I am quite clear in my own mind that I’d set my face in the right direction, though I don’t pretend to know why I should be destined to visit Greenland any more than Timbuctoo. Maybe I’m not, and I shall be able to visit Timbuctoo another day, for one journey leads naturally to another. One thing I am sure of, I have never regretted any journey I have ever made, and I do not imagine any other traveller ever regrets having travelled. I wish every person in the world, as part of his or her education, could have at least one year of world travel.
Isobel Wyle Hutchison was born in 1889, at Carlowrie Castle in West Lothian, back in the day when that was a private family home rather than a wedding venue—so that wing of the Hutchison family were clearly not short of a bob or two. The fact that she had a trust-fund income allowed her to dodge the conventional domestic fate of young women in those days—she built a career on independent travel. Inspired by a trip to Iceland in 1927, she spent a decade botanizing her way around the Arctic, and documenting her journeys in a succession of books: On Greenland’s Closed Shore (1930), North To The Rime-Ringed Sun (1934) and Stepping Stones From Alaska To Asia (1937)*. She also published a semi-autobiographical novel (Original Companions, 1923) and several volumes of poetry. One of her earliest poetic works, How Joy Was Found (1917) is still available in several knock-off reproduction editions—you can find a scanned version freely available on the Internet Archive.
From an early age she was an enthusiastic walker, and quite soon seems to have decided that she preferred her own company. A lot of her travel-writing involved long-distance walks that she self-deprecatingly described as “strolls”—for her “Stroll To Venice” (which she narrated in a National Geographic article in 1951) she started in Innsbruck and walked across the Dolomites, for example.
Much of her botanizing ended up in Kew Gardens; many of her manuscripts ended up stacked in a box at the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, or on file with the National Library of Scotland. They were rediscovered in 2014 by Hazel Buchan Cameron, who set about transcribing and editing them for publication in Peak Beyond Peak (2022).
Twelve essays are assembled in this collection. Although it is subtitled The Unpublished Scottish Journeys Of Isobel Wylie Hutchison, three of the pieces collected have been previously published in National Geographic. Cameron explains in her preface that in these cases she amalgamated Hutchison’s original text with the edited and revised published version, while “trying to be as true to Isobel’s writing intentions as possible.” The earliest essay is dated 1909; the latest, 1956—so we have glimpses of Hutchison across four-and-a-half decades of her life, from an enthusiastic twenty-year-old clambering over the Corrieyairack Pass, to a knowledgeable woman in her late sixties, taking a National Geographic photographer on a motor tour of Scotland’s “literary shrines”.
Having descended the Corrieyairack fairly recently, I was interested to read Hutchison’s account of the old Wade Road zigzags, “disused since 1830” and “nearly washed away by the mountain torrents”. The thing is now a Scheduled Monument, and has been restored to its former glory. And her tour of literary shrines is a positive blizzard of information about Scotland’s writers. I was particularly struck by her story of Scott’s View over the Eildon Hills.
Driving out from his beloved home of Abbotsford, Sir Walter was wont to halt his carriage on the high road at Bemersyde and feast his eyes upon the hills he loved. On the day of his funeral one of the horses drawing the hearse stopped here of its own accord, bringing the mile-long cortege to a momentary halt.
The time between these two essays spans two world wars, and Hutchison gives us glimpses of life on the islands of Scotland during those times. During the First World War she is in the Outer Hebrides, and describes how the Atlantic beaches received a constant burden of the wreckage of ships and the bodies of seamen—and the occasional drifting mine, striking the rocks and exploding with “deep thundering reverberations” over the quiet landscape. She visits Orkney and Shetland at the end of the Second World War, and recounts the story of the German bomber pilot who made a low pass over Lerwick, waving the citizens back from the harbour area before returning to drop his bombs on the ships, and of the Norwegians who arrived on the islands in small boats, having escaped German-occupied Norway. And her later “Stroll to London” (from Edinburgh!), in 1948, is along roads largely untroubled by motor traffic, because petrol is still strictly rationed.
It’s also interesting to see Hutchison experimenting with different narrative styles. Her later works are often pell-mell data dumps, because a lifetime of reading has filled her head with so much information about the places she visits. But in her early work “A Pilgrimage to Ardchattan” (1926), she plays with a narrative style evocative of traditional Gaelic storytelling.
The day was hot and very glorious, fragrant with the honeysuckle that lay in great swathes upon the hedges, and the first thing I came to was a Gaelic well called Tober Donachadh. There was an iron cup hanging from a chain with a worn inscription in the Gaelic which I could not read, but I made no doubt that it told the tale of the finding of the well, and it is this: Thirty-five years ago there was a water-famine in the country and a man of Clan Donachadh found a spring that never ran dry and he sold the water to the people, and it’s the rich man I’m thinking he would be, for the spring never ran dry in all the time of drouth, and all the time he sold its water. But I can’t help thinking it’s the greedy man he was all the same.
And then there’s her tongue-in-cheek and wonderfully evocative account of “meeting a fairy” while sitting in the “haunted peace” of a sunny evening on the Isle of Skye in 1925:
Suddenly I heard a pattering noise. Two rams came running from behind the cliff at my back chased by a barelegged little girl of four or five in a faded blue-green frock. She had a celandine in her hand and came running straight towards me holding it out without the least fear or shyness. Climbing up on the seat beside me she handed it to me. “Is this for me?” I asked. But she only smiled and nodded without speaking. It was then that I began to suspect that I had to do with a fairy. I put several questions to her, to all of which she smiled and nodded and whispered “Ay.” “Are you a fairy?” I asked at last. “Ay,” with a radiant smile.
I could go on quoting Hutchison at you for some time yet, but now is probably the time to stop. Better just to leave you with that image of the unselfconscious little girl and the serenely enchanted Isobel, sharing a bench in the cool sunlight of a long-ago Hebridean evening.
The feeling of the entire group was that, we might be stranded in the middle of nowhere, but it certainly wasn’t the end of the world, after all, most of us had endured worse hardships during the war and overcome. So, we made up our minds to make the most of our un-scheduled break from travelling, and just enjoy ourselves. I think most of us were relieved to have a couple of days off from bouncing around in the trucks, and after dinner we held an impromptu dance and sing song to get us all into the holiday mood. Having set the tone for our stay in Tamanrasset, our time there turned out to be quite eventful.
Syd Topping was demobilized from the army in 1946, and returned home to Blackpool to find that jobs and housing were in short supply, and food and petrol were still rationed. So he and his wife Dorothy decided to drive to Durban, South Africa, with a group of like-minded individuals that had been gathered together by a friend of the family. And of course their three-year-old daughter Irene would need to come along.
The group bought a pair of four-wheel-drive army surplus trucks, which Dorothy describes as “‘Chev’ Radio trucks”. From photographs in the book, the good people over at Britmodeller have identified these as being the Canadian Military Pattern “Truck 30-cwt Wireless”, manufactured by Chevrolet, which performed faultlessly throughout the 9000-mile journey. They also bought a caravan, to be towed by one of the trucks—an optimistic purchase, given they were planning to cross the Sahara Desert, and it would soon end up being shipped back to England from Algiers.
Dorothy kept a diary of her journey, assembled a photo album, and sent frequent letters home. Dorothy’s mother retained all the letters, and collected relevant newspaper clippings. Eventually, this trove of material was discovered by the grown-up Irene, who felt that the story of her mother’s epic journey needed to be properly told. And finally, after a bit more delay, Irene assembled her mother’s words into Legacy: Overland Trekkers—Blackpool To Durban 1947. This was published in South Africa in 2005, but I haven’t been able to track down any details of that edition, so my link takes you to the 2012 paperback edition, independently published through Amazon’s CreateSpace.
Now, frequent readers of this blog will be only too aware of my tendency to moan about proof-reading and punctuation. And this one certainly contains some eccentric bits of punctuation, as well as Inappropriate Capital letters and “surprising” quotation marks, but it gets a free pass—it’s the diary and reminiscences of a straightforward and stalwart lady from Blackpool having an extraordinary adventure, and the awareness that it has been set down just as she wrote it very much enhances the narrative.
Their journey took our travellers down the length of England, then across France and the Mediterranean to North Africa, landing at Algiers. From there, they crossed the Atlas Mountains into the Sahara, where they followed what is now the Trans-Sahara Highway, which at the time was little more than a series of white-painted cairns marking the way.
Arriving in remote Tamanrasset, they discovered that a previous party had bought up all the available petrol, and so they had to hang about for several days awaiting the next shipment. That’s the occasion for my quotation at the head of this post, which illustrates the spirit in which the entire journey was undertaken.
After arriving at Kano in British Nigeria, they turned left, crossed the neck of French Cameroon just south of Lake Chad, and headed across French Equatorial Africa into the Belgian Congo. From Stanleyville (now Kisangani) on the Congo River, their plan was to head due south to Livingstone on the Zambezi. But a rather mysterious event, involving the accidental discharge of a firearm, meant that they were obliged by the Belgian police to leave the country by the shortest route—east into Uganda. So a long detour ensued, taking in the Ituri Forest, the Mountains of The Moon, Lake Victoria and the Rift Valley before sweeping back into Northern Rhodesia to eventually reach Livingstone. Along the way, the party had gradually begun to shed members—some had had jobs waiting for them in East Africa, and some were offered posts. One was pregnant. Things finally came to a head in Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia, when most of the remaining few announced that they wanted to take up jobs, or stop and seek employment, at that point. Only the Toppings wanted to go on to Durban. So they completed the last stage of their epic journey by train, leaving the two trucks to be sold off for funds by those staying behind. They got off the train 97 days after their departure from a very snowy Blackpool:
So here we were, the Topping Trio, all alone on the Durban station late at night, undercapitalised according to the powers that be, yet enriched with wonderful memories, with about £30 in cash between us, and ready to start our new lives together. On the whole I think we were reasonably successful, but that’s an even longer story.
