Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Morzine Moments

 Le cinĂ©ma

 It's all glam and glitz

The Bells, The Bells!

The Bells - No, not the whisky blend. Central Morzine, French Alps.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Book Notes: Lost and Found in Russia by Susan Richards

Studying Soviet and Eastern European Politics and History in the early 1990s was exciting stuff. A whole chunk of the "politics" course was removed from the curriculum and the study of things such as Kremlinology, The Politburo, The CPSU, The Nomenklatura, the planned economy and relationships within the Warsaw Pact moved across the to History Department. The tumultuous days in the East certainly kept academics on their toes in the West, as lecture series' on Russia Today dragged out with annual repetition were (to use a ironically appropriate expression), consigned to the 'dustbin of history'.

It was during this time that I first read one of Susan Richards' books. Her first work entitled "Epics of Everyday Life: Encounters in a Changing Russia" was a fascinating and brilliant account of life in The Soviet Union during the Gorbachev years, when Soviet-Communism went through its final spasms of attempted self-preservation. What set Richards' work apart then, as now, is that her focus is not on the powerful and elites, but on the lives of citizens caught up within the shifting patterns of history. This is an important re-balancing of historical writing, as the political, military, economic and ideological changes of that era were well-documented; but the effects of these shifts on the people themselves somewhat neglected. We knew that Prime Minister Thatcher felt that she could do business with Gorbachev, we knew that the arms raced had slowed in its escalation, we knew that The Russian Empire was fragmenting and were told to anticipate a 'New World Order'; but in this top-down version of history we only knew about the struggles of ordinary people as they appeared as statistics in charts about unpaid wages, unemployment or of rising inflation. In her first book Susan Richards charted in detail the lives of a few people caught up in those years - adding huge colour and an added dimension to our understanding of the realities of those times.

Having so appreciated "Epics..." at University, I was intrigued to see that Richards' had followed it up with "Lost and Found" about the Post-Soviet Era, and bought it as soon as I was aware of its existence. The times have changed enormously since Gorbachev, Thatcher, Reagan and Mitterand bestrode the world stage and Richards was chronicling the lives of ordinary Russians. What hasn't changed much is Richards' purpose or method of research and writing about Russia: or the immense value of her work in seeking to understand Russia. 

"Lost and Found in Russia" has been subtitled on the cover as "encounters in a deep heartland" and elsewhere as "encounters in a post-Soviet landscape" - enigmatic book descriptions to say the least. One of the joys of this book is that it is almost impossible to categorise into any particular genre. On one hand it is history, and cultural and political analysis. On the the other it is brilliantly observed travel-writing. On still a third hand it is the diary of an academic in her field, doing her research. The format of the book is straightforward, each section begins with a historical-political introduction to the year(s) in which the proceeding narrative occurs. Yeltsin, Gaidar, De-regulation, privatisation, the rise of the Mafia's and Oligarch's, the rise and fall of the free-press, Putin and the re-assertion of control, and the economic context are all mapped out here in nice pithy summaries. They however, are but the canvass for Richards pen-portraits of her Russian friends as they seek to negotiate post-Soviet life.

Like her travels and adventures, Richards' characters are well drawn. They all, like the country itself, are struggling to survive the worst of the economic slumps; but more significantly all trying to work out what Russia is; and what it means to be Russian. For the whole of their highly propagandised lives they had a concept of their identity and nationhood as intrinsically tied to the Marxist-Leninist model; and their leadership of it in the world. With extraordinary rapidity all of this collapsed, leaving a cultural vacuum. It is in this context that Richards' various friends embrace capitalism, religion, fight for press freedom, suffer nervous breakdowns, take to the bottle or battle through. The video clip at the end of this review features the author discussing all her characters in more detail, which I won't repeat here. One though is worth mentioning. Natasha a journalist was the daughter of a Soviet boss, who rebelled against the party. Her initial enthusiasm and Westward-leaning optimism at the fall of communism led her to a town called Marx (!) on the Volga. This was an old German-Russian region decimated by Stalin by promised as a centre of renewal by Gorbachev and the Germans. The Russian love-affair with The West did not last however, as the first rush of market economics into the planned economy failed to deliver much but eye-watering price rises and hardship. Natasha shares this journey in the book, and we find her moving in search of a better life; drinking to numb the shock, and finally trying to defend press-freedom against Putin's re-assertion of central control.

