Sunday, June 11, 2017

Land of my fathers

Russell's Cairn on the summit of Windy Gyle.

Next winter, it will be three decades since I came to Wales; more than half my life, and a long time more than the 'two or three years' I'd planned to stay. I love it here, and suspect it's where I will see out my time. But the true land of my fathers is Northumbria, at the edge of England, where the sky is sharper, and the sun rises over the sea.

I wrote recently of the backpacking trips I made as a student. That was in the early Eighties, around the time I became closer to my maternal grandfather. He too loved the outdoors, and though in his seventies, came with me on many trips to the mountains. I remember in the summer of 1981, climbing the Simonside Hills on the morning of the Royal Wedding, where we met a group of similarly lost souls, looking for somewhere to escape the madness. And I remember too, around the time I returned to the North from university, me showing him the route to Windy Gyle.

Last week I was there again; this time with my son Daniel. He's just finished his degree and wanted to talk about his plans for the future. I suggested we go to the hills but chose the route without any conscious nostalgia. For all that, it never fails to surprise me, how our histories have a habit of repeating themselves - as we set off, I packed my bag with the very same OS map I'd used thirty-five years before.

The walk begins about as far into the Cheviots as you can reach by road. To get there, you must first pass the Rose and Thistle at Alwinton, where Sir Walter Scott wrote Rob Roy. There were cyclists heading our way, waving us through as we drove by the banks of the upper Coquet. It was warm for early morning, only thin trails in the sky; the deepening valley stirring memories of times that that had shaped me, and yet lain dormant for years.



Not everything is the same as it was: there's now a car park at Barrow Burn, and new information signs from the National Park - but otherwise, this place feels timeless. Our route follows the drover's road to the border fence, briefly joins the Pennine Way, ascending to Russell's Cairn on the summit. Like much of the Cheviots the path is soft underfoot, the climbs more rounded than steep; a view that relies on the changing light to give form to its barren beauty.

We reach the cairn in less than two hours and drink greedily from our flasks - parched from having saved our water for the summit. My thirst reminds Daniel of a trip ten years earlier, when we had walked together along the Preseli ridge back home in Wales - it was he who stumbled on the hidden stream that allowed us to camp by the bluestones at Carn Menyn.  The story of that journey - and how it helped me see Daniel anew - became the opening chapter of my book, Counting Steps.

You're not going to write about this as well, he asks?

We returned down the valley past Row Hope farm, drinking our fill from the clear water springs. There were skylarks above us, small heath butterflies in the dun grass, and two ravens patrolling the slopes to our left. I check the map and the words on the battered paper invoke a subconscious smile: Headless Clough, Mosie Law, Rough Knowe, Black Braes...  These are names and language of the northern fells; a lexicon that was once as familiar to me as the Celtic equivalent of where I live now.


But I sense there was more to my involuntary smile than a recalled familiarity. The landscape of our childhood - or more particularly, the place where we 'come of age' - has a profound hold on our sense of self. I'm sure that's why so often we define ourselves in relation to where we were born; why so many of us, despite our peripatetic lifestyles, seek to return 'home' in later years; and why, on the occasions that we do, we feel a depth of belonging that transcends the here and now, connecting our presence to the past, and even to lost generations.  As I've got older, I've come to realise, that what in Wales they call Hiraeth, is not unique to the Welsh.

Ironically, my own father did not like the hills, preferring the town, or at a push the sea. But in fairness, he stayed resolutely a man of his place. One of his last questions to me, when I came to see him before he died, was to ask how it had felt to cross the River Tyne - true Geordies cry, he'd said.  I lied (though not with intent), telling him it meant nothing to me now.

If only life, and the paths we take, were that simple.




Monday, May 29, 2017

The objects of life #3, monocular 8x30, 8011162


Two days ago, at the summit of Pen y Fan, I reached into my rucksack and took out a small leather pouch. Inside was an old Russian monocular which magnifies at a paltry 8x30; the lens was dirty and the focusing wheel so stiff it required two hands to turn. I've no certainty of the make (Zenith possibly?) but it's serial number is 8011162, and oddly, I've know that by heart for thirty seven years.

I bought the monocular when I was coming up nineteen. It was my first summer as a student, and in between signing on, I spent it backpacking the long distance paths of Northern England. I couldn't afford a proper case so made the pouch myself, hand stitching the brass zip into the mock suede fabric. That long July and August, it came with me on Hadrian's Wall, the Pennine Way, and from coast to coast.  

Monoculars were rare back then - they're hardly commonplace now, but this was pre-internet and I remember being delighted to find one in a second-hand camera shop. I think it it cost me about £8.00. The reasons for buying a monocular were two-fold: firstly, they were recommended as a weight saving tip by the Backpacker's Handbook; more importantly, I have only one eye that focuses, so binoculars are of limited use.

