Friday, July 29, 2016

At the Weeping Window

It was mere coincidence that meant we were winging our way southwards down the A1 between Calais and Paris, a hundred years to the day since the start of the Battle of The Somme. The French toll-roads are fast and we were belting along at 130kmph across a low-lying wet valley, when I noticed the small sign by the roadside, marking "The River Somme". A hundred years may seem like a long time, but it was within the lifetime of two of my four grand-parents. The Somme Valley today is green, and wet, and criss-crossed by streams, canals and drainage ditches. It is not hard to imagine how months of digging, shelling and vast movements of armies could reduce it to the infamous swamps and saturated killing fields of 1916. As I sped across the Somme, it was hard not to imagine the thousands of men who climbed out of their trenches exactly a century before, wave after wave of whom were mown down by relentless machine-gun fire. 21,000 British and 8,000 German troops lay dead by the end of the first day of the battle, as 19th Century military tactics were launched against 20th Century weaponry. Harder to imagine was that Britain allowed up to a quarter of a million under-age soldiers to join the slaughter, the youngest of whom was just 13 years of age, despite the legal age for overseas combat being 19. 

In the rear-view mirror of the car, I could not only see The Somme (a river whose name means 'Tranquility') sliding into the distance; but my 16 and 14 year old sons gazing out across the French landscape. I shuddered as the mental image of fresh-faced Tommies hearing the whistles and going over-the-top, merged with the sight of my sons sitting in the back of the car. I am now to old to be of any use to any army other than one lead by the likes of Captain Mainwaring. Lord save us from days in which our youth are called-up to be butchered for Queen and Country.

The Centenary of WWI is being marked in Perth at Balhousie Castle, home of The Black Watch, with the installation of the Weeping Window, a display of individually crafted porcelain poppies. These bright red flowers of Flanders fields, where so many fell, are the symbol of loss, remembrance and respect for those who died. Arranged like this, the poppies are powerful, dramatic and thought-provoking.

The many and the one

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Monday, June 20, 2016

Bike Blog: Pitlochry & Rannoch Station

The lanes of Perthshire offer the cyclist endless possibilities for exploration, exhilaration, and of course exercise! My usual cycle routes in and around Perth were put to one side on Saturday, I put the bike up on the car roof, and drove to Pitlochry - to attempt I ride I have wanted to do for many years. I am not a competitive 'event ' cyclist, but my friends of that ilk have enthused about the route of the Etape Caledonia for so long, that I thought I should explore some of that territory; albeit at my leisurely trundling pace.

I began at the Bridge of Garry car park, at the start of the B8019, which leaves the noise of the busy A9, and heads westwards into ever remoter landscapes. I followed this twisting, undulating road for almost 35m, past The Queen's View and Loch Tummel, through Kinoch Rannoch, along the length of the north shore of Loch Rannoch, and finally the last five miles of dead-end road which lead to the remote Rannoch Station. It's a wonderful road, which early on Saturday, was virtually traffic free. The road surface is pretty good for most of the long miles, and the views extravagantly wonderful, with sun glistening on the surface of the lochs, and mountains like Schiehallion and the far peaks of Glen Coe to savour on the journey.

Though cycling on my own, I actually laughed out loud as I turned the corner into the little village of Kinloch Rannoch and saw the post office on the left. In an instant, I remembered going in there to check my e-mail in the internet cafe (remember those?). I had my sons with me when they were about five and three years old. I can still remember looking up from my PC to see my then two-year old son standing in the doorway of the shop facing out towards the street. His trousers and pants were round his ankles and he was peeing voluminously out of the shop and onto the pavement! Happy Days...

There's now a great little cafe at Rannoch station, which seems to reliably open (not Fridays!). As the miles began to take their toll, I was lured by the thought of a good breakfast on the platform. The big bacon and egg roll didn't disappoint, although the coffee was rather weak.

I am caught between envy of people with fancy modern lightweight bikes, and loyalty to trusty old tourer. It was made by FW Evans, way back in the 1980s, and has served me well for many years and over thousands of miles. If my old bike had an anthem it might well be Saxon's seminal heavy rock anthem, "Wheels of Steel". With the additional weight of a front carrier (I needed a warm layer and lots of fluid), it really felt heavy and in need of an upgrade. On the other, it is a fabulously robust machine that doesn't go wrong, isn't too slow, and is as comfortable as an armchair. Sober reflection also reveals that trimming ounces from the weight of my bike is perhaps to miss the point when pounds could happily be trimmed from the rider...

I realised as I sat on the platform of the West Highland Railway, that I had started my ride right by the Perth-Inverness Highland Main Line, and had cycled to this other railway line. Is is strange that it is quicker to cycle between these two stations than take the train, which would take an enormous trip via Dunkeld, Perth, Strling, Glasgow, Loch Lomond, Crianlarich, Tyndrum and Bridge of Orchy! Since they were so unceremoniously 'Beeching-ed', half a century ago, the Scottish railway system has been not just hacked back, but completely divided too. There are no East-West connections North of the central belt (unless you count Perth-Dundee) at all.
Cycling away from the tranquillity of Rannoch Station, I noticed a cheery "Welcome to Perth and Kinross" signpost in the foreground; and the foreboding sight of Schiehallion in the distance. After fives miles, I turned right, and ran along the south side of Loch Rannoch, on a charming and barely used road. While there were very few cars driving around, there were a remarkable number of informal campsites springing up along the water's edge. Some of these looked very peaceful and orderly. On others, there were empty cans strewn everywhere, countless fires and barbecues, and in one case broken glass scattered around. One campsite even had a PA system with which the people blasted dubious old disco music at the great mountains, who in turn glowered back at them with curmudgeonly disapproval.

Cycling past the Carie Estate, before reaching Kinloch Rannoch, I spotted a holiday house we rented one summer, not long after our daughter had been born. It was entertaining to think of them back in those days, playing in the stream by the cottage, or playing cricket in the field. It was also slightly alarming to think how few hours seem to have passed since those long ago days; yet as I went past, my older son was out with his girlfriend, and the younger being pushed around Loch Leven (in Fife) in a wheelbarrow in a sponsored charity event! When we holidayed there, the owner seemed like a lovely lady. Her husband seemed like quite an eccentric fellow though. It was only when I got back and did some googling, that I realised that he was Lord Moncton of Brenchley - a character who could certainly strain any working definition of 'eccentricity' to its absolute limits. When we were there he was working on the sodoku puzzles he devised for the national press; and with which he had re-built his fortune. He's lost his first millions and mansion on a bet that,a puzzle he had invented was 'impossible to solve.' 

After by-passing Kinloch Rannoch to the South, the only major climb of the day was undertaken; up the Schiehallion Road to Foss. By this stage I had managed to get myself embroiled in a cycling event, which may have been a triathalon. They hadn't closed the road for the event, so I didn't see why I shouldn't keep cycling, despite being the only rider without a number. With wearying legs, but a pack of cyclists on my tail, I  attacked the big climb; getting to the top without any further sign of them. However, if they were also going to swim a couple of miles, and run a marathon, I think they can be excused their failure to catch me up. After the Schiehallion Road, I turned left (diverting from the Etape route which goes southwards towards Weem and on to Aberfeldy), and followed the scenic route along the South side Loch Tummel. This is a lovely little unclassified road, with great views, and virtally no traffic at all. After the Claunie Dam at the end of Loch Tummel, the road winds around Loch Faskally. The river is crossed at the south side of Pitlochry, and the main road joined opposite the town's distinctive distillery. A quick pedal through Pitlochry town centre on and on the last three miles to the Bridge of Garry car park completed a wonderful ride.

