How to Climb Everest

Climber Andy Kilpatrick once wrote a beautiful answer to the question of How to climb Mount Everest. He suggested starting with the 14 Peaks in Wales, and the Bob Graham round; moving on to the Muros while learning about climbing; then comes the Alps, Alaska, years of work, but developing a deep love and understanding of climbing. By then you’d have “enough climbing and incredible days on the hill to know that Everest is a waste of time.”

Everest has become a trophy, and climbing it is an achievement, but this achievement has changed over time. If you have a little skill and enough money you can find someone to take you up there, even if you’d be a danger to yourself and others.

At the height of the  2019 climbing season, sensational pictures appeared on the Internet, showing a long queue of climber waiting for the summit. These images have haunted me.

The drive to climb ever-higher reminds me of what happens to ants infected by the parasite dicrocoelium dendriticum, which includes both ants and cattle in its life-cycle. With the ants it changes their brains, causing them to climb to the tops of blades of grass, even though this means they are likely to be eaten by grazing cattle. People can be similarly suicidal when they are close to the top of Everest, something known as ‘summit fever’. Being so close to their ambition, they are reluctant to turn back, even if continuing is not safe.

Everything I read about Everest makes it sound like a hell-hole. The journey itself is suffering, and expensive suffering too. The long queue took place in the ‘death zone’, where climbers cannot survive long without oxygen bottles – those same oxygen bottles that, once empty, litter the top of the mountain. GQ’s story about the queue did a good job of explaining the situation. There’s even a wikipedia article (link contains disturbing pictures) about one of the bodies on Everest that cannot be removed.

PS – There is a tenuous connection between Hove and Everest, as the man the mountain is named for is buried here. George Everest never actually saw this mountain and even protested the name as unsuitable for local use.

Cocking, and balls

There are a set of large balls below Cocking village. They are made of chalk, and were placed there by the land artist Andy Goldsworthy. I’ve been meaning to visit them for some years and had two failed attempts. My first try, with my friend Sophie, was foiled by mud and unreliable directions. Sophie was underwhelmed and announced “I’m not sure who this Andy Goldsworthy fellow is, but I don’t want anything more to do with the man.

Another attempt in 2017 was stopped by a combination of rain and poor clothing. But at the end of the year I set out with my hiking buddies Katharine and Romi for another try. Better clothed and better prepared, we managed to follow the whole route.

The trail features over a dozen chalk boulders from Duncton Quarry, each about 2 meters in diameter, and placed along a five-mile route. It was expected that the stones would last about two years, but 18 years later they are still there and, indeed, their weathering has been the subject of scientific research. I read online that they might last as long as two centuries. The sculpture was a lovely way to link a trail together, with the added fun of trying to spot the stones. I didn’t keep track of how many we found, knowing that it is unlucky to try counting stones.

The chalk was was not the only artwork we saw on the trail. Unexpected and unsignposted, there were two heads resting on a fallen tree-trunk.

 

The route took us to Cocking and back. Sadly we arrived a couple of weeks early for the local pub, which was being renovated. It had just been bought by the community, and I am looking forward to visiting it in the future. We settled for buying sweets at the post office, then headed back.

One of the fun thing was trying to find a path through a forest and realising our map no longer matched the reality. We were in a managed forest, and a section of the trees had been cut back.

The trip to look for the stones was a good one, with some lovely scenery, and even a deer at one point. The chalk boulders have settled in to being part of the landscape. We met some locals at one point, who took a photo of the three of us at the last stone. They told us that they’d heard the chalk was left by some artist, but had no idea why.

    

Two recent Le Carre books

A few years back, I set out to read and blog about John Le Carre’s books in chronological order. Like many projects of mine, it sort of stalled. I blogged about Call for the dead and A Murder of Quality, read a few others, then got distracted.

A lucky find in a charity shop on 2020’s first work-day launched me into reading Agent Running in the Field. This was hyped in the papers as le Carre’s Brexit novel, which does the book something of a dis-service. It’s not a political diatribe, but a lovely character piece, written from the POV of a washed-up spy.

