Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Friday, August 23, 2013

Aonach Baeg and Aonach Mor: Memories and Midgies

Glen Nevis is indisputably one of Scotland's finest. The road along the valley floor, twistz and turns alomgside the fast-flowing River Nevis, as it carves its way between The Nevis Range and The Mamore mountains. The road has been improved over the years, and for much of its length is now a wide, smooth, black tarmac ribbon; where a narrow, orange surfaced strip, once crumbled its single-track way through the hills. The start of the road is busy, with West Highland way-ers meeting the throngs heading for the Ben Nevis tourist path, but every mile down Glen Nevis gets lonelier and the rush of River Nevis louder. Beyond the lower falls, the road narrows and then abruptly terminates at a car park, from which a non-motorable track continues up the Glen and through the Nevis Gorge.

Midgies and Memories. The car park at the end of Glen Nevis is packed full of both these. The first time I came here was with two friends both of whom have long since emigrated. One is in Australasia, the other in the Far East - long lost friends with whom great hill-days were once shared. That day we braved the midgies and walked the classic Ring of Steall route in the centre of the Mamores. On this latest visit I got out of the car and was immediately assaulted by a barrage of the accursed insects; landing black and thick on my arms, they stung my neck, my face, and even ventured into my ears. Knowing that even a few yards beyond the car park my torment would cease I hurled my pack on my back, jumped into my boots and took to the path.

On one infamous trip down this Glen, one of my walking companions had serious medical difficulties. Trudging up the long South-western ridge of Sgurr Choinnich Beag, this chap then in his 60s, experienced significant central chest pain. He didn't tell us why he was walking so slowly and unusually struggling with the climb until we were having dinner at the Bridge of Orchy Hotel over six hours later. We had somewhat cruelly accused him of being hung-over and unfit for the mountains. Thankfully, he survived the risk of completing the walk, but was admitted for heart surgery soon afterwards. Tragically, several years later he died of a quite separate illness.... Midgies and memories.

There is a magical moment on the Glen Nevis path when it climbs up through the dark and narrow confines of the Nevis Gorge, and suddenly breaks out into a broad  meadow, ringed by dramatic peaks and crowned with a stunning waterfall in the centre of the view. The waterfall is notoriously hard to photograph lurking in shadow most of the time, as it bursts out of its hanging-valley high above the Glen-floor. The glacial-meltwater has long gone, but the today's rains continue to run in this fluvio-glacial channels, continuing the erosive work handed down to them. As with water, so with the human mind, where thoughts and memories follow the familiar patterns of our past. And what is past here is the memory of walking this path with the friend who has now passed on. His ludicrous observations and anecdotes and seemingly endless
numbers of euphemism for farting passed the miles and the hours.

All this leads to the piles of stones known as The Steall Ruin. Its hard to imagine that many a lonely Scottish Glen was once home to thriving communities of small farmers and estate workers. Many of these fled for opportunities in cities, while many more were driven from the land in the clearances when the economic value of sheep was considered to be greater priority than the moral value of people. As I approached the Steall ruin I wondered what had happened here and I was struck by the image of a foppish 18thCentury George Osbourne driving people from the land while crying, "We're all in this together!"

Because abandoned buildings have no present, they brood over their past in a way that occupied ones do not. These stones were once the homes of people who lived, worked, loved, sang and wept in these places. No doubt these stones have witnessed the passions of newlyweds, the birth of children, ten-thousand family meals, the lighting and clearing of fireplaces, pain, suffering and death. Who once saw lights burning in the windows of these cottages and fought their way down from the bleak mountain to find shelter here from snow and storm?

The mournful stones at Steall were the turning point in my day, as here footpath tourism ended, and more hillwalking began. I struck North-Westwards, following a scratchy track towards Sgurr a Bhuic, veering just inside it's final section and making for the main ridge at Coire a Bhuic and followed it over Stob Coire Bhealaich onto the broad summit of Aonach Baeg. The flat top of this mountain is surrounded by steep sides, meaning that the lack of a pinnacle or peak is compensated for by dramatic cliffs especially on the eastern side. Navigation up until this point was straightforward, I think I only needed the compass once to get to the summit, despite the thick cloud lurking around the top few hundred feet. Navigating between Aonach Beag and Aonach Mor in cloud was much, much more tricky, but measuring my steps and checking my compass work enabled me to find the little ridge that joins the two. This connection is extremely well hidden and the surrounding slopes give little clue as to its location, and there is little margin for error with steep slopes falling way on either side of it. I was almost upon the ridge when a brief break in the cloud revealed it just below me, and its simple Northwards trek up to the large cairn atop Aonach Mor. Most visitors to this mountain reach it by cable car, and enjoy the high-level restaurant, and are there to ski, or snow board, riding up and down the northern corries on ski-tows. The summit, is in contrast a bleak and lonely place. Despite the fact that down in Glen Nevis it was warm and sunny and holiday-makers were making there way in large numbers to play in the river and swing on the rope bridge, the top of The Aonach's was cold, cloudy, and desolate.

