Saturday, April 23, 2016

Friday, April 22, 2016

Beinn Mhanach

Ben Lui from Beinn Mhanach

Beinn Mhanach (pro-nounced byn vanach) is a Munro in the Bridge of Orchy group of hills. While the four main Munros in this group lie alongside the main A82 heading to Glen Coe, Beinn Mhanch sits hidden behind them, mostly out of sight. No-one calls this hill Orchy's hidden gem though - because 'hidden lump' would be a fairer assessment! The hill is a good few miles from the road, and is a large grassy elongated dome, lacking any distinct ridges or towering peaks. 

Beinn Mhanach has three attributes which attract walkers to its summit cairn. The first of these is the fact that it owns mythical Munro status, and so is compulsory for those who need to add ticking lists to their enjoyment of the hills. People like me, in other words! Secondly, it is a good physical challenge. The walk in is quite long and the climb from the floor of the glen to the top unrelentingly steep and hard going. The western end of the hill is in fact steep enough that the hill walking books warn against attempting a descent this way. The greatest thing about Beinn Mhanach though, is its location. The adjacent Glen Orchy hills, stretching from Ben Dorain to Beinn a'Chreachain are only the foreground of a massive mountain panorama.

There are two obvious routes towards this hill, the first is from Bridge of Orchy station, and over the bealach between Ben Dorain and Beinn and Dothaidh. This is the shortest route, but involves a lot of extra ascent. The other is to walk from the main road towards the farm at Auch, and on under the viaduct on the Crianlarich-Fort William arm of the West Highland Railway and then along the track along the Auch Achaid-innis Chaileinn which eventually reaches recently renovated farm buildings at Ais-an t-Sithean. This track fords the meandering Allt Kinglass river repeatedly, but crossing it was never a problem as it didn't reach the height of or boots. The SMC Munro book notes that when the fords are too deep, then the walker can continue up the glen by staying on the SE bank of the stream.

Once past the Ais-an t-Sithean farm buildings, the track bears round to the right, still climbing and reaches a gate, fence and weir system before descending towards the very end of Loch Lyon. At this watershed, there is a deep gully scarring the face of the hill, which leads to the lowest point on the broad ridge between the Munro summit of Beinn Mhanach at its lower top, Beinn a Chuirn. The ascent of the hill can be approached from either side of this gully. The left hand side is gentler, and reaches the summit plateau at its lowest point; but climbing on the right side of the gully (alongside a rusting iron fence) leads directly and steeply, towards the summit. We went up the steep way, and back the more gentle route.

The climb was exhausting! Although I had scraped ice off the car windscreen in Perth at 6:45AM, by 10:30AM. the sun was basting the mountains, the intense heat being held in almost completely still air. Thankfully in April we are still in the pre-midgie phase of the year! Shedding layer after layer, we made the summit, only to have a chill-wind take our temperature imbalance to the other extreme. With icy winds evaporating hot sweat from our faces, we felt our body temperature plummeting and changed in a few seconds from tropical to Arctic clothing!

The views from the top were quite amazing. Ben Lui (Beinn Laoigh) immediately draws the eye, as it is such a beautiful mountain, and is so pleasingly framed by the glen below. 

Westwards, Cruachan's shapely and majestic peaks, still snow-capped, glistened stunningly in the clear, crisp sunshine.  Northwards, the railway line across Rannoch Moor could be seen, along with the Laggan Hills. The Lawers group dominated the eastern view, while to the South the peaks which encircle the strange little village of Crianlarich, looked truly impressive.

The descent was hot and the ground quite slippery. The sun shone and heated up the grass which gave off a distinct odour - which reminded me of childhood. Once back at the head of the path, it is simply a long trudge back to the main road.

Final view of the Orchy Hills, in the wing mirror from an interminable traffic jam on the A82.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Falls of Braan

(click on image to enlarge it)

At The Hermitage, Dunkeld on the last day of the school holidays.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Romantic Seals

Applecross, Scotland.

(Click on image to view fullsize)

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Book Notes: Thatcher Stole My Trousers by Alexei Sayle

"Thatcher Stole My Trousers" is the second part of Alexei Sayle's enormously entertaining memoirs, published this year as a follow-up to "Stalin Ate My Homework", which dealt with his early years. In many ways the books are quite similar, in that Sayle is a superb storyteller and raconteur whose style translates to the printed page with ease. He is effortlessly funny, and has lived the kind of extraordinary life which seems to generate more than its fair share of anecdotes which are improbable, ludicrous, and wonderful in equal turns. Like the first book, in Thatcher Stole My Trousers, Sayle is angry, Marxist, and foul-mouthed! But there are differences between the two books too.

While Stalin Ate My Homework, dealt primarily with Sayle's adventures growing up in Liverpool, and revolved around his complex relationship with his Stalinist, volatile, and almost unbelievable Mother, Molly Sayle; Thatcher..... moves on sees Sayle leave home, move to London and commence adult life. Both books have a central female character, and Molly makes way for Linda - who in the course of this book becomes his wife. While not as unhinged as his mother, Linda is clearly a force to be reckoned with! Here's a snapshot of Sayle's writing, roaming through family life, politics, the state of the economy, and all delivered in steely satirical prose.

"..... friends came up to Liverpool for the party when in 1974 Linda and I got married. We had decided to wed almost as an affectation. All the couples we knew were living together while marriage was considered to be old-fashioned and possibly fascist so we thought we'd be different. It was only slowly that as the date approached that we came to realise that marriage was a actually a huge commitment not to be taken lightly or done as a fashion statement. So by the time of the ceremony at the registry office in Brougham Terrace in Liverpool me and Linda were very solemn and a bit intimidated by the weight of the event. 
After the ceremony we, our parents, Linda's brother Jimmy and Chris Walker went to the Berni Inn in town for a steak lunch. Somebody, probably one of Linda's parents unsure of themselves in a restaurant, asked the waitress what she'd recommend for a suitable wine to accompany the low-quality beef, a badly burnt tomato and frozen peas. The woman, big and beefy herself, with a towering beehive hairdo, thought for a few moments and then replied, 'Well..... they say the rosé very good.'  
We wondered who exactly 'they' were. Perhaps, we thought, a group of worthies - philosophers, lawmakers, playwrights, and politicians who met in convocation to decide what was good and bad in the world, to pronounce accordingly and to ensure that life was free from upset. If that was the case then they'd clearly taken their eye off the ball recently because things seemed to be going to hell in a hand-cart. First of all there was the OAPEC oil embargo begun by the major oil-producing countries in response to American involvement in the Yom Kippur War between Israel, Egypt and Syria. The major victims were Canada, Japan, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the US. Flying and boating was banned on Sundays and the speed limit was reduced to fifty-six miles an hour, supposedly the most efficient speed to drive at but which meant that a trip to Liverpool took seven hours. Then there were the high rates of inflation so people's wages didn't keep pace with the cost of things meaning there were a lot of strikes and work-to-rules, culminating in the three-day week in which electricity was rationed to three days a week, so we had to buy our wedding clothes by candlelight. And to add to that there was a stock market crash when the FT 30 lost 73 per cent and a secondary banking crisis forced the Bank of England to bail out a number of lenders, so perhaps 'they' should have been thinking about other things than what wine went with substandard grilled meats in a cellar in North-West England.  
Linda moved her belongings into the horrible little flat in North Kensington. She did her best to try and cheer up the gloomy apartment but really it was impossible." (p89-90)
Much of the book concerns Sayle's various jobs, and the rise of his comedy career, beginning with some slightly odd sounding left-wing theatre and reviews (he apparently had a routine about Albania under Enva Hoxha); on to the Comedy Clubs he founded, and The Young Ones which made him a household name.

