Category Archives: Reading

Simon Ingram: The Black Ridge

Cover of The Black Ridge by Simon Ingram

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 somewhere near the point at which a small group is assembled at lower right:

Inaccessible Pinnacle, Skye
Click to enlarge
(Source)

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.

And he’s funny. Here’s his take on reading climbing reports from old editions of the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal:

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.

(Be the first)

Hillwalkers’ Gaelic: Part 2

Title page of Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal of 1897

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.

The “bh” is silent in SG Sgùrr Dubh, and in HG.

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.”

(Be the first)

Desmond Bagley: Four Novels

Covers of four novels by Desmond Bagley

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.


By the time he wrote Running Blind (1970), Bagley was at the top of his game—to the extent that his research trip to Iceland was reported in the local newspapers.

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:

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 in a couple of versions on YouTube (with horrible colour balance and blown contrast)—this one at least has the correct 4:3 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.

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Hillwalkers’ Gaelic: Part 1

Title page of Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal of 1897

The pronunciation of Gaelic hill names is fraught with difficulty for the non-Gael. One problem is the striking way in which some consonants are not pronounced at all. This is the Gaelic phenomenon of lenition, in which the addition of an “h” to a consonant changes and softens its pronunciation. Some lenited consonants, particularly “dh” and “gh”, have a tendency to disappear entirely when they appear towards the end of a word. More vexingly, when “bh” appears in a similar position it is sometimes pronounced (as “v”), and sometimes omitted—and the practice varies not only between words, but between dialects of Gaelic. So you can hear the second-person plural pronoun sibh pronounced “shiv”, “sheev” or “shoe”, for instance.* The “mh” pair is also sounded as a “v”, but rarely disappears; “th”, on the other hand, can either vanish or sound like “h”.

Then there are the vowels, which sometimes appear in clusters unfamiliar to English speakers, which sometimes indicate sounds not present in English, which are sometimes used to alter the quality of neighbouring consonants in unfamiliar ways, and which tend to reduce to short, simple sounds towards the end of a word—either a short neutral vowel or a short “ih” sound.

This tendency for consonants to disappear and vowels to collapse as one nears the end of a Gaelic word led one early (English-speaking) writer to remark:

[T]he terminations, where they exist, are so much curtailed, and in practice slurred over and cheated of their proper value in such a fashion, that for the common purposes of social communication they scarcely seem to exist.

Handbook for Travellers in Scotland, 4th Edition (1875)

Monoglot English speakers, confronted with disconcerting Gaelic orthography, tend to pass through three distinct stages in their Scottish hillwalking lives. First, there’s the nervous pointing at the map phase (“We’ll climb … um … this one here”). Then there’s the treat it like it’s English phase, usually delivered in an apologetic mumble (“Have you been up, um, Sgurr Nan Keith-Ream-Han?”). Then there’s the slow acquisition of “standard” Anglicized versions of the hill names, either from walking guides or other walkers. But Hillwalkers’ Gaelic (which I’ll abbreviate “HG”) is often some distance from the original Scottish Gaelic (“SG”)—there’s a strong tendency to bend Gaelic vowel sounds towards English norms, to ignore unfamiliar Gaelic colouring of the consonants, and to either drop or overemphasize short terminal vowels—Gaelic has a lot of words that end with an unstressed schwa vowel (like a little “uh”); English, very few.

So HG is a rendering of SG in which the vowels and consonants are made to sound more like English (often influenced by the English-speaker’s interpretation of the Gaelic spelling). Have a listen below, for instance, to Sorley MacLean’s Scottish Gaelic pronunciation of Aonach Eagach in an episode of The Munro Show, and then wait for a few seconds to hear Muriel Gray’s rendering of the same name in Hillwalkers’ Gaelic. (Then turn the video off again, or you’ll go mad. Seriously.)

MacLean says /ɯːnəx ekəx/, starting with an unrounded vowel that doesn’t occur in English, using short neutral vowels in the second syllables of each word, and employing a soft “k” sound for the “g”; but Gray says /anax iɡax/, which is the standard HG pronunciation—simple Scottish front “a” sounds throughout, apart from an “ee” at the start of eagach where MacLean has an “ay”, followed by a hard “g” instead of his “k”. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong or bad about this—it’s just what always happens to foreign words when they’re imported into another language. And any Scottish hillwalker who was ill-advised enough to claim to have traversed the “oenuch aykuch” would find themselves swiftly put right: “Do you mean the annach eegach?”

Hillwalkers’ Gaelic was essentially invented in two stages—first by Ordnance Survey surveyors, who sought out a few locals (often literate landowners and ministers) and then did their best to transcribe what they heard into their regional Name Books; then by a succession of Victorian climbers and walkers, who reached a sort of gentleman’s agreement about the “standard” names of the things they climbed.

I was prompted to write about all this when I happened on a poem in the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal for 1897 (Vol.4 p.238), which I reproduce here on the assumption that it’s long out of copyright, and in any case freely available from the SMC’s own website. While being entertaining and/or puzzling in its own right, it can also tell us a lot about the difference between Hillwalkers’ Gaelic and Scottish Gaelic.


The Climber’s Guide to the Pronunciation of the Gaelic Tongue

Oh, a terrible tongue is the tongue of the Gael,
And the names of his mountains make Southrons turn pale;
It’s ill to pronounce them, to spell them is worse,
And they’re not very easy to hitch into verse.

A mountain’s a mountain in England, but when
The climber’s in Scotland, it may be a Beinn,
A Creag or a Meall, a Spidean, a Sgòr,
A Carn or a Monadh, a Stac, or a Torr.

For he goes up Beinn Dothaidh
In the ice and the snothaidh,
And nothing will staim
From climbing Sgòr Mhaim;
If he’s long in the leagaidh
May tackle Creag Meagaidh,
Or, job that is hardhoire,
The “posts” of Corr’ Ard Dhoire.
He strolls up Beinn Eighe
By the easiest weighe
If he’s wise—but Sgurr Dubh,
Will make him look blubh.
Very grand is the vuidhe
Will get from Meall Buidhe,
But more will he sithe
From Bruach na Frithe.
Then for sport that is raoghal
He hies to Beinn Laoghal,
And surely will straidheimh
To ascend Beinn a’ Chlaidheimh,
And gaze from afarr
On Beinn Airidh a’ Charr.
To get up Stob Gabhar
Takes more than an abhar,
But considerably leas
The ascent of Carn Eas.
Now one cannot conciol
That the slopes of Beinn Sgriol
Are hardly as sheur
As the crags of Carn Bheur,
Nor can one mainteadhoin
That the view from Beinn Meadhoin
Surpasses the vaoigh
Observes from Beinn Laoigh.

And besides the above there are dozens which I’m
Unable at present to put into rhyme;
Whilst most of these hills, it’s no libel to say,
Are easier climbed than pronounced, any day!

L.W.H.


I’m grateful to Dave Hewitt for identifying “L.W.H.” as (most likely) the geologist Lionel W. Hinxman. (His middle name was “Wordsworth”, which seems almost appropriate.)

Next time, I’ll go through the middle part of the poem a couplet at a time, elucidating the various hills, Gaelic names and linguistic acrobatics involved.


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.

