Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Widening Gyre

And so it begins...or does it? After I blogged my predictions last week that the referendum would deliver a resounding ‘Remain’ vote, 17 million people-52% of the electorate- said ‘thanks but no thanks...we’re off!’. I went to bed on Thursday night reading that Nigel Farage ‘was conceding defeat’ and exit polls were showing 52/48 Remain and I woke up to be told that the world had turned upside down. Shock ! Since the result was announced the UK has gone a bit bat shit crazy! Hysteria and recrimination is the favoured currency, especially on the social media. The Guardianist constituency especially, has really lost it big time with some remarkably reactionary views surfacing. Views which are every bit as disturbing as those coming from the knucklehead right. As someone of a fairly tolerant and liberal persuasion who essentially values our electoral system in the UK for what it is; an imperfect but essentially worthy system of organizing society, I’ve been shocked by those who now see whole swathes of society as the enemy.

Not least the older generation and the working/underclass. One of the more disturbing manifestations of this was ‘that’ petition. A petition to overturn the referendum result and either allow parliament to ignore it or run it again. As the numbers mounted so did the hysteria..one million, two million...three million! Never mind the fact that the petition was futile, UK legislation does not allow for electoral rules to be changed AFTER a vote- and tainted with false votes-thousands of votes were registered as coming from Vatican City!- it was the principle which shocked me. Here was an essentially privileged class asking for a democratic vote to be overturned because basically, the vote didn’t go the right way. Think about that. Ignore the views of 17 million voters because they are old, unemployed and/or uneducated. Hence they are mostly racists and bigots.

I still struggle with the fact that so many intelligent liberal friends feel that it’s justifiable to ignore the result of a democratic election and struggle even more with the fact that if their wishes came about and their reactionary views were acted upon, then how could they not see how that would play out on the streets of Britain? Do they think that the explosion of anger and street violence which would spring from an election being sabotaged by the state and the views of millions ignored, would surely dwarf any fall out from Brexit? Economies can be fixed fairly quickly. Fluctuations are to be expected and can be lived through and ridden out in months or a few years at most. However, a society which falls apart through the manipulation of the democratic process may well have disastrous consequences which could resonate for far longer and impact far deeper.

These are strange days we are living through and the febrile atmosphere is stirring up a noxious cocktail of racism, class warfare and intolerance on all sides. I can only think of lines from Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming’. How ‘The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity’. Except who are ‘the best’ and who are ‘the worst’. I just just can’t tell anymore?

Monday, June 20, 2016

The EU referendum: How would George Orwell vote?

This week the UK electorate will be asked to vote whether the UK should remain part of the European Union. Depending on your perspective a vote to leave will either unleash the hounds of economic hell or deliver a new dawn of prosperity and freedom. As always, the reality will inevitably be somewhere between the two polarized extremes.

As someone of a leftist green political persuasion who would cite independently minded, free thinking individuals like George Orwell and Edward Abbey amongst those whose ideas and works have impacted upon my own political philosophy, I have found myself pondering how would an English Socialist patriot like Orwell have voted if he were alive today? Indeed, as someone who fought in the Spanish Civil War against fascism and whose most popular works, 1984 and Animal Farm warned of the dangers of centralized bureaucracies then I have no doubt that Orwell-and Abbey if he had been a UK citizen-would have been in the leave camp. Orwell as a democrat would have hated the idea of political policies being made in Europe by a political elite which by virtue of the make up of the administration,was out of reach of the British electorate. It was a point that the late Tony Benn-a long term campaigner against the EU-laboured. The fact that in the UK we can throw out the government every five years through the ballot box. Something in an EU electoral context we most certainly cannot achieve.Not least as UK MEP’s constitute less than 10%-and shrinking-of the European parliament.

Heading for a landfill site.

