Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Away from the Gray by Jo Morehouse; read 9 November 2018

Surfing YouTube whilst bored one evening I came across a channel named Minimal List that is the Vlog of Jo and her American husband, Michael, who have been cruising the English canal network as ‘live-aboards’ (I believe that is the correct term) for the last 2 years on their narrowboat ‘Perseverance’. I can highly recommend the channel and its now become somewhat addictive to follow it even though I have never been on the canal system nor a narrowboat myself. The one thing that is missing from the Vlog is the story of how Jo and her husband came to be living on the boat. ‘Away from the Gray’ is a short (roughly equivalent to 68 pages long) Kindle book that cost only 99p that answers this question. 

Having previously thought about travelling but finding the usual excuses not to – mortgage, relationship, good job etc- in 2013 Jo in her mid-30s was ‘ sitting at my desk looking out at that grey rainy carpark, utterly depressed by the small minded office politics and petty micromanagement surrounding me. I decided there and then that I had to leave my shitty office job, and at the same time leave my house, my family and my friends. I was going to go somewhere else and keep going, I was going to see what else was out there, there had to be more to life than this…’ well there was. Putting her ‘stuff’ into storage and renting her house she set out to journey around the world. She bought an inter-rail ticket to travel solo across Europe and then an Orient Express Ticket to travel the trans-Siberian railway to China. Then travelled overland to Vietnam, where she met Michael who was on his own round the world trip, though going in the opposite direction. Both would hit it off and after completing their own journeys would meet up again and move to work for a year and a bit in New Zealand. They would then move to the LA as Michael had a job offer in his native land get married there. It was in LA that they married and where the sotry for now ewnds before they resurfaced in 2017 in the UK on their boat.
This book proves that you do not have to be a super-hero to travel the globe, Jo is at 1st underconfident and refreshingly honest about it; at times she was lonely. There are some good lessons here that should apply to all of us:

1. The hardest step is the 1st one – as Jo says ‘the hardest thing I had to do was deciding to leave in the first place. The traveling was easy; the deciding to go? Not so much.’
2. When travelling everyday s a Saturday
3. Even on a tight budget don’t be afraid to go over the budget occasionally – don’t regret having missed out on something later
4. An unanticipated positive of budget constraints meant that Jo walked everywhere getting fitter in the process
5. When traveling you need to let yourself have days off, and not feel guilty for not being out and seeing new things all the time.
6. India is pretty unpleasant, Thailand, away from Bangkok is lovely, Vietnam is becoming more commercial but still very nice.
A good wee read this one

Alfred Gregory's Everest by Alfred Gregory; read 27 November 2018

Released in 1993 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the 1st ascent of Everest, this book has been in my loft for nearly 20 years. Gregory was the British mountaineer who, despite being an amateur was the official stills photographer on the 1953 British Mount Everest Expedition. Whilst none of the expedition members were what we might today recognize as professional mountaineers they were all at the top of the sport as it then was in the days before commercialisation changed everything. Secondary roles, such as movie and stills photographer were allocated based on willingness to undertake the task. For Gregory, who reached 28,000 ft in support of Hillary and Tenzing’s successful summit attempt, the expedition would provide a bridge into professional photography such was the quality of his work. In 1992, when this book was put together that was still his profession.

The book is foolscap format, 183 pages long and contains a short foreword by Jan Morris and an introductory chapter by Gregory followed by sectional photographic chapters (Approach, Base Camp etc) that show a world and Nepal before the modern world had intruded. Not only has man intruded but also climate change has also meant that the giant ice seracs at the Base camp (not the same as today’s Everest Base Camp) used by the expedition have also gone as the glacier has retreated.

The photos themselves are stunning when one considers how hard it must have been to provide sufficient contrast on black and white film against a world of snow, ice and rock without the aid of integrated light meters and camera sensors. Today a photographer can check instantly how well his photograph has turned out and take it again a thousand times. Gregory had no such luxury of feedback – he took the photo and then sent the negative away to be processed hundreds of miles away and had to wait to be told by returning mail whether he had got a good shot or not. Indeed, he was not to see most of his photos between the time he pressed the shutter and 1992 when putting this book together. That many have become classics is a huge tribute to his ability.

Gregory’s photos are still subject to copyright but many can be viewed here:

Gregory died in 2010 at the age of 96.

