Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Past Imperfect 6 - Karnali river

I came across this photograph when sorting the contents of my study. The figure in the centre is me paddling a rapid we named Sweetness and Light on the Karnali river in Nepal. It was taken in April 1993.

The Karnali is the biggest river in Nepal; it lies in the far west of the country, running steeply from Tibet, through dense forest, toward the Indian plain. At that time the river was a recent discovery for kayakers. My friend Phil Blain had been on the first descent, an audacious self supported expedition - our trip was the one of the first to use rafts and take 'paying customers' - we calculated that less than fifty Westerners had been to the area.

When I think back, the risks we took astonish me. For a start I was not that good a kayaker; I had been to the Alps a couple of times and paddled a bit in the UK, but to make the leap to Nepal would never be recommended today. The Karnali was also, at that time, extremely remote (there is now a road) - access required a long trek over unmapped mountains, porters, self-sufficient supplies; there were no satellite phones - and we had no expedition doctor.

This minor omission nearly proved fatal.

We arrived at the river late afternoon, setting up camp on a beach surrounded by trees, monkeys screeching in the canopy. The porters inflated a raft and as the sun was setting I helped them carry it to the water. With my first step into the silted river I felt a grinding tear in my foot; the water ran red and I fainted.

The porters carried me to the camp, blood pouring from the wound. I had stepped on a flint, cutting deep to the bone, across the width of my foot  I remember lying on the sand and the faces above me, the grimaced smiles; you'll be fine they said only a cut. Their voices betrayed the lie, though strangely I didn't feel any pain - in fact, I couldn't feel my foot.

My friends cleaned the wound with neat iodine, stitching it crudely after practicing on the skin of an orange. Four of them held my legs as the needle drew the flesh together; Jane gripped my hands. When it was over, she stayed with me as the others huddled out of earshot. The porters were asked to wait overnight; I was given some rum.

The next morning, before the others woke, I crawled to my boat. It took me ten minutes to launch it, shuffling inch by inch towards the water. I paddled across the current, capsizing as I hit an eddy but rolling upright without problem. It convinced me that the damaged foot made little difference to my paddling.

When I returned I noticed the porters sizing me up. One held a large basket, big enough to carry a man, with holes for legs and makeshift straps to hold the passenger steady.

In truth, my fear of being carried over the mountains was greater than facing the river. I insisted we send the porters home and my friends reluctantly agreed. Jane sat with me as the rafts and kayaks were prepared; the river our only option now - it would be ten days before we reached a road.

As it turned out, the problem was not so much paddling the river as scouting the lines. Because I couldn't walk I had to rely on sketches drawn in the sand. With waves the size of buses these proved useless; I was effectively running the river blind, chasing the tails of other boats and praying they'd chosen the safest line.

One time I got it wrong, ploughing headlong into a deep recirculating wave, known as a stopper. I was sucked deep into the current, emerging shaken but alive downstream; my boat followed five minutes later - bent like a taco by the power of the water. After that I ran the 'chicken shoots' on the bigger rapids: easier lines that give relatively safe passage through the maelstrom.

By the third day my foot was too large for anything but a sandal. After a week it had doubled in size. We had no antibiotics, the wound was drying but my leg was swelling. Thankfully, the river eased and we could make faster progress. By skipping a rest day we made it to the road in nine days.

Back in Kathmandu I went to the Canadian hospital. There were mice running across the floor of the surgery. The doctor was horrified, but not at the vermin. He gave me strong antibiotics and told me I'd been a fool to refuse the carry out - either that or I'd been in shock. Probably, it was a bit of both. The expedition had taken a year to organise; I had come half way across the world; I wasn't going to return without trying.

Looking back, I have a certain pride in my decision to go on; at the very least it is a good pub story. But in truth it was as much to do with fear as any macho heroics. Continuing also taught me about my my weaknesses. Regardless of the injury, I learned I was not as confident as I had hoped in such extreme environments; that Jane, who had come for a ride on the raft, was essential to my sense of security; that I had survived rather than conquered the river.