Richards' very short, and beautifully written chapters tell the stories of a small cast of characters like Natasha whose lives are entwined with the fall, and rise of Russia. Workers, writers, playboys, businessmen and writers, all wrestling with big-questions and day-to-day survival. Some of her narratives (running from the KGB in Uzbekistan) are astonishing; but the most memorable thing about this book are the people whose lives she shared on her remarkable journeys through this vast, complex and (to Westerners at least) almost inexplicable country. I can still picture the Old Believers meeting deep in the heart of Russia's great forests, with their rituals and community structures, of the bizarre messianic cults which flourished in the chaos of the collapse of the USSR, of the UFO and paranormal obsessions of people bewildered by their times.

This is stunning writing, and a salutory reminder to historians and commentators alike that the dispassionate recording of policies and the rise of politicians; might be the headline-grabbing stories; but real lives go on below the radar. 

Here's a short video (3mins) about the book, narrated by the author.

Here is a 35 minute lecture by Richards in which she says a lot more about the characters who form the substance of her book. After the somewhat ponderous introduction, Richards' talk starts at 3mins 20 seconds in.

Out of Season

Friday, October 10, 2014

Book Notes: Auschwitz and The Allies - How the Allies responded to the news of Hitler's Final Solution

The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin is a place of great solemnity. The designers have created a place of mourning, memory and warning which looks back to remember - and alerts all who see it of the dangers of extremism and human potential for evil. Underneath the memorial is a museum which along with documenting many of these crimes against humanity contains all the known names of Jews murdered by the Nazis.  It was here I came across Primo Levi's disturbing book The Drowned and The Saved, which are the reflections of an Auschwitz survivor seeking to process his experiences and cope with his memories. I also noticed that they stocked Martin Gilbert's book, "Auschwitz and The Allies", which presents the history of the holocaust, not from within the camps -but from the perspective of the Allies. Crucially, it sets out to answer the contentious question of what the Allies knew about the Nazi attempt to exterminate all the Jews in their Empire, when they knew it, and how they responded.

Before looking at the main argument I need to add a note: I found this a very difficult book to read. However, this was not because it was haunting and unsettling like the Primo Levi book, which repeatedly woke me in the early hours with disturbing images, the sound of distant screams and a lingering sense of the presence of evil. No; this book was hard to read for precisely the opposite reason, in that it was cold, analytical history in which the processes, numbers and methods of genocide are discussed as objectively as if they were GDP, or balance of payments deficit figures. Reading of times and dates of train-loads of people disembarking and being either "tattooed and sent to the barracks" or "gassed" in great numbers initially creates the correct response in the reader of horror, revulsion and disbelief. After nearly four hundred pages, and over a million people later, it is ghastly to find oneself no longer being shocked and nauseous, but merely accepting the facts as 'significant'.

Gilbert's treatment of The Allies response to the German slaughter of The Jews is scholarly and even-handed. His position is that The Allies failed to do enough to protect the Jews, and could - indeed should have done much, much more during the course of WWII to save lives where this was possible. However, he is also at great pains to point out that The Allies hands were tied by a combination of a terrible lack of information, the privations of war, complex international relations, disbelief, disorganisation, as well as sense that directly rescuing The Jews was a lower priority for politicians than defeating Hitler and rescuing Europe as a whole. Gilbert's estimation is that even if the Allies had done everything they could and should have done, they could not have stopped the slaughter at Auschwitz until it was almost over.

Detailed working through archives from Allied government papers and those from Jewish and Zionist pressure groups shows that the Holocaust was a hugely well kept secret for much of the war. While the deportations of countless victims from France, Germany, Belgium - and everywhere the Nazi's ruled at the height of the power in 1941; no-one knew where they were taken. The common belief was that they were being used as slave labour somewhere in the East of the Nazi Empire. Some camps such as Treblinka came to international attention comparatively early on, but the worst place of all, Auschwitz/Berkenau remained unknown for most of the war. Interestingly the naivety of western governments which characterised their dealings with Hitler in 1938, continued in their under-estimation of the evils of Nazism in 1941-4. This naivety was shared by all including many of the Jewish groups.

Secondly, Gilbert describes the way that the holocaust got underway with its extreme brutality and efficiency at the lowest point in the war from an Allied military perspective. In 1941, Britain was emerging from The Blitz and The Battle of Britain as a broken and beleaguered country struggling for survival against an Empire which stretched from Calais to the Russian border. Germany had a full conquest of The Soviet Union in its sights from that point onwards, and the Wehrmacht would soon be pushing deep into Soviet territory. At this stage, even if Britain and the European governments in exile in London could have done little but posture.