As an environmentalist I have witnessed a serious decline in the state of the UK’s natural environment in the last last 40 years, not least driven by the obscene Common Agricultural Policy. Forget Barley Barons, wine and milk lakes, butter and grain mountains; forget ploughing crops into the ground to keep prices artificially high or the fish discard policy which has seen millions of tons of perfect fish thrown back dead into the sea to fulfill the insane fish quota system. I’m taking about the grubbing up of hedgerows, draining of wetlands and ponds, clearing of woodland, the overgrazing of our uplands, etc...all leading to a massive reduction in many animal, bird and plant species. Many driven to complete extinction by the crazy EU CAP subsidy system which encourages greedy farmers and landowners to milk the subsidy system dry while destroying the natural environment.

I was thinking about George Orwell writing of that constituency Edward Abbey described as ‘kneejerk liberals’ or in modern parlance a ‘Guardianista’. Despite both men being on the political left, both had an equal contempt for both this political class and the conservative establishment. Writing in ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’ Orwell observed ‘ To this you have got to add the ugly fact that most middle class socialists,while theoretically pining for a classless society,cling like glue to their miserable fragments of social prestige. I remember my sensation of horror on first attending an ILP (Independent Labour Party) meeting in London; it might have been different in the North where the bourgeoisie are less thickly scattered. Are these mingy little beasts I thought, championing the working class? For every person there,male or female,bore the stigmata of sniffish middle class superiority. If a real working man, a miner dirty from the pit,had suddenly walked into their midst,they would have been angry,embarrassed and disgusted...’

I offer this as I have seen both in the news media and in the social media how working class so called ‘Brexiters’ are automatically labelled as racists and bigots if they raise the taboo subject of immigration into the equation. Happily for the Guardianista, established in a profession with a good income, a home and the means to travel and sate their passions, they do not have to suffer to the same extent the very real impact of the EU’s open door migration policies. Despite the often cited-and frankly asinine comment-that as only 2% of the UK is under concrete then we have plenty of room for more people, the fact is that EU economic migrants are not moving to The Knoydart Peninsular, The Outer Hebrides or Dartmoor,they are packing like sardines into London, The South East and the great conurbations. The effect on the working and underclasses has been profound. The depression of wages and rapid social cleansing through unaffordable housing. This sees previous working class districts in London either gentrified or turned into bedsit lands where family homes are divided into profitable single room bedsits or flats. Fine if you are a student or single person with an income,no use at all if you have a family. In London and elsewhere, this has seen the flight of the working/underclass to sink estates and far flung towns,distant from family and friends.

Of course the benefits of having a large pool of labour for the wider market economy means that with a surplus of labour, bosses can select employees who will work for less,work on zero hour contracts and refuse to employ anyone who belongs to a trade union. Not a problem if you are a recently arrived Romanian or Bulgarian who is used to working for peanuts back home but more a problem if you are a UK worker with a family to support and rent or a mortgage to pay. This of course is not to offer a racist spin on EU migration as the Pro EU campaigners would have it, but to point out the economic factors born from a left wing understanding of how market economies function.

In the Scottish referendum the highest support for independence came in the poorest districts of Glasgow and Dundee. Places where the working/underclass perceived they had nothing to lose and possibly everything to gain from leaving a political structure that wasn’t working for them and ditching the political machine-The Labour Party- which had taken them for granted and failed them. In the EU referendum there is the same distaste for a remote establishment which has failed them and it would be ironic if that class of people the Guardianists see as either noble savages or racists and bigots serve their revenge by voting the UK out of the EU.

From my perspective, I think the voters will swing behind the establishment and the appalling murder of Jo Cox by a right wing nut job will further cement the remain vote. However, I remain unconvinced that the EU is progressive, democratic or capable of reform. Whatever the vote, for the majority of people in the UK and in the wider EU, their lives will still be locked into economic cycles of boom and bust. Unemployment across the EU will still be rampant but the big corporations, agri-barons, farmers and the political establishment will still be the ones who benefit the most from locking us into this rigid economic structure. The natural environment will still suffer as a growing population sees more roads, more green field sites and more open countryside built over to accommodate a UK population predicted to rise to 80 million in the next thirty years.