I’ve put together a little map of their full journey through Colonial Africa, for reference:
Topping is not big into describing the scenery, but chattily enthusiastic about the minutiae of her experiences—her first encounter with a bidet, in the bathroom of a hotel in the Sahara, which she not unreasonably decides must be intended for washing dusty feet; the mysteriously textured “pears” offered for lunch, which turn out to be avocado pears; the generous hospitality of missionaries and expat Brits encountered along the way; perilous river crossings on rickety ferries … and geckos falling into the soup.
Young Irene romps through the whole journey undaunted—there’s just one tantrum, and a couple of episodes in which she seems a bit under the weather, but on each occasion is sorted out by a single injection administered by a local doctor. (I’d love to know what they used—I could do with some of that.)
And there are interesting glimpses of the post-war world of 1947—parking the trucks overnight on “flattened bomb sites” in England and France; the residual hostility of Vichy French sympathizers to the arrival of English travellers; Topping’s astonishment at the ready availability of food and clothing in Africa, compared to the strict rationing still in force in the UK; and the lavish lifestyle of the expat Brits encountered in their colonial mansions along the way.
And then there’s this, as new recruits are arriving to join the group in Blackpool:
I particularly remember one instance when my sister May and I, were watching Harry Burnett re-tiling the fireplace in the living room, and the doorbell rang. I went to answer the door, and stood there was a young man of about 20, unshaven, peering through “bottle bottom” thick lenses, set in horn-rimmed frames, and wearing an oversized army great coat down to his ankles. I asked if I could help him, he replied, “I, I, I, wa, wa, wa, want to, to ap, ap, apply” (I of course finished the sentence for him by saying) “to come on the trek with us.” He nodded.
The young man was Desmond Bagley, who would go on to become a famous thriller writer—I’ve reviewed some of his work here. And lest you get the impression that Topping was merely mocking Bagley’s stutter, she goes on to explain that Harry Burnett (the fireplace re-tiler who so mysteriously opened this passage) also developed a stutter when excited, and had initially taken against Bagley because he thought Bagley was imitating him. Once it was explained to him that Bagley was a fellow sufferer, Harry judiciously advised:
Dorothy, if you take the lad on, make damn sure you don’t put us on guard duty together in the jungle. You’d all be bloody eaten before we could let you know lions were coming
If all this makes you want to hear more from Dot Topping (and why wouldn’t it?), there’s a very reasonably priced Kindle edition available, in addition to the CreateSpace paperback. I can’t vouch for how well the e-book will reproduce some of the photographs and newspaper clippings that enhance the print edition, though.
“The world of thoughts, ideas,” Aunt Hilda began again slowly, as though groping for the right words, “is a very real one. There are many other worlds, you know, besides the one we see. Indeed, perhaps we all live in slightly different worlds—I don’t understand these things. But I think I have made a pathway, an opening, into the unknown and, Liz, I’m very much afraid.”
Another day, and another book I recall from my childhood turns up in an American edition in a Scottish second-hand bookshop. Last time, I found a copy of one of John Ball’s “flying-boats in space” juvenile novels. This time, it’s one of Joan North’s fantasy novels.
North wrote four books for children and young adults: Emperor Of The Moon (1956), The Cloud Forest (1965), The Whirling Shapes(1967) and The Light Maze (1971). Emperor Of The Moon was aimed at younger children—it involves comic adventures and magic wands. Then, after a gap of nearly a decade, North returned with the novels for which she is most fondly remembered—aimed at the younger end of the Young Adult market, these feature protagonists who are living out ordinary contemporary lives until they find themselves threatened by an episode of High Strangeness. North said she was interested in using her writing to explore psychological “Inner Space”, and the result carries a hint of 1960s psychedelia, combined with the stirrings of what Bob Fischer calls the “Haunted Generation” experience of 1970s childhood. It reminds me most strongly of the ITV television series Sapphire and Steel (1979-1982)—as Aunt Hilda intimates in my quotation at the head of this post, it’s seldom good news when disturbing stuff from Elsewhere leaks into our own world.
North was an English writer, and her stories feature English children in English settings, but to judge from the second-hand book market her three young-adult novels seem to have seen much larger print runs in the United States, all published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. The British editions are almost forgotten, and generally difficult to find.
So my copy of The Whirling Shapes is the American edition, published the year before the UK edition. While it was nice to find and reread, it’s also a bit disappointing. Mainly this is because my memory is of the UK edition, published by Rupert Hart-Davis, and in particular the illustrations by political cartoonist John Jensen. So I’ve cheated a little and offered you Jensen’s sprightly cover illustration at the head of this post. The US edition is unillustrated, and the cover looks like it might have been stolen from a dreamy psychedelic folk album. The other problem with the US edition is that the editors have seen fit to “translate” it into American English. It’s all fine and dandy to see grey spelled gray, but it’s incongruous to read about English characters offering each other cookies, doing their math homework, taking out the garbage, and waiting fretfully for the mailman to arrive.
The story starts with fourteen-year-old Liz obliged to stay with her Aunt Paula and Uncle Charles for a year, while her mother recovers from tuberculosis in a sanitarium. Aunt and uncle are well-drawn—Paula always busy in a distracted kind of way, Charles shy and vague and only really happy when playing his piano. Also present are Liz’s sixteen-year-old cousin, Miranda, more interested in boys than schoolwork, and Great-Aunt Hilda Harbottle, a retired anthropologist who inhabits an upstairs flat, has led an exotic life, makes thumping noises at odd hours of the night, and appears to be slightly telepathic. The dramatis personae are completed by James Mortlake, a moody young artist who is obsessed with painting grey, whirling cloudscapes, and Miranda’s boyfriend-elect, Tom the medical student.
The High Strangeness starts in Chapter Two, during Liz’s first night in her new home, when she looks out of her bedroom window over the heath behind the house:
Only trees and bushes and grass met her eyes, except for the dark outline of a house set far behind the trees. Light poured from its windows. Liz felt strangely drawn to it; it looked both beckoning and beguiling, standing there alone.
Of course, it transpires that the house is not visible in daylight, and its existence is known only to Aunt Hilda, who fears that she may have accidentally conjured it into existence while handling a carved wooden egg fashioned from a sacred tree—the Tree of Dreaming True. And that’s when she delivers the little speech at the head of this post, afraid that she has opened a doorway into a dangerous other world.
And so it proves to be. Aunt Paula’s house is soon surrounded by a mist that seems to cut off its inhabitants from the outside world, and the mist is patrolled by whirling shapes of the kind painted by James Mortlake. Uncle Charles, steadfastly and unimaginatively try to go to his work, is quickly surrounded by these shapes, and simply disappears. And, as the mist encroaches on their home, our heroes discover that first the garden, and then the house itself, are gradually disappearing—they have a feeling that things are just stealthily vanishing while they aren’t paying attention. At this point in the narrative, North produces two striking images which stayed in my mind for fifty years—a tree in the garden which remains illuminated even though the street-lamp beyond it has vanished; and the moment when Liz stepped out of Aunt Hilda’s upstairs rooms …
… and peered out on the landing. But there was no landing. The staircase and the rest of the house had vanished. Before her lay firm, leaf-covered ground which seemed partly the old familiar garden and partly a new extension of it. No wonder it’s cold, she thought. We haven’t the centrally heated downstairs part to keep us warm.
Soon, our beleaguered party are going to have to flee across the heath, to reach that mysterious illuminated house …
That last quotation demonstrates one of the strengths of North’s writing—the utterly strange is juxtaposed with the entirely practical. Of course, if the heated part of your house had disappeared into limbo, the remaining rooms would start to get cold. And by pointing that out, North yanks the reader into the narrative in a way that a mere parade of weirdness would not have done.
And there’s a message, but one so subtly delivered it went right over my head when I first read this novel, in my early teens. It’s about paying attention—North was advocating mindfulness long before it became fashionable, and she sets this out gently in the latter part of the book, as her characters follow various redemptive arcs, and come to understand the nature of the world that has leaked into our own. The mist, the whirling shapes, the erosion of the house and garden, the disappearance of Uncle Charles—they represent the potential bleakness of a life lived without relishing the things and people around us; a life lived “mechanically”, to use North’s word.
It all ends happily, of course, including a resolution to Miranda’s comfort eating.
I did enjoy re-reading this one, and it made me want to seek out North’s other two novels in this genre. But her books are rare, and correspondingly expensive in the second-hand book market—I struck very lucky with the copy I found, it transpires. (There does seem to be a little cluster of relatively cheap British editions of The Cloud Forest in Australia, but the shipping costs to the UK render them not-so-cheap after all, for me.)
Maybe some day they’ll be revived in e-book form, but so far no luck on that.
Say that you are in the Idaho portion of Yellowstone, and you decide to spice up your vacation by going on a crime spree. You make some moonshine, you poach some wildlife, you strangle some people and steal their picnic baskets.
The content of Kalt’s paper (which you can download here) is perhaps better known in the USA than here in the UK, so I apologize to my American readers if I’m rehearsing a well-known story for them.
Although Kalt’s paper is entitled “The Perfect Crime”, it doesn’t quite correspond to the general view of what constitutes a perfect crime—that is, one that either goes undetected or unsolved. Instead, Kalt reveals a situation in which the perpetrator is known, but cannot be brought to justice. This loophole in the law derives from the Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution, and from the peculiar legal geography of Yellowstone National Park.
First, the Sixth Amendment:
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.
I’ve emboldened the relevant phrase, which relates to the legal concept of vicinage—the defined area from which the members of a jury must be drawn.* Under the Sixth Amendment, then, the defendant is entitled to a local jury trial, defined by the state and the federal court district in which the crime was committed. The federal court districts are generally aligned with the state boundaries, with some states containing more than one district, as shown in the map below.
This, of course, goes to the ancient principle that juries should be drawn from the same community as the crime because they better understand its impact and can serve as a check on overzealous prosecutors.
As Sanders discusses, state law will often modify the broad Sixth Amendment vicinage for juries, applying the selection to smaller areas than the federal court districts.
So far, so good. But now Kalt moves on to Yellowstone National Park, created in 1872, mainly in Wyoming but extending a short distance into Montana around its northern and western margins, and a similar distance into Idaho at its southwest edge. When Wyoming, Montana and Idaho later achieved statehood, they ceded legal jurisdiction over the park land to the federal government. And the United States Congress, in a fateful moment of inattention, then assigned the whole of Yellowstone National Park to the Federal District of Wyoming—including the bits that lie within the geographical borders of Montana and Idaho. No doubt this seemed like the simplest solution to Yellowstone’s multi-state geography.