Thirdly, the truth about Auschwitz was still only filtering through the West in 1944 by way of three or four escapees from the camp who managed to reach Allied lines and deliver verbal reports which stood up to scrutiny. They were however, too often considered to be simply too ghastly to be true. 

Fourthly, Auschwitz and its associated supply lines and communication systems were too far into enemy territory for Britain to do anything about in terms of direct military intervention. Gilbert demonstrates that until the fall of Italy and the placement of American bombers with long range fighter escorts there; even the oil-producing facilities adjacent to the death camps were beyond the range of the RAF. Only as Auschwitz was in its last stages of operation did the USAF have potential to interrupt its operations.

On the other hand, Gilbert shows that The Allies - although severely restricted in their ability to respond still did not respond adequately to the crisis. This is demonstrated in several ways:

The first is that from the start there was an wholly inadequate response to the persecution of Europe's Jews even before the full-facts of the evils being inflicted upon them were known. There was a reluctance from all the Allied nations (and beyond) to receive great numbers of those known to be fleeing persecution, ghetto-isation and harassment in the early stages of the war. The reasons for this were many, and The British had particular concerns. On one hand they were struggling to feed and house their own population, were imposing rationing, enduring The Blitz and plunging into enormous debt to fight the war against improbable odds. On the other side of the coin, most fleeing Jews indicated a desire to enter Palestine; which The British were controlling. This would in turn have led to an Arab revolt in the Middle East, and the loss of key Allies at a time when Rommel's forces were surging Eastwards across North Africa with Egypt and then Palestine itself apparently within his grasp. Nevertheless, despite the difficulties involved, the diplomatic wrangling over visas for a few hundred people here, or a thousand there; seem disturbingly petty in the light of the events unfolding across Nazi Europe.

Secondly, as the full extent of the evils of Nazi oppression did become known, by late 1944 The Allies faced the choice of diverting their war effort into humanitarian relief; or pressing on with their undiluted effort to win the war; not by negotiation but the complete demolition of Nazism. In every case, the Allies chose to pursue the war effort. This is probably the most controversial element of the historical assessment of the Allied tactics. The House of Commons denunciations of atrocities and minute's silence for victims was well-intentioned and heartfelt (more by Churchill than Eden, it seems); but in terms of bombing targets, the supply-lines of oil and petrochemicals was consistently a priority over disrupting the flow of people to their slaughter-houses. This was despite the fact that one USAF bombing route passed directly over Auschwitz/Berkenau/Monowitz to higher priority targets. Gilbert is anxious to point out that the opportunities for the Allies to save lives in this way were severely limited by lack of military intelligence and technical ability. Even if the Allies had committed to bombing the camps out of business, they would only have been able to spare a relatively small percentage of the whole - and at the cost of prolonging the war in other areas. Himmler's attempt to "ransom" vast numbers of Jews to the Western Allies for military equipment which could be used against The Soviets (The Brand scheme), was especially perplexing. It could have saved half a million people from the gas chambers; but at what cost? It could have shattered the Alliance, boosted the Nazi-regime's attempts to survive and prolonged the War. 

Of particular significance is the liquidation of Hungarian Jewry. This came very late in the course of the conflict due to Hungarian reluctance to embrace German anti-Semitism despite their alliance. However once full German occupation and control was established, the by-now-familiar pattern of the capture, deportation and murder of the Jewish population went ahead. This could have - should have been - interrupted by Allied bombing from captured Italian airbases as by this stage the great secret of the Nazi killing machine at Auschwitz had reached the Allies, and they had bombing fleets within range of potential targets. Gilbert says that the evidence suggests that politicians like Churchill were in favour of such action but were repeatedly rebuffed by military planners who were unwilling to mount the kind of risky operation for Auschwitz's Jews which they managed to support the Warsaw Uprising.

It is perhaps impossible to imagine the pressure which decision makers were under in this period. As those like Eden who opposed direct action to assist the Jews during the conflict repeatedly said; the only real liberation for the Jewish people of Europe is the complete defeat of Nazism, and nothing should be allowed to divert effort from that sole aim. Ultimately reading Gilbert's "Auschwitz and The Allies" leaves the reader with a great deal of understanding of why those decisions were made; coupled with a profound sense of disappointment that the few genuine opportunities which there were in the final stages of the war to save lives, mitigate evil and disrupt the slaughter were not taken.

