Sunday, 26 June 2016

Thoughts on the British Catastrophe

I have never been a big fan of the European Union. Whereas many see it as a force for the promotion of liberty, equality and fraternity, its actions have often suggested otherwise. Sneaky deals like TTIP undermine its status as a force for social justice, and give it the identity of nothing more than a tool of big business. Add to this corruption, from the very top down to funding scams at the national and local levels, and it becomes hard to like.

On the other hand, I have benefited from EU membership in a way that cannot be quantified into graphs and indices. When working alongside Poles, Czechs, Spaniards and Italians in England, my mind was opened to new cultures, but more importantly it showed me the similarities between us. This experience eventually led me to leave England entirely and settle in central Europe. No doubt this would have been possible without the EU, but the existence of the organisation has made the process easier. Not only do I live in a different country, but I teach students from across the EU and beyond, at an international school. Internationalism dominates my day to day life to a greater extent than does my nationality.

The outcome of the UK referendum was something of a shock to me, and for the first couple of days I was despondent - more so than I had expected. I spent Friday and Saturday accompanying my students at a Model United Nations conference. I think this probably made the impact harder, reading the news while students from across the world cooperated to try to solve the problems of international politics.

Today I am less worried about the political and economic consequences of Brexit. What will be will be, and I believe Europe is strong enough to get through. No doubt Britain is also economically strong enough too, but its constitution may not be. In fact, I am not convinced that Brexit will go ahead; there are many potential obstacles, and many back-room deals to be made. The decision to hold the referendum was based on internal Conservative party politics, and I suspect that the final decision on whether to leave or remain will be similarly Machiavellian.

My anger and despair are no longer aimed at Brexit, but at the fact that this has been a victory for the small-minded, the irretrievably stupid, and the downright racist. Reports such as that in the Washington Post stating that only after voting to leave did Britons decide to find out what the EU is, later racist abuse directed at immigrants from EU countries, particularly Poland, and the high percentage of Brexit support in the heavily EU-funded Ebbw Vale suggest that many decisions to vote "leave" were not based on reason. No doubt many of those who voted to leave do not fall into the above categories, and made their vote based on sound reasoning; my anger is not directed at them.

A significant portion of "leave" voters seem to have seen the referendum as an opportunity for the forgotten white native working class to punish the "metropolitan political elite", with votes used as a protest. It would be easy to dismiss this as bigoted claptrap, but that would be to ignore the path that British politics has taken over the past twenty or more years. The Labour party made a conscious effort to switch their focus to the middle classes in the mid-1990s, and the Conservatives, despite consistent support from a portion of the working class, have never had the interests of the lower end of society at heart. Labour's promotion of mass immigration, however well intended and however beneficial it might be, is easy to see as stab in the back for the white working class. This sense of abandonment and betrayal, justified or not, led to the rise of the British National Party, peaking in 2008-09, and contributed to the vote for Brexit. Whether the white native working class have genuinely had a worse deal than other sections of the working class is another question; the fact is that many perceive themselves to have had a worse deal.

The catastrophe to which I refer in the title of this post is not Brexit, but the fracturing of British society. Whatever the future holds for Britain, within or outside of the EU, I do not foresee wounds of the sort that have been exposed and exacerbated healing quickly.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Roast chick peas with bacon

My friend gave me this recipe. It makes for a simple snack, or a quick meal when combined with flat bread and maybe a little salad.

You need:

Two or three 400g tins of chick peas
100g bacon
One red pepper
Olive oil
Salt, pepper and spices to personal taste
20x30cm baking tray lined with baking paper

Heat the oven to 200°C. Wash and dry the chick peas, then remove and discard as many skins as you have the patience to. Place in the tray, then splash on a little olive oil (maybe two tablespoons). Roll the chick peas around until they are thoroughly coated. Place in the middle of the oven for around 60 minutes. Dice the red pepper into 1cm cubes, and add to the baking tray after 20 minutes. Slice the bacon into 5mm strips, and add after 30 minutes from the start time.

