Wednesday, July 01, 2015
Tuesday, June 30, 2015
Gerard DeGroot's "Sixties Unplugged" is a fast-paced, lively account and shrewd analysis of key events that took place in the what he calls a "disorderly decade". The book consists of 67 stand-alone essays on subjects as diverse as Civil Rights, Biafra, Bob Dylan, Hippies, Free-Love, Ronald Reagan and the Student Protest Movement. Although weighted strongly towards a USA/European audience, world events such as the Six Day war, Mao's China, The Congo and Sharpeville in South Africa also feature. DeGroot's main thesis is that there is no one grand, narrative with which to interpret these diverse events. He is resistant to elaborate a single thesis and try and force all these divergent strands into a single interpretation of the decade, instead he wants to allow each of his subject areas to exist in its own right and bear the weight of his often searing scrutiny.
If DeGroot is somewhat post-modern in his rejection of a meta-narrative, he is equally so when it comes to deconstructing his subjects. In "The Sixties Unplugged", DeGroot savages 60s nostalgia-fanatics who paint the decade as a revolutionary era of peace, love and the dawning of some new hope for humanity. He points out that such claims are misguided on several levels. Firstly they over-estimate the significance of the counter-culture in what was a fairly conservative decade. Only 10% of American universities had riots in the student protests of the late Sixties, he writes, and of those who did, less than 10% of their students were actually involved. The young Republican movements always attracted more members than the left-wing student groups such as the SDS. Furthermore, behind the Liberal rhetoric of Kennedy (and his golden image) was a hard-nosed Cold-war warrior. The outcome of the 60s was a dying hippie dream and the rise of Ronald Reagan; it had less to do with Maggie's Farm than Maggie Thatcher, he quips. This, in part, was because the counter-culture embraced drug-taking to the extent that they perceived themselves to be changing political realities, whereas in fact their brain chemistry was the main thing which was altered.
In his (very frank) discussion about the sexual revolution, DeGroot unearths some painful truths about some of the dark-side of the movement to throw off, what was regarded as, the sexual prudery and repression of the previous generation. While many people did not engage in the sexual revolution, for those who did they did so prior to the rise of feminism. The tragedy of this was that sex wasn't just requested of women, it was expected, and consent was a low priority in the drug-and-sex culture that pervaded much of the decade. Drugs were used often as rape tools, and innocents running away from home in search of communal-idyll were seriously powerless and were shamelessly exploited. DeGroot suggests that hippie culture was wrong to try and separate love and sex, and wrong to try and interpret free-love as some kind of political or transcendental event or statement. In many cases it was pure selfishness - because part of the mosaic of the Sixties was extreme individualism.
DeGroot has a brilliant eye for pithy quotes from key protagonists with which to enliven his discussions of these subjects. One student protester from the LSE reflected, "All those revolutionary a___holes, when it really came down to it, had to finish their courses and get their jobs and secure their careers". He does the same with statistics, showing research that suggested perhaps surprisingly that The Vietnam War was more popular amongst Americans than the NASA Space Program!
DeGroot's pen-portraits of these 67 areas, are fascinating reading. The decade he describes is nothing like the moral abyss described by Conservatives, or the hippy-idyll popularised in the media and collective imagination. A deeply confused-period of turbulent history emerges in the book. If there is a problem with the book, it it simply that without an over-arching theme, the chapters are selected perhaps a little arbitrarily. Indeed the author confesses as much in the introduction in which he states that the original version of the book was twice as long and contained over a hundred essays. He hints at some of the things he had to leave out, perhaps making the reader wish he had written a second volume! I am delighted to discover that DeGroot has gone on and done a similar work on the 1970s.
Monday, June 29, 2015
After a lovely day-off, wandering about in Plockton and reading, I had one day left to enjoy the hills. The weather forecast, however, was rather discouraging! In fact the forecast strongly suggested that I abandon the exercise and go for something in the drier East of the country. I had a map of the Monadliath with me, and was tempted to walk there on my way home. I decided against that, simply because the hills of The Monadliath are within easy reach of home, whereas time spent up in Kintail was a scarce resource I could not afford to squander! Instead I elected to have a go at the two hills in the Cluanie Inn area which I had yet to ascend: A' Chralaig and Mullach Fraoch-choire.