A good 80miles, with over 3,500 metres of ascent makes this a good challenge for a lardy middle aged rider like me! I am gradually extending my distances again, and this is the longest I've done for a couple of years.

The scenery, the wildlife, the open road, the speed, the challenge; what's not to like about cycling in Scotland?

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Film Notes: Dekalog 2

Krystof Kieslowski's second film in his Dekalog series is another brooding, atmospheric piece of drama. Unlike the first Dekalog film, in which death made a sudden and dramatic intervention in the story, in Dekalog 2, it lurks menacingly in the background for the film's entire length. The film is set in and around the 'dekalog' Soviet-era, high rise flats - as I am told the whole series is. 
Apparently, the film was inspired by the third of the Ten Biblical Commandments“You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name"; although is is not immediately obvious on first viewing. The reason that this is not clear from the start is less to do with Kieswowski being a complex an unusual filmmaker who routinely eschews obvious
and unambiguous delivery - and more to do with the fact that in Western Europe especially, I suspect; this commandment is usually misunderstood. However, when it is appreciated that in Biblical times, to "take the Lord's name in vain", was not so much about invoking God's name (YHWH) as a swear word/cry of exasperation; but of violating an oath made in God's name. While it is thought that the ancients would have equally understood the prohibition against blasphemy in terms of casual or offensive speech (they were not even allowed to pronounce YHWH); they would have certainly not limited it to this, as we are prone to do. Rather, the solemn business of oath taking, and enforcing would have been central in their thinking. When the commandments were given, the Israelites were a transitory people, without fixed law courts, or contracts as we know them. For their society to function, oaths were used as a means of binding parties to agreed terms; and were often guaranteed by the parties offering themselves up for divine sanction should they default. In terms of the commandment then, such oath making should not be done flippantly, stupidly or even manipulatively.

The story of Jephthah, in the obscure corner of the Bible that is Judges 11, is perhaps the most appalling example of what it means to misuse oath-making 'in the Lord's name.' "And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord: .....“whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.” Of course, when his daughter then walks out of the house, he is in an impossible dilemma. On one hand he must commit the dreadful sin of oath breaking, or on the other the dreadful sin of murder. Through tears and devastation, (and at the urging of the victim herself) he chooses murder and ends up offering YHWH a human sacrifice, which is condemned throughout the Old Testament. The utter folly of foolish, flippant oath making which when made 'in The Lord's name' is utterly binding, is thus writ large.

In responding to this commandment, Kieslowski in his film addresses questions of life and death, where they concern oath making and truth telling. While the 'in the Lords name' element is not directly invoked, it is sometimes noted that in the New Testament, Jesus tells his followers not to use fancy systems of oaths to re-enforce the veracity of their words, but that they should simply 'let their yes be yes, and their no be no'. In other words, be trustworthy and reliable in speech regardless of invoking formulas and ceremonies to solemnise their sentences. 'Any more than this comes from the evil one' Jesus proclaims, surely because all truth is God's truth anyway.

[[spoiler alert!!]] Dekalog 2 features two central characters, who are neighbours in the dekalog flats. Firstly, Krystyna Janda plays Dorota Geller a chain-smoking violinist whose husband lies critically ill in hospital. Then,  Aleksander Bardini, plays her neighbour, who is also the doctor in charge of her husbands care. She is in a state of escalating anxiety, and desperation to know if her husband will survive his illness. The doctor seems to be gruff, distant and utterly detached from the human tragedy he deals with every day. While he works with the sick, his compartmentalised mind dwells comfortably in his little flat, full of plants, birds and memories. The reason for Dorota's escalating anxiety is only revealed later in the film. She is carrying a child, but the father is not her husband, but her lover's. If she is confident that her husband will die, she plans to keep the baby, but if not - to have it aborted; but the legal gestation limit for abortion is fast approaching. Her lover makes it clear, that if she kills their unborn child they will have no future together, no matter what.

The critical scene in the film occurs in a meeting between Dorota Geller and the doctor, in the drab and decaying hospital ward which he runs. The husbands symptoms are getting worse, and the doctor holds out very little hope for his survival. He tells her to prepare herself for the her husband's expected demise. Dorota, given her circumstances, pushes the Doctor for absolute certainty on this sad prognosis. He appears about 95% certain that the patient will not make it, but adds tersely that has seen strange things in his medical career. Dorota though is not satisfied. She needs total certainty that her husband will not survive his illness, in order to cancel her abortion appointment. She demands that the doctor swears an oath, a solemn and binding oath, that the prognosis is terminal. He initially refuses, but realising that Dorota will then precede with the abortion, finally relents, and swears that her husband will not live.

We soon discover that there is more going on than is at first apparent. The Doctor finds himself in a Jephthah style dilemma. On one hand, he believes in God, and has therefore a commitment to tell the truth - all truth is God's after all. He presumably as a believer in Catholic Poland, is no great admirer of abortion either. Should he take an unwise oath, which he cannot guarantee; even if this saves a life? Or should he stick to his principles of truth and science, which will push Dorota towards ending her unborn child's life? Under great pressure, and in spite of his protestations to the contrary, the Doctor makes his oath. Mr Geller will die, there is absolutely no hope of recovery, he intones. Dorota seems relieved, and asks the old Doctor if he knows what it means to have a child. Yes, he replies.

His "yes", which is virtually the last sound in the film is hugely significant. We learn from his conversations elsewhere that he did have a child. However, his child (along with his wife and parents) was killed by a bomb during the Second World War. He returned home to find a hole where his home had been, and all lost. He is therefore in the reverse situation to lamentable Jephthah, who chose truth over life which lead to the loss of a child. This doctor, had already lost his child, and therefore chose life over truth.

He knew, that while his words were almost-certainly-true, they did not have the absolute certainty he offered Dorota with his oath. The patient then rallies, and slowly begins to perform an unexpected recovery. His illness goes into remission, and he regains first consciousness and then movement. The first sign we have that this might be the case is an insect amazingly managing to extricate itself from the sticky glass of juice at the patient's bedside; prefiguring the patient's highly improbably escape from the clutches of imminent death.

What becomes of Dorota, with husband, lover and lover's child? We do not know. We don't even really know what Kieslowski thinks the doctor should have done. Did he really chose to break the commandment? Was he right to push the boundaries of truth and certainty to preserve life? Again, we are not finally told what Kieslowski thinks, more than that Dorota put him in a position which (given his life story) was morally impossible for him to navigate.

Comparisons with the rest of the Dekalog series are hard to resist. Dekalog 2, is not as powerful as the first film, despite its vivid imagery and potent exploration of its theme. The acting is good, and the material thought-provoking, perhaps the impact is less because the message is left more as a question, without the bite of Dekalog 1. Still, it is a deeply thought-provoking film and part three beckons!

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Book Notes: Karl Marx by Francis Wheen

The iconic image of the heavily bearded Karl Marx is familiar to all those of us who grew up under the shadow of the Cold War. Honest assessment of his life and work was impossible for us though, because his image was inevitably adjacent to that of Lenin, hung behind the glowering jowls of Leonid Brezhnev as he inspected May Day parades of military hardware generally aimed in our direction. Such impressions were re-enforced in my mind when as a teenager I visited Russia in the latter years of The Soviet Union. Carved busts of Marx still decorated the streets and public spaces of Moscow and Leningrad, as the sacred iconography of the secular faith of the USSR.