After that summer I used the monocular less frequently, and more recently it has lain unused, surpassed by a newer model that offers better light capture and magnification. Jane considers the original to be useless - she says if reason had its way, I'd have sent it to the junk shop years ago. And she'd be right - if that is, our possessions were all and only about utility.  Instead, it has stayed in my desk, beside the pens and brushes and old sketchbooks that hold memories for me, beyond any logical worth.

Recently, I had my eyes tested.  I've used reading glasses for a decade, but two years ago I noticed my distance vision was weakening too. My optician gave me specs for driving and I've found myself turning to them more and more. This time round, I asked if I could wear  a contact lens instead - and it turns out I can.

Three weeks later and I'm still pinching myself when I look at the landscape!  It's not just the extra clarity; by correcting a slight astigmatism the new lens widens my peripheral vision, and with only one functioning eye, that makes for a massive improvement. The other day I compared the difference to that between an analogue TV, and a 50-inch widescreen with HD!

But if there's a downside to wearing the contact lens, it's that my reading glasses are now too strong. My optician suggested I buy some cheap readers. You won't need expensive lenses, because the contact will already have corrected the shape of your eye. You even might find your first glasses work well - if you've still have them that is. 

And that's how I found myself sitting at the top of Pen-y-Fan, holding the monocular to my newly lensed eye, and watching the walkers on the ridge. The image, like memory, was a little blurred at first - but after a while it came into focus. A group of young people were nearing the plateau, most of them wearing university tee shirts.

As I was readying to go they asked me to take their photo by the summit; they'd finished their exams the day before they said. To my surprise a girl handed me a compact camera rather than a phone. You need to press the button quite hard, she said, apologising. ... it's a bit rubbish I know, but I've had it for years and it takes good pictures...

Sticks in each hand, I smiled as walked down the hill.




Thursday, March 23, 2017

Reflection and adventure - at the Refuge de Chavanes


Twenty years ago (a little more actually), on plane from Nepal, I had a fleeting encounter that has lodged with me ever since. After kayaking the Kali Gandaki River I was flying home with amoebic dysentery as a souvenir – next to me sat a Nepalese businessman, who in making conversation was curious why I should visit a country that could make me so ill?

I remember explaining that Nepal was special, the mountains higher and the rivers more remote than could ever be found in Wales. ‘Then go to the Alps’ he replied, ‘you can have just as grand adventures there!'

I recalled this conversation last week, high in the mountains of the Haute Chablias, as the ridges of the Pointe de Chalune blushed crimson in the embers of the light. That afternoon, a group of us had skied and snow-shoed from the Vallee du Brevon to the remote Chavanes refuge. It sits in the shadow of a glacial cirque, to the south of Les Gets, about an hour from Geneva.

I’d not worn snowshoes before. In a sense, that was an adventure in itself: adjust the heel, strap in toes, check for grip as the baskets flex... At first, I’m glad of my poles, but soon I’m into my stride, scanning for crossbills as we pass beneath pines that are laden with cones. There are tiny spiders scurrying between the fallen needles, and I try to avoid them by shoeing in the rutted snow.

An hour later, we reach an isolated chalet. There is running water and an improbable earth closet for passers by, though the prospect of undressing persuades me it’s easier to pee round the back. We gobble cheese and salami as Simon, who’s been here before (and is ex-navy so can’t help but command), gives us a briefing: it’s steeper from here, there’s ice on the track; be careful towards the top.

Some in the party are using skis, attaching ‘skins’ that resist backward slippage when the ground gets steeper. It looks an odd way to travel, and all the more so in the knowledge of the lifts and gondolas on the other side of the valley. Eddie tells me it’s like fell walking, only with on planks on your feet - he explains that it might look hard work, but there’s a deep satisfaction in making the summit under effort.   As he talked, I remembered the last time I climbed Snowdon; the contrast between the walkers on the summit, and the crowds, making a beeline to the café from the Llanberis train.  

My snowshoes grip well on the steeper ground, they have integral crampons that bite into the ice, and a ‘heel raiser’ which takes pressure of the calves. Though I start in the lead, the others gradually pass me. A year with a dodgy knee has added considerably to my ‘pack’, but overall, I reckon I’m not going too badly for an old man. Leanne, who looks as though she could skin up in half the time, kindly stays to keep me company. She too has travelled widely, but talks eloquently of her love for the Alps, and desire to keep on returning.

Eventually, the trees give way to more open ground, and the final pull is less steep than I’d feared – the others have waited at the rise. We’re in a ring of granite and ice, cradling a bowl of trackless snow; above us are the peaks of the Chavannais, the Chavasse, Chalune and Haute Pointe  Nobody is saying very much.

At the refuge we meet a walking party from Thonon les Bains; they are leaving after what seems to have been a fine lunch. The refuge is owned and manned by Claudius, who, in his visitor books, is variously described as a ‘sage’ and ‘mountain gourmand’.


