August in the first Antarctic Night

Through the First Antarctic Night”,  or to give it’s full title, “Through the First Antarctic Night 1898-1899: A Narrative of the Voyage of the Belgica Among Newly Discovered Lands and Over an Unknown Sea about the South Pole” by Frederick Albert Cook is an account of the first over-winter stay by human beings (known) in the Antarctic. Of course, an Antarctic Winter is also an Antarctic Night. Cook would later be disgraced and imprisoned for fraud, as well as having his reputation tarnished by a dispute with Robert Peary over who first reached the North Pole.

 

“The month of August was, on the whole, one of the greatest disappointments of our experience in the Antarctic. We expected low temperatures and bright, cheerful weather. With the coming sun we hoped to dispel our anaemia and make ourselves ready for a series of difficult tasks to be undertaken in September and October; but instead we failed more and more in strength, and developed alarming mental symptoms. One man was temporarily insane, and several others were nearing a similar condition. The weather was stormy, the atmosphere was charged with clouds of sand-like drift-snow, and the sun was almost constantly invisible, though it rose higher and higher and swept more and more of the horizon daily. For one month following sunrise, like the month preceding its departure, the conditions were in effect a part of the night. It is true we had a little misty grayness at noon which we called daylight, but this was counterbalanced by the never ceasing tempests which drove such a blast of cutting snow that life outside was impossible. The first glimpses of sunlight had aroused us to new ambitions, and to spasmodic spells of cheerfulness, but this hellish series of storms sent us again into the most abject gloom of the night.”

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“The Driver”, winner of Molly Keane Memorial Creative Writing Award 2010

It was a privilege to receive this award in 2010 in Lismore, via the auspices of Waterford County Council, and to hear the kind words from Molly Keane’s daughter at the ceremony. “The Driver” has a certain percussive momentum I still like:

THE DRIVER

I have seen things that you people would never believe. I have driven into the sunset on the coast road between Gortahork and Gweedore, driving along the height of Bloody Foreland with nothing but some stone walls and the Atlantic Ocean between my car door and Newfoundland. I have got gloriously lost along the roads north of New Ross, emerging somewhere near Borris having driven through a vision of green innocence, with Van Morrison on the CD player singing about walking and talking in gardens all misty wet with rain. I have gloried in the sleek smooth drive that is the M50 at four in the morning, communing with the sodium-lit bulk of Dublin’s industrial outskirts all around.

I am of Ireland. I have slept in my car in commuter towns; Newbridge, Arklow, Rathcormac. I have slept in the carparks of Belfast, Derry, Galway, Kilkenny, Waterford, Athlone, Newry, Armagh, Drogheda and Dundalk.I have recognised no division between North and South; wherever I can park my car, that’s my home.
Call me Alan. I am a captain, and the roads are my Mississippi River, my Seven Seas. I have listened to the greatest minds of their generation debate on my in car world band radio; from London, from New York, even from the RTE studios. I have contemplated mortality to the sound of Beethoven’s late quartets, while driving the stony gray roads of Monaghan. I have felt buoyant and weightless while singing to the electropop of MGMT while crossing the border on the M1. I have felt rooted, part of a timeless Celtic twilight, listening to sean nós on the road to Clifden.
I am Alan, and I am a driver. I work as a Sales and Marketing Manager with a mobile broadband company, and my role is to travel the country ensuring our nationwide sales teams are fully up to speed with the latest promotions and products. I have worked in this job for eight years. Before that, I lived in an apartment in Maynooth, and commuted on the train to Dublin. I’m from Athy, and after three strange years in UCD – from the first day until graduation I felt like something marvellous was about to be revealed, and college would become the wonderful, revelatory, spectacular experience I had always wanted it to be. It never happened, and though I was not unhappy, I was not entirely unhappy. Those days, a job was waiting on graduation, and I was helping to plan marketing strategy a few weeks after leaving college. Soon I bought an apartment – in those days – well, you know the rest.
I loved commuting. I love being part of the great engine that disgorged masses of people into Dublin city every morning, and I loved knowing that across Ireland, across Europe, across the world the same thing was happening. I felt connected in the train, and bus – for having got into Heuston Station, I had two buses to get to the warehouse housing the company office – to everyone else, to the unsmiling faces, to the cups of coffee grimly grasped in each arm. I fantasised about the women on the train and on the bus, and cherished memories of brief conversations.
When I was promoted, I had to get a car, and resurrect driving skills I hadn’t used since being taught by my father in a hotel car park near Athy. At first, I thought I would miss public transport, miss being part of the great machine. Now, while I would be part of the machinery of commuting, I would be an atomised one. Or so I feared.