* This tendency to pronounce a terminal “bh” as “oo” explains why the hill with the Gaelic name Beinn Mheanbh is commonly known as Ben Venue.

Patrick Baker: The Cairngorms—A Secret History

Cover of The Cairngorms: A Secret History, by Patrick Baker

The view had a massive visual scale. It felt cinematic: an epic horizon like the opening credits of a David Lean film. A path scrolled out ahead of me, eventually fading into the middle distance. Across the plateau I could see other tors emerging from the mist: dark, maritime shapes, spectral galleons held up on the rolling levels of the land.

That’s Patrick Baker, describing the view from the highest point of the Ben Avon plateau. If you haven’t been there yourself, you may yet be able to judge the evocativeness of his nautical metaphor by taking a look at this photograph of the summit plateau, albeit one taken on a clear day, rather than in the misty conditions Baker describes.

Baker clearly has a passion for the outdoors, having previously written a guidebook to walking in the Ochils, Campsie Fells and Lomond Hills. In The Cairngorms: A Secret History (2014), he visits remote locations on and around the Cairngorm plateau which have a human story to tell. He followed this up with The Unremembered Places: Exploring Scotland’s Wild Histories (2020), which does the same thing in a rather more diffuse way, covering the whole of Scotland. I may write about that one in the future, but for now I want to concentrate on his volume dealing with the Cairngorms, as a sort of companion to my recent reviews of Nan Shepherd and Syd Scroggie’s Cairngorm memoirs.

In eight chapters, Baker sets himself the task of exploring eight features of the Cairngorms—some natural, some artificial. In seven of the chapters he finds human stories in the landscape, as well as reasons to talk about the geology and natural history of the area.

The first chapter, “Ghost River”, deals with a walk to the source of the river Dee, high on the plateau below Braeriach. Along the way, Baker writes about the abandoned settlements along the route: Dubrach, Tonnagaoithe, Dalvorar and Tomnamoine. (There’s another, Creag Phadruig, which the Ordnance Survey doesn’t name on its maps, and which Baker doesn’t mention.) This is his cue to talk about the depopulation of the Highlands in general, and the Highland Clearances in particular. Farther on, he climbs the Lairig Ghru and then into the Garbh Coire, where he visits the remote Garbh Coire Refuge (which has been largely rebuilt since he was there), and then climbs to the plateau and the Wells of Dee, seeping out of the ground in a grassy patch on Einich Cairn, ludicrously high on the mountain.

“Landseer’s Bothy” moves to upper Glen Feshie, and a story that was more recently discussed in the second episode of Paul Murton’s Grand Tours of Scotland’s Rivers (2021)—the romance between the Duchess of Bedford, Georgina Russell, and the painter Edwin Landseer, which took place at a group of remote (but luxuriously appointed) “rustic huts” at the head of the glen.* Baker visits the Ruighe-aiteachain bothy in upper Glen Feshie, and the nearby chimney-stack which is all that remains of the Duchess’s original accommodation.

“The Lost Shelter” sees Baker visit the sites of a number of high-altitude shelters in the Cairngorms which have been demolished. And he writes about the debate that led to this decision—were lives actually being lost because people stayed at altitude in foul weather and poor visibility, making a futile search for one these small, remote shelters, rather than making an immediate retreat from high ground? And we get the stories behind Jean’s Hut in Coire an Lochain; the Curran Bothy, on the plateau between Cairn Gorm and Ben Macdui; the disintegrating El Alamein Refuge, reputedly built in the wrong place by the 51st Highland Division; and its companion, the St Valery Refuge, perched on Stag Rocks above Loch Avon.

“Final Flight” deals with high-ground aircraft wrecks, in particular Baker’s search for the remains of the Airspeed Oxford 1 that came down on the north end of Beinn a’ Bhuird in 1945—there is now a memorial plaque at the site. The remoteness of the site also gives Baker a cue to discuss the slow development of mountain rescue services, through cooperation between local volunteers and the Royal Air Force. Baker’s first attempt to visit the site ends in a failure, but he evokes the anxieties of failed route-finding in thick cloud very well:

I searched for answers in the visible landscape: subtle variations in gradient and slope that I hoped would match the contours on my map. There were no clues, no obvious signs. In the clouds the terrain seemed limitless, anonymous—a continuing, terrifying unknown. I would never find the Oxford in such conditions, I knew that. Suddenly, all I wanted to do was to find the way home.

“Cairngorm Stone” tells the story of the titular gemstone—a variety of smoky quartz found in the Cairngorms. This is what takes Baker to the plateau of Ben Avon, described in my opening quotation, where the ground is still pocked with old excavations.

The next chapter is “The Big Grey Man”, which is the English translation of Am Fear Liath Mor—the Gaelic name of a large spectral form said to haunt the slopes of Ben Macdui. Baker opens his chapter with the old story of Professor Norman Collie’s famous panic in the mists of Macdui in the late nineteenth century. This gives him a chance to discuss the eery sensations recurringly reported by explorers in trying circumstances, including the hallucinatory extra presence of the “Third Man”. It also gives him the chance to approach Macdui from an unconventional direction (the horrible path up Strath Nethy to Loch Avon), to spend a night at the Shelter Stone, and to describe the truly extraordinary experience of Eric Langmuir at the head of Loch Avon in 1962, when the entire scree slope started to avalanche above him and his party.

“The Cat’s Den” takes Baker to the Rothiemurchus Forest, in search of a cave that was reputedly once the refuge of a local outlaw, Sandy Grant. It also leads him to write about the rare and elusive residents of the forest, the pine marten and European wildcat. And to riff about nature writing and writers. The end of the chapter brings a hugely satisfying double success.

Finally, “The Ravine” sees him walking in from Tomintoul to the Ailnack Gorge. Along the way he talks about the geology and botany of the area, as well as writing an appreciation of Nan Shepherd’s Cairngorm memoir, The Living Mountain, which I’ve written about previously.

It’s all very satisfying stuff. Baker writes evocatively about his own journeys, and knowledgeably about the human and natural history of the landscape. He also has a good ear for anecdotes and relevant quotations, so be warned—readers of this book are liable to finish it with at least another three books added to their reading list from the “References and Sources” section at the back.


* Landseer produced a painting entitled “Duchess of Bedford’s Hut, Glenfeshie”, which is now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The building certainly features a timber and turf portico, but the interior furnishings, visible through the open door, seem rather less primitive.

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John Ball: Flying-Boats In Space!

Covers of Operation Springboard and Spacemaster 1, by John Ball

“Suppose now you were to build a more or less conventional airplane to fly in space. What I mean is, suppose you built a space ship in the shape of an airplane. The actual shape wouldn’t mean a thing as far as flying goes outside of the earth’s atmosphere. There’s no friction and therefore no need for streamlining.”
I observed that Ted Malone and Dr. Havensson were interested in what I was saying.
“Suppose, then,” I went on, “that you get your space ship into the air and then, at a good high altitude, build up your speed horizontally. Now you would not have to work directly against the gravity of the earth. And you could build up gradually without excessive acceleration. When you get high enough and fast enough, then you could lift the nose and take off for space. Doing it this way would solve all acceleration problems and would cut the cost of fuel and engines enormously. And it would be a lot safer.”