Martin Gilbert's detailed research, is well-presented and is rewarding reading. The trail he uncovers is far kinder to The Allies than I had expected. Prior to reading this book I was aware of the 'Allied failure' to use bombing to prevent The Holocaust, and so was expecting to read a damning indictment of Allied inaction perhaps coupled to a lurking anti-Semitism. What emerges from the evidence is a far more complex picture in which the full force of Nazi evil was operational at Auschwitz for years before anyone in London or Washington knew anything about it; and by the time they were in a position to act or fail; it was already too late for most of Europe's Jewish people. 

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Book Notes: Gulag Boss by Fyodor Mochulsky

Much has been written (and published in English too), about Stalin's mass concentration and heavy labour camps known as "The Gulag". A lot of this material is written with an emphasis on the development of Stalin-ism, the consolidation of the Soviet dictatorship, The Great Purges and so forth - and is weighted towards Moscow in its focus. In such books, The Gulag is a monstrous reality to which people are routinely sent and rarely return; but yet The Gulag itself remains resolutely off-stage. Studies of Stalin's USSR of this type focus for instance on the weakening of Red Army in the purges and its subsequent unreadiness to face Nazi aggression in 1939.  

Another raft of literature grieves the lives of victims lost to the terror, to the camps, show trials and to the labour camps. Again however, much of this is written in the memoirs of those left behind, who grieved a loss they felt in St Petersburg, Moscow or Kiev. Some memoirs of those dispatched to Siberia do exist; but the vast majority of the poor souls taken by the NKVD had no means of leaving any record of their experiences. Nevertheless some reports of Gulag prison life have survived.

Fyodor Mochulsky's time spent in Stalin's Gulags, in places such as Perchorlag in The Arctic Circle; lead to quite different memoirs. Mochulsky was a young railway engineer when he was sent to oversee the extension of the Soviet rail network, far across the tundra to the coal fields of the North. The Soviet planners had correctly understood that a Nazi invasion would quickly capture the coal reserves of the West of the Soviet Empire - and that accessing vast quantities of coal would be essential for the forthcoming war effort. This was both as fuel for their own war effort, and as a trade for essential supplies from the Allies. With little choice, Mochulsky found himself the boss of a team of slave labourers, both criminals and political prisoners, digging cuttings, raising embankments and bridges and driving rails across vast frozen territories.

As a memoir, "Gulag Boss" is an unusual read. Although he was a part of one of the greatest ideological movements of the twentieth century, in a vast system of persecution and exploitation - we learn remarkably little of what Mochulsky made of it all. While it seems that as a post-revolutionary child he was thoroughly propagandised into accepting the basic premise of The Soviet Union's Marxist-Leninist project; he offers little by way of reflection on it - or on the daily brutality which unfolded from it. One would expect an autobiography to be a self-justifying series of recollections, and there is plenty of material of that nature here. What is odd though is the almost complete lack of any sense of the brutality of the system, or of Mochulsky himself being involved or implicated in it. On one occasion he admits to be being threatened by the system; but he barely reflects at all on his role as an enforcer of its systematic exploitation. Part of this, no doubt, is that much of his time was spent as part of the war effort against the Nazi's in which huge sacrifices were made across the board - and so the slavery in which he was implicated was less distinct from the norm.

Mochulsky added a PS at the end of the book containing unanswered questions he has about the validity of Stalin's methods. Strangely though, in the course of his narrative there is no sense that he sat by his stove in his remote Arctic hut, vexed and tormented by his posting, or wrestling its ideological underpinning. Perhaps the most surprising and long-lasting aspect of this book is that this Gulag-boss was more interested in the infrastructure of the railways than in the workers who toiled to construct it. His memoirs do nicely describe some of the more eccentric or notable characters he met on his travels (and there certainly are some colourful ones), but there is little mention of workers dying in the freezing conditions, or of frostbite and hypothermia. The reader is left with many stories of inter-prisoner violence; but no information about who Mochulsky may have beaten, or shot, or ordered to be shot, or simply allowed to be beaten. We know that this system was created by Stalin, who was personally responsible for the presence of many of the political prisoners on the railway - but what Mochulsky actually thought of Stalin we do not find out.  This man, a small cog in the vast oppressive Stalinist wheel, describes gulag management with astonishing technocratic detachment. While his descriptions of skiing miles across tundra, or searching for rails beneath the snows are rich; his social history could have described life in a post office or supermarket - for all its engagement or insight. For Mochulsky, the gulag was simply a place of work and he was good at his job.

