29 November 2014

Appleby - East of Eden

Get your kicks on the A66

Heading west, on the A66, across the Penines from Scotch Corner, humming Bob Troup's classic Route 66 to myself, the word kicks rings a bell, as it were....  July 30th, 1966, and it was up there, on those fells, that I attempted to sleep a while under the stars, couched in a tractor rut and covered in a bivouac cape.

As a (reluctant, please note) army cadet, I was one of an impressive body of boys on a night exercise in which we learnt that the ground is hard, the night can be cold, and that cows cough spookily like humans.  And it had all started at Warcop Training Camp....

In fact, had it not been for an outbreak of foot and mouth disease, it would have started at Otterburn in Northumberland (and had that been the case, perhaps the score would not have been 4 -2?)  But, diverted to Westmorland (now a part of Cumbria) we had to make do.  

Roman Fell, with Warcop Fell behind

And make do we did.  Since the two pubs in Warcop were occupied by the officers (including ours) and real soldiers, we found our way along the Eden Valley to the tiny village of Sandford, where the lane ended in a grassy common area, and sundry farms and walled buildings clustered around. One of these, charmingly, had a picture of a large black bull on the wall.  On entering, we passed a small tap room and followed into a low beamed room with several wooden seats and tables.  An elderly woman greeted us, took our order and presently returned with two fistfuls of dimpled pint pots, splashing beer on the table.  

The erstwhile Bull, Sandford

I don't remember how many evenings we visited, but it is indelibly etched in my mind, a piece of English history and a formative part of my upbringing.  We were grown men at 15, enjoying the forced camaraderie that a uniform can produce, and swimming together in streams of beer.  On our way back, we passed the green fields where Crooks Beck joined the Eden, no snakes in sight.  And then, in the NAAFI, we watched, with 400 million others, as Bobby Moore took the cup.....

The river Eden rises beyond Kirkby Stephen and flows to the sea ninety miles later in the Solway Firth.  At Appleby it regularly floods, catastrophically, as it has only recently done in December 2015, as combinations of high tides and rain on the fells cause it to back up.

The tree trunk here, just by Bongate Mill, was washed up not long ago, and is immovable.

The last time I was in Appleby I was almost run over by an escaped horse.  It was the time of the annual Horse Fair, which has been held in early June every year since the time of James II (http://www.applebyfair.org/).  This gathering of some 15,000 gypsies and travellers from all over the UK and Ireland attracts a further 30,000 visitors and occasionally some bad press.   

But Appleby is a picturesque town, with a Norman Castle, founded by William Rufus in 1092, and later gifted to Hugh de Morville, one of the killers of Thomas a Beckett,

A fine Norman church, dedicated to St Lawrence,

Some solid almshouses, founded in May 1651 by the Lady Anne Clifford (who also restored the church after it was wrecked by the Scots in 1388),

And a scattering of pubs, one of which, The Golden Ball, has also changed little over the years, having a classic juke box with rock albums by such as AC/DC and Gary Moore, and posters of Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley.  Two regulars and the landlord watch England's women's football team lose three-one to Germany (revenge at last?) The landlord threatens to go and do something more interesting, like sorting out his sock drawer....  

Another pub, The White Hart in Boroughgate, has definitely seen better days.....

Though The Royal Oak, with a sputtering log fire and cosy rooms, shows that all is not lost, and gives me the chance to spend a little time in the land of Nod......

Having come down route A66, through some unexpected memories, I have found myself, East of Eden.....

"And here comes Hurst. He's got... some people are on the pitch, they think it's all over. It is now! It's four!" 

(Kenneth Wolstenholme, July 30th, 1966)

22 November 2014

Cornish Baywatch, Padstow to Newquay

On the South West Coast path in Cornwall....

Padstow is teeming. It is a pretty place and there's no reason why it shouldn't attract visitors, but the car park is about as big as the harbour, and there is some evidence (restaurants, delis, etc) that someone called Rick Stein may be at least in part responsible for the boom.....

And me I like it quiet, for the most part, so I head of along the coast.  From Padstow to Newquay, or to put it another way, from the Camel to the Gannel (as the rivers these two towns are on are called) is about twenty-five miles along the coast path, with a mere 4,238 feet to climb involved.....  

This is but a fraction of the whole South West Coast path which runs from Minehead to Poole (or from Poole to Minehead if you prefer), a designated National Trail of 630 miles of stunning coastal scenery.  One day, maybe, I'll do the whole thing, but for now I have to content myself with manageable bits, and in the past, have indeed coped wth bits in Devon and Dorset, but I have not spent so long in Cornwall before.  

