Basin and Range

Can you honestly say that you knew exactly what you wanted to be when you were a child? I can.

I guess I should have seen the signs ahead, my Mum and Dad giving me books on geology as a child, and fossil hunting in Northumberland. Some of my happiest memories involve clambering around, and falling off, rocks. The thing that really sealed my fate was one time when Dad came back from some engineering work in the Outer Hebrides. We were sat in the car, high up in the Campsie Hills, overlooking Glasgow, and he handed me a present. A lump of Lewisian gneiss. The rock showed its history in its density and appearance. You could tell instinctively that this rock had been mangled, buried and heated, deformed and reformed. I almost expected it to still be warm. That feeling has never left me, and from that moment on, I was a goner.

Lewisian Gneiss

 Photo of Lewisian Gneiss, from the Geowalks blog – read it here.

You’re probably wondering what this has to do with “Basin and Range”. Well, there are some books that written that distil the essence of a particular subject. This is one of them. If I ever tried to describe the wonder of geology, this would go a long way to explaining it. John McPhee gets it. I mean, really gets it. Better than that, he can put it into writing. No wonder the guy won a Pulitzer prize.

Basin and Range describes a series of trips McPhee made with a variety of geologists across America, from grad students to professors. He was interested in constructing a geological history of America, based upon roadcuts and other places where the inner workings of the earth could be seen.

The book starts at the western edge of the George Washington bridge in New York. He describes the formation of the Palisades Sill, and the geology out to the west. The geologist that he is with uses a phrase that strikes a chord with me:

If I’m going to drive safely, I can’t do geology.”

Yes indeed. I find it difficult to drive through roadcuts and past interesting geological features without becoming quite distracted. I’ve learned that it’s far safer to stop and then gawp!

McPhee talks about looking at one particular Interstate that runs across the entire country, and what sorts of geological boundaries it would move through. Interestingly though, he overlays that with additional boundaries, those of creatures. One lovely expression he uses is describing the centre of the US as a drawer, much as you would find in a desk:

“…really a quartering of a continent, a drawer in North America. Pull it out and prairie dogs would spill off one side, alligators off the other – a terrain crisscrossed with geological boundaries, mammalian boundaries, amphibian boundaries: the limits of the world of the river frog, the extent of the Nugget Formation, the range of the mountain cougar.”

McPhee’s writing has a poetry to it. If he was writing about licking postage stamps, it would still be fascinating, and you would probably want to go off in search of some to lick yourself. Describing the language of geology, he uses some of my favourite words and phrases, including “radiolarian ooze” and “clinoptilolite”, and explains to the reader the subtelties of things they probably take for granted. All granite is just granite, right? Wrong. In an accessible way, he shows why geologists have so many different terms for particular rocks, and also the idea that samples of the same liquid rock will turn into different rocks if allowed to cool below or at the surface. They might chemically be the same, but they’re not the same rock any more. Lovely.

I also like his way of visualising what particular places might have looked like, hundreds of millions of years ago.

 “You cross the Newark Basin. It is for the most part filled with red mud. In the mud are tracks that seem to have been made by a two-ton newt. You come to a long, low, north-south trending, black, steaming hill. It is a flow of lava that has come out over the mud and has cooled quickly in the air to form the dense smooth textures of basalt. Someday, towns and landmarks of this extruded hill will in one way or another take from it their names: Montclair, Mountainside, Great Notch, Glen Ridge. You top the rise, and now you can see across the top of the basin to the Border Fault, and where Whippany and Parsnippany will be, some thirty miles west of New York – there is a mountain front perhaps seven thousand feet high. You climb this range and see more and more mountains beyond., and they are the folded-and-faulted Appalachians, but middle-aged and a little rough still at the edges, not caterpillar furry and worn-down smooth. Numbers do not seem to work well with regard to deep time. Any number above a couple of thousand years – fifty thousand, fifty million – will with nearly equal effect awe the imagination to the point of paralysis.”

This kind of writing fired, still fires, my imagination. The world we know is a place of constant processes, as he describes. Mountains are being uplifted at the same time as they are being eroded. It’s not as if only one process can take place at a time. The names of places that they travel through and talk about are marvellously evocative, Wind River Canyon, Thermopolis, the Sonoma Range, Old Dad Range. When he describes long valleys running for a hundred miles north into the darkness, I want to jump into a pickup and drive through the mist rising from the streams, and follow the thin lines of telephone poles, not knowing what I’ll find next. The sheer scale is something that I love about the United States. It isn’t just big, but truly massive.

Part of my enjoyment isn’t just the subject matter. McPhee has a distinctive turn of phrase. For example, when he is in Nevada, he describes the silence of some remote place:

“Silence – a great spacial silence – is pure in the Basin and Range. It is a soundless immensity with mountains in it.”