Its perhaps hard to know why Fyodor Mochulsky decided to write and publish his memoirs late in his life after the end of the Soviet Union he had known. Nevertheless the document he has left, which avoids almost all the major questions but emphasises what an efficient manager he was, and how well he exceeded his production quotas; is a fascinating and unique insight into a dark and concealed corner of history. Oppression it seems is not only the work of  ideologically driven tyrants and warriors; it is delivered by dull men who are just doing their jobs.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Monday, September 29, 2014

Film Notes: Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coen Bothers are by any estimation remarkable film-makers whose works - spanning almost every conceivable genre,  are known for their beautiful cinematography, stunning musical soundtracks and dystopian cynicism. "Inside Lewyn Davis" is no exception to that rule, embracing all of the above with enthusiasm and style.

In previous films, the Coens have turned their attention to an array of different cultural and historical settings; seeking to tell their stories against a vivid back-canvas of time and place. One of their greatest arts is the evocation of moods based on contemporary impressions of times gone by as much as from historical realities of those times themselves. "Inside Llewyn Davis" is no different in that regard, and this movie seeks to capture for the viewer a glimpse of the folk music scene of New York's Greenwhich village in the early 1960s.

Some Coen movies are narrative driven; but this one is not. The 'story' as such concerns the eponymous folk singer, and his desperate attempts to make a decent living from his craft. He faces the fact that his career and life is going nowhere, and he is resigned to sleeping on a variety of friends sofas; carrying a box of unsold LPs with him. Although Davis is one of the least likeable and sympathetic leading roles in a film I have seen in a long time; the music and the images are superb - as if the LP cover of "Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" has come to life in your hands. T. Bone Walker, the Coen's long time musical director put the soundtrack together with Marcus Mumford - whose real-life wife Carey Mulligan also appears in the film as a feisty and foul-mouthed folk singer. 

The film observes Davis as he negotiates a path between the twin poles of integrity and success. Davis seems to be aware that while he stays true to his ideals he will always struggle to make ends meet; and for the most part he doggedly pursues that ideal. This quest for costly integrity is made absurd by Davis' complete lack of integrity in most other regards - a fact which seems lost only to him.

Much of the film is serious; it is laden with despair and few signs of hope are offered to Davis who ends up at the end of the film in the same plight, in the same alley in which the film begins. Despite that, it is also an unexpectedly funny film. The elderly jazz musician with whom Davis shares a long road-trip (John Goodman) is a comic creation who could have walked in from Where Oh Brother Art Thou? ("you play folk tunes?! I thought you said you were a musician?"). The crashing insensitivity of Davis in various social settings, amongst awkward and uptight characters is funny in the way that "The Office" is funny - because it is buttock-clenchingly cringe inducing. Surprisingly the Coens also throw in a slice of slapstick involving a cat, and then satire in a scene in which Davis 'sells-out' and plays a session for a commercial group whose artistic taste and self-awareness are almost none, but whose income seems guaranteed. The song "Please Mr Kennedy" is really something else.

Although enjoyable in a slightly shocking way, Inside Llewyn Davis is a strange film. Like so many Coen films (The Man Who Wasn't There, Fargo) the main characters search for control over the storyline is fruitless; and their attempts to master their own destinies are held up for us as objects of comic derision; with the ongoing suggestion that we are no different. 

Despite the laughs along the route; this is not a happy journey. Davis is an archetypal Coen brothers character, stuck in a rut of his own devising; and trapped by forces bigger than himself over which he has no control despite his delusions to the contrary. Finally Davis observes a young folk singer called Bob Dylan gaining rave-reviews and a meteoric career using the folk music that has so suffocated his aspirations. The whole point of so many Coen films is that they don't have a "proper ending" (as my wife would say); in that the stories do not resolve and all manner of ends are left perplexingly loose. This is perhaps no more so than in this film, which whimpers to a standstill, rather than builds to a climax. This of course, is the point; the film does not reach a conclusion because Davis ends it as he begins - a man in a rut. This is at once the frustration and the genius of the film - because while there is little story development, that is because there is so little character development. That does not make it a pointless film, because it is about a man who fails to develop and what that entails. 