Eighteen years later, as I sit in my study flicking through old photographs, I can still feel the scar on my foot. I can remember too the speed of the water, the screams of the monkeys; the bridge at Chisipani as, at last, we reached the road.

And, on balance, I think that's a good, if imperfect, outcome.

Sunday, December 26, 2010


By 11 am on Christmas morning  we were on Newgale Beach. The sky was cloudless, the sea transparent turquoise, frost on the pebbles. We walked to clear our heads from the night before.

Our neighbours had invited us round. Lovely people, honest friends; they drink too much, and so did we. It was the strawberry daiquiris that did it for Jane, or was it the Sambouka shots?  I steered clear of those and consequently was in a better state. In truth, neither of us was that bad, but when Dylan woke at eight and said can I sleep a bit more before its Christmas, I thought, 'perfect child'.

His brothers were less patient. It was them who got up first. Then breakfast, stockings, big presents; the usual mess of wrappings on the floor and me frantically shoving it into plastic bags. We lost Dylan as soon as he unwrapped his Gameboy - I expect him to be fixed to the screen till Friday. The older boys were on form too: grateful, attentive to their brother, nice presents for their mum - well done. A typical family Christmas, I thought, nothing special.

Then I remembered the night before.

Another neighbour had been there too; farm labourer, a bit boisterous but no edge to him. Two years ago his wife ran off with another bloke, leaving him with the debts she'd run up as well as their two pre-school sons - for good measure she also left two teenager daughters from her previous relationships. One of the teenagers has since returned to  her natural father.

The other has remained with our neighbour. An ordinary kid, she was thrust into the role of surrogate mother to her little brothers. And judging by what we saw on Christmas Eve, she does it naturally enough: calming, cuddling, explaining. Father Christmas will come tomorrow she said - after me and your Dad come back from doing the milking. She scooped up her brothers to get them ready for bed.

You're not really going milking tomorrow? I asked when she returned. And she looked at us with clear eyes and a soft smile; It's not that bad. We'll be finished by five thirty and the boys will sleep through.  She went on to explain that she does this every weekend and holidays, though not on school days as her GCSEs are coming up. It'll be harder in the sixth form, but I don't want to milk cows all my life. No more was said; I was lost for words.

As Jane and I walked the beach we talked about how different lives can be; how lucky our kids are, ourselves too. It was her calm acceptance that struck us most; her willingness to do what was right; the responsibilities ahead of her years. My Mum is coming round tomorrow afternoon she had said. It's good the boys see her, but I won't stay while she's there.

A kestrel soared along the cliff edge, searching the tide-washed sand. The air was so clear we could see Grassholm, twenty miles off shore. It appeared like a dark circle , weirdly undercut, as if a ball had been stuck to the horizon. Even through binoculars it was difficult to make out why this was - eventually I realised the distant surface was miraging; the island was reflecting its own shape into the water.

The kestrel kept looking, hopeful of some carrion perhaps. I wanted to stay but we had to hurry: visitors coming, the turkey in the oven, the table to prepare. It all seemed a bit tame in comparison.

As we turned to leave a tanker was rounding the west of Skomer, its stern fading into the mist.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Two million and one

Starling roost - Pembrokeshire
Today, I returned to my house in Wales. When I arrived I noticed there were crusty droppings on the floor, not unlike the body fluid that moths squirt if disturbed. Strange to find these in December - and so many of them; on the window sills, the cupboard doors, the bathroom sink. I noticed too, dusty marks on the ceiling and walls.

On the floor of my bedroom lay the body of the culprit. It was a young starling; I suppose it came down the chimney and become trapped, eventually dying from lack of food and water - perhaps from panic. It must have happened recently, the body was soft and sleek; decay not set in.

As I disposed of the corpse, it struck me what a beautiful bird the starling is. The feather pattern is a pearlescent blue-black, changing form and colour with the angle of the light. A starlings head is small with a dark green eye that in this case remained open, it's beak dagger sharp, longer and more elegant than I realised. The whole body weighed no more than few ounces. It's wings opened one last time as I flung it into the field beyond my garden.

An hour later I stood under two million more.

