From the Gulag to the Killing Fields – notes on Totalitarianism

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.

Walk East Til I die, by Mike Pinnock

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.  

By train to Euston

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mhor 84, at Lochearnhead

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

A visit to Rum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

China by train

From Guangxhou to Guilin by bullet train

Arriving at Guangxhou South Railway Station, I am quite literally stupified by the size of the place.  It is a Terminal 5 amongst railway stations.  It is hardly distinguishable inside from a large international airport.  It is over three floors – like an airport, departures and arrivals are on separate floors.

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This is a through station, not a terminal. Coming in by taxi, I counted at least 12 separate tracks coming out from under the canopy, all grey concrete on stilts.  The  floor is granodiorite tiles; the passengers are everywhere.  There are shops, booths, queues, scanners. It does not smell of decay and weak air-conditioning, as do so many large municipal buildings in hot climates.

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It is to my eye, no St Pancras: it is not built to last, and I suspect that, rather like Terminal 5, it may look distinctly jaded by 2050.

All must go through luggage scanners merely to get into the building. This is common enough at municipal buildings in China and increasingly so in the West. That said, the people doing the scanning and body pat-down work showed little interest – the scanning process is not strict.  Once inside, you then find what train you are on, and go through the ticket check to go “trainside” as it were.  Chinese high speed train tickets are not usable by any bearer, as train tickets are in the UK and elsewhere in the world – they are specific to you, as well as to a given seat in a given carriage.  Indeed. ours had our passport numbers on them in addition to our names.  But once through the ticket check, no-one was interested in our ID.  Once “trainside” and upstairs, it just felt like the airside of an big international airport. And the other similarity is, access to the platform is tightly controlled – no trainspotters welcome here.  We weren’t allowed onto the platform until only a few minutes before departure,  The train had already swept in.

The station is only a few years old. It speaks of tremendous economic growth, this outpouring of concrete: Bill Bryson once wrote something to the effect that half of all buildings in the United States had been built since 1980, and fully 90% of all American buildings, since 1945.  A similar thing is happening in China.  Natalie Merchant sings, in her song “Motherland”

Where in hell can you go
Far from the things that you know
Far from the sprawl of concrete
That keeps crawling its way
About 1,000 miles a day?

It is applicable here in China, at this time of expansion, as viaducts arc across whole cities, as 150mph bullet trains flash through tunnels so expensive as to defy understanding.  How do they do it? The growth of high speed rail in China today is rather like the development of the Interstate network in the USA of Eisenhower’s time.  And just as the Interstate highways changed America beyond recognition, high speed rail is changing China.  The old China is still visible, but it is disappearing. Go there and see it while it still exists. The old ladies brushing the street with straw brooms.  The scooter riders with no helmet but an umbrella. The little stalls selling foodstuffs. The little motorcycles converted into vans, burdened under seemingly impossible loads.

Off we go and there are almost continuous announcements in Mandarin.  Once through the suburbs, the train perceptibly speeds up and shoots along at 150 mph.  The acceleration is noticeable, and audible, an indistinct and distant hum rather like the sound of the original Starship Enterprise at Warp Factor 10.

We plunge through misty green forests and mountains, brown rivers, farms and rice paddies. There are endless tunnels. Some long, some short. Billions of dollars have gone into building this railway – and it is only one of many.

We arrived at Guilin Bey (North) Railway Station at 12,30pm on a hot and humid afternoon.  We  got off the bullet train, along with myriad Chinese, and followed them down the stairs into the underpass. Chattering, walking, kids laughing, suitcases on wheels rumbling along. The Chinese experience is to be surrounded by people.

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To Liuzhou and on to Zhiangziajie

Onwards: another city, another railway station.  This one is different; older, more prosaic.  The first two, at Guangxhou and at Guilin North, were grandiose to the point of being ridiculous.  This one is more intimate, more obviously a railway station rather than a palace, and very much older, dating from the 1970’s or even older.

In the huge waiting room (a departure lounge really) we’re enjoying massage chairs at Y4 (about 40p) for 10 minutes.  I say “enjoying”.  My wife and daughter think they are great, and had two goes each.  I found the massage a bit heavy handed.

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By bullet train from Guilin to a city called Liuzhou, from whence we will take sleeper train to another city called Zhiangziajie. So many cities I have never heard of.  Here is a train with a front like an aircraft, like a TGV, based in fact on a Japanese Shinkansen train, and the “dwell time” at this station (the time spent stationary in the platform) has been over five minutes.  That said, the train did arrive early.  As a commuter in the Home Counties, I’m accustomed to “dwell times” of less than a minute – in and out, quick quick quick…

Liuzhou is a city of over three million people. I’d never heard of it, and it is just one of hundreds of cities of this size in China.  Here is the railway station:

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We walked a little away from the station, having to run some light interference from taxi drivers, in order to be far enough away from the station to find somewhere to hail a “Didi” (the Chinese equivalent of Uber) where it might safely and legally stop.  We took the taxi to a second railway station, called Liujiang, located in in an area of the city called Labao – a good 40 minutes by taxi.  The driver was an affable fellow; himself a Chinese teacher, and he took our photo when he dropped us off.  The second station, whence we arrived at dusk, was something of a disappointment.  More in the “Inter-Railing” style of railway station – just a single track, a single waiting room.  Outside, some shops and little cafes where we found something to eat.  Though not without some stress and difficulty in establishing what we might eat: no pictures, and of course no English menu.

The waiting room was stressful, to a degree: by now we were tired and the train was late.  “Do not lie down” the signs said. People laid down.  Our  tiresome wait was enlivened by the sign above the door for the “Security” people, where the proof-reading had failed.  The “r” and the “i” had blurred into an “n”. This slightly rude sign cheered us up as eventually the train roared in, and everyone got on.