Francis Wheen notes, in his introduction to his biography of Karl Marx, that previous biographers have either set out to idolise or demonise this most remarkable historical figure. Wheen though was determined to produce a more honest assessment of the man, in his context, than many of his predecessors whose agenda was little more than to honour their prophet or vandalise the legacy of an opponent. His attempts to neither worship not vilify Marx, enable him to engage far more richly and productively with the man and his ideas. For instance on the Communist Manifesto, he begins:
Any text from the 1840s will include passages that now seem slightly quaint or outdated; the same could be said of many party election manifestos or newspaper editorials published only a year or two ago. It was never intended as a timeless sacred text, though generations of disciples have sometimes treated it as such. The very first paragraph - with its refernces to Metternich, Guizot and the Tsar - emphasises that this is a perishable commodity, written at a specific moment for a particular purpose, without a thought for posterity. The remarkable thing about the Manifesto, then, is that it has any contemporary resonance at all. In a London bookshop recently I counted no fewer than nine English editions on sale. Even Karl Marx, who never suffered from false modesty, could scarcely have expected that his little tract would still be a best seller at the end of the millennium.(p124)
What emerges from Wheen's hugely acclaimed efforts, is a highly readable exploration of all aspects of this extraordinary life. Wheen engages with Marx as a boy, as a refugee, a family man, a rogue, a patient, a parent as well as a political agitator, and political-economic theorist. His charting of Marx's intellectual development through Hegelianism and onto his own distinctive dialectical materialism, is nicely constructed. The book is highly informative and extensively researched with special attention given to the private letters and correspondence of Marx and Engels.

Studying politics and political theory at University meant that I spent a huge amount of time studying Marx's writings, ideas, legacy and followers. What I was less aware of was Marx's role as a would-be political agitator, and promoter of revolution in his own lifetime. Wheen's work on the heady-days of the 1848 revolutions, which Marx and his compatriots on the left really thought was of almost millenarian significance, was fascinating reading. The Marx I had engaged with previously was only the later, more reclusive figure alone in the reading room of the British Museum, engaged with the construction of his epic work on Capital. What was intriguing here, was not just that the expected revolutions never lived up to their billing, but the way in which left-wing agitators behaved in those idealistic days. Marx comes through in Wheen's biography as a domineering intellectual bully, who imposed himself unrelentingly on any group, in any context in which he worked. He saw anyone who disagreed with him as an utter fool worthy of mockery, satire and vitriol, and anyone who rivalled him as a threat to be outmanoeuvred and ousted. This style of political machination and subterfuge to control the associated societies and movements would not have looked out of place in Simon Sebag Montifiore's biography of Stalin! While there is, of course, no moral equivalence between that Kremlin despot, and this studious academic, the political shenanigans and connivances look surprisingly similar, especially if we only consider how Stalin behaved before he had real power.

Ideologically, Wheen takes a sensible and measured view of Marx's accomplishments. On Capital (ie. Das Kapital) he notes:
As capitalism matured, he predicted, we would see periodic recessions, an ever-growing dependence on technology and the growth of huge, quasi-monopolistic corporations, spreading their sticky tentacles all over the world in search of new markets to exploit. If none of this had happened, we might be forced to agree that the old boy was talking poppycock. The boom-bust cycles of Western economics in the twentieth century, like the globe-girdling dominance of Bill Gates's Microsoft, suggest otherwise. (p299)
In many instances, Wheen demonstrates that Marx was rather astute at diagnosing the problems of capitalism (either in general, or in relation to the specifics of mid Nineteenth Century capitalism). Writing in 1999, not long after the Iron Curtain had fallen, and The Soviet Bloc had collapsed, this was a far-from popular or well received view. However, the ongoing economic shocks which have shuddered around the globe since Wheen wrote these words, continue to demonstrate their relevance.

Such theory sat alongside his friend Engels' vivid descriptions of the wretched lot of the working poor in England - which added such moral power to his theory. It would be equally valid to observe the ongoing crisis of poverty in our globalised world today, and to observe that the moral outrages which drove these Victorians leftwards are no less prescient now.

There is however, the other side of the story. Wheen puts his finger on the issue precisely; on p283.
"Mostly, he allowed the facts to speak for themselves, larding the document with official statistics... to justify his claim that that the misery of the working masses has not diminished from 1848 to 1864. But, as ever, his attempt to imagine an alternative was as formless as a bowl of blancmange: Like slave labour, like serf labour, hired labour is but a transitory and inferior form, destined to disappear before associated labour plying its toil with a willing hand, a ready mind and a joyous heart." (p283)
Perhaps a generous critic would say that Marx died before his life's work was complete and that perhaps he would have gone on to explore what a post-revolutionary state would look like. He might have had a well formulated understanding of what would make associated labour toil with a joyous heart - but never got round to it. A fairer response it Wheen's derisory "as ever, his attempt to imagine an alternative was as formless as a bowl of blancmange". This is routed in Marx's naivety about human nature, and his assumption that all of societies ills stem from the broken relationship between labour and value; in the class struggle; and the subsequent alienation of the worker. Once freed, from this, all would be well. In fact, history is the story of the inevitable process of that liberation. Unless of course, humans are not just trapped within problematic systems; but are themselves problems - in which case utopia might not be so easily obtained. Marx's weakeness here left his legacy open to all manner of interpretations; but the process of the dictatorship of the proletariat leading to the withering away of the state remained, as Wheen notes; blancmange-like in substance.

All told, Wheen does a marvellous job at presenting the reader with a vision of Marx as great thinker to be reckoned with, whose insights into the foibles and cruelties of our economic system remain powerful and relevant to this day. However, it is equally clear that we are not to regard him as some kind of secular prophet, to treat his works with sort of papal-style claim to infallibility; but to recognise them as products of their time; containing flaws, and troubling omissions.

Stragely though, it is not Wheen's assessment of Marx the thinker and writer than leaves the deepest impression upon the reader. Rather, it is his descriptions of Marx the man, and his family life which are the most vivid elements of the book. The Marx family, were driven from country to country; repeatedly exiled because of Karl's revolutionary views and writings. When they finally settled in London (where they remained), they were exceptionally poor. Marx's income was always sporadic, their tastes often expensive, and his commitment to his work all-consuming. The pawning of clothes and cutlery seemed to be a regular way of life for Jenny Marx, Karl's long-suffering wife. Child-mortality was a tragic reality of life in the Victorian City, a pain and grief the Marx's were to experience twice amongst their own children and several times amongst their grandchildren. Jenny Marx wrote, amidst one of these tragedies:
"In all these struggles we women have the harder part to bear..... because it is the lesser one. A man draws strength from his struggle with the world outside, and is invigorated by the sight of the enemy, be their number legion. We remain sitting at home, darning socks." (p292)
The Marx's certainly had a hard, tumultuous life; not all of which was of their own making. Wheen is a sympathetic biographer who enables us to see picture Jenny Marx struggling to keep the household afloat, while Karl (in a fog of cigar smoke) read, paced the floor, and wrote late into the nights. Jenny's sorrow at the revelation that Karl fathered a child with the housemaid, is another sad episode in her life. Marx himself was frequently unwell, with long periods of inactivity, delays in submitting work, and significant pain to endure. Many of the conditions he had were exacerbated by stress, which meant he was in pain for much of the time. Yet, in between these melancholic episodes Wheen introduces us to a loving (if not somewhat severe and sometimes puritanical) father; a doting grandfather who was partial not just to a grand debate about economics - but also a hearty pub-crawl down the Tottenham Court Road. The final part of the book details the demise of the Marx family. While two of the Marx's children died in infancy, a third was to die of cancer while still a young adult. Finally, after the father's death, the two remaining children took their own lives in separate and unrelated incidents. Wheen is a critical biographer of Marx's ideas, but a remarkably sympathetic one, to the trials of the family.