Every evening in winter, up to three million starlings gather in a small copse of trees near my house. It is the largest roost in Wales, and an extraordinary sight to witness. People I tell about it, often ask if the birds swirl in fish-ball patterns, keen to hear of a spectacular aerial display. Sometimes the starlings do this, but more often, and especially when it is cold, they fly straight to the trees. It is not a disappointment.

For thirty minutes this evening the sky was black with their arriving; at one point they were literally brushing our heads, the din of their collective chattering like a river in spate. Amongst them flew buzzards, a sparrow hawk and evidently two goshawks had been there earlier. As the sun set over St Brides Bay, the silhouettes of the late comers were streaking against an orange and purpling sky.

To stand under that many birds is surprisingly beautiful. And I realised tonight it is the closeness to them which makes it so. The swirling displays are spectacular when they happen, but usually they take place at a distance. Like the bird I found in my house, it is the physical presence, the tactile sense of something  beyond us, that best allows us to see the world differently.

What a welcome home.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Moments of transcendence

Last week I called in to see my artist neighbour, John Knapp Fisher. He is one of the finest painters in Wales , working from the small village of Croesgoch on the North Pembrokeshire coast. On the walls of his house come gallery was a tiny water-colour of a bare field, the furrows white with snow, trees stark against a bitter sky. It was dated 1962; the sticker said, Not For Sale.

I was living in Suffolk when I painted that, he told me. I gave it to my father and when he died I had it reframed. I reminded John that I owned a similar picture that I'd bought off him twenty years ago. I did a number that year, he replied. But you know, I remember everything about this one: the smell of the field, the trees bending, the taste of paint on my lips. I remember the brush strokes, the colour of my water - everything, everything, he said again.

I smiled as John talked. His words said more about the intensity and integrity of the picture than could any formal description. I knew too, something of what he was saying.

On my computer is a photograph of Dan and Michael when they were small. They are lying together on a double bed - the visitor's bed, we used to call it - where they would often choose to sleep together. I remember thinking they looked like figures by Klimt. And I remember too the smell of that room, the warmth of their breath as I kissed them and pulled the covers over their soft bodies. I remember Michael stirring, and me standing for minutes, watching them from the half open door. I remember dimming the light, the sound of the TV, and the taste of salt on my lips as I walked downstairs.

I suspect we have all had experiences like this. Moments when, for whatever reason and perhaps for only an instant, we see things differently. Moments that burn into our consciousness, unlike the billions of others that we will never recall.

A few months ago I watched an interview of the scientist Buckminster Fuller. He was talking about a girl in a white dress that he'd noticed walking off a ship, fifty years previous. I don't suppose she even saw me, he said; and yet not a day of my life has passed without me thinking of her. Why was that he wondered, and what did it say about human memory and consciousness? 

The truth is I can barely remember the details of my sons being born, and yet if I think of climbs I did in my twenties I can bring to mind the shape and sequence of each hold, the pull on my fingers, the strands of heather on the ledges, the harness on my waist...  And more darkly, I have images from my childhood, of a father with manic depression and little self control, that have haunted me for forty years.

The artist Terry Frost said that his painting could take that long to gestate. In his later life he was painting the fields and boats and sunsets he had seen as young man. The late Pembrokeshire painter Peter Daniels said something similar to me once; I'm interested in the moment of seeing; the instant before consciousness, before we categorise and commit the image to memory.

Talking to John last week reminded me of this. It reminded me too of how art - be it images, music, or writing - is a means of connecting with a world beyond ourselves. And how when that happens, even in some small measure - even in a photo of two sleeping boys - it can bring back memories that are more vivid and real than the taste of the coffee I have just put down.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Past Imperfect 5 - Wilder Freiger

On a clear dawn in late July 1984 we ambled over the glacial moraine that leads to the slopes of the Wilder Freiger mountain; at 3400 metres it is one of the highest peaks in the Stubai Alps. By mountaineering standards the route is easy, only a few hours climb from the Nurnbeger Hutte where we had stayed the previous night.

