Sunday, April 22, 2018

Film Notes: Winter in Wartime (Oorlogswinter)

Winter in Wartime is a Dutch film about life in Holland in the last days of the Nazi occupation of their country during WWII. As the title suggests, the entire film takes place during the last bleak Winter of the war and it centres upon the life of the van Beusekom family, as they respond to the pressures of life under tyrannical occupiers.

The central protagonist is the teenage son, Michiele, and concerns how he became drawn into the war, despite the stern warnings of collaborators and resistance fighters alike, to remain apart from it. Michiele's father is the town mayor, who has to deal directly with the Germans, and takes the approach of seeking as friendly relations as possible with them, in order to ameliorate the suffering of the people. His cheerful hand-shaking with the Nazi commander, might win the occasional reprieve, but is seen as great treachery by the resistance, as represented by Michiele's jovial uncle.

The delicate balance as difficult negotiation between occupiers and the occupied, is shattered when a British plane is shot down in the woods outside the town, and the body of a dead German soldier found near the scene.

When local resistance members are shot, Michiele, finds himself as the only person who knows where the Allied airman is hiding; and takes responsibility for him - and his sister soon falls in love with the airman after bandaging his wounds. The action (all rather nicely shot, against the snow-bound landscape) unfolds around a gripping tale of betrayal, loyalties and reprisals; and ending with a couple of unlikely plot-twists.

While this film was apparently wildly popular in Holland, it received quite a few hostile reviews here, which I thought were unfair. It's true that showing a harrowing scene in silent slow-motion has been done before and might be thought of a cliched, but is a technique that rater closely mirrors the way in which memory works; and so its use isn't as dreadful as some reviewers might suggest. It might be true that this isn't a film bursting with action, or making huge statements; but I thought it was gripping, and the characters engaging and the acting strong. My gauge is watching films such as this, is whether I care about the fate of the characters or not. Some films just fall totally flat on this score, and I find myself counting the minutes until the credits roll. Poor writing, lack of character development, or just wooden acting can all act as a switch-off to engagement with a film; but despite some of the critics moans; I found that I really did care about these characters as the film built to its conclusion. Would Michiele negotiate the complexities of a situation that was way beyond him? Would the British airman survive his wounds, and the intense search for him by the Nazi's? Would Michele and his sister get caught protecting him? What would the resistance, and Michele's uncle do? Who kept betraying resistance men, and would the airman be handed over? Needless to say, all these pot lines converge into a surprising finale, which held my attention to the very last frame.

This film might not appear in the 'greatest films ever made' lists which appear all over the internet; but it's a fine piece of work; embedding a very believable story into a grim historical context and drawing the viewer in through the universal themes of childhood, loyalty, good v evil, danger, survival, betrayal and love.

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Along the Borders Railway

My much anticipated escape to the mountains this week was postponed because of the weather. First the 'Beast from the East' has moved Winter conditions right back into what should be Spring; bringing a late, huge depth of snow to the mountains. Then, the immediate forecast this week has brought further snow to Scotland, making conditions (for a solo-walker like me, at least), impossible. It has been a horrible year for mountain accidents, avalanches, and folks getting lost or killed. Mountain rescue services across the country have been called out again and again, sometimes with happy endings, sometimes not. I noticed that a few days ago a search was abandoned for a missing walker, whose remains presumably won't be recovered until the snow retreats from the High Mountains.

Much as I love the mountains, I need to stay alive, not least to collect my family from their various travels at the weekend. So instead of heading North, I drove southwards, to explore the Borders Railway - that section of the historic Waverley route which got bludgeoned by Beeching's Axe, and has re-opened in the last couple of years. My plan had been to go all the way on the train from Perth, but the best ticket available was a cheap day return for just over £50-. "Cheap" is presumably being used ironically in this context. Strangely, a return from Inverkeithing to Tweedbank cost only £12-, which meant a 25 minute shoot down the motorway, and into the Park and Ride car park, to jump on a train making it's way down from Perth to Edinburgh Waverley! This is such a mad example of pricing forcing people to use cars that I asked the ticket seller at Inverkeithing why this was the case. She had no idea, but upon checking it on her screen assured me that I could have got a Perth ticket for between £30-£35, had I gone into the station, not just checking online; before admitting that the whole thing was indeed a bit mad. So Scotrail ran a mostly empty-train from Perth to Inverkeithing, missed out on a fare, and had I been on the train, would have bought my coffee in their facilities, not elsewhere.

The ride from from Inverkeithing to Waverley is one I know well, and the views over the Forth, now resplendent with its extra bridge, are magnificent. Waverley Station is a wonderful place too, with trains coming and going to all corners of the UK. It seems to be a building site a lot of the time these days, as services are increased and new platforms needed along with overhead cabling. I hope that the end result does the great Victorian structure justice; the tendency to litter such places with view-obscuring walls, kiosks, and signs robs them of the sense of space and size which their designers aimed for. They weren't meant to be compartmentalised but to be industrial cathedrals, meant to impress the visitor with the simultaneous sight of a London Express pulling southwards, with Glasgow and Northern trains pulling away on the other side.

