My travels: W for Walking

June 7, 2017

I’ve never been one for sport or strenuous exercise: I could have won prizes for skiving at school. And I’ve always firmly believed that the only time it’s necessary to run is to catch a train one might be in danger of missing otherwise… But I’ve always loved walking, from exploring footpaths around my Stamford home in my childhood, to walking and tramping around rural Nottinghamshire when at boarding school – as long as a couple of friends and I took exercise, we were pretty much excused team games, which was marvellous. And we fairly ate up the miles.

Later, as a student, I did some walking in the Lake District with friends who were keen fell-walkers, but I’ve never been wild about that part of the country, and have recently realised that it’s because to me – sorry! – it’s rather grey and bare: I prefer walking in woods and forests where suddenly and unexpectedly an amazing view can reveal itself as I turn a corner, or briefly come out into the open… and I loved the footpaths around the River Lune when I lived in Halton, near Lancaster.

I walked the footpaths in the parks of Leeds and later around Ripon when my daughters were small, and I think I’ve helped pass on a love of walking.

Now that I’m retired, I can do a lot more, and lead my feet farther afield, as it were. I have come to enjoy walking on my own, spending time with my thoughts, reflecting and meditating, and looking carefully at my surroundings, pausing to take time over my photography when I see something worth capturing; all of these are things much harder to do when you are in company. I sometimes think I’m a bit anti-social, but I set out with good intentions of joining local walking groups when I retired and, six years later, have still to do so. I’m a fair weather walker, too – can’t be doing with wind and rain, so mostly it’s spring to autumn, and despite living in Yorkshire, I’ve yet to do much exploring of the Dales or the Wolds.

My favourite walking territory at the moment is the Ardennes, in Luxembourg. There’s an astonishing variety of terrain and landscape in a very small area. There are walks along the border with Germany where you often don’t know what country you are in, and there’s a broad swathe of land along the border with Belgium that is being allowed to return to the wild, and it can be quite spooky in the middle of it all, carefully following a map and a trail and wondering where the next way-marker will be, or whether I’m lost. It feels like being lost in a jungle, especially as it’s quite rare to meet another walker, and yet you can be only a couple of miles from a village.

I’ve walked quite a bit in the Somme region of France, exploring the battlefield sites of the Great War: there are some good walking guides, and everywhere now looks so peaceful, beautiful in places, especially along the river marshlands, that it’s almost impossible to believe the carnage that happened here a century ago. That is, until you come across a small pile of rusting shells at the side of a road or path, waiting for the French equivalent of the bomb disposal squad to pick them up and take them away. They’re not in a hurry – there is 700 years’ (yes!) worth of such work to do in some areas. But you do get a clear picture in your mind, as you walk along sunken paths, or look at the gently undulating and open landscape, of the utter insanity of climbing out of a trench and walking slowly towards enemy lines under machine-gun fire: those poor men never had the slightest chance.

Last year I did some wonderful walking the the Aude departement, in Cathar territory: it was incredibly hot, even in September, but the landscapes were beautiful, even in their dryness; they smelt different, the plants and bushes and trees were different. And assuming I remain fit and healthy enough, I have plans to go walking in the Eifel region of Germany, and also in Switzerland.


My travels: W for the Wolf’s Lair

June 6, 2017

Wolfsschanze, or the Wolf’s Lair lies deep in the forests of northeastern Poland; before 1945 it lay in East Prussia, and was Hitler’s Eastern HQ, from which he directed his insane attempt to conquer the Soviet Union, and where he lived from 1942-44. It’s also the place where the unsuccessful assassination attempt of July 1944 took place.

In communist times, it was on the tourist trail after a fashion: you could park your car, and go and wander around the ruins, clamber all over them, risk your neck in collapsing tunnels – once my sisters and I had seen ‘Achtung! Minen!’ (yes, it really said that) painted on a wall, we got out pretty quickly – and generally pose for photos where you liked. It was quite a rambling site, quite open, and there wasn’t a great deal of information around, no clues as to what any particular wrecked chunk of concrete had been used for.

