18 December 2011

Rest in Peace - Vaclav Havel

Vaclav Havel 1936-2011

It is with very great sadness that I have just read of the passing of a personal hero of mine. Vaclav Havel was a truly inspirational man. From Playwright to Prisoner to President. A genuine light has gone out in the world.

I first began reading his writings as a teenager. I was an exchange student at the time of the fall of totalitarianism in Eastern Europe. I stayed with families on both sides of the former Berlin Wall. It was an eye-opening and optimistic time which touched me personally. The wind of change was blowing through Europe. It was a time which informed and shaped the course of my life. And I have never since forgotten the ideals which that time instilled in me.

At University I wrote a short dissertation on the dissident movement in Czechoslovakia. Havel's essay The Power of the Powerless had a profound influence upon my thinking. His writings helped to shape my outlook on the World. It was genuinely conscientious people, such as Havel, who gave me inspiration, and who spurred me to become actively involved in the campaign for human rights. To paraphrase Edmund Burke, it only requires good people to do nothing for evil to flourish. Havel's life is clear testament that speaking out and remaining steadfast can change the World.

 Rest in Peace - Vaclav Havel.

17 November 2011

To Infinity and Beyond

The science of Astronomy has fascinated me from a very early age. However, I’m not exactly the most mathematically-minded of persons, so much of what I read in astronomy books and magazines sails over my head in terms of nitty-gritty detail, but I certainly don’t let this put me off the sheer wonder factor that such texts and images can inspire.

Amateur astronomy is one of the most accessible scientific hobbies open to anyone. All you need is a dark sky and your eyes. You don’t even need a fancy telescope, but just a moderate sized pair of binoculars will help immensely. I gave up observing though when I was still fairly young. Living in the suburbs of London wasn’t exactly the best place to carry out this hobby. Light pollution, tall trees and surrounding buildings made it a frustrating hobby – even when you discount the many tediously long nights where the weather wouldn’t play ball and remained cloudy. But, over the course of this last year or so, even though I now live in a much more central city location, I have taken up my binoculars again and found that one needn’t be put off by such urban handicaps. It’s still possible to see plenty even from the centre of a large city like London. Just the other night I completed the last page in a new observing notebook which I began back in January. Having initially tasked myself with sketching small groups of stars, and following the changing positions of Jupiter’s Galilean satellites, as well as tracking and observing artificial satellites in earth orbit, my notebook has been filled with a wonderful record of fascinating sights which would otherwise have gone by unnoticed to me.

When I was at school one of our teachers tasked us with an assignment to write an essay about the life and discoveries of a famous scientist. Knowing of my interest in astronomy, my teacher suggested I write about the astronomer, Edwin Hubble (1889-1953). Hubble was a topical name at the time as this was the year that NASA launched the now famous Hubble Space Telescope. Hubble, in whose honour the famous telescope is named, is the astronomer credited with proving the existence of galaxies beyond our own Milky Way. His observations and interpretation of astronomical data also contributed to the theory of the metric expansion of the universe and the ideas of Big Bang cosmology, although he himself apparently had his doubts in these areas. 

The Hubble Space Telescope was launched in 1990, and after a fault with its main mirror was eventually rectified by the installation of corrective optic components a few years later, the telescope floating high above the atmospheric distortions of our planet has gone on to return stunning images of the heavens better than any Earthbound telescope could hope to achieve. It has also contributed data measurements which have helped to deepen our understanding of the expanding universe.

An interest in astronomy is bound to be allied to an interest in spaceflight too. I was around six years old when the Space Shuttle first began operational missions into low earth orbit. I recall the excitement amongst my school friends on the day of the first fully operational flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia in November 1982, and so it was with fond sadness that I watched the final launch of the Space Shuttle Atlantis in July this year live on-line on NASA TV. Towards the end of its twenty years, the Space Shuttle programme focussed mainly on missions to the International Space Station. The ISS, like the Soviet Space Station Mir before it, has fascinated me. The ISS is such a large construction that it is easily seen with the naked eye when you know where and when to look. I’ve managed to track several passes over London throughout the course of this year. I’ve also managed to listen to some radio transmission voice communications too. It’s quite a mind boggling feeling to hear the voices of the astronauts as you watch them whizzing overhead in a small dot of bright light.

Satellite tracking is also another interesting part of astronomy. When I first began observing as a child you’d soon notice the difference between the slow steady transit of an artificial satellite compared to the fast initially bright and then slow-fading passage of a ‘shooting star’ or meteorite entering the Earth’s atmosphere. But nowadays, with the easy accessibility of relevant data via the internet, it’s possible to know not just which satellites you’ve been observing and what their functions are (communications, weather, military, etc), but also when they will appear. ENVISAT is one of my favourites – watching it appear in the dark sky as it catches the sunlight and then following its slightly orange coloured dot winking as it glides across the arc of the sky is again quite a sight. ENVISAT, which was launched in 2002 by the European Space Agency from French Guiana on an Ariane 5 rocket, is an advanced polar-orbiting Earth observation satellite which provides measurements of the atmosphere, ocean, land, and ice. It too has returned some interesting images, such as the recent ash plumes in the atmosphere from Icelandic volcanoes which have disrupted commercial air travel.