Strangely, if there is a hero who emerges from this book it is Friedrich Engels. It was Engels who was about the only person (aside from Jenny), who was on good terms with Marx throughout his life. Engels who financially propped up the Marx family for decades, supplying cash advances and cases of port, and finally a pension. It was Engels who worked tirelessly encouraging Marx in his work and writing. Engels was an equally unconventional person, who was passionately committed to the cause of a workers revolution, in his own right. What we see in Wheen's biography is that Marx without Engels would have completely floundered.

Wheen has done a splendid job in humanising Karl Marx and rescuing him from caricatures, of either the glowing or demonic variety. Given the weight of the material, and ideas presented, Wheen manges to make this an absolute page-turner, which makes the reader admire the man, without necessarily liking him or bowing at the shrine of his ideology. It's rare to read a biography as well-crafted, and stimulating as this. Normally, rave reviews which groan on about the book being an "achievement" are but the prelude to disappointment. In this case, Wheen has well-earned his accolades.

Monday, June 06, 2016

Film Notes: Dekalog I. This review contains spoilers!

Krzysztof Kieslowski was a Polish filmmaker who is held in enormously high regard across Europe. I first came across his work in the Three-Colours Trilogy; his trio of French films reflecting on Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, in surprising, thoughtful and enormously memorable ways. His takes on those foundational values of the French Republic were far from obvious; whimsical more than polemical; and delivered through layers of oblique symbolism as much as via revealing dialogue. I have subsequently purchased his Dekalog series, which looks equally intriguing. His premise here is not to riff on an aspect of political philosophy, or a series of ideas; but to deliver ten short films, each inspired by one of the Ten Commandments: The Dekalog. With such a brilliant filmmaker, delving into such a valuable subject, the thought of watching (and reviewing!) the results was irresistible. So far I have seen only the first one, unsurprisingly entitled; Dekalog I.

Which Commandment is being responded to is not immediately obvious in Dekalog 1; however, it soon becomes apparent that Kieslowski began at the beginning. His inspiration for this film is:

"You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments." (Ex20:3-6)

In Jewish and Christian thought, this commandment is a defining point. Life is to be orientated not around what is within creation, but is to be centred on the creator. While creation is to be enjoyed, used and protected; when anything within that realm becomes central, defining, or ultimate; then the sin of idolatry has taken place. In some context this idolatry can be literal prostration before a carving; in ours probably a more metaphorical bowing down before such god-substitutes as wealth, knowledge, pleasure or money is in view.

But such theological points are not Kieslowski's point of departure. (**Spoiler alert**!) Rather, we meet a family consisting of father and son, (absent Mother), and much loved aunt. The Father is an academic, the son a child prodigy with a hungry mind. Questions of faith and death linger consistently in the background of this family's life. The Father is agnostic in stance, but atheistic and materialist in his actual mode of living and thinking. His sister, on the other hand, is a devout Catholic. The son, with his restless, inventive mind, asks questions, and seeks answers. When he is saddened by the death of a dog, and asks 'what is death?' and 'what is left?', he finds his father's answers to be dry and functional, lacking in mystery or wonder. "The heart stops beating", and "Memories are left", seem inadequate a response to the loss.

The core cast of the film are excellent. Henryk Baranowski as the father Krzysztof, is very convincing. He has a hefty and progressively emotional role to play which he delivers with a quiet power. Wojciech Klata plays PaweĊ‚, Krzysztof's 12 year old son, and is superb. As a child actor, he is somehow able to convey inquisitive childish joy, impudence, and wonder to adults with a disarming honesty. Child-actors don't always get this right. Maja Komorowska, plays his aunt; in another emotionally demanding role. Somehow she manages to inform the audience that Pawel's Aunt Irena has a tragic back-story, without it ever being explicitly revealed. Clinging to her faith through tears, there is a remarkable vulnerability to Irena that Komorowska pictures perfectly.

These questions of life, death and meaning come to a climax in the film (**spoiler alert**!), as death comes into the family and the surviving characters must respond to it from their worldview. Most significantly though, is the way, in which death enters the home. Without giving the whle plot away, rigorous scientific calculations are made by father and son, which demonstrate that an activity should be perfectly safe; but science lets them down. Rather, science is shown to have its limits, in terms of achieving total control over life, and sovereignty over our circumstances. The project to explain everything, gain mastery over all questions and all outcomes, and the elimination of mystery and questions of faith is held up as a failure.  Kieslowski's film here resonates profoundly with what Oxford Professor of Science and Religion, Alister McGrath says: "When science is done properly it has limits and that is the best way of preserving its identity, its integrity. I.. protest strongly against those scientists who exaggerate the explanatory capacity of science".

As such the film seems to be veering away from the thrust of the first commandment and on towards questions on suffering. It seems more concerned with theodicy than obedience to divine law. However, the underlying tension in the commandment between the creator and the created, remains central to the motivations of the two main adult characters throughout. As is typical of Kieslowski's films the proposed answers to these dilemma's are only hinted at. Firstly there is the dark shadow of family bereavement. (**spoiler alert**) Krzystof has only one child, his sister is childless (we assume); and the death of Pawel means that this family will not see another generation. Are we meant to think that the biblical curse on the generations has been invoked here? We are not told. But the mysteries go far deeper than that. In the climactic scene, in grief and anguish, Krystof tips over an altar in the Catholic chapel, sending candles scattering everywhere. His anger and confusion seem to be directed towards blaming God for not existing. The candle wax though drips down the face of Mary on the icon, and heaven appears to weep with earth in the face of death. Stunningly, Kryzystof reaches into a chalice to anoint himself with 'holy' water; but the water is frozen solid. This is an intensely stark, bold and powerful picture; and one that is open to several interpretations. One on hand, in Catholic faith the place in which the material and the spiritual meet are in the sacraments. Yet in this sacrament, the physical freezing process over-rules the act of anointing. Maybe, his materialistic mindset, continues to block off his access to the divine? Yet, on the other hand, there is a circularity in the use of ice here too. Ice had been the cause of Pawel's awful death; yet Krystof's only option is to relieve his aching, pounding head with ice from the chalice. Is Kieslowski telling us that while God permits suffering, we have no option but to go to Him for its' relief? It's certainly possible that this is what he wants us to think, as the scene is enacted before the face of the painted Madonna with her tears of wax. Either way, the spiritual eclipses the material in the face of loss; and the first commandment is vindicated.

This is a stunning, thoughtful film. Creatively shot, beautifully told, and brilliantly acted. While Kieslowski's ambition is to ask questions and promote thinking, rather than provide answers, he is asking very deep and searching questions. This film packs an emotional as well as intellectual punch; even while it probes deep spiritual waters. I am intrigued as to what the rest of the series holds.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Fields in Kinrosshire

Book Notes. Klansville, USA: The Rise and Fall of the Civil Rights-Era Ku Klux Klan by David Cunningham

There are countless books written about the Civil Rights Era, which are matched by an array of films. These tend to be biographical in nature, focusing on the life of (or a year in the life of) a Civil Rights Leader; or about specific campaigns in flashpoints such Montgomery or Selma. Another raft of publications revolves around the various Civil Rights organisations, such as SNCC, SCLC, CORE or the NAACP. All of these stories are written in the context of the continued threat of white supremacist violence; some of it spontaneous, much of it well organised. The most extreme form of this white terror was the Ku Kulx Klan, the racial terror group with a penchant for fancy dress.