Photo of the Western Cwm of Everest - Moving Mountains Trust [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Erebus: The Story of a Ship by Michael Palin, read 7 December 2018

Many remember the heroic age of Polar Exploration as taking place in the time of Shackleton, Amundson, Scott and Peary at the start of the 20th century but 60 years before two little Ships, the Erebus and the Terror , just a hundred feet long and powered by sail completed heroic journeys of their own. Under James Clark Ross they travelled further South into the Antarctic pack ice than any ship before or for a further 70 years before. I thoroughly enjoyed Michael Palin’s story of the Erebus (now lying in around 90 feet of water in Queeen Maud Gulf in Canada,having been abandoned, on the disastrous Franklin North West Passage expedition, probably in 1846 or 1847. As I am short of time I am going to use the Guardian’s review below to save me writing my own, not least as it accords so nearly with my own assessment of the book:

If there’s one thing the British love more than a hero, it’s a heroic failure. Few individuals fit this category better than the 19th-century polar explorer Sir John Franklin. If his memorial in London’s Waterloo Place is to be believed, he cut an impressive figure: firm-jawed and barrel-chested, his statue gazes towards the horizon as if searching for new worlds to conquer. The reality was very different.
A podgy, balding Royal Navy officer, by the age of 40 he had already achieved an unenviable kind of fame, after he led an overland expedition to chart the north coast of Canada, during which half his men starved to death and Franklin himself earned the nickname The Man Who Ate His Boots. But it wasn’t until he led another Arctic expedition in 1845, this time to find the fabled Northwest Passage, that Franklin truly became a household name, although again this was because of what he had failed to do rather than what he had done.

Several years after he should have returned, a search party stumbled across a sad trail of relics in the snow, including a chronometer, four teaspoons, and a copy of Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield, together with some human bones that had been gnawed on by human teeth. What had begun as a voyage into the icy unknown had apparently turned into a real-life Heart of Darkness. Despite angry protestations from such influential figures as Charles Dickens, and a determined one-woman campaign by his widow Lady Jane, it looked suspiciously as if Franklin (or one of his crew) had become The Man Who Ate His Men.

Although the story of this disastrous voyage has often been told, two things distinguish Michael Palin’s revisiting of it. The first is that he’s Michael Palin, which means that his narrative is driven by a deep sympathy for explorers and adventurers, while also being illuminated by flashes of gentle wit. (Whales are so reluctant to hurry, he points out, that their lives appear to be like “the human equivalent of taking very long baths”.) The second is that he has plenty of new material to draw on, the most important of which was the discovery of Franklin’s ship HMS Erebus by a Canadian underwater archaeology team in 2014. Lost for almost 170 years, it lay virtually intact on the Arctic seabed, swaddled by strands of kelp and preserved by the ice like a giant ship in a bottle. In classical mythology, Erebus usually referred to the depths of the Underworld, and the ship that bore this name had certainly found a suitable resting place for itself.
But before Franklin took it on its final voyage, Erebus had spent several years successfully exploring other equally bleak parts of the planet, and it is this previous life that forms the first two-thirds of Palin’s book. It’s a fascinating story that he brings full-bloodedly to life, stripping away the barnacles of the past to reveal the hidden history of a ship that spent years encountering places such as Cape Disappointment, Delusion Point and Exasperation Bay.

Commissioned in 1823, the 372-ton Erebus was one of the last warships known as bomb vessels. Designed to fling shells high over coastal defences, they are referred to in “The Star-Spangled Banner”, where “the bombs bursting in air” alludes to the fire from British bomb ships. A tough, squat vessel, she spent a couple of years patrolling the Mediterranean as a visible reminder that Britannia ruled the waves. But it wasn’t until she was converted from a warship to an ice-ship that Erebus acquired a distinct identity. Her hull was strengthened with six-inch oak planking, and extra thick copper sheeting was used to cover the bow from waterline to keel. Under the command of the dashing Captain James Clark Ross, the crew of the Erebus then spent the next four years voyaging further south than anyone had ever been before.

As Palin notes, they were “polar pioneers”, at one time even sighting the Antarctic continent itself: a barren white landscape that looked like a huge sheet of paper waiting for someone to write on it. Then came the more complicated mission of finding a way through the Arctic’s moving jigsaw puzzle of ice, which Ross declined and Franklin eagerly accepted. The main challenge with this sort of biography is that it’s hard to make life at sea sound interesting. A captain who ran a tight ship in the 19th century was thought to be one who kept his men busy with regular daily routines, occasionally punctuated by bursts of official violence when a sailor was thought to deserve a flogging. Even so Palin teases out some good stories, such as Ross and his men spending New Year’s Day 1842 dancing in an “ice-ballroom” they had created, where “ice-creams were handed round”, followed by “a sort of slapstick Antarctic Olympics”, where they attempted to climb greasy poles and catch greased pigs.