It was in looking for the descent path into Coire Guibsachan that I made my only navigational error of the day. I should have turned westward and descended to the col between Aonach Mor and Carn Mor Dearg from the part of the ridge named as Seang Aonach Mor on the OS 1:25,000 map. Thinking I saw a path dropping from the bealach between the two Aonach's I descended to it before turning East. This soon led into an impossibly steep descent, and resulted in a tricky traverse across very steep, and slippery ground to reach the correct descent path. The path from here back to the Steal Ruin is a intermittent and boggy, but despite the unpleasant nature of what was beneath me, what was above me was looking increasingly beautiful. The afternoon sunshine burnt away the cloud which had lingered past lunchtime, and bathed the hills in soft light, high temperatures and high humidity.

My body ached, my knees hurt, but the hills shone. The walk back down Gen Nevis was magical. If I live until I am 80, I have no doubt that I will look back on day such as this with unalloyed pleasure and gratitude. Tonight as I go to sleep, I shall imagine myself once more striding across the roof of Scotland, soaking in God's good earth. Precious Days.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Book Notes: Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes by Kenneth Bailey

Kenneth Bailey's "Jesus Through Middle-Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels" is the most stimulating and helpful Biblical Studies book I have read for quite some time. After an introduction which lays out his framework and introduces the reader to his main lines of argument and hermeneutical tools, the book consists of 32 essays on aspects of the life and teaching of Jesus Christ as depicted in the synoptic gospels. When I was given this book I assumed that the "Middle Eastern Eyes" in question belonged to Kenneth Bailey himself, and presented his insights from a lifetime living in the Middle East to help western readers more accurately grasp the message of the gospels. This is certainly the case, and in many occasions his cultural insights add huge depth to his interpretations of incidents and parables which simply would not occur to the western reader. In several cases these insights are extraordinarily helpful in 'un-knotting' the theological problems in texts usually viewed as problematic; when the the real problem is an assumption which we have brought to the text which would have been entirely alien to Jesus' first hearers or the gospel writers. However the "Middle Eastern Eyes" with which Bailey addresses his subject are not restricted to his own  two; but include his lifetime's research into Middle Eastern languages (Aramaic, Syriac, Arabic etc ), and the deep wells of two millennia of Bible study, reflection and commentary in those tongues which are inaccessible to the ordinary reader. These provide a wealth of useful and sometimes startling quotations with which to furnish his argument, or add illustrations as to how the cultural phenomena he describes function in ordinary life in the Middle East. 

There are over four hundred pages in Bailey's book, but one example will provide an illustration of the added depth these cultural studies provide to our reading. I have read the 'parable of the rich fool' in Luke 12 many times. I had never before noticed the phrase 'he thought to himself' which Bailey says is literally rendered 'he discussed with himself'. Bailey demonstrates that in Middle Eastern culture important financial decisions and forward-planning is never conducted alone, but always with family, friends and respected others. This self-discussion seems unremarkable to the western reader reared on a diet of extreme individualism; but the rich man in the parable is to be pictured as having been alienated from everyone around him by his love of money. Not only will he be cut off from God by his idolatry; but we are also meant to picture him in an unnatural isolation, building a wall to protect his cash, which becomes a wall of separation cutting him off from real life. Accessing the cultural context transforms a throwaway phrase into a vivid picture of the alienation which unchecked sin causes.

Another major feature of the book is Bailey's structural analysis of the various pericopes from which the gospels were constructed. He demonstrates with diagrams, the way in which the segments of the gospels (especially the sayings of Christ, from Beatitudes to Parables) are not merely homespun peasant tales with obvious meanings; but are finely crafted poetic units built in the old Hebrew tradition of cycles of paired sayings. He points out that in many of these units the Greek (and Western logical tradition) emphasises the final clause of a literary unit as the conclusion to which all other material leads up. However to read Jesus' parables in this way is to place the central meaning in different place than was originally ever intended. So for instance, the 'bookends' of a unit which start and end it might be significant, but the very central stanza might be the main point, but comes wrapped in symmetrical clauses.