But by far the most interesting of human spaceflight achievements, or at least the one which perhaps captures the imagination most, has to be the Apollo Moon landings of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Everyone has seen the footage of astronauts bouncing across the surface of the Moon and marvelled at the extreme dangers they undertook in reaching the Moon and returning safely to Earth. Our technologies today have since far exceeded the computers used on the Apollo missions, and who knows where or when human spaceflight will venture next? A return to the Moon? A landing on an asteroid? Or even Mars? There is a wealth of unmanned missions currently in progress in our Solar System. There are even two – the Voyager 1 and 2 probes – which are just on the outskirts of the Solar System, now venturing into the unknown environment of deep space. And many of these can be followed on-line in News reports and on the NASA website. One of the most fascinating this year has been the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) which has sent back some fascinating images of the lunar surface, returning such precise detail that we can actually see the footpaths trodden across the lunar dust by the Apollo astronauts some 40 years ago now. In terms of exploration – the sky is no longer the limit, it’s only the start …

10 November 2011

Searching for the Real Robinson Crusoes

Tim Severin’s Seeking Robinson Crusoe (Macmillan, 2002) is a book which thoroughly explores its subject. Starting with the familiar facts Severin searches out the requisite merits of the Selkirk story and assesses the likelihood of Defoe’s familiarity with it.

As one would expect, Tim Severin begins his book with the accepted ‘real life’ inspiration for Robinson Crusoe – the sailor, Alexander Selkirk, who was marooned in 1704 but survived alone for over four years in complete isolation on a remote island in the Pacific Ocean. Severin himself journeys to the shores of the Juan Fernandez islands, where pitching his tent he tallies his own experiences and observations with the known accounts of Alexander Selkirk’s solitary stay there.

In my opinion, the great achievement of Seeking Robinson Crusoe is the way it successfully marries two genres, part historical narrative and part modern day travelogue, the book takes the reader on a series of adventures, skilfully blending the realities of the past and the present in a remarkable piece of writing. Rightly judging that Selkirk’s story is only one of many such tales of adventure on the high seas in the days when buccaneers and privateers roamed the oceans in search of spoils taken by force from Spanish galleons or Spanish settlements and towns on both the Caribbean and Pacific shores of the New World, Seeking Robinson Crusoe also explores a number of other true histories which, Severin argues, could each have been equally well known to Daniel Defoe.

For example, tracing the story of a Miskito Indian, called Will, who preceded Selkirk as a castaway on Juan Fernandez. Surviving there for three years, Will’s story is supposed to have been in part a plausible inspiration for the character of Man Friday. Miskito Indians, from the swampy coastal region stretching between Nicaragua and Honduras, more commonly known as the ‘Mosquito Coast,’ were often recruited by western sailing ships largely for their prodigious skills in ‘striking’ – this was a technique of spear fishing which often kept entire crews fed in times of extreme adversity. Severin neatly departs from his historical narrative to give an account of his own adventures exploring the Mosquito Coast where he meets the descendents of the Miskito strikers who were such an essential part of the privateer crews, only to find that the buccaneer of bygone days is alive and still at large in these waters where he continues to ply his contraband trade in the form of modern day narcotics trafficking.

Other castaways whom Severin goes in search of include Lionel Wafer, a buccaneer surgeon who after being wounded in a pirate raid persevered with a small band of companions through a relentless set of travails in extremis in order to survive the jungles of Panama. Wafer and his companions were reluctantly helped in part by the Kuna tribe whose descendants were far more welcoming of Tim Severin when he arrived in their community. Here Severin finds that the Kuna have since migrated from the mainland to a chain of small islands where they now lead a communal kind of Crusoe-like existence.

In the wandering course of his researches, Severin encounters many such modern day Robinson Crusoes, including a small detachment of Colombian soldiers who are posted to defend their country’s sovereign claim to a small strip of sand known as the Serrana Bank. This “low, whale-backed sandbank, barely rising above water level” is named after Pedro Serrano who was shipwrecked there in the sixteenth century, and – so it is told – amazingly managed to survive for seven years, even though the desert island gave no shelter nor had any source of fresh water.

In his search to find all these possible and more probable elements of inspiration for Defoe’s hero it is a bygone castaway by the name of Henry Pitman whom Severin finally comes to rescue. Pitman and a small band of companions escaped from ‘white slavery’ in Barbados in a small leaking open boat, crossing some 370 miles of sea, only to fall into the hands of pirates who left them marooned on the island of Salt Tortuga. In retracing Pitman’s voyage, journeying to the island in a small sailing boat himself, Severin discovers a number of parallels as related in Pitman’s own account – ‘A Relation of the great suffering and strange adventures of Henry Pitman’ which was published thirty years before Defoe’s fiction. And, in a further bibliographical rather than geographical excursion, Severin stumbles upon a highly probable and convincing connection between the two men which neatly bolsters his claim that, whilst all these true tales can, and in all likelihood did to varying degrees, contribute towards Defoe’s original inspiration, it is perhaps Pitman’s tale which should be attributed the largest share.

