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’.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Fresh Thinking

People often ask me about creativity, looking for advice on how they might view things differently or overcome their ‘mental blocks’ to finding new ideas.

Often, they’re disappointed when I say there's no quick answer - while everyone can be creative, 'quick fix techniques' or 'idea formulas', simply don’t work. Those offered in the context of business are especially poor, seldom amounting to more than variants on brainstorming. 

The reality is, it’s a bit more difficult than that!

If creativity is the ability to respond, imagine and invent in a way that delivers something new - then doing this well is darn tough! Ask any painter, writer or composer - or for that matter any scientist or philosopher - and they’ll all tell you the same; that creativity takes courage and practice (lots of it) , as well as an acceptance that most or our notions come to nothing.

In a sense this ought to be obvious, for if creativity were easy then we wouldn’t prize it so highly - or so many seek advice on how they might improve.

And yet still and so often I meet folk looking for a sort of inspiration alchemy: the 'bitesize solution', the 'idiot's guide' to generating ideas - the elusive formula to creative gold. 

It doesn’t exist! 

In the same way that we wouldn’t presume to become an accountant in a day, we shouldn’t expect creativity to be any different. Seeing things anew is part skill, part craft, and a huge amount of hard work - writers spend long hours at the keyboard; painters the equivalent at the easel - they both spend a lifetime looking.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t insights and practices (note that word again) that can guide and inspire us to a more inventive approach.  

Over a lifetime of creative practice (in painting, in writing and in business) there are many inspirational resources and mentors that have helped me develop the skills I posses.  

With the caveat that real knowledge is always hard won - and that practice is all - I offer my recommendations of some the more accessible books, which - if you make the effort - might just make a genuine difference. 

Ways of seeing 
John Berger
Penguin Classics 1972

Ways of Seeing was originally published to accompany a BBC TV series on art and media.  Nearly 50 years on it still resonates with questions and insights that prompt us to see the world differently. Widely used on university courses in creative arts - with the added bonus that it’s as easy a read as you’ll find in this list!   Jon Berger is a respected writer, painter, art critic, and winner of the Booker prize.  

The Artists Way 
Julia Cameron
Pan 1995

The Artist Way is subtitled ‘a course in discovering and recovering your creative self’. This hints at an element of spirituality in Cameron’s approach which won’t be to everyone’s taste.  But if you can get past the element of ‘crystal healing’, the book is full of helpful exercises and surprising recommendations.  The Artists Way is effectively a twelve-week course that guides you through  a process of finding your creativity.  

Julia Cameron has a wealth of resources on the web - her book ‘The Right to Write’ is also very good.

The Philosophy Gym: 25 Short Adventures in Thinking
Stephen Law

An excellent and very accessible book on philosophy as an aid to creativity.  The Philosophy Gym is a collection of stories, thought experiments, illustrations and ‘thinking tools’ designed to explain ideas and wake up your brain.  Stephen Law has the knack of making complex issues easy to understand,  while also showing that the apparently simple is often very complex.

Draw;how to master the art
Jeffery Camp

One of the best books on drawing, and a world away from those dreadful ‘left side of the brain’ approaches. More a portmanteaux of inspirations than a manual of technique, Jeffery Camp encourages us to practice and experiment every day, even for a few minutes.  

Drawing - even doodling - is one of the best of all creative practices. It teaches us to look, to consider and respond - and it makes that response real and physical on the page. 

Simon Blackburn
Oxford University Press 2001

One of the best popular introductions to philosophy. Simon Blackburn’s guide to thinking  challenges our notions of what it is to reason clearly, taking his readers on a journey that leaves us questioning the superficial assumptions of everyday life.

What’s that got to do with creativity?  

Absolutely everything!

Saturday, February 6, 2016

The objects of life #2

As I sit and type this post my arse is getting cold, and somewhat numb too. The chair it's attached to (save for a thin layer of cotton) is a Windsor stick back, made of oak, by someone a long time ago.  If I turned it over I could show you the marks where they've drilled and chiseled, so the legs butt neatly in the slab.