Three months into my driving life I had my epiphany. I could sell my apartment, for what I knew ever then was a ludicrous amount of money compared to its real cost. I cannot claim any prescience about this – just that I always felt property was a rather dull, unproductive investment, and I was better off with as much liquidity as possible. I wanted a liquid life, and I realise in my battered Toyota Starlet, with a surprisingly strong heater and a passenger seat that reclined to nearly horizontal, I could achieve the ultimate liquidity.

So I became a driver in a floating world. My parents’ address was used for driving licences, payroll purposes, bank statements, and such. They had never really approved of my getting an apartment, and all told, as I slept there about one weekend a month, began to see me more often than any time since leaving school. This delighted them, and they didn’t ask too many questions about the apartment. My salary went straight into my bank account, and without mortgage or rent, and with the bulk of my petrol paid for, as well as most lunches during the week and expenses for accommodation for more distant trips (I would still sleep in the hotel car park) my liquidity steadily increased. As the rest of my generation lumbered themselves with more and more debt, I was going in the opposite direction.

I could easily have bought a more glamorous car, by the way – any car would have been more glamorous – but I didn’t want to. I was fiercely proud of the Starlet. I loved the way she could accelerate so well, how she was so light and maneoverable and yet sturdy. I got her serviced every ten thousand miles, and as I treated her well, so she treated me well.
The Toyota Starlet is not a car that excites. And yet, she proved more than adequate for romantic assignations. My lack of a permanent residence actually saved me from complications. I was not in a place where I wanted a lasting relationship. I went out for two years with Judith, the director of an accountancy firm – a woman who was, in fact, younger than me. She was a very good accountant. She was usually in London during the week, despite being supposedly based in Dublin. We met at weekends, and I would stay in her apartment sometimes, but more often drop her home. She liked the Starlet, she liked my lack of pretension, my lack of any desire to impress her. I treated her well, and generously, and listened to her tales of workplace woe. My parents liked her. She didn’t believe me when I said I lived in the car, and in the end thought I was lying to her about it. That ended it. I felt annoyed at the time, but then rationalised the whole thing, and then felt better so quickly I realised how little I had wanted a serious relationship.

A year or so later, there was Alison, the surgeon-in-training. We had met at Mondello. I often paid to take the Starlet around the track there, to the amusement of the staff. One day, while drinking a coffee in the reception after a few laps, I noticed a tall red-haired girl looking at me. Her car was certainly far more glamorous than mine. This was, I would later discover, one of her very few weekends off, and she was indulging herself by driving this beautiful sports car very fast.

Alison worked in Dublin, then in Cork, then in Limerick, then Dublin again. I would say she lived in those cities too, but she didn’t really. She worked. If I wasn’t nearby, which was most of the time, I would talk to her on the phone at ten or eleven or night, and she would tell me about her day. I didn’t always follow her tales of workplace woe, but it sounded pretty bad. She would start work at quarter to seven each morning. It was a little different at the weekends, but not much. If I was nearby, I would pick her up from work at night. More often than not – much more often than not – she would fall asleep in the Starlet, and I would drive the city streets, until the morning, or rather the hour before dawn, came, and it was time for her to work again. She never questioned what happened.

