Monday, 5 September 2011

Boot Review

I am often asked what I do to occupy my time between the exquisitely chronicled adventures which feature on this blog.
Well, sometimes I sit and think ......
and sometimes I read books.
Here are some what I have red recently, by the way.

To begin with, the second volume of Tim Neat's biography of Hamish Henderson. When I started reading the first volume, I wondered if the writer's closeness to the subject would render it a piece of hagiography. Having completed both volumes, I think not. It's not "warts and all" , but he does touch on, however sympathetically, the obvious weaknesses.

I knew Hamish, as did hundreds of people with connections to CND or the Forrest Hill Bar (Sunday name !),  in the late '60s. By this time he had already squeezed in several lives - war hero, poet, folklorist, song writer and international  political activist. Sadly, thereafter, his light burned less brightly. I found him, like John Martyn, interesting when sober, good company with a few drinks, and boring and irritating when drunk.
He wrote many letters, fought many battles, some real - some imagined.
Tim Neat was a witness to, and participant in much of the latter period of Hamish's life. He helped scatter his ashes on Ben Gulabin above the little cottage at Spittal of Glenshee where he had spent an idyllic childhood.
He was a remarkable man with mysterious antecedents (I had always believed the Duke of Atholl theory, although Neat puts forward a more mundane explanation) .  I believe his true worth will only emerge after the death of most of the people he pissed off.

And one of the people he pissed-off on a regular basis (and vice versa) was Norman MacCaig. Moving on the fringes of these circles, I was temperamentally more drawn to MacCaig,  "the sarcastic lizard" as Allan Bold had called him. Both were tall, distinguished looking figures in those days, but could not have been more different - war hero versus conchie for a start. At one point they both worked for Edinburgh University and held court at opposite corners of George Square

Which brings me by a typically circuitous route to my second book
At the Loch of The Green Corrie by Andrew Greig
Like most good books this operates on several different levels. When I borrowed this from the library, the librarian said "Oh, my husbands just been reading this"  "Really," I said. "Is he interested in poetry ?"  She looked confused, then said "It's about fishing". Ah well, maybe it is. It's about fishing, and hills, and Assynt, and Norman MacCaig. But it's also about Andy Greig, and ultimately about all of us.
I've never met Andy Greig ( you'll be pleased to hear!) but he is a Central Belt laddie of roughly my generation with some Incredible String Band stories to tell. He did go to Dollar, but we won't hold that against him. I thought  Kingdoms of Experience,  about his expedition to Everest  with Mal Duff was excellent and a cut above most of your "Mountain Literature" I intend to read more of his stuff.
I once went out with a girl who was attending MacCaig's creative writing seminars, and who confided in me that Norman had written "A Man in My Position" for her. Some 20years later I was at a cocktail party in College Station, Texas and met a woman who had been an exchange student at Edinburgh in the late '60s. She told me that "Professor" MacCaig had written A Man in My position just for her. The old rogue !

And finally two books specifically about walking

Extreme Rambling by Mark Thomas. is about a walk along the length of The Wall or Security Barrier that the Israelis are building to separate the Jewish part of the country from the Palestinian West Bank area. This is obviously such a sensitive political topic that, just as when talking about Northern Ireland ( The North Of Ireland, Ulster, The Six Counties etc ) the very vocabulary used crackles with religious significance.

Now Mark Thomas is an activist. You may have seen him on the television. If your world view is reflected by the work of, say Richard Littlejohn, Jeremy Clarkson and Melanie Phillips then forget about his book .
Mark wears his heart on his sleeve, and although he does interview Israeli government spokespeople,  as well as Palestinians and Israeli peace activists, they tend to shoot themselves in the foot , metaphorically speaking of course. However this is not a polemic. It's about a walk. He walked 450km along The Wall through some of the most beautiful countryside in the Middle East (if you screw up your eyes and block out the razor wire).
There's mud, there's blisters, there's flies. What more could you want ? Even Martin Banfield hasn't done this one !! (I think)
I thoroughly enjoyed this book.You know, the kind that feels when you finish it,  as if a friend who had been staying with you has gone home.

