Monday, 17 May 2010

autobiography #2: learning to drive

Like many other British teenagers, I had my first driving lesson shortly after my seventeenth birthday. And, in 1963, there were few if any professional driving instructors around, so my father assumed the role of teacher, a role for which he showed little aptitude. Having learned to drive himself during the Second World War, he deemed it necessary for me to double declutch before changing to a lower gear, even though synchromesh gears had been standard in family cars for years, and this arcane manoeuvre was no longer necessary. But double declutching was too difficult, so I wasn’t allowed to change down, which, unsurprisingly, led to other problems.

He also thought that a hill start would be too difficult for me to master all at once, so he would operate the handbrake while I did the rest. Given that a successful hill start requires the coordination of clutch, accelerator and handbrake, you may safely conclude that I was unsuccessful, despite several tries. Anyway, after only two ‘lessons’ I gave up, and for more than four years I made no further attempts, and had little opportunity, to learn to drive a car.

Fast forward to 1968, and I had started my first job after leaving university: as a wellsite geologist with an oil company in Libya. I flew from Tripoli to an airstrip somewhere in a vast sea of sand, the Sahara Desert, to relieve a colleague whom I’d met just once before, in London. He was waiting at the airstrip, and as far as I can recall he had only one thing to say to me:

“That’s your Landrover over there. The rig is seventy kilometres due south.”

In situations like this, it helps to show a little panache. I climbed nonchalantly into the Landrover, closed the door and pushed the starter button. But nothing happened. All right, so the starter motor turned, but the engine stubbornly refused to start, and I was beginning to feel self-conscious. Just then a friendly American leaned through the window and switched on the ignition key. I hadn’t realized that in Landrovers of that vintage the starter button and ignition are not linked, as they are in modern vehicles.

Anyway, I finally got the Landrover moving, and I spent the next hour driving up and down a ten-kilometre stretch of bitumen road to get some kind of feel for the vehicle and how to drive it. I finally decided that it was time for me to head south, which I did with the confidence of someone who has no idea what he is likely to have to contend with. Within half and hour, I’d become bogged down in sand up to the axles.

At this point, I’d like to pose a question: in these circumstances, what would be absolutely the best thing to have available to help? That’s right! A Caterpillar D6 bulldozer, less than 100 metres away (the blacktop was about to be extended to the new production area where I’d be working). Preposterous coincidences like this one clearly could not be relied on, so I made sure that I never committed this mistake again. Although driving in loose sand is a skill that I’ve never needed since I left Libya, and have probably now lost, it was essential here.

I’ve no idea why I became bogged down, because travelling north–south was usually straightforward. Travelling east–west was far more difficult, because the dunes formed ranges, three or four dunes wide, running from north to south and separated by ‘valleys’ a few hundred metres wide consisting of flat and much firmer sand. Finding a driveable way through the dune ranges was never easy and was made harder by the need to establish a new through route every time there was a sandstorm.

And I learned how to double declutch, the Landrover not having synchromesh on first and second gears. This, too, turned out to be a vital skill, because the only way to drive up the slip face of a dune, where the sand is at the maximum angle possible for loose material, is to take a run at it and change down into first gear at the last moment. None of the Americans with whom I worked were familiar with double declutching, so they resorted to brute force to effect the required gear change, frequently without success. I can do little more than speculate on the amount of damage done to the gearboxes of the company’s Landrovers by this heavy-handed treatment.

The company I worked for provided Volkswagen Beetles for its employees to get around when they were in Tripoli, but almost nobody dared to take their chances with the city’s traffic. I was an exception. And nobody guessed that as a driver I was entirely self-taught and had been a non-driver only a few months earlier. However, I did make one error that still sticks in my mind. I was returning to the company’s staff house, which was located in a district that was popular with foreign embassies, and turned into a one-way street, not well signposted, the wrong way. An embassy guard stepped out into the road and signalled me to stop.

“Where is your licence driver?”