And it is worth the wait. A very smart pied wagtail eyes me up as I cross yet another stream....  which means descending from vertiginous heights of beetling cliffs to stony rills and then up again to the edges of rock faces where gulls perch and sheep nibble, with the customary disdain expressed for those without heads for heights or hoofs for cliffs.....

Like this.....

Or this.....

I would swim - at least it would be on the level - but there are bits which seem less inviting than others, and the recent deaths of three adults in rip currents off Mawgan Porth beach is a reminder that the sea can be extremely dangerous.

But then there are the tranquil coves.....  though sometimes Lisa, Steve, Bob or Ellen may have beaten you to it, and scored their monicas on your idea of haven.

I would say there's not mush room (sic) for the peaceful minded, but that would be unfair.  The air is distinctly fresh and should you need a parasol, there's often one to hand.....

And there's no bunting, like a snow bunting, when you hope for a little cheer....

Don't look back, someone once said (Lot?  D.A. Pennebaker?) as it just seems like more of the same, but whichever way you gaze here it's a glimpse into the ongoing erosion of time..... the elements bashing away at each other, shaping our world in a patient licking away at the rocks of ages....

And then, every so often, from the precipitous path, there are enticing views of untouched bays, with the tide out, and, if time were not the master, we would slip down and dally......

Then, of a sudden, someone tells me they saw a peregrine on the cliff, and just in time I snap, blurry and fleeting, but enough to praise the majesty and power of this supreme bird.....

Superfluous fact, but I read in J A Baker's The Peregrine, that if a peregrine were scaled up to be human sized, each of its eyes would weigh three pounds.....  (so how does that affect our interpretation of the expression hawk-eye?)

We move on, to pass by my daughter's residence.  A highly prized bijou installation that, under different circumstances might have won the Turner Prize and earned her a place in the Tate. 

But no time to stand and stare. Instead we stop by her place of work, The Scarlet, where Both the interior and exterior design ... embraces the building’s stunning cliff top location and reflects its natural environment through the sensuous use of materials and design. The hotel offers you all kinds of relaxing diversions including outdoor cliff top hot tubs, a natural reed-filtered swimming pool and an Ayurvedic-inspired spa – all with far-reaching views over the beach and sea beyond.....

From the terrace by day....

And from the terrace in the evening.....

A little to the south west and we rest on the sands at Watergate:

Which bear evidence of life forms strange to us land lubbers:

Then we climb again again to follow the coast path, once the trail used by coastguards in their attempts to foil the efforts of wreckers and smugglers who made this part of the world notorious.  Here the air is full of tweeting and twittering, and flocks of passing passerines fleck the sky:

While a meadow pipit watches me from a fence post:

And stone chats, male and female, busy themselves among the grasses and the gorse, flitting down to pick up insects in the scrub, before perching again on some viewpoint, flicking tails and chatting in their flinty ways.

Looking back from here, the bay seems small now, and the busy people just tiny dots in the surf.  The cliffs here are Carboniferous rocks, known as Devonian, sometimes locally called killas, and they are 360-400 million years old. These are hard rocks, resistant to erosion, creating dramatic sea cliffs and frequently flat cliff tops. 

Our waters may look inviting, but even in the height of summer they are not warm.  When I swam here last August, I was about the only person without a wet suit.... Now, out of season, you probably won't find anyone mad enough to be without one.....

And from the undulations of the coastal path, I am more than content to spend my time on land, dividing my attention between the birds that comb the cliff tops and the scenes at the edge of the sea below.  Baywatching!

Next stop Newquay!

9 November 2014

Christ stopped at Ebola

How can they know it's Christmas time at all?

In 1995 I was for a day or two acting Head of St George’s English School in Rome and it fell to me to take an assembly.  I happened to have noticed an article about the Ebola virus in, I think, a copy of the Observer, and I had a notion to read that and to comment on how we need to understand our ‘enemies,’ however hemorrhagic or insidious they may be. After all, a virus will only do what it does.  There is no evil inherent in it, whatever the vile effects caused on a body…..

At that time the Zaire strain of the Ebolavirus was active in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and of the 315 people infected 254 (81%) died. 

This was not really front page news.  The virus had first been identified in 1976 when 88% of the 318 people infected in the Democratic Republic of the Congo had died.  In the intervening years 205 people had officially died from the disease.

