Monday, September 25, 2017

Book Notes: Stalin's Daughter by Rosemary Sullivan

There are several things which can make reading a biography a disappointing experience. The first is that despite the historic events surrounding the central character, he or she turns out to be rather dull. The second, is the opposite, where an author has profiled someone who might have been an unusual character but one who had the fortune to live through rather mundane times. The third hole into which many a biography has tripped, is simply of poor simplistic writing that merely lists events and never gets under the skin of the characters. Happily, Rosemary Sullivan's "Stalin's Daughter" is gloriously free from any of these three flaws. As such it makes terrific reading.

Svetlana Alliluyeva grew up in the Kremlin under the shadow of her all-powerful and toxically paranoid father, Joseph Stalin. Adored, manipulated, controlled, sometimes ignored and totally dominated by Stalin, Svetlana grew up in the strange world of the Purges, Show-trials, disappearances and insecurity of Stalin's Court. Enduring the suicide of her mother, and the personal crises of his henchmen as they rose and fell, the exile and executions from which her own household was not spared; as well as the national crises of WWII, each left their imprint on her young mind. Sullivan's book though estimates that it was the shadow of Stalin himself hanging over her which created the darkness which Svetlana never really outran. Despite chapter after chapter chronicling her tumultuous life, every episode seems to represent her trying some new scheme to reinvent herself; but still being seen by the world as 'Stalin's Daughter'. It is of course telling that the title of the biography is not "The extraordinary life of Svetlana Allilueyeva" (or even Lana Peters as she was subsequently known), but Stalin's Daughter.

Childhood, bereavement, marriages, motherhood, defection to the West, re-defection to the Soviet bloc, escape to the West, India, conversion to Russian Orthodox Christianity, friendships, writing, and her bizarre life at the Taliesin architects commune, under the dictatorship of Frank Lloyd-Wright's widow, Olgivanna; are all episodes in an extraordinary life. 

So here is a biography which is an exceptionally well-crafted examination, of a character who turns out to be immeasurably complex and interesting; but who wasn't on the run just from some personal demons; but on a a quest to free herself from one of the central forces of the twentieth century. Just as the spectre of Stalin haunted her, defined her - and especially defined how virtually everyone ever related to her; so the great battle between Capitalism and Marxism framed her experience. It is almost as though the Cold War itself flowed through her veins, just as the DNA of Joseph Stalin did. Sullivan's book is not short, but it is compelling. She seems to have gained unusual access to Soviet era friends, family and archives as well as people who knew her during her latter years in the West; making this an authoritative and informative read, not just another sensationalist write-up, the likes of which Svetlana was repeatedly exposed to during her tempestuous life.

If you are looking for a biography which is well written, highly readable, and paints a picture of a wildly unique character, living in the centre of hugely significant history, then Sullivan has provided the book you are looking for. 

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Book Notes: Return of a King by William Dalrymple

Having been deeply impressed by Dalrymple's "From the Holy Mountain", I was delighted to see his epic, "The Return of a King", in the massive second hand book sale in Edinburgh, run annually by Christian Aid. As an aside, I gather that the rather sedate-looking book-sale has been plagued by controversy of late. Apparently professional book-sellers have been accused of buying up the bargains, in order to re-sell them at higher prices elsewhere! If true, that is pretty shameless on the part of the book-traders, considering the good that Christian Aid do around the world, and the bargains that the public are being deprived of, from books which have been donated!

I settled down with this Dalrymple' volume on a long-haul flight this summer, and was transfixed by what I read; almost transported in fact, to another time, and place. This is historical writing at it's very best; a well-researched, beautifully written account of events which have huge resonance with the present time.

The book begins with an account of two feuding dynasties in Afghanistan in the early decades of the 19th Century, The Sadozais and The Barakzais. It then explores both British and Russian spying and intrigues in the region; as both jostled in the 'great game' for colonial dominance in India. With an eye for great character sketches, and an eye for detail, Dalrymple demonstrates how the British (Under the guise of the East India Company - the great Colonial Qango) were drawn into supporting Sadozai leader Shah Shuja, and helping to restore him to power in Kabul, with a supporting British invasion in 1842. In return the opposing Barakzais, and their leader Dost Mohammad, were able to unite the disparate groups in Afghanistan under the badge of Islam and jihad, to rally and radicalise against their enemies who ruled with British (ie. infidel) support. The disastrous defeat of the British invasion force, was a massive blow to the proud Imperial British, who acted to re-invade and inflict severe reprisals on the country, for what they saw as its defiant impudence!

