Monday, June 20, 2016

Bike Blog: Pitlochry & Rannoch Station

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Film Notes: Dekalog 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Book Notes: Karl Marx by Francis Wheen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 06, 2016

Film Notes: Dekalog I. This review contains spoilers!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Fields in Kinrosshire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 03, 2016

Carn Mor Dearg Arete to Ben Nevis

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

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

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

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

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

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