When he talks about geological processes, he notes again and again that things don’t quite happen in the way that “Old Geology” teaching says. It isn’t a case of mountains being formed, and then eroded. Where the Pleasant Valley abuts the Tobin Range, he describes where a fault of 16 feet width appeared, separating trees that used to stand together. Given that the mountains were being eroded at about an inch per century, this represented a “leap” of about twenty thousand years, in an instant. He also points out that what you can see in Nevada, in the Basin and Range province, is what is visible during mountain-building.

Most of the rest of the book gives a good recounting of geological theory and practice over the last two hundred years or so, but his description of the welded tuffs of the Basin and Range deserve mentioning. This rock type was what was on the ground when the faulting that created the Basin and Range began. When most non-geologists think about mountains being formed, they think about collisions betwen plates, like a rucked-up carpet. This works for ranges like the Himalayas or Appalachians. The Basin and Range is a bit different, in that the land is being stretched, or drawn apart. Before all of that happened though, the welded tuffs were formed. Blinding hot ash erupted from vents in the land surface, blanketing everything for miles around with material hot enough to weld. McPhee describes this as being far thicker and denser than the ash that consumed Pompeii. The great heat caused the material to weld itself into a solid glassy material. Naturally, every living thing in the region died. Things stayed this way for about twenty million years. Twenty million. Humanity has been around for about two million, for comparison. For ten times that length of time, the welded tuff basically sat around and was eroded by the weather. When the tuff is drawn apart, the fault blocks tip, and are eroded, forming mountains on one side, and lakes / depressions on the other. Thus, the Basin and Range province of the title is formed.

One of the most significant events in the history of geological thought came when James Hutton observed an angular unconformity near Jedburgh, in the Scottish Borders. At that point, nobody really had a clear idea of how old the Earth actually was. The Church had put forward an estimate, in the shape of James Ussher, the Archbishop of Armagh. He had totalled up the ages of various people in the Bible, and stated that the Earth was created in 4004 BCE. OK, on one side, we have the age of the Earth as about six thousand years, and nothing from the geologists. When Hutton was looking at his unconformity in the Borders, he was looking at sandstone sitting roughly horizontally on top of another kind of rock called schist, which had been tilted until it was sitting almost upright. Being of a scientific mind, Hutton had been wondering about the speed of geological processes like erosion as he looked at his fields. He worked out that slow processes, repeated over very long times, could give really big effects. Mountains can be eroded, one sand grain at a time. It just takes (forgive me) a geological time scale. The unconformity was where two very different kinds of rock were sitting next to each other. He reasoned that the first (schist) rocks would have to have been formed, and then eventually tipped up until they were almost sitting on their end. Erosion would have to take place, giving a more or less flat surface, and then the sandstone would be formed, ever-so-slowly.  It became clear to him that the Earth could not be only six thousand years.  Geological processes could explain how different kinds of rocks formed, without having to invoke strange theories like granite precipitating out from water, or Divine intervention. Some people ridicule Archbishop Ussher’s effort to calculate the age of the Earth, but to be fair, he was following a fairly logical process, given the data that he had available in the Bible. Getting back to Hutton and his “eureka!” moment in the Borders, there is a similar place described in the book, in Carlin Canyon, Nevada.

Naturally, this caused something of a stir in the scientific and religious spheres. Hutton was not helped by the fact that his writing was difficult to follow, even for geologists. McPhee gives a page of so as an example, and if you can remember what he was talking about by the time you reach the end of the (massive) sentence, you’ve a better memory than me! Luckily for him, he had friends who could write in a much more accessible style, allowing people to understand what he was actually getting excited about.

An alternative school of thought proposed that rocks were precipitated from water, and divided up into Primary, Secondary and Tertiary rocks. While this approach has now been dropped, it is curious to note that we still refer to rocks of a particular event as “Tertiary volcanics”. This is a throwback to an earlier time and way of thinking.

McPhee’s book moves onto more recent geological theories, including plate tectonic theory. Until the twentieth century, we didn’t have a really clear idea of how bit of the planet could move around. he crustal blocks are now referred to as “plates”, such as the Atlantic Plate, the Nazca Plate, or as sublime proof that geologists do have a sense of humour, the China Plate. A number of innovative scientists, including Rear-Admiral Hess, Heezen and Tharp, and Vine and Matthews came up with pieces of the jigsaw, namely that the Earth’s magnetic poles switch over regularly and the oceans act as recycling centres for the crust, being created in one area, and destroyed, or subducted, in others. While the oldest rocks on the surface of our planet have been dated to almost four billion years of age, the oldest seafloor sediments are Jurassic in age, about 140-195 million years old.