The new Borders Railway train was waiting for me in the building site end of the station, facing the tunnels at the east end. You probably don't want to know that it was a two-car, 156 unit; but you might want to know that it was a clapped out piece of 1980s British Rail technology that was in need of replacement. It seems a shame to open a 'new' railway with rolling stock that is neither new enough to impress, nor old enough to have any nostalgic chic; but just tired, uncomfortable noisy machines which have been retired from other lines. After the tannoy announcement about the station being a 'non-smoking environment', the driver tried to start the train. Nasty, oily smoke duly poured out from under the carriage. Not, I should add, good old-fashioned clag, coming out of the exhaust; but billowing out from underneath and gusting around the platform. Nice. I was once on a train that caught fire, and I really thought it was happening again here, but it seemed to pass as the old thing warmed up. The train that caught fire was a much newer Turbostar, on a Glasgow-Aberdeen service. Somewhere just before Blackford the rear carriage filled with smoke, and the unit was diverted into a siding. The guard dealt with the passengers, while the driver (apparently) shut down the flaming motor at the rear. The driver then went along the track and used a phone to the signalman, while the guard took the fire extinguisher to the under side of the train, before climbing back on board to re-assure the passengers, and sealing off the affected part of the train - and making sure that passengers at the subsequent stop (Gleneagles) didn't try and board it. Why the convoluted explanation? Simply because, at the moment there is a dispute between train staff and some rail companies about whether they should cut costs and have driver-only trains. My experience is that driver-only operation makes economic sense, most of the time - but I don't think that incident could have been managed safely by one person. A driver alone could not have been negotiating with signals, moving passengers, putting out the fire, and communicating with the public. A potentially dangerous situation did not become a crisis, because this two-man Scotrail team new exactly what they were doing, and it was a two-man job. Eventually the train limped on to Perth on reduced power, where it was parked, and ongoing passengers taken to a bus.

The clunky old train I was on stopped smoking and pulled out of Waverley onto the East Coast Main Line, perfectly on time. The Borders Railway has been plagued by late running, but my train, despite its age was on time as we accelerated away from Holyrood and out past Meadowbank stadium and Craigintinny Rail Depot. Scotrail's latest second hand trains were in evidence there, old High Speed Trains (once known as Intercity 125's) displaced by overhead cables and electric trains from Paddington; coming North to add capacity to the system here; just as elderly displaced Gresley A4's once did when displaced by Deltics on the ECML. Peeling off the main line and into Brunstane, the first stop on the line, I was struck between the elegance of Waverley and the sterile functionality of the modern station, a picture which is re-enforced at Newcraighall's brutal park and ride; the terminus of this line from 2002-2015.

After Shawfair, the line breaches the city bypass and rapidly becomes a rural line, as hills, farms and castles replace flats, car-tyre companies and DIY Stores. The land is complex, folded, and pierced by meandering rivers, and the railway line, with its miles of bridges, cuttings and embankments twists and turns its way through the undulations. Before long the Lammermuir Hills of Walter Scott's novels rose up around the train, as it battered forward into driving snow. The line is a strange combination of old and new. Old cuttings and stone works, which have weathered into the landscape, jostle alongside garish modernity - steel, chrome and extreme security fencing, which make the railway look more like a scene from Escape from Alcatrazz than The Railway Children. This is especially grim around Galashiels, but mars the route elsewhere too. I wonder why for all the years of railway travel, people managed not to wander onto the tracks without the Berlin Wall being erected alongside them, but these days we are considered to be stupid enough to need to be corralled behind these vicious barriers? 

The train was on time when we reached Galashiels, and onto the terminus. That is good, but when the average speed was somewhere in the low 30mph's that is hardly ambitious for a modern railway, and not a huge amount more than a volunteer run steam railway might aim for, purely for nostalgia - not a public service. The problem is that while there is evidence of massive engineering works, the railway is in places chronically under-engineered. The original railway was a double-track mainline throughout, and used to run all the way to Carlisle. The lack of passing loops means that any one problem is amplified throughout the system. There seems to be little ambition to move freight on the line. Railway experts repeatedly drew this shortcoming the Scottish Government, but their was little acknowledgement.

Then the train just stops. There doesn't seem to be any reason for the line to end at Tweedbank, it just does. The old trackbed continues, uninterrupted towards Melrose, but the buffers appear and the trains just stop. The tiny trains empty out their passengers onto extraordinarily long platforms, with no buildings, or even run-around loops should any kind of loco ever venture this far. The waiting rooms are like bus shelters, open to the elements and freezing, as I would discover on my return. The whole plan and design of the place looks as if the architect was saying - 'Don't Stop Here', keep building! As it is, a two-mile walking route leads on down the line to Melrose, a steady 35 minute walk, to the Abbey, before my return to the ice-bound station and another terrible old train back to Edinburgh; perfectly on time.

It's great that the rail network has re-penetrated this once-abandoned part of the country, let's hope that the likes of St Andrews, and the Fife Coast regain their lost lines too. But it does feel half-finished, in length, in speed, in infrastructure and in rolling stock; perhaps finishing this one might need to be done before they move on?

Melrose Abbey

Monday, April 02, 2018

Ardoch Roman Fort

 What have the Romans Ever done for us? Well, they left these lovely earthworks near Braco, for a start.


Sunday, April 01, 2018

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Barnhill waking up for Spring

The ice has finally melted from Barnhill, the ground is warming up, and the hill seems to be waking up for Spring. The first daffodils are opening, and animals are venturing out too. Rodents must be scampering about in the undergrowth, because the buzzards have resumed their diligent patrols of the woods. 

Now that the pond has unfrozen, the giant heron has taken up residence again, along with the ducks. Once the heron has nested, there are great fights to be watched on Barnhill, as the buzzards try and evade its great beak, in order to steal its eggs.

The woods have not yet grown thick with bracken though. In these early days of Spring, you can see right through the woods. In only a few weeks time, the ferns will be waist high, and dense - and accompanied by acres of nettles.  The woods will change dramatically, and though the sun will be brighter, they will feel much darker and less airy than they do today. The deer had a sniff around the woods, but seem to have retreated back to more sheltered areas, because March 2018 had a big late snowfall, a Siberian storm nicknamed 'the beast from the east' No doubt, as soon as the saplings start to grow, they'll come and eat everything! 

Red squirrels seem to be everywhere though. In the quiet of the little gap between Barnhill and Kinnoull Hill, their skitterring and clicketting around the great trees is audible above the sparkling birdsong. Chasing each other round and round the trunks, and leaping from tree-to-tree, these shy little reds are a lovely sight. Somewhere out there, there is a woodpecker, manically attacking the trees. His percussion rings out through the quiet of the woods in the evenings, but he's very had to see, and as yet, impossible to photograph.