Despite the presence of the KKK in many of the things I have previously read, I knew little about them in practice; such as who they were, the complexities of their motivations, their internal divisions and varieties, their history, their relationship to government, and the makeup of their membership. However, David Cunningham's "Klansville USA: The Rise and Fall of the Civil Rights Era Ku Klux Klan" is a detailed examination of this group (or rather, series of groups); who sought to resist desegregation and fight against the Brown decision, the Civil Rights Act and The Voting Rights Act of the 1950s and 60s. It is a work of meticulous studiousness, rich in source material and detailed in analysis, which until the final chapter is written with a remarkable degree of scholarly detachment.

The history of the KKK, as presented here, is one of peaks and troughs, in which the underlying continuity of violent enforcement of white hegemony with associated ritual and costume; has come and gone. While some historians have seen the KKKs of the 1870s, 1920s and 1960s as completely distinct; Cunningham suggests that the continuities in ethos, and within families is also important.

The book centres around North Carolina, as it was in this relatively progressive Southern State that the KKK expanded and recruited a mass membership like nowhere else. Much of the book is taken up with examining why such a comparatively liberal state, which sough to establish a reputation for trade and moderation quite different from Alabama or Mississippi, should become 'Klansville'; the HQ of white terrorism. The first observation is that while governers such as George Wallace in Alabama led massive resistance to Federal-led desegregation on behalf of the majority of whites who wished to defend their privilege; the compliance of the North Carolina regime channelled white resistance into more fringe or unorthodox expressions. Cunningham is anxious not to let that observation become the last word on the matter however, but probes further into the Carolina Klan. Comparisons with contemporary Florida (another more federally compliant state) reveal that soft policing at best and collaboration with the Klan, at worst; were also critical features in the extraordinary growth of the KKK. Comparisons within North Carolina itself reveal that the KKK were most successful recruiters in counties where the abolition of Jim Crow would have the most marked effects. These were where a high percentage of the population were African American, and the labour market was more competitive. Curiously though, while this was the case, Klan recruitment on an individual level was less related to direct economic threat, but also strongly related to family ties.

Cunningham then looks internally at the Klan. Specifically, he explores the various characters, factions and organisations which made up this nefarious outfit in the middle years of the Twentieth Century. By far the strongest of the Klans he examines are the United Klans of America (UKA), and their leadership, ritual, social make-up, activities, leaders and crimes are considered. The picture that emerges is that while the UKA was united in its opposition to desegregation, and weirdly obsessed with inter-racial sexual taboos, there were huge variations within the movement too. Some members were never more than fringe contributors who believed that the NAACP were a revolutionary movement which needed to be countered. At the other end of the spectrum were those for whom the UKA was the defining purpose of their lives. There were those who never moved beyond the rallies and white-only family picnics, to those who stayed behind for the covert operations, night riding, intimidation and violence. 

Cunningham also explains the Cold War context of the Civil Rights conflict in the Jim Crow South, rather well. The great threat perceived by most Americans in the 1950s onwards was of a Communist assault on them. Foreign policy and Vietnam came to dominate the narrative, but below that was the suspicion, fuelled like people like Sen. McCarthy, that there was a massive plot to undermine America from within. This narrative fuelled both sides of the Civil Rights confrontation. For Liberals, Jim Crow was a massive propaganda coup for the reds. Indeed the images of the actions of people like Eugene "Bull" Connor, were seized upon and broadcast throughout the Soviet bloc. Cuningham though explains that the KKK were also fuelled by the Red Scare, being convinced that the NAACP were merely fronts for the American Communist Party, controlled and funded by Moscow - who were using the Civil Rights issue as a way of destabilising America. As such, KKK speakers were able to perform the logical contortion that they were standing up for liberty - and be believed.

The final section of the book covers the decline of the KKK in North Carolina, which was as rapid (if less visible), than its massive growth a decade earlier. By the 1970s, it was a shadow of its former self, and by the the late 1980s had ceased to function. Cunningham notes that this was not because the participants were reconciled to the Brown decision, and the Civil Rights Acts; but rather that the battleground then changed to more subtle forms of segregation, and racism. It is true that the once mighty UKA ran out of steam, and failed to continue to mobilise white fears. Participation in UKA Klaverns, rallies, and criminal acts, declined which then led to declining funds, and dissatisfaction with the the leadership, and internal squabbles. Cunningham's book demonstrates though, the extent to which a major change in policing the KKK led to the demise of the North Carolina's once powerful UKA. As the House Unamaerican Activities Committee investigated the KKK (!), Lydon Johnson ordered that the FBI launch a COINTELPRO operation against the Klan. This in many ways, mirrorred the way in which the Bureau had interfered with the various Civil Rights groups for years. While the relatively progressive North Carolina authorities had policed the movement there was space given for the Klan to work unhindered. However (despite Hoover's reservations), the FBI played a critical role in infiltrating, confusing, dividing and disrupting the UKA. At least one major split in their ranks was directly orchestrated by a Klansman in the pay of the FBI, while the Bureau managed to imprison several key Klan organisers, speakers and recruiters, on a range of historic offences. This is a very insightful and useful piece of historical writing, and an aspect of this history about which I knew very little.

Cuningham concludes his book with a summary of the legacy of the UKA's decade of dominance in North Carolina's white cultural resistance to desegregation. He notes that the growth of the right wing Republican party as the party of white Southerners happens at this point. He also cautions against being to optimistic that the trials of Klansmen such as Byron de Beckwith indicate that America has moved on, and come to terms with its murky past. Punishing historic crimes he suggests, might be a distancing manoeuvre, which helps to avoid exposing the ills of the present. Finally, Cunningham breaks with his studied academic neutrality  - a tone in which the whole book is written. While his analysis about matter such as which professions were most represented in Klaverns, is clinical; he generally avoids value judgements about what this means. That is, until the final section in which he summarises his findings in order that we might then take the rise and fall of the UKA as a warning from history; and so be empowered to prevent its recurrence.

Civil Rights literature is greatly enhanced by books like this, which judiciously and thoroughly investigate the 'other side' of the conflict. They add greatly to our understanding of those tumultuous, and formative days. Cunningham has done a great job in assembling and analysing the evidence which tells this odd and disturbing story. The book makes the KKK emerge from the cartoonish caricature in which terms it so often portrayed, into becoming something which is far more troubling. Mere cartoons are unreal and quite unlike anyone we know. The truth is that  countless ordinary people were swept up into a hate movement with a terrorist wing, which they supported alongside doing quite ordinary things such as work, gardening and raising children. Such an observation is truly disturbing.

Friday, June 03, 2016

Carn Mor Dearg Arete to Ben Nevis

While Carn Mor Dearg and Ben Nevis are hills worth climbing in their own right; the circuit of these two peaks is considered to be a Scottish classic primarily because of the amazing ridge which joins them together. This ridge, the Carn Mor Dearg Arete ('The CMD') draws walkers from around the country to stride, clamber and scramble along its airy, elevated walkway. In terms of difficulty, the CMD is rather nicely pitched in between the plodding tourist path up Nevis, and the serious climbers and mountaineers routes like Tower Ridge. It offers hillwalkers a little taste of the excitement of a little exposure, on high stunning ridges, without any technical difficulty.

There are several route options available to walkers all over these hills. We chose the tourist track up from Glen Nevis as far as the 'half way lochan', for a route looked like a good option for folk with only one car. Our circuit would bring us back down to the starting point; avoiding a long walk around the base of the mountain at the end of the day. At the half way lochan, we left the tourist path and took the track curving around the North side of Nevis itself.