What makes this book really live is the sparkling prose, with which Dalrymple delights the reader, and with which he is able to present great details and serious research, without getting bogged down. There's more than that though; it is also the character studies of people such as Dost Mohammad, Shah Shujah, Alexander Burnes, Robert Sale, Lady Sale, William Macnaughten and so many others, are also so well sketched and woven into the narrative, that the reader is instinctively hooked, fascinated and intrigued by their unfolding biographies. Additionally the numerous obvious parallels with the recent western invasion of Afghanistan are the reason Dalrymple went to Afghanistan to research this book in the first place. It seems the lessons the British were taught in 1842 were forgotten by the time Soviet Russia sought to conquer Afghanistan, and forgotten again even more swiftly in the post 9/11 invasion. Failures to plan for the post-conflict era, failures to equip troops properly, failures to understand the local ideology, failures to deal with the geography, failures to understand the complex inter-tribal politics, (and so forth), dogged the British invasion in 1842, exactly as the recent invasion was.

Even though it is now several weeks since I finished reading this book, there are scenes in it which I can still see in my mind; such is the clarity and power of Dalrymple's writing. It is quite simply an outstanding read. Perhaps another reason I so valued this book was that it opened up a whole area of unexplored history for me. There are certain areas of history which I have read a fair bit about (such as Victorian Society, American Civil Rights, Church History); but I am shockingly ignorant about the early stages of The British Empire in general, and about Afghanistan in particular. Dalrymple is a reliable, meticulous and hugely engaging guide to this still hugely relevant subject.

On the dust jacket there is a commendation for the book from Maya Jasanoff, who writes, "Dalrymple researches like a historian, thinks like an anthropologist and writes like a novelist". Too often, such commendations merely set the reader up for an anti-climactic disappointment with the actual contents of the book/ I think though, in this case, such astute praise is well deserved.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017


Blogging.......... has been slowing down and slowing down - and has all but stopped. I think it's time to give it rest for a while. I might pick it up again later in the year, I'm not sure. It all really depends on what happens work and family wise. Several things have happened. The first is that since I started writing and posting here, social media has arrived, and most of my personal and family stuff now goes on face/twitter etc, where it is sent directly to friends who are interested. The second is that as my kids have grown up, I find myself at home less and less, with fewer opportunities to write here. The third is that Solas Magazine have started to print some of my reviews and articles, while Scottish Christian Broadcast have run some of my interviews. Writing for these formats is more focused, disciplined and structured than ad hoc blogging, and has taken up most of my creative energy. So, a break is in order. I might be back.... probably will, no plans yet!

Saturday, June 03, 2017

Mark Twain explains the 2017 General Election...

Men think they think upon the great political questions, and they do; but they think with their party, not independently; they read its literature, but not that of the other side; they arrive at convictions but they are drawn from a partial view of the matter in hand and are of no particular value. They swarm with their party, they feel with their party, they are happy in their party's approval; and where the party leads they will follow, whether for right or honor, or through blood and dirt and a mush of mutilated morals.

-Mark Twain ('Corn-pone Opinions')

Friday, May 12, 2017

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Ben Avon & Beinn a’Bhuird

With the weather forecast cheerily estimating "No Rain" in the Cairngorm National Park, along with "90% chance of cloud free Munros", Saturday had to be a hill day! Ben Avon  and Beinn a’Bhuird are two large Munros which mark the eastern edge of the Cairngorm range, and are accessible from the Braemar/Deeside Road, where the Invercauld Estate has provided a walkers car park, but require £2.50 for a 'pay and display' ticket. These two mountains are not the most popular hills in the Cairngorms, and see only a fraction of the footfall of the likes of Ben Macdui, or Cairngorm; but this is not because they lack interest - far from it! Ben Avon is crowned with a series of idiosyncratic granite tors, which are a landmark for miles around. The summit of Beinn a Bhuird is an unremarkable plateau; but the mountain is graced with a simply breathtaking cliff-line, as its' eastern flank plummits thousands of feet in a massive corrie linking its' 'North' and 'South' tops. The emptiness of these hills is due in fact to their distance from the road; any outing to these two sizeable mountains requires a long, and difficult, walk or cycle in. A round of both of them, pushes the days' total to well over 40k, the length of a marathon - over hard ground with a heavy pack! This obstacle almost entirely explains why these two magnificent hills were still on the 'to-do' list of both Stewart and myself - and why my car headed out from an icy Perth as early as 6AM with two mountain bikes on the roof. An undertaking of this size required plenty of time!