The access point for these hills is via the same gate in the fence on the main road by Loch Cluanie as the dreaded An Caorann Mor path, from the Cluanie Inn to Glen Affric. After less than fifty yards on that track, by a tiny little cairn, a path veers to the right and climbs very steeply up the shoulder of A'Chralaig's South ridge, labelled as Fuaran Mor Chluainidh on the OS map. The path is steep, wet and slippery. In places it is like a less-well used version of the steep pull from Crianlarich up Ben More. After about 700m, the ridge both narrows and the gradient eases off - and really enjoyable day of ridge walking commences.
The weather forecast was a bit grim so I took the precaution of starting my walk fully Goretexed, awaiting the promised rain. By the time I made the ridge I was absolutely cooking and had to start shedding layers. The forecast seemed reasonable enough, it was cold and cloudy and a downpour felt imminent. Cloud was blowing around in the wind when I reached the summit of A'Chralaig, an airy place crowned with a cairn the size of a lighthouse. Someone has spent a huge amount of time and effort up there building it,
The route between the Munro's is simple enough - follow the ridge Northwards to a subsidiary top, and turn eastwards, then follow the curving ridge as it turns back Northwards over an ever narrowing ridge to the peak of Mullach Fraoch-Coire. The top in the centre of this ridge, Stob Coire na Craileig is a fine little mountain in its own right, shapely, steep-sided and featuring a nice little summit with a cairn. It was on this top that I had a wonderful surprise... instead of the expected rain showers, the cloud lifted, the sky turned blue and the whole ridge was exposed! Then the cloud seemed to evaporate from all the adjacent mountains too - providing breathtaking vistas of many of the ridges I had climbed over the preceding days.
As I made my way along the ridge I was uncertain as to the best route off. The books suggested that the best route was to completely retrace my steps over A'Chralaig, but the ascent path up the front of the hill was extremely slippery and I really didn't fancy it. Furthermore, this was my last walk before heading home and I was in a hurry. I hadn't seen my family for four days and was anxious to get going. I had started walked before 7am, with the thought that I could do a days walking and be back for tea, or better still to collect my daughter from school! Different walking books recommend different quick-ways down off the ridge, pointing walkers either to go westwards from the ridge's lowest point either North or South of the top called Stob Coire na Craileig. The first option didn't look promising, however there is a bit of a path heading down through the scree between Stob Coire na Craileig and Mullach Fraoch-Choire - so I elected to use that on my way down.
Mullach Fraoch-Choire is a delight! The ridge to the summit contains a series of lovely pinnacles which can be climbed or circumvented. A path winds its way in and out of these rocky spines, crossing the ridge several times and winding along some fiendish ledges that look like part of the set from Lord of the Rings. It wouldn't be hard to imagine Gandalf himself beckoning walkers along these paths. For a bit of added excitement, in several places these ledge-paths appear to be slumping away from the side of the mountain, and should be used cautiously, especially after heavy rain.
My early start (and weekday walk) meant that I saw no-one on these hills at all - I had this vast, beautiful playground all to myself it seemed. The second Munro summit meant time to stop, and fuel up with some food and drink before picking the descent path back down to the An Caorann Mor track, the car and home. And I was back in time to get my daughter from school!
These two are absolutely splendid mountains, beautiful, with stunning views and lovely features. They are right by the road, and easily accessible too. Both of them can be comfortably climbed by the route described, and be back at the car in around 5 hours. If you are a hillwalker who is new to Kintail and are wondering where to start - I'd suggest these. They are tremendous introduction to a great area of The Scottish Highlands!