Edward Abbey:No friend of the bureaucrat he.

 Edward Abbey once said “Better a cruel truth than a comfortable delusion.” However, ‘comfortable delusions’ are always going to be easier to set your political compass by it seems.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Walking a tightrope:Why are we still denied a right to roam?

So....it's happened again. For the third time in the last two years I've been stopped from walking freely in the hills and effectively told 'Get orf my land' Yes...this is North Wales 2016 even if a lot of landowners still think its 1916!

I had parked up at Bonwm just outside Corwen in NE Wales,with the aim of following an old quarryman's track which I've used dozens of times,to visit the old quarry of Penrhyn. You can make a nice circuit by breaking out of the quarry and entering the coniferous forest which loops back to the start. I've even parked a minibus full of kids at the start to take them up to explore the underground tunnels which begin within the impressive gallery which is as high as a church steeple.

On this occasion, I was stopped by some minion of the landowner, probably a gamekeeper, and told 'there was no access to the quarry and Mr Feckface doesn't like people crossing his land'. No access? Not even a well used track that until the early 1960's was the quarryman's route to work and which has been used by walkers ever since?

'What about the right to roam?' I asked..'The Right to Roam is crap and doesn't apply here!' Not wishing to get involved in a pointless discussion with some estate lick spittle I lifted the hound back in the car and drove a mile or so to another access point which was a designated right of way.

A couple of years ago I blogged about being thrown off Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) by a farmer near Beddgelert who refused to let me cross his land even though I was on a track recommended to me by a well known outdoors writer. I was attempting to meet up with friends on a David Hooper memorial walk and because I was unceremoniously turfed off the land I was unable to make it on time. More recently, a goon working for the German energy giant RWE threw me out of Clocaenog Forest because of the work on the wind farm they're constructing up there.

For any outdoor person who believes passionately in the public's right to roam freely in the uplands and open countryside then still being denied access by landowners, private companies and their jobsworth minions is truly galling in this day and age. It's worth repeating a point I've made before about access. One of the many failings of the three Blair governments was its failure to deliver a promised right to roam bill. As is the norm in many European countries including Scotland. What was delivered was the half baked cRow act which in the vernacular of my home city 'Is neither me arse nor me elbow'!

As things stand, with a right wing government made up of the very people who hold private property as sacred and who jealously guard privileged positions, there is no hope of getting an access bill off the ground any time soon. Perhaps the increased powers being given to The Welsh Assembly might help circumnavigate the dead hand of Westminster in this, but to be honest, I'm not sure just how much power the assembly has actually got in this matter.

So....as it stands, recreational walkers are still being denied free access to the countryside despite the best efforts of campaigners going back nearly 100 years. The depressing thing is, I'm not sure I'll ever see the right to roam in England and Wales in my lifetime. What a backward country this still is in so many ways!

Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Great Countryside Media Swindle!

I was reading Robert McFarlane’s article on ‘Britain’s Wild Places’ in the Guardian today. I’m never too sure about RM and where he fits into the outdoor writing field? I’ve enjoyed and agreed with many of his articles but can never get a handle on his books which I often find unreadable. My misgivings perhaps relate to his place within a British media which in recent years has become corralled into a narrow and obsessive promotion and presentation of the UK countryside as a bucolic heaven on earth. In its way it is-as it was in Ruskin’s day- a largely metropolitan perception of what the countryside actually is with regards to ecology, socio/cultural issues and how it relates to rural areas in other parts of the world.

At its worst it is a BBC Countryfile view of the countryside. Basically an insidious piece of NFU propaganda aimed at ignorant townies. A countryside which never was. Where heroic farmers tend their rare breed cattle, make cheese in their outbuildings and welcome the return of the migrating wild geese. In Countryfileworld, there is no grubbing up of hedges,draining of ponds,gruesome snares,moles hanging on fences,overstocked uplands grazed to the bone and unable to naturally regenerate. There are no generous subsidies for ‘improvements’, no closing of rights of way and farmers shouting ‘get orf my land!’. It’s a saccharine coated cloying world where a blonde bimbo bends the willow and her boring straight laced side kick waves a fly road over dappled waters.