The track doesn't go to Carn Mor Dearg, but curves up the glen beneath it, terminating at the climbers hut beneath Ben Nevis' stunning NE cliffs. As the track curved up the glen, we undertook a steep, heathery and slippery descent down to a ford over the Allt a Mhuillin, followed by a gruelling ascent of Carn Mor Dearg itself. There is a path up this ridge, which peels off from the main track at the foot of the glen, above the gold course. It is worth finding this, as it saves a lot of energy, as its cuts through the long heather and rough ground. The sun split the skies, and the temperatures soared as we grafted out way up Carn Mor Dearg - an ascent that never seemed to end! This ascent was made worse by the amount of height that is lost crossing the glen to the ford; every hard earned metre of which has to be re-gained. 

The other challenge of the day was to carry enough fluid. The weather forecast was exceptionally good, promising no cloud, no rain, no wind, and high visibility. I took my usual hat/gloves etc out of my pack and filled it with extra water bottles - a decision I was very glad I took, despite the excessive weight of the water. Every hundred metres climbed opened up new views. Loch Linnhe, Corpach, The Aonach's all ranged into view, but the vast cliffs of Ben Nevis looming up in front of us were hugely impressive. Eventually when the first Munro summit was gained, the CMD arete presented itself to us - and it looked absolutely stunning.

With different levels of scrambling experience in the group, we picked out way carefully along the crenellated rocky spine; with folks choosing the ridge-top, scramble or the safer path further down one side, as they wished. We all met up again at the huge cairn which marks the start of the very steep, bouldery climb up Ben Nevis. From there we trudged back down the tourist track to the car, and the long, weary drive home.

Carn Mor Dearg's Arete, is deserving of its place as a 'must-do' Scottish hill walk. This was my second attempt to climb it, as the first was abandoned because of bad weather! Its worth waiting for a good day, to enjoy the views, and have the comfort of dry, grippy rock to run about on. I would seriously avoid this route in high winds, which could pluck a walker from the ridge and send them hurtling downwards. It's not an easy day, its over 20kms, a couple of thousand metres of ascent, with real steepness and a little exposure in places. If you have the chance to do CMD, and the sun is shining, don't miss out; it is overwhelming!

Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Grey Corries: Stob Ban, Stob Choire Claurigh and Stob Coire an Laoigh

The Grey Corries form part of the range of mountains which begin at Loch Trieg North of Rannoch Moor, and run all the way to Ben Nevis by the sea. The Grey Corries themselves form the centre of the range, and are rated highly by ridge-walkers in Scotland. Which ever way you approach the Grey Corries, it is a long walk, and for the distances and ascents involved, these are surprisingly busy hills. 

Parking for the usual ascent of these peaks from Corriechoille is a tricky issue. The books suggest that to taking cars up the private road in the glen, "there seems to be no objection at the time of writing", whereas lots of notices at the roadside seem to indicate otherwise. However, further up the glen there are indeed many parking spaces being used by walkers - and no-one objecting! Sadly by the time I discovered this, I had long abandoned by vehicle at Cour Bridge, and slogged the long miles in. Thankfully the route from Corriechoille through to the bothy in the Lairig Leacach is obvious, and this compensates for the fact that it seems to take an eternity to reach. The weather forecast had promised no rain and cloud-free Munros, but as I approached the bothy there was very little visibility and the threat of rain!

Stob Ban is a fine hill, which is steep, shapely and presents hard climbs from every angle. One path leads up the corrie behind the bothy towards the hill, but this area is extremely boggy and best avoided. A tiny cairn on the track beyond the bothy, marks the start of an alternative path which takes to the hill's fine NE ridge, which passes a subsidiary top before a hard pull up to the summit. Stob Ban is a lovely hill, which only escapes fame, because it hides in the shadow of its' massive neighbours.

Finding the correct route off Stob Ban and towards the main ridge of the Grey Corries took a couple of attempts in thick cloud - however once found, a northerly path was located which lead to the huge climb up Stob Choire Claurigh. As I climbed up the ridge, the clouds broke up and blew away, and the sun shone on the Grey Corries, as it would for the rest of the day. A week ago I was in the Mullardoch's with a group of friends. We managed a great walk, but were rained on, and got very cold in the process. Here, just seven days later - it was a different season altogether. Last week, the biggest risk was hypothermia; this week... sunstroke! I did this walk on my own (although inevitably fell into conversation with other walkers during the day) - there's a happy balance between solitude and company that is worth preserving, I think. Some folk think that my solitary walking trips are an indication of my status as a curmudgeonly 'Victor Meldrew' figure, but I like to think that a day of solitude is a re balancing thing which actually helps to cure me of the usual Irritable Growl Syndrome! Hopefully the next walk will be with friends, and the happy balance maintained.

The Grey Corries are - in a a word - magnificent. The whole range is a narrow twisting ridge over six kilometres long, crenellated with numerous tops, three of which have 'Munro' status in their own right. In truth, the attraction is as much the ridge that connects the tops, as the summits themselves. There is no scrambling or exposure, but the ridge-top, which in places is spectacularly narrow. has stunning views on every side. These hills have a reputation for being large, and far away from the road. What I didn't realise was just how beautiful they are. I had been expecting their sheer bulk to be presented in somewhat industrial composition; instead what I found were sweeping corries, sculpted peaks and gorgeous ridge-walking. The corries are indeed grey; except the ones where the rock has a reddish tinge to it. where they are distinctly pink.

I didn't go on to the most westerly of the peaks normally climbed on this route, having previously ascended it from Glen Nevis, via the Steall waterfall. That was a never-to-be-forgotten adventure in which one of the older members of our party had an angina attack, which led to heart surgery not long afterwards! Instead, I turned northwards from Stob Coire Easain, and meandered down the (largely pathless) ridge marked as Beinn na Socaich on the OS sheet. Two big walks in 7 days, meant that my dodgy knees were screaming for relief by the time I got down!

There is a navigational challenge to face in returning from the foot of this ridge, back to Corriechoille. While from the ridge, the large fire-break through the forestry plantation looks obvious, from in amongst it, it is more tricky. In addition to this, a deer fence across my intended route, drove me down towards the dam at Coire Chomlaidh. There is no crossing point at the dam itself, but the river can be forded a few hundred metres above it, and a path picked out on the far bank. From the dam, the service road through the woods can easily be accessed.

The old abandoned railway line through these parts is the return route recommended in most books. However, the onward march of vegetation, of planting, and forestry operations are making this thoroughfare through the dense pines, increasingly problematic. Ignoring the track-bed, I pushed on further down the dam-access road, following it past a sign to the left saying "Spean Bridge", and then taking a right turn onto another forestry road. This then meets a junction where a left turn is taken, just as the track begins to climb uphill and break out of the woodland. This track leads to the access route, coming out immediately opposite one of the unofficial carparks on the estate land. Thankfully I was guided through this woodland by two walkers (with their dog), who had done the same ridge as me, and were picking their way back to their vehicle. Even better, they had parked right up the glen, and offered me a lift back to Cour Bridge; one which I happily accepted.

With this assistance, I was back at the car, and home to Perth and the family for the evening. The Grey Corries, are a fantastic set of hills, to which I will no doubt return. Large, beautiful, and presenting a challenge to the walker - they offer in return for this effort, massive rewards in stunning mountain architecture, splendid views and a rich sense of achievement. In bright sunshine, what could be better?

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Eric Bibb at The Queen's Hall, Edinburgh

Eric Bibb is a legendary acoustic blues and gospel performer who brought his band to Edinburgh last Thursday. I've heard Eric's music many times over the years, notably on a weekly radio show called, "The Gospel Blues Train" presented by my old friend Lins Honeyman. His show goes out over various local and internet radio stations around the UK. We met Lins at the gig, who had just come from interviewing Eric Bibb for his show.