John Ball, Operation Springboard (1958)

I picked up Spacemaster 1 ( (1960) in a second-hand bookshop recently, because the name John Ball, Jr. seemed to ring a bit of a bell from my childhood, and the cover suggested the sort of juvenile aviation adventure I used to favour. And, leafing through it, I identified a uniquely recognizable plot element—this was a novel about a gigantic spacecraft in the form of a flying-boat.

But a bit more leafing revealed that this was not the novel that I recalled borrowing from my local public library, which I was certain had involved a flying-boat cum spacecraft that travelled to Venus. Curiouser and curiouser. So I looked up John Ball, Jr. on-line and discovered that it was the form of his name used by novelist John Ball when writing for juvenile readers. What I recalled reading was Operation Space (1960) which was the UK edition of the novel originally entitled Operation Springboard (1958) when first published in the USA. What I was holding in my hand was a later novel that had never been published in the UK—quite how it found its way on to the shelves of a Scottish bookshop is unfortunately a mystery.

I also discovered that both novels had been reissued as Kindle e-books and trade paperbacks by Thunderchild Publishing—but the e-book of Spacemaster 1 could only be downloaded by Amazon’s US customers, strangely. Hence the curiously mismatched covers at the head of this post—I bought the fortuitously discovered first edition of Spacemaster 1, and downloaded what I now need to call Operation Springboard.

John Ball had an interesting life. He started off as a science journalist, and at various times was an assistant curator of the Hayden Planetarium and director of public relations for the Institute of the Aerospace Sciences. He had a black belt in aikido, a commercial pilot’s licence, and enough knowledge of music to write sleeve notes for Columbia Records and to work as a music critic for the Brooklyn Eagle and the New York World-Telegram. During the Second World War, he flew military transport aircraft across “The Hump”—which is to say, he crossed and recrossed the eastern end of the Himalayas between India and China.

Ball started out writing juvenile novels—the two reviewed here, which drew on his aviation experience, and Judo Boy (1964), based on his knowledge of martial arts.* Then followed his first mystery novel, and it was a doozy—In The Heat Of The Night (1965), made into the film of the same name in 1967. It was Ball, then, who gave us the line “They call me Mister Tibbs!” which Sidney Poitier delivered with such barely contained outrage. Ball went on to write more Virgil Tibbs mysteries, and several tense aviation thrillers, among other things. In The Heat Of The Night is still well worth reading—Ball’s insights into the cognitive dissonance experienced by white racists when confronted by a calm, smart, capable Black man are by turns amusing and enraging.

But I suppose I should actually write something about the two books pictured at the head of this post.

Operation Springboard is narrated by Chester Pawling, a young man who walks with the aid of crutches after an injury sustained at the age of ten. (In a reminder that Ball was writing half a century ago, Pawling consistently refers to himself as a “cripple”.) After asking a pointed question during a public lecture on space travel, Pawling is invited to meet the speaker, Dr Thor Havensson. Having delivered himself of the dissertation I excerpted at the head of this post, Pawling is astonished to be informed that Havensson has built just such a hybrid aeroplane / spaceship at a secret base in the South Pacific. As is the way of these things in science-fiction juveniles of this era, Pawling is invited to visit, a series of unexpected events occur, and young Chester is soon on his way to the planet Venus.

Several things about this blew my childhood brain when I first encountered the book—the fact that the protagonist was disabled; Ball’s arguments in support of using aeroplanes as spaceships; and, building on that, the idea of taking a giant flying boat to Venus because, of course, in the 1950s Venus was supposed to be covered with tropical oceans.

Now, of course, Ball’s idea of achieving escape velocity in horizontal flight introduces all sorts of complications and inefficiencies; and Venus isn’t actually covered in oceans. But the disabled protagonist whose disability becomes irrelevant in free-fall? That’s still quite striking for a novel written in the 1950s, I think.

Venus is a bit of a disappointment, it must be said—we’re treated to a bit of unexceptional ocean and jungle, and then the American party become enmeshed in conflict with stereotypical Bad Guys from an unnamed foreign power, which is competing for space supremacy with America. After which Pawling and some young friends save the day. Interestingly, however, his two friends are a Native American and an Australian Aborigine, something else I found quite startling when I first read it, and which again seems atypical for the time of writing. (Now that I’m all grown up, however, it seems unlikely to me that these cultural backgrounds would have provided all the skills necessary for survival in the tropical jungle of another planet, as Ball blithely suggests.)

Spacemaster 1 follows a very similar trajectory, but is an altogether less satisfying affair, which may account for the fact it was never taken up by a UK publisher. The protagonist this time is Dick Simmons, a lacklustre high-school student who ups his academic game in order to be considered for enrolment in the Spacemaster Project—a programme to establish a space station in Earth orbit. But spies from a foreign power may have infiltrated the project:

The engineer stood looking at the floor, his brow furrowed. “The thing that gets me is the possibility that it is known somewhere else exactly what it is we are building.”
One of the two security investigators present looked at him questioningly. “The fact that a space station is under construction has been widely publicized for months,” he pointed out.
“I know that,” the chief security engineer snapped. “I haven’t been living on another planet. What hasn’t been made public is the fact that we are building it in the shape of a flying boat!”

Simmons succeeds against the odds (“one chance in a million”, it says on the dustcover) to become part of the Project. There are numerous setbacks, but hard work, honesty and a fair amount of luck get him to where he wants to be. Along the way, he and his assorted young friends foil a dastardly plot by the foreign agents, and the story ends (as was often the case in those days), when the spaceship eventually launches. Notably, however, Ball gives a realistic depiction of spaceflight as being a highly complex affair, requiring input from large numbers of people working in numerous specialities—a significant change from the “lone genius” model used by writers in the early 1950s, like Angus MacVicar and W.E. Johns, whose science-fiction juveniles I’ve previously reviewed.

If we’re looking for messages, I guess the message from Operation Springboard is that everyone in society matters and should be given a chance to contribute; from Spacemaster 1, that any young person who wants to get into the nascent space programme is going to have to work really hard and get lucky. Both made interesting reads, but Operation Springboard is, in my view, by far the more engaging story.

Now, a note about the covers. As you’ll see, above, the Thunderchild edition of Operation Springboard features a giant, gleaming flying boat departing from Earth (the classic Apollo 17 “Blue Marble” rearward view, in fact). At first I thought this was some sort of CGI concoction, but then I discovered that it’s a rather splendid physical model, built by Dan Thompson of Thunderchild Publishing. Dan tells me it’s a modified Boeing Clipper kit—which is almost ideal, being a large flying boat equipped with sponsons, which featured prominently in the Operation Springboard narrative. However, the Clipper was driven by propellers and piston engines, which are not particularly useful in the vacuum of space, so Dan replaced them with the turbofan engines from a B-1B Lancer, representing the “atomic engines” of the fictional aircraft. (The cover illustration for the Thunderchild edition of Spacemaster 1 features the same model from a different angle, but with a bit of Photoshop work on the engines which produces a noticeably different appearance.)


* Dan Thompson has informed me that Ball’s novel Arctic Showdown (1966) is also for a juvenile readership, featuring an aircraft forced down by an Alaskan blizzard, and a sixteen-year-old hero who has the knowledge to keep the rest of the passengers alive.