Saturday, June 27, 2015
The essential silliness of Munro-bagging is exemplified in this: Carn Aosda and Mullach nan Dheiragain, are each weighted equally as "a Munro". The former is a an uninspiring amble between ski-tows from a car-park and a cafe up to a flat, and bald-top; while the latter is a beautifully sculpted ridge miles and miles from the nearest road, hidden by other mountains from almost every approach. "I've bagged a Munro" is therefore as vague a statement as, "I've read a book". All very well........ but which one!?
Essential silliness aside, Munro bagging remains a hugely enjoyable hobby which has taken me all around Scotland, and all over many kinds of landscape. However, I am aware as I look at my Munro map, that all the "easy ones" are coloured blue (ie. "have climbed"), while most of the really difficult ones are coloured red (ie. "not yet climbed"). During my few days in Kintail this week I decided that I should attempt at least one of the walks I had noted as "challenging". The one I chose was the combination of An Socach, Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan & Mullach nan Dheiragain which lie on the North side of Glen Affric. Although this would be a good day out from Altbeithe Youth Hostel in Glen Affric; from where I was parked near the Cluanie Inn, it was a fearsome prospect!
If you are ever tempted to 'take the short cut' and walk into beautiful Glen Affric via the An Caorann Mor from Loch Cluanie: DON'T! The OS map gives the impression that a path gently glides from glen to glen without interruption, and that the walker will find themselves effortlessly conveyed into the lovely wilderness of Glen Affric. In truth the path is not as distinct as the mapmakers appear to believe. The problem is that at every obstacle (bogs and rivers) the path splits into a wide array of slimy alternatives as countless boot-wearers have attempted to navigate their way without stepping into the oozing, mucky bootholes of the unfortunate who went that way before them. After heavy-rain, the worst mile of this perilous route is not so much a path as the quagmire of a thousand boots. Not only do parts of this place resemble The Somme, but there is a very high likelihood of aquireing trenchfoot here too.
If I could nominate one path in whole of Highland Scotland to get an upgrade, and be made like the amazing routes which bisect The Cairngorm National Park, it would be the An Caorann Mor. It is slightly strange that the National Park designation has such a huge effect on the money spent on access to the hills. Is the Lairig Ghru really that much more beautiful or special than Glen Affric?
It took two hours to reach Altbeithe Youth Hostel, where I planned to stop and have some breakfast. The warden was outside shopping wood, and came over for a blether. I was slightly wary about this encounter. It
Altbeithe Hostel and Footbridge
is a well-known fact that some SYHA wardens do NOT let anyone sit on the benches by their hostels unless they are paying guests. This has been the case even in some quite remote places, such as Loch Ossian, believe it or not. This warden was quite different however, not only did she not mind me resting my rear-end on the youth hostel bench, she actually handed me a coffee - and added that if I was passing that way again I would be welcome to have another cup too!
Cheered and refreshed I took to the hill behind the hostel. The path climbs Northwards from the hostel door, before swinging easterly and entering a large area fenced off to protect young trees from the hundreds of deer which roam Affric. It's a reasonably steep climb, but my progress was encouraged by the music of birdsong all around me - which was something of a surprise. Since leaving the car over two hours previously, I had walked in near silence (except for the squelch of boot-in-bog, obviously). Inside the deer-fencing however, there was life everywhere. Rather than just grasses and bogweeds, the enclosure contained a whole variety of trees and shrubs - perfect places for birds, and other small animals. When I was young, and wanted to get away from London's noisy suburbs to experience the freedom of space, the best available place was Windsor Great Park. It offered traffic-free roads to cycle, woods, fields and some fresh air. Of course, in Windsor they have plenty of deer roaming around, and lots of deer-fencing to control where they go. The difference is that Windsor deer are not wild, and the fences keep them 'in'; while Affric deer are very wild, and fences are required to keep them 'out'!