For an excellent look at plate tectonics with the US Geological Survey, click here. Non-geologists, don’t be alarmed. It’s really well written for normal people, and worth a good look, as I’m painting with quite broad brush strokes!

The end of the road trip comes in Lovelock, Nevada, with the thought that if the geological activity in the Basin and Range continues for a while (geologically speaking), the ocean will pour into this region, forming a new sea. The then mayor of the town said that it would make a change, having water after so long without. Sitting in a small western town as a train rumbles past carrying aircraft engines, they sketch out the presumed extent of the sea that might be a long time coming.

Journey's end

Journey’s end – Lovelock, Nevada

I would rate this as one of the best books I’ve ever read. It certainly inspired me to become a geologist, but even if I hadn’t, it did open my eyes to what McPhee and other Earth-scientists refer to as the Big Picture. Reading it again, more than twenty years after I sat with it as an undergraduate student in St-Andrews, Scotland, I felt the wonder anew of the world that we all inhabit, and the sheer scale of it all. Humans are like insects. We could wipe ourselves out, and ten million years later, everything else would be like new. As another author once said, Earth abides.


At the mountains of madness – H.P.Lovecraft and gothic horror

I first encountered H.P.Lovecraft in the early 1980s, when he was mentioned in “The last starfighter” as an author scaring the protagonist. The local library was a good one, and soon ordered three ominbus editions for me. The only horror I had read previously was by Steven King and James Herbert. This quickly proved to be something altogether different, both in pace and language. King is another of my favourite authors – I think the uncut Stand is one of the finest stories ever told, but this post is about H.P.Lovecraft.

I started at the beginning, with “At the mountains of madness”. Basically an exploration story, in what was then one of the world’s last true wildernesses. Back in the 1930s, we didn’t know what was down there, and Lovecraft uses this knowledge (or lack of it) to good effect. The expedition catalogues finds and surveys mountains larger than anywhere else on earth:

“10:05 PM On the wing. After snowstorm, have spied mountain range ahead higher than any hitherto seen. May equal Himalayas, allowing for height of plateau. Probable Latitude 76° 15′ S, Longitude 113° 10′ E. Reaches as far as can see to right and left. Suspicion of two smoking cones. All peaks black and bare of snow. Gale blowing off them impedes navigation.”

The expedition starts to drill into the Antartic rock, and notices anomalous features quite early on. Documenting their finds in a very scientific way, the story reads like a geological survey report, until they notice what seem to be tracks made by an organism. The rocks that they are looking at are from the Archaean, among the oldest on Earth, laid down far before anything complex enough to leave tracks or footprints had evolved. In more recent rocks, they make another astonishing discover. What appear to be organic life forms, unlike anything ever seen before. Again, the scientists document their finds in a way that reads like an episode of the X-Files or CSI (in 1930!). Clearly, they have stumbled upon something truly momentous, that will change the way that humans look at history.

Having made their find, the second party, with the narrator, fly out the following day to the advance camp. On the way, they spot something unusual about the mountains ahead of them:

“The effect was that of a Cyclopean city of no architecture known to man or human imagination, with vast aggregations of night-black masonry embodying monstrous perversions of geometrical laws. There were truncated cones, sometimes terraced or fluted, surmounted by tall cylindrical shafts here and there and bulbously enlarged and often capped with tiers of thinnish scalloped disks; and strange beetling, table-like constructions suggesting piles of multitudinous rectangular slabs or circular plates of five-pointed stars with each one overlapping the one beneath. There were composite cones and pyramids either alone or surmounting cylinders or cubes or flatter truncated cones and pyramids, and occasional needle-like spires in curious clusters of five. All of these febrile structures seemed knit together by tubular bridges crossing from one to the other at various dizzy heights, and the implied scale of the whole was terrifying and oppressive in its sheer gigantism.”

What an image! Imagine what it would have been like to find something like that, unseen by human eyes. Staggering, but as the group descended towards the advance camp, they could see that something was wrong. Nobody greeted them on the radio, and they couldn’t see any signs of activity. On the ground, the entire party was either dead or missing. All of the dogs had been killed, and there was evidence of a severe storm, harsh enough to strip paint from wood. There is a scene reminiscent of John Carpenter’s “The Thing”, where the dog corral has been destroyed from the inside, suggesting that something caused the dogs themselves to go berserk and try to escape. In order to try and determine the fate of their missing crew, the surviving explorers fly to the nearby mountains, and discover a gigantic city, built to a scale that dwarfs humans. I could ramble on for pages about the descriptions, which are incredibly rich, but you should read the story yourself!