But, Kalt points out, anyone who commits a crime within the Montana and Idaho fringes of Yellowstone is entitled, under the Sixth Amendment, to be tried before a jury drawn from a geographical area that is both in the state in which the crime was committed and in the Federal District of Wyoming. So the panel of potential jurors would have to be inhabitants of the narrow strips of land falling both within the park boundary and within the boundary of the relevant state. In the case of Montana, this is an area of around 260 square miles, inhabited by a few dozen residents; in the case of Idaho, it’s 50 square miles, with a population of …. zero.
You see the problem. For the comically varied list of crimes Kalt gives in my quotation at the head of this post, committed within the Idaho region I’ve highlighted in pink in my Yellowstone map above, it’s impossible to provide the defendant with a jury trial under the terms of the Sixth Amendment. As Kalt summarizes the situation:
The Constitution entitles you to a jury trial and an impartial jury of inhabitants of the state and district where the crime was committed. The U.S. Code […] makes it impossible to satisfy both provisions in the case of the Yellowstone State-Line Strangler. Assuming that you do not feel like consenting to trial in Cheyenne [the location of the Federal District Court for Wyoming], you should go free.
Which is why Kalt has dubbed this little corner of Idaho the Yellowstone “Zone of Death”. In keeping with the general tone of the essay, it’s a tongue-in-cheek label for a legally vexatious situation, but it seems to have stuck—people seem to be more enchanted by the prospect of murderers going free than the idea that a poacher might get off without a trial.
Part III of Kalt’s paper quickly dismisses a couple of legal considerations that superficially appear to offer a route to a jury trial, but turn out not to. Part IV (entitled “Don’t Go Killing Anyone Just Yet: Some More Promising Cures”) deals with potential workarounds for prosecutors—charging the defendant with related crimes committed outside the Zone of Death, such as conspiracy; finding associated lesser crimes that don’t require a jury trial, such as carrying a firearm into the Park; and the prospect of civil liability. Then there’s the possibility of trying to populate the Zone of Death with potential jurors—Kalt walks us through the legal difficulties with that one, particularly if the attempt is retrospective.
As discussions of obscure legal problems go, this one is eminently readable and pleasantly amusing. But of course Kalt has a serious point to make:
It bears emphasis that the flaw here is really with the District of Wyoming statute, not with the Sixth Amendment. The solution is to fix the statute, not eviscerate the Constitution. If we do it quickly enough, no one will get hurt.
Kalt wrote his article in anticipation that the problem would be easily addressed and resolved by Congress. His follow-up article in the Georgetown Law Journal, “Tabloid Constitutionalism: How A Bill Doesn’t Become A Law” (2008) amusingly details how that very much didn’t happen—you can download it here. Kalt’s faculty page at Michigan State University also hosts an undated document detailing his amusingly irascible response to discussion of the Zone of Death on social media. It’s here, and worth taking a look at if you imagine you’ve got an ingenious solution to the problem Kalt has posed.
What does the Zone of Death actually look like? It’s a strip of land about 2½ miles wide and 24 miles long, running along the western border of Yellowstone from its southwest corner to the Montana border. A look at the area on Google Earth shows open forest and a few apparently fairly shallow lakes. It’s not accessible from the main road network of the Park—you either need to walk in cross-country, or approach via the seasonal gravel road that serves the Bechler Ranger Station from the town of Ashton, Idaho. The Ranger Station lies just a couple of hundred metres east of the Idaho-Wyoming border, and the gravel road makes enough of a westward curve to lie within the Zone of Death for much of its length. So the Zone is a pretty minimalist location for a crime spree—but that hasn’t prevented it appearing in crime fiction.
It first turned up, as far as I know, in C.J. Box’s novel Free Fire (2007). This was the seventh novel featuring Box’s crime-solving Wyoming game warden, Joe Pickett—the Zone of Death is practically custom-made for a Joe Pickett adventure. The plot opens with a local lawyer murdering four campers in the Zone of Death, and then immediately turning himself in to the authorities at Bechler Station, after which he walks free because of Kalt’s Yellowstone Loophole. So it’s a “whydunnit” rather than a whodunnit. It’s the only Joe Pickett novel I’ve read, and I admired the way the geography of Yellowstone was woven into the plot—I ended up reading it with a map of the park open on my lap. And the bizarre architecture of the Old Faithful Inn was likewise used to good effect. Unfortunately, I developed a deep dislike for Joe Pickett and his friend Nate Romanowski as the story progressed, so I’m not planning on reading any more of their adventures. The novels are, however, hugely popular, and Pickett seems to be a much-loved character for many people, so don’t let me put you off giving Free Fire a go yourself if the set-up sounds intriguing.
Then there was the mockumentary Population Zero (2016), written by Jeff Staranchuk and directed by Julian Pinder and Adam Levins. This is something of a curiosity, since Pinder is a serious documentary film-maker, who plays a version of himself in this work of fiction. The plot again involves a group of campers being murdered in the Zone of Death, after which the murderer surrenders himself to the authorities. His lawyer then invokes the Yellowstone Loophole, and the murderer goes free. Pinder and his cameraman set off to investigate the reasons for the murder, and to track down and interview the murderer.
C.J. Box has written that the plot of Population Zero is a “poor re-hash” of Free Fire, but the film and novel seem very different to me. I picked up on only two points of strong correspondence, beyond the obvious involvement of the Zone of Death—and it was of course Kalt, rather than Box, who first put the idea of murders being committed in this region into the public domain. The first correspondence between film and novel is one I’ve already mentioned—the murder of campers followed by surrender at the Ranger Station. The second is much more significant, and involves the final revelation of why some of the campers were killed. I shouldn’t give this one away, but I think it would be a quite remarkable coincidence if such an unusual plot element cropped up independently in film and novel. But between the opening scene and the closing revelation, the plots follow entirely different trajectories, and the final fates of the murderers couldn’t be more different.
Population Zero is a slow build, but Pinder is an engaging protagonist, and portrays a slow descent into obsession and paranoia well. Of the two fictional accounts, I have to say I much prefer Pinder’s film.
* The word vicinage comes from Latin vicinus, “neighbour”, which also gave us English vicinity and French voisin.
What can readers expect? If they’re already familiar with the other Fractured Europe books, it’s more of the same kind of stuff. Pocket universes, insanely-complicated intelligence ops, hotel breakfasts, huge conspiracies, Texel sheep, trains. That sort of thing.
I’ve reviewed Dave Hutchinson’s previous novels from the Fractured Europe Sequence before—the first three here, and thefourth here. And this is the fifth, which is an unexpected treat, given that Hutchinson gave every indication of being done with Fractured Europe when he signed off at the end of the fourth novel, Europe At Dawn, four years ago—this despite having ended that novel with a last-chapter revelation that opened up the potential for all sorts of new developments.
When this one first became available for pre-order on Amazon, it included the tag “(Volume One)” after the title, suggesting that a new series of stories was in the offing—the tag subsequently disappeared, but Hutchinson has confirmed on Twitter that he has plans for more novels, though he’s quite definitely not making any promises about when the next volume will appear.
It’s rather difficult to summarize the madly complex background to these novels, but here goes. They’re set in Europe a few decades from now. A lethal flu epidemic and a mounting migrant and refugee crisis have driven the rise of petty nationalism, causing the European Union to fall apart into hundreds of independent states with stern border formalities—there are now (Hutchinson told us in a previous volume) 532 entries for the Eurovision Song Contest, and the old Schengen ideal of free movement is dead. But people still need to move stuff across borders—often confidentially, sometimes illegally. A shadowy (and shady) organization called Les Coureurs des Bois undertakes to move such “Packages” around Europe for its clients. And, while not necessarily functioning as spies themselves, Les Coureurs certainly have interactions (good and bad) with the intelligence agencies of many of Europe’s disparate new states. So a defining theme of the Fractured Europe stories is the characters’ engagement with complex and slightly futuristic tradecraft.
The other defining theme is the “pocket universes” that Hutchinson mentioned in his interview, quoted at the head of this post. Late in the first novel we’re introduced to a parallel version of Europe, accessible from our world by those who are capable of the necessary convoluted route finding. By taking just the right turning in just the right place, in just the right way, one can step out into a rural, Victorian version of Europe, entirely populated by the descendants of English people who found their way there centuries ago. (For more on that, I refer you to my previous reviews, via the links in my first paragraph.) As the sequence of novels has progressed, Hutchinson’s characters have encountered more of these pocket universes.
OK. Got all that? Espionage and clandestine operations set in a very complicated version of Europe, and one or more parallel universes. Simple, really.
The protagonist of this novel is Carey Tews, a journalist-cum-private-investigator and one-time Coureur, whom we encountered briefly in a single chapter of Europe In Winter. In Cold Water, Hutchinson tells her story in two parallel narrative threads. One thread looks back at Carey’s life during the aftermath of the Xian flu pandemic and the early disintegration of the European Union, and tells how she was recruited into the Coureurs. In the second thread, the “present day” of the narrative, we find Carey as an ex-Coureur, asked to investigate the disappearance of her Coureur ex-colleague and ex-lover, Maksim, in the Polish town of Gliwice (which happens to be seeking independence from the rest of Poland).
“What’s he got himself mixed up in now?” she asked. “We were rather hoping you’d agree to find out for us,” he said. “On the face of it, he mostly seems to have got himself dead.”
Interleaved with the two Carey threads we have the story of Krista, an Estonian police officer who is told that her deceased father, also once a police officer, has been accused of a historical crime—killing a member of Estonia’s ethnic Russian community in order to hush up an episode of police misconduct. Another thread deals with Lenna, an Estonian journalist with a drink problem, who is recruited to investigate the allegations against Krista’s father.