The cinematography, costumes, music, and the feel of the film are as evocative as they are massively escapist. The reality of the self-obsessed ego, out of depth in the world, an trapped equally by forces outside as with inner demons on the other hand, is a jarringly sober reading of the human condition. But is laughing at its foolish absurdities really the only way to respond to our individual and collective folly? The Coens certainly seem to think so.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Book Notes: Christ to Coke by Martin Kemp

Sometimes it's good to attempt a book from a different discipline, especially when its an unfamiliar one. Oxford University Press' Summer Sale is usually when I attempt something like that, and this year it was Martin Kemp's "Christ to Coke". The title sounds like a de-conversion biography of someone leaving Christian faith in favour of drug abuse! However, that isn't even close to what the book is about. The sub-title of the book, "How Image Becomes Icon" explains that this is an examination of images which have gained a social significance quite beyond their original conception and are used to invoke whole world of meaning. In other words, images which have become iconic. The list of images considered begins with the classic image of Jesus Christ - as depicted in Western art; and goes right the way through to the Coke bottle and logo.

Each extensive chapter of this lavishly produced 'coffee-table' style book is a detailed biography of the image in question - tracing its origins, conception development and then its trajectory onto to iconic status, as well as some notes on the effect it has had and the way in which it has been used. 

The icons chosen for consideration here begin with those which are most obviously Christian icons. Kemp traces the development of the traditional face of Jesus, as well as the power of that image. His chapter on the cross is as insightful as it is disturbing, as it pictures the cross both as a symbol of hope; but also corrupted a symbol of power by the extreme right, KKK or in its swastika derivative. 

Kemp delves deeply into all the subject areas he covers. I'm on 'home ground' with the political, historical and  theological stuff, which was easy to read and informative. To be honest though, the scientific material was in places quite beyond me, both in the DNA and Einstein chapters. I suspect that not many readers would be able to range across so many disciplines at that level with ease. 

For me, the stand-out chapters were those on Nick Ut's famous picture of Vietnamese children "napalmed and naked" fleeing as the deadly burning jelly had completed its work of stripping their clothes and was beginning to consume their flesh. Using that startling and disturbing (in many ways) image as a springboard to discuss its context, and war photography in general and Vietnam in particular; this is I think the best in the book. The chapter on the iconography of Che, is also interesting - not just in the matter of the strange history of the composition of the image but in terms of the way in which it has been used in ways quite contrary to the man himself.

This book was a splendid bargain. To be honest I wouldn't have paid full price for a volume which is so outside my area as art history and criticism. Nevertheless, despite being a stretch in a few places, it was a revealing and fascinating book. One thing I thought was strange was that the title suggested that there would be a greater emphasis on "how" images became iconographic. What he mostly presents is a collection of biographies of the trajectory of these images, rather than an analysis of causes. In the final chapter he concludes that there really are too few commonalities in the histories to draw general conclusions about what makes an image an icon. Fascinating stuff.

Friday, September 12, 2014

In The Great Ben Alder Forest: Carn Dearg, Geal-Charn, Aonach Baeg and Beinn Eibhinn

2014 has been up until now a year off from climbing new Munros. The reasons for that are many, but start in January with the death of the friend with whom I had climbed so many of them. There was busyness too, especially with church commitments at weekends; but the underlying issue was that in January my desire to be out in the hills had been sapped. Something changed a fortnight ago though. I was invited to take part in a charity ascent of Ben Nevis, in memory of my friend. It was organised by his wife and family; and we all donned our "Climb for Kevin" T-shirts, and went to the very top of Scotland - raising money for the Highland Hospice who had cared for him so magnificently. It was not only a matter of being back out in the hills which re-intoxicated me with their beauty; but also being there with his family and reminiscing about his exploits somehow helped me to get over whatever had been holding me back. 

With a day-free and a great forecast, wearing that same "Climb for Kevin" T-shirt, I threw my mountain bike onto the car and drove up the A9 to Dalwhinnie. Drivers through the pass of Drumochter will be familiar with the mountains to the left of the road as they head Northwards. Hidden behind those is the exquisite silver ribbon of water called Loch Ericht, running SW/NE for mile after mile. In his Munro guide, Cameron 'Indyref' Macneish talks about the the glimpse of Ben Alder down Ericht-side from Dalwhinnie making it look closer than it really is. He is absolutely right; Loch Ericht is an extremely long loch, and Alder a vast bulk. 