So perhaps unsurprisingly, we are welcomed with mouse de cider and wine laced with hazelnut syrup. At night he serves us prunes in bacon, followed by chicory salad, pain de campagne, beef bourguignon, a cheese board the size of which I’ve not seen before… and some apricot cake to finish.

And then, there were the wines.

They began with a liqueur de prune, followed by a homemade apricot, some sapin and cassis, and, of course, a little genepi to finish… At one point I counted nine bottles on the table, but to be honest, it was getting hard to focus.

I’ve been visiting mountain refuges for more than thirty years and the Chavanes is certainly on the rustic side, but its food and ambience are among the best I’ve discovered. The company was a delight too, reminding me that for all I occasionally dream otherwise, I prefer the warmth of friends to the solitude of journeys made alone.
Which, in a roundabout sort of way, brings me back to the man on the plane from Nepal. I Iong ago came to the conclusion that he was right. I’ve been exploring wild places for all of my adult life, and am fortunate to have easy access to the Alps – but the truth is, we don’t need to go very far, or always to be alone, to find adventure.

The Valley de Brevon is a stone’s throw from the Portes de Soleil, and yet, a million miles from the après ski of Morzine. I could show you places that are much the same in Wales, The Lakes, or Northumberland. Only last month the definitive Scottish Bothy Bible was published – there’s enough inspiration in its pages for a lifetime.


The next morning (after breakfast by Claudius) we descended to the bustle of the valley, and I reflected on the simple, life-affirming, trip we had made together. The Chavanes refuge is, to use an expression coined by the Himalayan explorer Mo Antoine, as wild and as wonderful, as I need to ‘feed my rat’. He meant, by that, to ‘scratch the itch’, to sate his quest for adventure. 

I understand what he meant, and feel privileged to have done something of the same.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Pictures of you


It's always a thrill to see one's writing in print, even if only a book review.  Here's a piece I wrote for Booktime Magazine, appraising Rory Maclean's new book.

Pictures of You: Ten Journeys in time
by Rory Maclean

Given unprecedented access to the photographic Archive of Modern Conflict, Rory Maclean chose not to chronicle its pictures and the circumstances of their taking. Instead, he responded with stories, inspired by the moments and lives that had been captured on fragile emulsion coated papers. The result is a collection of ten remarkable tales, at odds with the discord of the century they traverse.

The Archive of Modern Conflict houses more than four million documents. Taking a broad interpretation, its collection encompasses major wars to regional feuds and civil rights disputes; the scope stretching as far as relevant cinema from the last century.  And so Maclean’s stories travel across time and place: from Rangoon to Alcatraz, Cameroon to France… some triggered by pictures, others by diaries; one by a file of human hair.

‘A delicately beautiful book, haunting in its effect.’ - Alexander McCall Smith

The stories, each set in a different decade, form a chronological journey through the twentieth century. Taking inspiration from a photograph or group of images, Maclean reinvents the dreams and despairs to which the camera was indifferent. Imagining their back stories, he invites us to consider a possible history of the forgotten faces. By accepting the offer, we come to view these people and their conflicts anew, discovering a human perspective hidden in events that conventional accounts most often objectify.

Maclean’s imagination is a lyrical counterpoint to the detachment of the photographs that inspired them. In one story, he describes the life of a concubine in China; in another he’s a black undertaker’s assistant in a racially segregated US town. As readers, we too become these people, connecting with their lives and pondering what might have been. The circumstances which bind them to their fates, speak to a collective humanity across a century defined by progress, and yet scarred by some of the worst atrocities of all time.

Of all the leading travel writers, Maclean is perhaps uniquely skilled in bearing witness to the human side of conflict. He was in Berlin when the Wall fell; has travelled in Burma, across the Middle East and more recently to the Balkans and former Soviet States.  His signature approach is to describe place through its people, documenting lives that we relate to at a compassionate level, even if the circumstances are alien. In Pictures of You, the characters are invented, but the connections no less powerful.

‘A unique virtuoso exercise in empathy, narrative and imagination, with learning and hints of mysticism thrown in’  - Jan Morris

Between the chapters, Maclean weaves a second narrative, using notes that describe his time and findings at the archive. From his first exploration of its shelves, to nights sleeping by his desk - and as the stories take form, to inserting his own photographs into the files.  Here too, fact blurs into fiction and we are left uncertain as to which is which - or whether it matters.  In many ways, the greatest quality of Pictures of You is that by the time we reach end, we don’t really care.

Mark Charlton

Rory Maclean is the author of more than a dozen books, including the UK top tens Stalin’s Nose and Under the Dragon. His recent Berlin: Imagine a City was chosen as book of the year by the Washington Post whose reviewer described it as ‘the most extraordinary work of history I’ve ever read’.