Between 2001 and 2002, ninety-seven people had died from the Ebola virus in Gabon and Congo.  In the same year 2,678,000 died in developing countries from HIV/AIDS and 1,103,000 died from malaria.  In the developed world in that year 3,512,000 died from Ischaemic heart disease and 669,000 died in road traffic accidents.  The World Health Organisation distinguishes between communicable diseases (like HIV/AIDS, and Ebola) and non-communicable conditions (like Ischaemic heart disease and car crashes).  In the year 2000, 55% of all deaths in developing countries were from communicable diseases and 77% of all deaths in the developed regions were from non-communicable conditions.

In 2012 the WHO drew up a list of 17 Neglected Tropical Diseases (not including Ebola).  Among these are rabies, which is estimated to kill about 2000 Kenyans every year, and Chagas Disease, which has infected about eight million people worldwide (mainly in South America, but not exclusively).  Both of these diseases can be cured, if treated rapidly, but treatment is expensive…..

What is new, however, is that Filoviruses (strains of Ebola and Hemorrhagic viruses) are classified as Category A bioterrorism agents, so now the 5,000 deaths in the current West African outbreak take on a new significance (more significant indeed than the 4,000 killed in Ukraine since April.)  The reason that there is now such an urgency in the race to find and manufacture a vaccine (with patents held by the US Government and GlaxoSmithKline by the way) is that the US believes that terrorists might use the virus in a dirty war…..

Aafia Siddiqui, a woman who was born in Pakistan but who has a doctorate in neuroscience from Brandeis University, is currently in a Federal Detention Centre at the former Carswell AFB in Fort Worth, Texas, having been sentenced in 2010 to 86 years detention for the attempted murder of two US Nationals serving in Afghanistan.  When arrested she was carrying plans for mass casualty in the United States, which plans apparently included how to use the Ebola virus as a weapon.  Aafia Siddiqui was asked for by ISIS in exchange for beheaded American James Foley; the Taliban wanted her in exchange for Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl.  This is scary stuff, and the threat may well be real, and it is partly (at least) why screening at US airports has been brought in.

Ebola is said to be incurable because there are no proven drugs or vaccines for it and it has a high mortality rate, over 50%, so the fear factor is great even though Americans have a 2000-times greater chance of developing malaria and a 500-times greater risk from dying from tuberculosis than they do Ebola. NBC News reported in August 2014 that an individual’s chance of getting Ebola in the developed world are “virtually zero.”

Research into vaccines is an expensive business, and Andrew Hollingsworth, policy manager of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, says: "Unfortunately, the standard economic model for drug development, in which industry takes all of the risk in R&D and gets a return on investment from successful products, does not work for diseases that primarily impact low-income countries and developing healthcare systems."  With the threat of a bio-terrorist attack, however, there would be good returns on an Ebola vaccine, so not surprisingly there are conspiracy theories as to why Ebola has been given such a high profile this year.  Such theories even suggest that it is not coincidental that the outbreak coincided with US Department of Defense funded Ebola trials on humans.  A certain Dr Cyril Broderick, a former professor of plant pathology at the University of Liberia’s College of Agriculture, suggested in a letter to The Liberian Observer this September that the pharmaceutical industry and the US Department of Defense are conspirators in a plot to intentionally spread Ebola to provoke public demand to use unproven vaccines and drug as rescue remedies.

So how does this connect with Carlo Levi? Because of his uncompromising opposition to Fascism, Carlo Levi was banished at the start of the Abyssinian (Ethiopian) War (1935) to a small primitive village (Gagliano) in Lucania (now Basilicata), a remote province of southern Italy. As Levi himself explains, in his introduction to his memoir Cristo si è fermato a Eboli, written in hiding from the Germans in Florence during the second world war, and published in 1947, Christ stopped at Eboli, where the road and the railway leave the coast of Salerno and turn into the desolate reaches of Lucania. Christ never came this far, nor did time, nor the individual soul, nor hope, nor the relation of cause to effect, nor reason nor history. Christ never came, just as the Romans never came, content to garrison the highways without penetrating the mountains and forests, nor the Greeks, who flourished beside the Gulf of Taranto. None of the pioneers of Western civilization brought here his sense of the passage of time, his deification of the State or that ceaseless activity which feeds upon itself. No one has come to this land except as an enemy, a conqueror, or a visitor devoid of understanding.