Bailey's handling of the birth of Christ narratives in fascinating and illuminating, his explorations of The Beatitudes and 'Lord's Prayer' are very helpful, as are his essays on the miracles of Jesus and Jesus' treatment of women. It was the final section on the parables which I think I found the most surprising and illuminating though. One of the enduring benefits of this book for me will be Bailey's repeated demonstration of the fact that the oft-perceived theological gap between Jesus and Paul, is less problematic than the Western reader is sometimes tempted to think. In Bailey's contextural cultural analysis of the words of Christ, an enormously strong doctrine of grace emerges which coheres with the work which the Apostle Paul would subsequently produce for gentile believers.

Bailey has the ability to express a huge weight of scholarship in quite plain language, not expecting the reader to share his access to technical theological language, let alone be multi-lingual in tongues both living and dead! Not only does he do the reader the service of writing profoundly and deeply, but he also provides bullet-pointed summaries at the end of the chapter to enable easy recollection of the main points made.

This is tremendous reading, and a book to which I know I will return again and again when I read, or discuss or preach on these gospel texts. 

Friday, August 16, 2013

Film Notes: Lincoln

Last night we finally managed to see Steven Spielberg's film Lincoln, and well worth watching it is too. It is an unusual biopic in that it does not seek to present a biography of the man, his background, rise to power, personal development and greatest achievements; nor does it indulge in the usual search for the psychological keys in early life that led him to 'become the man he became'. Rather, this film presents a detailed study of President Abraham Lincoln over the four months in 1865 during which he fought to get The Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution passed by the House of Representatives. This legislation states that: Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. In 1865 this legislation was urgently necessary as The Union Army was pressing on Virginia and looked as if they would soon militarily defeat the beleaguered Confederacy. Earlier in the war, Lincoln had issued an executive Emancipation Order. The film explains that the legality of this proclamation was predicated upon the Commander-in-Chief's authorisation to seize enemy property during a conflict. While this had mobilised countless African Americans to fight for the Northern Armies, and weakened Southern morale; it had tacitly endorsed the notion that The Federal Government properly viewed slaves as property. This required full-bloodied legislation to combat, and to settle the issue of abolition finally and completely. Furthermore, Lincoln needed legislation quickly in 1865 before the cessation of hostilities. If the Southern States were re-admitted to The Union before the amendment was ratified, they could refuse to ratify and thus nullify it. As the film makes clear, some Confederates would have accepted immediate peace terms which enabled them to maintain their (very) "peculiar institution" - an offer with which many in the war-weary North who were ideologically committed Unionists, but not abolitionists, would have happily complied. The film dramatically traces Lincoln's determined quest to achieve the Thirteenth Amendment, and the political machinations which ensued, as he sought to gain the required numbers in the house. The scenes in which the passing of the Amendment is carried into law, is a brilliant and highly moving piece of cinema; and is powerful not because of histrionic acting, or a billion-dollar CGI-effects budget; but because the story is real, well-told, and matters. The viewer is made to feel the importance and significance of that scene, and the drama of the wavering Representatives casting their votes, is brilliant.

Lincoln is a film which has gained most of its headlines because of Daniel Day Lewis' extraordinary performance as President Lincoln. While there is no doubt that Lincoln is hated by many Americans for a range of reasons, there is also no doubt that he is the hero of Spielberg's movie. Thankfully, Spielberg and Lewis didn't try and re-make Lincoln into a 21st Century hero, or airbrushed politician. Contemporaries spoke of Lincoln's weathered face, sometimes lacklustre oratory, and shuffling gait. His towering influence on the 19thCentury was not encased within the media-packaging with which we are accustomed to viewing our leaders. Daniel Day Lewis' portrayal is so good that he almost seems to have stepped out of that iconic Alexander Gardner photograph of Lincoln that has an enduring place in the public imagination. There are some other cracking performances that carry the film too. David Strathairn, is excellent as Secretary of State William Seward. He is always a compelling member of a cast and is convincing whether he is chasing Meryl Streep over waterfalls, chasing Jason Bourne around the world, or fighting McCarthyism in Good Night and Good Luck; but he is on especially good form here. Sally Field delivers an emotionally charged, yet more sympathetic reading of Mary Todd Lincoln than many people will have expected; and is great as the vulnerable, complex and compelling first Lady. Tommy Lee Jones has played plenty of daft roles in his career, but his portrayal as the radical abolitionist representative Thaddeus Stevens rightly garnered him a host of award nominations. James Spader, as W.N. Bilbo offers a little light relief from the intensity the film generates; a wonderful intensity which Hal Holbrook seems to be able to sustain with few lines to actually speak; as he plays Conservative Republican leader Preston Blair. Spielberg was brave, but right, to construct this film as he did, and resist the temptation to produce a conventional biography. I did wonder though if the film might more accurately have been billed as "Amendment" rather than as "Lincoln"!

