Saturday, 27 July 2013

Mr. B’s Reading Year No. 2: The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron (1937)

Bruce Chatwin writes the introduction to this travel book, marking this book, written in 1933, as perhaps the best written travel book ever and bemoaning the loss of so many sights, smells and experiences to history.   Starting in Venice, this is the description of Byron’s journey to Oxiana, land of the River Oxus on the border between Afghanistan and Russia, with much time in Persia, today’s Iran.  He makes it on to India and ends back at home in Savernake, near where I went to school, where he cryptically hands his notes to his mother to see what she makes of it – yes, it was published!  What a joy this book is to read.  What writing!  His particular interest is in the ancient architecture of the lands he travels through.  Towers, tombs, triumphal arches, even old cities, as well as mosques and mausoleums are brought to life, some over 1000 years old.  Along the way, the vistas and people he meets and how they live are wonderfully described.  This must have been a tough trip to make, from all perspectives.  Many people helped him, some hindered, including the Shah of Persia (not named, except as the nickname Marjoribanks) and his administration.  As ever, the people continue their lives in spite of their leaders, just as I found in Tehran in 2010, 77 years later.  I too visited Isfahan and marvelled at the beautiful and wonderfully constructed mosque of Sheikh Lutfullah near the Blue Mosque and saw the stone polo goal posts at each end of the parade ground in front.  Alas, I suspect many of the monuments Byron saw are no more, though the best are preserved as World Heritage sites, including ancient ziggurats. Persia is a romantic, interesting, hard working, well-educated country that still, after all its changes, deserves better leadership.  One hopes it will happen soon.  Visit if you can.  It is worth it.  Tragically, Robert Byron was torpedoed off West Africa in 1941 aged just 36, while working as a correspondent.  He published four travel books.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Turkey 2013: EWRS conference, Samsun, the Datca Peninsular and Istanbul

I fear our carbon footprint is growing. This trip, part work and part holiday, took eight flights to complete, but allowed us to see several parts of this diverse and fascinating country.  First up, was getting to Samsun, a city we will hear more of in the future on the northern Black Sea coast.  This was the venue for the 16th European Weed Research Society Symposium at the Ondokuz Mayýs University.  Leaving Bristol early at 06:00 we passed through Amsterdam and Istanbul Atatürk (KLM, then Turkish Airlines) before being picked up with others for our hotel, arriving at 22:30 local time.  Do-Soon Kim from Seoul and Per Kudsk from Denmark were at Istanbul, both editors for Weed Research.  We were up early on Sunday morning as I was teaching a course from 09:00 to 17:00 on “How to write a paper for an international scientific Journal” ahead of the conference.  I had a good group of attendees from 11 countries and it was a successful interactive day.  That was followed by an Editorial Board meeting for Weed Research, the society journal for which I am the Editor-in-Chief.  The conference was well-run and the social events were good, including an unexpected trip on a small ship up and down the coast for the attendees of the entire conference. 

Leaving Samsun on the Friday morning, we fly with Pegasus to Istanbul Sabiha Gökçen, then on to Bodrum near the south coast.  We had hired a car cheaply and managed to collect a slightly battered Renault Symbol outside the airport car park, signed for it on the bonnet and headed for the hills.  Not having a great deal of power was probably a good thing, driving on the right side of the road.  We drove north east over high hills, then south east, then south west along the Datca Peninsular.  We picked this for its distance from holiday destinations, looking for peace and a real break.  We were not disappointed, staying at the Flow Datca Surf and Beach Club, enjoying a bit of luxury.  The gardens around the pool were full of palms, olives and flowering Bougainvillea, not far from the sea.  The hot sun was ameliorated with a steady breeze.  Not that we did any, the hotel has a well-equipped windsurfing school on the beach, with people batting over the waves most of the day.  We drove to the end of the peninsular one day to visit the ancient city site of Knidos.  What views, with a double harbour on the Aegean and Mediterranean sides!  The British Museum has a huge carved lion from here, amongst other purloined artefacts. 

After five gloriously restful days, we drove to Dalaman airport and flew to Istanbul.  We had arranged a minibus to run us in to our hotel, also booked online.  All went well and we crossed from the Asian shore to the European and were driven past Taksim Square to the old town.  We were looking out over the great Blue Mosque with Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi Palace a stroll away.  We did all these sites and more, taking in the Grand Bazaar where we bought throws for the sitting room and a leather belt for me.  Bargaining was fun.  We also went to the Spice or Egyptian Bazaar and came away with Iranian saffron and lovely Turkish delights.  Our return journey was a long one, starting with a very early pickup at 03:30 for Atatürk airport and a 06:00 flight to Schiphol.  With an 8 hour wait, we headed into Amsterdam by bus and train and took a tram for the Rijksmuseum, which is now fully open.  The Rembrandts and Vermeers were grand, as were the doll’s houses!  After lunch in the museum, we headed back to the airport and landed in Bristol at 16:30.  The only disappointment after a great trip was when we picked up the dogs … unfortunately Teasel had been set upon and had had 7 wounds and umpteen stitches, Rosie 5 stitches and Holly a couple of nips.  After a second operation, Teasel is now back to her usual self, even if she is having to wear a plastic lampshade to stop her licking stitches.  

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Mr. B’s Reading Year No. 1: Fire Season by Philip Connors (2011)

Hilary gave me this great present last year – 11 books through the year selected by Mr. B’s wonderful and award-winning bookshop in Bath - but I only started getting the books towards the end of 2012.  First book up, Fire Season by Philip Connors, is this fascinating description of times in the Gila National Forest on the Texas-Mexico border as a fire-watcher.  This is a no-road wilderness, something we can only dream of in the UK.  There are lyrical passages of life alone in the high mountains with Alice, his faithful dog, over the summers.  The characters he meets, the fire teams and some passing through on the long-distance hiking trail, are interesting and varied.  There is romance, with his wife, Martha, how they met and increasing tension as to how they can carry on living apart over the summers.  The unanswered question is will he have to return to the Wall Street Journal after ten years and do a “real” job again. Philip Connors has a great feel for nature and ecology and brings to life the history of US forest management and the policies of individual foresters that have shaped that history.  Local history and characters colour the book.  Alongside Martha, Alice and himself is a fourth major character in this book – Fire.  Fires are dangerous – tragically reconfirmed very recently with the deaths of 19 men, an entire forest fire crew, in the US. Hence the old policy that US forests would no longer burn and firewatchers were installed across many national forests.  However, as Connors so well describes, fire is a natural force and without it, the ecology of huge areas of the US have been damaged.  Many forests are adapted to fire and require it for tree succession.  Slowly, natural burns, which often start from lightning strikes, are being allowed, though closely monitored by the fire watchers and fire crews, with the result that the natural ecology is returning. There is spectacular scenery in the US, especially the National Parks, a little of which Hilary and I saw on our 3000 mile road trip from Texas, via New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, a little bit of Wyoming to Denver, Colorado in 2007.