travel


st kilda

‘Three points of contact at all times. And if anybody falls overboard, just throw them a ring and scream.  Don’t go running for’ad to get us because the chances are we won’t find them’.  Ex Royal Marine and RNLI, Jock was a health and safety man to his branded anorak and shiny boots. ‘None of you have got your life jackets on properly.  ‘If your crutch strap is too loose, the jacket will ride up around your neck and strangle you.’  This was suddenly serious.  

St Kilda is about 90 miles away from the Isle of Skye and the only way we could get there and back in the same day was in the GotoStKilda speed boat, a modern sea going capsule with a small afterdeck from where we could watch the birds, the whales and the dolphins.  

‘If people don’t come on time, they’ll get left behind’, scowled Jock. So on the stroke of 7 o’clock, Willie, the skipper, a stocky, shaven headed man, who had bought land to farm in Tennessee, fired up the engines and soon we were all heading west, racing across The Minch and through The Sound of Harris and out into the Atlantic, Harris and Lewis receding into the mist behind us on a glassy sea.  A pod of dolphins came out to investigate, arcing above the reflective surface. The sun was bright on the sea, in contrast with the western horizon, which was a wide smudge of dark grey with the evanescent angular shapes of islands.  

Borarey is about 4 miles to the north and east of the main island of Hirta and includes the magnificent sea stacks, An Armin and Lee, home to the largest gannet colony in the North Atlantic.  We watched as, like large prehistoric seagulls with sulphur yellow heads and sharp pointed bills, they folded their wings and darted into the sea at 60 mph to spear the shoals of herring.  Gannets can live for up to 30 years, but after a while the accumulated impact of hitting the sea at 60mph causes them to go blind and dislocate their necks.  Returning with their catch, they are mobbed by Bonxies (Great Skuas), also known as pirate birds, which force them to disgorge their catch.  The people of St Kilda relied on nesting birds not only for their staple food, but also for the oil and feathers which they would trade.  The young men would scale the sea stacks late at night to catch the gannets.  It was dangerous work.  They would have to catch the sentry bird and wring its neck before they could harvest the other birds. 

Hirta, the main island, is formed from part of the rim of an extinct volcano and has the highest sea cliffs in Europe. The islanders would let each other down on horsehair ropes to harvest the fulmar petrels that nested on the ledges. It was such dangerous work, but only two men were known to have died, when the anchor man at the top of the cliff lost concentration and did not take up the slack while his climbing partner missed his foothold, fell about forty feet and catapulted him 600 feet onto the rocks below.

We docked in the sheltered harbour of Village Bay, clambered into the rubber Zodiac and went ashore, where we were greeted by the resident archaeologist.  He was a shy young man with glasses and baggy jeans, who informed us that St Kilda had been occupied for 3000 years. The names of the islands, however, are derived from the Vikings, who built the black houses for people to live in and cleats (stone huts with a turf roof) to dry and store the feathers and the birds.  The St Kildans lived in their black houses up until the eighteenth century.  They burnt peat in a central hearth, but, as there was no chimney; the smoke hung just below the roof and deposited a thick layer of tar, which functioned as a disinfectant.  They also had their own form of central heating.  A cow or sheep occupied the same space, separated by a partition.  The dung was collected and stored together with human waste and refuse in a large heap inside the doorway and then spread over the floor.  The rotting refuse provided underfloor heating, but was very smelly.  

The St Kildans did everything together and met for morning ‘parliament’ in the village street to decide what they would do that day.  Survival was a full time job. The men collected the birds, built the houses and cleats, while the women tended the vegetables, plucked the birds and cooked the meals.  The community shared all the work and the harvest, but they sent feathers and fulmar oil to the landowner on the mainland in return for materials for their houses and any provisions, which they did not have on the island. 

People continued to live on St Kilda until 1930 when the combination of disease, emigration and poverty forced their evacuation.  The last person to have lived on St Kilda died just three years ago. An epidemic of smallpox killed off half the population in the 1870s, then flu took its toll in the 1920s.  Many children  died of infertile tetanus, probably caused by the habit of anointing the umbilical cord with dung or fulmar oil.  The newer houses, constructed in the 1880s, had tin roofs which let the rain in, but these were not an improvement: the tin roofs would blow off and the storms blew the windows in.  They may have been cleaner but they were not as warm. People suffered, became ill and increasing numbers of survivors took the opportunity to leave.  