At times like this, it pays to appear to be a complete idiot, especially if you are not in possession of the item demanded. I pretended not to understand what he was saying. The staff house was nearby, so I sought permission to go there. I emerged clutching my passport.

“No, no! Where is your licence driver?”

More feigned bewilderment on my part. I was then taken off to see a real traffic policeman (my original encounter was with a mere embassy guard, who in fact had no jurisdiction in traffic matters). I was asked the same question:

“Where is your licence driver?”

After ten minutes or so of failing to get through to a clearly deranged foreigner, the two men abandoned the attempt, and I was allowed to continue on my way. And continue learning to drive. As described in Near-Death Experience, which took place the following year, I’m still learning.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

autobiography #1: memory

I have only one real talent. I believe that I’m reasonably good at a few things: I can cook well, although I don’t have a large repertoire; I can write clearly and understand what I’m writing; I take driving very seriously (and you need to in Hong Kong), although I do drive fast when the opportunity arises; and I used to be quite a good rock climber (more of that later). But I have but one talent.

I have a prodigious long-term memory, and it has dictated my entire life history. When I attended primary school in the 1950s, a subject then known as ‘general knowledge’ was highly prized, and I happened to be very good at it. It is now a major source of personal annoyance that it’s no longer ‘general knowledge’. It’s called ‘trivia’, and it is regarded as ‘useless’. Apart from everyone wanting you in their quiz team, having a good memory has little practical use according to the values of modern society.

Anyway, everything that I read or learned in class stuck in my memory without my even trying. Perhaps I could have made profitable use of this ability, but I also have one besetting vice: I’m a chronic idler. This, too, has been a strong influence on my life history. I saw my memory skills as merely a way to avoid unnecessary work, like revising for exams.

Mind you, I only just made it. Remember, this was 1964, and only 8 percent of eighteen-year-olds got to go to university. And my only offer was for an ordinary degree at Manchester. But I got a lucky break. My subject was geology, and in those days few schools were teaching it. However, I had the great good fortune to have studied the subject at A level, so almost all the first year was a repeat of stuff that I already knew. As a result, I did extremely well in the first-year exams and was consequently upgraded to the honours course.

Something else of major significance occurred during that first year. As part of the course, we were expected to attend a two-week field trip to the island of Arran in the Firth of Clyde during the Easter vacation. Arran can fairly be described as a ‘geology textbook’, with excellent examples of most types of rock and formation that a geologist is likely to encounter. However, every time we stopped at a new rock outcrop, I noticed a small group of students at the back who, instead of listening to the professor expounding on what they could see, were setting each other little one-move climbing problems on another part of the outcrop. I joined in and found it to be more fun than listening to the professor’s exposition. I went out rock-climbing for the first time soon after my return to Manchester.

After that, everything would have gone according to plan, except that I didn’t have a plan. I went out rock-climbing every weekend, whatever the weather, even snow. And I spent more time in the bar than in the library (to be honest, I cannot remember now whether I visited the library once or twice during my three years as a student). But I did attend every lecture. And I never took notes.

At the beginning of the third year, I faced one of those crucial tipping points in life where the later significance of decisions made isn’t considered seriously. We were expected to choose four subjects from a list of seven. Three of these were cast-iron picks, and two were equally certain rejects. This left two: structural geology and economic geology. And had I chosen the latter, my life would have been entirely different.

However, as I discovered much too late, the lecturer who taught structural geology was an insufferable pedant, the type who awards seven marks out of ten for a perfect essay. This clearly had a bearing on my final results, because the marks for this subject turned out to be well below the average of the other six. On the other hand, I was still pretty confident after three exams. I knew I’d done well in two, although I didn’t do myself any favours with one answer in the structural paper. You wouldn’t believe the contortions that theorists used to perform to explain the huge recumbent folds in the rocks of the Alps. I answered that this phenomenon is most easily explained by Africa moving north into Europe and cited a handful of controversial references, but ‘continental drift’, as it was then called, was openly ridiculed. I doubt that I scored seven out of ten. Annoyingly, within six years or so, plate tectonics had become accepted theory! My relative scepticism about science, which I’ve referred to in a couple of previous essays, stems from this time.