Everything about that morning was perfect; I was happy, confident, the trails of mist lifted as the sun warmed our suspended valley. We reached the mountain proper in about an hour, ascending the lower slopes on a well graded path and cresting the ridge by mid morning. I remember stripping to my shirt and gulping water from the flask, the cirque of peaks sparkling. There were climbers descending already, some had come from the Italian side; others were passing us on the ridge, grüs gott they said, berg heil.

The summit was only 500 meters above us, a fine rock ridge followed by a snow slope that wouldn't need a rope. A couple we'd met the night before had caught us up and suggested climbing together. You go ahead I said, we'll follow shortly.  And as they passed, I noticed a cloud gathering at the summit of the Daunkogel to the West. It was nothing to worry about, a ball of cotton; we hitched our sacks for the final push.

And in that instant of standing up, I committed to turning back. Twenty five years later I still can't explain why; except for the alarm that clanged inside me: that cloud, beware of that cloud, it rang.

Rebecca wanted to go on; she was my girlfriend at the time and later my wife. We'd have an easy day I consoled her, read books and lounge on the terrace at the hut. She deferred to me but couldn't understand why I was heading down. As we did, so more climbers passed us, grüs gott they said, berg heil. 

An hour later we reached the Nurnberger Hutte as the first snow fell. We sat in the bar and the clouds enveloped the last view of the mountains, thunder rolled in from moraine. As the storm took hold a stream of bedraggled climbers knocked the door, beds were made on floors and the hut guardian checked his list of expected guests. The atmosphere was tense; we were happy to be safe but there was a darkness too.

Two climbers died that day, somewhere on the Italian side, descending in the storm. I don't know more than that. Perhaps they were lost the ridge, or struck by lightning; the snow might have given way - it is possible they were poorly equipped. And possible too that it was none of these things - sometimes there is no logic to it.

The mountaineer, W H Murray wrote, The moment one definitely commits oneself then providence moves too. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favour all manner of unforeseen incidents... that no man could have dreamt would come his way.

I agree with that, and could write of countless examples, some of them the toughest decisions of my life. Twenty years ago I separated from Rebecca - possibly the saddest, and arguably the most selfish, commitment I have ever made. And yet it led to greater joy, eventually on both sides, I hope.

But I have learned too that sometimes the power of committing can work in reverse. Sometimes it is not the going ahead that brings the providence but the holding back. There are many times I have walked around easy rapids, halted though the way is clear, said no in the face of overwhelming reasons for yes - and I have seldom regretted it. Two years ago Jane and I set off  across a similar stretch of the Stubai; we returned after less than a mile when I sensed that same warning. Again, the clouds rolled in.

Always, at these times, I've listened to my inner alarm. I have come to trust its sounding; and to recognise the difference between the tinkling bells of adrenaline fuelled uncertainty, and the overwhelming, inexplicable clanging that has kept me safe when logic says nothing should go wrong.

They say that mountaineers climb for the view from the bottom as much as the top. It is a reference to what the hills teach us and the memories they hold. I have not quite climbed the Wilder Freiger, but it has taught  and given me more than most. When I last saw it two years ago I silently gave thanks. One day I will finish the job - perhaps.

Monday, December 6, 2010


Putting Dylan to bed last night he asked me, Do you like to go thinking? Well of course, I reassured him; if we didn't think, we couldn't talk, or decide what to ask Santa for Christmas, or...  I know that, he yawned, but do you LIKE to go thinking Daddy, that's what I want to know?

It's a strange question for a child to ask, but perhaps understandable given the time I spend in my study. It's also a good one, because it allowed me to think about thinking, which is about as near philosophers get to being paid double time. For thinking, I'd say, is one of my favourite pastimes. 

This isn't new. As a teenager I'd muse on deep and troublesome issues as I ambled home from school. Problems like: if I can hear myself think, then who exactly is doing the talking; or why can't I imagine a new colour; or more frequently, is it wrong to think of Tracey Burnett when I'm snogging Sharon Simpson?

And I'm afraid the habit stuck - the thinking bit, if not so much the snogging.

