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Sutherland – on the edge

Tonight I take my rest in Sutherland, on the far North coast of Scotland. The Arctic circle is closer to where I sit than Birmingham. London? Forget it.

This place is self-sufficient; tough yet beautiful. Today I walked out to see the great arc of the North ocean, but along the way were wild flowers, heather in fragrant bloom – and for 20 precious seconds, a Eurasian Otter gambolling over the sands at low tide.

The Norsemen named this place Sutherland; but in fact it’s all but Arctic in nature. Tomorrow we climb Ben Hope, the most Northerly Munro. And from there to the lyrically-named Ullapool, after a drive through the least populated part of NW Europe – a land strange to me to date, despite my 38 years in this Island.

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Stolen moments in Jerusalem’s Old City

 

I wandered down the suddenly deserted market street, suddenly conscious of several pairs of eyes watching me as I walked, camera bouncing incongruously against my suit jacket.

The T Shirts, which 2 minutes before, had boldly asserted allegiance to Macabi Haifa or the IDF were changed; Barcelona appeared to be the team of choice.

And the written language had switched just as abruptly. Where was Hebrew was now proudly Arabic.

—-

My first time in the contested city of Jerusalem was destined to be a brief one. My meetings had finished 1 day early, but with security to get through at Ben Gurion Airport, it seemed sensible to restrict the trip to a brief hour or so.

I had really wanted to see this small patch of earth – or at least some of it for all my life. Such a dry place, but one at the centre of so much conflict and death, as well as veneration and history.

And so on this Thursday past, I found myself peeling my back off the seat of a dilapidated Mercedes, and walking uncertainly up the rampway to the Jaffa Gate of the Old City.

Jerusalem’s walled city is punctuated by gates redolent of history and the past. “Damascus”, “Herod”, “Lions” and “Zion” all have their own gates, along with more prosaic siblings “Dung” and “New”!

It slides down the side of one hill among many in this sacred and ancient place, battlements proud and flags flying as if the Crusaders’ brief rule was still in place.

Jaffa Gate has had a chequered history. Blocked up when the Old City was part of Jordan, it’s been reopened by the Israelis – and festooned with lots of Star of David flags into the bargain.

It was the entry point for General Allenby when he commenced Britain’s brief, and somewhat erratic rule in the Holy Land – apparently he dismounted his horse to walk through the gate on foot. There followed one of my country’s most unlikely colonial roles; guardian of the Holy Places. Fortunately (after making a mess) we’re out of that one now and most people have forgotten.  I hope.

————–

Lacking a guidebook, I decided on a simple strategy – wander the darkened maze of the market for a short while, then try and catch sight of the Temple Mount.

Plunging straight ahead and down the hill, I walked down the car-less and narrow street, shopkeepers on both sides pushing their wares; sometimes forcefully, sometimes in a more desultory fashion.

Knots of foreign tourists blocked the way as I sneaked the odd snap with my camera while smells caught the nose, often in intense and unexpected ways. Coriander, Jasmine, Antiseptic and Rosewater; and darker scents –  hinting of the drains.

Jerusalem’s Old Streets lack the intensity of some of the other grand markets of the world; Marrakech or the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul. Perhaps there’s too much hysteria elsewhere in this city.

But my liberal senses were still assailed by some of the messages on display; clearly some people are not ready for talking! A sample T-Shirt I saw showed an F-16 with the tag line, “Don’t Worry America, Israel is With You!”

Unlike some of those other markets though, there was a genuine sense that this place didn’t just serve the foreign hordes; locals bought their bread, falalfel and meat here too.

So alongside the silver candelabras, tacky/tasteless T-Shirts*, and Koranic verse pottery, were “proper” household goods & chattels – strangely comforting that so old a place still has a practical purpose.

(*A T-Shirt with a Hassidic Hat propped above a giant red S with the inscription “Super Jew” was about the strength of it).

And as I mention at the start of this piece, suddenly the atmosphere changed and I was recognisably in Muslim Jerusalem, with sights and sounds I recognised from trips to Morocco and Dubai. How strange that one can wander across this disputed land as an innocent; how fortunate for me.

I took a parallel path back toward the Jaffa gate, past what even I must admit was an elegant if incongruous Lutheran church, and some more venerated ancient Christian sites before emerging, sweaty in a light & cool arcade, but yards from my start point.

Suddenly hungry,  I seized on a strange oval baguette strewn with crunchy sesame seeds. The vendor insisted on selling me some cricket- ball sized greasy Falafel balls instead, which I couldn’t really digest; one or two bites and I was sated. But the bread was divine.

——

Realising my time in this city was running out, I decided to buy a ticket to walk the battlements. 16 Shekels later, I was picking my way over the slippery limestone rocks, gazing down on the passageways and white rock buildings crammed behind the walls.

At one point the Papal flag flew, somewhat brazenly I felt, over the Latin Patriarch’s vast palace. At another a small family mosque with an exquisitely white-tiled roof snuggled into a convenient corner.

Working my way around the North side, I passed the Christian and then the Muslim quarter, and at one breathtaking moment around about the Damascus Gate, I caught sight of the glinting Dome of the Rock, plonked atop of the Temple Mount.

Sadly I could not approach to see it or the Western Wall any detail as it was time to go – so reluctantly I slithered my way back up the uneven battlements to the Jaffa Gate entrance – and another battered Mercedes chugged me back to Tel Aviv.

—-

Jerusalem is a concept, an ideal and a place. For me, as a confirmed atheist, it’s alien and yet from my upbringing (and the nightly BBC TV reports) it’s strangely familiar – names like Golgotha and al-Aqsa leap out at you unbidden.

It doesn’t look like Israel has any intentions of leaving, mind – and I’m sure the Palestinians feel the same way – so unless someone has a leap of imagination I guess the turmoil will continue.

And did it touch my heathen soul? It’s a spiritual place and for an historian, wonderful to visit even at a rush. But the certainty each sect has is terrifying. And I want no part of that.

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Things which I believe but which are probably not popular

  In no particular order – a list which I shall add to as things occur to me:

  • Although I am a Liverpool fan, and I mourn for those lost at Hillsborough, I believe that Liverpool fans were largely responsible for the deaths at Heysel and that there is a strange ambivalence about taking responsibility for the deaths
  • President Obama was right to publish the torture memos and right to pardon the CIA operatives who carried out torture under DOJ guidelines
  • Twitter is but one letter away from “Witter” and both activities are equally pointless
  • There is a terrifying energy gap coming; wind power is a waste of time and the only viable carbon reduction route is a massive Nuclear power program – there will be accidents but that is the price we pay
  • The French fishermen blocking the Channel Ports are half-wits*
  • We are all responsible for the credit crunch. We borrowed too much; now shut up and take the pain. Oh hang on, maybe we should just lynch a banker instead
  • Reality TV is a powerful argument for restricting the voting franchise
  • MPs are probably paid about right – admittedly there are too many of them
  • Vegetarianism has complete logic on environmental grounds but most of us (including me) lack the will to go the whole hog, so to speak
  • The present generation is not responsible for past crimes – whatever they are – and it makes me mad when people bring the sins of the great great grandfathers up to chastise their descendants
  • All religion is based on delusion. State enforced religion is a crime against humanity
  • There are too many people in the world and birth control limits as imposed by the Chinese Government may soon be seen as a rational and even humane alternative to Malthusian war, famine and disease
  • Merlot grapes produce nicely rounded and very drinkable wine on a consistent basis. Pinor Noir can be fantastic but can be flat and frankly expensive
  • The upside of Global warming is that much of the Fens will soon comprise an attractive inland boating lake
  • Any remaining unflooded parts of East Anglia should be scraped together to form a ski-ing mountain dedicated to chavs, thus stopping them from ruining the Alps for the rest of us
  • Pop stars should be offered the choice at 50 to either retire, or forfeit their entire fortune in order to continue their "careers"

*ok maybe this one is possibly popular

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What Happens when your car gearbox melts …

 

Here is a taste of the absurdity

4pm ish: Car gets stuck in 1st. Manage to limp 200 yds to McDonald’s off A5 before car engine seizes
4.10pm Robin calls AA – they promise patrolman there within hr
+1hr, patrolman calls, "is running late"
+ 1 min We repair to McDonalds and confirm that contrary to popular belief they taste better than Burger King
+40mins Patrolman turns up
+ 3 mins Patrolman realises cannot fix problem
+2 mins Patrolman goes, promising to send tow truck within 90 mins
+5 mins Order second round of McDonalds. Still better than BK
+90 mins Tow truck company calls, says "AA just called us, can you confirm where you are"
+ 2 mins Arteries hardening, Sunday Times read from cover to cover, robin’s temper shortening
+1.15 hr Tow truck arrives
+1 min Tow truck turbo is broken
+15 min Tow truck #1 departs without turbo & without us
+25 min AA Customer service rings to ask how our experience has been. Phone handset is slightly melted by blistering response
+10 mins AA customer service promises replacement truck on way
+15 mins Replacement truck on way; driver cannot tell us where he’s taking us to
+ 15 mins, car loaded up but thinks it’s being nicked so alarm keeps going off en route
+1.10 Arrive M54 Telford Services

By now it was rather late. We swapped vehicles again & went to Strensham on the M5 (some sleep for all on way). And from Strensham a flatbed home …

Suze got home 1.20; Paul & Ruth got home a shade after 1.30am I think – I managed to get home a bit after that having woken half of Clifton with flat bed lorry & more car alarm nonsense.

Upshot is that I a) owe everyone involved a good meal and b) will have a new gearbox in my car by end of play tomorrow, lucky me. At the cost of £828. Somewhat deflated …

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Argentina and Chile

 

Suze and I are now back, blinking in the watery light of a Northern Hemisphere Winter and reflecting on the slowly fading memories of a remarkable trip.

I’ve posted some pictures of the highlights of our adventures in Patagonia, the Andes and Buenos Aires (you can see the slideshow here).

But some overall impressions …

Patagonia

Unbelievably huge – and (in Argentina at least) very sparsely populated and really very arid. We went for four hours on one bus journey on reasonable roads on the Atlantic coast of Argentina and saw virtually nothing – nary a village, let alone any towns or signs of life other than the ubiquitously present stick fences that line every highway.

Genuinely wild. Compared with Europe, the National Parks – particularly Torres Del Paine are very remote indeed. We went one day doing the Torres Circuit where we did not see a soul – we started alone and finished alone – camping in a rough site undisturbed (except by the hungry sandflies).

The border is an illusion – if anyone can tell me the logic of the border between Chile and Argentina – or what the difference between the cultures is, I’d love to hear it. All it seemed to be was an excuse for three hours of form-filling and job creation. I think these two countries need to finally bury the hatchet and open the borders up.

Torres Del Paine

Majestic scenery and a stunning vista over the Glaciar Grey – a 17km long glacier which extends from the Southern Icecap (the Hielo Sur) – genuinely unforgettable.

Exceptional remoteness – no mobile reception, no PCs, TV or other distractions – just peace and togetherness …

Other highlights

  • 33c sunshine in San Martin de Los Andes – we indulged in a certain amount of schadenfreude on learning it was –10c at home
  • Distant view of Tierra Del Fuego from a windswept Punta Arenas – and very wild it looked two. And the view stretching south to Antarctica; impossibly huge and intimidating
  • Stunning Patagonian skies – changing every seconds – fantastic cathedrals, UFOs and other bizarre shapes and colours conjured up by the clouds and bright clear sunshine
  • Colossal steaks in Argentina – not least the triumphant Bife de Chorizo I had in La Cabrera in Buenos Aires (see here) – the size of my forearm!
  • Tango dancers and Antiques markets in San Telmo in Buenos Aires

And now we have to think about our next adventure!

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John Oliver on the Mumbai Terrorists …

Sometimes events can be so cruel and unfair, the only response is to laugh in their face.
 
Here John Oliver of the Daily Show gives a succinct summary of what we should think of the people who staged the Mumbai atrocities this last week …
 
I don’t think anyone could put it better.
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I don’t want to be a Euro-weenie begging for a President Obama …

 

… but I have to echo the Economist’s view that McCain’s campaign has been desperately disappointing. He’s tacked to the right on almost every issue. Two stand out:

  • Drill baby drill – the inanity of the expression belying the fact that America’s best hope is to get itself OFF oil & find new energy sources instead of unproven and destructive claims that drilling solves anything. Plus even the oil companies say it would take 10 years to get any oil flowing!
  • Sarah Palin – you betcha. The most unqualified VP candidate since Spiro Agnew disgraced the office. A woman who makes a virtue of anti-intellectualism is no heir to Reagan

I am sure Obama will disappoint. But he is the best candidate for America this year, is prepared to listen and I suspect will govern firmly from the centre. Whereas the maverick McCain has been replaced by a rash and querulous man who runs a campaign of fear – not of hope.

To quote FDR “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself”. Never were truer words spoken.

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Berlin Airport; Security not required

 

Yesterday I had the extraordinary experience of de-boarding a plane for security reasons.

I’ve been on planes when they’ve broken down – more than once. But I’ve never got on an aircraft when the incompetent security screeners failed to put everyone through the metal detectors before.

But that happened at the spectacularly crap Berlin Tegel airport yesterday. First  the security staff denied a passenger hadn’t been screened. And then – and only when – the BA Captain refused to take off, did they bother to check the tapes and discovered their error.

Seven years after 9/11 and we’re still failing … really very poor.

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I want to work for this part of Microsoft

Clearly I am working in the wrong part of the company. An end to queues at bars, genius:
 
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