I think walking through the fenced-off enclosure made me understand for the first time why some people want to restore natural predators, such as wolves, to The Highlands. Overpopulation of deer, clearly diminishes the environment. On balance though, I'm not sure it is a viable or realistic solution to the problem. I am at a loss as to understand why a sensible wolf would expend huge effort stalking venison, high in the glens, when lamb is so readily available on farms and around villages further down! I'm not sure wolves would do the job as cleanly and effectively as the combination of marksmen and fencing-contractors currently do. Now sheep have a poisoned history in the Highlands, it was after all for the profits they brought that the clearances were enacted. Nevertheless, that history is hardly the fault of current sheep-farmers, and re-wolfing the land could simply lead to a new set of clearances as the costs of wolf-fencing for them would be prohibitive. At the top of the anti-deer enclosure another gate led me out onto open-land, away from such thoughts and up onto a high and windswept ridge, nestling under the first Munro of the day, An Socach.
There are three hills named An Socach, one each at Braemar, Mullardoch, and in Glen Affric. This one
usually provides a delightful view down Glen Affric - along the route taken by those with superhuman strength (or superhuman lack of sense) who competed in the gruelling Highland Cross endurance run and cycle the previous weekend. Sadly this famous viewpoint revealed nothing more than a summit, a cairn, and billowing cloud, which restricted visibility to the extent that I even checked with my GPS to make sure that I actually was on the true top of An Socach.
A scratchy path took me down from the summit of Socach to the bealach at which I had first made the ridge. From here I continued westwards along the high, and at times narrow ridge of Stob Coire na Cloiche, and its four tops, and on to the big pull up towards Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan. Even though we are only a few days away from July, in a couple of places I found myself kicking steps into snow and ice, which lay in a thick sheet right across the ridge. Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan is a really impressive mountain, its' fine peak lies at the conjunction of three beautiful ridges sweeping in from the east, west, and north-east. Sadly, as I climbed it, I couldn't see it, as I was well into the cloud at that altitude - but the ridge just kept on going up, and when you thought it couldn't go higher, it did! One of the highest points in the Affric area, Ceathreamhnan presents a good challenge to the walker - and I ploughed into the climb with some determination. At this point in the walk I was clock-watching intently. Having checked the sunset time and not left myself much margin for error, I had to turn back towards the car by 2:30/3:00PM at the absolute latest - or face a very lonely night in the hills. I wanted to get out to the really remote Mullach nan Dheiragain, but knew that unless I walked at a good speed it would elude me.
The summit of Ceathreamhnan was deserted and cloudy - but I was there on time to move onwards.
Slapping my compass down on the map, and walking from the cairn to the NE, I soon discovered a path leading down onto the NE ridge, down into the Bealach nan Doine, and up onto Carn na Con Dhu. The long, long ridge out to Mullach na Dheiragain I heard referred to as 'the ridge that never ends'. With the clock eating the time, faster than my legs were consuming the miles, I had to abandon my rucksack and run some of the way to the distant cairn and back. Mullach nan Dheiragain is not a hard Munro in itself, the challenge it presents is simply getting to to it, as it is so far from the road, and has such huge mountains guarding access to it. I was delighted to have managed to reach one of the 'hard ones' - and turned to face the gruelling walk out.
Of course the long walk out began with a tough re-assent of Ceathreamhnan. As I turned Southwards the clouds began first to break-up and then to lift. In front of me was the intimidating bulk Ceathreamhnan, which at first glimpse through breaking cloud looked impossible to climb. The peak appeared through the cloud substantially higher up than I had anticipated too! To my left was the vast rocky amphitheatre of the Coire nan Dearcag basin, surrounded by all three of my day's Munro's, their tops and connecting ridges. It was a hugely impressive sight - but somewhat focused my mind on the sheer length of my homeward march. The return ridge-walk in sunshine was a different experience than the cloudy, cold inward trip!
Descending back through the deer-fencing, I remembered the hostel warden had offered me more coffee on my way back through Glen Affric. The heat and humidity rose all afternoon - and I was still having to walk fast to make my schedule safely, and actually had started to dehydrate and feel a bit rough. As I reached the hostel the friendly warden called out, "coffee, no sugar, just a dash of milk, wasn't it?!". Indeed it was. Loading up with water from the hostel tap - and adding a rehydration tablet to it helped a bit, and I moved off again towards the ghastly boggy track out.
