22 November 2016

Mountain Climbing by Mistake

It isn’t often that you find yourself climbing a mountain by mistake. Or at least, hopefully, it isn’t. Then again, if we take ‘climbing a mountain by mistake’ as a metaphor for life, it might feel like something that happens with all too frequent a sense of regularity when we reflect on the thankless struggles we tackle in our everyday lives. But this really is the story of climbing a real mountain … by mistake.

I was in South Korea. And oddly, although perhaps appropriately enough I can no longer recall the name of the mountain. It wasn’t far outside Seoul. Somewhere in the Bukhan-san National Park. Looking at my well-thumbed guidebook there are a number of peaks and rocky knolls there, but I suspect it was Dobong-san (739.5 m / 2,426 ft). Neither I nor the friend I made the impromptu trek with took very many photos that day, and I made very few notes on this particular trip to Korea, so I’ve little to go on besides my hazy memories of it.

The trek itself has since formed itself into an odd little footnote to a trip of far more remarkable events besides; hence why its memory has probably since been almost entirely eclipsed. We had only been in Korea for a day or so. We were there to work on an exhibition at the National Museum of Korea. When we landed in Seoul we were met with the odd news that whilst we’d been airborne a seemingly unpronounceable volcano (Eyjafjallajökull) in Iceland had erupted and so all subsequent flights across Europe had been indefinitely grounded, thereby delaying our colleagues who were meant to be following us escorting a second shipment of artworks. The distinctly distant and vaguely surreal reality of this situation was added to by the fact that of more local concern the TV news bulletins in Seoul were nervously preoccupied by the fact that only a few days before a South Korean naval corvette, the Cheonan, had sunk in mysterious circumstances off the coast not so far away from the city, sadly with the loss of many young servicemen’s lives. 

Each morning I watched the TV news reports as day-by-day it slowly seemed to become clearer that the incident was an unprovoked suspected North Korean torpedo attack. Several large white tents were set up as a temporary memorial near to our hotel in which serried ranks of portraits of those sailors who had died were displayed on altars, and a state of national mourning was declared. There was a distinct air of uncertainty as to what, if anything might happen next on either side of the DMZ as a consequence of this incident; but there was also a very real sense in Seoul that normal life should go on unchanged. Hence perhaps why somewhat bizarrely we took advantage of the following free day to visit the DMZ itself (which you can read more about here), hoping we wouldn’t find any ‘unexpected visitors’ approaching from the other side. Later on, whilst working on the exhibition, we got to know the (then) British Ambassador to Korea, who told us he and his staff had contingency plans in place to evacuate British nationals if things came to a head; I half-jokingly asked him if he had room on board for some of the more famous artworks we’d brought with us to Seoul. Happily it never came to pass; plus the skies over Europe eventually cleared from the fallout of volcanic ash, but the late arrival of our second shipment meant we had to work long and late, thereby very sadly missing our invitation to drinks (and presumably an unlimited flow of Ferrero Rocher chocolates) at the Embassy.

I was recently put in mind of this long forgotten, impromptu trek up a small Korean mountain by reading Robert Macfarlane’s excellent book, Mountains of the Mind (Granta, 2003), which is subtitled ‘the history of a fascination.’ As anyone who regularly reads ‘Waymarks’ will be well aware, I too have a fascination for the history of exploration – and whilst the Himalaya definitely forms a key focus to my fascination (indeed, whilst researching in the Foreign Office archives I couldn’t help becoming side-tracked by papers relating to the 1921 and 1922 expeditions to Everest, and later I was fortunate enough to meet the family of George Mallory, to whom Macfarlane devotes a chapter of his beautifully evocative book), I tend to shy away from the colder extremes of actual mountain tops and the polar regions. I’ve never been tempted to try proper mountaineering for myself, but when I was younger, holidaying in Cornwall each summer, I used to delight in nimbly scaling down steep rocky cliffs to reach secluded beaches with my family. Vertigo was never a problem for me until much later on in life, when now it has the ability to flush my palms cold and turn my legs to jelly at the most unexpected of moments as I discovered when travelling in the Tibetan foothills of West China. But my first flinch may have inadvertently occurred on this little trek in Korea earlier that same year.