I found  Ribbon of Wildness by Peter Wright a bit of a puzzle. It's about the Watershed - the imaginary line up the spine of Scotland separating the land which drains west to the Atlantic from that which drains to the North Sea. That sounds fairly straight forward, however ,at least in parts, the line is open to interpretation and of course there are sections where it is impossible to walk.

Now, in the frontispiece Mr Wright claims to have walked the entire 745 miles of his version in 64 days. I have absolutely no reason to doubt this, but could I tell from the text ?  No. You would think that a high level walk of over 700 miles up the spine of Scotland would be a cracking read. Imagine what some of the Challenge bloggers could make of it. But this is not a walk journal - nothing about the weather, campsites, support etc. It could not even be described as a guide book - I don't think you could follow his route with just the book and an OS. If anything, I would describe it as a "Companion" to the Watershed, with lots of background information to read in the tent or the pub. Mr Wright is obviously involved in "Countryside Management" and faithfully list where the route crosses from a SSSI to LLNP to FC land etc. The foreword is by Robin Harper, scarf-wearing former Green MSP.Says it all really

Several years ago, Ben Cleuch fetishist Dave Hewitt (The Angry Corrie) walked his version of the Watershed and wrote an entertaining account which was  available to download free on the Tacit website. Save yourself £14.99.


  1. Enjoyed that! I am sure Martin will too.

    I had a bash at Ribbon of Wildness - totally agree - Dave H's was much more fun. Peter Wright's felt like you were eating carpet for breakfast. That doesn't make much sense, does it? No.

    What ever happened to TAC?

  2. Eh! Where's the boot review? I read that all very carefully, with me brow furrowed and me tongue poking out the corner of me mouth, and me lips moving on the hard words - and I didn't find any mention of boots.
    Ah - I've got it - you thought you sucker in us illiterate gear-fetishists with your sneaky misplaced t (which is not even near the k on the keyboard, so don't try that one!).
    Seriously though - I'm quite fancying 'The Loch of the Angry Corrie' when it comes up at our local jumble sale. And I used to love Mark Thomas's TV program, so I might have to add that to my wish list too.
    (Colm Toibin has written one about walking the Irish North/South border - I have it but haven't raed it yet)

  3. Mark
    You are not taking this seriously.
    I could of writtun that, even sober.

    Back of the class....

  4. Agree about the Wright book. I found it indigestible, like too many Tunnocks carmel logs in one go, but without the pleasure. The Grieg book is an interesting, enjoyable read. Must check out the Henderson bios, sound interesting indeed.

  5. Mart, I don'k tnow whak you are kalting abouk.

    Iain and Alan - glad we agree that Mr Wright gets nul points from our jury ( although what rug munching has got to do with it, I'm not sure !)

  6. I’ve not read any of these books so I’m coming at this from a completely neutral position. What has interested me immensely is At the Loch of the Green Corries, by Andrew Greig, because, quite by accident, I watched the BBC production last year where Billy Connolly and Greig took part in a fishing expedition to MacCaig’s favourite loch in Assynt.
    It was a fascinating programme and left me thinking: hmmm . . . I shall have to find out more about this poet chap. And, of course, you never do find out more in situations like these. The thought gets sided away into the mental equivalent of the drawer you put odds and ends in (old penknives, keys with no locks, watches that don’t work, dud batteries) and remains there until someone tips it out – which has just happened.
    So thank you, OM. It’s my birthday next month, so I shall drop a couple of discreet hints among the immediate family and see what happens.
    Alen McF

  7. Thanks Alen. I wasn't aware of the tv programme.
    If the birthday strategy doesn't work, there is always inter-library loans !