Last year I took myself there again, for a proper look, 45 years after that first visit. It’s a serious tourist attraction now: entrance and parking fee with proper tickets, guides, leaflets and a souvenir shop, and tourist buses from many countries, especially Germany. There’s a bar and restaurant, and a trail around the ruins that you’re expected to stick to. There’s a lot more information, now: you know which bunker was whose, where the assassination attempt took place (a modest memorial to the conspirators who gave their lives marks the spot) and you get a real sense of the vastness of the place. The bunkers have ten metre-thick reinforced concrete roofs – you have to see this to get your mind round the colossal waste of resources involved; apparently the Nazis used an entire trainload of high explosives when they attempted to destroy the complex before the advancing Russians got there. They failed. And the thing I found most strange, the whole area gradually has been taken over by forest and woodland, creepers and vegetation, almost a jungle; the concrete is dripping with damp and mineral stalactites leaching out of the concrete, covered with greenery; visible metal has almost rusted away…

The place is awesome in the sense of huge, and utterly bonkers: such a ridiculous waste of space and materials; by the time it’s a century old, I wonder if anything discernible will be left. Certainly a sort of Ozymandias moment here.


My travels: V for Volubilis

June 6, 2017

When I was a student and a hippy, back in the dim and distant past, a friend and I took a trip one summer to Morocco, where we did the usual hippy things, camping out in the open, living and eating as cheaply as possible, travelling around on rickety Moroccan buses along rather scary-looking winding roads overlooking precipices. We didn’t get that far on our travels, a few days on beaches before setting off for Fez, and eventually we fetched up in Meknes, which had stunningly impressive mediaeval city walls, the like of which I’ve never seen since until my recent visit to Carcassonne; from here we went to a small town called Moulay Idris, and thence to a ruined Roman town in the desert, called Volubilis

I think I did a number of daft things when I was younger, and this was probably one of the daftest. OK, we knew it would be hot – we’d been in the country for a while already, and it was so hot that it was impossible to do much at all in the afternoons – but this was the desert and we’d never been in a desert before, the middle of nowhere, with very little shade or shelter, and after we’d got back to civilisation at the end of the day someone casually remarked that it had been fifty degrees that day… We weren’t really prepared at all and I do not know how we escaped sunstroke, dehydration or grievous sunburn.

Volubilis was an entire town, a town from Roman times, in ruins in the middle of the desert, and largely untouched since those days. Yes, it was sort of on the tourist trail, and I think we may have paid to get ‘in’. I probably still have the ticket somewhere… It was astonishing. Everything was the same sandy colour – the sand, the scant vegetation, the stonework. There was a lot of it – probably on a par with the Roman site at Vaison-la-Romaine in Provence, if not larger. And it was hot. I lost count of the number of litres of water I drank that day, and sweated out. But it was a magical day: I got a very brief feel of what a desert actually was, and the ferocity of the conditions, and I have wondered if that experience was one of the things that sparked my lifelong fascination with deserts, which you may have noticed via quite a few of my blog posts… The Roman ruins were fascinating, because they hadn’t been tidied up and prettified the way many ruins are in more affluent countries.

Morocco was a serious culture-shock to this sheltered Western student. I saw people suffering from leprosy in the streets, and many with crippled and deformed limbs; when I mentioned this to someone who’d been in the country rather longer than me, he replied, ‘Well, in Europe if you break a limb you go to hospital and get it fixed. Here, if you’re poor and can’t afford it, you don’t…’ We came across many locals who did their best to part Westerners from their money in a range of devious ways; we also met many friendly and interesting people. The food was fascinating, the hygiene…different. We spent a fair amount of time wandering through the medinas in the towns we visited, fascinated by how different everything was, what was offered for sale, how transactions were carried out, bartering… As we travelled around, I couldn’t get over the huge cacti and other desert plants which grew everywhere, and no doubt these triggered my enjoyment of growing them myself back home, though on a far more modest scale.