Over on Kinnoull Hill, its getting really busy, crowds of people trooping up and down the grey, gravel paths the council poured all over the hill. There's always a trail of litter about too, which is sad. There's been no sign of the peregrine falcon around the cliffs yet, but I'll keep watching for that.

Back on Barnhill, there's a lovely little Spring (not the one that splutters from a broken pipe!), which oozes and eases water into a little rivulet. It runs only when the weather has been wet, and is running nicely at the moment, as the soil is still saturated with snow-melt.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

2013-14 Blog restored

This blog was plagued by these signs for a while:

For various reasons, most of the photos in 2013-14 were hosted there, but displayed here. That was fine for a few years, but last year they decided to block them all and ask me for £99/year to restore them. Er.... no thanks. So, the blog has had loads of blanks. I've spent a while, gradually restoring as many of the photos as I can. There are still one or two of these rogue ones about, let me know if you see one.


Saturday, March 24, 2018

Book Notes: The People's Songs by Stuart Maconie

Stuart Maconie's books are always lively, fun, informative and entertaining. He's previously written about the North, the South, history and about his youthful exploits, and after some recent 'heavy' reads, I was in the mood for some entertainment. Maconie is remarkably well-read, often insightful and always eloquent, and when writing about British culture and music, very much on home turf. This book, "The People's Songs" is a postwar history of Britain, told through fifty songs. Apart from one glaring omission, that I'll come to in a moment, is a rip-roaring tour of two-generations of history and culture, as refracted through the prism of popular music.

It's all here; from the comedy records of the 1950s (Ying-Tong-iddle-i-Po!), though the birth of skiffle and rock and roll, through the blues boom of the sixties. Changing attitudes (J'Taime), changing fashions (The Beatles), the rise of the 'teenager', Mods and Rockers. Feminism, The Irish Troubles, multiculturalism, and the rise of gay-rights from Brian Epstein to Bronski Beat's 'Smalltown Boy', are summarised; along with the political, musical and economic backdrop against which these songs were made. From psychedelia, to prog-rock, to punk, to heavy-metal, so ska, and indie, and manufactured boy-bands; via talent-shows and muddy-festivals; the shape of post-war British music is rather neatly mapped out. Maconie seems to have an appreciation for a vast array of different musical styles; there are not many aficionados who are as at home appreciating Paul McCartney and George Formby as they are first Judas Priest and then Morrisey via Rick wWakeman! That is nothing of not a diverse set of appreciations. 

The chapters on Thatcherism, seem through the lens of The Specials "Ghost Town" is particularly strong, and Maconie does not write as a pundit seeking objective distance from his subject, but rails against the devastation to manufacturing industry which occurred in the 1980s. The for-and-against stuff on Live Aid/Band-Aid is fascinating too.

There's something fascinating about reading analysis of music and times that one has lived through. I am ashamed to admit that I went through a punk phase. It was 1977, I was six years old and one of my neighbours had a much older sister who was a fully uniformed punk, with plenty of vinyl albums from the Sex Pistols and others. Playing these seemed very grown up and impressive; and even better lots of them were presented in red, green or multi-coloured vinyl; whilst all my Dads classical LPs were boringly black! Obviously I had no idea at the time what the culture, either politically or musically was; but these days I'm, far more likely to be found listening to something in an unfathomable time-signature, of the kind that punk was supposed to have discredited! 

Like his others, Maconie's book is fast-paced, easy-reading, that engages, informs and provokes much thought. The problem is that there is a huge and gaping anomaly in the book which needs to be mentioned. When he says "the people's songs"; who are the people he is talking about? I couldn't help but think that the 'people' he had in mind were mostly people rather like him; left-of-centre 'progressives', with a strong agenda for gay-rights and multi-culturalism; and a deep suspicion of a perception of the establishment. My point is not that these are not important parts of life and music in postwar Britain; and should be overlooked.. far from it. Any compendium on music and culture that didn't look at these things would be woefully deficient.  Rather, it is that there is little coverage of people who don't slot into this right-on agenda; are these not "people"?

In particular the massive role of Christianity in British music and culture is systematically excluded from the account. It's not that Christians don't appear in the pages; it is simply that they are without fail anti-entertainment Puritans, weirdos, or eccentrically dressed Bishops. While the burgeoning interest in Eastern religions is covered (George Harrison); oddly, the Christian canvas on which these developments were painted is excluded. My complaint here is not that I am an offended Christian, pleading victim status and turning into a latter-day "Mr Angry from Purley". (Do you remember him, he used to get so angry he would throw the phone down, every afternoon on Radio One in the 1980s?). Rather, it is that I am annoyed historian, who thinks that this is just bad history. Read, for example Calum Brown on secularisation, to see the extent to which Christian thought and discourse was the norm for most Britains until well into the era Maconie discusses. Or read Nick Spencer on the Christian foundations of British law, language, politics, culture, justice system etc. While today the established churches are at a low ebb, perhaps it is hard for us to imagine the extent of participation and influence they had well into the 1970s. I'm willing to bet that the number of people who embraced TM, or were in the gay clubs of the 80s, or who participated in the national passtime of attending music festivals; pales into insignificance compared to the volume of people whose culture and music was informed by Christianity. The coverage last week of the death of the US preacher Billy Graham was startling; in terms of the incredible numbers of people who queued to hear him in London and Glasgow especially. Yet the thought that a chapter entitled "Just as I Am", about the 1950s faith culture, might be included is ridiculous. These are the "peoples songs", but not the songs of all the people.