I think I did love Alison, the sleeping girl in the passenger seat, while I drove the M50 or the Outer Ring. I remember being told once that we all look younger sleeping. Alison certainly did. When awake she looked drained, exhausted, under strain. Sleeping, bathed in sodium light, she would look alive again. I did love Alison, and would have settled with her in some place– but then she had to go to America for her career, and she decided to end it with me.
Both Judith and Alison had been, I had thought at the time, serious relationships. I was certainly much more upset about Alison than Judith, but in both I quickly recovered. Both had been long relationships – two years, three years – and yet felt like they had lasted about a month. This was not a case of time flying when you’re having fun – both of them had generally been too tired when we did meet face to face for all that much fund to happen – but of how little we actually saw each other. I realised that I had fulfilled a need for them, for a time, as they had for me, but I was fundamentally alone, and meant to be alone. This realisation came rather dramatically.
The weekend after the breakup with Alison I woke on the Saturday morning in Killarney. I drove to Mizen head, and then turned around and raced up by Limerick and Galway and Sligo through County Donegal to Malin, where I arrived at ten p.m. I turned round and crossed over the Northern Coast, taking the coast road past Carrick-a-Rede and the Causeway to the Rathlin Ferry. There, in the car park, at two a.m., I tried to sleep. But I couldn’t, and at three I set off again, down past Belfast and then onto the great motorway, sweeping past Portadown and Newry and Dundalk and Drogheda and then going through the Port Tunnel, into the heart of Dublin. Dawn was, for once, glorious, as I drove through the industrial landscape of Dublin Port, made to look fresh and full of promise by the morning light. Picking my way across the city, I kept driving along the N11, the first dual carriageway, all the way down Wicklow and Wexford, hitting mass traffic in Ferns and Enniscorthy, and then on to Kilmore Quay. It was a beautiful Sunday, and tourist parties were scattered around, waiting for a boat to the islands. I drove to the end of the pier, got out, climbed the harbour walls, and looked out to the Saltees, so far, so sharp, so beautiful. I cried.
I had not cried for years. A fisherman approached me, as if to say something, but thought better of it. I got back in the car, drove a little up the road, and booked into a hotel. The room would not be ready for a couple of hours, so I sat in the bar with a coffee and a notepad. I began to write on this furiously. I had decided to write out a marriage vow to the road. I was not in love with the Starlet, or Alison, but with the road. I thought about how the ancients made rivers into gods, and in the case of the Nile, they made the annual flood itself into a god. We should make the road a god, I thought, and when I realised this I realised that it was blasphemous to marry the road. I would serve it.
I cancelled the hotel booking, got back in the car, and drove. Driving helped. It brought me perspective. I came to terms with everything. I realised that the important thing to do was to keep moving, always moving.

Peter Reason on pilgrimage, ecology and in-between space.

Peter Reason on pilgrimage, ecology and in-between space.

From “In Search of Grace”:

“In modern times, the idea of pilgrimage falls within so many cultural and spiritual traditions that it holds no single meaning. However, it usually entails a long journey in search of qualities of moral or spiritual significance, a journey across both outer physical and inner spiritual landscapes. A pilgrim separates herself from home and familiars, may join with a group of like-minded seekers, sometimes wearing special clothes or other marks that indicate their pilgrim status. In an important sense the pilgrim leaves the everyday and familiar, and journeys through an in-between space towards some transcendent purpose….Places where two ecosystems meet, such as the brackish water of lagoons, are rich with lifeforms and ecological adaptation. As the Catholic writer Douglas Christie puts it, ‘The liminal space of the pilgrimage journey offers a fluid and imaginative space between the human and the more-than-human worlds, between matter and spirit, body and soul, heaven and earth, humanity and divinity.

