Monday, June 29, 2020
FROM OCEAN TO OCEAN ACROSS A CONTINENT ON A BICYCLE
Jerome J. Murif (1863-1926)
"A vague longing to do something..." is what inspired Jerome to plan a ride over some of the harshest country in the southern hemisphere. Once he'd decided to actually do it, he looked around for quite a while for a bicycle that he thought could stand up to the trip. He was under no illusions about the terrain: Although not terribly mountainous, it consisted in large measure of seasonally dry lake beds and creeks. Mud cracks, root holes, "gibbers" (loose rocks and boulders), mulga scrub and spear grass (up to twelve feet high with seeds that stabbed passers-by and burrowed into their skin). Not to mention the ubiquitous millions of flies and mosquitos, or snakes by the dozen. At length he bought an Electra. Hugo Wertheim was the manufacturer, a piano producer and also a maker of sewing machines. Murif didn't want to be a moving advertisement, though, so he removed the brand name and substituted "Diamond" in its place.
His intention was to travel lightly, as he meant to make full use of railroad and telegraph "stations" that dotted his planned route with some regularity. That worked out quite well, and Jerome had to camp out in the wild a minimum number of times, mostly taking advantage of the open hospitality proffered, as a general rule, by the said stations. In terms of setting the bicycle up for arduous conditions, he added extra rubber to the tires and carried enough neatsfoot oil to last the trip. In those days, wheel hubs had small capped holes for oiling the wheel bearings; this had to be done fairly often. For his own luggage, he strapped several bags to the handle bars and carried a satchel over his shoulder for more immediate availability.
To begin with he bought a voucher book he planned on using to verify his mileage by gathering signatures from station managers, workers, ranchers and farmers. The first person to sign was the Postmaster of Glenelg, near Adelaide. Jerome wheeled his bike into the surf of the southern ocean, got the signature, told his landlady he wouldn't be home for tea, and left. He biked fifty miles the first day, to Kapunda, noting in his diary the Flinders range on his right. The road was clay mixed with "ironstone" and partly paved. This fairly satisfactory surface only lasted for several hundred miles, though, and after that he had to wade creeks, dodge ten foot high ant hills, evade cracks up to 4" wide, suffer the constant attentions of millions of flies, and keep a sharp eye out for snakes. He accidentally ran over a small snake - a mere 3 feet long - and had to pedal faster because it chased him. His rate of pedaling was just about 62 gear inches. This is a figure used in cycling to represent the rate of travel. The number of teeth in the chain gear multiplied by the tire size, divided by the number of teeth in the rear cog, equals "gear inches". (That's about what i have on my bike and i go about 12 mph @about 60 rpm).
One day he stopped to get a drink from a small water fall and slung his satchel over a nearby fence while doing so. When he was finished he noticed a horse, obviously starved and tired, leaning against the fence post and trapping the bag. Murif's description of the animal was a "barrel-hooped skeleton held together by rawhide". He tried everything he could think of to get the horse to move with no luck. He rode off about four miles then came back to see if the horse had shifted at all. It hadn't and Jerome didn't mention whether he recovered the satchel or not. Moving right along, head winds were a constant problem, occasionally stirring up dust storms that made track finding a major hassle. Three cornered Jacks made life unpleasant: they were thorns so structured that one of their points was directed upward however it happened to fall on the ground. Because of thicker tires, these weren't normally a difficulty, but flats occurred occasionally even so.
Sometimes cycling wasn't in the cards. Frequently the terrain was so rough and rocky, or wet and slimy, that he had to push the bike, or even carry it. He finally reached Oodnadatta with eyes sore from fly attacks and pretty well worn out from pushing and carrying. This was 688 miles from Adelaide. He rested up for five days, then set off again. Vast plains, sand flats and hills, stony tablelands all presented their individual hardships until Murif at last crossed into the Northern Territory at Charlotte Waters telegraph station. After a short rest, he continued on through the intense heat (124 in the shade) and almost immediately got off on the wrong track and became lost. And got stomach cramps from the heat, or possibly bad water. Casting about, he got back on the right road and soldiered on.