I was a little perplexed as to why Christianity has been so completely airbrushed from history by Maconie. I read somewhere that he had been brought up in Catholicism, but has rejected it. Perhaps that has something to do with it. That's hardly the point though; I do not expect every author I read to agree with Christianity - in fact I read a huge amount from those who specifically reject it. What I do think should happen though, is fair-minded and reasonable representation of what we know to be true. The irony of course is that the outsiders and minorities who he champions throughout the book, are now the elites, who control the media. and it's those with the old-fashioned views who need brave voices to welcome them into mainstream culture. I can't believe that Maconie is ignorant of all this. we do live in an age which is extraordinarily ignorant of history in general and Christianity in particular; but he seems far too well read, and erudite for this to be simply that. Is it actually just good old-fashioned prejudice, directed at the new easy-target? I don't know.

It was while pondering these things that I stumbled across J. John's letter to the BBC. It said amongst other things that:

In terms of omission, we find that the role of Christianity in the life of an individual or in history is, all too frequently, conveniently overlooked. Although, as I mentioned, I do not keep records of specifics, let me cite two instances. One is the BBC’s treatment of the limbless Nick Vujicic, a remarkable man who Wikipedia describes in its first line as ‘a Serbian-Australian Christian evangelist and motivational speaker born with tetra-amelia syndrome . . .’ Mysteriously on the BBC website –– all reference to his Christian faith has been removed. Another instance is the omission of Usain Bolt’s firm Christian faith in a lengthy biographical treatment of him at Is this wilful bias or simply a lack of courage and truth to name what motivates these individuals? These are not unique cases. I’ve come across references to organisations and individuals that I know to be Christian where this most fundamental element in their existence is quite simply overlooked.More subtly, in historical programmes there is all too frequently the airbrushing out of Christianity. Possibly in an effort to make situations and individuals more accessible and sympathetic to the modern mind, the role of church and faith in determining both the culture and the actions of individuals is downplayed. The church, the Bible and Christian ethics almost always seem to have mysteriously gone missing, Photoshopped out of history. It does not have to be so. A positive example here is Series 2 Episode 6, ‘Vergangenheit’, of Netflix’s The Crown which shows Queen Elizabeth II grappling with issues of faith and forgiveness and has a sympathetic portrayal of Billy Graham preaching. Many who have watched it have said that this was precisely the sort of thing that the BBC dare not now produce. For the best part of 2,000 years the Christian faith in some form or other has governed how the people of the United Kingdom thought, spoke and acted. Men and women attended church, said prayers, uttered grace before meals and, whether they followed the tenets of the church or not, they at least considered them. To reject that role for Christianity is to deny history.
It was after I read this, that I noticed that Maconies book says, "As heard on Radio2" on it. John certainly seems to have a point, in this case at least.

It was the only thing which spoilt my enjoyment of this otherwise charming, incisive, witty and well-researched book. From Vera Lynn to Slade, these fifty songs cover an enormous amount of history, times and places, with a deftness of touch which is admirable. I couldn't put this book down, I didn't quite read it in one sitting, but its only taken a few days to steam through its 400+ pages. Despite my ranting reservation above, Maconie is a delight to read, as he effortlessly guides the reader from The Kinks, to Bowie, to Black Sabbath, to New Romantics, and Acid House, and Grime; as he leads a grand tour from postwar austerity, through the decades of transformation, the conflict of the 70s, into Thatcherism and beyond. 

I've been digging out some of the music from the different eras he had described, and playing it to my kids; just as my Dad once played The Goons to me! This morning I treated them to The Specials, "Ghost Town". I'm pleased to report that they were suitably impressed. When I was ten, my best mate's older brother sought to broaden our musical horizons with such things. Simon - you're efforts were not entirely in vain!

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Book Notes: Primo Levi by Ian Thomson

I first saw the name, "Primo Levi", in Berlin, in December 2003. The "Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe" in the centre of the city is the sort of place which leaves an impression on the visitor which perhaps never goes away. The thing which caught my eye there was this quote form Levi, which I photographed, and brought home. 

I was intrigued by the quote, and its solemn, bell-tolling sobering warning. It so succinctly, but powerfully explains the importance and power of memory, and the depths to which humanity can sink, that I chewed the simple statement over and over again. On my return home, I Googled "Primo Levi" to find out more about who had written these words. The result was that I read his book "The Drowned and The Saved", which turned out to be an attempt by a survivor, to explain, describe and reckon with the horror of Auschwitz. I struggled with the book, it made me tense, unhappy, agitated and insomniac; it affected me deeply, which I described at the time in this review. Despite that, I knew very little about the man behind the book, until now.

Ian Thomson has written an incredible account of the extraordinary life of Primo Levi. His portrait of Jewish-Italian life between the world wars, is fascinating and revealing. His descriptions of life under Mussolini are - like the whole book - meticulously researched. Italian Fascism was a nasty business, but lacked the savage brutality of the Nazism which overran it. Anti-semitism wasn't at the heart of Mussolini's Imperial ambition; indeed there seem to have been several Jewish-fascists in Italy before the war. As such, Levi was a free man in Italy for much of the war; only after the first fall of Mussolini, and his imposition as a puppet ruler by Hitler, and German occupation of the North, did wholesale exportation of Jewish people to the Polish death camps commence. Levi, was arrested along with his closest friends in a Anti-Nazi resistance unit, and deported to Auschwitz. A side-note to Levi's story is that of the Italian's who fought alongside the Nazi's in the disastrous invasion of Russia, and who limped home broken, and bewildered; a little-known element of WWII history.

Levi survived slavery in the Buna-Monowitz section of the Auschwitz, not being selected for murder because he was useful to the Nazis due to his training in industrial chemistry. As such he was given just enough nutrition to barely survive, and was part of the factory slave-labour force. As the Germans retreated westwards, away from the advancing Red Army, Levi was spared the death-marches, because he was so ill, he was left to die. Remarkably, he survived, and was eventually, repatriated to Italy by the victorious Soviet Red Army.