Coupled with this, is Sayle gradual disengagement with the political party of his youth, The Communist Party of Britain (Marxists-Lenininst). This Maoist party both was militantly communist enough to satisfy Sayle hard-left politics, but also anti-Stalinist enough to irritate his mother which seemed to make it his natural home. As this book develops however, Sayle grows increasingly wary of the intensely esoteric, dogmatic and theory-obsessed meetings of these groups - and slips out from their membership. His detachment from the CPB(M-L) seems natural and inevitable and not the great tumultuous crisis of faith that Mark Steel's exit from the Socialist Workers Party seems to have been. (which is documented in his book, What's Going On?) Rather, Sayle seems to be passionately aware of the faults, errors and corruption within capitalism - and certain a socialist alternative is credible; but bored by the ludicrous, pedantic theoretical dramas to which the far-left seem especially prone. When Linda explained that she'd never got a pension because she was sure that by the time she was old enough to need one, "Britain will inevitably be a socialist nation led by a vanguard party whose ideology is based on the teachings of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Mao Tse-Tung, and every worker will have all of their needs taken care of by the state." Sayle replied that he'd never got one because he was convinced that he'd be a famous comedian who could afford anything he wanted!

Whether he is covering British manufacturing, the rise of alternative comedy, his own career, Thatcher, Arab terrorists he has known (!), or his own absurd adventures - this book is genuinely funny and un-put-down-able. There are times when Sayle is exceptionally self-deprecating, but yet others in which he indulges in the kind of "See-I-told-you-so!" which is an essential element in any decent autobiography It's a heady mix of reminiscence, sentimentality, satire, comedy, social-history, and very angry ranting. You don't have to agree with all of Sayle's political or social views to enjoy this book either. If your palate is too delicate for swearing and communism, it'd might upset you; but with a story as good as this to tell, and a story-teller this good; what's not to enjoy?

Saturday, April 09, 2016


(iphone photo!)

My plan for the day was to drive home to Perth from Applecross, and climb a pair of Munros on the North side of Loch Quoich on the way. My plans did not go as expected however. Firstly, I was a little later leaving Applecross than I had hoped - and was always going to be racing to catch up. Secondly, I had great difficulty finding a shop that could sell me a compass, it took three or four attempts - which wasted more time. Then finally, I hit a really rough bit of road - and had a blow out in the car. I reached start of my walk feeling harassed!

The beginning of the track up Gleouraich is hidden amongst a dense patch of infernal rhododendrons. The estate on the Applecross peninsula are investing thousands of pounds in having their rhoddies removed, and burnt. Locals told me that these monstrous plants, which are so ubiquitous, were introduced into the Highland landscape by the Victorians. They presumably had no idea that their lovely flowering bushes would become such a menace. A small metal post marks the spot where a tiny, boggy  path leads through the bushes and out onto the open hill.

It's a remarkable path too, zig-zagging its way up the blunt nose of Sron a Chuillin, and up and over the top marked as Druim Saileach on the OS 1:25 000. The path abruptly ends at a small semi-circular stone wall underneath Gleouraich's steep sides, but although the formal path ceases, a upward stretching line of bootmarks indicates that most walkers continue on towards the summit. 

The climb here is steep, and in snowy conditions like those I had, exceptionally slippery. I was hoping from magnificent views from the ridge. The usually pessimistic Mountain Weather Information Service was suggesting a 90% chance of cloud free Munros, but alas it was not to be. I climbed up into the cloud and stayed there for the duration! The view did not reappear until my descent.

My plan to continue from the summit of Gleouraich along the ridge to Spidean Mialach were thwarted by the weather too. The edges around the summit were decorated with amazing cornices requiring careful navigation. The ongoing ridge looked a bit dicey too; and I was looking along it in two minds as to whether to go that way, when the snow started to fall heavily and visibility reduced to very little. It was obvious that as I was there on my own, it was time to retrace my steps (which as they were imprinted to clearly in the snow is meant literally).

The finest view of the day came along Loch Quioch from the track on this descent, once back under the cloud base. 

Once back at the car, I had to "limp" it home on one of those stupid half sized wheels that are limited to 50mph...... I'm sue losing 3cm of boot space would make up for this!?

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Film Notes: The Counterfeiters

The Counterfeiters is an Austrian film (German with English subtitles), which garnered a host of awards when it was released back in 2007. The film is a historical reconstruction of the Nazi regime's attempt to round up the best forgers they could get their hands on, and in forced labour camps, compel them under threat of death to produce enough counterfeit notes in Pounds Sterling to wreck the British economy. Styled as "Operation Bernhard"; this scheme was based at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Filmmaker Stefan Ruzowitsky based his historical material on the memoirs of Adolf Burger, one of the forgers forced to work on the project.

The story covers pre, and post war material; but the bulk of the film takes place within the concentration camp, and the action centres around Salomon Sorowitch, a Jewish master forger. His skills are seen as essential by the Germans for producing millions of notes of high enough quality to fool the British into accepting the notes into their banks, causing catastrophic inflation. The Nazis longer term aim was to try a similar scheme on the economy of the USA.

Although set in a concentration camp, The Counterfeiters is a far cry from something like Schindler's List, or even The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. These prisoners had specialist skills, and were seen as invaluable to the regime who allowed them such so-called  "privileges"  as adequate nutrition and some entertainment. They lived in separate conditions quite unlike the poor victims of the total brutality being exacted upon fellow detainees, just the other side of a fence within the camp.

The film is nicely shot, the acting is classy, and the dialogue compelling. The savagery of the setting of the film, and some very upsetting scenes earn it a (15) certificate; however with some explanation I'd watch it with my kids who are younger than this - as it contains a number of important historical truths - and searching moral dilemmas.

The moral dilemmas come from the fact that the prisoners forced to work on Operation Bernhard are faced with a ghastly choice. If they resist the tasks they are given, or are seen to be delaying or sabotaging the effort, they will be summarily executed. Deadlines had to be met, and failure meant death. On the other hand, if the prisoners co-operate with the Nazi regime they are helping the Reich fight a dreadful war. They knew that their banknotes would be used initially to purchase goods such as petrol for the Reich, and then to assault the Allies' economies. They had to either offer their lives, or bankroll the evil of the Nazi regime.