Robert Wilfred Franson: The Shadow Of The Ship

Covers of "The Shadow Of The Ship", by Robert Wilfred Franson

For its entire breadth the Meadow supported only hard vacuum on its pseudosurface. Fixed ashiness that no breeze would ever stir, twisted by ancient gravitational gradients. Space below the space where things of nature or things of man could exist naturally, unattended. Subspace that could be moved across, but not resided in except as on the lip of a grave.

It’s a while since I’ve posted about stories that have been published in two (or more) different versions. I’ve written before about Martin Caidin’s two slightly different novels entitled Marooned, and James Blish’s multiple versions of his “Cities In Flight” stories. This time, I want to write about the original and revised versions of Robert Wilfred Franson’s novel, The Shadow Of The Ship.

When science-fiction authors write about fast interstellar travel, they generally invoke one of a fairly limited repertoire of tropes—there’s the “warp drive” (see Star Trek), which somehow propels a spacecraft through space at some multiple of the speed of light; there’s the “wormhole” (see Interstellar) which allows the spacecraft to take a shortcut between two widely separated locations; and there’s the “jump to hyperspace” (see Star Wars) which shifts the spacecraft in and out of some alternate geometry in which faster-than-light travel is possible, or interstellar distances are shortened. But then, in 1983, along came Franson’s debut novel.*

The Shadow Of The Ship, admittedly, does invoke a sort of jump-to-hyperspace scenario. Outside the narrative (off-screen, as it were), we’re told that there are spacecraft which can enter a realm called subspace, in which the distance between stars is very much shorter than it is in normal space. Such ships require pilots with special mental abilities and training, who interact with technology embedded in their ship in order to make the transitions in and out of subspace. But in all other aspects, Franson’s subspace stands outside the normal science-fiction conventions. It is a two-dimensional surface (colloquially called “the meadow”) over which spacecraft must slide, never losing contact. The meadow has topography, influenced by gravitational potentials in normal space (there are deep wells in the surface which indicate the location of massive bodies). But it also has some sort of pseudo-gravitational force of its own—it’s possible to stop on the meadow, get out, and walk around in a spacesuit.

Inanimate matter cannot exist on the meadow, unless “stabilized” by the presence of a human (or other) consciousness—any object that loses contact with an embodied consciousness simply vanishes, in a rather extreme version of the quantum observer effect. And it gets worse—anything, conscious or not, that loses contact with the meadow, however briefly, also vanishes. Anyone walking on the meadow is, literally, only a step away from death—a simple trip can cause a person to vanish instantly.

So far, so weird. But it gets weirder. There are also creatures on the meadow—gigantic, slow-moving, intelligent creatures called waybeasts (colloquially, “squeakers”), which resemble a green-eyed cross between a musk-ox and an elephant—massively tusked, and covered in golden fur. They are able to make the transition between normal space and subspace, and survive for long periods in the worse-than-vacuum conditions of the meadow. For reasons unknown, they walk from planet to planet through subspace, follow glowing trails across the meadow. At a waybeast’s steady ambling pace, it crosses the equivalent of a light-year every three days.

So that’s unusually weird. But it gets weirder. The waybeast trails form a network linking a variety of human-inhabited worlds, which have a technological level somewhere around that of the early Industrial Revolution. These humans have established a relationship with the waybeasts, and travel from planet to planet in long caravans of air-tight carriages which are pulled across the meadow by the waybeasts. This strange culture has developed in isolation from wider humanity, until it is stumbled upon by a subspace pilot, Hendrik Rheinallt, and his improbable friend, a flying cat called Arahant. (Who also composes operas.) Rheinallt and Arahant had been marooned on a remote planet until rescued by a passing waybeast caravan led by a woman named Whitnadys. And now Rheinallt and Arahant are trying to find a way home again.

And so the story begins. Rheinallt has put together a Special Caravan—an expedition that is pushing beyond the explored regions of the Blue Trail, in response to a rumour that, somewhere out in that direction, a wrecked or abandoned subspace ship is resting on the surface of the meadow. Whitnadys, now Rheinallt’s partner and the mother of his child, is the beastmaster for the expedition, handling the waybeasts that tow the caravan; Arahant is along for entertainment value.

(At this point, I should interject that I’m generally left cold by science-fiction writers [looking at you, Robert Heinlein] who put cats into their stories just because they think CATS ARE GREAT. Cats are fine, but their mere presence doesn’t help a narrative along, in my opinion, and I don’t generally find them interesting enough to justify their presence. That said, Arahant turns out to be an engaging character, but I think he manages that despite being a flying cat, rather than because of it.)

Franson deals with the complexities of his scenario well, introducing the background elements in carefully constructed early chapters. Along the way, we also learn that Rheinallt and Arihant are “bloodsweaters”—they have conscious control over many aspects of their physiology, which leads to potential immortality, among other advantages. It transpires that they have both lived a very long time already, before starting their current adventure.

There is conflict and skulduggery aboard the Special Caravan—it’s evident that some faction does not want Rheinallt’s expedition to succeed. And there’s a girl aboard whose face is strangely difficult to concentrate on, a man who appears to be stalking her, and a levitating, spherical, alien presence that calls itself the Detenebrator. And once the fabled Ship on the meadow is reached, things begin to get even more complicated.

Franson describes all this well. Here’s his description of the short length of the Blue Trail that crosses the surface of a remote, rocky world:

A god with two paintbrushes must have passed this way: the first stroke had made a bluish roadway twenty-some yards long, and wide enough that a couple of caravans could have passed abreast. A two-dimensional and softened sapphire, stretched into pavement. Then with the narrower brush in his other hand the god swiped the still-wet roadway again, and left an inner aura along those twenty-plus yards, an unworldly deeper-blue radiance within the sapphire mist. The trail glowed with its own light, and was beautiful.

And here’s a quick sketch of a man who has been listening to a deliberately opaque, teasing dissertation by Rheinallt:

The metallurgist still looked puzzled; in fact, he had the look of someone who manages the difficult feat of being puzzled on several discrete levels of consciousness simultaneously.

The story’s conclusion is open-ended—some conflicts and mysteries are resolved, but others remain, and within the last few chapters events unfold that open up whole new plot vistas.

So there was obviously a sequel coming, and I certainly wasn’t the only person who was intrigued to find out where Franson was going next with his strange narrative. But then decades went by, and no new work by Franson ever appeared. In 2014, I noticed that an e-book edition of The Shadow Of The Ship had been published under the auspices of Franson Publications, but I didn’t pay much attention at the time. (On his Lofting Agency website, Franson describes how hard it was to win back the rights to his own novel so that he could republish it.) But then, in 2018, Franson published a new novel, Sphinx Daybreak, set in the same imagined universe as The Shadow Of The Ship.

Cover of "Sphinx Daybreak" by Robert Wilfred Franson

Instead of being the sequel I’d anticipated, it’s a long (225,000-word) prequel, set on Earth in 1904, filling in the back story of Rheinallt and Arihant. They’re both already centuries old, as a result of the “bloodswayer” physiological discipline. That’s a change of name from the “bloodsweater” of the original novel—the “sway” is used in the sense of “influence”, and the whole blood-sweating aspect is depicted as an unfortunate side-effect of imperfect bloodsway technique. I won’t attempt to summarize the new novel’s baroque inventiveness here, beyond mentioning what’s relevant to Franson’s revision of The Shadow Of The Ship.