I suppose what has stayed with me most from that long-ago trip was the nature of the encounter with somewhere that was, in so many ways, so utterly different from what I had known up till then, and the challenge it represented to how I saw the world…


My travels: Q for Queribus

June 5, 2017

Some readers may have noticed my recent interest in the Cathars; in autumn last year (2016) I took myself on a trip to the Aude department in the south of France, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, to visit some of the sites associated with this heretical church that was finally wiped out in the thirteenth century. The local tourist offices have been trying hard, in this rather poor area of the country, both to cash in on the history they have, and to dispel a lot of the myths that have grown up over the years about the Cathars. I found the tourist office personnel very helpful, and able to provide all sorts of extra information and tips as to what to look out for.

Cathars seem to have gathered in small, remote hill-top towns in the area, such as Rennes-le-Chateau, and when driven towards extinction to have fled to castles held by supporters of their faith. But the castles on the trail are not those where the Cathars made their last stands, but later replacements, from the era when the border between France and Spain was in dispute.

The castles themselves are mind-boggling in their inaccessibility, perched high up on rocky outcrops in a way that none of the castles – and I’ve visited a lot of them – in the UK are situated. And yes, I know that we don’t have any Pyrenees here. I found myself wondering how on earth anyone could possibly manage to build a castle in such a place: where did they get the labour (enforced?) from? The stones? And how did they get them all up there? Then, when the castle was there, how on earth did anyone manage to besiege it? Because they were besieged, and captured… Queribus could be defended by a couple of dozen soldiers, and when you climb up to it, you can see how. And you are so high up, you can see to the Mediterranean.

They I went to Peyrepetuse. You drive up and up for ages along narrow winding mountain roads and eventually reach a dusty car park: the road goes no further. You can look across the valley and see Queribus in the distance. Then you look up, from the car park, to the mountains towering up another two or three hundred feet, and it’s as if someone has dropped a stone replica of the Titanic on top of the mountain – that’s the castle, coming to a point like the prow of a cruise liner, hundreds of feet above you… And then you try to get there. Absolutely stunning. There are actually three different castles there, though you can’t really separate them, in their ruined state. Making your way around is fairly random, and precipitous, and it’s bloody windy up there, too.

There are ruined abbeys, mediaeval walled towns, and there is also Carcassonne, which I spent three days exploring. An entire, walled mediaeval town, with a citadel, seriously but carefully restored, and you can walk all the way around it, either on the ramparts, half of which are Roman and half mediaeval, or in the moat. It is huge, and awe-inspiring. All-in-all, I think this has to be one of the most stunning areas of the country I’ve visited.


My travels: P for Paris

June 5, 2017

Paris is Paris and everyone who has been there has their own particular memories of it; it’s pretty easy to get to and to explore. It’s also pretty easy to be fleeced, to stay on the well-defined tourist trail and perhaps to miss some of its hidden magic. You also get to see, know and understand more if you speak the language, I firmly believe.

For me, the best thing is that Paris is eminently walkable. The metro is wonderful, efficient, cheap and useful, but you don’t need it unless you’re completely knackered after a long day’s exploration on foot. You can walk everywhere; the city is amazingly compact. And because the metro stations are so close together, and the entrance to each one has a huge and helpful map, you don’t even need to carry your own map…work out where you’re heading for, and check at each metro station where you actually are and when to change direction. On the other hand, don’t miss the wonderful elevated sections of the metro, where underground becomes overground, particularly the marvellous bit near the Eiffel Tower where it crosses the Seine on a double-decker bridge – the view is amazing.