I discovered though that the worst obstacles on this route can be avoided by taking the upper path on the eastern side of the glen. It proved to be a lot better than the lower path I had used on the way in, over ten hours previously. This path can be found by following the deer-fencing above the footbridge over the river Affric by the hostel. Despite this better path, I struggled on the last two hours. Having walked the best part of 30miles, and climbed almost 3000m, I was tired. I was also dehydrating again - and soon used up the water refill I had taken at the hostel. The car was a truly welcome sight, and the removal of my boots an act of utter joy!
Once back at the Kintail Lodge, I must have drunk two coffees and about five pints of water - and till felt thirsty. I was really pleased with my day's efforts, and turned my alarm off before collapsing into bed. A day-off was in order!
Friday, June 26, 2015
Time, weather, busyness and tragedy have meant that I haven't climbed or walked much in the Northwest Highlands of Scotland for several years. This week I was able to take up temporary residence at the "Trekkers Lodge" a bunkhouse immediately behind The Kintail Lodge Hotel, and spend three full days in the hills. I didn't go there with very high hopes, I didn't know if the bunkhouse would be any good, and the weather forecast was poor and deteriorating. Nevertheless, I packed the walking gear, (the waterproofs, maps, compass, hats, gloves, boots, GPS, food, drink) into a rucksack; and loaded the car with fuel and a choice of fine CDs and pointed North and West in search of Munros!
The bunkhouse turned out to be great. I had a single room (a cupboard!), and that came with kitchen/toilet/shower/drying room facilities for £16.50/night. That's about the same as a SYHA would charge for shared dormitory
Many years ago I walked the long South Glen Shiel Ridge on a church walk, in which cars were carefully placed at the far end of the walk the previous night to bring us back to our starting point. The North side of the glen isn't walkable in the same linear fashion, but divides up into several distinct groups of walks, from the celebrated Five Sisters in the West to Carn Ghluasaid in the East. It's five years since I walked on the Five Sisters ridge, and I had never been to the eastern end of this group at all, so I began my walking at Loch Cluanie, at a layby marked as 'Lundie' on the OS map (although apart from the layby, there isn't actually anything there other than the road). Access to the hill at Lundie is via an old military road which runs parallel to the A87, westwards towards a distinctive radio mast. Any doubts as to the route are quickly erased by a signpost which points walkers towards Carn Ghluasaid along the track from the road.
Once at the radio mast a long climb winds its way all the way onto the mountain' broad summit, and large cairn. The first mile or two of the route are rather oddly marked by roadside reflective posts. The route is in places boggy, but this path provides a fast and straightforward route up onto the ridges. I climbed through
Sgurr nan Conbhairean is a fine peak, with much to admire even in poor visibility. Its' graceful lines, and steeply sided ridges guide the walker through the fog up to its cairn at 1109m. Sail Chaorainn and its northernmost top (where there is allegedly a fine view!), feel like an extension of Conbhairean. I climbed them, before heading back towards the main summit, but turned westwards at around 1000m to bypass the mountain top itself.. All the walking books are unanimous in the recommendation of a descent via Drochaid an Tuill Easaich, and its' long grassy southern ridge. This slopes back down to the old military road, along to the radio mast and on to the car at Lundie.
It wasn't the most epic day in the hills I have ever had, but I returned to the pub feeling reasonably satisfied with my efforts. It was good to be back in the hills of the NW after a long break, I felt reasonably strong,
Friday, June 19, 2015
Thursday, June 18, 2015
Wednesday, June 17, 2015
Tuesday, June 16, 2015
It's not as romantic as it sounds..... the anniversary in question was the 125th of Ashford Congregational Church (in Middx), and my wife wasn't able to come with me. Nevertheless, it was- in many ways - a really special trip. I was brought up going to 'The Cong', and for the anniversary, many members both past and present came for the day. The morning and evening services had 'retrospective' and 'forward looking' themes respectively; and were punctuated with a meal and fun-stuff for the kids during the afternoon. As well as having the enormous privilege of taking part in the morning service (thinking through some of the lessons of church-history), it was good to meet up with many old friends. Many of these characters have long moved away from the area, and visit there as rarely as I do, so our paths almost inevitably wouldn't have crossed in normal circumstances.