On Hirta, we took the opportunity to explore the island alone.  We only had two hours to explore the island alone and the cloud was too low to go to the tops of the hills. I went up to the gap – the low point between two hills below the cloud base and ate my lunch while watching the fulmars glide along the side of the cliffs past their nesting sites.  Then I traversed across the heather and tried to get some photographs of the resident Bonxies, which were intent on dive bombing me.  The whoosh as one dived within inches of my head was alarming.  Down in the village, some Fulmars  nested in the turf on top of the cleats while St Kilda Wrens, greyer and much bigger than the wrens we see on the mainland, nested in the walls, sharing the nooks and crannies with starlings.

The time passed too quickly and I wished I had opted to camp there for the night, but as we left, Jock said he had an extra treat for us. He took us  to the place near where the puffins nested and saw thousands of them floating on the sea,  their clown like faces incongruous in their black habits.  Puffins dive for sand eels which dangle on hooks set on the inside of their comical beaks, but they are also victims of the skuas, who fly in and delicately grab the dangling sand eels.  

We could not dawdle; Jock and Willie were keen to get back, but Jock had an announcement.  ‘Now just go on your Facebook and Twitter and tell all your friends about ‘GotoStKilda’. We need to have a full boat every trip so we can put food on the table.’  At £236 a shot, this was hardly the same privation as the original settlers, but we said we would. 

A breeze had got up while we were on land and as the boat bucked and dived through the swells, we staggered to keep our three points or more in contact.  But that just added a certain frisson to what had been an amazing trip.  

Advertisements

isis-flag They are described as mad, mentally disturbed, confused, radicalised by fanatics, escapists from domestic trauma. This may not be necessarily so. The State, which was broadcast on Channel 4 last weekend, shows the Brits who travel to Syria to fight for the self styled Islamic State to be highly committed young men and women looking for a sense of meaning and adventure in their lives. Peter Kosminski’s documentary pulls no punches. The men, called the brothers, are told they are not expected to live for more than a year and they will die martyrs to the cause and live forever in heaven. Some are suicide bombers, but if it is Allah’s will, they go willingly to their death.

There is such a strange logic to their fight. As one instructor explains, they are not expected to win, but their actions will bring about the involvement and ultimate destruction of America and all it stands for and ensure that the purity of Islam will prevail. The brutality and violence are a means to an end. It is not always clear who is fighting who and for what. Shia commit atrocities on the Sunni, the Sunni retaliate. Meanwhile Assad’s forces and the Russians are bombing the cities, and terrorist attacks occur every week in the name of Isis throughout the western world. The women are not really expected to do anything except become brides to the brothers and support their fight. In essence, they succumb to state approved rape and prostitution. It is brutal, violent and chaotic.

But what is it that would make a middle class young person living a safe life in Britain want to risk their lives to fight for a cause they don’t understand. Do they crave adventure and glory? Do they want to become heroes? Is it a reaction to what they see as the meaninglessness and decadence of our western way of life? Do they feel victimised by their family or community and seek revenge? Is this the vanguard of a global revolution not unlike past insurrections in France and Russia, but mirroring other anti-establishment movements like Brexit or Trump? Or are they fighting their own internal psychological battle to self discovery? Does identification with Islamic State provides a fixed reference point in a confusing and insecure world, where little seems to matter? Kosminski leaves us with a lot of possibilities but no certainty.

A hundred years ago, millions of young men went cheerfully to France to fight another confusing war under appalling conditions. And even when hundreds of thousands were slaughtered on the Somme, at Ypres. Mons, Amiens and Passchendale, they still kept going back. Maybe they were too traumatised and fearful to do otherwise. I remember my father telling me that when he was training to be a fighter pilot, only 1 in 9 would survive. Nobody pulled out. Some twenty five years later, when the Cuba missile cruise brought the threat of global conflict to our consciousness, I and most of my friends said that if war broke out, we would volunteer to fight. It was only Tim who said he would buy a gun and shoot himself and his family. We were appalled, but with the benefit of hindsight, he demonstrated a grim sense of maturity and wisdom that the rest of us had yet to attain.

There is a difference between the global conflicts of the last century and the confused mission of Isis. Our parents and grandparents were fighting for their country. Lord Kitchener bristled his moustache and pointed his finger, ‘Your country needs you!’ and most obeyed without question. Later it became something more. As a fighting unit, facing imminent death every day, they could not let their mates down. Exhausted and traumatised, they needed certainties; orders they could not question. Tennyson captured the mood when writing about another war: ‘Theirs not to reason why. Theirs but to do and die. Into the valley of death rode the six hundred.’ But when survivors talked or wrote about their experience, they often declared that it was the time of their lives. They had never felt more alive as when they were near death.