Primo Levi's staggeringly disturbing reflections on his time in Auschwitz in books such as "The Drowned and The Saved", dwell much on the role of prisoners who sought to extend their lives through collaboration with the SS. This quite understandable, but morally grim, area Levi called "the grey zone". The Counterfeiters is a film set within this 'grey zone'. In the film different characters take on divergent roles. There are those who demand full compliance with the demands placed upon them, who seek personal survival at all costs. They rightly point out that the moral responsibility of the situation rests entirely on the shoulders of the perpetrators, and not on those of the victims. At the other extreme, one dedicated communist prisoner (who had less to lose as all those he loved had been murdered), demands total non-co-operation - and repeatedly sabotages the attempts to forge the US Dollar. Karl Markovitch is excellent as Salomon Sorowitch, the group leader, who ends up seeking to take a middle course; delaying the Nazi scheme as much as possible, while preventing the killing of as many of his group as he can.

When the camp is liberated by the Russians, the counterfeiters have to look the rest of the survivors in the eye. Gaunt, starved, ill and dying - these skeletal shadows assume that The Counterfeiters were Nazi's as they were in reasonable health.

The dilemma of being forced to chose between one's life and the lives of the whole group is pressed home to the viewer with great force. If the forgers resist, they will die. If they comply, many thousands more will die. The viewer is drawn into this dark drama, and into these deeply perplexing questions. The palpable sense of relief one feels when the Germans get what they want and a gun is taken away from a man's forehead, is suddenly offset with a sense that this was also a victory for evil, won by force. Emotionally, the film makes the viewer oscillate between the two options, and alternatively siding with contradictory points of view. You both want the Nazis to be resisted, but for the resisters to live; an option which short of a resurrection is impossible.

This is a brilliant, stirring, significant and thought provoking film, worth watching at any time of year. And this is where I thought this review would end.

However, it was only when I sat, mesmerised, watching the final credits role - that something struck me. I watched the DVD on Thursday March 24th, the day before Good Friday. I, along with millions around the world would then spend a day remembering a Jewish man, who was imprisoned and tortured by a brutal oppressing empire, with the complicity of his fellow countrymen. Christians believe that Jesus' death wasn't a mere travesty of justice, or work of evil; but was also an act of redeeming self-sacrifice. The Gethsemene narrative records Jesus wrestling with the same dilemma that The Counterfeiters did, namely should I give my life to preserve the group - or save my own life and lose the greater war? Jesus is pictured as praying "is there any way that this cup (of suffering) can be taken from me?" But yet finally saying, "yet not my will but yours". In other words, he preferred to save the group, and not his own life. His life he gave, so that the whole group could live. Staggeringly, the group he chose to save, includes us.

Quite a film to watch at Easter.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The "Tour de Tay"!

Anyone who lives in Perth, Dundee (or intervening points), who owns a bike should have a go at this! The "Tour de Tay", is a well known circuit to local cyclists, who have been recommending it to me for years. Today I finally had a crack at it, and it really is a splendid ride.

This ride is a circuit of the tidal Tay estuary, a loop with the Tay Road Bridge in Dundee at one end, and The Queen's Bridge over the Tay in Perth at the other. The two cities are connected by a series of marked cycle routes for the entire length of the Northern leg through Perthshire and Dundee City, and for about half the Southern leg through Fife.

I had a dilemma about whether to do the circuit clockwise or anti-clockwise. I was starting and ending the route in Perth and knew that (i) the hardest climb on the route was around Kinnoull Hill near Perth on the southern leg; (ii) a strong Westerly wind was blowing all day; (iii) the Southern leg was more undulating and forested, whereas the Northern route was very wind exposed. Putting all this together I elected to go anti-clockwise.

Attacking the Tour de Tay anticlockwise from Perth necessitates a big climb to start proceedings. Coming from the East of the city, I worked my way up steep Manse road, through the new housing, before joining the official cycle route over the Jubilee, past Balthayock and down to Glencarse. Here the A90 is crossed and the 'B' road to Dundee via Errol picked up. I was blown along this road at a rate of knots by a delicious tail wind that would become a menacing headwind on the return journey.

The massive redevelopment of Dundee's waterfront, means that the cycle route to the Tay Bridge is a bit convoluted, but it is reasonably well marked, Bizarrely, cyclists are required to take a lift up onto the Tay Bridge, where they are greeted with a very strange surface to cycle on. It seems to be a series of wooden boards coated with tar, which creak and rattle as you cycle over them!

Once off the bridge, I turned to face the wind, and realised that getting back to Perth would take some concerted effort. While in terms of raw speed, this was obviously bad - there is a plus side. Last week I was informed that I am overweight, and that my cholesterol is too high. Coupled with my family history of cardiac related issues, I was told it was time to take some action. A headwind then is my friend - akin to turning up the resistance on an exercise bike! I tried to tell myself this, but of course in truth I was dreading the thought of the ascents in Fife being into the wind! The worst of this was on the hard climb from the delightfully named Bottomcraig up to Hazelton Walls, after which the terrain became much easier. Cholesterol issues or not, such effort required some chocolate!

The cycle routes are all well marked on this ride, and take the rider from Dundee all the way to Newburgh, where the waymarked route dives South towards Auchtermuchty. Along the South side of the Tay the views beyond Perth to the snow-capped high mountains are stunning. Ben Vorlich to the west and Bheinn a Ghlo to the North were especially impressive. Road-wise, the route back to Perth from here is pretty grim, its fast, busy roads with little scope for admiring the lovely views. The Baiglie Straight, leads into Bridge of Earn, which in turn leads into Perth over a final climb, before dropping into the town via the Edinburgh Road.

54 miles in 4hrs isn't a fast run - but it's a lovely route!

Gig Review: Martin Harley & Daniel Kimbro at Edinburgh Blues Club at The Voodoo Rooms

I've seen Martin Harley in concert three times, and each time has been completely different. The first time in London on the "Drumrolls for Somersaults" tour he performed in multi-instrumental trio, then more recently in Perth he did a solo show at Inchyra. It's very hard to say which format was better; if anything the more folky numbers like "Winter Coat" were better with the band, but some of the blues numbers on Harley's trademark trademark horizontally-held, lap-slide Weissenborn guitar, came over wonderfully well at the solo gig. This time however, Harley teamed up with double-bass player/vocalist Daniel Kimbro for a series of gigs as a duo. They weren't selling an album of new songs done together - but were reinterpreting Harley's live set, and classics from his splendid back catalogue, as they did on the "Southern Ground" album. I wasn't sure exactly what to expect, or how it would compare with previous gigs - but past experience of Harley indicated that a great night of entertainment, would be delivered through unusually good songwriting, fine musicianship - and plenty of banter and repartee to keep the show moving.

Together, Harley and Kimbro delivered a great show - which had an entirely different (but very welcome) dynamic than previous Martin Harley gigs I'd been to. Harley is a superb, and very distinctive, guitarist - with a great voice to match. Daniel Kimbro is a wonderfully creative and expressive double-bass player, and the two of them seemed to feed off each other; the interplay between their instruments and voices added an exciting new dimension to Harley's songs.

