where there was a peculiar and toxic mixture of Latin machismo and the malevolent foolishness of Marxism.
It never fails to be a pleasant surprise to me that books like this collection are in print in the UK at all. It is not beyond the bounds of darkest fantasy that a time will come for the UK when having a copy of such a book could put someone at risk of being sent to prison.
It’s always good to pick up a few points from Orwell. His character “Bernstein” who ostensibly writes the “book within the book” plot device allowing Orwell to lecture us on totalitarianism, says that the rise of machines has, “by producing wealth which is sometimes impossible not to distribute”, led to an increase in average living standards. Our standard of living has indeed improved from the early 20th century (earlier really) until now, and should continue to improve all this century. This is not politics, nor economics, but technology – the rise of machines. Orwell notes that “an all-round increase in wealth threatens a hierarchical society” and “A hierarchical society is only possible on the basis of poverty and ignorance”. Amen. This truth lies at the very heart of “1984”, and at the heart of opposition to technology for it’s own sake. Opposition to “machines taking over men’s jobs” is at heart a desire for order and hierarchy, a vote for the established order, an endorsement of the status quo. And I believe the status quo is almost invariably worth upsetting. Technology and machines, of themselves, create wealth and hence threaten the status quo in hierarchical societies.
I like a good outdoorsman’s travelogue, and this falls into the same category as Nicholas Crane’s “Clear Waters Rising” or “Two degrees West”. An Englishman of a certain age sets himself to do an all-but impossible adventure – what’s not to like? I’m an Englishman of a certain age myself – but Mike is older. I should admit early on in the interests of transparency that Mike is a relative of mine.
All that said, I liked the historical accounts in this work better. There’s only so many pints of lager you vicariously enjoy. Mike paints an interesting story of Eire today and in the past. My wife and I visited Kerry on our honeymoon in 1990, and we were told that almost no-one lives within twenty miles of the west coast of Ireland, except for those whose living depends on tourism. Mike’s account bears that out – there seems to be no-one there. A far cry from queuing up to walk along Crib Goch in Snowdonia, as you’ll have to do on any fine weekend in summer.
I learned much of Irlsh history. You’ll not be learning this kind of thing in English schools, not this last 40-50 years. I’d heard of Michael Collins, of the Easter Rising, and of the Irish Free State, and few would not have heard of Eamon De Valera. What Mike has done has coloured in the gaps a little, brought to life some of that fascinating past, some of the terrible suffering. From the medieval saints, through the Norman overlordship, and onto Cromwell’s atrocities, then the Potato Famine and the emergence of Eire, Mike has provided some insights into Irish history without ever being partisan or taking an obvious side.
The train hisses through anonymous railway stations and anonymous towns. The stations fly past to quickly for me to catch their names. The towns? Houses and streets, industrial units, perhaps the odd ancient church standing out through the early morning mist.
Across the heartland the train goes, through the very essence of middle England. You don’t need to know what the names of the towns are, to know what they are like. The rails shine with use; the electrical wires and their supporting posts flash by. In the distance, green fields and hills under an early morning sky of pale blue. The molten sunshine of not long after dawn washes everything clean. It all looks idyllic. Frost-covered green fields, patches of ground mist.
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.