Landing in the city, they find their way into the complex of buildings, and follow various signs, ever downward, until they find themselves at the bottom of a massive shaft, open to the sky, and in partial collapse. There they see evidence of equipment and papers from their devastated camp, as well as finding their missing team member and dog, frozen solid. It looks as though they hadn’t been the only ones collecting specimens…

As with most stories by H.P.Lovecraft, they discover something which Should Not Be, and have to try and make a rapid escape through the tunnels to the upper city. Something follows them, forcing itself through the inclined shaft they used to reach the bottom of the city. The narrator notices that his companion has gone hysterical, if not mad, and is reciting stops on the Boston Underground. Again, Lovecraft does it justice:

“It was the utter objective embodiment of the fantastic novelist’s ‘thing that should not be’; and its nearest comprehensible analogue is a vast onrushing subway train as one sees it from a station platform – the great black front looming colossally out of infinite subterranean distance, constellated with strangely coloured lights and filling the prodigious burrow as a piston fills a cylinder. But we were not on a station platform. We were on the track ahead as the nightmare, plastic column of fetid blac irridescence ozzed tightly onward through its fifteen-foot sinus, gathering unholy speed and driving before it a spiral, rethickening cloud of the pallid abyss vapour. It was a terrible, indescribable thing vaster than any subway train – a shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous, and with myriads of temporary eyes forming and unforming as pustules of greenish light all over the tunnel-filling front that bore down  upon us, crushing the frantic penguins and slithering over the glistening floor that it and its kind had swept so evilly free of all litter.”

From here on, it is a race for survival, amd trying to ensure that Mankind does nothing more to explore Antartica. Lovecraft’s characters often espouse the view that human knowledge is akin to a small island, in a vast dark sea of madness, and that to see too many of the pieces of the jigsaw would be too much for us. Clearly, seeing a Shoggoth had pretty profound consequences for the party, and they are only minor creatures in the Mythos. What I like about his writing is that on one level, we are utterly insignificant, as insects to the Great Old Ones, but the stories themselves focus on people, and how they feel about what they are seeing or experiencing.

Naturally, with many of these stories, things end badly for people, but that becomes part of the attraction. People are drawn to the candle flame of forbidden knowledge, and burned. Even in some of my favourite stories, “The dream-quest of unknown Kadath” things are not safe. Even in dream, Things can reach out and harm you.

Lovecraft’s vocabulary is well in excess of double that of an educated person, so reading him will likely improve your scrabble! It can be a little dense at first, as his style doesn’t lend itself to spead reading or skimming. But then, with an author like this, why would you want to skim it? Once you can get over the slightly flowery prose, he is an excellent storyteller. Much of his horror is less about gore, and more about people wondering what that strange smell is, coming from the boarded-up cupboard beneath the stairs.

I would recommend anyone interested in trying Lovecraft to pick up or order from the library the three Omnibus editions of his writing, currently published by Voyager in the UK. These contain his most interesting work, including “The Call of Cthulhu”, “The shadow over Innsmouth”, “At the mountains of madness”, “Pickman’s model”, and “The thing on the doorstep”.

Go on, give him a try, but don’t complain to me if the world looks subtly different afterwards…


War is hell – “The Forever War”, by Joe Haldeman

Another of my all-time favourite books, “The Forever War” is written from the point of view of the “poor bloody infantry”, the squaddie on the ground. The author was involved in the Vietnam War, and it comes across quite clearly that he has seen combat. The first line, “Tonight we’re going to show you eight silent ways to kill a man” drew me in, and the book has never let me go in the last twenty five years. As well as being an excellent science fiction story, it is also a love story, and damning critique of the military.

Set in the near future, Mankind is expanding out into the stars, using collapsar gates. Then contact is made, with one of our colony ships being destroyed by an unknown enemy. Mandella, the protagonist, is drafted into the military, and the story begins with his platoon being trained in Missouri, to go and protect portal planets. Training is harsh, and recruits die before it is over. The bulk of training takes place on a cold and dark planet on the edge of our solar system, where the environment is undoubtedly more hostile than any enemy.

This was one of the first stories I had read where the military used powered armour and high energy weapons, but the suits come with problems of their own, being new technology. Damage to the cooling fins means a quick death, as does falling and cracking your faceplate. The recruits learn that it is possible to die just by slipping. I imagine that would give you a new perception of the fragility of life.