Edinburgh Blues Club is using a central venue called The Voodoo Rooms for its gigs these days. The Voodoo Rooms are an interconnected set of function rooms, with a pub and restaurant a stone's throw from Waverley Station. We were there on a Thursday night, and the place was absolutely packed, the various bars and other functions were doing a very lively trade- while the gig room was bursting at the seams. Curiously, the mixture of seating and standing was arranged so that if you sat - you saw nothing, because the standing area was in front of the chairs! This oddity aside, the place was buzzing, a really great gig atmosphere. Again this was rather different from previous Harley gigs. The solo gig at Inchyra was all seated at tables, with a very restrained, crowd. The Half Moon in Putney was standing - but the crowd were really noisy  - and seriously detracted from the music, which at times was hard to hear. The Edinburgh Blues Club managed to assemble a large, enthusiastic crowd who nevertheless were there to hear the music and not talk over it!

Highlights of the set included Harley's "Blues At My Window", Leadbelly's "Goodnight Irene, a rip-roaring angry and defiant reading of Blind Willie Johnson's, "Nobody's Fault But Mine", which evolved into an extended improvised jam session, of duelling guitar and bass. Kimbro's country and western flavoured Laketown, added another element to proceedings which was also very welcome. "Automatic Life" was given an airing, and proved to be one which sounded particularly great in the Harley-Kimbro arrangement, as did "Drumrolls for Somersaults". "Winter Coat" was effortlessly charming and heart-warming, even though nothing can beat the band version featuring Mr Swatton's strange "stringed triangle"! "You're gonna need somebody (by your side)" was a great old bluesy standard, which had a former life as a spiritual known as "You're gonna need somebody (on your bond)". "Honey Bee" always lightens the mood, and the infectious gypsy swing feel of "Love in the Afternoon" is always a crowd pleaser - but which has never been as good live as when performed by the whole band. Unsurprisingly, it was the solid bluesy numbers which appealed most strongly to the Edinburgh Blues Club, who clapped and cheered, and demanded more!

"Chocolate Jesus", is a firm favourite in Harley's live set - and has featured in each of his shows that I have been to. It's a Tom Waits cover, which begins with some explosive Harley slide guitar, before the grimly sarcastic lyrics begin. I have to say - I prefer Harley's version to the original. Martin Harley commented that this song goes down very badly when he plays it in the American Bible Belt (not surprisingly, really!). At one gig Harley commented that this isn't an offensive song, just a funny song. I think he's probably right. As a lover of sarcasm, satire and slide guitar, but also a Christian, I'm always in two minds about this one. I suppose ultimately for me the question is whether Waits is satirising belief in Jesus per se - or merely the abuse of it. I think that there's a good case for saying that Waits is savagely dissecting the kind of saccharine nonsense that so often passes as Christianity, but is a mockery of the teachings of Jesus. The Christian satirical website "Ship of Fools" features a page called "Gadgets for God", a gallery of similar horrors to the chocolate Jesus (with Bible verse in the wrapper), which inspired Waits to write this number. There's a great article about this "immaculate confection" (which is Waits' joke btw) which can be found here.

I didn't get a chance to speak to Martin or Daniel at the end of the gig which was a shame! I'd be interested to know if the "Martin Harley Band" as was, is on hold or has been permanently disbanded. We had to run quickly out of the venue and off to try and catch the last train out to the car at the park and ride - the other side of the Forth Bridge. Sadly we had missed the last train out of Edinburgh that night - and had a very expensive taxi ride back. However, with entertainment this good - with performers as dedicated to their art as this, (and at only £12 a ticket), it was a price well worth paying, even if it meant an exceptionally late night.

Na Gruagaichean and Binnien Mor (Mamores)

The clocks have gone forward, Easter has passed, and Perth seems to be entering Springtime, with longer, warmer days, and plants and trees awakening from their inactivity. However, high on the ridges of the Mamore mountains in Lochber, winter is still in control. Temperatures are low, and ice and snow cover the ground down to a remarkably low altitude. Icicles are strung from boulders around the burns, drifted snow is waist deep in places, ice patches perilously are slippery, and the ridges are crowned with cornices.

I have done very little winter walking on the higher mountains. This is largely due to the fact that I mostly walk alone, and have never felt that I understood the conditions well enough to assess the risks for myself.  I have a couple of friends who between them have huge amounts of experience, both in the Scottish Highlands, and in the Alps. When they offered to take me to the hills in Winter and show me the ropes (well, the ice-axes, anyway), I was delighted.

(Many of these photos supplied by my walking companions)

The hills they selected for this adventure are amongst my favourites: The Mamores. I climbed all of these in summer conditions about 16/17 years ago. I was impressed by their massive size, steep sides, beautifully sculpted peaks and breathtaking ridges. The Mamore range lies sandwiched between the row of hills stretching from Ben Nevis to the Grey Corries (to the North), and the line of hills in Glen Coe (to the South). If The Mamores were a single isolated cluster of mountains, like say Snowdonia's peaks, they would be well worth visiting. The fact that they are encircled by such overwhelming mountain architecture on every side means they offer walkers amongst the finest days out in Scotland.

On my previous trips I had always approached these hills from Glen Nevis. This time however we left the car in the village of Kinlochleven. A small car park by the Episcopal Church has a track (signposted for the Grey Mare's Waterfall), which leads up past the (still closed) Mamore Lodge Hotel towards open country. This hotel looks worn and dilapidated which is a great shame as it occupies a stunning high-level location with views down the length of Loch Leven, to the Pap of Glen Coe and on to Beinn a Bheithir. Sadly the hotel gained an unenviable reputation for poor service and facilities, and was condemned to ignominy courtesy of Trip Advisor. Friends who stayed there have told me that the place's notoriety was well earned! If I had money to gamble, I'd love to buy a place like that and see if it could be made into a viable walkers hostel.

Leaving such thoughts behind, we turned right on the track leading up the glen between Am Bodach and Na Gruagaichean. Although snow- covered, the path was visible for most of the way up to the head of the glen, but disappeared a couple of hundred metres below the ridge. Kicking into the snow we climbed the very steep pull to the ridge, joining it at 783m. before turning westwards and climbing the very steep and tricky ridge up towards Na Gruaigchean at 1055m. One steep pitch of about 20m was icy, and this presented a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge was safely getting up it, the opportunity was for me to be given my first lesson in the correct handling of the ice-axe I had borrowed for the day.

Cloud had engulfed up during our ascent, but by the time we reached the top of the first Munro of the day, the sun was beginning to burn through the cloud and we were confident that the weather forecasters had been accurate in their predictions and that we were in for a great afternoon. Despite the fact that Easter Monday is a public holiday across Scotland, and the weather looked promising - it was amazing how few people were out in the hills. We didn't meet a soul all morning!

Striding along the snowy ridges between Na Gruagaichean and Binnien Mor via the subsidiary summit, has to be amongst the greatest stretches of hill walking I have ever done. The descents were very slippery and the ascents very hard work, but in terms of sheer beauty, it was almost too much to take in! Another lesson for me on this section was about avoiding cornices, walking downhill of the crest of the ridge, and using the ice axe handle to check that you were  on solid ground, not standing on the overhanging snow. 