Fitting excellently into that tradition of adventure writing which it sets out to examine, Seeking Robinson Crusoe shows us what it once truly was to live and survive on the knife edge of a larger and perhaps more forbidding world; where everyday existence could be a plight to survive in defiance of the odds even before one found oneself marooned upon some far flung, desolate and inhospitable shore. The main strength and success of the book undoubtedly lies in Severin’s accomplished ability to plait together the twin strands of a historical narrative, which he fully explores in the present, and gives thereafter his own true and faithful account. His adept travel writing skills certainly allow him to portray with real immediacy the tough realities and the extreme hardships which many of these now quaintly fabled, old sea-dogs of a former age managed to endure (or not as the case may be). He also manages to show us how the myth of the castaway as embodied by Defoe’s fictional creation continues to endure in all the many modern day counterparts he meets as real characters living in our own day. He splices these two narratives perfectly into a single perspective. Severin’s writing has a lightness of touch which carries the book swiftly with assurance. He stops to colour his prose only where it is most suited to dwell slightly longer than usual. The text is also complimented with maps and illustrations of mainly historical relevance; the only thing to be regretted is that there are no photographs of Tim Severin’s own remarkable journeys in search of the eponymous castaway.

6 November 2011

On Top of the World

One of the great joys of travelling is simply seeing the world. Places, people, cultures, scenery, and climate can all be entirely different to what we know and are most familiar with - experiencing new things and appreciating difference can reward our efforts and enrich our view of the world - and this is why I like to travel.

I’m very lucky because I often cross the globe in unusual ways. By truck, by freight plane, sometimes even by boat. Last month I made what will possibly be the single longest journey of my life. I travelled from Tokyo in Japan, via Krasnoyarsk, Siberia in Russia, to Frankfurt, Germany. And then, after an overnight stop in Frankfurt I continued on to Mexico City, Mexico, via Chicago, USA. I flew the whole way by Freighter, not your usual airliner – just me and the flight crew. Our route took us across Russia to Europe, then out over Britain and Ireland, up to Greenland, then down through Canada, past the Hudson Bay, across the Great Lakes to Chicago, and then further down the US until we reached Mexico. Most of the way I sat in the cockpit and during the day we had amazing views of the scenery below.

The top photo is me sitting in the navigator’s seat in the cockpit of an MD-11 Cargo Freighter. These are medium-sized freighter planes with three engines, one under each wing and one as part of the tail fin. They were originally devised as replacements for the more well-known DC-10. The upper deck behind the cockpit is the main cargo hold, which is curtained off with a huge chain-link crash net. There’s a small rest area, with two seats, the galley and toilet immediately behind the cockpit. The plane changed crews at each stop-off, and for most of the way the crew consisted of a pilot and co-pilot. On one stage there were three crew, a captain and two co-pilots. They each took command of the aircraft in shifts throughout the flight.

Behind me, through the window, can be seen the bright white snowy landscape of Greenland and the clear blue vault of the Arctic sky. The subsequent two photos show the east coast and the third is the west coast. The small white dots speckling the frozen sea around the cliffs in the first picture are icebergs. The second shot shows the vast ice-sheet which covers most of the Greenland landmass. You can imagine how deep it must be by looking at the tips of the mountains which only just manage to peep through the snow and ice (this isn't cloud) in places close to the coast. The immense weight of this ice-sheet is thought to have depressed the centre of the landmass several hundred metres below sea level. The final photo shows a glacier terminating into a fjord on the west side of the coast.

Travelling by Freighter is a unique experience every time. The lack of creature comforts isn’t necessarily appealing to everyone. These aircraft can be noisy and uncomfortable. The rest area of the MD-11 smells a lot like a large canvas army tent. And you certainly have to bring your own entertainment – there’s no in-flight films or music – so be sure to pack an ipod and a book or you’ll die of boredom, especially on a night flight. If it’s day time though you can look out the window (assuming you have one – not all cargo aircraft do!). So much of the world is missed by flying on commercial airliners where the routines of the flight require the passenger to bed down and close the windows and eat at set times. I’ve spent many hours looking out of the windows of cargo planes – watching the purple sunrise over the Gobi desert, or the sun shining on the lakes and glaciers around Mount McKinley in Alaska. And my high school geography lessons paid off when on one flight the crew and I tried to spot the remnants of long extinct volcanoes around Mount Ararat on the Turkish-Iranian border.