I found this chair almost thirty years ago, in a shop in Monmouth, shortly after coming to Wales. It was one of those impulse purchases - saw it; loved it; bought it, all in five minutes - and at £190 it seemed a lot of money at the time. I remember too that it caused a row because my wife was annoyed I'd not asked her first.  It's my money I'd said; and it's our house, she'd  replied - to be fair, she had a point.

It was always my chair after that, and when we parted it came with me too. There's few days since that I haven't settled in its frame to ponder or write. A while back, my company insisted on supplying me with an orthopedic monstrosity, complete with lumbar support and variable height adjusters  - it soon adorned my shed, before making its way to the tip.

Sick chairs are traditional, vernacular furniture - they were common throughout the UK, but particularly so in Wales. Experts can identify the region of origin, sometimes the maker, and ironically, for what started as humble country effects, they're now sought after antiques with provenance and prices to match. Some of the designs (Windsors particularly) have been adopted by manufacturers, and you'll find any number of reproductions on eBay.

But despite the mass producers, stick chairs are still made by craftsmen today. The twentieth century guru was John Brown, who published a definitive book on styles and method. His chairs are objects of beauty; among the few things I truly covet. There are contemporary makers too - so it's a craft that lives on, though more for sales than for personal use.

By today's prices my £190 wasn't a bad investment. More importantly, it's given me thirty years of pleasure and memory. The surface of my chair is pitted with history, a palimpsest of my time in Wales. That's the character of the possessions we care for - objectively, they are 'worth' this or that - but what's the value of the wear on the arms,  or the chips in the varnish where my sons played with their toys?

As I finish this post I can barely feel my backside.  I ought to get a cushion; probably will - but regardless, I wouldn't want to have plonked it anywhere else.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The objects of life

Somewhere, among the stacked assemblage of boxes in my new garage, is a small faience bowl, marked (allowing for incorrect spelling) with my Christian name, and given to me as a gift when I was two years old.  My Great Aunt, on a tour of Europe and trip home from Australia, brought one for me and another for my elder bother.

I don't remember her visit, but I know I must have been a toddler because my younger brother hadn't yet arrived. This explained why, for all my childhood, only two bowls were displayed in the drawing room cabinet. And why also, when peering through the glass, I felt such great fortune that I was born in the nick of time to be given this valuable and mysterious treasure...

Such are the delusions of youth.

Quite why I still have the bowl, is part mystery too. Most probably I asked my mother for it during one of her clear outs or house moves, but in truth I can't remember. Whatever, it has been with me for thirty years and a half-dozen moves of my own. As far as I'm aware, it's the object that I've owned longer than any other.

The odd thing, in my keeping it, is that I otherwise dislike French faience. The designs remind me of the worst on offer in craft fairs, and the figurative illustrations have a Protestant dourness, despite their gaudy colours. Even to describe the bowl as faience is probably incorrect.  My Aunt had certainly travelled through Brittany, and perhaps visited the famous Quimper potteries, but the bowl is not stamped with their mark - souvenir stall trinket is more its likely provenance.

Perhaps that is why I make an exception for this particular example - it could sit as comfortably among my collection of kitsch as it did in my parent's china cabinet. Though paradoxically, I am still reluctant to use it, for fear of chipping an edge.

And it seems to me that our lives are a little like that. We surround ourselves with friends and objects that aren't rationally chosen or related to; but rather, they're a mash-up of chance and situation and memory (usually flawed) - and sometimes just a plain persistence of presence.

The objects we chose to treasure, perhaps because they don't change while we do, acquire a value which transcends objectivity - they root and remind us of where we are from and, in a curious way, help us adapt to the new. They become as much a part of ourselves and our sense of belonging as are the towns and houses we chose to call home.

Which perhaps explains, why the top of my list of New Year jobs, is a note to unpack those boxes in the garage.