The descent from Binnien Mor presented us with our first real problem of the day. Although we had met some people who had come up the route we intended to descend (Sron a Gharbh Mor), in practise the ice-covered rocks and the tricky downward scramble looked just too dangerous - forcing us to descend the more Northerly ridge over Gualainn a Bhinnien Mor. Fearing that we would need to descend all the way to the glen floor, and have to regain hundreds of metres of height, our party leader searched for a safe traverse route across the steeply sloping snowy sides of the Achlais a Bhinnien Mor. His old-fashioned long, wooden-handled ice-axe came into its own here. Walking out onto these slopes, he dug into the snow, pronounced it stable and beckoned us out to make our way round the upper slopes of the corrie to the bealach between Bhinnien Mor and Binnien Baeg.

Binnien Baeg had been considered as a possible extension to the walk, but the diversion off Bhinnien Mor used much of our time - and the weather had begun to deteriorate. A hour or so previously I had been removing layers of thermal clothing, and cursing myself for not bringing an sunscreen, hats and gloves were by this stage required clothing. It also became apparent that one of our number had not just had a fall on the previous descent, but had probably broken his thumb. The painful, discoloured and throbbing digit was clearly rather uncomfortable, and discovering this confirmed our decision to head for home. 

The walk out was long, and involved another ascent, up and over the plateau holding the Coire an Lochain, before following the horribly eroded An Cumhann path all the way back to Kinlochleven and the car.

I have only climbed one Munro in Winter before. To stride across the Mamore ridges while they are glistening white, under a blue sky, in clear sunshine, was exhilarating. I hope I can get out again before it all melts and turns to mud!

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Creag na Criche

A long time ago, in a fit of the 'folly of youth', I was once heard to say something along the lines of, "If it's not a Munro, it's not worth climbing". How little I knew. The smaller hills that surround Perth allow some wonderful short walks, some great views - and have a charm all of their own. It's not that when I am pottering around on a little hill, that I wouldn't far rather be clinging to some rugged ridge in Wester Ross, with the sea 2000feet below me, and towering peaks everywhere else. It is simply that there isn't always the time and money to travel to such far-flung sensations, and that the real choice is to stay at home and waste a day on chores, or to get out and see the hills, and breathe the air.

Last Saturday, with our young daughter off maintaining her hectic social calendar, and our sons showing no interest in leaving the house; we escaped for a few hours, and headed for one of Perthshire's little hills. Little Glenshee is well-named, as it is rather little in comparison with it's namesake. It is a place we both know fairly well, having both driven and cycled there in previous summers. The glen has a road which loops in one end and out of the other, making it a popular route for Perth cyclists wanting to clock up some rural miles. At the end of the loop is a ford over the Sochie Burn, which is a nice splash on the bike in dry weather - but could be a real problem when in spate. A small car park next to the ford, allows access to the hills, as does a footbridge, which spares walkers the discomfort of water-filled boots which wading the ford would inevitably cause.

Driving northwards into the glen from near Chapelhill, a ridge of hills fills the skyline, with Creag na Criche forming a distinctive summit directly behind the ford. A huge stile over a deer-fence, leads to an obvious bulldozed track zig-zaging through the heather. Once this track levels out, and the views broaden out, a small barely distinct footpath turns left away from the track and heads westwards, just underneath a series of small rocky crags - the tallest of which is Creag na Criche (456m). 

Obney Hill

Beinn a Ghlo

Obney and Birnam Hills

We had a stunningly clear day, and sat in the summit, picking out the mountains all around us; the Paps of Fife, Obney and Birnam Hills, Beinn a Ghlo, Ben Vrackie, Deuchary Hill, The Glenshee Hills, Farragon and Schiehallion too. 

It is perfectly possible to do a little circuit, descending over Glenshee Hill to Little Glenshee itself, and walking back along the farm track to the car. We chose instead to sit on the summit for an hour, and soak in the incredible silence, and doze on the heather - before returning by our route of ascent. 

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Bishop's Hill

East and West Lomond, which togther are sometimes known as 'The Paps of Fife', are the most distinctive landmarks in that part of the world. While they both look quite dramatic from some angles, they are remarkably easily to climb from the car park at the head of the pass above Falkland, which separates them. As a result they are extremely busy hills, with the trade-routes up each of them being well-worn and on summer weekends being as busy as Sauchiehall Street.  

Bishop's Hill, is Fife's third hill - and lurks in the shadow of West Lomond, it's bigger brother. Despite this, it is well worth a climb, for its expansive views, sense of remoteness and sense of remoteness from people - as there are virtually none up there!

The kirk in the village of Scotlandwell allow use of their car park for hillwalkers, with the proviso that Sunday mornings, and any other events such as weddings and funerals are avoided - which seems more than reasonable! A hundred yards or so southwards along the road from the kirk, a signposted track leads away from the road and twists and turns its way up the flanks of Bishop's Hill. There are in fact, many more paths on the ground than the OS show, even on their detailed 1:25,000 map of the area. There is a lower path which goes left through the woods - and the ascent path which veers to the right, before a series of zig-zags. I went right, and once through the tree-line, was rewarded very quickly with wonderful view out over Loch Leven and beyond.

The climb is probably the best part of Bishop's Hill, as the summit area is vast, boggy, grassy and hummocky - and is crossed by a dizzying network of paths which seem to lead in all directions. Navigation across this in bad conditions could be an entertaining proposition. A more significant path traverses the hill, which follows an old stone wall. The summit lies beyond this, a lovely view point, about 400m higher than the car-park. Sadly I was faced with a dreich, misty, cold day - and didn't linger long.

A return by the same route would be easy, but a more interesting prospect is to head along the top towards Glen Lomond (the rift that separates Bishop's Hill from West Lomond and which contains the geological feature known as John Knox's pulpit). Dropping down into Glen Lomond is steep - but pathed, and then a return track winds back towards the starting point underneath the cliffs of Bishop's Hill.

The return track seems to peter out, midway back along the journey, only to reappear further along - above the village of Kinneswood. I had to pick my way through a few fields (occupied only by sheep), and through several very aggressive thorn bushes to progress. Once the track re-appears it meets up with the track back down to Scotlandwell, just underneath the zig-zags of the ascent route.

All in all, this makes for about a 3.5/4 hr circuit of most enjoyable countryside, with great views and a good bit of exercise on the surprisingly challenging ascent.

(W & E Lomond from Bishop's Hill)

Benarty Hill,

While some of my more 'heroic' friends don crampons and axes in the Winter months, I have spent a little time appreciating some of the lower hills which I have never climbed. The first of these was Benarty Hill, a pleasant little ridge near Kinross, which I have seen countless times from the M90 (Perth-Edinburgh) Motorway. As it is so close to the carriageway, it's charming features can easily be appreciated from there - but somehow I'd never managed to climb it. It makes for a very pleasant two-and-a-half hours walking, with lovely views from clearly defined paths.

An unclassified road runs from near junction 5 on the M90 towards the village of Ballingry, from which there are two possible ascent routes of the hill. Near the village is a car park, with a sign, and a path leading into the woods, I chose the route at the western end of the hill. There's a layby with spaces for one or two cars, and a gate with an orange barrier leading to a track which marks the start of this route.

This end of the hill is dotted with distinctive flag-poles, which belong to the adjacent firing range. When red flags are raised on these, this route is closed as it runs behind the targets on the range. However, when the flag-poles are empty, there seems to be no objection with using footpath which links the poles, as a means of access to the ridge.