The Forever War

Peace and War (The Forever War is volume one. Image from Amazon.co.uk)

Once training is over, the new soldiers are shipped out to their first mission. Another first for me was the idea of combat being conducted across astronomical distances, and by computers. Here’s an excerpt, from when the combat team are informed of combat that has just taken place:

“We just engaged the enemy with two fifty-Gigatonne tachyon missiles and destroyed both the enemy vessel and another object which it had launched approximately three microseconds before. The enemy has been trying to overtake us for the past 179 hours, ship time. At the time of the engagement, the enemy was moving at a little over half of the speed of light, relative to Aleph, and was only about thirty AUs from the Earth’s Hope. It was moving at 0.47c relative to us, and thus we would have been coincident in space-time” – rammed!  – “in a little more than nine hours. The missiles were launched at 0719 ship’s time, and destroyed the enemy at 1540, both tachyon bombs detonating within a thousand klicks of the enemy objects.”

Whoah! This was something new. Combat where the main characters were not involved, but success was achieved by guiding a massive weapon within a thousand kilometers of the target. I don’t know about you, but this certainly made me think.

The squads then proceed to their target world, which is believed to hold a Tauran outpost. The Taurans are the enemy in this book, named after the constellation where first contact was made. At this point in the book, nobody has ever laid eyes on a Tauran, as there has never been anything left, “bigger than a scorched chromosome”. One of the aims of their mission is to try and capture a live one. Combat follows, but the only surviving Tauran dies, apparently through suicide. Thus having partially failed in their objective, they return to Stargate.

Another thing that this book introduced me to was the idea of travel across interstellar distances in a semi-realistic way. Imagine that a means of transport has been developed, allowing you to travel immense distances. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Right, but the down side is that due to the relativistic speeds involved, you will have experienced a trip time of perhaps a year, but upon your return to Earth, twenty years have passed. Imagine that, all of your loved ones are now much older, or have passed away. The world will certainly have changed. Social mores are different, as seen when Mandella’s squad is debriefed by a male soldier wearing makeup, who tells them that a large proportion of Humanity is now homosexual, and as a heterosexual reader in the 80s, I can remember how big a jolt that gave me. How the tables turn! I found myself wondering what it would be like to live in this universe, a sign that the story was drawing me in.

All returning troops are encouraged to reenlist. Mandella has become involved with one of his group, Marygay Potter, and it is round this relationship that the rest of the book revolves. After a brief spell on Earth, both Mandella and Marygay realise that the only life that they understand now is in the military. Returning troops were guaranteed their preferred postings, so both decided to reenlist, become officers, and be stationed on the Moon. That lasted all of an hour or so, until their reassignment orders came in, sending them back into relativistic combat, against an enemy that had made significant technical advances.

I can’t really tell you very much about the rest of the book, without spoiling a great deal of what I loved about it for you. So, I am going to be annoying, and focus on recapping what I think makes this a fantastic read, and why I think you should have a copy of this on your bookshelf.

This book was written in 1974. How many of you were alive then? I was, and probably potty trained by that stage. It was ahead of its time then, and it still holds up just fine now.

It is about as anti-war a book as I have read, without being a tub-thumper. Instead, Haldeman focuses on the people fighting the war, and how it affects them. At one point in the book, people essentially go insane, after being forced to fight and slaughter Taurans. His sympathy for the ordinary soldiers, and their ordeal, is palpable.

It is a touching love story. I can’t tell you much about that either, without spoiling the plot, but it was enough to make me cry.

“The Forever War” was one of the first books by Joe Haldeman that I read, and I’ve bought several copies of it. If I had to save five books from the flames, this would be one of them. Despite knowing the story back to front, I still love to read it, which I think is the mark of a great book. Yes, the bit that made me cry still makes me cry.

Better still, the story is available as part of a trilogy, the picture for which is above. While neither of the other two volumes is quite as ground-breaking as the first, really, how could it be? I would recommend reading all three. Haldeman shines the spotlight on the ground-pounder in a way that reminds me of Heinlein in Starship Troopers – the book, not the dreadful film of the same name.

This really is one of the best books I’ve ever read. The trilogy is excellent, and available here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Peace-War-Omnibus-Forever-Gollancz/dp/0575079193

As always, your comments are welcome. Please let me know what you thought, and of your own favourite reads. Nothing is better than a recommendation which turns out to be an epic, lifelong friend of a book.


Colin Forbes – License to thrill?

I started reading Colin Forbes’ novels when I was a teenager, growing up in Midlothian. I didn’t have many friends, and turned to books for distraction and to be transported. As part of the 1st Midlothian Scouts, we would often have jumble sales, where I would be able to organise the book stall. This had some clear advantages for someone who loves books, and I would be able to buy interesting volumes myself, including some of my first thrillers, including many by Desmond Bagley and Len Deighton.