At university I studied political philosophy, which might have got it out of my system, had not my first proper job been so fatefully lonely. A sales rep for a local newspaper my territory was loosely defined as Northumberland and the Lake District; I was given an old Vauxhall Chevette and drove fifty thousand miles a year occasionally bumping into customers - I loved it. Two years later my manager told me my car was being upgraded with a cassette radio! Oh, there's no need, I said, I never listen to music in the car. I'm sure he thought I was trying to impress him.

Still today, I seldom listen to music in the car; I prefer the silence of long journeys as an opportunity to work things through. Walking is like that too. Yesterday morning, I drove ten miles from my house, parked the car and tramped home along the old railway line. I did this partly because it was a beautiful morning, but also to have some time to ponder. I spent most of it contemplating two films I'd watched this week. 

The first was the Diving Bell And The Butterfly. It is the story of Jean Bauby, a victim of locked in syndrome who could communicate only by blinking. Bauby was physically paralysed but fully conscious: able to hear and see and smell, and eventually to 'dictate' the book on which the film is based. But his condition was perhaps as near to 'life as thought' as it can get. There was a scene where his eye was sown up to stop infection - it made me shudder, as if he was being further reduced to the bare essence of life. 

The second film was Restless Natives, about two youngsters who dress as a clown and a wolf man to rob tourist coaches in the Scottish Highlands. It's a quirky feel-good movie with a fabulous soundtrack by Big Country. But it's nothing like the stuff I normally watch and the ending is bordering on the ridiculous. So why did I like it so much? I'm really not sure, except maybe it's that hope and spirit triumphs over tragedy - which in a way has parallels with Jean Bauby's story. 

Aristotle said that the best existence was a one of contemplation. That may be so, but he was a professional thinker and by the time I reached home I was in need of more physical pleasures. Personally, I'd add good food and wine, the joy of landscape, a sense of love and security and a hot bath to his singular proposition. But then I've always have been greedy for life.

Interestingly though, as my walk confirmed, if I had to pick between my knowledge or my wealth, my mind or my body, the absence of love or loss...   I know precisely the choices I'd make. 

So yes, Dylan, I like to go thinking. I like it very much.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

What's on my desk?

This is picture of my desk at eight fifty one this morning. You can tell that from the clock on the right. And if you were especially sharp you'd notice it isn't really a clock at all, but an Ipod touch 3G. You might also notice that I have a BT home-hub, a flashy Apple Mac computer and a Blackberry (switched off) on top of my brown leather wallet.

You might register that the desk is old, with a leather top - and that the windows are leaded with stone mullions. Outside there is scaffolding, so the roofers have not finished; it is winter - and do you see the fat wood pigeon on the snow beneath the birch tree?

That's not all the picture can tell you about me. On the screen is a blog I follow. There is a book of birds, another of moths, and the Oxford Book of Nursery Rhymes; some of my writing underneath. Towards the back of the desk are my banjo picks, a watch (not trendy), fifteen pounds in notes, an electric razor, a magnifying glass, a bottle of drawing ink...

It was my my art teacher who taught me how a still life can tell a story. I once did a painting of a handbag with its contents spilled onto the floor: shopping list, rent book, a broken doll, tranquillisers. Painters have long used symbolism to add to the narrative; skulls to indicate death, snakes for wisdom, swans for love and fidelity. It is rare to do this now, but at one time very particular emotions could be represented by say flowers or fans. Well into last century painters such as Rene Magritte and Gustav Klimt used symbols extensively.

And what might Hercule Poirot deduce from my desk - the razor is unused, the watch indicates middle age, the date on the screen, the names of my folders? Before I know it, I'd be found out for staying home when I might have made more effort to go to the office!

This reminds me of a game we played as children; we called it 'murder clues' and the idea was to leave no trace of your presence - in case you happened to kill someone later that day! Forty years later, if my boys leave a wrapper or a yogurt pot, I still find myself saying, pick it up; might be a murder clue.

Leaving behind that less than cheery note, I wonder what is on your desk? Many bloggers don't like showing their face, but maybe their desk would reveal more. Does it say enough, or too much for comfort? Perhaps you will post a picture for us all to see?