Basically, the success of Countryfile has spawned an industry. Every channel now has a ‘Secret Britain, Unspoiled Britain,Beautiful Britain, Hidden Britain etc etc, where celebrities repeat the mantra that 'Britain is the most beautiful country in the world’ while rolling cheese wheels down a hillside, Smoking herring and bumping into ‘local history experts’.

Which brings me back to Robert MacFarlane. His Guardian piece falls dangerously into the Tourist industry territory in the way he follows the Countryfile narrative. Claiming somewhat absurdly, that we have wilderness in the UK which we patently don’t have. We have increasingly threatened areas of wildness which is not the same. Given the UK population is 64 million and predicted to hit 70 million within ten years, then we have to accept that short of a catastrophic apocalypse then we will never see wilderness- and those lost species it once supported, like bears, wolves and lynx,- ever again.

To compound the media countryside narrative, MacFarland offers a handy list at the foot of his article of ‘Wild Hotspots’, In its way its the ‘Wainwright Paradox’. A writer who claims to be at home in the wild places but who unintentionally through his writing, holds up a big sign saying ‘Tourists this Way’!  I have a terrible feeling that we’ll be seeing ‘Davina McCall’s Wild Hotspots’ on ITV any day now!.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Wild Flowers at Hillsborough

I remember the day of the Hillsborough disaster as though it was yesterday. I was climbing at Tremadog on a perfect spring day. I can even remember the routes we did- Hogmanny Hangover, Merlin and One Step in the Clouds. As a football fan brought up on Merseyside I was keen to find out between climbs, how my team-Everton- were getting on in the other-forgotten-semi final that day and kept asking bemused climbers if they knew the football scores...they didn't...middle class gits!

Driving home at twilight, the Moelwyns were particularly stunning. Dusted in salmon pink against a rainbow sky. On the way home, we called in on my Scouse friend Mark- who should have been climbing with us that day- and he looked grey when he answered the door.

There on TV I watched the terrible aftermath.

The next day I picked wild flowers from the Welsh hedgerows and drove to Anfield with my family were we laid our little posy with the mountain of flowers, scarves and photographs and just stood there in a stunned murmer.

There but for the grace of God went I for many a time I had been caught up in the chaos which sprang from 60.000 people funneling into and out of a football ground. Another day, another time it could have been my Dad, my mates or myself.

God bless the 96 and their familes.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Sea Kayaking: Up the creek with a paddle.

Yon lies Padstein
Browsing through a free ads paper about 12 or so years ago,my eyes alighted on an ad for a Prijon Yukon sea kayak. Despite being pretty involved in various outdoor activities which included having a basic understanding of sailing a dinghy, I’d never taken to water activities like white water paddling. I’ve always loved everything about the sea and rivers but I’ve always had a healthy respect, nay, fear! of water. I can swim - not very well- and I’ve even dived off the highest high diving board you can imagine but land is very much my natural element.

So, somewhat impulsively and-without knowing a thing about sea kayaks- I rolled up at a house outside Oswestry with £400 and returned home with a precariously balanced sea kayak on the roof of my old Sierra. Desperate to get on the sea but not having the skills or confidence, I searched the Internet for local clubs and paddlers forums and pretty soon, struck lucky. I was invited to go on a club trip down the Menai Straits that very weekend. It was a pretty intimidating prospect. I’d never even sat in a sea kayak and didn’t know a soul of course but that was the least of my worries. The club paddlers were great but one look at the current surging down the straits, crashing and swirling around the pillars of the towering bridge just above the jetty, scared the bejasus out of me! I was in half a mind to say ‘I can’t do this’ but at that moment, drowning seemed preferable to outright humiliation!