However, my first foray into Forbes territory came with “Deadlock”, a tale of searching out a terrorist mastermind before he carries out an atrocity. This story, and most of the others, revolve around a team of investigators, led by Tweed. The tale moves from England, through Switzerland, Luxembourg and Belgium, before ending up in Rotterdam. The characters are well drawn, particularly the main antagonist. I was taken at the time by just how readily he killed people – I hadn’t encountered a character like this in books before.

The next book I bought of Forbes was “The Greek Key”, followed by “Whirlpool”. While these books had some of the things that I really enjoy in thrillers, foreign travel and decent characters, they also began to seem a little formulaic. This is where I would like to know what you readers think. I recently read a number of Forbes’ most recent output, and they seemed to me as though they could have been churned out by a computer. Looking back on how much I enjoyed those early outings for Tweed and co., it seems a shame to have ended up like this. Do you think it is possible for there to be too much of a good thing? Is there a point where an author, even a bestseller like Forbes, should move on to other characters?

I don’t want anyone to think that I’m knocking his writing, but they do seem to get a bit samey as they go on. I also think that they ultimately suffer from something that I see in roleplaying games from time to time – uncontrolled escalation. This is seen in games which start off small, with players only having local influence, and facing enemies on a small scale, but rapidly ends up with both players and antagonists having access to global transport and support, with the weapons getting bigger and bigger. For me, this takes something away from the story being told. With some of the more recent works, I found this happening. It was more fun for me, as a reader, when the enemy didn’t have the ability to fly anywhere, use government agencies, and field weapons just short of nukes.

So, that’s my viewpoint. What do you think? I’d be happy to hear your views, whatever they are. Do you have other favourite thrillers?


Between the woods and the water – Part 1 (Hungary to Romania)

“Between the woods and the water” is one of my favourite books of all time. People say this frequently, but in this case it is true. I have many books which are like dear friends, to which I return time and again. Many of Paul Theroux’s volumes on travel fall into this category, as do Colin Thubron’s. However, this book is one which I will treasure, as I find myself on Patrick’s journey in my mind, and think of particular sections when I need to cheer myself up. That is what makes this book so special. As well as wishing that I could have met the author, I also found myself wishing to meet one of the animals he encountered, a horse named “Malek”. Malek’s character adds to the atmosphere of Leigh-Fermor’s writing, and brings a new dimension to his travels.

A book like this deserves more than one post, but it would likely be as long as his book!

For anyone coming fresh to Patrick Leigh-Fermor (PLF) and his writing, a brief introduction is in order. PLF set out in December 1933 to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, modern Istanbul. The journey took almost two years, and even in modern times, this would be a daunting task.

This volume starts where “A time of gifts” ends, on a bridge between Slovakia and Hungary, in Esztergom. Friends made along the way tended to write to people they knew, in order to procure assistance for him. In this instance, he ends up meeting the Mayor of Esztergom, and finds himself in a church service on Holy Saturday. His attention to detail is remarkable, though my favourite sections of his writing are when he is in between towns, describing the countryside and people that he comes upon at random.

Esztergom Basilica (Image copyright NatashaP)

What a magnificent building. There is a link to Natasha’s Flickr stream below the picture. After the service, the Mayor puts him up at a friend’s house, but not before checking out some storks nesting in a nearby belfry. The procession to the basilica causes them, and most of the others in the town, to rise into the air with a distinctive clapping sound. By the end of the service, they are snoozing peacefully again.

Budapest, to hear PLF describe it, had just been recaptured from the Turks when he visited. Put up by Tibor and Berta, he spends time at a Ball with a charming girl called AnnaMaria, and bumps into friends from earlier in his trip, “A csodalatos Koschkak!”, the Koschkak Brothers. Another contact made for him was with Paul Teleki, the ex-Prime Minister, who had mapped the Japanese Archipelago, and the boundaries of Mesopotamia. He notes with sorrow that his friend subsequently committed suicide, when the Germans invaded Yugloslavia across Hungary in 1941. Budapest is something of a chance to recharge batteries and regroup for him, and he makes the most of his visit, planning the next stages carefully, and riding at a military stables just outside the city. He describes this as a “discrete form of vetting”, and he was equipped with Malek shortly afterwards.

It is clear that he is aware of travelling through a Europe that was vanishing, even as he wrote about it. There is a strong sense of nostalgia in his writing, as he describes treaties, sieges and conquests. I find his writing very educational as well, and am always tempted to go and try to learn some of the jaw-breaking languages that he tackled. To be sure, a good Classical education stood him in good stead, regardless of school reports. A familiarity with Horace’s Odes would ultimately prove a point of common ground during the Second World War, when he abducted General Heinrich Kreipe on Crete.