Levi, who had a degree in medicine, though he had never practised, found himself drawn into treating the local peasantry when the corrupt and fascist local doctors would not.  Treatable illnesses were ignored, hygiene was primitive, and malnutrition was the natural result of poverty. 

This may be a tenuous connection with Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, but I am struck by a piece published yesterday on the BBC website by Eduardo J Gomez of King's College, London entitled Cuba's health diplomacy in the age of Ebola.  In the article, Gomez writes that, Instead of offering financial assistance to those West African nations most in need, the Cuban government has focused on providing skilled healthcare workers passionate about helping Ebola victims. The Cuban response is based on a combination of pre-existing government commitments to the provision of universal healthcare, the establishment of a medical education system emphasizing service to others…..  efforts [which] were partly inspired by Ernesto Che Guevara, the Argentine-born doctor who fought alongside Fidel Castro during the Cuban revolution.

The ethos of this was summed up by Fidel Castro himself, who proclaimed it was a battle of solidarity against selfishness….  And it is here, in working against poverty, malnutrition and poor hygiene that the similarity with Gagliano and Levi’s experience is strongest.

Read the book.  See the film.  Directed by the great Francesco Rosi in 1979 and starring the enormously sympathetic Gian Maria Volonté (in a role very different from his appearance in A Fistful of Dollars) it is a faithful, if perhaps a little romanticised, account of the book.

As Levi states "We're not Christians," they say. "Christ stopped short of here, at Eboli." "Christian," In their way of speaking means "human being," and this almost proverbial phrase that I have so often heard them repeat may be no more than the expression of a hopeless feeling of inferiority. We're not Christians, we're not human beings; we're not thought of as men but simply as beasts, beasts of burden, or even less than beasts, mere creatures of the wild.  In a memorable scene, the priest addresses the villagers at mass on Christmas Eve.  He upsets the Podestà (Mayor), Don Luigi, who storms out with his fascist entourage, and then castigates the villages for not providing him with his due tithes, distorting the Latin blessing, Pax in terra, hominibus bonae voluntatis (Peace on earth, to men of good will) changing bonae into male.  Don Trajella’s mischievous irony (he knows the congregation do not understand Latin) is elaborated a little in the book, but in both book and film it comes across as a mixture of bitterness and desperate hope - hope that peace may indeed come even to those who have evil wills. 

The world that Levi records has changed; the breeding ground for infection of the godforsaken wastes of remote regions in Europe, neglected by the rich and powerful, have been civilised, and clean water, sufficient food, sanitation and health care are more readily available.  But to adapt Levi’s title to the modern day, there are still plenty of stopping places such as Eboli in the world, and areas beyond, such as Sierra Leone, where infection control is not understood, water is not clean, and food is not plentiful. 

There are few real parallels between Cristo si è fermato a Eboli  and the Ebola virus, but the link that sprung to my mind led me to watch the film again, and to think about big Pharma, and the way the masters manipulate and profit from the masses, and it brings me back to my thoughts in 1995 in front of school children.  Ebola is not an enemy.  Ebola is something we should understand.  Health is not something that happens by accident. You cannot just put a Band Aid on it.  And while a vaccine may help the infected, it will not eradicate the problem.

8 November 2014

Coleridge in the Quantocks

Xanadu, Xanadu, (now we are here) in Xanadu.....


I am in The Ancient Mariner, Lime Street, Nether Stowey, taking a little refreshment, and a curiously attired gentleman, close woven tweed jacket, khaki breeches, woollen stockings, brown brogues, grizzled white beard..... sits at the table next to me.  From a leathern satchel he draws a leathern book, and smirks as he opens it.  He is delighted to tell me, for he wants to converse, that the book is a first imprint of  A Voyage Round The World by Way of the Great South Sea (1726) by Captain George Shelvocke that he has just acquired.  He also tells me that he is from Porlock, and that he is by profession a collector of rents.  Did I know a Mr Coleridge, by chance?

Sorry to disturb.  The name's Alf.  I'm from Porlock, and I was just wondering if I could disturb Mr Coleridge for a few minutes......

I replied that I believed that Mr Coleridge lived opposite, to which my acquaintance again smirked, and said that he had in fact been talking to him only a short while since.  Apparently, due to ill health, Coleridge recently retired to a lonely farmhouse between Porlock and Linton, on the Exmoor confines of Somerset and Devonshire.  In consequence of a slight indisposition, apparently an anodyne had been prescribed, from the effects of which he fell asleep in his chair.  