Anyway, that left the final, final exam, geochemistry, which was to be held on a Monday. This gave me the weekend to do some make-sure revision. But Saturday morning was sunny, and one of my classmates called:

“Fancy going to Stanage [a gritstone edge near Sheffield]?”

Thinks. Sure, I can always revise on Sunday.

Sunday morning was also sunny, and another classmate called.

“Fancy going to Frogatt [another gritstone edge near Sheffield]?”

Thinks. Which is more important? Frogatt, obviously.

All was not lost though. I looked at the final paper. Answer three questions (in three hours). I picked two and produced very good answers. Just one problem: it took me two hours and twenty minutes. I really needed an easy one, and my eye alighted on a calculation in thermodynamics. Excellent, I thought, I’m good at thermodynamics calculations. Oh dear! It took me thirty-eight minutes to realize that I couldn’t do it. I could have written enough in forty minutes on any other question on the paper to get the required marks, but with one simple error I blew 8 percent of the entire mark for my degree.

Even more annoying in retrospect, I discovered later, through my Stanage friend, who had decided to stay in Manchester to do his PhD, that I’d been a borderline case and the subject of lengthy discussion. In practice, this meant that I missed out on going to Oxford to do a PhD in geochronology by a very fine margin. So I almost got away with it. The irony is that my sponsor to Oxford was none other than the insufferable pedant. And I’d have been working on samples that he’d collected for his own research. I used to wonder whether he realized that his miserly marking was one reason he didn’t get his specimens dated.

So a door closed. Or did it? The bigger irony is that with the kind of money I was able to earn between 1968 and 1970, I could have financed my own PhD. That I didn’t is another story, but rock climbing has a lot to do with it.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

car culture

The Beijing Motor Show was being held while my wife and I were in Beijing. Of course, we didn’t attend, but I did come across an interesting news item on the subject. Apparently, the top-of-the-range models from Mercedes, Audi and BMW are made six inches longer for the China market than for all other markets. What use is made of this extra length? It turns out that it all goes to providing extra leg room in the back.

And why would that be? Because, in China, when it comes to expensive cars, the man (and they’re invariably men) who owns the car always sits in the back. You may not notice immediately that this is not ostentation; China has relatively few cars compared with the size of its population, so learning to drive is not a teenage rite of passage there. Overwhelmingly, those people who do learn to drive do so in order to earn a living, driving a taxi, say, or a truck. And it is certainly easier on the nerves to employ someone else to do the driving when that driving is done on the streets and highways of Beijing. I’d prefer to sit in the back too.

Friday, 7 May 2010


When you approach the Great Wall of China at Badaling, near Beijing, you cannot fail to notice a number of very large plaques set into a retaining wall. One informs the visitor that the Great Wall is a UNESCO world heritage site, while another proclaims this spectacular piece of peripatetic architecture to be one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

Few people can name all seven of the original seven wonders, and many believe that the Great Wall is on that list. It isn’t. How could it be, given that the original list was compiled by Greeks, and in any case the Great Wall hadn’t been built at the time of that list’s compilation.

However, it is important to note the difference between the old and the new lists. The original was based on aesthetic judgement, although it appears that few of the writers who described the original wonders had seen all seven. Nevertheless, these seven were talked about in aesthetic terms, as ‘sights that must be seen’.

Contrast this with the new list of seven wonders, which was chosen by the votes of 100 million people. I have no doubt that the Great Wall of China belongs on the list, but it is difficult to justify the inclusion of at least one of the others. And what elevates Chichén Itzá and Machu Picchu above Angkor in Cambodia, given that only a tiny fraction of those 100 million voters will have visited all three? It is clear that nationalist politics have played a part, with governments urging their citizens to vote for candidate sites in their own country. The Colosseum probably drew a lot of votes from Christians, and I would be interested to learn how many non-Brazilians voted for the statue of Christ Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro.