The track passes the firing range then turns steeply into the hillside, eventually becoming a narrow, muddy footpath up though the woods. The thick forestry clings to the sides of the hill, while the top is open grassland, and the path reaches the top of the woods by a stile, from where the paths along the broad grassy ridge are obvious.

At times the path doesn't provide the best views, but by bearing left and following the edge of the ridge, the panorama is consistently wonderful. As the ridge turns sharply right above the Mulla Craig cliffs at a summit of 327m it narrows and turns, passing an ancient fort site. The ridge is easily followed across a series of hummocky summits until the trig point at 356m is finally seen across a fence, over another stile. 

This hill provides a nice steep pull up over a few hundred meteres, and expansive views over Fife, The Ochils, over the Firth of Forth, and towards the distant Perthshire hills to the North.

I retraced my steps back past the rifle range to the waiting car - but it would be equally possible to continue along the path and down towards Ballingry, and use the road to complete a really pleasant circuit. While the high mountains have their drama and challenge - when time is short, or conditions severe, a little hill like this can be a great way to spend a morning.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Leaping Red

At Birnam Hill
(click on image to enlarge)

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Film Notes: Whiplash

Several years ago, I asked a Chinese friend why only one of her elite post-doctoral group of pure mathematicians, at her Scottish university, were from the UK. The answer I got was shocking. "I have a daughter in primary school here in Scotland, and you do not understand education here. Most of what my daughter does in school is play; her academic work is constantly interrupted by plays, parties, outings, assemblies; and the school day is so short. In China at that age, I studied maths every day at school. and for many hours before and after school too - here it is all play, play, play!" I recalled this conversation to a friend who at the time was head of one of Scotland's largest primary schools. His answer was telling: "Yes, but have you seen the suicide rate in China?!"

Whiplash is a film about individuals being crushed by the relentless drive for greatness in a particular field. It could have been maths, or sport; but the film is set in the world of competitive jazz - in which the key figure Andrew Neiman (played by Miles Teller) is a drummer. The pressure to become "one of the greats" is certainly an internal drive for Neiman; but is taken from obsession to destructive levels by his teacher, Terence Fletcher (J. K Simmons), whose drive for perfection destroys students. Perhaps worse still, Fletcher seems convinced that the student must be broken repeatedly in order to make him/her push themselves beyond ordinary human limitations. "The two most dangerous words in the English language are, "good job"" he notes; whilst repeatedly recalling the incident when a band leader nearly decapitated a young Charlie Parker with a cymbal, on stage, for a mistake - an experience which proved to the making of him. As such, Fletcher's teaching method not only involved iron discipline and technical excellence, but a form of psychological warfare against his students. Films have occasionally shown army recruits being broken in this way; but rarely with the ferocity which Simmons brings to the part of Terence Fletcher.

The two central performances in Whiplash, are superb. Teller is excellent as the driven, intense, gifted, yet vulnerable young drummer; who learns to confront his demons both inner and external (in the form of his abusive teacher).  Simmons is truly horrific as the dangerously out-of-control Fletcher, who values winning, and perfection above people. Simmons' viscously foul-mouthed, blisteringly intense denunciation of errant students, is like something from the Maoist cultural revolution; it is gruelling watching - but impossible to turn away from. In Fletcher 's world, if he destroys fifty people, but makes one genius, he's a happy man; people are means not ends, in his manic, all-consuming, perfectionism. Like all the best movie villains Simmons/Fletcher is compelling viewing. In one scene (spoiler alert!), Fletcher weeps over the death of a student - a great player who he had 'broken' and made legendary. "He was a beautiful player", laments his teacher. We later discover that the young man had killed himself - the parents blaming Fletcher for the psychological torment he endured at his hands. Yet still, even as Fletcher appears to show some normal human warmth, or even vulnerability his words are chilling. "He was a beautiful player", seems to suggest that Fletcher wept not for the loss of a person; but for the loss of his talent. 

The film leaves us with an ambiguous conclusion; one one hand Nieman finally emerges as a great drummer; and gains the respect of his fellow musicians and his sinister teacher. And we are left with a question mark. Would he have achieved such greatness without Fletcher's psychological battering, or would he have consigned himself to a genial mediocrity? Leaving aside the much-debated issue of whether practice-makes-genius or not; the issue here is - what price is it worth paying for high achievement? Neiman is shown giving up on most aspects of what it means to have a normal balanced life, he has no friends, has given up on sport, and looses his girl in his thirst for perfection. He ends up as a specialist; but with a malformed life. These questions are pertinent in parenting and education. We may not be as extreme as Fletcher; but when is it right to push our kids; and when is it right to let them just meander along contentedly? Are our schools so fearful of the kind of Fletcher-dynamic depicted in Whiplash that they fail to inculcate any kind of love of excellence in our children at all? "Gold-stars all round - and who cares what mark you actually scored?!"

Central to the almost unbearable dynamic of this film is the way that the master propels the apprentice towards perfection under the constant threat of rejection. Being the 'core player' in the music school's prestige band was an honour entirely at the disposal of Fletcher; expulsion from the band something he could execute on a whim. The film depicts the pursuit of perfection as the ideal of greatness and significance; but it also depicts the self-destructive fear of rejection as the necessary stimulus for its achievement. This seems to leave us in an impossible dilemma in that either greatness doesn't matter on one hand, or that people don't, on the other. This is a remarkable example of un-Grace! Relationships which are founded on the concept of grace, (rather than accomplishments) work in exactly the opposite way to the dynamic between Fletcher and Nieman. In grace-founded relationships, (be they human-human, or Divine-human), the pursuit of greatness, is predicated upon the foundation of compete acceptance of the person; and a mutual striving towards the good. The force that propels the student (or disciple) forward, is not the fear of rejection and humiliation from behind (as with Fletcher); but forward towards a beautiful conclusion; be it anything from creativity to Christlikeness (as with God). Grace is the very idea that meticulously high standards and goals are not to be lowered, but that people are to be loved and valued even while those high standards are being worked towards. The fear of rejection is not the great stimulus to progress; but the grasping of a magnificent vision is. 

Whiplash is finally a great film which is well worth discussing. The plot is intriguing, the dialogue alarming, and the acting intense and frightening. Allegedly based on the author's real experiences at a leading American musical college; it demonstrates the nature of abuse power-relationships, where the people are forgotten in the pursuit of some goal or accomplishment. Simmons' searing portrayal of Fletcher will remain the most poignant memory of Whiplash, and a sinister reminder of how ugly humanity looks when we use people to serve things, rather than things to serve people.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Kinnoull (yet!) Again

Click to enlarge....

Film Notes: Harlem Street Singer - The Rev Gary Davis

Harlem Street Singer is a 2013 documentary film about the life of Blues guitar legend, Rev "Blind" Gary Davis. Davis (1896-1972), was by anyone's estimation an extraordinary man, who lived a quite remarkable life - one which is well worth celebrating with a film like this. While there is extensive archive footage of Davis used throughout the film; the bulk of the material is contemporary interviews, performances and anecdotes about the man from the generation of younger folk, blues and gospel players who Davis knew, taught and inspired.