When all is done, remove from the oven and allow to cool. Add salt and pepper. I also add crushed chillies.


I don't know how long it will keep before going bad, but I've eaten it at a week old (after keeping in the fridge) and it's been fine.

Important note: The cooking times and temperatures above seem right for my oven, which is a dilapidated old Czechoslovakian thing. My friend quoted just 30 minutes at 170°C, but I suspect her oven is much more efficient than mine. Try it and see.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Healthy energy bars

I found this recipe on the website of the Polish Climbing Team, where it was posted by Klaudia Buczek. I used Google to translate it, with a little clarification by a Polish friend. The website seems to be down now, but Polish speakers can read the original here (there is also a photo).

You will need a large frying pan, greaseproof paper, and a baking tin of about 20x20cm.

Ingredients:

220g oatmeal
75g sesame seeds
100g almonds
100g dried cranberries (the original recipe states "one glass", but I used 100g)
100g dried apricots
100ml canola/rapeseed oil
150g honey
100g dark chocolate

Dry fry the sesame seeds until golden brown. Chop the almonds and apricots. Add the oatmeal, almonds and dried fruits and mix with a wooden spoon, on moderate heat, for five minutes or so. Take it off the stove, and add the canola oil and honey. Mix it in well, then press the mixture into a paper-lined baking tray. Press it down hard. Place the tin in the fridge, and leave for at least an hour. When it has properly cooled, melt a bar of dark chocolate and spread it over the top. Return it to the fridge until the chocolate has set, then cut into squares.


Lessons learnt from my first attempt:
1. I burnt the sesame seeds. Next time I will remove them from the pan once they are golden brown, and return them when I take the oats, fruit and nuts off the heat.
2. The finished bars were prone to falling apart. I think this was caused by not pressing the mixture hard enough into the tin.
3. I used cheap dark chocolate. Next time I will use better quality chocolate, something 70% cocoa.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Desert Island Books

If I am ever successful or famous enough to appear on Desert Island Discs, I don't know what eight records I'd take. Not that I haven't thought about it, just that my musical tastes change so often that I would probably grow bored of some records quickly and wish I had taken others, probably ones that I had never given a thought to at the time of choosing. As for taking only one book (in addition to the regulation Bible and Shakespeare), that would be hellish. Here then I present my own version; eight books I'd give space to on my life-raft.

1. Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence

Much more than a war memoir; an account of the Arab Revolt of 1916-18, life in the desert, and the self doubt and emotional pain of a man striving to balance patriotic duty with comradeship, written in the most beautiful prose I have ever read. Lawrence was a fascinating, troubled genius.

2. Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger

A travel book from the days before every gap year tourist was a "traveller". Thesiger crossed Arabia's Empty Quarter with the Bedu tribes, in the last days before oil changed the face of the Middle East.

3. The White Spider by Heinrich Harrer

A history of climbing on the North Face of the Eiger, including the author's own (first successful) ascent in 1938. This was the book that first roused my interest in climbing and mountaineering. Harrer has been criticized for his links to the Nazis, and there has long been suspicion that the successful team were funded by Hitler, but despite this the book remains brilliant.

4. Conquistadors of the Useless by Lionel Terray

See my earlier post; inspirational.

5. History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell

Not "just" a history of philosophy, but a history of western culture. I have read criticism of Russell's interpretations, and I am sure that from a purely philosophical perspective there are better books, but for an accessible overview of a hugely broad subject this is outstanding.

6. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

An engaging, imaginative fantasy novel satirising Stalinist repression and control in the 1920s and 30s. As far as works of fiction go, this is the pinnacle.

7. Atonement by Ian McEwan

A lesson in great creative writing; perfectly developed characters and a terrific, tragic plot. A book that never fails to draw a tear from me.