The first obstacle of the day was navigating the paths of the Invercauld Estate, in search of Glen Sluggan, which leads out to these hills. A couple of wrong turns on forestry tracks that were unclear, led to our only resort to GPS of the day - and once the correct track was found, route finding was simple, and mostly pathed.
The Sluggan path

The Sluggan track is mostly cycleable, although the steady ascent and rough surface makes going slow and tiring. The glen runs westwards for several miles before a ruin is reached (allegedly there is a hidden bothy here too - but I didn't spot it!). The journey is an enticing one, as the central Cairngorms are visible and identifiable for the first half; and then the massive cliffs of Beinn a Bhuird loom overhead for the upper part.  The middle section, where the track bifurcates for a mile or so by a ruin, is not cycleable; but better tracks further up make dragging the bikes through this section worth while. Thankfully some climbers we met at the car park told us about this, meaning we were able to get bikes far further up the glen than we would have otherwise have realised. The route up the 'The Sneck' (the col between the two hills), is a long slog, and the sight of the weird crenellated rock formations that decorate the ridge seems to take ages to come into view. It is simply wonderful when it does, and the views explode around the walker in all directions.
The Sneck

While it is probably a better walk to dump bikes further down the glen and make the walk a circuit, by including Beinn a Bhuird's south top - including a magnificent cliff-top walk; we elected to join both summits by the Sneck, and shift the balance in favour of more cycling. This was largely because I was still suffering from a badly blistered heel from Seana Bhraigh on Monday.

The Sneck

The Sneck is worth savouring. From here we turned right (NE), up the steep ridge and onto the Ben Avon plateau. The tors, which look intriguing from adjacent hills, look utterly surreal from the plateau itself. They look as if they have been dropped from the sky, random lumps of rock dumped on the surface. The highest and finest tor, Leabaidh an Daimh Bhuidhe is the summit of Ben Avon, and it presents a nice little scramble over rough, grippy rock to the top. In wet weather when the moss would be slippery, or when it is icy - this could present the walker with an awkward finish to a long ascent. In blazing sunshine however, it is a simple matter of scrambling up and taking photos. It had been -2'C at Invercauld, but by the time we had lunch on Ben Avon, it must have been approaching 15/16'C, it was certainly sun-screen weather. Incidentally, Ben Avon is pronounced 'Ben A'ahn', which according to walkhighlands, is derived from the Gaelic for 'river'.

Ben Avon Summit Tor

Looking from the summit of Ben Avon back to The Sneck

The treck back to The Sneck is beautiful as it provides views not only of The Sneck itself, but also of Beinn a Bhuird's cliffs. The descent is straightforward enough, and we elected to dump our heavy packs there, and climb up Beinn a Bhuird and back without the heavy load. I seem to dehydrate easily, and so carry a lot of water on days predicted to be hot. I dragged 4litres up this walk  - and needed every drop if it. So an hour or so without the full pack, just a few essentials, was bliss!
Ben Avon from Beinn a' Bhuird

The climb up to Beinn a Bhuird from 'The Sneck' is a bit of a slog, but once the top 'Cnap a Chleirich' is reached, the summit is visible. Finding the cairn is not a problem in bright sunshine, but looks as if it could be a challenge in bad visibility, and not falling over the nearby cliffs (which still hold beautiful cornices into Summer) is also a consideration. Although we had elected to return via 'The Sneck', we couldn't resist exploring the cliff top of Beinn a Bhuird, time well spent indeed! Beinn a Bhuird, is pronounced 'Byn a Voorsht', and according to the guide books means 'The Table Hill' - an apt name for such a flat-topped, and vertical sided hill.

Beinn a' Bhuird, cliffs

The long miles back to the car were eased by the bikes, which eased the last half of the descent considerable, once the rough tracks of the upper reaches of the glen had been negotiated. Stewart is a marathon runner, and is both lighter and fitter than me. I hold him back speed wise, and he pushes my performance out of the slow ambling which is my norm! All in all, this was a 9 hour trek for us, which wasn't too bad! 
The Sneck

These are big hills, set a long way back from the road, which require huge efforts to get to. It's undeniably effort well spent however, and it's almost tempting to cover the long miles again just to sit in the magnificent, massive surroundings of 'The Sneck', and soak in the grandeur.