The connection between Krista and Lenna’s stories is quickly apparent, and plays out against a background of increasing ethnic tensions in Estonia. As in his previous novels, Hutchinson’s concerns here seem prescient—his fictional scenario has seen a counterpart in reality in the aftermath of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Carey’s investigation of Maksim’s death is punctuated by odd phone-calls, in which an English woman’s voice asks, “Who are you?” and then hangs up the call, irrespective of Carey’s response. Meanwhile, she recruits a team—a British journalist, a Russian ex-spy, and a Polish hacker called Magda, who appears ridiculously young to Carey until Magda’s cousin turns up to assist:
Magda’s cousin Boksi—Carey never found out his real name—looked, if anything, younger than her, but that might have been something to do with him turning up wearing his school uniform.
Hutchinson is good at these droll asides, and manages the trick of using them to both amuse and advance the plot. In the narrative dealing with Carey’s earlier life, she and Maksim dine together and we learn much of what we need to know about him in a single phrase: “He attracted a waitress by force of personality alone”.
Eventually (of course) Krista’s story converges with Carey’s, and we find out what really happened to Maksim, and what those mysterious phone calls are all about. The pay-off is a good one, and (as seems to be Hutchinson’s habit) is largely confined to a final chapter full of revelations, complications and potential future plot elements.
It’s good to be back in Fractured Europe again, and learning a little more about how it came to be. Carey and her team are engaging investigators, full of tricks and tradecraft; Krista is wilful, tricksy and determined in trying to find out the truth about her father; Lenna’s mournful self-destructiveness is well-drawn, but her story seems to foozle rather abruptly—perhaps we’ll see her again in the next novel.
The pocket universes don’t feature until about two-thirds of the way through this one, at just about the point where you wonder if they’re going to feature at all. So I for one raised a cheer when a mysterious man with a broad West Country accent eventually turned up. Those who remember the ending of Europe At Dawn will get the chance to say, “Ooh, I see,” at one point, but the small amount of pocket universe action in Cold Water seems like a set-up for elaboration in future stories.
So there’s much to look forward to, if and when Hutchinson gives us the next volume.
In the following pages I shall try to trace the unpremeditated steps by which a few army officers, with no initial thirst for exploration, and no desire to do anything unusual except to see the country they were in came gradually to break away from this conventional city outlook towards things outside; and how, beginning with a sort of touring club, a technique grew up by which it became possible for ordinary mortals, without financial backing, to penetrate to places in the far interior of the Libyan Desert previously thought to be inaccessible.
Ralph Bagnold wrote these words in 1934, while stationed in Hong Kong as Officer Commanding Signals. He could have no inkling, at the time, of how the adventures of his “officers’ touring club” in the Libyan Desert would come to influence the course of the Second World War in North Africa.
Libyan Sands (1935), subtitled “Travel In A Dead World”, details how Bagnold and fellow officers of the Royal Engineers, Royal Corps of Signals, and Royal Tank Corps found themselves sharing accommodation in Abbassia, Cairo, during the 1920s. Possessed of several Ford “Model T” cars, considerable mechanical engineering skills, and a great desire to explore the surrounding area, they began venturing out into the desert—at first merely to visit the pyramids and other relics of Ancient Egypt, but then farther and farther afield as their skills and knowledge grew. From expeditions to the Sinai Peninsula, Palestine and Trans-Jordan in 1926, they gained enough experience to start exploring the Western Desert, and then mounted epic expeditions into Italian Libya, culminating in a six-thousand-mile exploration of Libya and Sudan in 1932.
They had stripped their cars of all superfluous panelling, and had built wooden cargo pallets in the back, designed to be a precise fit for an array of jerry-cans (containing petrol and water) and boxes of canned food. Their radiators boiled constantly, but they piped the steam and boiling water into a water-trap next to the driver. Once the water in the trap became excessively hot, they would turn into wind and stop the engine—and there would soon come a gurgle from the water-trap as water siphoned back into the cooling radiator, refilling it. Wooden packing was progressively used as fuel as supplies were consumed. Bagnold designed a sun compass for accurate navigation, because magnetic compasses were deflected by the metal of the cars and the constantly varying load of jerry cans. (In essence, Bagnold’s compass was a sundial, mounted on a compass rose. By rotating the dial to keep the gnomon shadow correctly positioned according to the time of day and latitude, the compass rose could be kept orientated on true north.*)
Bagnold’s narrative is an endearing mixture of hard-nosed engineering detail, and lyrical passages describing the beauty of the desert.
The dried-up stream bed, turning a sharp corner, entered the mile-long gorge which forms the only gateway to this fortress-city. The overhanging cliffs, but a few paces apart, rise to two hundred feet, leaving the echoing crack between them in deep shadow except at the top where the early morning sun lights up a band of pink rock like glowing metal. One of our guards ahead was singing to himself; his voice, ringing up and down the gorge, echoed back to us multiplied from numberless rock faces, was now as the shouting of an excited mob and now softened to the chanting of a choir or the murmur of a great procession of bygone times.
And here, he resolutely fails to apologize for having included three technical paragraphs describing his party’s attempt to salvage a car that had stripped some teeth from a differential gear.
It occurs to me, having written this, that these details might have been omitted. It is perhaps in some way indecent to mention the insides of cars. A travel book is expected to contain other technicalities such as the names of obscure plants and animals of which not one person in ten thousand has ever heard, and it is permissible to describe the intimate ailments of camels and their cure. But anything mechanical seems to be taboo. Still, I shall leave it as it stands, just to show how important a bearing these sordid little details have upon the success or failure of a modern expedition.
The book is also full of marvellous observations—the way in which sand dunes are self-organizing, retaining their integrity while drifting downwind, crossing any obstacles in their paths; the way in which old wheel tracks, invisible beneath a layer of blown sand, are still detectible as a subtle tug on the steering of a car that crosses them at an angle; and this:
Any unusual and solitary feature in the desert, whether it be mountain, tree or the skeleton of a man, crystallises about itself all the loneliness of the surrounding land. Seeing some object makes one realise the neighbouring emptiness in a way a complete blank desert surface never does.
Bagnold also includes a useful chapter that deals briefly with the history of the Libyan Desert, its early exploration, and the Italian presence there at the time he was writing. And there’s a chapter on “Zerzura, the Wish-Oasis”, concerning the futile search for the mythical “lost oasis city” of Zerzura. My 2011 edition from Eland also contains an epilogue, written by Bagnold in 1987 for the paperback Hippocrene edition, in which he explains how the six years of exploration described in the book were to influence his later life, and the conduct of the war in North Africa.
His autobiography, Sand, Wind, And War (1990), subtitled “Memoirs Of A Desert Explorer”, was written towards the end of Bagnold’s long life, and I wonder if he might not have been inspired to set it down after being asked to provide the short autobiographical note for Libyan Sands in 1987. He delivered the final manuscript shortly before his death, and did not see it in print. Curiously, for the autobiography of a thoroughly British man, it was published by the University of Arizona Press, and was reissued in 2019 by the same publisher—perhaps because of Bagnold’s connection to the United States Geological Survey in later life. This does introduce a few oddities to the text, however: there’s that pointless and intrusive Oxford comma in the title, for instance; some slightly patronizing bracketed translations of British English, such as “car bonnet (hood)”, and occasional outbreaks of American English in Bagnold’s prose—I very much doubt if he wrote “math” and “gotten” in his original manuscript. And the American foreword authors seem to be convinced that there’s an entity within the British military called the “Royal Army”, presumably having reasoned by analogy from the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force.
Bagnold begins Sand, Wind, And War with an account of his fairly privileged upbringing—he and his sister Enid (who went on to be the author of National Velvet) travelled with a French governess. One of his earliest memories is of being knocked over by a flying fish on the deck of a steamship in 1899, as his family moved to Jamaica, to which his father (an officer in the Royal Engineers) had been posted, and where they kept a household in the Blue Mountains.
Bagnold’s father had previously taken part in the failed attempt to relieve the Siege of Khartoum (1884-5), in an expedition which travelled up the Nile in requisitioned Thomas Cook steamers. Interestingly, Bagnold relays a variant of a story which has long been considered a myth:
By custom, Thomas Cook’s steamers carried a reserve of mummies as a special fast-burning fuel for emergencies such as difficult cataracts. My father once heard the captain shout to his engine room staff, “All right, throw on another pharaoh.”
Mark Twain seems to have produced the original version of this tale, narrating his travels in Egypt in The Innocents Abroad (1869):
I shall not speak of the railway, for it is like any other railway—I shall only say that the fuel they use for the locomotive is composed of mummies three thousand years old, purchased by the ton or by the graveyard for that purpose, and that sometimes one hears the profane engineer call out pettishly, “D—n these plebeians, they don’t burn worth a cent—pass out a King;”—[Stated to me for a fact. I only tell it as I got it. I am willing to believe it. I can believe any thing.]
Bagnold followed in his father’s footsteps into the Royal Engineers, and arrived in France in 1915 as a second lieutenant in the British Expeditionary Force, where his experiences were predictably grim, though he did take delight in the “wonderfully comprehensive tool cart” provided for the working sections of the Royal Engineers. He was commanded by the astrophysicist F.J.M. Stratton, who was later to be Bagnold’s tutor† when he attended Caius College, Cambridge to study engineering after the war.
There then followed a return to the army, a posting to Egypt, and the explorations described in Libyan Sands. His observations of the shape and behaviour of sand dunes during that time led him to build his own wind tunnel in his father’s workshop, where he experimented with finely graded sand, eventually publishing a pair of scientific papers on the topic, and then his classic monograph The Physics Of Blown Sand And Desert Dunes (1941).
At the outbreak of the Second World War, Bagnold was recalled as a reservist, and posted to East Africa. But his troop ship was involved in a collision in the Mediterranean, and he ended up ashore in Port Said, Egypt, waiting for the next convoy—where he was immediately “poached” for service in Egypt by General Archibald Wavell, the Commander-in-Chief of Middle East Command, who was aware of Bagnold’s expertise in motorized desert travel.
Bagnold was then responsible for setting up the Long Range Desert Group, responsible for raiding and reconnaissance behind Italian and German lines. The LRDG were to be the salvation of the nascent Special Air Service—after a disastrously ill-judged first attempt to parachute into the desert, the SAS raiders spent a while being ferried around by the LRDG’s patrols, before going on to learn the lessons of desert navigation and survival from LRDG personnel.