  8. @OSS – Thanks for the kind and interesting words re the watershed and the book. All feels a long time ago now – it'll be 25 years next spring since I did the walk, doesn't really feel like me any more.
    The Peter Wright / Ribbon of Wildness situation is rather odd and puzzling. I've not even seen, never mind read, the book, so can't comment on that. But he has been quite vocal in various media outlets about having been the first to do the route – which, even disregarding the Cape Wrath (me) / Duncansby Head (Peter) divergence up north, isn't the case. A chap named Malcolm Wylie did the
    whole UK 'shed, north–south, in chunks between 1996 and 2009 starting at Duncansby. He finished the Scottish part of the route in 2000, five years before Peter – and Peter knows this, as the two corresponded for a time before Ribbon of Wildness appeared. And Peter seems very reluctant to even mention, never mind acknowledge, Malcolm, despite knowing the details. Strange.
    I gave an interview about all this earlier in the year – both the piece itself, and the subsequent comments, might be of interest:

    @Alan Sloman – TAC has gone from sporadic to stalled at present, very frustrating as it's still got mileage in it. Reasons are complicated but the main one is that I've been completely snowed under / deheadspaced with regular work (at the Caledonian Mercury and elsewhere) this past year or more, and TAC has ended up being put on the proverbial backburner. I keep saying "next month" to people, month-on-month, but an issue coming out in Oct is not beyond the bounds of possibility. The thing is about three-quarters ready – if lacking a little in topicality because of the delay – and one good week-long push fairly soon could sort it. Beyond that, I dunno – there could well be another long gap. But at least that would shift the immediate blockage, as the plumbers and surgeons say.

  9. Thanks, Dave.
    I had no idea that there had been a "controversy" (must get out more) - I merely picked the book off the shelf in the library expecting a darn good read and was disappointed.
    Whatever. It's his problem.
    Re TAC - a lot of people have been wondering. Aren't you a bit old and establishment now to be doing an alternative hillzine ? Can't you contract out the donkey work to some ambitious irreverent twenty year old while you play the Rupert Murdoch role ?

  10. Don’t think I’m too old as yet (just turned 50), and if I’ve become even the least bit establishment please come and shoot me right now – it won’t cost you much in fuel. Part of the trouble is that I actively like the donkey work (and donkeys, for that matter, but better not go there), and I don’t have any hankerings or suitability to take on even a minor version of a CEO/Murdoch role. In football parlance, I prefer playing just off the front two, rather than being an out-and-out striker, as it were. (Btw, I was on the Ochils in the sunshine today; asked my pal Carlos T if he wanted to come along, but he said he didn’t fancy it.)
    With TAC, part of me thinks it’s had its day, run its course, had a good innings, that kind of thing. And that I should draw a line and say that’s that. Certainly it’s had its heyday – but another part of me quite fancies a second heyday, and that might yet come. Part of the trouble is that I’ve been using so many TACable ideas and stories for the CalMerc – the journalist in the Ponds who fabricated a mountain rescue and ended up in the slammer, the reindeer-attack story, all the (slightly tedious) stuff about reheighting Munros, etc – that I’ve semi lost the thread re TAC’s topicality somewhere along the way.
    I’m in regroup/reassess mode, I guess. Just need to get the spark and the oomph and the focus back and all might be well again.
    Incidentally, the pic on your profile page – is that the Hielan Steps stile on the Tilli–Blackford route, where it crosses the spine just east of AGH? Nice bit of country.

  11. I'm sure you're now long gone, Dave, but I'm just tidying up loose ends left from before The Great Huff.
    "The Ponds" ! See - you're getting back into the the style already!
    Yes that is the Heilan' (or Heilandman's) Steps near which I had a near-death experience recently.I spent two hours sitting on the edge of a peat hag trying to decide whether to call out the MRT or let them find the body. Eventually embarrassment won, and I dragged my unwilling body up Skythorn and down to Tilly.
    Where was that giant figure with the baseball cap, who I occasionally see disappearing over Ochil horizons at a rate of knots, when he was needed ?