Fifty years on, an unprecedented period of peace and stability is being threatened again by conflict. It seems like a ‘lost generation’ of young people with diminishing prospects, brought up on adventure films and virtual war games, are looking for a sense of mission. The Islamic State might fill the gap. The danger and rigid discipline are all part of the attraction. They are a band of ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ united by a collective delusion, not unlike the crusades of old or the jingoism of the Great War when the enemy was the embodiment of decadence and evil and their martyrdom would change the world. They are going for glory. They do not think of dying, only surviving; if not on earth, in heaven.

It is not my intention or wish to condone what is happening in Syria. I am writing this to try to understand the mindset of those who are fighting. We have to try to make sense of the unthinkable if we are ever to resolve it. Kosminski’s powerful documentary portrays a state which was once fuelled by idealism, but is now controlled for fear. The torture, summary executions, rapes and murders are as bad as the worst excesses of the Nazis or the Russian occupation of Berlin. Have the perpetrators have become so conditioned by what they have witnessed that they have no conscience? Have they become so traumatised, they have dissociated emotionally from the reality of what they are doing. Are they so fearful, that they have to be brutal to survive? Or is it just that they see the enemy as inhuman, an object that must be destroyed? Perhaps, all are correct, but who is the enemy and who isn’t?

War traumatises and dehumanises all those caught up in it. And British soldiers are not excluded. During the worst atrocities of the Peninsular Campaign, which Wellington was powerless to prevent, he said of his troops, ‘I don’t know what the enemy think of them, but by God, they terrify me!’ And we are still only just learning of what went on in the detention centres in Iraq or in Northern Ireland.

One of the most chilling sequences of Kosminski’s documentary was when Shakira, the young doctor, sees 10 year olds being taught to stab a fresh corpse, hung up for their instruction, while her son, Isaac, and his friends play football with the severed head. Even the Hitler youth was not as brutal. When, Shakira tries to remonstrate, Isaac  accuses her of embarrassing him and goes back to his mates. It is only too easy to lose all sense of decency while those around you have lost theirs.

At that moment, she decides to escape. It seems surprisingly easy, but when she arrives back in UK, the choice was either being separated from her son and going to prison for years or agreeing to spy on her her own community.

While most reviewers praised the film, Christopher Stevens in The Daily Mail penned a hard hitting attack on as portraying his film as a pure poison, a work of fiction and like a Nazi recruiting film from the 1930s, and 61 year old film maker, Kosminski, as a Oxbridge educated media luvvie, who was neither a veteran of Syria, nor had conducted a research mission to Raqqa or Aleppo. Stevens is also hardly a reliable witness, being best known for his biography of Kenneth Williams and his book on comedy scriptwriters, Ray Galton and Alan Stevens. Jihadist recruits would have known what they were letting themselves in for. Not so, they were attracted by the idea and would not necessarily believe the evidence until they saw it for themselves, by which time, they were either dead or too far in to return. Stevens would dismiss jihadists as incomprehensibly evil or mad. This happens in every conflict, but it doesn’t get us anywhere except more slaughter and more terror.

Kosminski has made a brave attempt to get into the minds of the jihadists to understand their mission, their rejection of liberal democracy, and ultimately their fear and emotional dissociation. Violence breeds more violence. If we cannot try to understand it, we can only retaliate and escalate the cycle of retribution, as would be revolutionaries are driven underground to launch ever more frequent attacks on the complacent and decadent. To my mind, this documentary was so much more terrifying because the atrocities were conducted by recognisable human beings.

The state was screened on Channel 4. It was punctuated every ten minutes by advertisements that were so crass, they underscored what is deplorable about western consumerism and why people might want out.

When Rudd was just six, his beloved father and mother abandoned him and his four year old sister, Trix,  in a boarding house in Southsea and went to India.

Trix later described it thus; ‘I think the real tragedy of those early days sprang from our inability to understand why our parents had deserted us.  We had no preparations or explanations; it was like a double death or rather an avalanche that swept away everything that was happy and familiar.  This incomprehensible act of cruelty could never be forgotten.’ 

Life in the boarding house was mean.  Rudd was accused by the landlady and her bullying son of cheating and forced to walk through the streets of Southsea with a placard on his back bearing one word, ‘Liar!’ 

‘When young lips’, Kipling wrote at the end of this life, ‘have drunk deep of the bitter nature of hate, suspicion and despair, all the love in the world will not wholly take away that knowledge.’

When after six years, his mother finally arrived unannounced to the boarding house in Southsea, Rudd was in bed.  As she bent to kiss him, he held up his arms to ward off the expected blow from the adored mother who had hurt him so deeply. 