I was vaguely aware of much of this, but knew almost nothing of what happened next. Thomson, paints an amazing story of a remarkable man who was a husband and father, a secular Jew, an Italian, a mountaineer/Alpinist, an industrial chemist, a poet, an historian, a journalist, an essayist, a depressive, a public intellectual; a prize-winning author, and the unofficial chief interpreter and memorialiser of the death camps. 

Levi also emerges as a hugely complex figure, unhappy at home, and living under the shadow of his overbearing mother. Thomson charts his personal battles, his relationship struggles, and his battles with publishers, translators and publicists, and waves of debilitating depression which at times overwhelmed him. The story, despite its many triumphs and startling twists and turns, ends tragically as Levi took his own life, aged 67, not long after completing his definitive work on Auschwitz: The Drowned and The Saved.

Thomson discusses the various theories which have been suggested as to why this amazing life ended so grimly. He concludes that all the theories about PTSD or survivor guilt from the camps, don't do justice to the facts; that reducing the matter to a genetic predisposition to clinical depression is reductionist, and that there was also far more to Levi than simply domestic unhappiness or fear of the rise of neo-fascism. Rather, the dreadful end of the story was the result of the unknoweable combination of forces bearing down upon a shattered man.

Thomson's book is a large work, based on a massive amount of research, including interviews with the subject himself; and a vast array of his school-mates, colleagues, fellow-survivors, family members, and literary friends. Without lazy sentimentality, the triumphs and deep tragedies of this most important life are described. Tragically, of course, despite the complexities of the narrative, and the many strands to the story; the narrative of Levi's life never escapes the horror and evil of Auschwitz. It was there where so many of the people Levi loved perished and it was the grotesque debasement of humanity in the Nazi camps which marked him for life. Yet, it was also this deeply traumatic experience which made him a writer of international importance, and made him the definitive voice of remembrance; his life's greatest work.

This is not an easy read, but it is a very moving one. Thomson walks the reader through decades of Primo Levi's life, bringing him so alive in the reader's mind; that the final tragedy is keenly felt. 

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Book Notes: Uncommon Ground, A word-lover's guide to the British landscape by Dominic Tyler

This book is an absolute delight. Quirky, unusual and written with a wry, witty ease of touch, the text is accompanied by lovely photos. The contents of the book are unusual. Great Britain is divided up into eight sections, from "The Highlands", to "The Fenlands", not along political, but along geomorphological ones. Each chapter, dedicated to one of these landscapes, begins with a short essay about Tyler's trip to the area. Anecdotes, memories and sharp observations are all assembled into these utterly charming introductions. The main focus of these chapters however are words; words that people have devised to capture, describe and relay to others. an aspect of the landscape, its effect on them - or indeed their effect on it.

Each special landscape word which Tyler identifies, is given a lovely photo, a grid reference, and a page of explanation. These notes delve into history, geography, cartography, and linguistics and humour; and are uniformly informative and sometimes quite funny too. Tyler writes with an almost palpable love for landscapes, whether they are rugged highland Strasrugi, clinging to a wild Corrie on some remote Stob; or a Sunpol, Daddock or Pistyl by a low-lying Copse. (For definitions and explanations you should buy the book!)

Some words such as MeanderBealach or Tor, I already knew from hillwalking days, others such as Dumbledore, I only knew as words; and had no idea of their origins. Other words I found for the first time, but felt as if I should have known. Moonglade is the shiny trail of light reflected from the water beneath a bright moon; Epilimnion is the warm layer of water at the surface of a loch;  Holloway is a sunken lane, which only subsequently gave its name to a road, a prison and countless families. Tombolo is an island connected to the shore at low tide; clear, hard ice covering rocks has a name too: Verglas.

Tyler's little etymologies are fascinating in what they reveal about man's interaction with the natural world too. The Holloway, begins as footpath erosion, to which a stream may add erosive power, which gains water-seeking vegetation on it's banks. It is the result of land-and-man in dynamic interaction, which humans then name, and which in turn became a human sur-name. This act of naming things is important. Tyler recounts his time in the low-lying wetlands of East Anglia amongst the Crikes, Carr's and Loblolly's, and encourages us to think of such places as Stagnal, not stagnant. Here he met a naturalist called Mark Cocker who told him that, "Names are the absolute fundament of relationship because if you don't have a name for something you can' build on that relationship". (p211). Fascinating then, that in the biblical creation story (which Tyler doesn't actually mention until his comparison of the Inuit words for snow with the English words for Mud on p222); the first humans are pictured as being commissioned with the task of 'naming' the creatures, in other words not just performing elementary classification; but beginning meaningful interaction with the natural world.

I love words, and I love the varieties of the British landscape. From cycling across the chalky downlands of the south, to striding over the ridges of the Highlands in later years; I have sought whenever possible to immerse myself in these landscapes. I have also found that the many days I have spent alone in the outdoors have yielded many more vivid memories of it, as my senses are sharper and less distracted than when in company. Don't misunderstand me, some of the best days I have had in the hills have been with others, just that these are not the times when I have felt the landscape as intently as I have when confronting it alone. I love words too, and seem to spend inordinate amounts of time consuming those of others, and producing my own. Dominic Tyler's book about landscape and words, was almost guaranteed to resonate with me.