Ben Alder is the largest mountain in a group of hills to which it gives its name; and from the North there is one point of access to them all; a ten-mile bike ride down Loch Ericht. The miles might be long, but the track is good; built by the bllionaire estate owner to access the various luxury properties which now dot the estate, and which facilitate shooting parties. Although this is the middle of the stalking season, a quick phone call to the estate office had assured me that there was no stalking taking place and so no restrictions on which routes I could take. I was actually undecided about what I would do until I arrived at Culra bothy and parked the bike; (Culra is the bothy which was recently shut because of an asbestos warning).

I began by following the feint track westwards/northwards towards Carn Dearg. While the sketch-map in Macneish's book indicates making the ridge to the west of the summit and bearing right up to the cairn; it seemed to me a more natural line of ascent to hit the ridge to the east, and curve leftwards up the steep pull to the rocky summit.

Stepping over the Carn Dearg summit rocks, I was startled to find myself face-to-face with a large, lone stag. It stared at me, and I back. What a day not to be carrying a decent camera just this little iPhone4! Never having been this close to a stag before, and being somewhat wary of its bulk, and antlers, I cautiously climbed away from it - giving it a wide berth. For its part, I was a subject of general disinterest. Perhaps it didn't take the beast long to realise that I just didn't smell rich enough to be liable to shoot it.... and once that had been established it merely observed me on my way.

In the "Alder Group" there are three clusters of Munros. To the North, accessible from the Laggan Road, lie Creag Pitridh, another Geal Charn, and Beinn a Chlachair. The Southern side of the group, adjacent to Loch Ericht has Ben Alder and Beinn Bheoil, its little sibling. Right in the centre of this, and thus hemmed in from roads on all sides by other peaks, sit four mountains - running NE/SW, parallel with the line of Loch Ericht. Despite being so far South, these mountains are truly remote; they are as far from towns and tarmac as virtually any hill in the far North. The maintained stalkers paths which penetrate the glens are perhaps the giveaway to the truth that this is a landscape which while feeling remote and untouched, is in fact highly influenced by human activity; and has been for a very long time.

During the course of the long, hot day I worked my away along the ridges, and over all four of these splendid hills. Having looked at them from more easily accessible hills in previous years, they not only looked graceful and enticing but seemed to be dangled in my sight like a distant prize. It was then, exhilarating to stride across these perfectly sculpted mountains. Overblown expectations disappoint, but these hills did not. The vast views of far peaks, great lochs stretching away into the horizon, tight ridges, steep ascents, stunning lochans cusped beneath scalloped corries, all spread over great distances fired my enthusiasm again and again. 

Certainly some of the navigation, which was obvious on glorious summer day like this, could have been quite tricky in fog. Some of the narrow ridges connecting wide, flat summits would not have been obvious. As it was, I think I checked the map three times all day!

I picked my way down the steep Southeastern shoulder of Beinn Eibhinn to the floor of the glen, before climbing the southside of it, up to the stalkers path leading up to the Meall an t-Slugain. This is the high-point in the lonely mountain pass between these hills and Ben Alder itself; a silent watershed - and magnificent viewpoint back over Loch Ossian and out over the vastness of Rannoch Moor. This is not far from where my sister was taken safely off the hills by Mountain Rescue some twenty years ago - which is perhaps a story for another time. 

As the views Southeastwards were so impressive, I wondered if the Northwestwards view from the col would be equally grand. Most of all, by this stage in the day with sore legs after a big descent, and not much water left, I was hoping for a distant sight of Loch Pattack, and the bothy where my bike was parked. As can be seen in the photo above, my targets were too far to the left, hidden from view behind the lower slopes of Sgor Iutharn, and its' soaring Lancet Edge. Looking back along my route, this next photo is of Alder to the left, and the Lancet Edge of Sgor Iutharn to the right.

The path soon plunges in amongst a series hummocky moraines, left here by some long-distant ice movement; and then dives in by the Allt a Chaoil-reidhe river. Longing to know how far I still had to walk, I ploughed on, hoping for a distant glimpse of the bothy. I passed the place in the river where on my last outing to these parts I had fallen in trying to get across. I will always remember my walking companion (step forward, one Mr T. Pickering!) sitting on the bank chuckling like Muttley at my Dastardly floundering...

The bothy suddenly appeared in my view, closer than I had expected. I could just see my bike leaning up against the wall of it - awaiting my return. I had saved my final drink for this moment, and threw it down my neck with immense relief; packaged up my walking-poles and pedalled for Dalwhinnie, the car and home. The route in total was about 50km, with almost 30km of that being on the cycled section - while most of the ascent was in the walking. 