So an emotional vacuum dominated Rudyard Kipling’s life and was most likely the fount of his creativity.  Art always represents the artist’s life.  It carries the hope, the meaning and the pain of it all.  Rudyard Kipling never got over his parents abandonment.  It features in all his work; Mowgli, the jungle boy, abandoned and brought up rough by the wolf pack;  Kim, running crafty in the streets of Lahore, carrying secret messages, needing to be needed.  It explains his preoccupations with India, the family of soldiers, and his need for a refuge and a protector.   

Kipling lived just seven years in India.  He served as a reporter first for The Civil and Military Gazette in Lahore and The Pioneer in Allahabad.  He met Carrie when he returned from India; she worked for a publisher.  They married and went to live in Vermont, where their girls, Josephine and Emily, were born.  But there were family problems with Carrie’s brother, Beatty. They returned and lived in Rottingdean for a time; Jack was born there.   But on a voyage back to America to see his publishers, Kipling and 7 year old Josephine caught a chill.  Carrie’s hands were more than full with Rudd’s illness that she could not properly attend to Josephine.  So, in a decision that at this remove seems scarcely intelligible, she took her daughter even at the height of her fever, 21 blocks across Manhattan to the house of a family friend on the lower East Side.  As Adam Nicolson comments, ‘this was a moment of conscious agony to stand out from the average.’   Josephine died.  Carrie and Rudd never quite recovered from that; they just lived on with the pain.    

Kipling bought Batemans in 1902.  It is, a substantial manor house, set in a damp secluded valley near Burwash in West Sussex.  He stayed there until he died 34 years later.  It was his refuge.  His reputation for being rather anti-social after his son Jack was reported missing in action in Loos in 1915, was probably misplaced.  A look at his guest list indicated that they always seemed to have house guests.  These included his cousin Stanley Baldwin, T.E. Lawrence, Rider Haggard, the Shaws and many others. 

If Batemans was Kipling’s refuge, Carrie was his watchdog.  That was probably why was regarded as the hated wife.  She could be stern, domineering and controlling, and was seen as a bounty hunter, who married Kipling for his prospects, a ruthless employer, a cold mother and later a drudge and a moan.  In his small book, entitled ‘The Hated Wife’, Adam Nicolson suggests that Kipling was nothing like the image portrayed in If.  He could be charming and impish, genial and compassionate, joshing his way through life and quite content to leave Carrie to take responsibility and avoided conflict.  Carrie was a very capable, masculine woman in a pioneering American mould; she was born to carry the burden.  When she was young, she had to cope with her father’s fecklessness and early death, her brother Beatty’s naughtiness, Wolcott’s dictatorship, and her sister, Josphine’s  delicacy.  She was always the capable one. Even when Rudd and Josephine were so ill,  Carrie maintained a business correspondence.  It was what kept her going, but in the end it  wore her out.  She put on weight, developed arthritis and became depressed and poured out her feelings in her diary, the sump for her despair.  Her dour, rigid, manner was a means to survival.  She was the buffer between Rudd and the rest of the world.  She was devoted to him, not out of some great affection – she felt abandoned by the more sociable Rudd.  No, her devotion was a matter of survival. She had to keep the house, the servants and Kipling’s affairs together because if she didn’t, she would fall apart herself.    

Nicolson exposes the detachment at the heart of the Kipling marriage.  Carrie provided the backbone that her husband preached but privately lacked.  But she was not the bullying harridan intent on controlling her genius husband, but more a lonely survivor in the face of a serial family tragedy. 

Kipling’s reputation took a plunge from which it never quite recovered after being awarded the 1907 Nobel Prize for Literature. Oscar Wilde, perhaps the greatest ever exponent of the devastating put down, called him ‘our best authority on the second rate’.   Nevertheless, a hundred years later, If is the nation’s favourite poem,  Kim one of the best novels ever written about India.  The Jungle Book is still one of the best loved childrens books, has been made into a one of the most popular Disney films, and  Akela and Bagheera are enshrined as the names of troop leaders in Baden Powell’s Wolf Cubs.  He may not have been the greatest, but he has lasted.

 

Adam Nicolson wrote an excellent booklet on Bateman’s for The National Trust and is the author of The Hated Wife, published by Short Books in 2001.

Emily, Kipling’s one surviving daughter spent a year restoring Batemans to how it was when Rudyard and Carrie lived there and then sold it to the National Trust in 1939

‘If’ was inspired by Dr Jameson, who led the Jameson raid to capture the South African President, Kruger.