I once tried to coin a new word to describe a certain mountain experience, (not that anyone noticed). I didn't really mind, but I found it helpful to put a word to a certain feeling, and try to use this to relay that to others. Tyler's book does this again, and again, not by inventing new words, but unearthing, and explaining the richness of words that sometimes have lain unused in quiet backwaters of the country for too long. The natural world really is a wonderful thing to behold, to study, to photograph and to classify in order to discuss. Tyler doesn't really ever get to discussing why this is the case; for him it is simply assumed to be important. For me, it is a spiritual experience, but perhaps not in the contemporary definition of that phrase. Such terminology usually suggests some pantheistic, or Gaia-ish connection to either the sum or the parts of the created realm. But that's not what I mean. Rather, my sense is that this great painting, speaks of a great artist; who has assembled us before His canvas and asked us to define, describe, appreciate, photograph and enjoy His work, as a clue in the search for Him. The heavens indeed declare the Glory of God! I remember once the celebrity atheist Ricky Gervais talking about the awe one senses before the natural realm, and said he defied any believer to sense any more awe than he did as an atheist. The trouble is that Christians never make that claim. I have climbed mountains with believers, sceptics, agnostics, atheists and the disinterested; and we all have stood in awe of the great landscapes of Scotland. We have all reached for words and cameras to capture the moment and the emotion, the time and the place. No, the Christian claim is not that they experience greater awe in these moments; rather it is that the Christian explanation for the awe we all  experience is more credible; that a mountain is not merely a meaningless pile of molecules, but is actually a work of art. Likewise, the desire to photograph, classify and relay this to others - as Tyler does so wonderfully in this book -suggests that we too are not merely molecules; but have some deep connection to the original artist; and that this book delights because it resonates so profoundly with the imago dei.

Saturday, February 17, 2018


Clahnaben from the Fettercairn to Banchory Road.

Kinnoull in the Snow

Film Notes: Ida

I've seen a few films recently, most of which were okay, some of which were overrated, none of which I thought were worthy of a review. Then yesterday I saw 'Ida'. I had bought the disk a long time ago, but somehow with time being short, it never made it to the top of the pile; until now. If I had known how good it was, I would have watched it an age ago.

The story (without too many plot-spoilers), concerns a young Polish girl who is about to take her vows and become a nun. Convent life has been all she has known, as she was an orphan, brought up by the sisters. The opening scenes see young Ida, at work in the practical and ceremonial rigours of the convent. The plot centres around Ida's farewell visit to her family - in this case her sole known relative, an aunt. The aunt is deeply opposed to Ida's religion, and in fact has been a member of the Stalinist hierarchy running postwar Poland. Her aunt's scepticism does not trouble Ida, so much as the discovery that she was orphaned because her parents were murdered during the Nazi occupation of Poland; and that she had a historic Jewish identity, to compete with her experienced Roman Catholic one. The story involves Ida's discovery of her past and navigating, (in the company of her disturbing aunt) the pleasures available outside the confines of the cloistered life; however it centres on her personal struggle to work out her identity. Central to this, is the decision she faces about whether to take her vows and "marry" Jesus, as a nun - or to become joined to the outside world.

The setting in the early Soviet-era in Poland are amazingly created, the gritty black and white filming adds a retro-feel which when combined leaves the viewer wondering if this is actually a recent film- or is in fact decades old. It is visually stunning. The other thing about the direction which is so striking is that it is never hurried, the characters are allowed to breathe, and the studies of the faces of the central protagonists are unnervingly powerful. In one scene for instance, the viewer is being asked to understand that while every other nun and novice is totally compliant; Ida is beginning to ask questions. This is conveyed not through an obvious-but-cheesy dialogue, but through a study of faces. Every head remains fixed in concentration in their prayer book; except Ida, who risks a brief glimpse up: a picture worth a thousand or more words. 

Agata Trzebuchowska is quite remarkable in her performance as the young Polish-Jewish-Catholic girl, for which she quite rightly garnered a host of awards. Amazingly it seems as if Ida has been her only film credit. Agata Kulesza plays the aunt, "Red Wanda", and is also first-rate too; as she plays a woman haunted by the past, lost in the present, and spiralling downwards into her future.

Together, the filming, directing and acting create a film which is gripping, moving, dark, and thoughtful.

Of course, the tension between what makes us who we are: nature or nurture, is in full view in this film. The protagonist here seems to have the final vote, and will have to chose between chapel and synagogue, priest and rabbi, nurture or nature. As neither a Catholic nor a Jew, I felt like a neutral, outside observer to this inner struggle. There is also though the added dynamic of secular hedonism adding a third option which adds a nice complexity to the story, which I could relate to in terms of its power to lure one away from identity and values 

The media seems to be fascinated today with the question of identity, found in programmes like Who Do You Think You Are? in which celebrities unearth their ancestry. Genealogy hunting and family-tree recording has never been more popular either. All the while geneticists and psychologists debate whose field most fully explains human behaviour. Some people find discovering their ancestry profoundly revealing, and they find a sense of place, and belonging. To others, it is an utter irrelevance, what matters to them is the present alone. The comedian Mark Steel has a wonderful stand-up show entitled "Who Do I Think I Am?", in which he speaks (with his customary wit and irreverence), about tracing his biological parents; and seeing if there are any traces of his genes in his personality; or whether who he had turned out to be is modelled more closely on his adoptive parents. The results are fascinating, and well worth a listen. The BBC iPlayer sometimes has this show on it, it is not up presently, but maybe again at some point. In short though, he seems very much the child of his adopted parents except for a few alarming traits which seems to have been, in part at least, genetic. He seems happy to acknowledge these, but on the question of identity, doesn't seem to rest on his genetic history at all - bizarre and surprising as it turned out to be (another spoiler I shall spare you).

In Ida, the film comes to a series of conclusions, ultimately Ida decides which of the paths before her is the right one. The ruins of the past are laid to rest, her sampling of the different options available to her is made, and she walks into her future.

Ida is an exceptionally thought-provoking film; and it is a thing of great beauty to watch too. The real test of a film, though, is whether the characterisation is strong enough that the viewer is drawn in enough to actually care what happens to them. Agata Trzebuchowska's Ida, is so well drawn that I for one, felt stirred by her plight, sorrow at the discoveries she makes, and the losses she endures - and fascinated by her choices. What lingers in my mind, are the striking black and white images of postwar Poland, of the Convent, the grave-side, the disintegrating Aunt, and the minimal but powerful expressions on Ida's face. 