The Great Hungarian Plain brings PLF back to the kind of writing that I enjoy best, full of evocative description. Here is a bit from his first evening out with Malek on the plain:

“These lonely uprights give an air of desolation to the plain: they resemble derelict siege-engines by day and the failing light turns them into gibbets or those wheel-topped stakes in pictures by Hieronymous Bosch where vultures wrangle over skeletons spread-eagled in mid-air.

The evening was full of the see-saw creak of their timbers. At one of them, by a ruined farmhouse with a stork’s nest in the rafters, two dismounted drovers were toiling: their wide, white linen trousers, worn loose outside black knee-boots, came halfway down the calves of their legs. They had finished watering a large herd of remarkable pale cattle with almost straight horns of enormous span that filled the air with trampling and lowing and dust. When the drovers had remounted, I waved a greeting. They lifted their black hats with ceremony and wheeled their horses around, then, abetted by rough-coated white dogs, they spurred after the herd, trotting or cantering on the outskirts and whirling long goads to keep strays from wandering. The declining sun outlined all their silhouettes. Haloed in dust and trailing long shadows, they moved westward with a noise of harsh cries, dogs and a jangle of horns and bells. a stork joined its mate in the rafters, probably after swallowing a last frog captured at some quieter oasis and I trotted east towards the darker end of the plain. The clouds had flushed an astonishing pink.

But this was not to be compared with the sky behind. The flatness of the Alföld leaves a stage for cloud-events at sunset that are dangerous to describe: levitated armies in deadlock and riderless squadrons descending in slow motion to smouldering and sulphurous lagoons where barbicans gradually collapse and fleets of burning triremes turn dark before sinking. These are black vesper’s pageants…the less said the better.”

Arad at sunset

His travels across the plain and into Rumania took him to a town called Arad (above), where he was interested to hear more Hungarian than Rumanian, and noted Hungarian, Jewish and German names above many of the shops. He describes Arad as being about the size of Guildford (as it was in 1934), and famous for the Austrian execution of thirteen Hungarian generals, after Kossuth’s uprising against Habsburg rule in 1848. While there, he encountered and sketched Izabella. He found the sketch at the back of his notebook, while writing this book, nearly fifty years later, looking “almost as pretty as she had in real life”. This is the shade of someone long since gone, and I find myself worrying about wether or not they survived the coming war. I’ve often found myself thinking like that about people, in my favourite books.

I think that this is a good place to stop, with PLF getting ready to play skittles with Brother Peter of the Franciscan Abbey of Maria Radna. The story continues, but I’ll finish it in a second post. Dracula, Ada Kaleh and the Iron Gates of Kazan are still to come.


Living in the shadow of the mushroom cloud

I’ve recently been reading (or in one case, re-reading) three books with a common theme. Nuclear war. This might seem a little morbid, but growing up as a kid in the Eighties, this was a real possibility. The US and USSR could hardly be said to be on congenial terms with one another, and the numbers of nuclear weapons in play were truly frightening. One day in the late 1980s, an electrical fault caused all of the air-raid alarms in Edinburgh to go off in unison. Living in a time when nuclear war was a realistic threat made this scary in a way that today’s kids probably can’t empathise with. I remember wondering if the missiles were in the air, and what to do with my four minutes. Might seem funny nowadays, but it certainly wasn’t then.

Secret State - preparing for the worst 1945-2010

First book I read recently was “The Secret State”, by Peter Hennessy (ISBN 978-0-141-04469-9). This is a history of how the United Kingdom prepared and planned for the unthinkable – total nuclear war. I was lucky enough to attend a lecture given by Peter this year, and ask him when he believed the moment of greatest peril of nuclear war occurred. Without hesitation, he said “The Cuban Missile Crisis. If Kruschev hadn’t backed down, the UK Government would have escalated its preparations for war to a new level”.

What made this read so compelling is the insight it gives to the workings of government, when trying to plan for a series of events that will literally be the end of human life on Earth. Instructions are given to the commanders of each of the UK’s Trident missile submarines, to be opened in the event of nuclear war. But how would you know if war had broken out? Guidelines were given for this, including listening for BBC Radio 4. I would imagine that sitting down and writing these instructions (a task for each new Prime Minister) is a sobering task, and it apparently even quietened Tony Blair down for a little while.

More sobering still was the idea that to render the UK unusable as a stage for military operations, it would only be necessary to drop ten 10MT (megatonne) hydrogen bombs off the west coast, and the prevailing weather would blow contaminated material across the entire country. This is military-speak for “everyone wiped out, or dying”. Figures from the Joint Intelligence Committee for the Clyde area show a projection of 10 weapons dropped on Clydeside, for casualties of 98,000 killed and 57,000 seriously injured. 979,000 homes would be either destroyed or uninhabitable in the short term. Faslane, less than a mile from where I am typing this, would be expected to be hit by 2 500kT missiles and two 1MT groundbursts from air-launched weapons.