Bagnold doesn’t write much about the relationship between the LRDG and the SAS, but he’s quite clear about taking credit for another of his wartime achievements. Seeking to extend the operational range of the LRDG, Bagnold flew into Fort-Lamy in French Equatorial Africa‡, to enquire if the authorities there wished to support the Vichy regime of occupied France, or the Free French. When the governor, Félix Éboué, elected to join the Allied cause, this provided Bagnold with a staging post from which the LRDG could raid far into western Libya, as well as incidentally providing Charles de Gaulle, the leader of the Free French, with a much-needed bit of colonial support. And, although Bagnold doesn’t mention it, I’ll point out that his diplomacy at Fort-Lamy provided the Allies with a friendly foreign airfield in Central Africa, providing a vital refuelling point between Nigeria and Sudan on the 3600-mile Takoradi-Cairo ferry route, along which aircraft were transferred to the RAF in Egypt at a time when access through the Mediterranean was interdicted by German and Italian forces.
The remainder of the book details Bagnold’s post-war scientific research, in which he used his understanding of wind-blown sand to develop a model for the transport of sediment in water, which led to his association with the United States Geological Survey. There are stories of travel and domestic details, and of well-deserved recognition by the scientific community,§ but as we move into Bagnold’s later years the tone inevitably becomes more mellow and reflective.
I recommend Libyan Sands as a compelling and well-written story of adventure and discovery; and Sand, Wind, And War is a fine short account of a life well-lived by a curious, clever and resourceful man. Both are available as e-books, though the Kindle edition of Sand, Wind, And War is ludicrously expensive in the UK.
Bagnold made a cinematographic record of several of the expeditions described in Libyan Sands, and edited them into a fifty-minute silent film with hand-drawn maps and explanatory intercards, now held by the British Film Institute. You can find it on YouTube:
* This was a scientific elaboration of the trick taught to Boy Scouts in the northern hemisphere, back in the prehistoric days when young people wore analogue watches—point the hour hand of your watch at the sun, and south will lie roughly halfway between the hour hand and the 12 on the watch dial. (In the southern hemisphere, I imagine Boy Scouts were told to point the 12 at the sun, and use half the angle between the 12 and the hour hand to find north.) † If you’re wondering why an astrophysicist was tutoring an engineering student, Bagnold explains the role of a Cambridge tutor, which is “… to act in loco parentis towards the undergraduates under his supervision, to watch over their lives and offer help in any private trouble.” ‡ Now N’Djamena, the capital of Chad. § There’s now a dune field on Mars named in Bagnold’s honour.
“Philip Latham” was the pseudonym used by astronomer Robert S. Richardson when writing fiction. I wasn’t aware of these two novels when I was a child—they seem never to have been published in the UK—but I did know of Latham through some of his much-anthologized early short stories. I recall reading “N Day” (1946), “The Blindness” (1946), “The Xi Effect” (1950) and “To Explain Mrs. Thompson” (1951) in various hard-cover anthologies from the library shelves. (My links take you to copies of the original publications in Astounding Science-Fiction magazine, which are all available on the Internet Archive.) They were generally characterized by: a) A lot of exposition on the technicalities of astronomy, and b) Something deeply disconcerting. Two of them featured first-person narrators who were actually called “Philip Latham” within the story, something that melted my brain as a young reader.
So I was drawn to these two novels when I noticed them in the e-book inventory of Thunderchild Publishing (who were also responsible for reissuing the two John Ball novels I mentioned previously). In part, I wanted to see if Latham could write something engaging that didn’t involve extensive exposition and existential angst; in part, I wanted to see what an actual astronomer might be writing about spaceflight to other planets in the years before the Space Age began; and in part I just loved the spacecraft on the original cover of Missing Men Of Saturn (reproduced by Thunderchild and featured at the head of this post), which is a pretty direct copy of the moon-lander concept art by Chesley Bonestell, featured on the cover of Collier’s magazine in 1952:
(You can find out more about that from the log of my build of the Pegasus Hobbies model of this vehicle, and from my review of two books about early spaceflight concepts.)
Five Against Venus is set at a time shortly after spaceflight to the Moon has become routine (though still expensive), while planetary exploration remains in its infancy. A classic American nuclear family departs for the Moon, where the patriarch is to start a new job, but their spacecraft veers dramatically off-course and crash-lands on Venus. Crew members have either abandoned ship or died in the crash, so the family (predictably called Robinson) must try to survive using only their own wits and some supplies salvaged from the crashed ship. The protagonist is sixteen-year-old Bruce Robinson, a member of his school’s Space Club, who (courtesy of a rather lonely encyclopaedia-reading habit back on Earth) is a fount of useful information. The rest of the family consists of his father, a kind man who has long struggled to make a living to support his family; his mother, an anxious home-maker; and the customary pesky little brother.
“In stories you read, the characters are always such capable guys,” Bruce remarked gloomily. “There’ll be one fellow who’s a mechanic, another’s a geologist, and somebody else is a demon when it comes to making clothes out of bark or vine leaves. They never seem to be just ordinary people like us. Why, we even had a hard time getting along when we were back home on the Earth.”
(The fifth person implied by the title “Five Against Venus” is one of several puzzles Latham sets up during the course of the narrative.)
Venus is the usual jungle-planet of the 1950s, which Latham populates with luminescent plant-life, saurian dinosaurs and some rather nasty bat-people. The Robinsons endure repeated set-backs—their food becomes mouldy very quickly, the father is injured and develops an infected wound, the bat-people attack, and eventually even the atmospheric oxygen begins to become depleted. Bruce suddenly finds himself having to deal with adult responsibilities in a very uncertain world, and appreciates for the first time the burden his father carried:
Always before his father had been the leader of the family. Unconsciously they had come to rely upon him for advice and encouragement. Bruce thought of the many times in the past when the going had been tough, how his father must have grown tired and discouraged. Yet before the family he had always presented a cheerful face. Now it occurred to Bruce that possibly his father had not always been as cheerful as he seemed. That he might have had his moments of doubt and discouragement, too.
So the novel is a rather thoughtful coming-of-age story as well as an adventure that rattles along at pace.
Latham’s background in astronomy shows through, of course, but he doesn’t indulge in the long lectures that appeared in his early short stories. Instead, he provides an Afterword in which he tells his readers which features of his story reflect real scientific knowledge, and which he has concocted. Within the narrative, Bruce provides the occasional data-dump for his woefully ignorant parents, most notably when he suddenly understands what causes the mysterious “ashen light” of Venus. And there’s a one-line mention of the Coriolis effect in a rotating space habitat that made me smile, given how much I’ve written about.
The artificial [rotational] gravity worked all right as long as you were perfectly still but whenever you moved you felt a force acting to pull you sideways. It was like trying to walk on a moving merry-go-round.
The protagonist of Missing Men Of Saturn is Dale Sutton, a cynical and manipulative graduate of the Terrestro Space Academy who is immediately unlikeable when we first meet him—quite a bold departure for children’s literature of the time, I think. His instructors have seen through his façade, however, assigning him high grades in course work, but a bare pass on his “Character Index”, which prevents him from getting the plum posting he feels he deserves, and consigns him to serving aboard the dilapidated spaceship Albatross.
Latham gives us an idea of how his future space-faring society works when Sutton arrives at his hotel on the Moon:
Many of the men were a steady, honest sort who held down minor jobs on ships specializing in short runs between the Earth and moon with an occasional trip to Venus and Mars. Sometimes one saw a deep-space man who had ventured within the asteroid belt or even to such distant posts as the Jovian satellites. These were readily recognized by their gruff manner and general air of reserve. Then there was always a host of miscellaneous characters around, who never seemed to have any visible means of support, but still always managed to have a little money in their pockets.
Sutton is, predictably, not well received by the rough-and-ready crew of the Albatross, and undergoes a slow but steady character transformation as a result.
Albatross is soon sent to investigate the disappearance of an expedition ship at Saturn’s moon Titan, and Latham is soon creating a series of disconcerting mysteries for his characters again. And again, the story rattles along, full of perilous episodes, lightly leavened with astronomical exposition.
I particularly enjoyed the characters’ response to the air leak that introduces this post—forewarned of the danger of passing too close to Saturn’s rings, they have equipped themselves with sealant guns and a dozen balloons. The balloons drift in the air current induced by the leak, allowing its location to be quickly identified.
There’s also a neat use of Saturn’s “lost” moon, Themis, as a plot element, and what might be the first fictional use of the toxic effects induced by ingestion of heavy water. And, again, Latham included something that gave me a private smile, by having his protagonist identify the pole star of Titan as Gamma Cephei. This star is, in reality, not too far from the location of Saturn’s north rotational pole in the sky, and I assume Latham knew that—the orientation of Saturn’s rotation axis is an important parameter in predicting the visual phenomena associated with the planet’s rings, and so would have been well-established in the 1950s. It was a reasonable supposition that the north pole of Titan would lie close to the same location.* And again, there’s an appendix that separates fact from fiction.
So these were both good fun—I enjoyed the coming-of-age narratives for the two protagonists, and I enjoyed watching Latham play around with the limited understanding of the solar system we had in an era before computers and spaceflight. His space-faring society is very much that of 1950s America, venturing out confidently to establish itself on other worlds, and his characters discuss topics that were preoccupations of the time—the conquest of Everest and the “four-minute mile” caught my eye, but I’m sure I missed others.
You can still pick up second-hand copies of the original Winston editions, but new Kindle and paperback editions have been published by Thunderchild.
* And so it proved to be. We’ve since established that the north rotational pole of Titan is only about half a degree from that of Saturn. The two poles lie within the northern boundaries of the constellation of Cepheus, amid an area containing only rather dim stars and about ten degrees away from Gamma Cephei. They are, in fact, marginally closer to our own pole star, Polaris, but neither star is a good match.
I stood in the rain at the foot of the Inaccessible Pinnacle’s east edge, that ‘easy edge’, looking up at it, trembling a little. True, I was overawed by its history, its odd and discomfiting form, its dizzying position — but I think I was basically just very scared. In the part of your brain where your reflexive fear lives, self preservation — for no other reason than continued existence — is hard-wired into you. And everything about the Inaccessible Pinnacle was in those wires, and tinkering.
That’s the mood in which Simon Ingram embarked on a climb of Skye’s famous “In Pinn”—a fifty-metre high flake of basalt protruding from just below the summit of Sgurr Dearg, so that the highest point of the flake is slightly higher than the summit of the mountain itself. The roped rock climb on which he was about to embark is graded “Moderate”, and there’s nowadays no easier grade. But the two 30m pitches along the sloping edge of the pinnacle are wildly exposed, with plunging views down into steep-sided corries on either side. And most people who embark on this particular rock climb are not rock-climbers—they’re hill-walkers who are attempting to climb all the hills listed in Munro’s Tables of 3000-foot Scottish summits. And to complete that list they have to get up the In Pinn, because of the thoroughly inconvenient way it overtops the relatively easily accessible summit of Sgurr Dearg.
Here’s a view of what Ingram was taking on, with a couple of climbers visible on the “easy edge”. Ingram would be standing close to the point at which a small group is assembled at lower right:
So lots of people are “very scared” when climbing the In Pinn—something I find bemusing and impressive in equal measure. Why on earth would you embark on a leisure-time project that frightened the willies out of you, particularly one requiring coordination and attention, both of which are notoriously degraded by fear? And yet people do it—and despite their fear most of them get to the top and also manage to coordinate well enough to abseil off the near-vertical western end, which features on the book’s cover at the head of this post. So I’m somewhat in awe of the grit and determination on show, while baffled at the motivation.*
Ingram’s motivation didn’t come from trying to gain a tick in a table, however. His climb was part of a long-term attempt to get to know the unique Cuillin range of mountains on Skye, which is what this book is about—hence the awkward subtitle, “Amongst The Cullin Of Skye”, which has the feel of a compromise reached by committee.†
I’ve written about Ingram before, when I reviewed his previous book, Between The Sunset And The Sea (2015), in which Ingram described his experience of climbing sixteen classic British hills, using that experience as a narrative hook to usher in expositions on the history (and natural history) of his chosen hills. He has a great ear for intriguing and amusing anecdotes, and I enjoyed that part of the book immensely, while fretting a little about the sheer intensity of Ingram’s emotional response to some of his days out in the hills.
With The Black Ridge (2021) Ingram does the same thing, but with a tight focus on the various peaks of the Cuillin range. To some extent, then, it’s a counterpart to Patrick Baker’s The Cairngorms: A Secret History (2014), which I recently reviewed.
Ingram casts his net wide for subjects more-or-less linked to the Cuillin—in the early chapters there are dissertations on geology, the Ice Ages, Scottish history and prehistory, the saga of James Macpherson and the alleged poetry of Ossian, the Scottish travels and opinions of Samuel Johnson, the fragile botany of the high peaks, Scottish folklore, and the etymology of the name Cuillin. Depending on your existing knowledge and interests, you may find some passages less engaging than others, but there are always intriguing titbits—I didn’t know, for instance, that there may have been active glaciers in the Cairngorms as late as the eighteenth century. And Ingram often manages to tell you stuff that you do know already, but in a new, vivid and memorable way. For instance, here he is on the supercontinent cycle:
Like much of geological theory, the understanding of the processes involved in this is pretty recent; there are Beatles records that pre-date anything approaching a clear view of how this most colossal of geological events works.
They are typically great fun, not least because the writers seem to inhabit some kind of P.G. Wodehouse parallel universe, full of chipper old socks braving inadequate lodgings, sharing ropes, ruminating over whether things will ‘go’ or not, and watching Hastings—there’s always a Hastings—overcoming some kind of dangerous obstacle or being a good-enough sport to fall to their death without taking the pipe tobacco with them. (This last point is of course an exaggeration—none of these chaps would be silly enough to trust the entire supply of pipe tobacco to one person.)
(I find myself wondering who made the decision to use non-gendered pronouns in that passage. “His” and “him” would have precisely reflected the realities of the era Ingram is lampooning—women were finally admitted to the Scottish Mountaineering Club as recently as 1990.)
Later sections concentrate on the climbing history of the Cuillin—the range is remarkable in Britain for the fact that in many cases we know the names of the people who (probably!) made the first ascents of its various summits; some, like Sgurr Alasdair, are even named after the first recorded ascender. Prominent among the characters introduced are Norman Collie and the guide John MacKenzie, whose statues now stand near the Sligachan bridge, gazing towards their beloved Cuillin. There are plenty more characters in Ingram’s history, but this famous pairing lets him introduce the concept of the Cuillin guide—a person employed by ordinary hill-walkers to keep them safe in the complicated, demanding, and occasionally frightening terrain of the Cullin ridge.
Ingram’s chosen guide for his own Cuillin adventures is Matt Barratt of Skye Adventure, who comes out of Ingram’s stories very well, and presumably is now getting a little extra business as a result. He previously assisted in the making of Danny MacAskill’s jaw-dropping mountain-bike-along-the-Cullin film, The Ridge, which must also have boosted business. (Although it has nothing to do with Ingram’s book, if you haven’t seen The Ridge, please just click on my link, turn up the sound, and invest eight minutes in seeing something remarkable which will also give you a real sense of the vertiginous exposure the Cuillin offers, and why mere mortals might just need the assistance of a guide. I’ll wait here. Take your time.)
Ingram’s exploration of the Cuillin doesn’t go as planned. Unusually, he goes straight for an attempt at a full traverse (two days following the crest of the ridge), but is forced off by bad weather. He then decides to become more acquainted with individual peaks before attempting the traverse again. So he talks us through his ascent of the Inaccessible Pinnacle, and a walk up on to the ridge at Bruach na Frithe, one of the few approaches easily manageable by simple pedestrians. It’s all going swimmingly, and another attempt at the traverse is booked, only for Ingram to sustain a serious injury after a stumble while walking in Coire Lagan.
Ingram describes this event very well—the fall itself, the aftermath, the cheery practicality of the Mountain Rescue Service:
‘I’m supposed to be doing the ridge tomorrow,’ I say heavily. I hear a chuckle, and someone else says, ‘Well, guess what. But you know, you’re not dead and you don’t have a broken neck. You’re lucky.’
Expectations are modified, at least temporarily, and Ingram finally returns after a long period of recovery to make a short but classic circuit of Sgurr nan Gillean with a watchful Matt Barratt.
The descriptions of the mountain scenery are excellent. Here’s Ingram on the seaward view from the south end of the ridge:
Climbing in a curve ahead, the ridge sliced the scene in two. To the left, the flank of the mountain fell in an unbroken slope precipitously to the sea. There were the [S]mall [I]sles, lined up in a trio along the horizon: Eigg an upturned rowboat, Canna distant and adrift, both flanking Rum, muscular and mountain-bristled, in shadowy anchor on a painfully bright sea. The whole was a tapestry of shadow, scaly silver and steel. Where the sun broke the cloud, it threw scalding puddles of light on the surface.
Anyone who has looked out to sea towards the Small Isles on a day of broken cloud will recognize that view.
There’s plenty more good stuff like that throughout the book, but I chose that passage in particular because it also illustrates a minor but prevalent niggle—the book could have done with some better proof-reading. I capitalized “Small Isles” for you, because that’s their name; the text calls them “the small isles”. And then there’s that out-of-place piece of American English, rowboat. (And elsewhere there are a couple of gottens.) Scottish readers will be vexed to see their third national drink dubbed Tennant’s lager—it’s Tennent’s. And convivial conversation in Scots is crack; it’s the Irish who enjoy craic.‡
And for pity’s sake, WHY IS THERE NO MAP?
But setting such carping aside, I very much enjoyed this book—for its striking evocations of landscapes with which I’m familiar, for its wealth of anecdote and information, and its dry humour.
* In case you’re wondering: No, I’m very much not a rock-climber. Yes, I have climbed the In Pinn. But I did it specifically because I wanted to climb the In Pinn. So I looked forward to it with cheerful anticipation, enjoyed myself while doing it, and would quite like to do it again. †Cullin is a singular noun, designating the whole seven-mile length of the Cuillin ridge. So “amongst the Cuillin” is a downright strange construction, like describing one’s travels “amongst Scotland” or “amongst London”. If he was intent on using “amongst”, Ingram would have been better to use the commonly heard plural form, Cuillins, which treats the singular ridge as being composed of multiple peaks. But Cuillin has become a shibboleth among Scottish hillwalkers, a way of advertising one’s membership of the in-group. The defence offered for this prescriptive usage is that, because the original Gaelic An Cuiltheann is singular, the English version should be rendered as singular, too. This is an etymological fallacy operating at the nonsensical level of the injunction against splitting infinitives, but if Ingram wants to sell his book to his target audience, he’s probably stuck with the singular Cullin. However, should you ever happen to say “Cuillins”, and find yourself challenged on the usage, you should direct your challenger to the example of Sorley MacLean—a native Gaelic speaker, a resident of Skye, a hillwalker, and something of an expert on hill nomenclature. Here he is on The Munro Show (1991), discussing his love of the (plural) Cuillins:
MacLean knew very well that words adopted into English are under no obligation to follow the usage of their original language. ‡ Middle English crack, “conversation”, persists in Scottish English. The OED tells us that the word was borrowed from Scottish English into Irish English, and thence into Irish Gaelic as craic.
Last time, I introduced the concept of “Hillwalkers’ Gaelic”, which I abbreviated “HG” to distinguish it from Scottish Gaelic (“SG”). I did so in the context of a comic poem entitled “The Climber’s Guide to the Pronunciation of the Gaelic Tongue“, which appeared in the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal of 1897, probably written by the geologist Lionel W. Hinxman. It’s a sort of puzzle poem, in which Gaelic hill names are rhymed with English words that have been spelled to match the Gaelic—serving to obscure the English meanings unless the reader knows the customary Hillwalkers’ Gaelic pronunciation of the hill names.
This time, I’m going to decode Hinxman’s poem a couplet at a time, revealing the “hidden” English words, and discussing the relationship between the Scottish Gaelic and Hillwalkers’ Gaelic. As a reference for the correct Gaelic pronunciation (or, at least, one dialectic version of the correct pronunciation) I’ll add, where possible, links from each hill name to the corresponding page on the Walkhighlands website, where a Gaelic speaker pronounces and translates the names.
So here we go:
For he goes up Beinn Dothaidh In the ice and the snow,
This is Beinn an Dòthaidh, the last word of which sounds like “doh-hay” in SG, but usually more like “doughy” in HG. However Hinxman, in omitting the Gaelic definite article “an”, seems to be invoking a recorded local pronunciation, “ben doe”—see, for instance, Frank Alcock’s article, “A Matter of Look”, in the Fell and Rock Journal of 1972.
And nothing will stay him From climbing Sgòr Mhaim;
This is most probably Sgùrr a’ Mhàim, which was listed as “Sgòr a’ Mhaim” in the first version of Munro’s Tables. There seems to be no reason to omit the Gaelic article “a’” on this occasion, apart from scansion. This is often “skoor uh viym” in HG, which is a good approximation to the SG heard in my link, but one also hears an English interpretation put on the “ai” diphthong, giving “skoor uh vame”, as in Hinxman’s rhyme. (See, for instance, the cheerfully titled “Give Gaelic a Go!” section of the Forestry Commission’s guide Explore The Glens Around Fort William.)
If he’s long in the leg he May tackle Creag Meagaidh,
The HG “craig meg-ee” is a pretty good match for the SG pronunciation of Creag Meagaidh.
Or, job that is harder, The “posts” of Corr’ Ard Dhoire.
This is a convoluted one. The abbreviation of “corrie” seems to be for scansion. The beautiful corrie east of Creag Meagaidh was recorded as Coire Ard Dhoire on the Ordnance Survey six-inch map of 1870, meaning “corrie of the high copse”, which would be pronounced in SG as something like “corr-yuh art ghorr-yuh”. But it seems that the local pronunciation had condensed the Gaelic, because the OS Name Book originally transcribed the corrie’s name as “Ardair”, which was then edited to read “Ard Dhoire”, presumably on etymological grounds. By 1903, the OS had plumped for “Ardair”, and it’s been that way ever since. You can hear a Gael pronounce “Ardair” on Walkhighlands’ page for the hill Stob Poite Coire Àrdair, which overlooks the corrie. Notice that the person speaking the name uses a “sibilant r” in the pronunciation of “rd”, turning “Àrdair” into “ars-tuhr”. But HG avoids this complication, and makes the corrie sound like “ardour”. The “posts” are an array of gullies on the south-west face of the corrie wall, which is often called the Post Face, and the rim of this face has been labelled Puist Coire Àrdair (“Posts of Corrie Ardair”) by the Ordnance Survey.
He strolls up Beinn Eighe By the easiest way
The SG pronunciation of Beinn Eighe gives it a second syllable, with the final “e” being pronounced as a short neutral vowel. English rarely has such a sound at the end of a word, so HG omits it, giving Hinxman his rhyme with “way”.
If he’s wise—but Sgurr Dubh, Will make him look blue.
Very grand is the view he Will get from Meall Buidhe,
The SG pronunciation of Meall Buidhe finishes with another of those short neutral vowels, making buidhe sound like “boo-yuh”. HG on this occasion errs on the side of over-emphasizing the terminal vowel, producing “boo-ee”.
But more will he see From Bruach na Frithe.
There’s another of those terminal neutral vowels to Bruach na Frithe, and the “th” has an “h” sound—so “free-hih” in SG. HG ignores these subtleties, making frithe into “free”.
Then for sport that is royal He hies to Beinn Laoghal,
“Beinn Laoghal” was used on the OS six-inch map of 1878; by 1908 this had become Ben Loyal. The old form seems to have been an attempt to produce a Gaelic etymology for what was originally a Norse name (though the exact Norse meaning is debated). In SG the name is rendered Beinn Laghail, and you can hear it pronounced in my Walkhighlands link. The HG pronunciation accords with the modern spelling.
And surely will strive To ascend Beinn a’ Chlaidheimh,
The “mh” at the end of Beinn a’ Chlaidheimh, is pronounced “v”, and a silent “dh” separates two vowel sounds in chlaidheimh. So SG sounds like chly-iv. HG tends to merge the two syllables, leaning towards “clive”.
And gaze from afar On Beinn Airidh a’ Charr.
The OS was rendering this hill as both Beinn Airidh Charr and Beinn Airidh a’ Char (one “r”) on maps available to Hinxman, who appears to have gone for a hybrid version in order to get the rhyme with “afar” while being able to distort the spelling. The OS subsequently settled on Beinn Airidh Charr until some time after the Second World War, when they shifted to the current spelling, Beinn Airigh Charr.
To get up Stob Gabhar Takes more than an hour,
This seems to be a typographical error for Stob Ghabhar. Hinxman here uses the classic HG pronunciation of ghabhar as “gow-er”, invoking a hard “g”, a silent “bh” and rounding the first “a”. Some HG speakers choose to retain the “bh”, saying “gav-er”. Interestingly, the Gaelic speaker at Walkhighlands pronounces ghabhar is if it were ghobhar (“goer”, but with a fricative initial “g”)—acknowledging, I think, its derivation from gobhar, “goat”.
But considerably less The ascent of Carn Eas.
No Walkhighlands pronunciation for this Top of Ben Avon, but the SG pronunciation of eas, “waterfall”, can be heard at the Faclair Beag Gaelic dictionary—click the loudspeaker icon next to the top entry on the left in my link. It’s closer to “ace” than Hinxman’s HG version, “ess”.
Now one cannot conceal That the slopes of Beinn Sgriol
Hinxman had bad timing, here. “Sgriol” was the phonetic transcription used by OS maps of the time, but this was later revised to Gaelic Beinn Sgritheall, which would have allowed him a more elaborate spelling of “conceal”. The SG pronunciation gives the “th” an “h” sound— “skree-hal”. HG tends to ignore this, producing “skree-uhl” or even “skreel”.
Are hardly as sheer As the crags of Carn Bheur,
Another change of spelling by the Ordnance Survey. This was Càrn Bheur on Hinxman’s maps, but changed to Càrn Bheadhair by 1902. There seems to be some doubt as to whether this name derives from Gaelic beur, “pinnacle”, or beithir, “serpent”. Despite its steep crags, this isn’t a prominent enough summit to have a Walkhighlands entry. The lenited Gaelic bheur would be pronounce “vee-uhr”. I’ve never heard the name of this hill pronounced in HG, but Hinxman’s “veer” would be a normal enough evolution.
Nor can one maintain That the view from Beinn Meadhoin
Another apparent typographical error—the OS has always rendered this Beinn Mheadhoin (though very old maps sometimes mark it as “Ben Mean”). In SG it is “vee-un” or “vee-an”, but HG has worn it down to “vane”.* (Indeed, there’s a Ben Vane in Arrochar with the same Gaelic derivation.)
Surpasses the view he Observes from Beinn Laoigh.
An easy one to finish on. This hill is now more commonly known by its Anglicized spelling, Ben Lui, which reflects its pronunciation.
Disclaimer: I am not a native speaker of Scottish Gaelic—my command of the language is at the level of being able to exchange cheerful greetings and order coffee. If anyone with more knowledge is able to correct me on anything I’ve written above, it’ll be gratefully received.
* I was once sternly “corrected” on my pronunciation of Beinn Mheadhoin, by two worthies with posh Morningside accents who were sitting outside Derry Lodge as I passed by. “Oooh, you’re walking exceedingly quickly,” called one, in rounded tones that would not have disgraced Miss Jean Brodie. “Where are you off to in such a hurry?” I told them, giving Mheadhoin its two-syllable Scottish Gaelic pronunciation. They smiled patronizingly: “You mean Vane,” they assured me. As I walked off without replying, one said loudly to the other: “He won’t last another mile, going at that rate.”
It was long past lunch-time when I finished the story. My throat was dry with talking and Jean’s eyes had grown big and round. ‘It’s like something from the Spanish Main,’ she said. ‘Or a Hammond Innes thriller. Is the gold still there?’
Desmond Bagley, The Golden Keel (1963)
I first encountered Desmond Bagley’s work in the early 1970s, when my elder brother got married. When he moved out of the family home he left behind a teetering stack of paperback novels, which included the entire Bagley œuvre up to that date. I took them with me on a family holiday—fortuitously, as it turned out, since we were trapped in our rented caravan for most of a week by continuous rain. So I churned happily and uninterruptedly through Bagley while my mother and father went quietly stir-crazy.
Bagley was a thriller writer, who published fourteen novels during a twenty-year career that began with the publication of The Golden Keel in 1963, and ended with his untimely death at the age of 59 in 1983. Two further novels were published posthumously. Then, three decades later, the annotated first draft of another novel, provisionally entitled Because Salton Died, was discovered among Bagley’s papers at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center in Boston, and was published as Domino Island in 2019.
I chose the quote with which I opened this post because it seems, with hindsight, remarkably prescient. It is from the early pages of Bagley’s debut novel, and the first-person narrator has just finished outlining the background to what will develop into the novel’s complicated plot. The thriller writer Hammond Innes had been writing steadily for a good quarter-century at the time Bagley’s first novel was published, but was beginning to go through a bit of a dry spell, and Bagley was just about to establish himself as a thriller writer in the Hammond Innes mould—writing detailed narratives featuring capable characters caught up in perilous situations in exotic locations.
Bagley travelled widely to research those exotic locations (in contrast to his contemporary Elleston Trevor who famously used “a library card, a telephone, and an imagination”*). I used to suppose that Bagley used the proceeds from one novel to finance the research trip for the next, but it was a rather more complicated business than that—you can find out more from the biography/autobiography Writer: An Enquiry Into A Novelist (2021) which is available for download from the website The Bagley Brief. I, for one, share Bagley’s frustration that he could never quite produce a novel based on his trip to Antarctica.
I recently decided to reread three of Bagley’s novels before embarking on my first read of Domino Island. My four novels are spaced fairly evenly across Bagley’s career (if you accept Domino Island as a final publication, rather than an early work), and they’re also a sample of the different kinds of thriller that Bagley produced.
So here we go.
The Golden Keel (1963) was Bagley’s first published novel. Its protagonist, Peter Halloran, has led a life based largely on Bagley’s own—travelling across Africa by land in the aftermath of the Second World War before ending up in South Africa, where he has come to own a boatyard in which he designs and builds yachts.† In a chance conversation at his local tennis club he meets Walker, who tells him about his wartime experience fighting with the Italian partisans—and how he and his group once attacked a small convoy of trucks which turned out to be moving four tons of gold bullion northwards ahead of the Allied invasion. Having killed the soldiers manning the convoy, and discovered the gold, the partisans quickly hid the trucks in an abandoned mine, then bring down the entrance with a demolition charge‡. Walker and Coertze, the only two survivors of the partisan group, have been trying to come up with a plan to retrieve the gold ever since. Which Halloran supplies, in the form of the “golden keel” of the title—he plans to hire a shipyard in Italy and replace the lead in the ballast-keel of his yacht with the four tons of gold retrieved from the mine, after which they will sail the yacht to the Tangier International Zone, where it’s possible to turn up with a load of gold and convert it into hard currency, no questions asked. This creates narrative time pressure—the novel is set in early 1960, with only a few months to go before the International Zone reverts to Moroccan ownership.
There are complications, however, in the form of other interested parties, betrayals and deceptions, and a final pursuit across the Mediterranean in stormy weather.
A lot of the basic furniture of a Bagley thriller are already in place—the technical dissertations (in this case, on yacht ballast, seamanship and gold smelting); the exotic locations (South Africa, Tangier, the Riviera), the characters who are not what they initially seem, and the well-observed detail that lends verisimilitude:
I suppose that few people have had occasion to cut up gold ingots with a hacksaw. It’s a devilish job because the metal is soft and the teeth of the saw blades soon become clogged.
There are a few longueurs, however, particularly when it comes to the business of fashioning the golden keel itself. Bagley had obviously thought a lot about how that could be managed, and much of his thinking ended up on the page—I suspect a more experienced Bagley would have trimmed it down considerably. I was reminded a little of the plodding detail that marred Andy Weir’s inexplicably popular debut novel, The Martian (2011), but can assure you that Bagley didn’t push the showing-my-working boat out nearly that far.
The narrator of Running Blind is an ex-spy, Alan Stewart, blackmailed out of retirement by his old boss to perform one last job—ferrying a mysterious package from Reykjavik to Akureyri in Iceland, a country that Stewart knows well. Stewart and his Icelandic fiancée end up fleeing across the central volcanic wasteland of Iceland in order to evade multiple factions who seem intent on either seizing the package or killing Stewart. Or both.
Bagley had by this time learned not to start his stories with prolonged bits of biography. Running Blind starts:
To be encumbered with a corpse is to be in a difficult position, especially when the corpse is without benefit of death certificate.
… and Stewart is off and running, taking his long-wheelbase Land Rover through the remote volcanic wilderness of central Iceland in order to evade pursuit§. Bagley uses a succession of Icelandic settings to good effect, from Ásbyrgi canyon in the north to the hot springs of Geysir in the south. My favourite set piece involves the old cable-car bridge over the Tungnaá River, now bypassed and derelict:
An old cable car over the river Tungnaá in the southern higlands of Iceland. A new bridge is just a few meters away so the cable car is not in use anymore. (25.8.2018) pic.twitter.com/6P0e9QY5WV
Bagley’s trademark use of detail let us understand that Stewart is an expert in his trade, while not significantly slowing the narrative pace. This time, we learn a lot about firearms and other kinds of violence—I particularly commend the accuracy of Stewart’s little lecture on “hitting people on the head”:
There’s quite a bit of nonsense talked about hitting men on the head. From some accounts – film and TV script writers – it’s practically as safe as an anaesthetic used in an operating theatre; all that happens is a brief spell of unconsciousness followed by a headache not worse than a good hangover. […] Unconsciousness is achieved by imparting a sharp acceleration to the skull bone so that it collides with the contents – the brain. This results in varying degrees of brain damage ranging from slight concussion to death, and there is always lasting damage, however slight. The blow must be quite heavy and, since men vary, a blow that will make one man merely dizzy will kill another. The trouble is that until you’ve administered the blow you don’t know what you’ve done.
In 1979, the BBC made a three-part series of Running Blind, filmed in Iceland, with Stuart Wilson turning in a fine hard-bitten performance as Alan Stewart. This was later released on video, but the process of trimming down nearly three hours of story to fit a single two-hour VHS cassette excised so many plot elements that the final result can best be described as “intermittently baffling”. This is the release that’s available on YouTube, albeit with horrible colour balance, blown contrast and the wrong aspect ratio.
Just after the one-hour mark you can see how the Tungnaá cable bridge actually worked:
The Snow Tiger (1975) falls into the small group of Bagley novels that feature natural disasters, alongside Wyatt’s Hurricane (1966) and Landslide (1967). The “snow tiger” of the title is an avalanche—the phrase refers to a quotation attributed to Mathias Zdarsky, a ski pioneer and early avalanche investigator:
Snow is not a wolf in sheep’s clothing – it is a tiger in lamb’s clothing.
The story centres on the small New Zealand town of Hukahoronui, high in the Southern Alps. After a brief prologue, the narrative begins with the opening of the proceedings of the Commission of Inquiry into the Disaster at Hukahoronui—an avalanche has wiped out the town, killing fifty-four people. Evidence is taken chronologically, and as each witness testifies we have a flashback to events preceding the avalanche.
There’s the familiar furniture of a disaster movie—there’s the man with “history” in the town who returns after a long absence and is poorly received, who then teams up with the out-of-town expert who knows what’s going to happen, but who struggles against a combination of local vested interests and incompetence. Bagley pulls off the trick of ramping up the tension in what is effectively a court-room drama, while simultaneously stacking up a sense of impending doom in the flashback scenes. We learn a lot about snow avalanches, and about techniques of avalanche rescue.
When the avalanche comes, the narrative splits to follow the fates of multiple characters, some of whom die, some of whom survive, and some of whom are trapped. Then the rescue teams arrive, and we find out who among the trapped is going to survive.
Finally, we’re back at the Commission of Enquiry, where new evidence is produced and blame is apportioned.
By Bagley’s standards it’s unusual—the absence of a tough and resourceful first-person narrator, the narrative delivered in multiple scenes and flashbacks—and I remember it was not particularly well-received in some circles simply because it didn’t conform to the “standard Bagley formula”. But it’s a taut piece of writing which manages to keep a lot of balls in the air successfully.
Domino Island (2019) is another unusual one, for Bagley—it’s a whodunnit, paced more slowly than his usual thrillers. In an afterword, Bagley researcher Philip Eastwood tells how the novel had been accepted by Bagley’s UK publisher, Collins, in 1972, but was then withdrawn by Bagley himself. Eastwood speculates that the withdrawal might have been because Warner Bros were just about to start filming Bagley’s previous novel, The Freedom Trap (1971), and Bagley was under pressure to produce something in his usual thriller style which could be published to coincide with the film release. That may be true, but it’s odd that Bagley never again submitted the novel to his publisher, leaving it to languish among his files.
The story’s first-person narrator is Bill Kemp, an ex-military freelance investigator who is sent by an insurance company to look into the mysterious death of a wealthy politician on the (fictitious) island of Campanilla, a British colony.
‘A man called David Salton has died.’ That didn’t surprise me. People are always dying and you hear of the fact more often in an insurance office than in most other places. I sat down. ‘How much is he into you for?’ ‘Half a million of personal insurance.’
Salton’s death unleashes a cascade of events on Campanilla (hence the “domino” reference in the title), and the investigation soon gets Kemp embroiled with local politics, the operation of tax havens and casinos on the island, mysterious phone calls, and attempts on his life. Kemp combines a world-weary knowledge of human frailties with a stern personal morality and a tendency to respond to tricky situations with a wisecrack. I was strongly reminded of John D. MacDonald’s character Travis McGee, than which there can be no higher compliment.
Then, in the final quarter of the book, the pace changes—the whodunnit is solved, and suddenly we’re back in an action novel again, with a hostage-taking, a hijack, and a military operation.
It was good fun to re-read examples from the established Bagley canon, and a treat to read the new novel for the first time.
Running Blind remains my favourite, because of its flawless pacing and convoluted plot, and also because it’s set in a country I’ve come to know and love in the decades since Bagley introduced me to it. As a debut novel, The Golden Keel is a little more clunky, but brimming over with ideas and well-thought-out action. The Snow Tiger is slower-moving, but intricately constructed; and Domino Island is something of a novelty, being a strong departure from Bagley’s usual style. All are, of course, to some extent dated—access to the internet, a computer or a mobile phone would in many cases allow the hero to sort things out considerably faster. The female characters are often the victims of the standard blithe sexism of the decades they inhabit, but in Bagley’s hands they generally refuse to conform to the stereotypes of the day, most strikingly so in Domino Island.
All of Bagley’s novels are available as e-books from Collins, either as individual volumes or combined into “2 in 1” editions. As an introduction to his work I can’t do better than recommend Running Blind.
* The quotation comes from Trevor’s wife Chaille, in her biography Bury Him Among Kings (2012). † Bagley became a freelance journalist and advertising scriptwriter, but seems to have had a long-term interest in sailing. Writer: An Enquiry Into A Novelist reveals that the first draft of The Golden Keel included an initial chapter detailing Halloran’s early travels, which very much parallel Bagley’s own. This was rejected by the publisher in favour of a rather faster start to the action, but there’s still enough detail left in the published version to highlight the way in which Bagley mined his own background for Halloran’s. ‡ The story was inspired by the real-life mystery surrounding the disappearance of the Dongo Treasure. Bagley had presumably been aware of the “Gold of Dongo” trial that took place in Padua in 1957. § A close reading of the text reveals that Stewart’s route crosses the Ódáðahraun on the F88 to Askja, then follows the F190 and Gæsavatnaleið south and west to link with the main F26 track in the Sprengisandur. I knew you’d be wondering.