This film is important not simply because of its cinematographical qualities. The story of Lincoln and the Thirteenth Amendment is a wonderful case-study in the most important dilemma in western political thought; which resonates powerfully with contemporary debates such as US President Obama's tentative moves towards universal healthcare provision. That debate is about the nature and meaning of "freedom" and whose job it is to secure that for people. The Lincoln film contains a key scene in which The President conducts secret peace negotiations with Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens. The script-writer imagines them framing their negotiating stances in the moral categories of freedom. Lincoln is determined that the government will intervene to ensure that slaves have freedom from indentured servitude, while Stephens wants individual states to be granted freedom from Federal interference in their affairs. In a recent debate about abortion provision, it was noted that pro-choice protesters' banners proclaimed women's freedom from government to control their own bodies, while pro-lifers demanded government intervention to protect the freedom of foetus's from the threat of death. Likewise, anti-Obama-care right-wingers proclaim their freedom to not be taxed for the benefit of others, while the left demands that poor-children are given freedom from preventable illness. "Lincoln" is an important film because it asks us to think about what Freedom means and whose job it is to enforce it. 

Friday, August 09, 2013

On Stac Pollaidh

Stac Pollaidh ('Stak Polly') is not a large mountain, but it is one of Scotland's most iconic peaks and its unusual name is apparently derived from Norse and means "Peak of the Pool River." The Assynt skyline is extraordinary, with its wide views punctuated by a series of weirdly shaped rocky crests which appear to owe more to Tolkein's imagination than to the rest of Scotland's geological history. The mysterious names of these mountains, Suilven, Quinag, Stac Pollaidh, Canisp, Cùl Mòr and Cùl Beag, only serve to accentuate this 'other-wordly' or indeed 'Middle-Earthly' feel. To walk or cycle through Assynt is to step into a Rodney Matthews album cover from an especially hairy Prog-rock band. It is a landscape which has inspired countless walkers,
climbers, artists, photographers, writers and poets. 

Some of Scotland's mountains are big, brutal and bulky. To walk over (or indeed around) a mountain like Bheinn a Ghlo, which I can see from my study window, is to encounter ones own smallness in the face of overwhelming 'bigness'. It is the scale of a mountain like that, with its miles of ridges sprawling out across the landscape, that initially impresses the imagination and then sears the memory. Stac Pollaidh of Assynt, in comparison, is more of a whimsical and charming thing, which doesn't challenge the walker with a knee-bludgeoning ten-mile hike or four-thousand foot sea-to-summit ascent; but rather halts us with its quixotic pinnacles, and contorted rocky structures. A new path leads up on to the mountain's central ridge, a hard rocky track laid to reduce the erosion caused by the thousands and thousands of boots whose owners have be drawn to this remote corner of The Highlands by this dreamy and