I was lucky that in my twenties, a friend of mine lived and worked there, and so I was able to make a number of visits and have somewhere to stay; when I worked in Normandy as a language assistant I was also able to spend some weekends in Paris exploring. Basically I would set off walking; I’d stop anywhere that looked interesting; every now and then I’d look at one of those huge maps and work out where to head next. I never got ‘lost’; wherever I was, was interesting. I roved around Montmartre which offers wonderful views across the city, and the Marais, explored the strange areas around the elevated metro, headed south of the river, roamed the Left Bank, dropped into all the tourist sites as and when I fancied. And when I got hungry, there would be a bakery or small supermarket to get a snack, or the wonderful Tunisian sandwiches available in the Latin quarter…

There are plenty of things I missed: I’ve still not been round the Louvre (!) and it was only ten years or so ago that I finally came to know the stunning brilliance of the Sainte Chapelle… but I’ve explored the Canal St Martin, the Buttes Chaumont, the old Jewish quarter of the Marais and been to the Museum of Counterfeits… on my to-do list are the catacombs, the sewers, perhaps the Louvre, and certainly some of the other museums again.

Another thing I recall about Paris in my younger days was the enormous number of cinemas, all of which offered useful discounts to students; in many of them there would be several different screens, some of them with only a couple of dozen seats, showing a wide variety of films, especially arthouse and foreign language ones. With not much money it was possible to spend whole days – and I did – watching all sorts of amazing films that never made it to cinemas in Britain… Although it’s probably ten years since I was last there, it’s still the overseas city that I know best, and probably love the most.


On the genius of Jane Austen

May 31, 2017

A documentary on TV the other night, about the places where she had lived, reminded me that this year is the 200th anniversary of the untimely death of possibly the greatest English novelist. And the year seems to be passing quite quietly so far: there have been a couple of new books – one of which I reviewed here – not terribly exciting, because there’s a limited amount of information about Jane Austen available and no sign of any undiscovered material, so academics are reduced to what they often do, which is to recycle what has been said already, for a new generation, in a rather more demotic and sensational language this time around…

I knew Austen’s name but had disdainfully avoided reading any of the novels in a teenager-ish sort of way, until I got to university and was faced with Mansfield Park in my first term: dutifully I read and really liked the novel, which is often described as both dull and difficult compared with the others, as well as having the priggish and unlikeable Fanny Price as its heroine. Lectures and seminars opened my eyes to the wit, the language and the social issues Austen addresses; I’ve never looked back. Since then, I regularly re-read the novels every few years, enjoying their familiarity as well as noticing new details. And, as my other half is at least as enthusiastic about Jane Austen as I am, often detailed discussions and conversations ensue. We’ve enjoyed watching many film and TV adaptations of the novels, traced Austen’s path through Bath, and visited her home at Chawton and her tomb in Winchester Cathedral. I’ve enjoyed teaching all the novels save Northanger Abbey (which I avoided), particularly relishing the occasion when we had to compare Mansfield Park with Pride and Prejudice; I still haven’t fully decided whether Mansfield Park or Persuasion is my favourite: the former I find intellectually engaging, but the latter is truly about mature love and the sense of Ann and Wentworth re-finding each other and finally being united is still very powerful and moving at the nth re-reading.

So, what is so good about Jane Austen? What attracts me to her world? It was a very narrow world in terms of physical scope and also future prospects, but she was clearly a highly intelligent and well-educated woman, with a keen eye, a sharp wit and a great sense of humour. She writes about what she knows about, which is both a limitation and an advantage; there is a narrowness to the settings, and her choice of characters; she never presumes to present a conversation between men where no women are present; servants are backgrounded, as is the aristocracy; because she knows the rest, she observes minutely and nothing escapes the sharpness of her eye or her comment. And, quite early on in the development of the novel, she brings in the marvellous indirect authorial comment: we are following the heroine’s thoughts, ideas, comments… or are we? who is actually thinking or speaking there… is it the author herself? because we can’t be sure… and we’ve noticed we can’t be sure. It’s very clever, and very effective.