We had taken the train out to Bukhan-san from Seoul. I can’t recall where we got off, but now looking at a map either Dongbong-san or Mangwol-sa Stations seem the most likely. It was still cold and very wintery weather, so we were wrapped up warm; but neither of us was wearing the right kind of footwear for what was ahead mainly because we had no real idea of where we were heading. I was wearing plimsoll-like shoes with completely smooth soles, my friend’s shoes were much the same. Exiting the station amidst a swarm of senior citizens we found rows of market stalls all set out and groaning beneath piles of outdoor trekking gear. Everything you could possibly imagine, from Goretex jackets and thermal-mesh balaclavas to bionic-looking boots with cramp-ons and graphite extendable walking poles. Most of the gear was the real deal, all fancy labels and equally fancy price tags attached. We joked to ourselves at what we took to be the overly fashion-conscious seriousness with which everyone here seemed to take in simply going for a little walk in the countryside. I’d had a taste of the Korean outdoorsy-type a few years before on a trip to Dajeon further south. It seems to be a pastime here mostly for those well past retirement age, and one which is very much focussed on personal fitness rather than a relaxing engagement with nature. 

We were soon stunned, however, as we progressed into the Park as the trail was filled with old folk all hyper-energetically ‘speed-walking’ their way along the tracks gently winding through the woods, heading uphill. They were clearly far fitter than we were. We rather hoped their numbers would thin out a bit as we got higher up, but if anything the paths got increasingly congested. At certain narrow points people politely queued and then alternated to let those ascending pass up and those descending pass down. Everyone seemed very well mannered and in good cheer, although clearly all were bemused to see two scruffy and ill-attired foreigners wheezing up the path – we felt sure most of the loud chatter passing up and down the line was about us and certainly the ripples of humour were clearly at our expense.

Given how crowded the ascent became we had little choice in places but to keep moving, such was the insistent press of people behind us. The sense of politeness seemed to give way as we felt increasingly jostled not to hold the line up. Our own jocular hilarity quickly waned, but by now we found it was too late – we’d crossed a Rubicon of sorts. Seeing men in full climbing gear with ropes coiled over their shoulders descending from the route we were heading up didn’t exactly fill me with reassurance. We were now being urged up steep smooth rock surfaces into which steel ropes had been anchored. The twisted metal wires were polished and icy cold such that it was better to remove our gloves in order to get a workable grip on them. Panting like a pair of mad dogs we clambered on until all of a sudden we startlingly found ourselves perched on a narrow pinnacle of rock – we’d “summited”; but here too there was no relenting. The push of people rising from behind forced a tight circumambulation on the sixpence of the rock. I forced myself onto a higher patch where I half sat / half clung, and remained resolutely immoveable as I tried to get my breath back in the cold, clear air. My bulky city clothes and my bald shoe soles had made that climb twice as hair-raisingly perilous as the claustrophobic peer-pressure around me had made it feel fraught.
“That was simultaneously surreal and insane,” I said to my friend.
“It certainly was, but just look at that view.”
Beneath us, across a vista of bulbous rocks and spiky pine trees, in that magical light which seems to characterise the “Land of Morning Calm,” we could see the vast city we’d left behind. Or at least, all the buildings, the roads and the subway lines, all the empty cars and empty trains, for it felt like all the inhabitants of Seoul had accompanied us on this little trek. There was no chance of feeling lonely up there on that ridiculously small rock.