The evening began with a set from Eric's daughter Yana Bibb, who sang a fine set of jazz inflections to the accompaniment of a rich, complex jazz piano. Her father might have been raised in America, and naturally root into Blues - but apparently he brought Yana up in Scandanavia where jazz is hugely influential. As she sang, and chatted, I spotted a proud father (wearing a dustintive hat) sitting a few rows in front of us!

Eric Bibb took to the stage to huge applause and got his set underway with a splendid solo rendition of "Going Down Slow" - a song I will forever associate with Ray Charles, but predates him by some decades. Its been convered by everyone from Champion Jack Dupree to Led Zep. It's a great song for Eric Bibb to re-interpret, as the lyrics are a typical blues lament; shot through with some Black Church infused soul-searching. Ray Charles sometimes ventured into that interconnecting zone between gospel and blues on tracks like Sinners Prayer; but Eric Bibb seems to be rooted in that zone, even when he forays beyond it.

After that initial solo performance, Bibb brought a whole band on to accompany his accoustic guitar and voice. He added lead guitar, double bass, and two backing vocalist for virtually the whole set; and drew on a pianist, and sax/woodwind player for some selections; and added his daughter to the vocal section for the encores. They may have been playing music rooted in African-America, but they were a geneuinely international cast of characers and talent from Sweden, Ireland, South Africa, America and Finland! Hugely talented and able to perform as a tight unit around Eric Bibb's lead, they put on a wonderful show together.

Wayfaring Stranger was a particular highlight for me. In Edinburgh, Bibb described the way in which this hymn-like song had been written 'somewhere close to here', but had been exported to America centuries ago. Someone had taught it to slave children, who had passed it on through generations of curators and performers of Black American music. The song doesn't just lament the losses of life in a cruel and unjust world, as a straight blues might. Rather, it is infused with a gospel hope of reunion on the other side of 'jordan' - that Biblical river, so often deployed in literature and song, as a metaphor for death. The slaves (said Bibb), understood this yearning, longing hope - and adopted, and adapted the song, which he then brought back to the land where it was first written. Here's a version of that song he recorded a few years ago.

In addition to slower songs like that, Bibb and band also ripped through some of his more upbeat numbers. Here's Bibb with a rather different band, doing "Don't Ever Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down"  

It's once again at that gospel-infused interchange, where not being turned round, might be a matter of loyalty to the gospel and hoping for heaven; but with an eye on the fact that not being turned around, was the song of the civil rights marchers here on earth too. Black theology never restricted the gospel to being something only effective after death anyway..

Civil Rights and the African American struggle to assert their dignity and achieve equality in a land to which their ancestors were brought in chains, was another significant theme of Bibb's songs on Thursday night. While some songs are straightforward protest songs, sometimes story-songs can be more powerful in connecting an audience with the lives of a distant people. Bibb's song Rosewood, was a breathtaking example of this. Despite studying (and doing some postgrad research) into race relations in American History, I had never come across the Rosewood Massacre. 

The tragic story is of a Florida town which exploded into racial conflict in 1923, was burned to the ground and never rebuilt. The lyrics Bibb assembled for this beuatifully disturbing song are lifted from a transript of the testimony of the last living survivor of the carnage. This song is haunting, sorrowful and all the more emotive for being a first-person account of a microcosm of the tragedy of racial conflict. The lines in the second verse stopped me in my tracks:
Newspapers told how many
Whites an' blacks were counted dead
But the tears had no colour - 
The tears their families shed.
Rosewood.... buried in the ashes of history.
The gig ended with Bibb's most well-known song, "Needed Time", a big full-band singalong to his version of the old spiritual song made famous by the great Lightnin' Hopkins. It's a prayer, born of desperation for the mercy and presence of Jesus - that He might 'come by here', even if only briefly. The Queen's Hall in Edinburgh was originally built as a church. As the sound of Black Gospel swept through it on Thursday night, it was as if those old stones were revisiting their original purpose. There's a great little article about The Needed Time, at Gary Burnett's Down At The Crossroads blog here.

Eric Bibb and his band put on a wonderful gig on Thursday. The self-styled "Happiest Man In The World", delivered a high-class show, full of surprises, joy, hope, sorrow, stories, protest, history, and brilliant musicianship.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Miles in The Mullardoch's

'The Mullardoch's' are the four Munro's which form a set of complex ridges on the North side of Loch Mullardoch. High hills, big climbs, navigation challenges to face, and the real remoteness of these peaks, makes the Mullardoch's a great challenge. My attempts to pronounce Gaelic place-names are often wrong. I had always thought the emphasis was on the first sylabble of Mullardoch; whereas I was appropriately corrected yesterday to Mullardoch. Loch Mullardoch was a natural loch at the head of Glen Cannich in the great inland mountains west of The Great Glen. The addition of a great hydro dam at the eastern end of the loch doubled its length, massively raised the height of the water and changed the glen forever.

Our day began just after 4AM, with a coffee fuelling, then long drive via Inverness, Drumnadrochit and Cannich to the North Side of the Mullardoch dam. There, waiting for us, as promised was Angus with his boat. We had decided against trying to walk the length of the loch, over notoriously difficult terrain, and booked the ferry. ( Many of the hillwalking books do not mention this possibility as the boat service was unavailable for a few years, but is now up and running for six months of the year. It costs £25/person, but speeds down the loch and several takes hours off what is a very long day - especially when long car journey's are also required.

As he took us down the loch, Angus chatted to us about where we were going. He clearly knows these hills very well, and gave us some useful advice about routes and difficult river crossings - and actually took us further along the loch than the website advertises. He dropped us off at the foot of the climb up to the first Munro of the day, An Socach. The boat ride is great, speeding down the loch, surrounded by great peaks and really wild land, in high spirits and with a geat sense of expectation as to what the day might bring.

The loch lies at around 200m, and An Sochach is 1069m high, which gives a vigorous start to the walk. it was warm and humid as we worked our way up the hill's south ridge. One of our number bravely and optimistically went up the first climb in shorts. Many a Munro walk described on this blog are solo walks, in which I trudge around the Highlands like an anti-social grumpy old man! Rumours that a party of friends was assembled for this walk to avoid me paying £75 for the ferry on my own are purely conjecture! I am (contrary to what you may have heard) not 'overly cautious with money' to quite that extent. Happily, for such a long and remote walk, my wife was able to come - along with three excellent friends and neighbours who all happen to have children in the same class at the local school. When the curved summit ridge is made, the top is visible across the corrie - as well as the looming shape of the second hill beyond it.

The gloomy weather forecasters were right. I have often thought that MWIS forecasts are too pessimisitic, but they were exactly right on this one. Not long after we stood on top of An Socach, the clouds swirled in and the rain began. Route finding was fairly straightforward, the well-worn path leads down the Bealach 'a Bholla and into the climb up the western flanks of An Riabhachan. Although we worked hard on this climb the rain poured, the winds picked up and the temperatures plummetted. One of the group started to become very cold indeed, despite being very well encased in themal layers under Goretex, and wearing hats and gloves. We didn't hang around long on the top, but devoured some chocolate and moved on. Even our optimistic shorts-wearing friend gave in to warm trousers!

The long broad ridge of An Riabhachan terminates above the cliffs of Creagan Toll an Lochan, and the descent to the Bealach Toll an Lochan begins. Despite the only occasional visibility, the twisty, scrambly ridges through these hills never fails to inspire and keep the walk interesting. It was also great to extend some of the normal fleeting at-the-school gate conversations into decent chat.