While this was going on, or about to happen, selected Government staff would be heading for a “secret” bunker, known as “TURNSTILE”, under Box Hill, Corsham. Sadly, it turns out that the Russians knew all about this bunker, and would have sent some quite large warheads their way.

You might be wondering why I read this. Well, firstly, it was a fascinating account of a very dark period in our recent history. Peter Hennessy writes very well, and his access to Government documents and insiders makes the account remarkably readable. Secondly, reading about how the world was, rather than is, makes me appreciate it more. The threat of global nuclear annihilation has receded, and is probably less likely than for forty years or so. Nuclear weapon stocks are falling, numbers now in thousands, rather than tens of thousands.

Making of the atomic bomb, by Richard Rhodes (image from Amazon.co.uk)

Second on my list was “The making of the atomic bomb” by Richard Rhodes (ISBN 0-684-81378-5). This won the author a Pulitzer Prize, deservedly, I think. As the title suggests, the book focuses on the efforts to make an atomic weapon. The characters are very well drawn, and the story moves along rapidly. From a scientific point of view, the technical accomplishments were staggering, and the collection of scientists at Los Alamos possibly the greatest of the twentieth century. From a human perspective though, it must have been terrible to witness. Two cities wiped out in the blink of an eye. Many said that the ones who died immediately were the lucky ones. Anyone who thinks that the weapons were glorious, or the action laudable, probably doesn’t have much empathy. I understand the strategic reasons for deploying the weapons, but what terrible weapons they were.

Rhodes’ book leads directly on to the third book I’ve finished,  “Dark Sun” (ISBN 0-684-82414-0) by the same author. After the Second World War had ended, the race was on for the USSR to develop nuclear capability, and the US to develop “the Super”, the Hydrogen Bomb. What made this book so compelling was the relentless surge to develop larger and larger weapons, for fear that the enemy would surpass and then destroy them. A chilling insight into a nuclear scientist’s mind was shown when Jon von Neumann was asked to brief the US military on nuclear strategy. He had determined that the best strategy, as the USSR had yet to develop atomic weapons, was to strike first. In theoretical terms, this was an excellent solution, but showed a disconnection between von Neumann and the real world. Probably fortunately for us, the Russians soon afterwards detonated “Sudden Lightning”, and the balance was restored. This balance has kept us away from the abyss so far. When the Americans managed to detonate a hydrogen weapon on November 1st 1952, they weren’t even sure how large the explosion would be. Their estimate was 5MT, a huge amount in anyone’s book. The actual yield was 15MT. The Russians quickly followed with a hydrogen bomb of their own, and China has also got in on the act.

Mike test shot, photo copyright USAMHI.

The sheer destructive power of these weapons is almost unimaginable. The Mike test-shot, that ran away to 15MT, left a crater two hundred feet deep and more  than a mile across. However, I recently found something even more appalling. The Russians hold the dubious record for detonating the highest yield weapon ever, over Novaya Zemlya, on October 30th 1961. As with the American Mike shot, the Russians were uncertain as to the exact yield, so they replaced part of the weapon with a lead tamper. As it turned out, the weapon yielded 50MT, was visible from 600 miles away, and would have caused third degree burns at a distance of 62 miles. For a detailed account of the test, see here.

So, three books on nuclear weapons. Sobering reading, but as I said, giving me hope that these weapons will never be used in anger again. As a scientist, the technical side of this is very interesting, but both Richard Rhodes and Peter Hennessey manage to bring a human element into the story.

For the final word, I will point you at the book or film that first showed me how appalling such a war would be. “On the beach” by Neville Shute. His story is set in a post WWII pacific theatre, after a massive global exchange of dirty atomic weapons has taken place. The northern hemisphere (where all of the protagonists lived, ironically enough) has been contaminated by lithium-cobalt bombs, and everyone is presumed dead or dying. The focus of the story is a submarine crew relocated to Australia. The contamination cloud is spreading southwards with the prevailing weather systems, and ultimately everywhere on Earth will be contaminated. There will be nowhere to shelter or hide. Everything is going to die. I think that everyone should have to read this book. There is nobody who could read it and come out thinking that anyone could “win” a nuclear war. The film reference is here. The book can be bought here. I recommend that you do. I don’t mind admitting that I cried. How could we ever be so stupid? Thankfully, we haven’t (yet), and therein lies the ray of sunshine. Thanks to Richard for reminding me of it. Read it.

On the beach, by Neville Shute