Davis was a hugely innovative and talented, self-taught guitarist, whose large and powerful hands attacked the strings and frets with percussive force, as he ranged through folk, blues, jazz, gospel, rag-time and spirituals. In his early years in Durham, N. Carolina, he played in bands, and would perform different styles of music, to suit the range of audiences who would pay him. With employment opportunities being limited by both his skin colour and disability, Davis became an adept performer, earning his way by pleasing audiences of whatever type; playing spirituals for funerals or entertaining the workers, farmers and traders who gathered at Durham's huge tobacco warehouses.

A significant change occurred in 1937, when Davis attended a Christian revival meeting. Here he committed his life to God's work, was ordained as an evangelist; and restricted his repertoire almost exclusively to spiritual music. The mid-century 'great-migration' of African Americans from the 'Jim Crow' (segregated) States of the old Confederate South, to the North was an acceleration of a movement that had begun as a trickle of people in 'the underground railroad', and become a mass-movement a hundred years later. This movement of people was driven by negative forces in the South (segregation, discrimination, physical threat, judicial persecution, economic exploitation, and fear); and by the positive fact that after WWII opportunities for Black folks in the North were beginning to open up. Davis was swept up in this movement, which tended to move people along long-established railroad routes; and he found himself in Harlem, New York - living in dreadful conditions and earning his living playing guitar on New York's streets.

In New York, Davis' exceptional playing gained him a considerable reputation, and lead to a secondary career as a guitar teacher. A remarkable number of young guitar players sought Davis out, and studied under him - and it is these guys who made this DVD possible. People as well known as Bob Weir (Grateful Dead), Jorma Kaukonon (Jefferson Airplane), John Hammond, as well as a host of folksters like David Bromberg, Stefan Grossman, and Woody Mann, talk candidly about days spent studying guitar at Davis' flat. Alongside Davis and his long-suffering wife, Annie, players like Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Brownie McGhee would appear and jam. A massive breakthrough for Davis came when Peter, Paul and Mary covered one of his songs which generated his first reliable income and enabled him to buy a small house. This house became a musical centre, and the place from which Davis would set out across the city to gig, busk, and preach. 

The thing about this DVD is not just that it is a good story; nor that it is full of wonderful music. The most special thing about it is the massive love and affection with which it is made. The players who talk about Davis talk about him with a huge amount of love, respect and joy- he was clearly a father-figure to many of them. Long after some of the details of Davis life story, or the details of the 1965 festival footage of Davis, have faded in my memory - I will remember the genuine love so many people had for The Reverend Gary Davis. 

Davis was a huge talent, a hard man, a genuine eccentric (beware of a blind man who is ready to fire a pistol!), recordings of whose spiritual music still moves the soul to this day. This DVD is a charming labour of love, which is both highly educational in its content, and utterly captivating in its tone. And don't miss the DVD extras either - 'Wavy Gravy' will make you laugh and laugh!

Book Notes: The Gospel According to The Blues by Gary W. Burnett

When I opened a Christmas parcel and found, "The Gospel According to The Blues" by Gary Burnett inside, I was delighted. Here, two of my great loves and interests, Christian theology and Blues music meet together in one of my other great pleasures - reading books! I have far too many books about both of these subjects, on the one hand, commentaries, systematics, and topical monographs; on the other, (along with Blues CD's and DVDs), several books about The Blues in general (notably Paul Oliver and Robert Palmer), and several great biographies of various Bluesmen and women. Apart from James Cone's Spirituals and The Blues, and Stephen Nichols, Getting The Blues, I have not read a huge amount that combines both of these fascinations together, or seeks to explore the many aspects of the interactions between the two of them. The supposed dichotomy between the 'sacred' and the 'secular' exists nowhere more strongly than in the literature surrounding the Blues and the Gospel. Burnett's huge knowledge of both contemporary Christian theology, and the history of Blues makes his thoughtful contribution to this area, a most welcome addition to the genre.

One of the great strengths of this volume is Burnett's sketching in of the historical background from within which Blues emerged. His pithy, and well-researched summary of the main themes in African American post-bellum life is really excellent. Particularly illuminating (and I suspect, little-known), was his explanation of the systems by which Black Americans were exploited, long after Lincoln's emancipation proclamation became the thirteenth amendment. His explanation of the role of lynching in the South during 'redemption' is good; but it was his writing about the abuses of the legal system and the existence of neo-slavery at places such as Parchman Farm, that were especially illuminating.

Burnett clearly loves The Blues, and has a great knowledge of the genre, from its earliest manifestations amongst slave-songs, work-songs and amongst field-hollers, through its gestation in the Delta between the wars, its popularisation and the great female blues singers of the 20s, through the Northern migrations and electrification of the Blues after WWII and on to the present day. The 'listening guides' at the end of each chapter are really great too, much of the stuff listed is available online and can be enjoyed alongside the book.

Burnett's book is theologically intriguing too. His basic thesis is that the age-old supposed tension between the Blues and The Gospel is mistaken. Following James Cone, Burnett sees the Blues as African-American assertions of their essential humanity in the face of a de-humanising world. He regards the tension between the two as echoing a muddled vision of the gospel of Christ, which is a 'soul-only', escape-from-the-world, heavenly orientated faith, which is both hyper-individualistic and ignores the synoptic gospels, and only focuses on Romans and Galatians for its inspiration. If one starts, not with a gospel which seeks to liberate individuals from the world, but of God bringing his Kingdom to earth through Christ's life, death and resurrection; then the Gospel and the Blues might not be identical - but are at least facing in the same direction. That is to say - they both affirm the dignity of all people, and long for a better world, and inherently protest against present realities. In this Burnett clearly has been immersed in the writings of NT Wright who has rightly placed the "on earth as it is in heaven", dynamic back at the heart of New Testament faith - from where it should never have been jettisoned.

The difficulty I found in Burnett's otherwise enchanting book is that I felt he pressed some of 'New Perspective on Paul' type ideas a little too far; certainly in ways which detracted from the the overall thesis of the book. Perhaps not exploring his own personal theological idiosyncrasies in such detail would have given the book a broader appeal to Christians of various stripes. I wasn't sure that getting involved in the spat between Piper/Luther and Wright on justification by faith alone, was useful here; and it did take the book into confusing and complex territory. By attacking Piper, and asserting that a Pelagian reading of Matthew 25 was the centre of the gospel message, while also seeking to affirm Paul's message of grace and forgiveness, I was left slightly puzzled by what Burnett actually meant by 'the gospel'. While Piper represents one extreme, in terms of seeking to hammer down every loose end, flatten every paradox and reorder scriptural narratives into lists of eternal propositions; Burnett is possibly at the other extreme. Like reading Wright for long periods of time, the reader can be forgiven for thinking that the word 'gospel', is a fish too slippery to actually grasp! This is a shame; as the main thrust of the book is just great.

However one frames and understands the gospel, (and I would have more sympathy with Luther than Burnett does!), there is no doubt that the pursuit of justice is an essential, non-negotiable part of what it means to be a Christian. Equally, much of the Blues is a response to injustice; and Burnett tells the stories of several of the Blues players who lived in an unjust world and railed against it, such as Big Bill Broonzy's "Starvation Blues". It was said that Rev "Blind" Gary Davis in his blues sang of a better world to come; and central to the gospel is that this faith is not mere optimism, but personal faith in Jesus Christ who made it possible; is even now working it out, and who will bring it to pass.