Photos all from phones, mine and Stewart's!


Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Seana Bhraigh

Seana Bhraigh is a wonderful mountain. Although it is huge, it is well back from the road, and hidden from sight. Certainly nearby Ullapool has no view of it, and yet from it lonely summit, An Teallach is visible to the west, as are the distinctive peaks of Assynt to the North, and the adjacent Beinn Dearg group. While Seana Bhraigh is a lovely hill, it is a one which requires a long walk, from whichever direction it is approached, the summit is miles and miles from any road. Aesthetically, it might be best to attck it from the North-West, but I was bike-less, which ruled that out, as that is the only practical way to get through the long miles on the estate tracks which lead in. 

Instead I took the route from Inverlael on the Ullapool Road. The acces point for these hills is marked by a stone bridge, a phone box, and a new walkers car park which has been added since my last visit to these hills in 2008. When I last walked this glen, there were significant forestry and hydro works underway, which meant sinificant diversions, and mess. The glen has started to recover from the works now, and the trees re-growing over the industrial scarring. 

Navigating this section of the walk is now far easier than it once was. With the trees felled, and the works gone, it is easy enough to follow the track on the right of the river, until it crosses to the left, just before the ruin of Glensquaib - an old house set inside a large stone-walled garden. Access to the Dearg Group continues up the glen, but I turned sharp left at Glensquaib, following the track by the stone wall. Many hill reports recount people getting lost here, looking for the Seana Bhraig path, but it was well marked by a little cairn a few hundred metres beyond the ruin. This steep four-wheel-drive track, zig-zags up through the new forestry planting, to reach the only gate in the very high deer fencing, so it is worth finding.

From here, a long, long, path leads eastwards across the heathery expanses, crossing streams and bogs, until rounding a ridge, the path turns Northwards and ascends into the hill via a series of lochans; the Coire an Lochain Sgeirich.

The trickiest section navigation wise, is the pathless area at the head of this glen, round to Seana Bhraigh itslef. I didn't stay close enough to the cliff edge of Cadha Dearg, which would have been a useful guide. As such, I had an awkward navigate through some cliffs, to get to the col. The sight of a pair of Golden Eagles descending into the glen below, was sufficient compensation however!

It was on this section that I met some members of a small walking club, and spent much of the rest of the day chatting to them. My trusty Mammut boots, which have served me well for years, suddenly began to hurt and blister my feet, and one of them handed me a compeede heel plaster - which was a life saver. I have never needed it before, and never carried it. I think it wil always be in my pack from now on!

The summit is a wide, grassy, (cold and windy) spot miles form anywhere. The views are enormous and expansive and well worth the hours of trudging to reach. As I walked out, with the folks I'd met, th eday got hotter and hotter. Layers were shed, water consumed, and the hills looked amazing. Seana Bhraigh has been on my to-do list for a very long time. It is a long day, but one very well spent. I have to say, I wouldn't fancy doing it on my own in bad weather though...

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Loch Morlich

A recent day out with great friends...

Friday, April 21, 2017


 iPhone photos will have to suffice. Sitting at Ullapool harbour in the evening sunshine - wonderful!

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Kyle of Durness

The Kyle of Durness cuts into Sutherland, separating the Cape Wrath peninsula from the rest of the country for many miles. Travelling to Cape Wrath itself, and its' famous lighthouse, requires the avoidance of two obstacles the first of which is the use of the military bombing range around the Cape and the second is the crossing of the Kyle. A system of warnings prevents the tourists from venturing into military danger, while passenger ferry plies the Kyle in summer months. 

The ferry wasn't running when we were in the Kyle of Durness, so instead of crossing the water and heading out to the wild West Coast, we followed the edge of the Kyle towards Durness itself. It treated us to a wonderful 7 mile circular walk, which constantly changed as we worked around around it.

Sutherland is often portrayed as being basically a lochan-speckled peat bog, the monotony of which is only occasionally punctuated by a solitary peak. As such, my expectations of the scenery were rather low. I am happy to report however that they were massively exceeded; this country is stuningly beautiful and I am itching to back.