Le Carre gets the main character’s voice perfectly and we get a good sense of his privilege and self-image. Nat’s faults are obvious, without any contempt or mockery from Le Carre. The story begins when Nat meets a young man called Ed who challenges him to a game of badminton. They begin playing regularly and, over post-game pints, Ed launches tirades about the state of the world. Like many of Le Carre’s characters, Nat comes to find himself threatened by powerful forces, trapped between duty and doing the right thing. There is a fantastic sense of impending disaster as the book heads to its conclusion.

I also read The Pigeon Tunnel, which is a non-fiction collection of pieces about Le Carre’s life. I felt churlish for not liking this more. Most of the pieces are excellent, and there are some great anecdotes, such as meetings with Yasser Arafat and Rupert Murdoch. Le Carre repeatedly explains that he did very little secret work, but has several adventures because people assumes he is still involved in this world. Still, I found myself wishing the book had a stronger narrative, and realised later that a lot of the pieces were reprints of previously published works.

It was still worth reading, particularly for details of the lengths to which Le Carre went to for his research. A couple of glimpses of that world stood out. One piece was about his loathing of the traitor Kim Philby, in which he described “a type of entitled Briton who, while deploring the sins of imperialism, attaches himself to the next great imperial power in the delusion that he can steer its destiny.

Another piece talked about a mole in the British Communist Party which had about 25,000 members; Le Carre claims that it “had to be held together by MI5 informants”.

Stepping away from Twitter

I’ve not been on Twitter since around Christmas, and I don’t miss it that much. I’ve had time away before but this time I don’t think I’m going back. There was a time when this would have seemed unimaginable.

Back in October 2010, I wrote about why I loved twitter. This was a tool that had “introduced me to some amazing people, found me work, and helped me discover events and books that I might otherwise have missed.” It was a place for friendly small talk, a little like very slow IRC.

But even then, I pointed out that Twitter was an interesting mix between protocol, platform and people; and it needed all three for success. For a long time, the platform was a problem, with constant outages proving frustrating.

Once the platform became stable, Twitter started pushing for growth, which meant bringing in more users and having them look at the platform more often. They soon discovered that controversy provided a more energetic site, with better engagement metrics. That growth has come at the cost of the site’s friendliness. Buzzfeed’s piece on How the Retweet ruined the Internet is worth a read on this.

Even with lots of keywords on mute (including ‘Trump’ and ‘Corbyn’) Twitter just felt angry lately. A lot of the problems could have been easily fixed – the bots are hardly well disguised; and it would be easy to filter out people sending agressive statements to strangers (if you’re using the c-word to a stranger, you’re probably not a nice person).

I’m not sure what comes next. I’ve been enjoying newsletters, particularly some small ones aimed at a couple of dozen people; and I feel heartened by the slow return to blogging. Promoting things is perhaps harder, but that might not be a bad thing. But I’ll miss the friendly strangers popping up on my computer.

PS – There’s a lovely piece by Robin Sloan, platforms.fyi (“Social media platforms should run small, and slow, and cool to the touch.“)

My first walk of the year

Last weekend was my first proper walk of 2020. It was also my first trip with Brighton Explorer’s Club – I joined a while back, but hadn’t managed any of the events before now.

The group was friendly, and it’s good to have more people to go hiking with. Mount Caburn is quite a familiar walk – I went in 2012 with Lou Ice, and more recently with the British Pilgrimage Trust – but weather and light can transform a landscape. We could see weather coming in across the Ouse Valley, and avoided the worst of it. And a little rain is a fair price to pay for rainbows and some incredible light:

Back pains prevented this weekend’s planned walk to Ashdown Forest, but I’m doing my 10,000 steps a day to build up strength a little. I have two big hikes planned this year, in March and May/June, so I need to recover quickly.