In Earth’s prehistory, at the end of the last Ice Age, a shadowy race called the Rodasi used exotic technology to build a largely invisible realm in the sky, and then disappeared. This extensive complex of floating buildings and gardens was colonized by Arihant’s species, the aircats, and later by humans fleeing from the fall of Troy. The aircats and humans who inhabit the Rodasi artefacts call themselves the Luftmenschen (“sky people”), and are gradually learning how to use the remnant Rodasi technology. Among the technologies they are beginning to master are portals to other exotic places, including the Meadow (now capitalized) of The Shadow Of The Ship.

I wasn’t a big fan of Sphinx Daybreak, I’m afraid. It’s certainly crammed with interesting and outré ideas, and Franson appears to be setting up all sorts of openings for future stories. But it’s long and slow, and the characters spend a lot of time congratulating and admiring each other. The Rheinallt character comes across as smugly complacent, and every woman he meets is besotted with him—it’s a huge contrast with the undoubtedly competent but thoughtfully reflective character he has in The Shadow Of The Ship, and his flirtatious superficiality is very much at variance with his relationship with Whitnadys in the original novel.

So I was a little trepidatious when I learned that Franson had revised The Shadow Of The Ship for the 2014 edition, to bring it into alignment with the world and characters of Sphinx Daybreak. I didn’t really want the Rheinallt of whom I was quite fond to turn into the annoying Rheinallt of the later novel.

There proved to be many revisions, from single words to entire paragraphs. But the story undoubtedly benefits from them, and the “original Rheinallt” benefits the most. At the single-word level, there’s an “I need to talk to you” which has become “Want to talk to you”—changing Rheinallt’s relationship both with the topic he raises, and with the person he’s speaking to. And while in the original novel Rheinallt thinks of crewmen who are slow to respond to instructions as “cretins”, they’re now merely “sluggards”. Each of these changes consolidates the original depiction of Rheinallt, rather than nudging him towards his Sphinx Daybreak persona.

At the level of plot revisions, the most important for Rheinallt’s character is the deletion of a cruel and pointless guessing game he inflicts on Whitnadys, from whom he withholds his true age. This was really a guessing game contrived for the reader, and it never sat easily in their otherwise frank and loving relationship. After revision, we find that the couple have long since discussed Rheinallt’s strange longevity. Elsewhere, there’s a lot of tightening of the plot—adding plausible detail here, clarifying character motivation there.

The Rodasi are written into the background, along with some aspects of their technology, and one of the worlds beyond the Rodasi portals in Sphinx Daybreak becomes significant to The Shadow Of The Ship. And that leads to a significant revision to the ending, which now has a solid sense of closure, rather than merely hinting at where the story might go in the future.

There are only two downsides for me. There’s a revised physical explanation of how Arahant manages to float effortlessly around the room, but it’s only slightly less implausible, and considerably more distracting, than the original. And Franson has used the editorial powers of self-publishing to impose a non-standard pattern of punctuation on his text, which was a constant source of distraction for the automatic proofreader in me. I suspect neither of the above will bother most other readers.

I confess I went into this project prepared to issue a snooty judgement that the revised edition was not a patch on the original, as is almost customary in this sort of situation. But no, this set of revisions is more like Ridley Scott’s tinkering with Blade Runner than George Lucas’s messing with Star Wars. Forget the original—get the revised version.


* The Shadow Of The Ship has a shadowy prehistory. The colophon to the novel states that it was previously published as a novella in 1976, but doesn’t say where.

Sydney Scroggie: The Cairngorms Scene & Unseen

Cover of "The Cairngorms Scene & Unseen" By Syd Scroggie

The Cairngorms lay beneath what was now a local bonnet of cloud. Everything else was in sunshine and dazzling with colours, cobalts and browns and bright greens, all the peaks around glowing with the pristine pigments of an illuminated manuscript, as far as distant Lochnagar and Beinn a’ Ghlo. Then even the interior gloom began to change, and a violet light stole over the nearby scene, so that my hands and my clothes reflected it, and behind me the Lurcher’s Crag turned as mauve as the most voluptuous ling heather. This was not so with Angel Peak, Cairn Toul and the Devil’s Point, which rose on the other side of Glen Dee, for these turned an emerald green, so that they stood there like vast jewels, soft and glowing, against that brilliant distant palette of incredible colour.
It lasted only a minute or two, long enough for a ptarmigan to croak, a golden plover to whistle and a discarded fag pack to stir in the breeze; then down came the cloud again and shut everything out.

That’s a young Syd Scroggie, standing on the summit of Ben Macdui one day in 1942. I chose this particular quote because it’s a companion of sorts to the quote with which I opened my review of Nan Shepherd’s Cairngorm memoir, The Living Mountain (1977). Both quotations mark the start of a long love affair with the Cairngorm massif; both describe striking visual experiences. But Scroggie’s lines are made particularly poignant by the knowledge that, when the lines were first published, in 1989, Scroggie had been blind for more than forty years.

Scroggie began his explorations of his beloved Cairngorm Mountains before the Second World War, and was able to fit in the occasional visit during his army training, which took place near Aviemore. He latterly served in the Lovat Scouts, a Highland regiment that fought in the Allied invasion of Italy. Two weeks before the end of the war, he trod on a “shoe mine” (the German Schützenmine-42), losing a lower leg and the sight in both eyes. After rehabilitating under the care of St Dunstan’s (now Blind Veterans UK), Scroggie went on to study at Oxford, learning Greek and Latin in Braille, before returning to his native Dundee to take up a job as a switchboard operator at one of the city’s major employers of the time, N.C.R. Works.

Then, in 1955, came the fateful moment when his friend Les Bowman proposed a trip to a remote bothy in the heart of the Cairngorms: “Young Scrog, let’s do a trip to Corrour.”

The idea was staggering, of my setting out and returning as a disabled person to the locality which more than any other for me is symbolic of the hills.

Scroggie’s response was, “You bet.”

And so he walked the eight miles in along the rough track by Derry Lodge and the boggy path beyond, his hand upon Bowman’s shoulder. His feelings can well be imagined—here’s how he recorded them in a moving piece of poetry:

The gods thus spoke, the gods of hill and glen:
This is our man, we know his face of old,
He has but slept, behold he comes again.

Scroggie lived about a mile north of my childhood home, and his place of work was a mile to the southwest, so he was a familiar sight for me in those days, striding along with his stick and his one white eye. And I met him once, during the seventies, in the hills above Glen Clova where he airily described the view to me from memory. He had a very characteristic pattern of speech—deprived of visual feedback from the facial expression and posture of the person he addressed, he delivered his thoughts in long, rattling paragraphs, punctuated by pauses to permit responses. You can observe him in conversation with Tom Weir in this classic episode of Weir’s Way, broadcast in 1987:

And I offered you that video because I was going to write that, in The Cairngorms: Scene & Unseen (1989), Scroggie wrote exactly how he spoke. But it occurs to me that this is perhaps no surprise—while the ever-undaunted Scroggie may well have mastered the art of longhand writing or typing while blind, it’s perhaps more likely that he dictated his memoir. But however the words got to the paper, the experience of reading them is exactly like sitting on a rock by a loch and hearing Scroggie speak—funny, clever and discursive, suffused with a deep love of the hills and the people who go there, anecdote heaped dizzyingly on anecdote until all chronology is lost, and the reader no longer remembers or cares whether Scroggie was sighted or unsighted at the time of the events he describes.

Recently republished by the Scottish Mountaineering Press, this is unfortunately the only piece of Scroggie’s writing currently in print. A number of slim booklets are documented by the University of Dundee, and Amazon seems to know of something entitled The Modern Ferla More (1963)*. His poetry collection Give Me The Hills (1978) is now vanishingly rare and I’ve yet to lay my hands on a copy, but there’s a decent sampling of his verse stirred into this memoir.

Scroggie ranges widely through his memories. There are stories here of wartime service, and of his son’s supernatural imaginings in Lower Geldie Lodge, and he’s not above gleefully relaying a good story borrowed from a friend. But in the main this is a narrative of “bothy culture” in the Cairngorms spanning (roughly) the decades between 1940 and 1980—of nights spent chatting and drinking whisky by the light of a bog-wood fire. Some of Scroggie’s bothies are gone now, like the Sinclair Hut; some are now inaccessible, like Derry Lodge; and some have a new lease of life, like Corrour, though Scroggie did not approve of its post-war restoration:

Then the bothy had been friendly and hospitable, and somehow mysterious in its ruin and dilapidation, pregnant with a sense of impending romance and adventure. […] Now [it] had a more clinical air, as if the planners had moved in, and though it was obviously wind and weather tight, and would remain so for decades, it had lost much of its character in the process.

And there are many stories here of the legendary Bob Scott and his bothy at Luibeg. (There’s still a bothy with Scott’s name on it, though it stands farther downstream than the original, below the confluence of the Luibeg and Derry Burns.)

As well as evocations of the Cairngorm scenery, and character sketches of people encountered among the hills, Scroggie also offers some laugh-out-loud anecdotes, beautifully told. One of my favourites is one he relays from his friend Les Bowman, who served with the Royal Engineers in North Africa during the war. One night, an unfounded rumour swept through his unit, that the German army was about to descend on their desert camp, intent on “slaughtering them to the last sapper.” As Scroggie and Bowman tell the story, panic immediately reigned, while the Commanding Officer was reduced to “darting about to and fro” and “gibbering with fear”. When pressed for a plan, the CO instructed his men to “Make for Algiers.”

It was a case of omne ignotum pro magnifico if ever there was one. ‘How’ll we get there, sir?’ The response to the CO’s suggestion—for it was a suggestion rather than a command—took the form less of a lusty shout than a concerted wail from the sappers who could see their chance of ever getting home diminishing in a kind of geometrical progression as minute succeeded minute in the confusion of affairs. There are moments of inspiration which come to every man, based on memories long buried under piles of succeeding experience, and something new stirred in the CO’s mind, paralysed though it was by conflicting emotions, which seemed to have in it the solvent of all their terrors—the perfect answer to the unparalleled exigencies of their situation.
Pale, distraught and pyjama-clad […] the CO made a dramatic gesture vaguely in the direction of Timbuktu, where Jupiter was a conspicuous object in the sky, gazing down with planetary indifference at a warring world below. […] ‘Follow the North Star,’ he cried.

Scroggie was in his sixties when writing this memoir, and like many hillgoers of a Certain Age (ahem) rather wished that things would just stay as they were—he preferred the comfort of a Primus stove to the newfangled gas, and would apparently rather crouch in a leaking hovel rather than countenance any rebuilding work on his remote bothies. He wasn’t that keen on tourists clogging up his favourite glens, and I think would probably have been reduced to tears of frustration if he’d lived to witness the mess now created in Glen Brittle by too many visitors encountering too little infrastructure. He reserves his particular ire, however, for the Scottish National Outdoor Training Centre at Glenmore Lodge, and the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme.

Here he is, in full polemical flow, on the former establishment:

… this is a place dedicated to teaching people everything about the hills except what really counts. It is a kind of fascist training establishment from which intakes emerge to conquer the hills and in so doing, according to the theory, conquer themselves. Absent is the poetry, the philosophy, the metaphysics, the dreamy dwam, if you like, which are proper to the wooing of the hills. A cowering Macdhui, an alarmed Braeriach and a scandalised Cairn Lochain find themselves subject instead to a kind of criminal assault. Glenmore Lodge, in short, represents a machination of the Devil by which he seeks to corrupt the last refuge of sanity with notions proper only to the general lunacy which surrounds it.

(Come on Scroggie, stop beating about the bush and say what you really think … )

I believe it’s evident that here, and in other places, Scroggie is caught up with creating a dramatic effect. Elsewhere, for instance, shortly after an impassioned plea to rebuild Hadrian’s Wall in order to exclude tourists, he undermines his own position by commending two English visitors who were, he felt, clear exceptions to his own black-and-white rule. But there’s also a deep and heartfelt cry in there—he fears that the hills are becoming arenas for feats of mental or physical endurance, for “challenges”, rather than places to love and contemplate. Scroggie would, I think, agree wholeheartedly with Nan Shepherd’s observation (in The Living Mountain):

Yet often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I reach nowhere in particular, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with him.

Shepherd and Scroggie are then, I think, unlikely soulmates—the one alarmingly delicate in many ways, the other tough as old boots; one full of lyrical mysticism, the other pragmatic and forthright to a fault; but both possessed by a deep need to be in the mountains, as a source of calm and solace.

I’ll leave you with another snippet of Scroggie’s poetry, which will resonate, I’m sure, with any hill-lover conscious of advancing years:

I will attempt the Capel Track,
Old, stiff and retrograde,
And get some pal to push me on
Should resolution fade.
For I must see black Meikle Pap
Against a starry sky,
And watch the dawn from Lochnagar
Once more before I die.


* “Ferla More” is undoubtedly a reference to the legendary Fear Liath Mor (“Big Grey Man”) of Ben Macdui—a supernatural creature said to haunt the slopes of that mountain. In Scene & Unseen Scroggie rather revels in the concept of “spookiness”, and evinces a keen interested in the Big Grey Man.
Your Reviewer confesses to a certain sympathy with Scroggie’s viewpoint on this. The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme is nowadays one of the tick boxes completed by many applicants to Medical School, and I once made a point, during a day of interviews, of asking each award-bearing applicant what they’d taken away from the scheme. I heard a lot about resourcefulness and self-belief, of developing character, of rising to challenges and overcoming adversity; one even talked about “pushing on through misery”. Not one of them mentioned developing a love of the outdoor environment; several quite obviously now hated it with a passion.

R.A.J. Matthews: Tumbling Toast, Murphy’s Law And The Fundamental Constants

Dropped toast

In what follows we model the tumbling toast problem as an example of a rigid, rough, homogeneous rectangular lamina, mass m, side 2a, falling from a rigid platform set a height h above the ground. We consider the dynamics of the toast from an initial state where its centre of gravity overhangs the table by a distance δ0

Robert A.J. Matthews published this seminal bit of applied physics in 1995. The journal reference is European Journal of Physics 16(4): 172-6, and you can access the full paper at ResearchGate, here. For his efforts, he was awarded an Ig Nobel Prize in 1996.

Matthews was the first (but by no means the last) to use mathematical physics to explore the popular claim that “dropped toast always lands butter-side down”. The usual “explanation” invoked for this perceived rule is Murphy’s Law—“If anything can go wrong, it will”—but Matthews sought to show that there were sound physical principles underlying the phenomenon.

He starts by dismissing the common physical explanations offered to account for this, principally airy claims relating to off-centre mass or aerodynamics effects created by the butter. He also dismisses those experiments that have claimed to disprove the rule—it’s unsurprising that buttered toast hurled randomly into the air* shows no particular preference for the side on which it alights, but this hardly reproduces the normal process by which toast falls.

Matthews starts with a static rectangle of toast, as described in the quotation at the head of this post. When its centre of mass moves beyond the edge of the table, it begins to tip over under the force of gravity. With any angle of tipping beyond zero (horizontal), gravity also produces a force that tries to slide the toast farther over the edge of the table. This is initially opposed by friction with the table edge, but eventually translates into a sliding motion. Gravity continues to accelerate the rate of rotation until the combination of sliding and rotation lifts the trailing part of the toast away from the table edge. Thereafter, the toast falls freely, and now rotates at a constant rate (neglecting air friction) until it hits the ground. If the toast rotates more than 90º but less than 270º on its way to the ground, it will strike butter-side down. Matthews appears to ignore the <90º regime during his initial analysis, presumably because toast falling from table height is observed to always rotate farther than that before hitting the floor.

In the quotation at the head of this post, Matthews sets the half-length of the toast to a, and the length by which the centre of gravity overhangs the edge of the table to δ. From these he defines an “overhang parameter”, η, equal to δ/a. The critical overhang parameter at which the tipping toast loses contact with the table edge is η0, and the tipping angle at which this occurs is φ. With g representing the acceleration due to gravity, he derives an equation for the constant angular velocity of the free-falling toast, ω0:

\omega _{0}^{2}=\left ( \frac{6g}{a} \right )\left ( \frac{\eta _{0}}{1+3\eta _{0}^{2}} \right )sin\phi 

The time, τ, it takes the toast to fall to the floor under gravity can be estimated using an approximation of the total distance it falls:

\tau =\sqrt{\frac{2(h-2a)}{g}}

And if the toast is to successfully rotate through “butter-side down” and into “butter-side up” during this time then:

\omega_{0}\tau > 270^{\circ }-\phi 

So that’s the story. Toast tips, slides, rotates free of the table edge, and then falls with a constant rate of rotation until it hits the floor after some elapsed time determined by the height from which it falls. If it rotates fast enough, or falls from high enough, it will manage to land butter-side up. But there will be a critical range of rotation rates and heights which will carry the toast into a butter-side-down impact.

The overhang parameter η0 is critical—if the toast has high enough friction with the table edge it will maintain contact with the edge for longer, allowing its rotational velocity to build up more before it falls free, maximizing the chance of a butter-side-up impact. Matthews derives a rather splendid formula for the minimum value of η0 which will generate sufficient rotational velocity for a butter-side-up landing.

\eta _{0}> \frac{2(h/a-2)\left ( 1-\sqrt{1-\frac{\pi ^4}{12(h/a-2)}} \right )}{\pi ^{2}}

(I’ve somewhat rearranged the equations in his paper, here, but the above is equivalent to those he provides.) For a table height h = 75cm and half-length of toast slice a = 5cm, it turns out that η0 has to be greater than 0.06.

Experiments involving bread, toast and kitchen Contiboard ensue, and Matthews finds that toast has a characteristic η0 of just 0.015, with untoasted bread only a little higher at 0.02. In his words:

This implies that laminae with either composition do not have sufficient angular rotation to land butter-side up following free-fall from a table-top. In other words, the material properties of slices of toast and bread and their size relative to the height of the typical table are such that, in the absence of any rebound phenomena, they lead to a distinct bias towards a butter-side down landing.

In fact, we can work out the minimum table height above which falling toast will have time to rotate far enough to land butter-side-up:

\frac{h}{a}=2+\frac{\pi ^{2}\left ( 1+3\eta _{0}^{2} \right )}{12\eta _{0}}

Plugging in the previously derived numbers yields an inconvenient minimum height of three metres.

Matthews then explores the effect of the horizontal velocity with which the toast departs the table edge—if fired over the edge with sufficient speed, the toast would have little time to start tipping over, would gain correspondingly little rotational velocity, and might stay relatively horizontal all the way to the floor. (That is, it would stay in the <90º rotation regime.) He concludes that the normal range of speeds with which toast is nudged off tables or tipped off plates is insufficiently high to prevent the butter-side-down landing.

Finally, there’s a section dealing with the fundamental constants of nature. In it, he builds on a paper by William H. Press, “Man’s size in terms of the fundamental constants” (American Journal of Physics, 48(8): 597-8), which you can find as a pdf here. Distilling down a more detailed argument, Matthews concludes that the upper height limit, LH, for humans is constrained by the ratio of the strengths of the electromagnetic force (which holds our bodies together) and the gravitational force (which breaks us if we fall from too great a height). If we got much taller than LH, we’d frequently sustain disabling or life-threatening injuries from simple trips and falls. After pushing around some equations, he concludes that:

L_{H}<\sim 50\times \left ( {\alpha /\alpha _{G}} \right )^{1/4}\alpha _{0}

Where α is the electromagnetic fine structure constant, αG the gravitational coupling constant for protons, and α0 the Bohr radius. These arguments are at best order-of-magnitude estimates, but Matthews plugs in the numbers and finds a surprisingly reasonable maximum figure of three metres for LH.

Matthews concludes that the frictional properties of toast set a limit on its rotation rate when falling from an edge, while the basic constants of the Universe set a limit on how tall humans are, which in turn sets a limit (about half LH) on how high useful tables are.

Our principal conclusion is a surprising one, given the apparently quotidian nature of the original phenomenon: all human-like organisms are destined to experience the ‘tumbling toast’ manifestation of Murphy’s Law because of the values of the fundamental constants of the universe. As such, we have probably confirmed the suspicions of many regarding the innate cussedness of the universe.

What to do? Reducing the size of the toast to match the scale of our tables is one solution, but the required size of ~2.5cm squares is (as Matthews remarks) “unsatisfactory”. He proposes instead the counterintuitive solution of speeding the toast on its way, to limit its opportunity to build up rotational velocity—flick it briskly over the edge, or snatch the supporting plate away, backwards and downwards.

So now you know.


* The BBC’s QED strand conducted just such an experiment in 1991.
Matthews’ work provoked a flurry of additional publications investigating the problem of tumbling toast. Analysis of video suggested that the free-falling toast rotates faster than Matthews predicted, probably because he had neglected the kinetic friction that occurs during the sliding phase. For more on the topic, take a look at the following:
Bacon ME, Heald G, James M. “A closer look at tumbling toast” American Journal of Physics (2001) 69(1): 38-43
Borghi R. “On the tumbling toast problem” European Journal of Physics (2012) 33: 1407-20

T.J. Bass: The Short Stories

Covers of If magazine containing T.J. Bass short stories

He stood up and walked to the still form of his assailant. A female. Her abdominal muscles were still twitching, but no breath moved through her open mouth. He felt no pulse. Between her breasts he saw his brown-stained heel print. The sternum was depressed and made gritty sounds when he palpated it. Fractured. And probably displaced into the mediastinum, cutting off venous blood flow back to the heart. He grabbed both of her wrists and jerked them over her head, levering the bone fragments up.
Her heart fluttered and began to beat as soon as the pressure was taken off the large veins. She gasped several times, mouthing like a dry fish. Her face pinked up.

T.J. Bass, “Star Seeder” (1969)

That’s T.J. Bass’s fairly typical take on what happens if you kick someone really hard in the chest. I’ve written about Bass before, in my post about his two “Hive” novels, Half Past Human (1971) and The Godwhale (1973). These were expanded versions of three shorter stories previously published in Galaxy and Worlds of If magazines (for more details, see my previous post). Both novels were fêted in their time, each receiving a Nebula nomination, but have now faded into the classic-but-largely-forgotten category that provides me with so much material to post about.

In addition to his two novels and the three stories on which they were based, Bass published only four other stories, all of which appeared in If magazine between 1968 and 1971. To my knowledge, none of these were ever anthologized or otherwise collected, so they fell into almost instant obscurity. But they’re all now available on-line, courtesy of the Internet Archive, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to read them, and then tell you about them.

Unsurprisingly, they have all of Bass’s stylistic trademarks—replete with medical jargon and a calculated dose of body horror, delivered in a rattling telegraphic style, all exemplified in my quote at the head of this post. More interestingly, they’re all set in the same “Hive” universe as his novels. But whereas the events of the novels largely take place on a grossly overpopulated far-future Earth, the short stories deal with the fate of human colonies planted in other star systems during an earlier, expansive period of human history, only briefly alluded to in the novels.

I’ve often felt that the sentient starship Olga, which has walk-on parts in the novels, seemed to have more of a back-story than Bass was letting us in on. In particular, there seemed to be no particular narrative reason for his Godwhale protagonist, Larry Dever, to be brought out of hibernation during the early star-colonization era to briefly interact with Olga, only to go back into hibernation for a couple of thousand years so that he can be woken up in the Hive and get the story properly started. And why was Olga written in all-caps, like an acronym, in The Godwhale? Why was the future calendar of Half Past Human based on “The Year of Olga”?

Something was clearly going on. And that something was, it turns out, Bass making reference to his own short stories, which might still have been relatively fresh in his readers’ minds during the early ’70s. Below, I’ll deal with each story in turn, and my links will take you directly to the story in the relevant magazine issue held by the Internet Archive.


First comes “Star Itch” (Worlds of If, September 1968), which is the only story that appears under Bass’s real name, Thomas J. Bassler. It introduces the artificial intelligence Olga, which is in charge of sending out colonization ships to distant star systems. She is about to send out Procyon Implant Two—a second mission to a planet of the star Procyon. (In The Godwhale, Bass would later describe how Olga had tried unsuccessfully to recruit Larry Dever for the first Procyon mission.) Two colonists are introduced—Ralph Eggers (an engineering student and long-distance runner), and Bob Zuliani (a medic and hedonist). And we learn that “OLGA” stands for “Optic, Lingual, Graphic, Auditory”, the modalities by which Olga can communicate with humans. (Which may well not interest you, but solves a forty-year-old puzzle for me.) The colony ship departs, the colonists enter hibernation for the journey, and Ralph has a truly horrible experience which contributes very little to the story, but seems to be included in the narrative purely because it’s truly horrible and Bass had a lot of fun writing it.

At Procyon, it becomes evident that the first colony mission has failed, and the story turns into a “What happened to all the colonists?” puzzle. Ralph is sent down to the planet to investigate, and has another truly horrible time. The disappearance of the colonists evidently involves a complicated and progressive disease, which Bass describes with considerable enthusiasm and detail. It falls to Bob to work out what is going on, and the story reaches a satisfactory conclusion, though Ralph might well disagree.


Next is “Star Seeder” (Worlds of If, September 1969), which immediately introduces another character named Zuliani, who turns out to be a great-great-great-grandson of Bob Zuliani, living in the now-successful Procyon Implant Two colony. This new Zuliani is involved in a sort of gladiatorial combat when we first meet him, which serves to establish his character and capabilities, and gives Bass the opportunity to describe some more trauma. Zuliani wears a belt imbued with artificial intelligence, which provides him with companionship and advice—another concept that Bass used again in The Godwhale. The belt save Zuliani’s life by warning him when he is about to be attacked by a humanoid alien, and then the story settles down into a problem-solving narrative. The aliens (whom the humans unflatteringly call “Dregs”) inhabit the rim of the galaxy, and seek to control Humanity’s expansionist impulses. They will not permit colony ships to travel out of the galaxy to Andromeda, but will permit an exploratory vessel with a single crew member. Zuliani is to be that crew member, and the “problem” Zuliani must solve is how to sneak the makings of an entire human colony past the vigilant Dregs.

It’s an odd piece, and not particularly successful—the problem is deeply contrived, and there are several plot holes. But the solution is another bit of the “medical futurism” at which Bass excelled.


“A Game Of Biochess” (Worlds Of If, February 1970), introduces Olga again, though she seems to have undergone something of a demotion, now acting as the artificial intelligence for a starship operated by a single human named Spider. Spider is another of Bass’s physically unusual protagonists, suffering from a developmental shortening of his left arm and right leg. During a lay-over at Grus Satellite Station, Spider enjoys a chaste dalliance with a woman named Rau Lu, whom he encounters during the titular game of biochess.

Olga subsequently identifies a reduction in Spider’s efficiency, which she diagnoses as being due to unrequited love, and the remainder of the story involves Spider’s efforts to track down Rau Lu again. The ending introduces another character that Bass refers to opaquely in The Godwhale; and there’s a surprise twist, revealed in the final paragraph.


Finally, “The Beast Of 309” (World Of If, January 1971) introduces Caesar, whose earliest memory is of waking up in Orphanage 309 after undergoing surgery to remove his left eye. The story narrates Caesar’s quest to discover the identity of the father who abandoned him at the orphanage, to find out why his eye was removed at an early age, and to earn enough money to be able to afford a transplant eye, genetically compatible with his own body.

The story plays out in various locations recognizable from the story of Spider and Rau Lu. The final revelation that solves all mysteries is simultaneously clever and chilling. (Bass partially reused this plot element in The Godwhale, but I think it’s much more effective in the neat closed loop he constructs here.)


I enjoyed reading these. (I know, I almost always say that. That’s because I don’t bother telling you about stuff I don’t enjoy reading.) But they have the same delights and frustrations as Bass’s novels—full of biological inventiveness, crammed with narrative ideas, but also full of rushed sections, discontinuities and plot holes, as if Bass was simply too impatient to get his ideas down on paper.

Nor are they entirely consistent with each other, or with the novels. Bass didn’t write a coherent future history, but offers us a bundle of alternate future histories featuring common characters and locations.

I’d recommend trying “The Beast Of 309” first, for its interesting ending. “Star Seeder” is weak. The other two are good fun, though I’d say that “Star Itch” is perhaps “unsuitable for viewers of a nervous disposition”, as the television used to warn me when I was a child (albeit a child imbued with nerves of steel).

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