Rockhopper on Cowland's Creek, Cornwall.

All too soon, I fixed on my spray deck, dropped my rudder and paddled into the current, hoping that instinct and luck would kick in and carry me through. After a few minutes the dry mouthed fear was replaced by something approaching excitement as I bounced through the bridge arches and remained upright. Just up river, the party gathered mid stream and I turned my boat around to look back. Something made me look back over my shoulder and I was drifting backwards at a great speed straight into a marker in the river. Now in a flatter section I’d lost all perspective but the current was still surging powerfully down the Straits in the direction of Caernarfon.

Porth Trecassell,Ynys Mon
We got out at the old Dolphin Inn and after the thrills and thankfully, no spills, I was pretty hooked on this sea kayaking malarkey. The club were nearly all seasoned veterans in their sleek fibreglass classic Greenland style sea kayaks.Most had expensive dry suits and everything the well equipped sea paddler needs, from CB radios, to deck compasses, tow lines to spare split paddles. By contrast, I was the novice in my plastic tub, using a cheap wet suit, second hand kag, paddle that was heavier than a Navvy’s spade and a Decathlon life jacket. Nevertheless, I had some great days out with them. Mostly exploring the Angelsey coast and one memorable time, a trip to Hilbre Island off the tip of the Wirral Peninsular when in really stormy conditions, I was capsized by a big wave. To be fair, the highly experienced veteran next to me went first. I looked over and..’Christ...he’s gone!’ Executing a perfect roll he returned and then a wave tossed him over again. By the time he came back I’d gone too in a rolling, churning ball of surf, sand and adrenaline. By the time I’d come to my senses, I’d been washed up on the shore.
Outside the club, I’d made paddling buddies with some experienced local lads and even bought my teenage son a sea kayak to join me on the briny. More great trips followed and I managed to paddle in Scotland and Cornwall. In fact with Luke, I developed a real fascination with the Cornish Creeks. At the time of writing, I’ve explored all but one or two and what fascinating places they are. Often out of bounds to even small boats, some of the shallower creeks can only be reached by kayak. Despite Cornwall in the holiday season being rather crowded, paddling down some of these creeks can be like being on the Amazon. Quiet, verdant and alive with bird song and the splash of rising fish.
Some fine trips stand out like Lostwitheal to Fowey. Paddling passed Dauphne du Maurier’s house right on the Foy and paddling from Combe near Truro to Falmouth along The Carrick Roads in conditions that ranged from millpond stillness to crashing waves.

In Scotland, off the island of Shuna at twilight as seals popped up all around to see who was disturbing their reverie. 

A Club Flotilla at Treaddur Bay
The original Prijon Yukon went not long after I started sea kayaking. I didn’t realise it at the time but it was the perfect boat for a beginner. Compared to the sleek traditional Greenland style boats it was a real ugly ducking but just about as stable as you can get. I’ve had a few sea kayaks since then including another German made Prijon. This time the Kodiak; a large capacity tourer, A classic P&H Icefloe which came down from Scotland and little Rockhopper. Only the Rockhopper remains and it was my craft when I made my last trip on the water four years ago when I paddled it from Penpol Creek on the Foy to Leryn and back.

However, the call of the sea remains and I’ve just bought my third Prijon-a Touryak- from someone who was giving up sea kayaking and including all his gear with the boat. Serious paddlers will always look down their nose at rotomoulded-Plastic- sea kayaks, especially as the Prijons are fitted with foot pedal operated rudders which 'proper' paddlers wouldn't be seen dead using! To be a proper sea paddler you must have a narrow ( hence tippy) fibreglass boat with a skeg,even if you do risk punching a hole in your boat on some jagged unseen rock every time you explore a rock garden! but I’m sold on Prijons as they are a sea kayak equivalent of a Land Rover.

A Prijon Touryak...The new boat
It’s been a while but the call of the sea is too powerful to be ignored Roll on some blue sky days!.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Jim Curran...Mountain Renaissance man leaves the stage.

