Sunday, September 24, 2017

In North Korea: lives and lies in the state of truth

John Ruskin once wrote that drawing is as much the art of looking as it is of making marks. What he didn't say, was that there is more to seeing than meets the eye.

Anyone sketching a still life will quickly learn that the negative spaces - the gaps between the subjects - are just as vital as the objects in focus.  Something similar goes on in music - listen to any of the great jazz pianists, and you'll 'hear' the pauses between the notes.

Rory Maclean's and Nick Danziger's latest book IN NORTH KOREA: lives and lies in the state of truth is a masterpiece of what writers call 'show not tell'.  Interviewing a carefully selected (not by them) cast of everyday citizens, they chronicle the daily life and hopes of a farmer, fisherman, soccer player, student, subway attendant...  recording the stories, as told by the participants, always in the presence of Government officials, jotting down every phrase, full stop and comma.

A master of sensitivity, Maclean writes without comment  -  transcribing the assertions of love and loyalty to our dear leader, so accurately, and so frequently, that their emptiness echoes with his sorrow. Danziger's photos are a counterpoint to the verbatim: stark, graphical, at times arrestingly banal - they are disconcertingly rich, yet bereft of feeling.

If only those Government observers had been writers too, they'd have understood what's going on here. At face value, the book is a collection of staged photos and stilted interviews; behind this necessary deceit, its truth lies between the lines.  

IN NORTH KOREA (available only on Kindle) is a short work; more of a non-fiction novella. It was made possible with the help of the British Council, which facilitated access to the usually closed Democratic Republic. I've no doubt Maclean's easygoing diplomacy was put to regular use too - and the project, of course, is especially prescient given recent events. 

A side of me thinks it's a pity the book is exclusive to Kindle. Another - the one that's a fan of digital media - is pleased, for it demonstrates the format can launch important work from leading authors. The colour photographs are best viewed on a tablet version of Kindle, using the app that can be downloaded free of charge. At £2.99 IN NORTH KOREA shouldn't exclude on the basis of price. 

If there's any weakness, to my mind it's the two-page afterword - the only point at which the authors drop their guard to comment briefly on the rising tensions with the West. Perhaps that's inevitable but, to my mind, the stories and pictures are stronger alone - their interpretation best left to the reader, and to time.

In collaborating with such deliberate understatement, Maclean and Danziger have given a subtle and powerful voice to the people they met. For as all writers, photographers - and for that matter, all dictators, know - truth and lies are revealed not so much in what we say, as what is left unsaid.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Giving up and Getting On

Taking part - so much better than watching

One day during last summer’s holiday in France, and much to Jane’s annoyance, our alarm clock went off at 6.00am. I’d set it the night before so as not miss the Olympic diving heats, followed by the flat water kayaking – or was it the modern pentathlon?  It doesn’t really matter – the important thing was the look from Jane as I stole from our bedroom into the lounge…  

Turning on the TV to watch some ‘never-before-heard-of’ backward somersault into a pool (tight tuck; minimal splash), it suddenly dawned on me that I’d lost the plot. As long ago as ancient Rome, the games at the Colosseum were described as opium for the masses. The 2016 Olympics, it seemed, were having much the same effect on me.

And reflecting a little further, it shocked me to realise just how much time and energy I was expending on watching sports. Like many people my age, I was spending far more time watching and reading, than I was participating.

Modern day spectator sport might not be as toxic as opium but it’s reasonably akin to a soap opera – pulling us in with an ever-changing, but never-ending, and ultimately arms-length narrative.  Without noticing, I was investing huge amounts of my life sitting on a sofa, vicariously involved in events that have virtually no connection or meaning to me.

So as is my way, I made a resolution to give up watching and reading about any sport for a year.

From last September I decided I’d not watch or read about any football, rugby, cycling, athletics… as well as the Olympic disciplines in which I’d recently become such an armchair expert. It would be an interesting experiment; I’d see how long I could hold out, and perhaps reset the balance thereafter.

A year later and I’m still holding true to the vow.

I missed last year’s Premier League, the Six Nations, the Tour de France, and a whole lot more. The hardest of all to give up – I wonder if you can guess? – was the World Snooker Championship; I’ve been glued to it every year since university and Alex Huggins won his second final - more than any other event it reminds me of good times past.

But the truth is, other than the snooker (and maybe a little of the cycling), I’ve not 'missed' watching sport at all. Once I’d deleted a few links from my PC, and stopped turning to the back pages of the Times, it quickly became irrelevant to my daily life. Despite much ribbing and incredulity from family and friends (’re not watching the Six Nations!), I quite enjoyed giving it up.

There's something empowering about leaving behind habits or possessions we don’t need – like a supercharged version of the satisfaction we get in sorting the loft and taking our junk to the tip. Perhaps that’s why there are long traditions of self-denial in almost all cultures – they are a means to reset the balance, reflecting on, and reconnecting to, what’s important. In other words, by ‘giving up’ we allow ourselves ‘get on’ with bigger and better stuff.

So as September approaches, what sports am I going to watch again?   

I suspect very few.

Recently I read that ‘a year’ is a seminal milestone in almost any quest to change our habits. In dieting, for example, the chances of relapse are much lessened if we can sustain our lower weight for twelve months. The same goes for cigarettes, drugs, exercise regimes, and in my case – not following sport!

In fact, so taken am I by the joys of ‘giving up’, that I’ve decided to extend my sporting purdah to other areas.  This year (strange how I still think in academic terms) I plan to write a walking guide to the Haute Savoir – that means finding time for research as well as long hours at the keyboard; I’d like to build a website too, and perhaps learn Welsh.

So instead of starting to watch sport again, I’m going to continue as I am. But to give me even more time and energy, I’m making two further changes.

From today I’m deleting all social media from my PC, phone and Ipad. I’ve realised that despite their many good aspects, Facebook and it's like have become one of the biggest consumers of my time and an invidious distractor to getting on with real life. If that sounds a bit snobby, then apologies; but I’m talking of me not you and, being frank, I can’t find a subtler ways to put it.

And secondly, I’ve decided to give up all alcohol until at least Christmas – if it goes well, I might extend the pledge to the full year – but I’m not promising. Giving up the booze is more to do with being healthy but having a clear head won’t hurt with the writing either.

So there you have it – new rules for the Bike Shed: no spectating, no social media and no hooch to console me.  But you know what?  I reckon it’s going to be good here this year – and a lot more productive too.

Who knows, I might even make a splash.

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'll 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 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. 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 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. 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 too stayed resolutely a man of his place. One of his few questions, when I visited 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 that home meant nothing to me now - I'd moved away and wouldn't be coming back.

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

Monday, May 29, 2017

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 its serial number is 8011162, and oddly, I've known 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 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 gathered dust, 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 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 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 it to the difference between an analogue TV, and a 50-inch widescreen with High Definition!

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 might find your old glasses work well - if you still have them that is. 

And that's how I found myself sitting at the top of Pen-y-Fan, holding my old monocular to a newly lensed eye, watching the walkers on the ridge. The view, like memory, was 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 hoodies.

As I was readying to go, they asked me to take their photo and to, my surprise, a girl passed me a camera rather than a phone. You need to press the button quite hard, she explained. After handing it back, she must have sensed my thoughts.  I know it looks a bit rubbish, she apologised,  but I've had it for years and it still 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 as to 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 Chablais, 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 around 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 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 long 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 the 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’.