The film, My Son Jack, starred David Haig, Carey Mulligan and Daniel Radcliffe and first appeared on ITV in 2007.

‘Have you news of my boy Jack?’
Not this tide.
When d’you think that he’ll come back?’
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

‘Has any one else had word of him?’
Not this tide.
For what is sunk will hardly swim,
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

‘Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?’
None this tide,
Nor any tide,
Except he did not shame his kind –
Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.

Then hold your head up all the more,
This tide,
And every tide;
Because he was the son you bore,
And gave to that wind blowing and that tide!

Dimbola Lodge, home of Mrs Julia Margaret Cameron, lies just a mile from Freshwater Bay at the foot of the chalk ridge that rises high above the sea and extends all the way to the Needles.  Alfred, Lord  Tennyson, the poet laureate, who lived just down the road at Farringford, was her neighbour; their estates were connected by a private gateway. 

The Tennysons had moved to Farringford Lodge to escape the attentions of celebrity, but people followed him there.  It became a place of pilgrimage.  Tennyson affected not to enjoy the attention he attracted; he even had a bridge build over the road so he could walk up onto his beloved High Down without being seen.  But he disliked the lack of attention more. Bad reviews would cause him to fret for weeks, so much so that Emily, his wife, took pains to hide bad reviews from him, and Julia even wrote good reviews which were published anonymously.  It was largely due to the eccentric energy of Mrs Cameron that there was a constant stream of visitors (pilgrims) to her Tennysonian  salon, where guests feasted on Indian cuisine and erudite conversation with the laureate.  West Wight attracted the luminaries of the day including  Charles Darwin, the repressed pre-Raphaelite painter GF Watts and his child bride, the actress Ellen Terry,  Elizabeth Barrett Browning,  The Reverend Dodgson (Lewis Carroll,  who had a thing about little girls), the astronomer John Herschel, Thackeray, Charles Kingsley, George du Maurier, Edward Lear, Anthony Trollope, Henry Longfellow.  Julia even got Alfred to send an invitation to John Ruskin but received this dusty reply,  ‘Thank you, you’ve got nothing there but chalk and sand.’   Ruskin was not a man to indulge in frivolity and humour          

 Julia was in love with Alfred,  but he was faintly amused by her ardour, which he regarded as quite understandable though he thought her photographs made him look like a dirty monk.  She arrived at Dimbole Lodge shortly after the Tennysons and stayed on when her husband, who was much older than her returned to India.  Julia was a woman of great impulses and enthusiasms.  She came from a large family with connections in the East India Company.  The three sisters were known as Dash, Beauty and Talent.  Julia was the most clever but the least beautiful.  She was always trying to please, but never quite hit the mark.  When Alfred said he liked white roses, she had all the roses in her garden painted white, but the great man failed to call.  Spurned by Tennyson and neglected by Cameron, Julia devoted her formidable energies to the developing art of photography.  She mastered the techniques for coating glass plates with a colloid of light sensitive chemicals and would capture romantic images featuring strong bearded men, like Tennyson and Watts, striking pre-Raphaelite women and cute children.  Julia almost single handedly invented the art of photographic portraiture.  She liked the natural, not to say wild look and by skilful combination of camera angles and lighting, could emphasise the personality etched into a person’s face.  She even washed Hershel’s white hair and made it stick up to create a perpetual air of astronomical surprise.   

Tea parties at Dimbola tended towards the eccentric.   There was the brooding presence of Watts, the histrionic Terry, the strange Reverend Dodgeson and Tennyson, who was quite oblivious to everything except his own eminence.  Many a time her guests were alarmed by screams and a photographic plate would come skimming over the grass and smash against the wall.  People didn’t communicate very much and strange things tended to happen.  It seemed an ideal setting for Alice’s adventures in Wonderland.    

Now Dimbola is a local art gallery, staging frequent exhibitions as well as displaying a permanent collection of Julia’s work.  A statue of Jimi Hendrix, who died just three weeks after the 1970 Isle of Wight pop festival dominates the strip of lawn in the front of the house. I asked the man in the bookshop, a member of the local Tennyson society, what Mrs Cameron would have thought of the statue He was in no doubt. ‘Oh, if she could cope with a Victorian pop star like Tennyson with all of his antisocial and insanitary habits’, she would have had no problem with Hendrix.  She supported creativity, no matter what form it took. He would have been a welcome guest to her island salon. There would have been a clash with His Lordship the laureate though. He couldn’t tolerate rivals and he hated noise and crowds.’