On our way back down we spied a tiny little trail leading off the main track. It seemed like nothing more than an animal track through the undergrowth but we both decided we’d follow it. We were desperate to escape the mobile metropolitan crowds. All through the forest we could hear the echoes of their incessant chatter, some were even carrying portable radios which were loudly blaring out tinny tunes as they trekked. As we skittered down our makeshift path the ground underfoot began to get boggier. As we progressed we came to realise our little ‘path’ was in fact a frozen streambed. We dropped into a sheltered hollow which would probably become a small waterfall in the coming summer months; here we sat ourselves down on a mossy rock and reflected on our climb and just how different a mindset these Korean trekkers seemed to have to our own. There seemed no sense of awe or appreciation, nor even a simple awareness of the natural world around them. A complete collective disregard for stillness and tranquillity reigned. Except for a couple of selfies rapidly snapped at the top no one seemed to be particularly interested in the view or the wildlife. We’d not seen a single pair of binoculars – and neither had we seen a single wild animal, not even a solitary bird. It was little wonder with all the noise and bustle, with all the clamour to conquer the adversities of the landscape and defy the unstoppable advance of age and time. If life is a metaphorically unexpected mountain clearly you have to prepare and kit yourself out to climb it successfully. But, that said, one should never underestimate the mad, misguided sense of satisfaction that can be derived from unwittingly setting about it in your bald soled shoes – and living to tell the tale!

Photos by Tim Chamberlain and Celeste Farge, 2010

11 November 2016

Remembrance ...

It seems there is much for us to question in these modern times. Not least with the recent turn of events – with the on-going conflicts in Syria and Iraq, and with the humanitarian crisis this has precipitated in Europe; with the divisive issue of Brexit; with the outcome of the US Presidential election. But one thing which I never anticipated I’d ever need to question is a simple act of remembrance.

Each year on this day, November 11th – Armistice Day, we come together to remember those who have fallen in the two World Wars of the last century. For as long as I can recall, like so many people in the UK, at this time of year I have always worn a little red paper poppy. I learnt long ago when I was a child at school that these commemorative poppies were made by the smart red-coated Chelsea Pensioners, veterans of these two wars, and that we wore these poppies as a quiet symbol of our respect and remembrance for the sacrifices their two generations made to ensure that Europe and the wider world remained free from the forces of fascism and oppression. As I grew older and studied this history in greater depth I came to realise that the global truth – both then and now – isn’t quite so simple as that, but in essence I always felt that the sentiment behind this day of remembrance was exactly that simple. War is bad. Never again.

Yet, in recent years I’ve begun to feel increasingly conflicted about the simple act of donning my paper poppy. It seems increasingly clear to me that the nature of this act and what it is seen and held collectively to express has altered. With the death of Harry Patch, the last of those veterans of the First World War in the UK has passed. That conflict has ceased to be a living memory, it is now history proper. And there are fewer veterans of the Second World War each year standing in solemn remembrance at the cenotaph and at local war memorials across the country. But so too, very sadly, in recent years the numbers of this country’s war dead have increased significantly with the UK’s involvement in armed confrontations in Afghanistan and the Middle East. It’s perhaps no surprise then that the efforts of the British Legion (who organise the annual event of distributing these paper poppies), and the rise of the charity Help for Heroes, have each sought to reorient this annual act of remembrance. It’s wholly right and understandable that such individuals should not be forgotten, but to me something does seem deeply amiss in all this.

Wartime Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill has recently replaced social reformer and Quaker, Elizabeth Fry as the face on the new £5 note

Armistice Day, in my mind, represents that ideal of ‘Never Again.’ Yet the evidence of recent years runs contrary to this. Instead we live in a world where ‘Again and Again’ is becoming the norm. Armed conflicts are seemingly becoming normalised. War is big business. Especially for certain members of the elite; politically and economically, we are told, both tacitly and overtly, that arms are necessary, wars are necessary. I reject that notion completely. And I increasingly feel that it is the entire global system which is at fault here.