In other words, the new list of seven wonders is not a definitive list of the seven most culturally significant or architecturally unique ‘sights that must be seen’ but a list that is based on votes by people for whom cultural significance or aesthetic merit would not have been considerations when casting their votes. On the other hand, I do not begrudge the election of the Great Wall of China to this exclusive list. There can be few finer monuments to the folly and vainglory of man than this historic security barrier, which, we shouldn’t forget, didn’t actually work.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

cumbria and the lake district

I am about to travel to my home town in England, where I will spend the summer. I shall continue to post regularly, although there is likely to be some change of emphasis and subject matter. In particular, look out for Comparative Advantage, an assessment of potential rivalry between India and China, and On Democracy, the subject of which should be obvious; both have been started and when finished are likely to be quite long. The remaining posts based on my recent visit to Beijing will appear towards the end of this week. Those of you who enjoy my posts about Hong Kong should not be disappointed: while I'm away, I plan to mine my huge collection of Hong Kong photographs to present a few photo essays about the territory.

Meanwhile, I offer you an essay about my home county, so that you will know more about where I come from (if interested). It was written originally for the blog of a strongly Anglophile American lady and was (I assume) for a mainly American audience.

I was born in the small market town of Penrith, in the northern English county of Cumberland, in 1946 (this is the same Cumberland that gave its name, via that of the notorious butcher of Culloden, to the Cumberland Gap in the Appalachian Mountains). Together with Westmorland, the Furness district of Lancashire and a small part of the West Riding of Yorkshire, Cumberland became part of the larger administrative unit of Cumbria in 1974.

Penrith lies in the valley of the River Eden, which separates the Pennines (the ‘backbone of England’) from the Cumbrian Mountains, a region better known as the Lake District, Lakeland or just simply ‘the Lakes’ and designated a national park in 1951. The rocks that form the main mountain mass are more than 400 million years old, but the contemporary landscape is of much more recent origin. The main valleys are distinctively U-shaped in cross-section, indicating that the principal shaping agent has been glaciation (during the last Ice Age), while so-called hanging valleys mark the location of small tributary glaciers. These have steep, rocky sides and often contain tiny lakes, while the long, narrow lakes in the main valleys are the result of glacial over-deepening. Occasionally, one lake has become two (e.g., Buttermere and Crummock Water), divided by the gradual accumulation of alluvial deposits from streams running off the surrounding hillsides. And smooth, ice-planed rock outcrops can be seen everywhere.

The Lake District bears the scars of human impact going back millennia. The natural vegetation is oak and birch woodland, but apart from relict patches in some of the valleys, all the trees are long gone, cut down during the Stone Age by people using axes that were fashioned from a particularly hard rock that is found on the slopes of Pike o’ Stickle in Langdale and Scafell Pike, the highest mountain in England. Remains of tree trunks can still be seen preserved in some of the upland peat bogs, while evidence of Stone, Bronze and Iron Age activity, such as stone circles and small earthworks, is common on some of the lower hills.

The Romans left their indelible mark on these mountains: the ruins of a second-century fort on the Eskdale side of Hardknott Pass guard terrain so rugged that a modern road was not built over the pass until the Second World War, and then only to provide tanks with field practice before being shipped off to see real action elsewhere. Parts of the old Roman road can still be seen, and it must be one of the very few examples of a Roman road that is not straight. Further east, the road runs over a mountain that today bears the name High Street. This road is also testament to how different the district must have looked 2000 years ago, because there are now much easier ways to reach the Roman port of Ravenglass, which is one terminus of a popular narrow-gauge railway that runs up Eskdale and is known locally as La’al Ratty. The Ratty has its own historical credentials: it was built to transport iron ore from mines in the valley to feed the long defunct iron and steel industry of West Cumberland. It now transports only tourists.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the indigenous Celts formed the independent kingdom of Rheged, but their influence on modern toponymy has been relatively slight. Although most rivers have names derived from Cumbric, the Brythonic language spoken in the region at this time, few place names are of Brythonic origin; the main examples are Penrith and Carlisle (the county town). The names of a few mountains, notably Blencathra, Helvellyn and Glaramara, also derive from Cumbric, which was still spoken in Cumbria as late as the eleventh century.