It was 75 years ago today that he crashed.  Returning from camp on his motor bike, no doubt going much too fast, he didn’t see the two delivery boys over the brow of the hill until it was too late.  He swerved, lost control and hit the tree head on.  He was not wearing a crash helmet of course.  It was 1935 and anyway, that was the nature of the man. 

A simple stone dwelling, two up, two down, hidden from the road and the heath by rhododendrons,  Clouds Hill is his only personal memorial.  It represents T.E. Lawrence;  private, scholarly, a lover of music, open fires and fast motor bikes.  I like it. It is dark and cosy; a refuge, a safe place, a place of peace.  Freudians would say a womb; well sometimes a room is just a room!

Downstairs is a library, dark wood panelling, pictures, books, mementoes, a model plane, the motor torpedo boat he was helping to design, prints of Arabia, a boxy arm chair with a reading stand, a large bed, the mattress covered with light brown leather.  To the right of the door is the bathroom, the walls panelled with cork, an abundance of hot water. Lawrence loved hot water. 

Upstairs is  the music room; leather door, leather settee,  paintings; Allenby on the landing, Prince Feisal propped up against the wind up gramophone with an enormous horn.  I ask the guide if he could play it.  He does and Elgar conducts his violin concerto with Yehudi Menuhin as the soloist.  The sound is tinny and the motor runs down after a few bars.  The other upstairs room is like a cabin, the window a porthole from a ships chandlers, a bunk bed high on the chest of drawers, the walls covered with tin foil to stop condensation, cheese under glass. 

E.M.Forster stayed there, but was disturbed by the Nightjar that settled on the roof and churred all night.  He threw a stone at it and broke a slate. Lawrence never mended the slate; he liked his visitors to make their mark.      

‘Clouds’ Hill is a very masculine place’, the guide comments.  He’s right.  It’s the refuge of a private man;  a bachelor pad, a den, a place to shut the world out.  Lawrence never actually lived there; he ate and slept down at Bovington Camp.  It was more a ‘pied a terre’.  Every day at 4.30pm, he would get on his bike and drive the mile to Clouds Hill, relax, read, listen to music and write. 

Literary friends; the Hardys,  the Shaws, E.M.Forster used to visit him.  There is copy of one of GBS’ plays inscribed ‘To Private Shaw from Public Shaw’.  Private Shaw was very hospitable to his friends, but never fussy. He served tea in mugs without milk and food had to be eaten with a spoon out of tins.  There is no kitchen and the toilet is at the back of the garage where he kept his motor bike.  It was a Spartan, ascetic, hermit-like existence, but Lawrence liked the luxury of books, music and hot water.   

The Greek inscription on the lintel above the door is loosely translated as ‘Why worry?’   Lawrence of Arabia had left the anxiety of celebrity, relinquished the myth and become the very  private TE Shaw.  One guessed he was homosexual; he certainly enjoyed the simple companionship of squaddies and often invited them down to Clouds Hill, but the reality may have been that he was asexual and still deeply traumatised by his experience in Damascus.   

Clouds Hill is, for me, a place of pilgrimage.   It is not easy to find, only open a few days a week and does not  even merit a sign on the A35. I am glad.  Let the crowds pass by to the competing attractions of  Monkey World and The Tank Museum and leave Lawrence to enjoy his friends in peace.         

From Clouds Hill I drive south, turn right by the dramatic stumps of Corfe Castle and find my winding way through Church Knowle to Kimmeridge.  The ladies at St Nicholas Church ask me to stay for the Ascension Day service, but I decline. Organised religion feels too political, too intrusive to me.  So as soon as I can, I leave to find solace by the sea, where the nodding donkey still pumps up the oil from the shale beds and Reverend Richard John Clavell’s tower stands sentinel on the cliff edge. 

It was in Clavell’s Tower that Thomas Hardy courted Elizabeth Bright Nicholls. 

The U boats lay in wait for us as soon as we rounded North Cape.  There was only a narrow passage between the tundra and the ice, and as they closed in on the convoy underwater,  Stukas from their Norwegian bases, dive bombed us from above.  It was hell!   The sea was always rough and water washed over the guns froze immediately.  If anybody fell overboard, they didn’t last more than 3 minutes.’

I listened but couldn’t identify with Ron’s experience. It felt disloyal to do so. Hadn’t Dad been sent up to Orkney to risk his life protecting the Arctic convoys?  Hadn’t he crashed and nearly died up there?  Did he deserve to have his wife stolen, his family disrupted by one of the sailors he protected?   So I suppressed my curiosity. 

Many years later, I grew to love Northern Finland.   So when I spotted  ‘Running with Reindeer’, that described an exploration of the Kola Peninsula,  the destinations of the Russian convoys, over 10 years in the nineteen nineties, I had to find out more.  