I am of the generation who came of age as the Berlin Wall came down. For us the end of the Cold War seemed to herald a new and unprecedented age of freedom, of happiness and contentment to come. Looking back though, particularly since the UK referendum on its membership of the European Union, I find the seeds of doubt were blindingly obvious even then. I didn’t understand the desperately bloody events in Balkans during the 1990s; they seemed to run counter to this Post-Cold War sense of optimism for the future. They seemed like an anomaly at the time, but since the Brexit decision I have revisited this era. I immediately turned to Timothy Garton Ash’s History of the Present (Penguin, 2000) in an effort to help me try to fathom why this idealism and optimism upon which I’d founded my world outlook now seemed so precarious. The Balkan conflict was a complex one, but essentially perhaps not altogether too complicated to comprehend. At risk of being too simplistically reductive it strikes me as a war of petty prejudices driven by equally petty and tawdry nationalisms. And this is what now worries me most about the future trend of global affairs. Populist nationalism is clearly on the rise. In this respect Timothy Garton Ash is still writing and trying to make sense of our times, even today (see here). This virulently populist nationalism has become alarmingly manifest in many countries besides my own. This poses urgent questions for all of us. What will become of all this? Where are we heading? … Another prescient book to read in this respect might be Sebastian Haffner’s Defying Hitler (Picador, 2003).

The other day, whilst on my way to work I was directly accosted by a young man smartly dressed in an expensive looking suit. He thrust a collection tin at me. In his other hand was a box filled with paper poppies, poppy wristbands, enamel poppy badges, sparkling "blingy" poppies, and red rosette-style woolly-crocheted poppies. His manner was volubly direct and aggressive: “Can I interest you in a poppy, Sir?” His tone was an odd mix of accusatory but needy solicitation. He’d evidently homed in on me because I wasn’t wearing a poppy already. And he had deliberately moved to block my path. These actions prompted a similarly forthright reaction in me: “No.” I said firmly. That reaction I realised was instinctively reflexive, but nonetheless deeply rooted. I often feel myself harden to direct confrontation. I tend to stand my ground. But my reply, I realised was in fact the informed culmination of several years of carefully weighed consideration. As he’d effectively stopped me dead in my tracks I took a moment and looked around me. There were many young men similarly smartly dressed like him, squads of them in fact, all swarming around the entrance to the Tube station I was trying to enter. I pass by this way every day and invariably there are two men sitting on the pavement here, with little cardboard signs set before them stating that they are ex-paratroopers, begging for loose change. They weren’t there that morning.


A similar thing happened to me last year too. As I exited Temple Tube station and turned left, where there is a steep set of stone steps leading up to the street. That day the top of these steps were lined by a solid wall of military personnel – from the Army, the RAF, the Navy – all neatly turned out in their immaculate dress uniforms, looking down on us. Ready. All set to accost (or confront?) this beetling swarm of commuters exiting the station. This towering wall of military men was almost impassable. They deliberately didn’t make it easy for the ordinary people to get by. It’s this imposing blockade of patriotic coercion, intimidating and expectant which bothers me. How could anyone not want to donate and take a poppy? How could anyone question something which was their duty? Our duty to remember. Our duty to support the … the what? … The veterans? The British Legion? The national institution of the country’s armed forces? The lads in uniform? Or the foreign policies of our political classes and our ruling elite (seemingly regardless as to what their political colour outwardly professes to be)? There’s an oddly misplaced and uncomfortably bitter irony in talk of the “Poppy Fascists.”


My cynicism is growing deeper. Reading how the major arms manufacturers are cashing in on Remembrance Day (see here) only calcifies my distrust. Reading how many of today’s veterans also reject this present state of affairs with increasing vehemence (see here) only compounds my sense of dismay and despair. Something feels very wrong in all this. And as a historian it is impossible not to anguish and reflect on these conflicted issues and instincts over and over inside. Not least with all the centenary events to commemorate that first cataclysmic global conflict, the first industrially mechanised orchestration of death which swept away so many young lives, which are happening at present. Those “lions lead by donkeys.” We flood the moat of the Tower of London with a patriotic efflorescence of our collective piety. Never again! – And yet … our political leaders green light the renewal of something darkly awful like Trident – because “it will be good for industry, good for the country’s economy, as well as for our national security and defence.” They are doing it for us. But how many of them or us reflect on the fact that one single Trident missile armed with substantially less than its full capacity of warheads is sufficient to kill more individual lives than the entire total of those deaths which that moat of blood red poppies was set up to represent? … That’s more than 888,000 people with just one missile (see here for a fuller explanation of the maths). It seems to me that if there are lessons to be learned from history, from war, and from the present uncertainties in which we live – we’d do well to remember and reflect a little more deeply.