Austen manages to engage with real political issues: slavery lurks in the background in Mansfield Park (pace Edward Said) war overshadows Persuasion – the Napoleonic Wars are part of the entire second half of Austen’s life, as her family history shows. Social change is afoot in England, with agricultural changes and enclosures, again alluded to in Mansfield Park. Austen seems to me to be at the same time conservative (with that important small ‘c’) as Fanny wistfully notes how the countryside is changing – of course, Fanny does not speak for Austen, but… – and also quite radical, particularly in the other novels, where she is quite forthright about the limitations placed on women’s lives by the need for financial security, and in her endorsement of love as crucial for successful relationships, an idea which we take for granted nowadays…

I feel a need coming on to re-read Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. As readers may gather more generally from my blog, I don’t generally feel that England has very much to be proud of at the moment, but I do think we do literature very well…


Svetlana Alexievitch: La guerre n’a pas un visage de femme

May 27, 2017

I wrote about her most recent book here, and recall how I was stunned by it; this one is no different. And I find myself thinking hard about what exactly it is that she does so well. She doesn’t write fiction, and she doesn’t write history – at least not in the sense we usually expect history: with names, dates, places, facts, figures and accuracy. She listens, and records; she questions; she selects. And some question what her ‘selecting’ what to include does to what she writes about…

How is this ‘literature’, worthy of the Nobel Prize? How is it different from what we usually think of as literature?

Alexievitch captures the power of witness: these women lived the war, experienced it, suffered it; Alexievitch is collecting voices to preserve forever. And although even to read some of the things they describe is so horrifying I find myself thinking nobody should read this, yet none of this must ever be forgotten.

And here is where Western notions of literature and criticism part company with the Eastern. I read – very angrily – an American critic complaining, taking Alexievitch to task because she was editing, not reporting words verbatim, was re-arranging accounts, as if in some way this was ‘fake’ reportage, and therefore of dubious validity…

A woman focuses on women’s experience of war, during the Great Patriotic War. Women flock voluntarily to the war effort, girls lie about their age, resort to all kinds of subterfuge to take part in combat; they are partisans, resistance fighters, sharpshooters, snipers, aviators, as well as the more ‘traditional’ nurses and stretcher-bearers. Their bravery and selflessness is astonishing – no less than that of their menfolk, it is true – but in the West we do not understand this, we have no comprehension of what the war was like in those places. Here is real feeling, along with names, dates, places, some facts and some figures which somehow are not that important in what her interlocutors really have to say…

Many of the women recount the war in Belarus, and it beggars description. They return home to villages, towns where there are no males… I have not forgotten the experience, more than thirty years ago, of seeing the premiere of Elem Klimov‘s film Go and See at the London Film Festival. At the end, the entire audience – 1500 people or so – left in stunned silence. Not a word was said. The final caption on screen told us that 97% of Belarusian males between 18 and 45 did not survive the war.

Alexievitch is a different kind of writer, a listener and a recorder who lets her subjects talk; she presents testimony of times and places. There is no commentary, although occasionally she reflects on what she is doing or someone she has met, in a few paragraphs. And then the listening recommences. It’s incredibly powerful and important stuff. And be warned: you need a strong stomach.


Do we still want the NHS?

May 25, 2017

Unashamedly political post follows…you have been warned.

As a nation I feel we’ve shot ourselves in both feet voting to leave the EU; I’m sure it will happen and we will be able to repent at leisure. But, for my money, the biggest error is one we are making through neglect, or ignorance: the loss of the NHS.

Think about this: the Tories have been in power for seven years, during which time they have, in a drip-feed manner, made the NHS less effective through constant re-organisation and underfunding, brought in more profit-making private providers, and under-resourced it. There is a constant trickle of stories about clinical errors, longer waiting lists, people ‘wasting’ NHS time and resources: the right-wing press is doing its bit in undermining a national resource.