But it was the author, Roger Took, who intrigued me.  Why on earth would a sensitive, rich middle -aged man, an art historian and museum curator, an establishment figure, want to spend so long in  what he described as one of the most unfriendly and inhospitable places on earth? 

But Took was a man obsessed.  In just one month, he learnt to speak Russian well enough to get by and arrived alone in the derelict port and abandoned goods yards of Murmansk with its grim government buildings and decrepit five story apartment blocks.   His stated purpose was to find the remnants of the Saami, the Lappish peoples, still living in the far north of Russia, and to discover how much of their culture still survived.  

But there was more to it than that.  Took went out of his way to court suspicion, discomfort and danger.  There was little that was uplifting in his book.   He trudges across the tundra in freezing rain with inadequate shelter and food, he falls up to chest into bogs, he spends a night in a filthy cabin where he witnesses a drunken homosexual gang rape,  he visits restricted inlets where decommissioned  submarines rot, their reactors disintegrating and turning the sea radioactive, he sees mountains devastated by open cast mines and  he records a landscape blasted and polluted by nickel smelting.   He does finds isolated pockets of Saami, but realises that their traditional way livelihood of reindeer herding, hunting and salmon fishing was ruined collectivisation, their culture corrupted by alcohol and prostitution. 

His is a grim tale with no redemption.   So why wasTook so attracted to this, the most devastated and corrupt aspects of civilisation that he returned again and again.  That question bothered me increasingly as I persevered with the turgid academic prose of his punishing narrative.  What was it about this guy?  There was an unrelenting darkness about him.  But why?  I had to consult Google.  

I was shocked to discover that Roger Took is in prison.  There is a long article, written for The Spectator in 2008 by Carol Metcalfe.   He had bragged in his blog about being part of a group of men, who raped and murdered a 5 year old girl in Cambodia.  Although Took dismissed this as fantasy, there were scores of incriminating images on his computer and he had been paying his step grand-daughter to have sex with him.  Wikipedia lists difficulties in his marriage, another woman he could not forget, sexual frustration and a fragile, sensitive personality.  Any review of his book, which was nominated for an international prize for travel writing, has been removed.           

 So were Took’s expeditions deliberately punitive or just an escape from the perversity of his privileged lifestyle?   Was his book an attempt to purge himself of some dreadful shame? 

What made Took a paedophile?  Did an unduly close and controlling relationship with his mother make committed  mature relationships with women seem too threatening.   Did the difficulties he had in his two marriages instigate the need for the kind of controlling sexual relationships, he could procure only  with emotionally needy and vulnerable children?  Did his celebrity and privilege create a sense of entitlement; the feeling that he could indulge his perversions?  

His book fails to provide any answers to these questions, but the final chapter does allude to encounters with teenage prostitutes in Murmansk in 1998.  Ron had also mentioned picking up Russian women in Murmansk; the Winston Churchill House of Friendships catered for the needs of foreigners,  but few sailors ever realised the terrible price the women would pay for friendship.

In the more remote villages, they live in long houses, constructed of bamboo and rattan,  cook on open wooden fires, squat on the dirt floor to eat from a low table and sleep on a low wooden platform.  They wear traditional clothes, grow their own vegetables and hill rice, brew their own rice whisky, fish, hunt for game and forage in the forest for herbs, fruits and berries. The community is to all intents and purposes, self sufficient, living in a manner that has changed little for thousands of years.

And the people seem robust and healthy, the trimmed physique of the men carries not an ounce of fat, their teeth are intact, their skin not infected with sores. The women are strong and bear healthy infants at their hips. 

The children are infinitely curious, open and engaging.  They want to know about everything and are fascinated by my equipment; camera, glasses, binoculars, books, pencils and especially postcards.  I show them how to draw and how to play noughts and crosses.  They pick up the idea very quickly. They go to school in the village until they are about 11 and then help in the fields.  Some girls, who couldn’t have been more 12 pass with baskets on their back and machetes on their belts, heading for the creek.  An hour later they return, their burden of firewood supported by the wooden yoke across their shoulders and a band of rattan around their foreheads.

But Northern Laos is a land in transition. Even in this village, one of two young men have a moto, a small fifty cc motorcycle, there is a rusty satellite dish outside one house servicing the village’s sole television that is powered by car batteries, and there are two solar panels outside another house, from which emanates as from some magic cave, the multicoloured winking lights of mobile phone chargers. A UN team is doing a survey to work out how they might build a proper latrine and pipe in water from a reservoir in the hills.     