28 August 2011

China - Between Revolutions

China is a country which fascinates me. Over the last few years I've been lucky enough to work in China, and have travelled to many parts of the country. It is truly vast, but it is entirely its own world. Much is being made of contemporary China and its current rise in the modern world – politically, economically, militarily. It's fascinating to see how China is changing – and, also, how it isn't. There is a huge difference between the city and the countryside. While certain metropolitan areas are surging ahead there is much in the rural areas which remains unchanged since Mao Zedong's Communist Party took over the country. But, as always in China's history, there is a great disparity between those who have and those who have not.

If you are interested in China's history there are any number of books, films, and websites which will give you chapter and verse on the rise of Chairman Mao, the “Great Helmsman” – whose enormous portrait hangs above the entrance of the Tiananmen, looking out over Tiananmen Square towards his own mausoleum, where he still lies in State to this day. There are also countless books on China’s Imperial past too. One era which it is harder to find books about is the interim period between the revolution which did away with the Manchu Qing Dynasty in 1910/1911 and the Communist "liberation" in 1949, when the Nationalist Government fled into exile on the island of Taiwan, where it remains to this day.

The United Nations continued to recognise the Nationalists as the legitimate Government up until the 1970s, after which many Western countries have maintained their support for Taiwan, but in more muted political and diplomatic terms, quietly supporting Taiwan through trade and cultural initiatives. Whilst cross-strait tensions have eased of late, Beijing would still like to see Taiwan return to the fold one day, as have Hong Kong and Macao. But only time will tell what will become of all these several versions of essentially one China.

The interim period of China’s history in the first half of the twentieth century is a period which has come to take over much of my recent research interests. I am currently researching the life of a British Consular Official who was stationed in China during this turbulent period. He is remarkable because he went against the grain of his time, especially for a man essentially in the diplomatic service of one of the 'great Western powers', by marrying a Tibetan. It was a move, which in part, cost him his career.

I’ve been undertaking this biographical research for the best part of six years now. Amassing all the relevant source material and piecing together various items of information to create a clearer picture has turned into a mammoth undertaking. But it has been and still is immensely interesting and rewarding of itself – not least because I have a family connection to the couple themselves. Their names are Louis Magrath King and Rinchen Lhamo.

Going in search of Louis and Rinchen's personal history has taken me to many different places. I’ve just spent the last two and a half weeks at the National Archives in Kew Gardens. I’ve also spent a lot of time working my way through archive material held at the British Library and the School of Oriental and African Studies, and I’m hoping to look at further archive material in due course at the Royal Geographical Society, and, if needed, at the University of Bristol too. The search has also taken me on a number of journeys, both near and far. I’ve trekked down leafy lanes in Kent, along the bustling thoroughfares of Beijing, Chengdu, and Shanghai, and even up remote mountain paths in western China, where the province of Sichuan borders with Tibet. I’ve also had to familiarise myself with the times in which they lived – not just the complicated and chaotic politics of the feuding Provinces and their various tin-pot warlord Generals, but also the sights, sounds, and smells of their world, to try and imagine what it would have been like to have lived their lives and seen that era as they would have known it back then.

I’ve found a couple of wonderful films on the internet which show, more evocatively than any dusty book or scholarly article, the bygone China which they would have found familiar.

The first is a short documentary made by Sidney D. Gamble (1890 – 1968), who made several journeys in China between 1908 and 1932. This film of a pilgrimage to Miao Feng Shan, some twenty-five miles north-west of Beijing, appears to have been shot between 1924 and 1927. The costume, sedan chairs, and Nationalist Soldiers uniforms are fascinating to me – and whilst China has changed largely beyond all recognition there are some elements here which still echo down to the present day. It’s fascinating to see the Lion Dance – which I’ve seen performed twice, just the same as this, once inside the Forbidden City in Beijing, and once at a small village, called Kam Tin, in the New Territories area of Hong Kong.

The second very short film, from an unmarked reel, appears to be of a metropolitan area – most likely Shanghai or its environs during the 1920s. It shows what life was like for the native Chinese in the foreign concessions.

The third is a newsreel style documentary film about Peking in 1931, with a very sober-style of narration – but which says as much about its time as the pictures it describes. Two continuities between then and now I noted in this film were the split trousers of the small boy eating peanuts – nappies or diapers are a Western child-rearing custom which has never been taken up by China; plus the keeping of song birds as pets and promenading with them in the evenings, which continues to this day too. Happily the custom of female foot-binding has long since ceased, although there are still today a few exceedingly elderly women alive whose feet were bound in infancy. I saw one such woman in the city of Xi’an in Shaanxi Province in 2007.

22 August 2011

Guam - Jungle Trekking

In the summer of 2009 I was living in Japan and went on a short break to the island of Guam. Guam is part of the Mariana Islands of Micronesia in the western Pacific Ocean. Nowadays it is a territory of the United States, but is thought to have been first settled by people migrating from south-eastern Indonesia around 2000 BC. The island still has several sites of prehistoric remains from the early ancestors of the native Chamorro population. The Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan (c.1480-1521), was the first European to visit Guam. The island later came under Spanish colonial rule, and they administered the island until it was ceded to the U.S. in 1898. Guam, as an island of strategic importance, was occupied by the Japanese during the Second World War and today it is still characterised by a large U.S. Military presence. It’s also famous as one of the islands on which lone Japanese soldiers held out long after the war ended in 1945. Sergeant Shoichi Yokoi was one of the last of these surviving 'hold outs', who rather than surrendering had remained for years alone in the jungle. Remarkably he didn’t surrender until he was finally captured in 1972.