He started seeing occasional natives, and was a bit alarmed at first, due to gossip about how dangerous they could be. As it turned out, gossip is what the stories were, the aboriginal peoples being merely curious and helpful. Meeting one of them in a desert, the spear carrier observed, "white feller riding big mosquito".
Acacia, mulga, spinifex, desert oak and loose sand hills made pedaling impossible sometimes. Just before Depot Wells, he had to carry the bike for 15 miles, zig-zagging up and down red sand hills in the constant heat. At Alice Springs, situated in a sort of hole in the MacDonnell mountains, he took a few days off before tackling the Todd, a sort of gap that penetrated the range and led into a wilder portion of the continent. Here there were fewer stations and ranches, and not as many water holes. His clothes were getting worn out. "A torn garment called through the rent, for thread, and i gave it some". He amused himself by playing tunes on the bicycle spokes. Between Barron and Tennant creeks there were no ranches or stations for 160 miles, but Jerome decided to just starve for a bit and set out with just his water bag. A friendly householder had given him a piece of cake that he was carrying in his hand and he accidentally dropped it while pedaling. So he stopped and went back to find it. Returning, he saw that his water bag had fallen over and leaked most of the liquid into the sand. Disheartened but determined, he forged ahead anyway and ran into even more trouble. He ran into an anthill (they are like concrete) and bruised himself badly but didn't damage Diamond. Suffering from dire thirst, he fell into a water hole which held only salt water. Pushing through red loam and heavy sand he reached The Devil's Marbles, a collection of giant granite blocks haphazardly strewn over the landscape. He saw a monster lizard, not resembling any known reptile, and at last got himself lost again following a billabong (a dead-end branch of a creek). Another 30 miles and he had the good fortune to meet two fence riders who gave him food and water. They had a conversation about metempsychosis (soul migration): perhaps an apt topic relating to his waterless experience.
Powell's Creek station marked the end of the wild country and at this point Murif began to sense victory. He passed by Lake Woods, a body of water 90 miles in circumference and almost immediately was in jungle: trees with trunks 30 feet around, and flowers of all sorts and hues. Thick grass gave him some problems: the bike would stand up in it without falling over. But the end was rapidly approaching. A series of long rides led into Palmerston, near Darwin, the effective end of the trip. The Palmerston Cycling Club met him 2.5 miles out of town and cheered him all the way to the ocean, where he rode into the surf, having completed over 2000 miles of extremely difficult country. In his final analysis, the only comment Jerome made that was recorded, was that his excellent bike had not even broken one spoke on the whole journey.
This was another remarkable adventure by an extraordinary human being. The book was conversational, humorous in a way that i took to be typically Australian, and well written. I had the feeling that if Murif had known beforehand how hard it was going to be he might not have done it. But it was a superb accomplishment and he deserved all the recognition he got. Later, he held various positions in Australia until he migrated to America, where he spent the balance of his life in the Bay Area. He died and was buried in San Mateo, near where i used to live...
Saturday, June 20, 2020
WHEELBARROW ACROSS THE SAHARA
Geoff Howard (b. 1945?)
Geoff and his wife Joan spent a year in Nigeria just after they were married. They were both members of a religious society and they taught in a small school located in northern Nigeria. After mulling over the question of how to help the poverty- stricken natives, Geoff came up with the idea of crossing the Sahara on foot without dependence on outside assistance in order to drum up some publicity and financial aid to help them. He did some experimentation and came to the conclusion that a Chinese wheelbarrow, with a mast and sail, would be ideal for the set of problems that he anticipated.
Securing support from corporations, societies and businesses occupied much of his spare time for two years. He wrote 1500 letters to equipment providers, corporations, businesses and societies of all sorts and finally, in 1974 he was ready to go. The British Special Air Service provided support in the form of two soldiers who were to accompany him with a Land Rover. Mick and Paddy were experienced mechanics and campers and their role was to supply protection and infrastructural support. They were there in case Geoff needed rescuing, basically, and to facilitate repairs on the wheelbarrow. Geoff had trained for the trip, running and practicing with the wheelbarrow on the beach. He hoped to make the trek without ancillary assistance, relying on the storage capacity of the machine and the occasional village or town to provide water and food.