Other peoples began to settle in the area in the period between the departure of the Romans and the arrival of the Normans in the eleventh century. Settlers of Norse origin were first, arriving by sea from bases already established in Ireland and the Isle of Man. Their influence can be seen in settlement names such as Seathwaite, Stonethwaite and Watendlath in Borrowdale, and in the generic names of many topographic features: a tarn is a small lake; beck is the local word for a stream; a gill (mistakenly altered to ghyll by Victorian antiquarians) is a gully or ravine; fell is the local word for a mountain (as in Bowfell, Scafell and the catch-all phrase ‘the fells’); a pike is a peak (as in Dollywaggon Pike, the Langdale Pikes, Fleetwith Pike); and a force is a waterfall (Aira Force, popular with visitors, is a spectacular sight when the beck is in spate).

The Danes arrived later, travelling overland from the kingdom of Northumbria in northeast England. They appear to have settled mainly in the Eden valley and on the northern plain. There is a large cluster of their villages, with names like Langwathby, Lazonby, Glassonby and Melmerby, to the east of Penrith.

The Saxons, speaking a language now referred to by scholars as Old English, also moved into Cumbria, although the distribution of place names suggests that they came later than the Norse settlers. For example, there are fewer Saxon villages in the Penrith area, although Skelton, Stainton and Askham rival the Norse villages in size. And the suffix –mere, which is seen in the name of several lakes, is also of Germanic origin, while one of the main towns in the Lake District, Keswick, has a name that means ‘cheese farm’ in Old English, so the evidence from place names suggests an admixture of cultures during this period.

During the Middle Ages, Cistercian monasteries such as Furness Abbey grazed sheep on the fells, which prevented regeneration of the natural vegetation. They thus accumulated vast wealth from the mediaeval wool trade. This wealth was eventually confiscated by a greedy king, Henry VIII, in the sixteenth century.

Later in the same century, miners were brought in from Germany to gain access to extensive mineral deposits that occurred throughout the district, there being no local expertise at the time. Nowadays, it is quite a sobering experience to stand in an underground cavern where once there had been copper, lead or zinc ore, knowing that the miners who dug this ore had only candles for illumination and would never have been able to see the vast scale of their excavations. However, it should be noted that these abandoned mines are extremely dangerous places that should not be entered unless you’re absolutely certain you know what you’re doing. The last three mines to operate here closed during the second half of the twentieth century.

Railway mania reached the Lake District in the mid-nineteenth century. The branch line to Windermere, on the shores of the lake of the same name, was built mainly to serve tourists and is still in existence, but the line to Coniston was built to service the copper mines and slate quarries in the area, only later developing its tourist traffic. It closed in 1962. However, the biggest line here was the CK&PR (Cockermouth, Keswick and Penrith Railway), which was built originally to haul coke from northeast England for the iron and steel industry in West Cumberland but in its heyday also carried the Lakes Express from London Euston as part of its passenger traffic. It featured a series of testing gradients between Penrith and Keswick, reaching a height of 886 feet above sea level at Troutbeck. Sadly, the increase in private car ownership proved fatal to its continued use. The notorious Beeching Report of 1963 recommended closure, and the line west of Keswick was closed in 1966. The Penrith–Keswick section was closed in 1972, and many of the bridges were demolished, but had this section remained open, there is little doubt that it would now be a major tourist attraction, with grand views of Blencathra to the north and the Helvellyn range to the south.

During the late nineteenth century, a new type of exploitation appeared with the surreptitious acquisition of land around Thirlmere by Manchester Corporation, which then proceeded to dam the lake to create a reservoir to supply water to the city. Manchester did it again in the twentieth century, damming Haweswater to increase its size and drowning the village of Mardale in the process. Only a vigorous protest campaign led by famous QC Norman Birkett prevented a similar fate befalling Ullswater, one of the most popular lakes with tourists and one of only three lakes on which steamers run.