From that main-theme, Burnett branches out in various directions in his explorations of The Blues and The Bible; with differing results. When he takes us to imagining Blind Willie Johnson dying alone in his burnt out house, rasping and growling his gospel-blues songs of irrepressible faith in God, it gives great force to his reminder that Christians are called to live as members of God's Kingdom, and give to the poor. Tellingly, Burnett also contrasts the joyous faith of many destitute Bluesmen, with the anxious consumerism that characterises life in the early 21st Century West. His reflections on banking, finance, economics and justice are short, shocking and stirring stuff. His explorations of Jesus' teaching on non-violence in the Sermon on The Mount, I thought mis-fired; as they were over-reliant on Walter Wink's eisegesis. I suspect that just too much was being read into some of the statements there.

I was, of course, interested in how Burnett would handle the "evil Blues", and the whole crossroads phenomenon, which has to be addressed in a book like this. His treatment is generally helpful (debunking myths, and subsuming the sinister-propaganda associated with Robert Johnson, Peetie Wheatstraw and co, beneath his humanity-affirming and Kingdom-of-God building narrative); although why he needed to go into slightly esoteric territory of discussing a non-personal devil, other than his own theological hobby-horse, I didn't get. What perhaps I was hoping for was a book which took the reality of evil more seriously, but applied the redemptive narrative of the gospel to music. We know that Bluesmen like Son House, and Lemon Jefferson alternated between gospel and blues; but that is a very secular/sacred divided model: what would redemption of the Blues look like? I would be interested to read more on this angle on the old debate.

One does not have to agree with every sentence in a book to gain a huge amount from it (nor do I suspect that Burnett would demand that the reader does agree with him on every point!). Finally, this book re-fired my love of The Blues, and embedded the cries for justice contained within it, more firmly into my understanding of my calling as a Christian. For that I am most grateful.

Some useful links:
Gary Burnett's excellent blog "Down at The Crossroads: Where The Blues and Faith Meet"  is here
The issues of slavery, forced labour, and justice raised in the book are being addressed at IJM: click here
The Gospel According to the Blues is available online here
I get a weekly dose of Blues and Gospel from a radio show called "The Gospel Blues Train with Lins Honeyman", click here to listen anytime.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Film Notes: Amour

WARNING - this review contains major plot spoilers!

Amour is a film which leaves an indelible impression upon the viewer. It is a film which provokes discussion amongst those who watch it, and will no doubt continue to divide opinion for years to come. Amour is both a stunningly beautiful and yet ultimately dark film. Unsurprisingly it garnered 2 Baftas and 5 Oscar nominations, and a Cannes Palme D'Or.

Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuel Riva lead the cast as Georges and Anne Laurent, an elderly French couple, who are both retired music teachers in their late 80s. Their acting is spellbindingly brilliant, and the characters they create in their delivery of a 'difficult' story are both completely convincing, and emotionally engaging. I have seen too many films in which wooden or melodramatic acting has left me disengaged, and disinterested in the fate of the characters. Trintignant and Riva are the opposite of this, as the elderly couple negotiate joy, pain, sorrow, tenderness and rage; they do so, so with such depth and subtlety that I for one couldn't take my eyes off the screen for a second. It is sadly unusual to see elderly people expressing deep affection,
tenderness and love in films. Perhaps Hollywood is especially guilty in this regard; and it takes an Austrian film-maker, working in French to do so. Hollywood tends to think that love is the exclusive preserve of the smooth-skinned and fertile; whereas the real world contains people like Georges and Anne Laurent; life-long lovers and inseparable friends who gently and tenderly help each other with their daily tasks.

The film is brilliantly shot, and virtually every scene takes place in their apartment. The viewer feels completely drawn in to both the characters and the place. The camera's detailed studies of the faces of both Georges and Anne, are hugely impressive; and only add to the power of the performances by Tritignant and Riva.

Central to the story is the stroke suffered by Anne Laurent, in front of her husband. Riva is just superb, in her transmission of the strange combination of physical adjustment, fear, sadness and dignified resilience. Alongside her, Tritignant is wonderful as the husband both sorrowful at his wife's debilitation, but yet stoical in doing everything he can to help her recover as much as is possible. One scene I found especially moving was when George helps Anne with her recovery physio, working to try and coax life and response from her reluctant limbs.

Why then, is this a dark film? The reason is that as the story develops, George receives no help from family, friends, neighbours or the state and as he is left as the sole carer for Anne, and begins to personally unravel. Anne expresses her desire to refuse water and die, but he persists with his dogged caring regime, whilst internally disintegrating, to the point where he slaps his wife and collapses in regret. This emotionally jarring scene rams home the message that as the patient, Anne's physical deterioration is matched by Georges, her carer's, parallel psychological descent.

Finally, in a complex and difficult emotional scene, George grabs a pillow and smothers his wife; scatters her body with flowers and runs away. The viewer is left with a tangled sense of relief that Anne's suffering has come to an end, but horror at the way in which it has occurred; involuntary euthanasia - which is murder. There is also the acute sense that somewhere off-screen, Georges' psychological torment has only just begun.

The film has received differing reviews. While there seems to be unanimity about the undoubted quality of the cinematography and the acting; the film's moral message has caused some consternation because the film seems to be promoting euthanasia as the final act of love: "Amour". The film delivers a mighty amount of angst and emotional recoil from "the slap" scene; but appears to invite the viewer to share in the idea of euthanasia as a 'good ending'.

Margaret Morganroth Gullete, in her insightful review of 'Amour', for The Guardian writes: 

‘One of the implicit convictions of the film is that a carer – even one as assiduous as Jean-Louis Trintignant's Georges – will crack under the strain of caring for a stroke victim… yet the circumstances shown in Amour are highly unusual. Money is no object for this couple. The carer has no pressing health issues of his own. He is also a man. And, though highly educated, he is a man who apparently has never received any advice about caregiving.’

This set of circumstances, she argues, is rather contrived:

‘Carers are now advised to arrange respite care: to get out, eat properly, enjoy a social life. It's understood that their own health and mental wellbeing is at stake. As well as this, Georges could easily have secured more help from other agencies…  a daughter better educated about disability might have said words of love to her mother, and persuaded her – while it was still possible – to go out for tea, out in her wheelchair, to visit a friend. The family doctor, who makes house calls, could certainly have provided adequate pain medication for Anne; morphine could have eased her passing. Georges had more compassionate alternatives available to him than smothering his wife with a pillow.’
P.J. Saunders goes further, (perhaps his argument is in breach of Godwin's Law),  as he draws a parallel between Amour and the German film Ich klag an, which was used in 1941 as a way of making German public opinion sympathetic to euthanasia, as a prelude to the killing of significant numbers of sick and disabled people. However, one need not draw (or endorse) such an extreme parallel to Amour, to be deeply concerned about the moral undercurrent behind the film.

Finally 'Amour' is a brilliant piece of film-making containing simply stunning acting, but it is harnessed to deliver a dubious moral message.