In Meet Me There, ten Cinnamon writers talk about writing.

From the places that inspire to how associations of place become important in literature, the writers engage us with work in which place plays a central role. 

With contributions from Gail Ashton, John Barnie, Mark Charlton, Jan Fortune, Ian Gregson, Mavis Gulliver, Hazel Manuel, Jane McKie, Jim Perrin & Susan Richardson.

Friday, December 25, 2015


Test post - anybody out there?


Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Straight Life

The title of Art Pepper’s biography is loaded and layered with meaning. ‘Straight Life’ is the name of his best known composition: a virtuoso piece from one of the greats of twentieth century jazz. But the tune was always a contradiction; for Pepper’s body was wracked with addiction; his reasoning twisted by alcohol and heroin, and his life-path as crooked and fucked-up as they come.

Art Pepper was arguably the greatest alto saxophonist of the post war era. Born unwanted, brought-up unloved, the descriptions of his childhood are as grim as they are shocking. There can be little doubt that his later problems stemmed from a deeply rooted sense of isolation – a craving to be loved and accepted, by himself as much as anyone else.

What follows is a life story that is staggeringly sad. In an echo of his music, it’s as if Pepper is improvising on his own desperate existence: playing ever faster, increasingly off key, out of sync with himself and the world. Ostensibly he’s seeking redemption – but always, and inevitably, his actions resolve into a deeper and more pitiful hell.
It seems to me, that the narrative of Straight Life can be read in two ways.

At one level it is a chronicle of self-destruction, of a life spent in and out of prison, of failed relationships, petty and serious crime; it’s the story of years wasted, in more ways than one – the consequence of a wilful surrender to substance abuse.

At another, it’s a troubling reminder of the fine line between brilliance and the void. Pepper’s life is a tale of obsession, of an uncompromising (if seriously warped) view of the world and what constitutes right and wrong. By any normal standards Art Pepper is a foul individual; the nagging question is whether normal standards should apply.

The book’s format is a transcription of recorded interviews which he gave towards the end of his life. In Pepper’s voice there’s a disarming honesty and a declared self-criticism, but there’s also a less than subtle suggestion that his actions were a necessary consequence of his talent.

My suspicion is that fans of Pepper will sympathise. We often lionise our heroes, tempering our judgements and blind-eying actions that would be unacceptable in others. Art Pepper was as near to genius on the saxophone as they come. Whether that excuses behaviour we wouldn’t wish on ourselves, or for that matter our worst enemies, is a different matter.

Pepper, like his music, is difficult and mercurial – it takes time to figure him out. The book is much the same, and there’s a quality to Straight Life that took me a while to grasp – but which, once recognised, perhaps explains a lot.

Throughout the book, Pepper talks entirely ‘in the moment’ of his recollections. When he describes entering San Quentin prison, it’s as if he’s back there and his attitudes and opinions of the time are expressed as if he still held them now – by the end of the chapter they’ve evolved and moderated, but only as the tale unfolds. It’s as if each moment has to be fully relived – a sort of method acting as a means to honesty.

And just maybe that’s what’s required of great jazz musicians – the ability to live in the moment; achieving a creative dissonance that suspends reality; a sort of nirvana if you like. I don’t know if that’s true, but it seems plausible, and might explain the link between his destructive qualities and musical talent – the flowering of good and evil, but both from the same root.

Straight Life is not an easy read. It’s complex, self-indulgent and frankly, depressing. But there are moments of lucidity that make it worthwhile. The passage describing his first taking of heroin is piece of brilliance – it’s too long to quote in full, but here’s an extract to finish on.

I looked at myself in the mirror and looked at Sheila and I looked at the few remaining lines of heroin and I took the dollar bill and I horned the rest of them down. I said, “This is it. This is the only answer for me. If this is what it takes, then this is what I’m going to do, whatever dues I have to pay…”

Art Pepper died in 1982; his music lives on.

Straight Life
The story of Art Pepper
Mojo books: ISBN 9781841950648