8. (Which shall remain nameless)

A book by an ex-girlfriend, on a subject that I have little interest in (film studies) but which is so engagingly written that it should be held up as a model of how to write an academic text. I include it here though not for this purpose, but as a personal reminder to strive in everything I do.

And if I could only take one, it would be number eight.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Conquistadors of the Useless


Climbers’ autobiographies appear to fall into two broad categories.

The first is a record of achievement, coupled with a few anecdotes: “I climbed this in Yorkshire, and Jones broke a nail, then I went to the Alps and did that in the snow, and Baker lost his glasses, then I went to the Himalayas and did this in the ice, and Smith fell off and died.” Joe Brown’s The Hard Years is a good example of this. They will be read almost exclusively by climbers.

The second type, more modern, focuses on the danger: “My feet scraped at the icy rock, trying desperately to find a foothold, as I felt my little-fingernail slipping from the matchstick-thin ledge, all that was keeping me from the 2,000 foot drop below”. Think Andy Kirkpatrick’s Psychovertical or Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void. These books, while also of course read by climbers, will find a wider readership, people looking for adventure.

I enjoy both types. As a climber, I’m interested in the history of the sport, so records of first ascents and the characters around in the 1950s can inspire a healthy measure of enthusiasm in me. When I read the second type, I tell myself I can relate to their difficulties, albeit struggling to grip a hand-hold the thickness of a large box of matches, rather than that of a single match, and above a 20 foot drop, rather than 2,000 feet. Of course, both types of book contain elements of the other; a dispassionate narrative would bore almost anyone, and a climbing thriller needs context and background.

It is rare though that an autobiography blends both styles equally, and succeeds at both. Conquistadors of the Useless by Lionel Terray does this. It serves as a narrative record of Terray’s outstanding climbing career from the 1930s to the early 1960s, with ascents from the Alps to the Himalayas, the Andes and Alaska. When covering the more hair-raising aspects of the climbs, it reads with every bit of the urgency of Touching the Void or Psychovertical. It also manages to be romantic and philosophical, as when the author discusses his motivations and life outside the sport, and in particular his experiences as a member of an elite mountain warfare unit fighting in the Alps towards the end of World War Two.

The single criticism I would level at Conquistadors of the Useless is that towards the end Terray seems to run out of energy. After the ascent of Annapurna, the first 8,000 metre peak to be climbed, and the epic descent (the leader so frostbitten that he lost all his digits, the other summiteer half crazed with exhaustion and altitude, while Terray and a fourth companion were snow-blind), later expeditions are almost brushed over.

Despite this minor point, I rate Conquistadors of the Useless amongst my favourite climbing books, well up there with Heinrich Harrer’s The White Spider.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Rites of Passage


“In our country for all her greatness there is one thing she cannot do and that is translate a person wholly out of one class into another. Perfect translation from one language into another is impossible. Class is the British language.”    
                                                                                                   William Golding, Rites of Passage

 It has until recently been a rare occurrence that I read fiction, still less a novel written in my lifetime. I was of the view that reading fiction was a waste of time that could better be spent reading fact, improving one’s mind. I read history, politics, science, biography, and instruction, but rarely fiction. George Orwell and Will Self were notable exceptions, but then only because Orwell was really politics and Self - well, Self was odd, and that appealed. A few other books slipped through the net, things like Richard Adams’s Watership Down, but I took these to be exceptions, books that were worthwhile and meaningful despite being fiction.

My eyes were probably opened by seeing Atonement on TV. I don’t watch much TV, but the trailer featured Keira Knightley looking stunning in a green dress, and in my shallowness that was enough to catch my attention. The film was superb, and possibly marked the first time I truly appreciated the power of fiction. Of course I was familiar with the idea of fiction as satire or as social parable, as in 1984 for example, but Atonement touched me more deeply, probably down to the personal nature of the story, the questioning of the self as opposed to the wider world.