It was also in the late nineteenth century that the world’s first ever rock climb was accomplished: an ascent of Napes Needle, a 70-foot monolith on the side of Great Gable. This activity remains extremely popular, so much so that on a rare sunny summer Sunday, despite the 90-minute uphill slog to get there, you might have to queue for up to six hours to climb The Crack (very severe) on Gimmer Crag in Langdale. This classic of the 1920s is one of my personal favourites: I’ve climbed it several times, but only ever on a weekday!

Nowadays, the local economy is heavily reliant on tourism: during the summer, the total population of the county doubles. Most come to view the picturesque scenery, but a complaint I’ve heard often concerns the rain. But what do people expect? The Lake District is the wettest part of England, and the weather is a direct result of the mountainous terrain. In fact, for locals like myself, the Lake District is at its most beautiful in the rain, although I’m bound to add that rain does put the kibosh on any rock-climbing plans.

However, the national park authorities did miss a golden opportunity to rid the fells of sheep once and for all following the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001. Unfortunately, “sheep farming remains important…for preserving the landscape which visitors want to see” (Wikipedia). To which I can only reply: “Bollocks! The fells have been severely overgrazed for centuries, and I’m not the only one who would like to have seen the natural vegetation return.” Even though that was never going to happen in my lifetime. But the Lake District as a series of pretty, chocolate-box landscapes is in my opinion a very shallow perception; there is much to the Lakes that will repay a more intimate acquaintance.

Finally, I couldn’t close this brief description of my native county without a nod towards its greatest food delicacy, the Cumberland sausage. Many years ago, I read an article in Reader’s Digest extolling the virtues of German and Italian sausages. It ended with a dismissive (but totally justified) put-down of the British banger; however, there was no mention of Cumberland sausages, which are made in a single length and then cut to order. Even with the cornucopia of food delights available in Hong Kong I miss them, and they are the first thing my wife, who is Chinese, expects to eat when she’s over in the UK. There is only one rule to bear in mind with Cumberland sausage: never buy it from a supermarket. Every local butcher has his own recipe, so there is some variation in flavour, but my personal recommendation is Gordon Clark’s in Great Dockray, the central marketplace in Penrith. Absolutely delicious grilled, with mashed potato and mushroom gravy.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

keep off the grass

When I was young, I can remember my local park featuring several small signs bearing the legend “keep off the grass”, but when I went to a big city for the first time I found that open expanses of grass were somewhere to sit and bask in the sun, on the rare occasions when that busy old fool bothered to put in a reluctant appearance. In Beijing, things are rather different.

In the small park that I mentioned in my previous post, we had noticed a number of discreet signs, an approximate translation of which was “this is a beautiful area of grass; do you really want to spoil it by stepping on it?” Fair enough; this is no more than a subtle change of emphasis and not worth further comment. Until, that is, I stepped on the grass to take the following photograph:

I was subjected to a prolonged harangue by a metallic, disembodied voice: however, as this was in Putonghua, I cannot offer a full translation, although it was along the lines of “get off the grass”, and the tone was peremptory and distinctly unfriendly. We quickly discovered that a small speaker was embedded in the warning sign, and I wondered whether I had triggered some kind of hidden motion sensor. Naturally, I tested this hypothesis by stepping on the grass close to other signs, but nothing happened each time. I therefore reached the conclusion that I’d been subject to video surveillance by someone whose job it was to ensure that nobody walked on the grass.

I was not perturbed by any of this, but the incident did bring into sharp focus the difference between the Chinese view of neatly mown grass in a city park and how this same grass is viewed in a park in the West. In the latter case, it is a practical facility, to be enjoyed by being walked or sat on; in China, the grass is a purely visual amenity, to be appreciated only from a safe distance.