Monthly Archives: March 2014

When the pen’s mightier than the keyboard

MH370 search note handed to Malaysian transport minister, Mar 22, 2014.

MH370 search note handed to Malaysian transport minister, Mar 22, 2014.
Pic: Twitter

SOMETIMES paper is the only way to do it.

It was interesting that a possible breakthrough in the search for the Malaysia Airlines jet last week – an operation which has been run with the highest of hi-tech equipment – was communicated in the oldest fashion possible.

Hastily scribbled with a biro on a torn scrap of paper and pushed into the recipient’s fist.

As communications go it couldn’t get any more lo-tech.

It was almost quaint – yet tragic in light of subsequent developments.

Who writes anything down any more? Apart from perhaps a quick shopping list, a scrawled signature or a Christmas card?

______

The press conference note put me in mind of some shopping I was undertaking.

With a visit to Japan scheduled later this year I’m assembling, with help from my father-in-law, a shortlist of Japanese novels to read.

My initial plan, for reasons of space and cost, was to download the e-book versions to my Kindle.

But these are works I want to close read and dwell over. And this reading is a tactile, physical experience as much as a mental one.

And why would I want to deprive myself of it? Even if it means cramming more books onto the groaning shelves?

_____

Those infernal devices...

Those infernal devices…

I’m sure I’m not alone feeling this need to read on paper, despite the onward march of e-books, Kindles, Nooks and more.

Surrounded by screens all day, on my desk, across my living room or in my pocket, reading on paper is a non-electronic breather.

This attitude may also account for my analogue habit of keeping notebooks, crammed with random shopping lists, ideas, quotes and scribbles.

Wasn’t my iPhone supposed to put an end to all this?

It hasn’t. And neither has my Kindle, or iPad, or laptop.

Paper still has its place and, like the anonymous author of the Malaysia note, there are times when it’s the first thing I reach for.

But not this time, of course…

_____

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A kneadful call to arms

Pounding it out.

Pounding it out.

WHAT can you do today that your very primitive ancestors did 30,000 years ago?

Apart from the obvious I mean, the scavenging, breathing, procreating, and running from predators stuff.

Very little, really. Stare at the sunset. Complain about the rain. That’s about it.

And make bread.

Yes, pounding out dough in your 21st century kitchen provides a direct link to the palaeolithic hunter gatherers who first made flatbreads in Europe during the late Stone Age.

They did it by grinding roasted cereal grains, mixing this flour with water and cooking it.

It’s a simple skill but one which I myself managed to avoid for most of my 30-something years.

Then, three or more years ago, I famously promised my wife that I’d bake us bread. It took me a while but I eventually got my hands sticky in recent weeks.

If a hunter-gatherer could do it using stone tools how hard could it be?

And so I found myself, 1,400 generations on from those first breadmakers, standing in my kitchen slamming and kneading dough.

Unlike late Stone Age man I had the advantage of yeast – and a very simple recipe for Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s country white loaf.

Measure, mix, knead, proof, knead, proof, bake. Do it using five ingredients: flour, water, yeast, olive oil and salt.

And wait. Baking involves waiting, I quickly learned. Which involves patience. Which probably explains why it took me 30-odd years to get round to the practice (and enjoy it).

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Bread making was a skill somewhat lost to my generation. While my grandmother baked two loaves a day, and my mother a store of bread for the week on each Sunday of my youth, I never tried it.

Got crust?

Got crust?

Nor did many of my contemporaries. There were few, if any, loaves produced among my friends as I grew up and older.

Demands, usually of time but equally of inclination, ensured that bread was usually something that came from an aisle, not a bakery. The loaf gave way to the sliced pan.

So what changed?

A few years ago I embarked on mountaineering trips to France and Switzerland – a practice fuelled by husks of hardened, often week-old bread, carried in a backpack and softened in hot soup.

The durability and utility of these simple loaves stayed with me (unlike the taste, a unique flavour produced by five or six days rest in the bottom of a rucksack).

Shortly afterwards I met my wife and my diet changed in a few ways – one of which was her insistence on the sourcing of good bread (usually from Il Valentino or Arun Bakery).

Making my own was a logical next step.

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Writing during the Second World War the American food scribe M.F.K. Fisher lamented the then-fading practice of bread making at home.

Her call to (floury) arms is worth reading 70 years later:

“Breadmaking does not cost much. It is pleasant: one of those almost hypnotic businesses, like a dance from some ancient ceremony…

“But it takes a lot of time. If you can find that, the rest is easy. And if you cannot rightly find it, make it, for probably there is no chiropractic treatment, no Yoga exercise, no hour of meditation in a music-throbbing chapel, that will leave you emptier of bad thoughts than this homely ceremony of making bread.”

Except, maybe, eating it.

30,000 years later another loaf cools off.

30,000 years later, another loaf cools off.

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Time to raise the unread

Feels like one...

Feels like one…

I WILL read 756 books before I die.

That’s presuming that I’ll be reading right up to the fatal moment, at the same rate as I read now, that I don’t re-read anything and that I make 78 – the life expectancy of the Irish male.

It also presumes that I avoid the Russians, or Ulysses, or anything not in English. And that I don’t develop pernicious habits, like gardening or golf.

756 books. It sounds like a lot. But it’s not, of course. Every time I enter a bookstore I spot another dozen books I stick on the mental must-read list.

Add those to the many already on my ‘I’II have to get round to that one’ list, or titles recommended, or ones found browsing online, or classics.

Suddenly 756 doesn’t sound like too many. John Updike’s novels and short stories account for 39 books alone.

You’d therefore be inclined to think that I’ve refined book purchasing to a precise art, buying only what I really, really want to read.

Of course not. Our home is littered with purchases which seemed like a good idea at the time. Some of them are buried away, sources of shame, dead wood (in every respect).

Others have been placed on top of piles, as my better nature tries to remind my actual nature that they deserve a shot. Will they ever get it? Unlikely.

And this is before we get to the boxes in storage elsewhere, containing selections so dubious, or turgid, that they were never read. And never will be.

Dostoevsky’s The Idiot? Not a hope. Not even if I found myself transported to 1860s St Petersburg with nothing else to read.

Cogito Eco sum: I proscrastinate therefore I am.

Cogito Eco sum: I procrastinate therefore I am.

Eco’s The Island Of The Day Before? I made it to page 151 a few years ago. Pathetically, I can’t bring myself to remove the bookmark. On the plus side the cover looks good.

Steinbeck’s East Of Eden? I’ve even visited its setting – the Salinas Valley – in the years since I bought this one, but I’ve haven’t started into it.

Turns out I’m not alone when it comes to such procrastination.

Half of the books on the shelves in every homes are unread, according to a survey released to mark World Book Day last week.

These titles were no doubt bought with the best of intentions – like my own were.

It’s one thing lamenting the situation but what should I do about it?

As my wife – reading this –  is now about to ask: will I ever get rid of these unread books?

And here’s where the second part of the survey comes into play: two thirds of people hoard books because they’re emotionally attached to them, it seems.

Which explains my battered Penguin copy of The Odyssey, a title I’ve hopefully hauled from bookcase to bookcase since I bought it more than 20 years ago.

Like the others above its spine remains uncracked.

Not to worry. I have 756 chances to raise the unread, beginning today.

Page one of The Idiot sounds like a good place to start.

The Great Unread - a selection.

The Great Unread – a small selection.

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Back to the mountains

Slieve Donard, February 2014.

Slieve Donard, February 2014.

“Time and money – that’s the problem with this game.”

The game? Mountaineering. The sage? A sunburnt, rock-battered British climber.

We were sitting in the bar of a small hotel in Leysin, Switzerland. It was August 2010; I had just finished a week-long traverse of the Monte Rosa massif on the Swiss-Italian border.

My fellow climber had left his family behind in England to undertake two weeks of climbing in the Alps. He made the trip yearly despite, as he acknowledged, the financial and emotional difficulties of leaving home.

I didn’t have these challenges. I was working, single, with a severe dose of summit fever. His comments passed me by.

Getting to the mountains, and getting up and down them, was everything in these years. Nothing else would stand in my way – it was hard to think of an August that wouldn’t see me cleaning crampons and packing an ice axe before catching a flight to Geneva.

A group of us drank late that night at the Lynx Bar, planning new trips, checking diaries, before leaving for home early the following morning.

I haven’t been back to the Alps since.

_____

Looking at my diary for 2010 I see that I hiked and climbed in Ireland almost every weekend – for eight or nine months of the year at least.

Numerous days on Lugnaquilla, different routes in the Mournes, weekend raids on the Mweelrea mountains, a week spent around the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks. It was a year, like others before it, of days spent climbing or planning to climb.

And then time moved on. In 2011 I climbed Ben Nevis, made frequent trips to the Wicklow mountains, and summitted Carauntoohill by a couple of new-to-me routes..

Descending from Signalkuppe, Monte Rosa Massif, August 2010.

Descending from Signalkuppe, Monte Rosa Massif, August 2010.

The following year saw less trips. I moved house and got married. I had less weekend time to spend in the hills and less inclination to spend long days away from my wife. Nonetheless I got up when I could.

2013 started slowly but a spectacular snowy hike in Wicklow promised good mountaineering in the Spring.

Life then intervened. A loved one was seriously ill and I had no intention or desire to spend my free time away.

I managed a summer Saturday on Lugnaquilla but my heart wasn’t really in it.

I didn’t return to the mountains for the rest of the year.

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As the months passed it began to gnaw at me. Standing at the foot of Croagh Patrick a fortnight ago I made up my mind: I had to get back.

And so I found myself awake at 5am last Friday, after a fitful night’s sleep. Rushing my breakfast I departed at daybreak for Slieve Donard, the highest peak in the Mourne Mountains. Hours later I was standing on top, under a blue sky, facing down an icy northwesterly.

Sheltering behind the summit cairn I thought of the night in Leysin and the conversation with the English climber.

Yes, mountaineering costs time and money. But it takes more than these; it requires effort and energy. It often conflicts with home life. You’re often wet or cold or both. Injuries are commonplace.

Why do I go back?

At times I wonder, but never during the times I spend on the mountains. When I’m there I’m in the great immensity, part of The Whole Thing.

I imagine that British climber returns to Leysin. I might head back there myself one day, or not. But I’ll always keep going back to some mountains, somewhere.

Summit of Slieve Donard, February 2014.

Summit of Slieve Donard, February 2014.

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