I recently read William Golding’s Rites of Passage, not a book I had heard of, I am sorry to say, until it was recommended by a friend. To review it is not the purpose of this post; suffice to say, it won the Booker Prize in 1980 and three years later Golding received the Nobel Prize for Literature. Besides, Sam Jordison covers it better than I could in a review for The Guardian here. The principal theme is that of individual responsibility and its extent with regard to the fortunes of others, but Golding also delves into the issue of class mobility, something I find equally interesting.

The above quotation raises so many questions about the nature of society, social mobility, the class system and British imperialism. I wonder how far we have come in the two hundred years since the book was set. “Immeasurably” is the obvious answer, but there is no doubt that class still remains an issue in British society.

Anyway, Rites of Passage. Brilliant book.

Friday, 17 February 2012

One

I read a lot, but my pace cannot match the rate at which I buy books. As a result, my shelves contain a lot of unread books.

  1. Heaven's Mirror - Graham Hancock. Pre-Columbian civilizations and their state of development.
  2. The Anglo Saxons - James Campbell.
  3. The Heimskringla - Snorri Sturluson. Icelandic history written in about 1230. I started it in 2006 and have made a couple of attempts, but it's hard work. 
  4. The Catholics of Ulster - Marianne Elliott. Irish history.
  5. The Jungle is Neutral - F. Spencer Chapman's account of four years behind Japanese lines during WW2. When he wasn't struggling to survive or worrying the Japanese, he pressed flowers and collected seeds to send to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.
  6. Mankind in the Making - William Howells. A (probably outdated) book on human evolution.
  7. Ring of Bright Water trilogy - Gavin Maxwell. Otters, Scotland.
  8. Hebridean Islands - John Mercer.
  9. Weather - Self explanatory.
  10. Collected Short Stories - Roald Dahl. I dip in and out.
  11. Sherlock Holmes Short Stories - Arthur Conan Doyle. As above.
  12. Polar Journeys - Ernest Shackleton. Hard work, though probably not as hard as the journeys themselves.
  13. Rites of Passage - William Golding. A recent addition, recommended by a friend. 
  14. Sahara/Himalaya/New Europe - Michael Palin. He was good as a TV travel presenter, but I can't generate any enthusiasm for Palin's writing.
  15. History of Western Philosophy - Bertrand Russell. I WILL read it this year. 
  16. Che Guevara - John Lee Anderson. Bought in a fit of undergraduate enthusiasm.
  17. Literary Theory - Jonathan Culler. Reading it now, as part of the "broadening my education" project.
  18. George Orwell: A Life - Bernard Crick.
  19. The Kaiser and His Court - Admiral Georg Alexander von Müller. I rescued this from a recycling bin. I have to confess, I doubt it will ever be read.
  20. Robinson Crusoe - Daniel Defoe.
  21. The Dalai Lama's Book of Wisdom - His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.
  22. Atonement - Ian McEwan. It's rare that I'm affected by a film, but this one did. I have high hopes for the book.
  23. Diana Mosley - Anne de Courcy. Biography of the Mitford girl and wife of British Fascist leader.
  24. Winter Skills - Andy Cunningham. Mountaineering handbook. Probably should have read this before winter.
  25. Conquistadors of the Useless - Lionel Terray. Mountaineering autobiography.
  26. Nanga Parbat Pilgrimage - Hermann Buhl. As above.
  27. Learning to Breathe - Andy Cave. As above. I have to take breaks from climbing and mountaineering books lest I suffer burn-out. As I've just finished a biography of Colin Kirkus, I shall read a couple of other books before starting another climbing book.
  28. Vikings! - Magnus Magnusson.
No doubt there are many people who could get through this list in a matter of weeks, but I would probably take about two years. Unfortunately, the list is regularly added to; as I write, I am contemplating the purchase of Gombrich's The Story of Art, a biography of Stalin, two Tolstoys, two Dostoyevskys and three more mountaineering books. I am an addict.