Jim Curran on the left at an exhibition of his work

So...Jim Curran has died. Rock Climber/mountaineer, film maker, artist, lecturer and friend to so many. Since I started climbing in the mid 80's, Jim's name was synonymous with what seems like a golden period in mountain culture. So many creative people were producing quality material at that time, that the shallow,self aggrandizing narcissism which passes these days for mountain literature appears like thin gruel after the rich banquet which went before. Jim Curran's name is more synonymous with mountaineering books like 'K2- The Story of the Savage Mountain', 'Suspended Sentences' his auto-biography and his biography of Chris Bonington 'High Achiever'.However, his films and art works are equally well regarded by those who immerse themselves in mountain culture.

If you were looking for a potted biography of the man than look no further than his own website which offers the following run down of his life and times....

He has climbed and filmed on fifteen mountain-based documentaries (including two on Mount Everest), with all the great of the British mountaineering scene, including CHRIS BONINGTON, JOE TASKER, ALAN ROUSE, JOE BROWN and PETER BOARDMAN. He has also filmed in the Andes, Caucasus and Atlas Mountains and China, and nearer home, on the Old Man of Hoy and St Kilda. 

He lives in Sheffield where his painting is constantly interrupted by the attractions of the Peak District in general, and the attractions of climbing on gritstone outcrops in particular. 

His films and books have won many awards world-wide, and he has been short-listed four times for the Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature.
His films include Kongur, K2 - Triumph and Tragedy, Barnaj, and Trango, all produced by CHRIS LISTER of Northern Films in Leeds.

Book credits include Trango, The Nameless Tower, K2 - Triumph and Tragedy, Suspended Sentences, and K2 - The Story of the Savage Mountain, which won the non-fiction award at the Banff Mountain Book Festival in 1996. He has written the authorised biography of Sir Chris Bonington, High Achiever - The Life and Climbs of Chris Bonington.

He has filmed and presented a series of climbs in the UK for the BBC's Tracks outdoor oriented strand, as well as climbing and filming on Chris Bonington's latest expedition to Tibet. He has also filmed, scripted and narrated the documentary, Rock Queen with Catherine Destivelle, the French climbing superstar, which won him and 'EMMY' award for outstanding electronic camerawork. 

He was Artistic Director of the annual Kendal Mountain Film Festival, and has recently completed a sixteen hundred mile bicycle ride from the north of the Shetland Islands to Land's End, and has written a book about his adventures, The Middle-Aged Mountaineer.

He has had two one-man exhibitions of his paintings and drawings: at the Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal, and most recently at the Alpine Club in 2004. He is now painting full-time.

In 1990, he was involved in something of a climbing 'cause celebre' when he took on another iconic name from the period, Jim Perrin after the latter had traduced Jim Curran's reputation and skills as a climber in a UK climbing magazine article. In his autobiography, Curran says of Perrin...

I was never too sure about my feelings for Jim Perrin. Because of our mutual interest and some similarity with our names, people often got us confused, to my amusement and to his irritation!

Unlike, say, Paul Nunn or Joe Brown, he didn’t seem to have any sympathy for, or understanding of, his partners – me in this case. I felt his climbing was very much for his own self-fulfilment and I was just a portable belayer, a feeling that grew stronger as the day wore on.

10 years later Perrin recalled the climb in print and painted Jim Curran as something of a dangerous bumbly. Although JC was never a rock climbing hot shot and certainly technically inferior to the leader that day, his vast experience as a world mountaineer suggests that Perrin had been creative with the truth. A verdict the court agreed with as Jim Curran emerged vindicated in court and awarded damages.

However,this was just a fleeting dark encounter with a member of the outdoor community,as the overwhelming majority of climbers and non climbers alike who came into contact with Jim Curran, came away all the richer for sharing his humour, intelligent conversation and good company. He was a great friend of Footless Crow and was always helpful and accommodating with advice on mountain matters and requests to re-use his material. He will be missed by a lot of people.