Sunday, May 29, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Eric Bibb at The Queen's Hall, Edinburgh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Miles in The Mullardoch's

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Book Notes: Talking 'Bout Your Mama by Elijah Wald

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 07, 2016

Film Notes: Eye In The Sky

It's a long time since I have been as completely absorbed by a film as I was by this - and I've seen some good films over the last few months too. Eye In The Sky is a political/drama/thriller which seeks to open up debate about the use of drones in war - which is an extremely important issue today. Broadly speaking, in that debate there are 'hawks', who believe that the so-called 'war on terror' justifies such strikes, even if there is 'collateral damage' (ie dead innocent people). Then there are 'doves', who oppose drone strikes, deplore the deaths of the innocent, believe that they bring western governments down to the same moral level as the terrorists - to whom they also hand huge propaganda victories.

Eye In The Sky brings this debate to life, with a tense narrative constructed around one particular drone strike against Al Shabbab terrorists in East Africa. The story is obviously inspired by the infamous shopping centre atrocity associated with British terrorist nicknamed The White Widow. The dilemma faced by military and political leaders is simply this; they believe that the terrorists (if allowed to live), will imminently kill up to 80 people. However, if they kill them, they will probably kill an innocent bystander - a beautiful little African girl, innocently selling bread in the blast zone. The 80 or 1 death probability, is complicated by the fact that
the 80 would be someone else's guilt; whereas the one would be on the hands of the main characters. Worse, the electorate would not worry about the 80, but might object to the 1.

As this situation spirals into more and more morally complex territory, the different personalities around the decision making table adopt differing positions. Helen Mirren is superb as the hawkish army chief, who is absolutely convinced that taking out these would-be suicide bombers is right. Doggedly pursuing her agenda, and arranging the facts to fit her case, she is unflinching in her soldierly belief that killing saves lives. Relaying the military perspective to government is a splendid Alan Rickman (his final film role), who grows weary of having to deal with vacillating politicians. The politicians, such as the defence minister portrayed by Jeremy Northam, continually 'refer-up' the chain of command, trying to pass the buck. Aisha Takow is superb as the Alia, the innocent in the line of fire, as is Barkhab Abdi, as the Kenyan military undercover operative. Other notable acting credits go to Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox, who play the drone-pilots, who have to carry out the orders they are given, even when doing so shatters their psyche.

When I saw that a film has been made about the moral debate surrounding drone strikes, I assumed that it would be a straightforward dennounciation of the practice, with a strong focus on the innocent victims, and an array of gung-ho (yeee-har!) hawks, desperate for blood. In fact, what is presented is a finely balanced, and totally gripping drama; which although contrived, makes the viewer lurch between the two opinions back-and-forth several times in the course of the film. Interestingly, people I have spoken to have not been in
uniform agreement as to which side of the debate the film is ultimately on.

Some of the dialogue is brilliant. One stunning moment is the verbal conflict between the hawkish Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman), and the dove-ish junior minister, Angela Northman. (Monica Dolan). She finds his attitude of wanting to order killings from his armchair, "disgusting". He barks back that he's stood next to corpses in the immediate aftermath of five suicide bombings, and that she should, "never tell a soldier that he doesn't know the cost of war."

As time to prevent a suicide bombing ticks away, the tension mounts, as the fateful decision still isn't made. Without giving away the ending, the plot boils to an intense crescendo, as finally someone has to made a
decision to take innocent life; or allow others to take many more. The tension as the knife-edge decision is reached is extraordinary, carried along by intelligent writing, a good script and superb acting. At one point, I found myself gripping the arms of the chair tightly - as if on a roller-coaster.

Stunned, amazed, and perplexed by what we had seen, my wife and I stepped out of the DCA Cinema in Dundee. Blinking into the bright sunlight, we debated the film all the way home. Almost a week later, there are images from this film that seem almost burned into my memory. This is a really very, very good film.