Looking back at my blog

I recently re-read my whole blog archive. 12 years is a long time, and the word count was the same as three average-sized novels. The review was more fun than I expected. There was a playfulness to blogging when I started, which has now moved over to Twitter and Facebook. These days, a lot of people seem to use blogging mostly for Really Big Thoughts, which are then linked to from the streams. Which make sense, as few people are following blogs these days, but I miss having both those modes.

When I first started blogging, around 2000, I decided not to be negative in my posts. While I was far from happy for parts of the 2007-19 period, the memories I’d recorded were positive ones, and the bad vibes were lost. Looking back, being reminded of capers and shows and friends was a lovely feeling.

The biggest surprise was seeing my writing take shape over a longer period. There was a feeling of potential, which I seem to have lost recently. That’s not in the sense of having losing or wasting potential – I mean that I used to approach my writing in a more open and enthusiastic manner. I was excited by so many things: new journalism, live performance, reality hunger, new aesthetic, networked realism. It was good to be reminded of this. That passion and potential has gotten lost along the way, which might be why I’ve had so much trouble with writing recently. More play, less planning.

And You’re not my Babylon, released in 1994 and posted about in 2012, is still one of the greatest songs ever written.

(Technical note – turning the WordPress XML archive into a Kindle file was more of a faff than I planned. I used to be pretty good at XSLT but, in the end, I googled for a script someone else had made. Then, rather than build the .mobi file from scratch, I loaded the HTML into word to produce a doc I could transmit with the send-to-kindle app. I wonder if simple tasks like ‘read my blog on my kindle’ will always be a drag?)

2020

I started 2020 on a Brighton rooftop, with a view of fireworks all along the beach. Seeing rockets launch from so many different places reminded me of New Year in Goa, but here the view was better, with the fireworks exploding below us, the reflection of the bigger bursts lighting up the sea.

Despite recovering from being sick (why I am so often ill on New Years?) it was a good NYE – catching up with neglected old friends, an 18th birthday party, then a relaxing chat with more old friends.

No resolutions for 2020. Instead, I am planning to do less, making space for new things to enter my life. I am going to try reading more fiction, but that doesn’t require a programme or any goals. I also want to look into carbon offsetting my activities over the year. I know this is not a solution, but I think it’s important to be aware of the costs of my activities (with money as a proxy for CO2), and to make some sort of public commitment towards fixing the very real problems that are coming.

One big change with 2020 is that Brexit is now inevitable. I’m less depressed about this than I expected to be. Remain never really came up with an alternative way out of the mess we were in, with another referendum being a terrible idea. Now that the government has a majority, it has to ensure a Brexit that work. While the evidence has been the this project will overwhelm and defeat any attempt to deliver it, the onus is not on the leavers to prove the doubters wrong, and make the country a better place for everyone.

While 2020 is not technically the start of the 20’s, everyone knows that it actually is. I’ve seen a few commentators suggested that having a named decade after the doubts of the – teens? twenty-tens? – will make for a more certain world. Let’s see.

Some time back, in his newsletter, John Higgs wrote the paragraph below to his readers. It’s loose enough to allow the Barnum Effect to come into play, but it evokes the optimism that a new decade needs:

The 2020s will be a Golden Age in your life. It will not be the easiest of decades, but it will be the one where you are most fully yourself, when you are most proud of what you create and the period in which you act most in accord with your higher nature. In the far-flung future when people bring you to mind, it will be you in the 2020s they think of.

My favourite books of 2019

In 2019 I read 44 books, even fewer than last year’s total of 78. Books have been pushed out a little by comics and some very good long-form journalism, so maybe I should be including those in next year’s round-up?

I tried to be a little pickier about what I read this year; but, looking back at the few books I did read, some were underwhelming. Which is not to say there weren’t some excellent books, just that picking out ten favourites was easier than it should have been. Here they are, in title order.

Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport

Yes, it’s another attack on social media, but this is a particularly thoughtful book. With so much time spent on these platforms, our use of them should be carefully considered.