Over time, the gradual – and, I think deliberate – effect of this is to make more and more people, especially younger people who have never known anything else, or really had to think about healthcare at all, think that the NHS is inefficient, is broken, and cannot cope any more: if this is the case, then – the next stage of the right-wingers’ proposal goes, surely something needs to be done about it… Increasingly the arguments are, well there are more people to treat (especially immigrants and free-loaders from abroad), people are living much longer and therefore need care for much longer, and treatment is increasingly technological and expensive. Of course, a state-provided service can’t possibly deliver all this, it is suggested…

And so, when the Tories decide they can be bold enough to suggest privatising parts or the whole thing – in the interests of giving people better care, of course – enough people may believe them, and allow them to get away with it. And there will be the mantra that the NHS will always be free ‘at the point of delivery’ (whatever that means. Does anyone know?). Perhaps GP visits and A&E will be free, and beyond that, one will have to pay or take out additional insurance.

The great majority of British people have been born and have grown up looked after by the NHS, and have taken it for granted all their lives. We know nothing about how alternative systems work or what they cost – though again we are often told (by whom?) how much better other countries’ health care is than our own – though we may have heard horror stories from the USA, but we’d never end up with that, would we? Hmm. How much time do you want to spend comparing health plans, costs and so on to make sure you have the right deal? But then, since the privatisation of everything else, we have a generation used to doing cost-comparisons on websites for train tickets, energy, broadband: maybe people won’t mind. And if they can get a bargain…

Should you be worried? Well,if you’re inexorably moving towards old age, if the system that’s looked after you throughout your life disappears, what do you do instead? If you don’t have the disposable income to fund private healthcare? Of course, the pill can be sugared: look, we’ll reduce National Insurance payments when we sell-off the NHS, so you can now choose (magic word, there!) your own provider, and how much to spend…

The profit motive is expensive: profit has to be factored into the cost of everything. Of course, allegedly private enterprise is more efficient (it has done wonders for our railways, after all), so will be cheaper. I have to say, if I were seriously ill, in need of major surgery or intensive care, efficiency would not be my first criterion. Skill, care, empathy, things like those would be at the top of my list.

Declaration of interest: my mother was one of the first cohort of nurses to be trained by the infant NHS, and I have a sister who currently works for the NHS. If asked, I’d be hard-pressed to think of any contemporary aspect of our country that I’m prouder of than our health service. And plenty of other countries actually envy us. Give the Tories another five or ten years, and will we still have the NHS? Do enough people actually care?


On war

May 25, 2017

I bought another of Nobel award-winning Svetlana Alexievich‘s books recently: this one is about women’s experience of war. And I’ve found myself thinking: why do I read so much about war – novels, history and so on, why do I visit so many historical sites connected with wars? You have only to look back through the archives of this blog: isn’t there something slightly obsessive, unhealthy about this? I do wonder, sometimes.

We know there have been wars ever since humans have existed on the planet: somewhere I read once that in the last two or three thousand years of history there have only been about a hundred and fifty years where the world has been at peace – whatever that means.

Reading about war has shown me what an utterly vile species we are in terms of how we are prepared to treat each other. And yet, I have also come across countless accounts of astonishing acts of bravery and altruism. One might rather crassly argue that these two extremes cancel each other out; equally I might argue that without war, neither would occur, and that would surely be better for us.

Reading about war has made me profoundly grateful that I’ve never been called on to be tested in any of the ways I have read about; even more, I recognise how very fortunate I am to have grown up in a time of peace (at least, in the sense that my country has not been involved in a war which means attacks on our territory putting me and my family at risk… actually, writing a sentence like that one so as to be completely correct and accurate is impossible, but I’m sure you get my drift).

Having grown up during the ‘Cold War‘ (don’t politicians and the military love euphemisms!) made me realise at quite a young age that a war between Britain as a member of NATO and the Warsaw Pact would mean that ‘our’ side would be attacking countries where member of my family lived, and that ‘their’ side would be likewise attempting to kill us… and made me decide that I would never take part in such craziness. As I said above, I’m very grateful never to have been put to the test.