According to Coleridge himself, at the moment he fell into a slumber he was reading the following sentence….  Here the Khan Kubla commanded a palace to be built and a stately garden thereunto……  Coleridge then continued for about three hours in a profound sleep…..  On awaking he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink and paper, instantly wrote down some lines.  At this precise moment, however the man from Porlock, called him out and detained him above an hour, so that on his return to his room, he found, to his no small surprise and mortification, that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone had been cast…..

Xanadu, Xanadu, (now we are here) in Xanadu

A place where nobody dared to go
The love that we came to know
They call it Xanadu

And so on and so forth (with strong bass riffs)…..

Poor Coleridge!  Having retired to the moor for a bit of peace, away from the mewlings of his children and the mutterings of his wife, he had set himself down afore the fire with a fine bottle of Laudanum ‘96 and Purchas’s Pilgirmage, and the next thing he knows Kubla Bloody Khan is hammering on the door.  Pshaw!  Sunny domes!  Caves of ice!  Damsels and dulcimers…..

Hart's Tongue Fern

So, back in Nether Stowey Coleridge shelters under the Lime Tree nursing his Hendecasyllables and exercising his rhyming sestets….

Achilles was a warrior fleet,
The Trojans he could worry:
Our Parson too was swift of feet,
But shew’d it chiefly in retreat:
The victor Ox scour’d down the street,
The mob fled hurry-scurry…

And thinking of maybe wandering over to Alfoxden (Alfoxton) to perfect a Lyrical Ballad or two with his much revered friend Wordsmith….

Now that I'm here, now that you're near, in Xanadu
Now that I'm here, now that you're near in Xanadu, Xanadu

Good to see that literate vandals operate here

When who should turn up on the step but the very same Wordsmith, and his delightful Dorothea?  And their suggestion of a wander in the woods while pondering poesy seems seriously seemly.  Just lap up the last of the laudanum, and off they go – whoops!  A tad woosly!

Farewell, O Warbler! Till tomorrow eve,
And you, my friends! Farewell, a short farewell!

The motte and bailey mounds of Nether Stowey Castle

I follow the very same walk, and try to capture what young Samuel Taylor might have seen that day, or on others similar.  The paths are densely hedged, and wildflowers and ferns clothe the banks.  

Ash and maple trees close over the lane at some points, beech at others, and further up there are close planted coppiced oaks, stretching out their palms in an eerie echo of some Black Forest gothic fantasy (pace Disney!)

A trickling stream adds to the romance.  One or two cottages retain their rustic charm, and traces of ancient quarrying and earthworks belonging to a long-forgotten fort are evident in the dense woodland.

Coleridge and Wordsworth walked this way many times, by day, and by night (Coleridge’s poem The Nightingale was inspired up here).  They would have conversed about poetic style, and here the dream of the ancient mariner took shape. 

Perhaps the effects of opiates would have distorted Coleridge’s senses, and he might have imagined Hinkley Point B as a stately pleasure dome, and his concepts of caverns measureless to man; that sunny dome!  Those caves of ice! make more sense now as planning for Hinkley Point C (3.2 GW) goes ahead…..

At Walford’s Gibbet, local charcoal burner John Walford was hanged for murdering his wife in 1789.  His body was left hanging for a year on a gibbet, before strangely falling to the ground a year to the day of his wife's death.  Such relatively recent horrors might have inspired the lines:

With heavy thump, a lifeless lump,
They dropped down one by one…..

Up here in the woods, the woodland floor is lightly covered with bilberry, of which the local name is whortleberry or worts. In his notebook, Coleridge once wrote: There have been times when looking up beneath the sheltering Tree, I could Invest every leaf with Awe and it is indeed hard not to be impressed, whatever the stimulant….

Within the shadow of the ship,
I watched their rich attire:
Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,
They coiled and swam; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.

This Hermit good lives in that wood
Which slopes down to the sea.
How loudly his sweet voice he rears!
He loves to talk with marineres
That come from a far contree.

He kneels at morn, and noon, and eve - 
He hath a cushion plump:
It is the moss that wholly hides
The rotted old oak-stump.

Coleridge may have met Kubla Khan on the heights of Exmoor, or encountered a mossy hermit on his wanderings in the Quantocks. He may have seen things Wordsworth could not even dream of, or have seen the same things differently.

I rise to leave The Ancient Mariner, but my new friend stops me, holding me with his glittering eye.  his skinny hand, so brown, clutches at my coat....

Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!

Eftsoons his hand dropt he.....

Time stands still (?) in Nether Stowey.....