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“I studied many accounts of religious pilgrimages, learning how the faithful travel to sacred sites in order to encounter a holy realm for worship and the affirmation of faith, in search of illumination and for healing. I began to draw parallels with my idea of ecological pilgrimage as seeking a primal, heartfelt connection with the Earth itself and the community of life that has evolved on Earth. It is also an ongoing celebration of that connection and an act of homange, honouring the Earth as the more-than-human world of which we are a part, existing for itself rather than for human use. By taking the pilgrim away from the habits of civilization and by disrupting the pattern of everyday life, pilgrimage offers and opening to a different view of the Earth of which we are a part.”

All The Time In The World: Disconnecting to Reconnect

Trailer – All the Time in the World from Suzanne Crocker on Vimeo.

All The Time In The World is a charming documentary which follows a Canadian family of five over 9 months in the Yukon wilderness.

Directed by the family’s mother, Suzanne Crocker, and featuring three children aged 10, 8 and 4 (at the time), the film is an engaging story of the challenges and joys and a life without media, or much in the way of contemporary technology. The life is not sentimentalised, nor is there any fake drama for the sake of “narrative” as seen in so many documentaries.

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Apart from its unusual setting, the film is also an unaffected portrait of ordinary family life – again without sentimentality or fake drama. There is much to reflect on about time, busy-ness and our connection with nature – but more importantly, this story engaged my own troupe of similarly aged children.

Often I find documentaries off-putting when they have all too transparent slants towards a specific narrative or message. Obviously All the Time In the World has a narrative, and the film has a message – but both emerge from a simple story told affectingly and well.

Peter Reason on being a pilgrim and being a tourist

I recently re-blogged a section from Peter Reason’s new book, In Search of Grace. I’ve been reading it over the weekend and am sorely tempted to simply copy out sections. I hope to write a fuller, more considered review in due course but also hope to blog responses to particular themes. Reason’s “ecological pilgrimage” touches on a huge range of topics related to nature connection, silence, conservation, pilgrimage, and time and whole range of topics close to my heart.

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It is an engaging read which is helpfully upfront about the messy human reality of pilgrimage – very far from a continuous series of flow experiences, epiphanies and so on. His pilgrimage is ecological rather than explicitly religious and draws on a wide range of traditions, including secular/scientific ones – but with a great deal of respect for the religious underpinnings of pilgrimage.

He is also unsentimental – observing for instance that as the “Sixth Great Extinction” began pretty much once homo sapiens showed up, blaming the depradations humans have wrought on the planet on “Western” or “modern” man is a mistake.

Anyway, there is a huge amount to get to grips with and I hope to feature some highlights and thoughts here over the next while. For the moment, one theme which is relatively minor but highly significant is the distinction between the pilgrim and the tourist. I have blogged on this before – or rather on the distinction often made between being a “tourist” and a “traveller” – my own preference being for honest tourist rather than pretentious traveller.

For Reason, these reflections are most acute on Inishmore, largest of the Aran Islands. Aware of the tension inherent in bringing economic benefit to an isolated community (although as he writes, given the preponderence of day trippers the main beneficiaries are the ferry companies), he also notes his own preference for solitude in sites like Dun Aengus. Yet, is he so different from the mass of tourists? As he reflects afterwards:

I sailed north with a heavy heart, disappointed with my visit. Inishmore is a remarkable place. First for its lessons in geology: it is one thing to read about how erosion creates limestone pavements, quite another to actually walk over them. Second, for its lessons in history: while this is not my part of the world, I know is has been deeply influenced and impoverished both by its own conflicts and those imported from England. For me, however, these qualities were overwhelmed by the visitor culture, not so much by the curiosity of the people who visit, but by the infrastructure that is required to cater from them and to profit from them. The tourist business requires that large numbers of visitors move through the sites fairly quickly and are returned to the tourist hub where they can spend their money.