The climb up to Sgurr na Lapaich is hard work. It throws almost 300m of climbing at the walkers already weary legs. Our party member who had got so cold on An Riabhachan needed a good hard work-out to warm up, and Sgurr na Lapaich duly obliged. This is a high and shapely mountain, which as the cloud began to break up, offered us stunning views of hills across Affric, Stratfarrar and further afield. Descending Sgurr na Lapaich also involved negotiating some extensive patches of ice and snow. Throwing all thoughts of dignity to the wind, (most of us) slid down on our backsides at an invogorating rate of knots.

Carn na Gobhar is a pleasant hill, which would fit in well somewhere like Glen Shee, but is outsized and outclassed by the ridges and scale of its Mullardoch neigbours. Yesterday though, it was the one hill which offered us great weather, shining sun and expansive views. Descending via the south ridge and a new hyro-scheme road, we made the dam about 9hrs after we had left the boat. Tired, acheing, hungry and rather pleased about the days work we had accomplished, we made a plan- and met for food in Aviemore on the way home.

A final note of thanks is due to the folks who kept an eye on our kids for th day so that we could get a whole day away in the hills.

How wet was it? You can guage this by the lack of photos on this post.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Book Notes: Talking 'Bout Your Mama by Elijah Wald

I first heard "The Dozens", courtesy of Blues pianist Speckled Red which was featured on a compilation LP I picked up as a teenager. It was a 'Best of Blues, Barrelhouse and Boogie-woogie' selection featuring the likes of Champion Jack Dupree, Roosevelt Sykes, Memphis Slim, Pinetop Smith and Meade 'Lux' Lewis. Speckled Red's "The Dirty Dozens" stood out on the LP as being..... well a bit odd actually. While many of the other tracks on that old album were instantly enjoyable, I just didn't "get" that 'dozens" song. While many of the other songs on that LP were duly played on my Dad's turntable - and recorded from vinyl onto cassette tape so that I could play them in my room - and then later take them off to University; the dozens remained inaccessible to me. It is perhaps, on reflection, more surprising that a suburban white-kid from London was listening to Roosevelt Sykes in 1985, than that I didn't understand "the dozens"! However, when I saw that OUP had published a book entitled, "Talking 'Bout Your Mama: The Dozens, Snaps and The Deep Roots of Rap", I was intrigued. That odd song had stuck in my mind for decades, and the prospect of a cultural study tracing the inter-generational developments of African-American music sounded highly promising. My interest in such cultural links was lit by Martin Scorcese's "The Blues" DVD box-set. The series had many wonderful highlights, and plenty of surprises -  Ray Charles messing around on a grand-piano with Clint Eastwood being but one. The disc I was perhaps least interested in was one which promised to look forward (rather than back) onto music which had been influenced by Blues, rather than on The Blues itself. Never really appreciating rap, I wasn't expecting much from the film. It was, however, a revelation. The Electric Mud band were re-formed by Leonard Chess, and jammed with a series of young contemporary rappers in Chicago. In that exciting and informative session as they explored the musical threads which drew them together, I had my eyes opened to rap. Much to my surprise, and delight, some of my kids watched it with me and seemed to find something in The Blues for the first time too.

Elijah Wald's book on The Dozens promised to link that Speckled Red song I had never understood, with the rap tradition; and so I was naturally fascinated. On reading the introduction of the book, I immediately understood why I didn't get the Specked Red song. For a start, it was a song, loosely based on a verbal tradition. It was referencing a form a spontaneous verbal street combat to which I had had no exposure. Furthermore, while Red had later recorded an uncensored version of the piece, what came crackling from the Vinyl I had, was a highly bowdlerised version, which made oblique references to highly inflammatory jokes/rhymes which African-American audiences in the mid-20th Century would have immediately got. There is a strange parallel with Spike Milligan sneaking obscene WWII Army jokes into The Goon Show, under the noses of the censors - by simply missing out the punchline that half the audience knew already knew; or only saying the punchline - and missing out the joke!

Wald's book is enormously detailed, and covers vast terrain in its exploration of this fascinating (and sometimes disturbing) cultural phenomenon. The fact the book begins with six varying definitions of the dozens, shows how varied both the dozens are themselves, and how wide the interpretive literature has been too. Wald doesn't really attempt a simplistic explanation of the phenomenon - but rather accepts that most of the offered perspectives have something useful to say, because the thing itself is so varied. "To 'slip in the dozens' is to disparage one's family", says one definition from 1928, while another from 1968 intones:
"Dozens, playing the - A contest to see which young brother can remember or make up the greatest number of obscene, rhymed couplets reflecting on the opponent's parents. Sometimes called 'signifying' or 'mama talk'. Sometimes done with finger-snapping accompaniment. Though it may start in fun, it often attracts a crowd of admirers, and it can easily end in a fight. Not approved by parents." (p.xi)
And so Wald begins his book, "The Dozens can be tricky, aggressive, offensive, clever, brutal, funny, inventive, stupid, violent, misogynistic, psychologically intricate, deliberately misleading - or all of that at once in a single rhyming couplet" (p3). It is, by far, the most obscene book I have ever read. This is a fine read, about a cultural phenomenon which is worthy of respect - but not one with which I am entirely comfortable. Which is almost entirely the point. Some of the cited insults are crude, some are unsubtle, while others are very witty and funny. His explorations into the way in which rhyme can make the speaker almost portray himself as being disarmingly compelled to say the appalling last word in his couplet - is part of a great series of observations. The insults aimed at the hearer's Mama are especially interesting, particularly in the African-American context where many families are matriarchal, he notes. Your Mama is so ugly.... is so fat, or is pre-disposed to unusual or obscene sexual deviations are standard stuff. But what is disturbing is when dozens players would say, "Your Mama is so.... black", and mean it as an insult. It is perhaps an important reminder of why the African-American community needed their Black-Pride movement in the 1960s, and that so many of these dozens date from before that significant change.

Wald looks at street dozens, locates dozens play within the specific conditions of African-Americans in the early 20th Century, before going on to examine the dozens in literature (where it surprisingly pops out all over the place), and in music. It was here I that I finally understood what that strange Speckled Red song I had heard all those years ago was actually about! Wald looks at links between different styles of dozens, both within the USA and around the world. Fascinatingly, he finds significant links between West African verbal games and dozens, as an almost perfect parallel of what musicologists (and performers like Keb Mo) have discovered about Blues and African music. Wald is exceptionally careful not to overplay these links, and to stress that such correlations do not prove lineage - but the patterns he notes are important nevertheless.

Concluding with a set of observations about the dozens, but not limiting his explanations to just one thesis, Wald notes that The Dozens is: "a puberty ritual", "a cathartic form of group therapy and a valuable social outlet", "misogynist hate speech", "a retrograde expression of African-American self-hatred", "an art at the heart of African American expression" (pp171-80). 
"One can be disturbed or angered by the dozens, but one cannot deny the talent it has honed. African American comedy has been almost as central and influential in American culture as African American music, and much of its improvisational speed and biting edge comes out of th[is] verbal duelling" (p180)
This is a profoundly helpful paragraph when assessing the impact of rap - especially in evaluating the furore surrounding the 'parental advisory' stickers on many rap cd's, because of the extreme language - much of which is distressingly misogynistic. Understanding the links between this and the dirty dozens that Jelly Roll Morton heard in the first years of the 20th Century, helps the hearer to understand and culturally locate the difficult rap lyrics - even while wishing that they had been left behind in 1918. It stimulates a more respectful, and appreciative critique - even where strong opposition to the lyrical offences remains.

Wald has written a large, detailed and thorough analysis of this intriguing phenomenon. It is a highly engaging read, but not one for the faint-hearted if obscenity and sexual insults are not what you want to read. It leaves me wanting to go back and play that old Speckled Red song again, and see if this time I actually "get" it. Then perhaps some Champion Jack Dupree, or some Jimmy Yancey!