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Book Notes: Living With the Living Dead - The Wisdom of the Zombie Apocalypse by Greg Garrett

When Oxford University Press sent me a review copy of Greg Garrett's book, Living With The Living Dead, which claims amongst other things to demonstrate the cultural and theological importance of the Zombie Movie genre; I was sceptical. In the course of over two-hundred pages of analysis, Garrett removed some - but not all of my initial prejudice against his project! 

Garrett writes from a broadly Christian perspective, and yet is an enormous fan of Zombie movies, which he seems to remember in dreadful detail. This will be a struggle for many Christians from the outset. I once knew a man who literally had the words of Philippians 4:8 stuck across the top of his television. Anything which failed to pass 'St' Paul's injunction to restrict ones' thought-life to "whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy"; would be summarily switched off. The Zombies would be stopped in their tracks.. While few Christians would be that overt in their self-censorship, millions would quietly avoid (18) certificate films in general, and horror in particular. When we read that one film in Garrett's analysis is "like taking a bath in every monstrous thing humans could do if they could" (p196); it's not hard to see why that would be the case. While the opposite error might be to simply glory in the naive, the trite, the banal and the kitsch; what are we to do with a book that asks us to take seriously, and learn from the foul, gross, menacing and repulsive? Perhaps we should initially be concerned that in order to watch as many of these films as this author has done; a degree of desensitisation must have occurred, simply to cope with the repulsion, and distance himself from it. That alone might be cause enough problems to offset the positives which Garrett is keen to examine in these movies.

Garrett argues that the Zombie Apocalypse movie isn't simply gratuitous in its horror, but clever in that it is an extrapolation from  genuine fears and worries in an insecure world. As such, it might be over the top in comparison with real life - but yet resonates with its audience in a deeper way than simply scaring them like a celluloid roller-coaster. As such, he seems to speak in terms of the almost cathartic nature of watching films which expose our deepest fears and process them; the best of which  (he says), do so with nobility, hope, goodness, community and triumph. In an enormous number of case-studies (and frankly the book was too long!), Garrett shows the way in which the surviving characters have to make moral choices in the face of impending doom at the hands of Zombies, Night-Walkers or Rampaging Viruses - all of which are physical embodiments of evil. Many are faced with dilemmas which play the need for personal survival against caring for and preserving others - and are therefore explorations of the basic moral dilemma; against the most extreme of backdrops. Likewise, bands of non-Zombies, whose humanity remains intact, in many movies struggle to work together, but yet find identity and meaning in their community - themes which have obvious resonance with Christian anthropology. Indeed Garrett spends a good amount of time in a major diversion into discussing the Christian understanding of community stretching back to the monastic tradition. Some Zombie movies go even further, he argues, and demonstrate the essence of love, to give 'ones life for ones friends', and that even in the face of monstrous evil and complete breakdown of society. This is all reasonable enough, well argued, and painstakingly illustrated from Zombie (and other apocalyptic) films, books, TV series and comics.

What is less persuasive is his tentative efforts to draw parallels between the apocalyptic nature of these contemporary cultural phenomena and the biblical apocalyptic texts. Some of the alarming apocalyptic writings in the prophets, the gospels and of course in The Revelation, make us see the world as we know it as rather fragile, transient even. That this has a secular parallel in the zombie apocalypse, is a point well made. Likewise his point that a contemporary youth on Netflicks, imagining a dehumanising viral plague sweeping across Europe; is not a world away from a youngster of a previous era quaking while trying to imagine what the 'abomination that causes desolation', or the 'great beast' might mean; is well put. So too, are there parallels between the post-apocalyptic re-birth of the world in some of the more hopeful Zombie stories, and some forms of end-times tribulation theories. However the links drawn here are only suggested, not fully explored; and troublingly, I suspect for Garrett, would work better if he subscribed to the more extreme 'end-timer' dispensationalist theology. 'Left Behind' might be theologically suspect, but it might suggest some further cultural links to explore around his subject.

What I found most interesting about the book through, and most persuasive, was the opening section. Here, Garrett examines the explosion of Zombie Apocalyptic products, and their consumption in contemporary Western Society. He states, for example, that the 'Zombie Apocalypse has become the dominant nightmare image of our day', (p16), with unimaginable numbers of film purchases every day, and tens of thousands of separate Zombie related product lines on Amazon alone. He presents a battery of evidence to support his claim too. What's interesting is why he thinks there is such a widespread, and deep fascination with something as horrible as the everyday story of your friends, neighbours and loved ones becoming deranged monsters intent upon the consumption of human flesh! 

His answers are many, and nuanced, but well worth a read. He notes, for example, that after 9/11 there was a huge surge in the consumption of Zombie related stories and products. Zombie narratives then feed, on insecurity, social upheaval and threats to the social order. In fact, they are a good barometer of insecurity, and fear. Consumption of Zombie narratives also - and this is rather troubling - seem to spike when a population receives significant numbers of incoming migrants. The incessant march of the Zombie, the wave after wave of the living dead, wrecking all in their path, must reveal (albeit in exaggerated form) a deep level of fear about the cultural threat of 'foreigners', Foreigners, or 'aliens' are of course, human  - but not like us. They don't speak like 'us', dress like 'us', or share our cultural norms. To some, they apparently arrive in waves of faceless invaders; and a loss of power, control and security to the native population.

Likewise, the Zombie narrative asks us to question what it means to truly be human. Can the essence of humanity be lost, or is it inherent to anyone carrying human DNA? Can a robot ever be considered to be part human, if it is programmed to look, feel and sound like a human - or might it march Zombie like through our culture? The dilemma of whether the surviving human can legitimately kill the Zombified loved-one, who is recognisable but not what they were, opens up all kinds of fascinating ethical debates from the history of slavery in the USA where slaves at one time counted as 'three-fifths of a person' in population census's; to the status of a person with advanced dementia who looks the same, but yet is not what they were. It doesn't give answers to these questions, and doesn't actually offer much of a framework for getting to an answer - but the questions raised are important nevertheless.