The Future Starts Here by John Higgs

This was a great, optimistic book about the future. Doom and gloom sells well, but there’s a need for positivity about what lies ahead of us. Higgs is cynical where he needs to be, but still finds reasons to be hopeful.

The Heartland by Nathan Filer

About to be re-released as ‘This Book Will Change Your Mind About Mental Health’, The Heartland didn’t get the attention it deserved. It’s a clear, lucid and moving book about mental health.

Immediatism by Hakim Bey

Discussed in May

Lanny by Max Porter

A slim novel, but a dense one. Porter uses typography and short paragraphs to produce an amazing chorus of voices in an English village. The book feels both mythic and timely, tapping into the currents of Brexit and folk horror. It’s also exciting to read a book which pushes the form of the physical page. I read it in a single sitting, with no electronic interruptions. This is a book that requires and justifies being read in that way.

Loose Connections by Johann Hari

Another book on mental health, and one I was very suspicious of. The book was more nuanced and important than the newspaper extracts implied. As austerity drags on into another decade, there are serious questions to be asked about how often we’re using mental health as a way to avoid facing the effects of economics.

Marvel Comics by Sean Howe

Discussed in May

The Places in Between by Rory Stewart

Discussed in November

Then it fell apart by Moby

Yes, Moby is an appalling person. Despite that, I love the vulnerability and quietness of his prose style.

William Blake Now by John Higgs

Discussed in November

Stone ghost in Sussex

(The outing from this post took place in early November. It’s taken me a while to finish this, but I wanted to share it)

Sussex has never felt all that rural to me. Even though I grew up running through fields and woodlands, I lived in a suburban housing estate. I was as captivated by TV and early computer games as I was by the countryside. And the land around the estate didn’t feel particularly wild. There were few large animals, and the only danger came from ‘strangers’.

Buncton Church, near Steyning, is only a few miles from where I grew up. From the road, there is only a small sign in a lay-by, and some steps going into the trees. I had been driven there with my friend Sooxanne by Matt Pope, who was going to show us the church. The path from the road to the church enters a small wooded valley, crossing a spring-fed stream before rising towards the church. If you were designing a rural church setting for a video game, this is the sort of thing you’d come up with.

One of the things I love about the world is how incredibly textured it is. Everything is rich and detailed, if you know enough about the subject. The church is 900 years old, and Matt showed us how the stones had been brought together from other buildings. Some Roman bricks had been used in the church wall, and Matt showed us how their centre isn’t properly fired, retaining a grey clay colour.

We were at the church to visit a sheela-na-gig. Or, rather, we were there to visit the absence of one.

A Sheela-na-gig is a church sculpture of a naked, sexual, female figure. I’d first heard the word as a teenager in the PJ Harvey song, which I first heard on a mix tape a friend made me. That song has the sort of energy you’d expect from these figures (which are often – with  some sexism – referred to as ‘grotesques’). The figures tend to occur in the West of Britain and in Ireland, and it is rare to have one so far into the South East.

This particular Sheela-Na-Gig we’d come to visit might have originally been a sculpture of Adam. The area between the statue’s legs was hacked out long ago, possibly removing a penis. There is also a space opposite the statue which has been renovated at some point, that might once have housed a corresponding Eve. The figure had likely been in the Buncton church for centuries, since it was built.

There is a lovely description of Buncton church in Justin Hopper’s book The Old Weird Albion. The passage captures the strange, mystical peace of the place, and its feeling of dense age. Justin refers back to Arthur Beaton Cooks’s 1923 book, Off The Beaten Track in Sussex, with its description of Buncton as seeing “the survival of old rites, which began in pagan times, and did not entire change with the advent of Christianity… One may regard the hill-top as being as near to Christ as to Wodin”. The church does feel lost in time, with the weathered gravestones, leaning as if tired.

The church interior is a simple space, with wooden altar and a few small pews. The walls are simple and painted white apart from one place, where a fleur-de-lys pattern is visible “as if a hole had been opened in the history of the space”. And then there is the Sheela-na-gig. All that remains is a gap, “another spirit added to Buncton’s swirling maze”.