What follows is an account of a day’s jungle trekking I undertook to the San Carlos falls in the interior of the island.

“July, 19th 2009 … Our trek began on a highland ridge where we found lots of wild orchids growing. Our trail went on through tight arches of sword grass. We saw a waterfall in the distance amidst grasslands. Wending further on we came to a tree standing alone on a ridge that was gently whistling in the slight breeze. From here we descended down to a band of lush green which just suddenly seemed to appear before us. This was where the jungle began and immediately upon entering the dense greenery we found ourselves clambering down a steep slope clinging to a rope as we went. This was where the trek really began proper, as from here on it was increasingly tough going. The climate markedly changed too, from the cool temperate highland to the hot and humid verdant enclosure of the jungle.

We reached the first waterfall at its top and looked down to the pool below. It was a beautiful view of a tropical jungle scene. We climbed down ropes to the side of the falls to get to the pool where we swam and stood beneath the falling water. Here fish swam up around our toes and we could see freshwater shrimp scuttling over the rocks below the surface.

From here onwards we trekked down the river, walking in the river-stream itself, until we came to the point where our river joined another, we then trekked far up this other river, eventually back to the grasslands again, taking the whole day to do so.

Our second waterfall wasn’t so tall or so picturesque, but rather the falls, the overhang, and the pool were wider. The pool was also much deeper, which meant we were able to jump from the overhang into the water below. Everyone in our party made the jump. It was certainly a blind leap of faith for me, as without my specs on I couldn’t really see where I was going until I actually got there! Swimming in natural freshwater pools is a wonderful, enchanting experience. The water of the first waterfall was cool in temperature and so a welcome relief from the jungle heat; the second waterfall though, being wider and more exposed to the sun, was wonderfully warm, like a natural bath. Our jumping into the pool far below put me in mind of Alex Garland’s novel ‘The Beach’. We stopped here for lunch.

After lunch we continued upriver, over seriously slippery rocks – all of us, including our guide, each took several slips along the way; one of my slips resulted in a purple toe and a sprained wrist which made going on all the more arduous (I later realised that I’d actually broken my toe!).

At one point along the river a large black monitor lizard with tiny yellow dots all over its body fell into the river between me and our guide, who was next up ahead. Our guide gently clapped his hands to encourage the lizard to swim down the narrow stream in our direction. The lizard reached to within a few feet in front of me before it saw the others coming up behind me. It doubled back and then slowly climbed out of the stream, and up the steep bank back into the jungle. The lizard must have been around 1.5 metres long from nose to tail. It was one of the most astounding things I have ever seen or experienced.

In several places the river made for very deep wading. Further up we came to a bend which was a tall, curving cliff in which the layers of a former molten lava flow could be seen. We stopped here a while to cool off in the stream. The heat certainly made things hard going.

The next big falls was our last. Here there was a shallow pool, but to one side was a very deep sink-hole. Here too one of our companions found a large pair of mating toads/frogs. After this we then continued by climbing up the sheer vertical face of the waterfall (like climbing a ladder!) and then, at the top and a little further on, we climbed a second vertical side out of the river and back up into the grasslands. The trail here lead up what looked like a steep dried up river ‘wadi’ on the Planet Mars because the earth was so richly red and dusty. We finally emerged back onto the grassland plain with its sword grass and orchids from which we’d started, now having seen the San Carlos falls.”

Also on 'Waymarks'

17 August 2011

Ring of Fire - An Indonesian Odyssey

The sources of our life’s inspirations can be many and varied. And while it may be a hackneyed cliché to talk of “the book that changed my life” - it’s probably only a cliché because, for so many people, that phrase is so often rooted in very real fact. A book can change your life, or, rather, it can inform it and perhaps even go some way towards shaping or determining its direction.

I have just re-read, after some twenty-or-so years, Ring of Fire by Lawrence Blair with Lorne Blair (Bantam Press, London: 1988). It is a book which accompanied a series of independently produced documentary films, charting a remarkable ten year odyssey around the Indonesian archipelago, which were first shown here in the UK on the BBC. I remember watching each of these episodes with awe filled admiration. I was twelve years old at the time. My abiding memory of these films was the simple fact that there were still wild and exotic places out there, far beyond the suburban confines of my own world, and these films left me with a yearning to see these places and have such experiences of my own. A year or two later and I watched enviously as my brother, almost a decade my senior, set off on his backpacker travels – a year long round the world trip. His letters and postcards, and even a video he shot and edited himself, which he sent back during his travels only whetted my appetite even further as I struggled on with the boring routines of my school work. My world couldn’t have felt any more removed if it tried.