Most profoundly of all however, there is the lurking fear that in the middle of mindless Western consumption, it is not the other who is being Zombified, and having its humanity diminished, but oneself. While the consumer of a Zombie film will instinctively identify with the survivor character, perhaps, suggests Garrett, we have a greater fear that in our consumption-at-all-costs lifestyle, our trampling on each other in the market economy, and radical individualism, we have actively depleted our own humanity; or at least failed to embrace its fullness. Several movies explore this by having Zombies in all their blank, empty, hollowness, shopping in shiny American Malls, unable to think, only to consume. Again it begs deep-seated questions about the purpose of life. If the ancient answer that the chief end of man was to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, gave way to 'I think therefore I am', if what we have now is just 'I consume therefore I am'; then we are just as well to be scared at the sight of the hollow, empty stare of the Zombie, which looks uncomfortably mirror-like. Likewise the Marxist concept of Alienation has some resonances here, with the way in which technology has made so many jobs de-skilled and repetitive; we fear the Zombie, because he is un-creative and mindlessly programmed to act. Again, contemporary life uncomfortably mirrors horror.

Garrett finally sees the good moral message of the Zombie Apocalypse as being one in which, despite the real and often unspeakable horrors of the world-gone-wrong in which we live, where cultural, environmental, nuclear, political or viral catastrophes threaten; we still have agency, still have humanity, and can still chose to fight for the good. (212). That's fine, but I couldn't help wondering if what was needed next was an explanation of how the Christian message offers hope, meaning, vitality and life-affirming wholeness to the alienated, the insecure, the bleak and the worried. That would have been a more robust and compelling conclusion - especially for the millions of consumers of these stories he identified.

Did Garrett succeed in turning me into an appreciator of gory, horror apocalyptic movies, TV-series, and the like? Absolutely not. I still think they are ghastly, and if I never see another one, I won't be one bit sorry!

Monday, February 12, 2018

Ben Gulabin

Ben Gulabin is a great little hill, a charming Perthshire Corbett. It does look enormous and rather daunting when it fills the horizon for Northbound drivers on the Perth-to-Braemar A93. In fact, the high starting point, a mile or so beyond the snow-gates at the Spittal of Glenshee, and its relatively low height, make it a pretty straightforward outing - even in Winter conditions. 

The starting point is at an obvious gate, where a track forks away from the main road, and ascends the a little of the lower slopes of Ben Gulabin, while curving between the main mountain and the adjacent Creagan Bheithe. 

The track continues between the two hills and out towards Carn a Gheoidh, and the route to the summit involves a 90' turn to the left from the track, and into the hill. Without snow, there is probably a path; today under snow cover there was just the feint clue of some faded boot prints to indicate the best route up. The OS map has a ruin by the path marked, which would give a clue as to where to turn, but as this ruin is now flat with the ground, it is not actually visible from the track. The key thing is to ensure that you walk beyond the steep gully in the hillside before starting the ascent. 

The ascent up the side of the hill is a bit steep, and in snow and ice crampons were a necessity. The track seems to terminate at the low point on the ridge between the two tops. The lower one to the left, would have been worth visiting on a clear day - however as I had walked up into the clouds I turned right along the broad ridge, and picked my way over some bouldery outcrops, trying to avoid the worst depths of the snow, to the summit. The only other walkers I saw all day, on the lower reaches of the track, were in snow-shoes, and there were times when I envied their ability to stay on top of the soggy stuff! My only other company was a series of enormous mountain hares, leaping about on the hillside, in their white fur.

I took the opportunity to try out my new Winter jacket, (which my family had bought be for my birthday last week). It was SO good that on the climb I cooked inside its thermal layers! It was only when I stopped on the top that I realised just how cold the air temperature actually was, and layered up for the descent  - following my footsteps back down the mountain to the waiting car - and home.

iPhone photos!

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Book Notes: The Many Days, Selected Poems of Norman MacCaig

I first stumbled across the delightful poetry of Norman MacCaig via Andrew Greig's wonderful book, "At The Loch of The Green Corrie". In fact, I first heard MacCaig's name when Grieg was interviewed for some afternoon bookish programme on Radio 4, and was intrigued. The story there is that MacCaig in his last days sent the younger poet on a enigmatic Highland quest to be completed after the former's demise. The physical journey depicted, forms the arc of a series of moving stories around the theme of friendship. There are a few poems in that book form MacCaig, such as the following:

It was several years later that I stumbled across a little bookshop in Edinburgh, of which I had never heard. Nestling there among the volumes of left-wing causes, biographies of Che and Trotsky, pro-Palestinian publications, Queer Theory, and Nuclear Disarmament; a found a slim volume of the selected poems of MacCaig. It was not what I expected to emerge from the shop clutching; but it seemed a most appropriate thing to take into a grey, rainy Edinburgh afternoon.

MacCaig's poems are mostly short, and not buried beneath dense, unintelligible metaphors and obscure literary illusions. Some of them are deceptively simple. One or two, seem rather routine, until he drops in a killer a line with such force that it delights (when he describes nature), or feels like a punch in the stomach (when he exhibits grief and loss). That so many of his poems are based around, and inspired by places I know and love such as Edinburgh and Assynt, only makes them better. That he could look down and be inspired by the tiny elements of the natural world (a frog in a pool), as by the grandeur of Suilven or Stac Pollaidh is also rather special.

Whether in gentle and wry observational mood, in the throes of grief, or in the company of Highland crofters, MacCaigs little verses have a unique charm, which sometimes seems to cut right to the heart of the matter.