It is all too easy to make a crude distinction between tourist and pilgrim. We are all both. The line is a subtle one that I found myself continually crossing and recrossing, never entirely sure which side I was on. Indeed, nature writer Paul Evans refers to people like me who go in search of wild places as ‘wilderness tourist.’ Religious pilgrims who go to sacred places in search of a holy realm will often take time out for sightseeing; and tourists visiting the same place may find themselves affected more profoundly than they had bargained for. The tourist may see a haughty arrogance in the pilgrim’s claim to a higher purpose, and the pilgrims may look down on the superficiality they see in the tourists.

Reason goes on to write as to why he finds the distinction still worth making; I don’t want this to turn into simply posting extracts from his writing so I would urge those who wish to know more to seek out the book For me, sites like the Louvre and the British Museum do acquire the status of pilgrim sites, and when somewhere is described as “touristy” it is usually because there is something worthwhile there. Of course, the experience of visiting it may be wrapped up in a lot of tiresome tat and overcrowding, but it was ever thus …

Panoramas from Lough Mohra Looped Walk

I am unsure if the panorama function on a phone camera is all that effective, but for what its worth here are some made on Lough Mohra looped walk. This is a wonderful walk which culminates in the corrie lake or coum (the local name, which gives the Comeragh Mountains their name) of Lough Mohra.

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Here is a slideshow of some more conventional images from the walk:

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And here is a YouTube video with high production quality of the Lake:

Frank Ebrington, The Dubliner who was The World’s Fastest Man

From “Timekeepers: How the World Became Obsessed With Time” by Simon Garfield

Before sport became a subject for record books, there was just the realisation that humans (upright, no tail) were rather slow compared to things they tried to catch: the kangaroo managed 45 mph, the cheetah 85 mph, the spine-tailed swift 220 mph. Before steam and motorisation, humans probably managed about 35 mph on ice sledges and horses. For a while the fastest human by accident was probably Frank Ebrington, the occupant of an uncoupled carriage as it sped down the Kingstown–Dalkey (vacuum-pumped) atmospheric railway near Dublin, at an estimated speed of 84 mph in 1843.

From Mary Mulvihill in the Irish Times, April 19th 2004:

Following successful experiments with small-scale models, the developers of the new Kingstown-Dalkey railway opted for Brunel’s system, and in July 1844 they opened the world’s first commercial atmospheric railway to considerable international attention. (A second atmospheric railway, the South Devon line, opened some months later on an experimental basis, was not fully operational until 1847, and closed a year later; a third, built in Paris, lasted for a number of years.)

A steam engine located in Dalkey generated the power to pull the trains uphill from Kingstown; for the return journey they simply fell slowly downhill under gravity – and if the momentum was not enough to carry the train into Kingstown station, third-class passengers were expected to get out and push.

The pneumatic system itself was intricate. First, a cast-iron pipe was laid between the railway tracks, and then an airtight piston in the pipe was connected to the train. The steam engine at Dalkey pumped air out of the pipe ahead of the train, creating a vacuum; and the atmospheric pressure of the air behind the piston pushed the train along.

The pipe had a narrow slot along its top through which the piston arm moved; a complex flap and valve system let the piston arm pass, but otherwise kept the slot closed; and wheels and rollers on the underside of the train manoeuvred the flap open as required, and pressed it back in place afterwards.

To ensure a tight seal the flap was also greased, but maintaining an airtight seal was difficult. The grease attracted rats which ate the leather; in summer, the grease melted away, and in winter the leather froze. Running the engine and pumping station intermittently was also costly.

Nevertheless, the Kingstown-Dalkey railway operated successfully for 10 years, following the old tramway cutting linking Dalkey quarry and Kingstown. Trains ran every half-hour between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m., averaging 30 miles an hour uphill to Dalkey, and 20 miles an hour when falling to Kingstown.

Amazingly, on one test run, the train actually broke the world speed record, averaging 84 miles an hour. Admittedly, only one carriage was used (all the others were uncoupled), but on that day the sole occupant, one Frank Ebrington, became the fastest man on Earth.