In the first chapter, Dr Lawrence Blair writes of his time pursuing his PhD studies in “the northern wastes” of England where he “sustained [himself] through the dark times with dreams of the southern islands.” Likewise, I sustained myself by losing myself in books such as Ring of Fire and the National Geographic Magazine, and I would watch whatever history, travel, and natural history programmes came on the television. Horizon, Wildlife on One, and even, The Holiday Programme. One day, I vowed, I would sail out and conquer the world for myself. It is only now that I realise what a key part this particular book has played in shaping my life towards realising this particular dream. Re-reading Ring of Fire now, after so many years, I am amazed at how many of its passages – so familiar – have been lodged so long in my psyche. Reading its pages again has been an act of fond remembrance. What I had forgotten though was how Dr Blair is such an effortlessly engaging writer. His prose style is open and familiar, yet it never wavers from absolute, informed intelligence. Like a softly sentient voice whispering at your elbow, he writes with a wonderfully whimsical kind of authority which makes for a truly accessible and amicable guide. I am sad that he has not written more; however, he remains an active filmmaker today (his brother sadly passed away in 1995), and he still lives in Bali, where the narrative of Ring of Fire ends.

The book is a truly magical tale of modern day adventure. In some ways it seems rather quaint now to read of these two brothers struggling with their camera equipment and precious loads of film stock. One imagines that to repeat their journey today all this kind of kit could now be almost immeasurably reduced in size and vastly upped in terms of the quantity of footage that could be digitally recorded. But that would be to lose sight of the original aim of their endeavour – their journey was as much of its time as it was about capturing a rapidly fading era of ritual and traditional ways of life before they changed forever.

But life, as every anthropologist knows, is an ever changing flow. An evolving thread which is spun simply in its being passed from one generation to the next. Nothing remains frozen in time beyond what is captured in photographs and film canisters. The brothers Blair were committed to their urgent race to record what they believed to be one of the last parts of the world untouched by modernity. Sailing with Bugis pirates; living naked amongst a tribe of cannibal head-hunters, who may well have been the fatal end of Michael Rockefeller; documenting the lavish festivities and rites attending the funeral of the King of the Toraja people, a tribe who believe themselves to be descended from the stars; dodging huge, hungry carnivorous komodo dragons (a stunt which stayed in my memory and compelled me to search for hours around Ho Chi Minh City Zoo once, hoping to get a glimpse of these mythical creatures for myself, but, alas in vain); trekking up jungle rivers into Borneo’s still uncharted interior only to find an enchanting lost paradise at a riverine encampment of nomadic Dyaks, who were thought to no longer exist. The intended legacy of these films and this book may well have been to record all these wonderful things – but perhaps one of the most wonderful things that Ring of Fire has captured (something which itself one wonders might well now be truly lost), could be the simple and lovable, eccentric enthusiasm of two bright young British explorers – as the last inheritors of a great tradition.

Well, perhaps not the last – as the enduring popularity of the book and the film series certainly attests. Every exploration finds its inspiration in something that has gone before as the compulsion to seek something new. Ring of Fire was undoubtedly a significant part of my inspiration.

For more information on the book and films see these links:

Ring of Fire: An Indonesian Odyssey - by Lawrence Blair

Ring of Fire: An Indonesian Odyssey (1988) - BBC/PBS

10 August 2011

London's Burning

http://www.theguardian.com/wto/galleryguide/0,6143,196018,00.htmlThe last few days have seen London and other cities across the UK rocked by civil unrest. Seemingly coming straight out of the blue. A peaceful protest apparently hijacked appears to have gone viral. An anarchic spree of looting, spontaneously igniting in different parts of the country.

A few days ago no one could have predicted all this. There still seems to be no root cause or clear reason. Disaffection must run far deeper in our society than anyone had really realised. Some news reports are already labelling these as “the consumer riots” – like something out of an old 2000AD comic. The masses are uniting. Taking flat screen TVs and iphones. The appliance of defiance. Demanding commodities and modern conveniences as their right.

Each night I’ve listened as more police sirens than usual rise and fade beyond my windows. I’ve no idea why this has all started or what it is all about, but it is perhaps a reminder of one thing if nothing else: – how society can change direction on a pinhead.
As for me, I advocate non-violent protest. I’ve taken part in legitimate strikes, demos, and anti-war marches, but I’ve only ever directly experienced one riot firsthand. And that was entirely by mistake. I just happened to be there and was curious to take a look. In my opinion nothing can excuse unprovoked attacks, and, as I know from experience, there’s certainly nothing worse than innocent bystanders getting wrongly caught up in the confusion. The shocking events of the last few days have nudged me to dig this account out of an old notebook. It describes a clash with riot police in London which I witnessed that overtook one of several anti-global capitalism demonstrations against the World Trade Organisation on November 30th 1999:

“7:30pm … There were more people than usual at the bus stop and a steady exodus of feet were heading east from Euston to Kings Cross. Fire engine after fire engine, and ambulance after ambulance, were heading with sirens blaring in the opposite direction. I was stood waiting for a bus, leaning against a lamp post, but it soon became clear that no traffic was coming east. A police van belted past stuffed full of black-armoured riot police with an iron grill pulled down over its windscreen. That was the trigger. I'd never seen a riot before. My curiosity was piqued.
As a police helicopter moved in overhead, I walked up the road and soon found myself
standing in the yard of Euston Fire Station. Anti-capitalist demonstrators on the crossroads were taunting the police. Further up they'd stopped the traffic. An acrid smell of burning was filling the air. They’d managed to overturn a police van and set it alight, but it had swiftly been put out. Very little was happening now. Small scuffles were occurring on the crossroads as it became the frontline for a moment before fading again. At one point people broke into a panicked run of retreat. My heart was racing but I figured it was best to keep off the road in the fire station forecourt. Be passive rather than reactive. Half-hearted anarchists were wandering all around, mobile-phones pressed to their ears, a few with tatty paperback novels in their back pockets. A small enclave of protesters with drums beating had been encircled and held in the grounds of Euston Station itself. A bloke sitting up on top of one of the stone fence pillars of the fire station said he could see protesters being "processed out" of the area by form-filling policemen "one by one." 


After about an hour of getting cold and bored I decided to start walking. Wandering back up towards Kings Cross. Ordinary people, suits and other commuters, were all mixed up with police and protesters. Suddenly there came a band of withdrawing riot cops on either side of the street, all chanting "Full Metal Jacket" style. All helmets, jet-black body armour, shields and batons. Further on, as I drew nearer to Saint Pancras Station, I saw it break loose ahead. A teenage kid in combats and a black balaclava smashed a bottle on the pavement. The helicopter slowly moved back in. I ducked up the passage into the railway station and came back out onto the forecourt and went over to look down from the parapet, other people were already there doing the same. Below the anarchists were in the street. Thumping and throwing over litter bins. Rubbish was being strewn everywhere in the road. A very old man passing by stepped out from the kerb and carefully placed an empty paint pot from the spilt litter in the middle of the road, he then went back to the pavement again waving his fist in the air, his action rousing an amused cheer from those already “reclaiming the street”.
Suddenly riot police ran in from both pavements and a confrontation began. The kid in the balaclava picked up the beacon broken off a pedestrian crossing and threw it at the wall of riot police. It slammed straight into the line of plastic shields at chest height. The anarchists were backing up towards Kings Cross. Two policemen below started hitting and pushing an ordinary passer-by on a bicycle. But then a whole troop of riot police came charging up the Saint Pancras approach ramp and violently started pulling people back from the parapet, ordering everyone either: "Down the steps!" (i.e. - into the riot itself), "Or into the Station!" (out of the riot). Even though the people on the parapet were all innocent bystanders caught in the middle, the police were all pumped up aggression. Of the choice given I quickly chose the latter option and dashed into the railway station, stopping just inside the threshold with a young woman. Looking back we saw a riot cop in a luminous jacket with a plastic shield stood only a few feet away, he levelled his baton with its tip held just under my nose and yelled: "You're next!"
The girl and I exchanged startled and bewildered looks. Another cop pulled him away. Staying in a pack the police turned and disappeared down the steps. I gave it a minute, and then I followed them.
At the foot of the steps a line of ordinary policemen in their tall hats were blocking off the steps down to the Tube; the "state of emergency" lights were flashing above the closed gates and a siren was going full tilt. More armoured riot police were stood just off the kerb with large Alsatian dogs straining and barking frantically at their leashes. A drunk man in smart shirtsleeves and a tie came up and stood just in front of them, smiling stupidly at the dogs. The dogs instantly went mad at this affront, and twenty Officers started screaming at him: "Move! Move! Move!" and "Get back! Get back! Get back!" Eventually he turned as if losing interest and just wandered nonchalantly off into the confused throng of people.


I too moved off, trying to get through. I’d had enough of all this and now just wanted to get home. I crossed the street and found I was blocked from proceeding down Grays Inn Road by a solid wall of riot police in black fatigues and shields, so I ducked down a side street, skirting police and anarchists alike. Finding alleys and avenues out. Down Swinton Street and up an empty Pentonville Road, then onwards into Islington where the re-routed London buses are trying to contend with the stymied traffic and the great throng of displaced and disgruntled Londoners, an overwhelming pedestrian tide, all just trying to make their way home, like me.”