Palin also has a good understanding of the personalities involved, such as the ship’s surgeon and naturalist Robert McCormick, who had previously been on the Beagle with Charles Darwin, and claimed to be “a lover of the feathered race” despite taking every opportunity to blaze away at them before (no doubt lovingly) stuffing their carcasses. Like Franklin himself, such figures were obviously deeply flawed – gods with feet of slush – but Palin deals with them tactfully and kindly, recognising that it is precisely their failure to live up to their own heroic ideals that makes them so interesting to modern readers.

Just across the road from the Franklin statue in Waterloo Place is a memorial to Captain Scott, who was beaten to the South Pole by Roald Amundsen. A few years earlier Amundsen was also the first man to cross the Northwest Passage by sea. And as Palin points out: “He has no memorial in London.”

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Book Review - The Mountains are Calling: Running in the High Places of Scotland by Jonny Muir; read 1 November 2018

The Mountains are Calling: Running in the High Places of Scotland by Jonny Muir; read 1 November 2018

The front cover of this book includes Alastair Humphrey’s comment from his review ‘A paean of praise for the mountains and the runners who go there.’ and this is a great description of this book. Although the topic of the book is unashamedly Hill Running (not Fell Running – that’s for the Lake District) in Scotland it is not a book solely for runners. Anyone with an interest in the mountains of Scotland will enjoy this book. Its central theme, though not sole topic, is Ramsay’s round, a run over 24 Munros in under 24 hours. Its climax is the author’s own completion of the round in 2017 when he became the 101st person to complete it.

The book introduces the Ramsay’s Round early on and always comes back to it but follows different Mountain rounds, Tranter and Bob Graham for example, and the people who run them. It talks about the Cuillin traverse on Skye and introduces short local and training runs and the amateur and understated culture of the Hill running scene. Some of the heroes of the sport – such as Angela Mudge – one of Britain’s former world champions of whom you are unlikely to heard of unless you have read this book are already involved in the scene. Vet Jasmin Paris the former record holder of the Ramsay Round (holding the Male and Female record at the time) and her husband whose training is to just go running. Alex Brett the story of whose death on Liathach is told with sympathy and many others are here.

Stories of some of the record breaking Ramsay rounds as well as the author’s own round in the penultimate chapter are inspiring. Tales of the winter Ramsays rounds (usually taking more than 24hours) usually held in appalling weather and mostly in the dark with minimal equipment make one realise just what tough Hombres these athletes are.

The final chapter asks several questions about the future of the sport. Is it becoming to commercialised and are commercially run races a threat to the ethos of the sport? The perennial question is also asked, though not answered, on where the next generation of Hill runners shall come from. These questions are left hanging for the reader to make his or her own conclusion though the author is upbeat. Throughout the language is sublime and the book is an inspiration – I will look to walk the Ramsay round over a few days next year as a result of reading this book.

For more on Jonny's adventures go here


Jasmin Paris has since gone on to achieve the record (male and female for the Montane Run along the Pennine way - - Jasmin Paris becomes first woman to win 268-mile Montane Spine Race | Sport | The Guardian

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Sailing a Long(ish)boat - July 2018

One of the original Roskilde Ships in the Ship Museum

Ever since reading Magnus Magnusson's 'The Vikings' in the early 1980s I had wanted to visit the Viking Ship Museum at Roskilde (at the head of Roskilde Fjord) in Denmark.  The museum holds the permanent exhibition of five original Viking ships excavated in the Fjord in 1962.  They had been deliberately sunk as Block Ships some 900 years earlier at the end of their working lives.  Their excavation has allowed the authentic reconstruction of the vessels to take place and a number of discoveries have resulted from this experimental archeology (e.g. we know that the life of one of these vessels was around 35 years as the iron nails rotted and damaged the surrounding wood beyond repair in that time).  I achieved this ambition in September 2017 but missedout on the chance to sail one of the vessels that day as I had not booked in advance (sailings can be booked on the museum website between May and September).

Roskilde Cathedral - A Unesco World Heritage Site

In July 2018 I returned with Marie and Matthew, this time with tickets for an 1 1/2 trip in the fjord.  There are several replicas used to provide trips but I was lucky enough to sail in one of the newest vessels and the one that 9 months earlier I had viewed under construction (the master boat builder at Roskilde is Faroese and builds using traditional skills).  When one sails thes ships it is easy to realise why the vikings were so successful.  The ship has an incredibly shallow draught - we sailed  in less than 18" of water without so much as scraping the bottom - and without the use of anything other than a light breeze were able to maneuver with ease using the sail alone having used oars only to leave the harbour.

The ship we sailed - under construction Sept 2017

Monday, 7 January 2019

A disappointingly boring heritage

For my birthday I treated myself to an DNA testing kit with the idea that I would find out a little of my ancestors.  Born in the east of England (formerly part of the Danelaw) of an English father and Irish mother I suppose I should't have been surprised by the results but I do admit I was hoping for something a little more exotic than this: