Thursday, 29 December 2016

2016 Awards

From the books I have read, films I have seen and songs I have heard for the first time this year, here are my top choices.

Best Book
This year I have completed 14 books, no fewer than ten of which were non-fiction, and generally historical. Because of this (and also because it's really hard to choose - I've not even chosen No Picnic on Mount Kenya, which I loved, but please see my review of it from 16th December) I have decided to have two awards for best book.
     The first is for The Adventure of English by Melvin Bragg. It relates the history of the English language from its early Anglo-Saxon roots, through the many invasions it endured, in which it refused to be wiped out or overcome, to the global spreading of this versatile tongue. Bragg tells it as a story, including many surprising, amusing and, at times, tense events, that this language has seen. It is a very educational book, but also wonderfully enjoyable, and perfectly easy to read!
     The second award goes to Room by Emma Donoghue. This was the one book this year that I truly could not put down, partly because of the dramatic story but also because of the tense writing and interesting style. It is the story of a mother and 5-year-old son (Jack), imprisoned in a garden shed. This home is the only world that Jack knows but the book is as much about what happens outside after their dramatic escape.
     The book only has a few natural pauses, and is written in Jack's voice, which only serves to make you want to read on. It is thrilling and gripping - an excellent read.

Best Film
To date I have watched 16 movies for the first time this year, including three French films (The Untouchables, Romantics Anonymous and The Chorus (English titles)) all of which were excellent. I also particularly enjoyed The Martian and Eddie the Eagle both of which I have watched twice now, and both of which are fantastically fun films!
     My top movie, however, goes to a Disney Pixar film from last year (2015) but which I didn't get round to watching, despite being thoroughly hooked by the trailer. It is Inside Out, a brilliant new concept (unlike many animated movies these days) which follows the different characters, or emotions, that live inside the head of a girl. The movie is appropriately thought provoking and touching and gives a whole new idea to why we think the way we do!

Best Song
There haven't been a huge number of songs that have grabbed my attention this year and there's only a couple that I think I'll still be listening to in another year's time. One of those, though, wins my award for Best Song. Its soft beats that are both melancholy and yet seem to offer a glimmer of hope. It entices and captivates me every time I listen to it. It was released in November 2015, but only came to my (and I think most people's) attention early this year.
     The song is Faded by Alan Walker.


Friday, 23 December 2016

2016: Moving on up

2016, a year of new highs. As I wrote in a post a few weeks back, time keeps moving forward and sometimes it feels like we have to run to keep up.

I'm sure history will have many things to say about this year, particularly politically. For me, though, I will probably remember: five friends (among many), three jobs (two of them new this year), one wedding (my sister's) and thirteen major peaks walked/climbed.
   When I say 'major' I mean of course by English standards, and mostly in the Lake District.

                                Scafell Pike,
                      Broad Crag, Skiddaw, 
              Great End, Bow Fell, Great Gable, 
           Esk Pike, Fairfield, Coniston Old Man,
Green Gable, Whernside, Ingleborough, Pen-y-Ghent.
All in all they amount to 11,069 metres (36,316 feet), while Mount Everest, I might add, is only a paltry 8,848m. Although, I must admit, seeing as I climbed several of those peaks consecutively, without descending back to sea level first, I probably only climbed around 6,000m, but still it was all good fun!
Based on the past several years, I'm starting to accept that I can't really predict what will happen in the next year, but taking it as it comes seems to be working so far, so I guess I'll keep doing that.
Happy Christmas everyone!

Friday, 16 December 2016

No Picnic on Mount Kenya: Review

I picked this book up a couple of months ago after reading the blub and thinking it sounded interesting. After starting it I quickly discovered that it was possibly the perfect story for me, as it involved both real, historical events and mountain climbing. The fact that it was something I knew very little about all added to the enjoyment.

Here is the blub that first enticed me:

"When the clouds covering Mount Kenya part one morning in May, 1942, to reveal the towering peaks for the first time, Felice Benuzzi is transfixed. The tedium of life in P.O.W Camp 354 is broken by the beginnings of a sudden idea - an outrageous, dangerous, brilliant scheme.
     Few people would break out of a prisoner-of-war camp, trek for days across perilous terrain before climbing the north face of Mount Kenya with improvised equipment, meagre rations, and a picture of the mountain on a tin of beef among their more accurate guides. Fewer still would break back in to the camp on their return."

First, for those who don't know (I didn't before beginning the book) Mount Kenya is the second highest mountain in Africa, with the upmost peak at more than 17,000 feet. It also happens to sit right on the equator and is covered in dense forest. At this point in time (January, 1943) probably not more than 20 people had climbed to the very top (which requires ropes and crampons) and they had been excellent mountaineers, well equipped, with plenty of food and assistants. For three, undernourished prisoners, with food collected over months and equipment made from any scraps they could find it seems an impossibility.

More amazing than all this, however - and the story is gripping, tense and exhilarating - is the reason for their journey. Benuzzi begins his story with many fascinating tales of prison camp life and the hateful, dreariness of it. How people can be driven mad, simply by having nothing to do and having life bound by barbed wire. The journey of how they pushed themselves to achieve goals, break boundaries and revel in adventure is a true testament to the human spirit and what we have been created to do. Benuzzi, in beautiful language, takes the reader on the journey, both physically up the mountain, gazing at the wonders around him, but also from captivity to freedom, in body and mind.
     He also puts wonderfully, feelings I have also had, gazing in wonder at the majesty of mountains, albeit smaller ones than Kenya.

"At the foot of one of the branches of the glacier there were two little tarns, one a delicate azure, the other green-gold, the colours pure as jewels. So unexpected was this sight amid the savage scenery of Batian, that I could not help thinking, it is too beautiful, do I deserve to experience it?
     It did not occur to me to exclaim: "Those two tarns are worth so many days in the cells," because spiritual wealth such as we were storing in our memories could have no price at all. Having enjoyed the wonders of the forest by moonlight, by day and by the fire of our bivouacs, having listened to the music of the heath and having seen the ice-bound northern ramparts of Batian at sunrise and sunset, were we really worthy of this further display of beauty?
     If ever since our escape from barbed wire we had utterly forgotten that there existed in this world hatred, war and captivity, we did so at this moment."

As well as the beauty of the language and the sensation of the story, this book has also made me consider our lives.
     Is life something like a prison-of-war, in which we wait for an unknown end and work with whatever skills we have, or don't as the case may be, and are, in the mean time, entertained by the smallest arguments and pieces of  meaningless gossip, usually over exaggerated? When just outside the fence there is a mountain waiting to be climbed, from the top of which a new perspective is gained, a new world discovered, new wonders revealed, which we can hardly imagine. All we need to reach these is hope, something in very short supply in a prison camp, and yet there to be found.

As you may expect, I heartily recommend this novel, even if you know nothing about mountaineering or prison camps. It is one of the best books I have read in a long time.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Time: stop and move forward

I have often considered that we rush too quickly through our lives, desperate for the next thing, not enjoying the current moment but impatiently searching for something new to entertain our eyes, ears and minds. Particularly in the Christmas season people seem desperate to get to the holidays, receive gifts, spend money, welcome the new year and then get on with their lives, while I would rather take it slower, or stop time altogether before even reaching the 25th of December, in order to enjoy the present (if you take my meaning).

Two thoughts have presented themselves to me in the past few days, however, that have suggested other views on 'time'.
     Firstly, we live in a 'self-transcending reality', which means that our universe keeps moving forward, growing in complexity, depth and unity, and while we may wish sometimes, or even oftentimes, to go back to what we imagine was some perfect moment, when our lives, or indeed our world, was a better place, we cannot go back. In fact such thoughts will inevitably leave us feeling worse; partly because we look back with rose-tinted spectacles, and the world was almost certainly not better, it was simply different, but also because we are straining against the pattern of the universe in which time only works in one direction and that is forward.
     I love to study history and there is much we can learn from our past and what went on back then, but we must not start to live in the past because otherwise time will continue on without us and we will get lost.
     Secondly, I have begun reading a book titled 'No picnic on Mount Kenya'. It is the true story of how three prisoners of war escaped from their camp at the foot of Mount Kenya in order to embrace adventure and to bring some meaning back to their existence.
     You see time is valuable, and we can often take it for granted. In a prison, and especially during a war, when there is no definite end in sight to incarceration, the smallest argument can provide discussion for hours. A verbal fight over who will read a book first is, says the author, "a pleasant struggle; as long as it lasts, time has value again."
     Stopping time may seem pleasurable to me, with my freedom to choose when I do things, but to someone with endless days to fill just finding something with a conclusion to reach or a goal to achieve brings life.

So, while we should not live in the future and we should take time to enjoy our present moment, we must also keep moving forward and reaching for the next task, to prevent us from becoming stale or forgotten, even to ourselves.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

What If?

I caught a snippet of a programme on the history channel today where they were discussing a conspiracy theory that I have not considered before: the question of whether Adolf Hitler committed suicide in Berlin in 1945, or he escaped and lived undetected, possibly somewhere in South America. Apparently this was strongly considered in the years after the second world war because there was no body, and though, as I learnt in A-level history, it is now generally believed that Hitler did commit suicide after ordering that his body be burnt, the theory lives on.

All that leads me to the point that we humans love to debate the great 'What ifs?' of life, even when most of the time it doesn't matter and none of the time can we change what has happened. But I wonder if the greatest 'what if' question a person can ever ask themselves is: 'What if I had not existed?' By which I mean 'What difference would there be if I had not been where I was on each day of my life, and thus what difference have I made?' Indeed, what difference will I make in the future? I think these are genuinely worthwhile questions, especially if the answer, or the result of such introspection is positive.

I'm still working on that.

There's my thought for the day.