romantic scenery. It climbs up from the little car-park then swings around to the North side of the central East-West ridge, before offering access to countless scrambly routes  up and down the rocky spires which decorate it. Ten of us climbed the track one cloudy July morning, the view of Ben na Eoin behind Loch Lurgainn, joining then leaving us, in between bands of soft mizzle. These lightest of all raindrops seemed to be falling impossibly slowly, in no hurry to reach the ground. Once near The White Bridge west of The Linn of Dee in the Cairngorms I was assaulted by a rain which attacked the soil with unusual ferocity; it was an angry rain. The droplets in the Assynt air on the other hand were content to take their time, to linger in the air as if suggesting that in a landscape such as this the journey itself is at least as important as the destination. Our party included some very young children. Their tiny stride-length and ability to be as delighted with hairy caterpillars on the track as much as with the improbable vista slowed us down, and forced us to walk at a speed more in keeping with the place. Our group consisted of two-families, one used to hill-walking, and the other used to rock-climbing - the traditional classification of hill-folk as being either 'ramblers or danglers' dividing us perfectly in two. My family, on the rambler side of the divide were at the head of the path before our friends, who then took over and led us up over the rocks and the scree and upwards into the sky on natural ladders, up chimneys and over slippery sandstone spines. Their children are impressively agile on rock, and ascended the various faces with spiderman like agility, stretching their little limbs as far as they would go for distant handholds with which to pull their tiny lightweight bodies up onto the next ledge. Our approach to such matters is (we like to think) a lot more leisurely, although objective observers might substitute the adjective 'lardy'! Nevertheless, we
climbed the side of the ridge, up over the top, along some pinnacles, and back down the other side, before finding the path but descending back around the western side of the mountain, completing a circuit. Prior to the final descent a couple of us climbed back onto the ridge and made for the summit. It was here that ramblers and danglers were separated again, this time by the notorious bad-step. I reckoned that in my stiff soled, but slippery walking boots I could get up it and make the summit, but didn't fancy my chances of descending safely and so watched while 'Percy' slowly negotiated his way there and back again. 

I am always a bit too protective of my good camera to take it into the hills with me. If I had habitually walked with it, it could have ended up following me over a waterfall in Glen Etive, or submerged in a river by Ben Alder. As such all the photos of Stac Pollaidh, except the first one at the head of this post, were taken with a tiny (awful) compact or on an iPhone. The pictures are hardly satisfactory, yet they still just enough to invoke not just good memories and nostalgia for holidays past; but to invoke something of the allure, and magnetic attraction of Assynt. I'm home now, and normal routines are uneasily being re-adopted and practised until they regain their sense of normality. Sitting here, I am closer to the new town of Glenrothes, than to the ancient Torridonian Sandstone of Stac Pollaidh. However, with my photos, the help of small dram, and maybe a stanza or two of Norman MacCaig, my imagination becomes a CS Lewis wardrobe through which I travel to be in Assynt again.

Friday, August 02, 2013

"Boys Day" revisited

A decade ago we faced two problems. One was that the company I was working for were having a difficult time, the second was that we had something of a child-care crisis. The solution for me and my two sons was obvious, I would have to drop a days work and look after them - everyone's a winner! It wasn't long before the boys nicknamed these times without their Mum as, "Boys-Day". These were good times, going out, seeing things like mountains, castles, rivers, fields, harbours, boats and people, and climbing things too. "Boys Day" came to sudden halt eight years ago though when we had a baby daughter whose presence somewhat changed our family dynamics!

My daughter has gone on holiday for a week with her Grandparents (London branch), and it was while the boys and I were cycling through the Perthshire countryside yesterday afternoon, that they both independently cycled alongside me and said, "Dad - it's like boys-day again!".

Boys day has changed a bit in the long interval since it was mothballed! It doesn't seem that long ago that I was walking along the harbour wall at Pittenweem, passing round fresh crabmeat, and taking great care to hold the hands of the little toddlers to stop them tumbling over the sea wall. Yesterday however, our afternoon was spent on a 60km/37m bike ride to the beautiful town of Dunkeld on the River Tay, and back to Perth. While cars speed along the busy A9, National Cycle Route 77, follows lanes, and tracks all he way from the North Inch Park in Perth to Dunkeld railway station.  While my 13y old cruised it, this was a new and big challenge to my 11 year old. I was delighted that on the three good climbs (each way) to Dunkeld, he didn't give up and get off, even when it was hard going.

The inducement to this outbreak of exercise was the promise of fish and chips at the Dunkeld Fish Bar! It seems my sons are highly motivated by the promise of good old-fashioned deep-fried food. (It was great, by the way). The other thing that inspired tired legs to climb the hills between Bankfoot and Dunkeld was the thought that maybe we could catch a train back to Perth. The Scotrail service from Dunkeld isn't great however, and it when we checked it was almost two hours until the next Southbound service. So the two tired 11yr old legs, had to once again start to peddle, and propel the bike back up the long climb from Dunkeld to Waterloo.

It was great to reconstitute Boys Day (although I am missing my daughter). I put it to the lads that having done 37m, our next target should be 50m. This suggestion was met with very doubtful looks from them though.

Beach Dross: Polglass

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Death on the Rocks

Forlorn and malodorous, the carcass of a Minkie Whale decays in the summer sun,