The more I’ve read and thought, the more I have come to think how utterly utopian it is to expect that things will ever be any different. I don’t think that war can be eliminated from our world without some kind of world government, and somehow I don’t see that happening in the near future. Neither can war be eliminated while the capitalist system persists, and I don’t foresee any end to that in short order. And the human ingenuity that has invented all sorts of gruesome weapons will continue, too, and what has been invented cannot be uninvented…

To look at today’s world briefly: many in the West are alarmed at the numbers of refugees flocking to our shores: it seems blindingly obvious to me that one way to address this would be to stop destroying their countries in the first place! We are very good at fighting proxy wars everywhere, and war is really good for business; although ISIS and Al-Qaeda have sprung from the fundamentalist Saudi Arabian variety of Islam, our leaders continue to buy enormous amounts of oil from that country and to sell it phenomenal amounts of weapons. And our leaders and businessmen are much safer from the random acts of terrorism that continue to afflict us, than ordinary people are.

Back to my first thought about being obsessed by war: I think it’s part of my quest to understand why the world is as it is, and to imagine how it might be different – one day, perhaps, long after I’ve left it…


Richard Byrd: Alone

May 23, 2017

I’m more than a little surprised by how many interesting books I come across when reading French newspapers and magazines; on a recent trip I went with a list of four books I wanted and came back with them all plus another must-have… and this was one of them, although originally written in English and available at a high price; the new French edition was nicely produced and sensibly priced.

It’s an astonishing piece of exploration and travel writing from the 1930s: Richard Byrd (a US admiral) was an explorer who (among other things) set up a base on the edge of the Antarctic ice shelf, from which a small station a couple of hundred miles further inland was also set up, in order to make meteorological observations during the polar night; because it was a dangerous task, Byrd, as expedition leader, decided to undertake the task himself, spending several months alone in the polar darkness.

He’s fully aware of the risks he’s taking, and begins with acute and almost disinterested self-observation. He knows he could fall ill, injure himself, get lost whilst outside, suffer from the fumes of his stove, and is several days from possible help or rescue. But it’s the psychological effects of solitude he is initially interested to observe in himself and record; he’s a very intelligent and literate man and so does this well and interestingly.

The horror then starts, and it is truly shocking. He nearly dies from carbon monoxide poisoning because of a malfunctioning generator which drives the wireless transmitter he uses to keep in contact with his base, and as a result of this, realises that certain symptoms he had previously been experiencing show that his heating stove – on which his very life obviously depends – has also very slowly and insidiously been poisoning him. And the depths of polar winter, night, storms and cold – we are talking up to minus 70 Fahrenheit here – are approaching. If he cannot function to keep himself warm, he will die. And if he overuses his stove, it will also kill him…

Recovery from severe carbon monoxide poisoning is truly horrific, from his description: it will take months for his liver and spleen to repair his blood. He can hardly eat, vomiting most things, has appalling headaches, his eyesight is affected and he becomes physically very weak. Nevertheless he attempts to continue his weather recording, rations his use of the stove to a few hours a day because it is not possible to repair or modify it, endures dreadful cold, and will not call in help because it would mean others risking their lives.

I’ve read a number of accounts of men coping with extreme conditions, and this sits alongside voyages like Shackleton’s, or, at the other extreme, journeys through places like the empty quarter of Saudi Arabia; the effects of the poisoning were truly scary and Byrd admits freely that there were times he almost succumbed to the temptation to give up: another of the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning is the inability to sleep; he had strong sleeping tablets with him, which he did not give in to the desire to take… I can see why it took four years and considerable persuasion to get him to commit his account of those months to paper. It’s an astonishing read, an account from a true explorer who was unafraid to take risks and almost paid with his life.


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