Best of all - a day off from all contact (there's no mobile reception out there), and a chance to think, pray, have space, and forget about the Scottish referendum; at least for a few hours! 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Lochaber 100

It's over twenty-five years since I have done a 100mile bike ride, but the challenge was thrown down to me by a friend from Fort William Baptist Church. The church, in conjunction with TearFUND organise a cyclo-sportive event every autumn to raise money for that great charity. When I was first sent the link I filled in the form, but hovered nervously over the 'send' button (even phoned my wife, so see if she thought I was being too ambitious!). With a deep breath I hit the button, paid the money and booked myself in. I was initially so nervous about going up to 100 again that I barely told anyone I was going to attempt it, such would be the ignominy were I to fail and take a thirty-mile ride home in the support car. People asking how I'd got on would have been like the walk of shame!

Anyway, I began doing some training. With a week to go, I was doing 60mile rides with some good hills, without too much difficulty. I am creaking a lot more than I did all those decades ago, with my back protesting if I leaned into the hills too much. It wasn't just my back that creaked - my old bike has been showing signs of wear and tear as well. In 1980-something, the "F.W. Evans Tourer de Luxe" was a state of the art touring bike. Its' Suntour gears, cantilever brakes, wolber rims, full mudguards and Blackburn luggage racks were all bolted onto Reynolds 531c double-butted tubing. The mudguards broke a while ago, so I took the luggage racks of with them; one of the pedals made an awful crunching noise so they were replaced. and then last week the bike shop told me the chain was worn out, along with the rear gear-cassette - all replaced. Perth has an excellent bike shop, J.M. Richards, and they got the old machine singing like a dream in time for my big day out.

The ride started at the community centre in Corpach - the first village out of Fort William on the road to Mallaig. While I carefully lowered my steel-framed monster off the roof of the car, all around me, car-boots opened and carbon-frames were quickly re-united with their ultra-light wheels. Not only was this my first 100-attempt for many years but I had never really taken part in an event like this before and was unsure as to the etiquette; more in terms of on-the-road, than the administration. 

At the outset, on the mostly flat road from Corpach to Glen Finnan, the riders stayed fairly close to one another. It was a very small field of just over fifty riders, which for the length of ride is small. A handful indicated that they were there for seriously fast riding and pulled ahead, while one or two dropped off the back, intent on enjoying a more leisurely day out. The main group then split into two. Feeling unconfident, I slipped back into the slower group and chatted as we passed Harry Potter's famous viaduct at Glenfinnan. When we hit the first hill, a 150metre climb pulling out of Glenfinnan, I realised I was in too slow a group, and so overtook and ploughed up the hill looking for other riders. On the hill I fell into step with another rider, she was a powerful cyclist and good conversationalist and we made good progress before being joined by another chap. Staying with them was a significant challenge for me, as they were riding well out of my comfort-zone in terms of speed. My fear was that staying with them would mean burning-out well before the finish. 

After one feed station the pair of them left me behind somewhere up Glen Uig, I believe. Cycling alone and trying to keep up a good speed was impossible (plus I wasn't 100% sure of the route!) and so I flogged myself to catch up with the pair. About five or six times I got close as they ascended hills, only to have them disappear over summits into the distance. After about half an hour of the hardest work I have ever done on a bike, I caught them and gratefully exploited their slipstream again. At Strontian the front rider waved to indicate that he wasn't stopping for food, I was hungry - but to be honest the thought of filled-rolls in pouring rain was not appetising - and we pushed on. The road from Strontian to Conan Ferry is a wonderful ride over the hill and down to the sea-loch; and the three of us really got into a good rhythm as the rain stopped and the sun broke through. This lasted most of the way back until we lost one member who wanted to do a big-fast finish over the last twenty miles. 

It was only on the last ten miles that I really began to struggle, saddle-sore and with plummeting blood-sugar I limped along desperately trying to keep up with my companion of the last 70miles. 

I was delighted when we reached the hall at Corpach and completed the 100. I was shocked to discover that I'd done it in 5hrs45mins, which at 17.34mph average speed was a personal best by some margin! The village hall was replete with teas, coffees, cakes, changing rooms and showers too. There was plenty of good chat too, of routes ridden and hills climbed.

This turned out to be a simply fantastic day, thanks to FWBC, TearFUND cycling, and the great folks I met on the road. The Lochaber 100 also includes some fabulous scenery. Sign me up for next year!

Monday, September 08, 2014

Wednesday, September 03, 2014