The Buncton Sheela-na-gig had been famous. It was conveniently located for local pagans who wanted to visit one of these statues without a long journey. Votive offerings of flowers were sometimes left at the statue, which most people saw as a good thing, although they were less enthusiastic about the fertility rituals that sometimes took place.

After centuries of controversy, on 10th or 11th November 2004, someone took a chisel and gouged the figure away, leaving splinters of stone at the pillar’s base. The police apparently had a suspect, but no action was every taken. There is not even a photograph of the sheela-na-gig in the church, as some people still see the “unchristian” carving as malign.

We walked out onto a field, looking in the plough-tracks for more traces of roman brickwork, maybe some vague clue to what was here before the church I found something too light and flat to be a natural stone, which was probably a mediaeval roof tile. I slipped it into my pocket.

The day was fading. A bright red moon hung just above the trees, and mist gathered on the field. This was a wilder Sussex than I had become used to after years of living in Brighton. That little church in Buncton, not even a road to reach it, felt like a time machine. And, even though its physical form is gone, the Sheela-na-gig is still there in the empty space.

A Sussex Hill Pilgrimage

I sometimes go too long without a proper walk. On the last Saturday in October, I needed to go to Lewes for an evening event, so I decided to walk there. There aren’t many routes from where I live – it’s basically Rottingdean/Balsdean or the Juggs Road. In the end, I took the train to Hassocks and walked via Wolstonbury Hill, following the line of the Downs west.

The climb up Wolstonbury is steep but, even so, I was surprised how hard I found it, and how many times I needed to stop for breath. I’d managed the steps of Swayambunath temple without stopping (thereby gaining enlightenment in this lifetime), but this less remarkable hill proved too much to do in one go.

Wolstonbury is a significant place to me. Every year, on ascension day, my school would climb the hill for a small religious service at the summit. The tradition was taken from an Oxford college when the school was young, in order to give the new institution a feeling of tradition. Standing on the top of the hill, blown about by a strong wind, the scene was very different, much bleaker than the summer day of the ceremony.

I have a weird memory from Halloween when I was 14 or 15, watching lights moving up the dark face of Wolstonbury. There were rumours of black masses being held there. The priest at the final Ascension Day service I attended described the ritual we were performing as a ‘white mass’.

Apparently Wolstonbury once had a chalk figure. The only mention I can find online is one in Hurst Life magazine, which claims it appeared in October 1959 as a rag week stunt. Apparently there is a photo of this figure from the Argus, and another in the Herald. The article goes on to say “(another) chalk lady was cut in Wolstonbury some ten years later”. I went to a National Trust talk a few years back, and I’m sure that they talked about a chalk figure that was placed on the hill by soldiers, who were training nearby for D-Day. Sadly, a new job means it will be some time before I can look into this any further.

From Wolstonbury I headed East, following the South Downs way towards Lewes. I’d done the route before a number of times and it felt slightly unengaging on such an overcast, blustery day. The ground was damp and there was little shelter from the wind, so I didn’t bother with any seated stops.

And, of course, the walk was haunted by Brexit. Someone had written slogans of protest on the gates near Ditchling Beacon. Some of it was depressingly racist, and I don’t know if it was the heartfelt pleas of a racist or a random troublemaker. But Brexit keeps intruding on my walks.

Sometimes, when I am walking alone I take it too fast, making my feet and legs ache, hurting myself. This was one of those days. I ground out the miles, wanting to reach Lewes ahead of the rain. I ran out of walk long before I ran out of time.

The only problem was, I’d arrived about four hours earlier than planned. So, I headed to the venue for the night’s event and sat quietly in a corner reading. It was fun to watch the show come together, and helping out when needed. The show was awesome – aerial, contortionists and dancers. But my favourite act was the roller-skate/hula act. Even on a small stage, the performer glided and flowed. It was a good day.