All photos are of the WTO Protest (November 30th, 1999) by Andrew Stuart, PA; Graham Turner, Guardian; Martin Argles, Guardian. Original image source can be found here

9 August 2011

Getting One's Bearings

I was seven years old when I first travelled overseas. It was a short holiday to Portugal in the mid-1980s. And it was enough to persuade me that travel was a fine and exciting endeavour. To this day I still have vivid memories of that first trip abroad. The sights, the sounds, and the smells are still etched in my memory. I remember the sandy beaches and the tall vertical walls of the cliffs along the coast. The brightly coloured wooden fishing boats. Suppers of grilled sardines and buttery boiled potatoes. The potteries and brightly tiled fountains in town squares. The deep red cast of the sunlight over the ocean at sunset. Orange trees. Old churches and chapels. Tall palm trees lining the boulevards of coastal towns, and the high, arid rocky scrub of the inland areas. The people too. All the various friends I made, fellow British holidaymakers, and local Portuguese alike. It was my first journey on an airliner. My first experience of that ear-popping descent which resets our senses ready for new experiences, the first thrill which never fades of looking out of an aeroplane’s window as it comes down to land in a place to which we’ve never been before.

The jolting bump and screech of the aeroplane’s tyres as they touched the runway was but the first of many such landings. And, in starting to think back over my travels here, it seems only right to begin with this, the first of those trips. I've since travelled to several different parts of Europe – Spain, Italy, Germany, France and Greece, to name a few. Many parts of Asia too – China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam. America. Egypt. And also more remote parts of the world, some I’d only touch down in, others where I’d stay a while – Alaska, Guam, and Azerbaijan.

It seems fitting then that whilst staying in the Algarve, the southernmost part of Portugal, we visited the windswept point of the Cabo de São Vicente, Cape Saint Vincent, with its sentinel lighthouse, the most south-westerly point of Europe – the place which the Ancient Greek Geographer, Strabo (64 BC-24 AD), believed was the most westerly point of the known world. A little further along the coast to the west is the Forteleza de Sagres, built in the 15th century on the high flat promontory of the Ponte de Sagres, the site of a famous navigation school – although it is thought to have largely been destroyed either in the 16th century during raids conducted by Sir Francis Drake, or, more likely, during the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. The Forteleza de Sagres is thought to be the place where Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460) taught navigation, perhaps using the still extant rosa dos ventos, or wind compass, a 43 metre stone circle, initiating the Portuguese ‘Age of Discoveries’. This was a place in which learning and art combined in refining the skills of cartographers, navigational instrument makers, and master mariners alike. I remember it as a bleak and wind-blasted place, high on a headland. Looking out from the walls, it was easy to feel the allure of setting out into that vast expanse of ocean, the great unknown of the heaving grey-blue waters of the Atlantic – as had Christopher Columbus before he set out on his most famous voyage of discovery. Perhaps, as the memory of this stark and desolate place has long haunted me, perhaps it was this place too which launched me on my own personal voyages?

6 August 2011


At the foot of our garden, when I was growing up, there flowed a shallow brook which wound its way through an overgrown patch of suburban wilderness. For me and the other children who lived in my street it was a lost world, hemmed in by fences. It was a private playground in which to build camps, fish for sticklebacks, and search for buried treasure, like some other unwritten version of R. M. Ballantyne's Coral Island, or even at times William Goldings' Lord of the Flies. I spent the majority of my summers out there, honing my "survival" skills in the bush, building camp fires (on which I'd cook lunch), whittling sticks, climbing trees - indulging in the exploits of an amateur naturalist, or fancying myself an explorer in search of some fabled lost city ...

At this time too I was losing myself in books on travel and history. Leafing through copies of the National Geographic Magazine. I loved to watch documentaries on ancient civilisations and far flung parts of the world. In time I began to volunteer in museums and go on archaeological digs. When I completed my A-levels I went on to study for a BSc in Anthropology. I was also fortunate enough to land myself a job in one of the UK's largest national museums whilst still only an undergraduate. My job has since allowed me to develop and indulge my own academic interests, whilst simultaneously giving me the great privilege of direct daily access to priceless and fascinating treasures of art and antiquity. And even more fortunately, my job has evolved over the years to include regular stints of travel for extended periods overseas, working in a diverse array of museums and galleries around the world.

I have published a few articles, and I'm also working on a large on-going research project relating to China and Tibet in the early twentieth century, which - I hope - will eventually become a book. My various researches and travels I have poured into numerous notebooks, taking snapshots as I go. It's always been my central belief that our world is worth recording in whatever shape or form that best suits ourselves; for this record is not just an expression of who we are, it is also a picture of the ever-changing world at a certain point in time.

Wherever we go, it's my personal credo that people, places, history, nature - these are all things which we should study and explore. There are wonders to be found everywhere - from the smallest corner of a suburban garden to the wide vistas of great mountain heights, to the vast expanses of the world's oceans, to the infinite space of the night sky overhead - if only we take the time to stop and look ...

Waymarks is intended to be a journal of sorts. An open notebook in which to jot down thoughts and impressions, in which to pursue themes and tangents of personal interest. It will be loosely focussed around my travels and personal research projects; the places I've been and the places I want to go to; the books I've read and the films I've seen - in short it is intended to be an exploration, a personal exploration of the world at large.