This village is lucky.  The changes that have taken place have not changed the basic structure and function of the community.  The community is still run by a committee of village elders.  The government has had little impact, yet!  

Elsewhere, the changes are more drastic.  The communist government has devised a  policy of moving rural villages to the main roads. The new houses are based on a traditional design, but more are made of wood and brick instead of bamboo and rattan. They have lost their soul; their identity. People work in the new rubber plantations that have grown up along the deforested hillsides. Others take a moto or tuk-tuk to work in town.  Community is being eroded; individual expression is more the rule.  Under one house, a toddler was careering around in a fancy baby walker,  in brand new pink baby suit and flashing new trainers.  And the Chinese are coming.     

There is a big school in the roadside village. The children gather from miles around and play on ‘the green’, the big area of hard dirt in the centre of the village. It was like a painting by Pieter Bruegel. There were home-made whipping tops, a hopping game of tag, a game where children took it in turns to hop down a track balancing a bean on their free foot. There was a game of skittles played with big beans that skimmed along the concrete floor outside the classrooms, there was a skipping game where the rope was held very high and the girls had to reach up and pull the rope down with their foot. Older boys played boules and a few kicked a football about.  Sinoy, one of the local guides, made a small square shuttlecock by weaving strips of banana leaf together into a box and inserting a stick topped with a leaf or a bit of plastic in the top. It flew perfectly and we played endlessly batting it to each with hands, feet, knees and forehead. It was great fun! Games reinforce companionship and community and are all the more important at a time of such rapid change.  

But people seem less open and friendly, the nearer the village is to the road.  Maybe they sense danger.  Strangers stop and buy food from stalls set up at the roadside.  It’s easy to see they might soon be stopping for sex; perhaps they already do.  The proprietor of the guest house is the local Mr Big, a swaggering, obese young man dressed in a bright red top emblazoned with the Manchester United logo, long French football shorts and brand new trainers. The children eat sweets and have pot bellies and a permanent dribble. Every young person has a moto and a mobile phone; it’s obligatory. There are more satellite dishes and most houses are supplied with electricity. This was not just a village in transition; the whole culture is in transition; in fact the whole developing world is changing, fast.  Traditional ways of life are disappearing or retained as window dressing for the tourists. Eco-tourism is big up here, only don’t look too carefully.  The cultural reality of it is disappearing before your eyes, managed by fat boys in designer gear who marshal groups of ethnics for photographs.

Of course, it does not do to romanticise this too much.  The forest can only support a small number of people and there are nutritional and infective risks if population levels increase.  An expanding population is going to need more intensive farming and access to town.   

In Hanoi, a wonderful Museum of Ethnography has been created for people to understand their vanished ethnic heritage. It feels infinitely sad that it is necessary to create a museum of a way of life was quite viable and wondrous in its diversity.  Yes, progress cannot really be halted but progress is a kind of meaningless unification.  Piped water, electricity, television, motos and other labour saving services and devices may make life easier, but what they take away is invaluable; the identity and meaning of a culture that has evolved over thousands of years.           

Most exploit the change, of course; they have to, but it doesn’t always bring happiness.  Our guide, Pon, is a sharp young man caught between cultures.  He clearly loves trekking through the jungle and knows ‘everybody’, bring medicines for the shaman’s stomach ache, cigarettes for his male friends, smiles and love songs for his girl friends and the occasional T shirt for the children. He enjoys his role as envoy between cultures.  But when we visited him in his home with his lovely wife and cute son, it was clear that he is  not happy. He has been exposed to a western way of life that he can never have. He has the expectations of western lifestyle, but his salary as a guide is limited and he is too dependent on meaningless charm to exact additional large tips from his clients.  His wife does not speak English.  They live with her parents. He can’t travel, see the world, he can only look at the television.  He is trapped!

The same dichotomy was all too apparent on the coach that took us from the sprawling dust of Phnom Penh to The Cardamom Hills along the highway built by the Thais in 2008.  The video played endlessly showing images of young men in sharp suits, driving long shiny black sports cars (sometimes a sports car is just a sports car but often it’s not), and picking up pretty young girls, whom they transport to a moonlit lake to sing their songs of romantic love. The story is always the same; if you want the doe-eyed girl of your fantasies, don’t be a loser and work in the fields, but get yourself sharp clothes and a smart car. Cambodia is still dreadfully poor, but these videos purvey an impossible dream, a dream that makes every young person feel like a loser. London was never paved with gold and Cambodia can never be Beverley Hills! That’s the reality.

Next Page »