I owe a huge amount to the folks at The Cong, it was through them that I became a Christian back in the 1980s. Although my main focus was on Joshua 4, the words of 2 Cor 4, "But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us" were also in my thoughts. The fact that they are a group of ordinary folks doesn't conceal the fact that it was in these 'jars of clay' that I found the 'treasure' of the gospel. I also gained a huge amount from them in other areas too, including a lifelong love of the outdoors in general and cycling in particular. Standing up at the front and speaking at Ashford Cong was an interesting experience. The last two times I have done so it was in the context of grandparents' funerals when I was doing a memory/tribute of them. It was great to be there this time, but doing something that was far less stressful!
The other reason it was 'interesting' is due to the strange effects that memory has on me. Had I been in The Cong week-in-week-out over the last twenty years I'm sure that the effect of resurfacing memories would not be so strong. Re-visiting my childhood after so long was extraordinary however, as memory after memory of people, events, incidents, characters, laughs, disasters, and countless things which sound mundane but are all stored in the deep recesses of my mind awaiting some suitable trigger to make them re-surface; appeared. So I stood up to speak, with long-lost-memories bombarding me in random order like a kind of stream-of-consciousness rush. I also stood there feeling about ten years old, and just like I did standing up to do the Bible reading at the Sunday School Service at Christmas when I was a kid. Such feelings of juvenile inadequacy were only heightened by the knowledge that 'The Cong' has hosted many word-class preachers in its day.
My wife wasn't able to come (our boys had too many things on over the weekend), but my daughter came for the journey with me, which was great. She did manage to pull a trick on me on the way home, however. While I was threading my way out of the suburbs and towards the M25, she got my phone and texted my wife to let her know that the morning had been a disaster. Without even cracking a smile to me, or letting me know that she was up to no good, she texted home that, (and I quote), "The words wouldn't come, so we just left" which obviously caused some anxiety at home!
Monday, June 15, 2015
"Strange Fruit" is perhaps a song like no other. It divides opinion, it causes controversy and is often held to be too difficult to sing (or at least to do justice to), and almost unbearable to hear. "Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Cafe Society, and An Early Cry for Civil Rights" is David Margolick's appreciation of Strange Fruit, and a history of it's inception, development, performances, and legacy as well as Billie Holiday whose name will for ever be associated with it.
The song was written in the 30s by a white Northerner Abel Meeropol, a politically left-leaning teacher with an interest in social justice. That a racial hierarchy had been imposed on the Black South after the end of Reconstruction by terror, was widely assumed. Yet, in the inter-war years of the Twentieth Century the particular instrument of oppression, The Lynching appears to have been a taboo subject. Three things then combine to make Strange Fruit one of the most poignant and disturbing songs ever heard. The taboo shattering protest against racial violence years before the civil rights movement was born, the devastating assault of the poetry of the lyrics, and the soul-aching delivery of it in the hands of Billie Holiday.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
David Margolick's book is short, but looks at the way in Holiday was able to pour so much of her own personal pain into a song which was hers by ethnicity - but not by direct experience. He explores the way in which it became her show-stopping number, but which she would refuse to perform to audiences she felt were not good enough. He looks at the social and political impact of the song, of places it was allowed to be heard and where it was banned - as well as different covers of the song that have been made of time. Its a poignant little book, which opens the whole subject up poignantly, respectfully and directly. The photo of an actual lynching included in the centre pages is deeply upsetting.
The BBC have also made a radio documentary about Strange Fruit, which is currently available online here: http://bbc.in/1bAmgmM