Thursday, March 31, 2016

Film Notes: The Counterfeiters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quite a film to watch at Easter.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The "Tour de Tay"!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Na Gruagaichean and Binnien Mor (Mamores)

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

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

(Many of these photos supplied by my walking companions)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Creag na Criche

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

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

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

Obney Hill

Beinn a Ghlo

Obney and Birnam Hills

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

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

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Bishop's Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(W & E Lomond from Bishop's Hill)

Benarty Hill,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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