Taking ship to Tangier, Algeria, they drove to Algeria, apprehensively dealing with border guards and patrolling soldiers. At the actual border crossing they bribed the local official with two cans of beer. They had to drive south to the starting point, Beni Abbas. They traveled mainly at night to evade official notice. On Christmas Eve, they drank to a successful endeavour. Leaving early in the morning on Christmas Day, Geoff managed to shove the wheelbarrow for 13 miles before he was totally exhausted. And this was on a paved road. Only one of the unanticipated difficulties was the wind. Surges and gusts tended to blow against the barrow and, since it was loaded with 2 to 3 hundred pounds of gear, it required a lot of strength to keep it on a level roll. And any irregularities in the surface were magnified as the vibrations were transferred through the hand bars to the operators body. No shock absorbers.
Geoff gradually got used to the unaccustomed exertion and by the time the pavement ended in two hundred miles, he was coping fairly well. His routine involved cooking his own food and doing his own cleaning and camp regimen; at the end of the day he was commonly exhausted and as a result had frequent trouble with some of his equipment. The stove in particular seemed to plug up with sand a lot. It was only several hundred miles later that he found that a piece of fabric was partially impeding gas flow to the burner. Later in the trip, due to a bad gasket, it was responsible for burning Geoff's tent and almost Geoff himself. But most of his trouble lay with the terrain he was covering. There were sand pits and ruts across the road which seemed, more often than not, to jerk the barrow out of his hands and dump it on the ground. Lifting it back up was increasingly strenuous as he lost energy during the day. The sand pits acted like unannounced brakes, and jarred him painfully when he ran into one and the bars were wrenched out of his grasp. Additionally, the barrow would get often stuck in a rut or pothole and sometimes Geoff had to twist the machine around and pull it out inch by inch.
He was drinking up to twenty pints of water a day and never had enough to eat. Since there was no spare water, he couldn't bathe, and consequently attracted flies, which he pretty quickly got used to, as they covered his exposed face and neck. Diarrhoea was a constant problem, probably related to not being able to wash the dishes very well if at all. After 4 to 500 miles the wheel started to wear out. The rim was made out of aluminum and seated in a kind of foam mesh that began to deteriorate, so that the rim itself started wobbling and became damaged as a result. Luckily, there was a spare wheel in the Rover, which either Mick or Paddy swapped out with the worn out one, but fairly soon it began to give trouble as well. The rim on the second wheel was supported with spokes, like a bicycle wheel, and they weren't strong enough to resist the lateral and vertical forces that the poor contraption had to deal with.
But they coped, one way or another. The daily routine involved the two soldiers driving ahead to a suitable camping spot and waiting for Geoff to catch up with them. If he was delayed, they'd go back and help him. Theoretically, Geoff wasn't supposed to accept any help, but that rule soon went by the wayside, and the heat and mechanical breakdowns demanded that all three co-operate just in order to survive. Mud villages were fairly common along the route, and passersby were also frequent. The principal law of the desert seemed to be that all travelers, regardless of nationality or origin, helped each other with food, water, or assistance whenever required. Things progressed fairly well until they reached the Niger border, where the road got a lot worse. Part of it was deep sand that strained Geoff's muscles to the utmost. Sometimes the mountains he encountered drove him to tears. To make matters harder, a species of very small sharp thorn, apparently ubiquitously distributed over their route, made life a misery for walkers and vehicle tires.
They had several days of rest at Tamanrasset, but they were constrained by a deadline to hurry as much as they could, because they didn't want to be caught traveling in the summer time. As it was , the temperature reached 110 degrees in central Niger. But Geoff got stronger as time went on. One day he managed to cover 30 miles in spite of sand holes and ruts that made for grueling progress. Finally after 2000 miles, they reached their destination, Kano in north Nigeria. When they crossed into the latter country, Mick and Paddy weren't allowed to cross because the officers back in England had neglected to forward the requisite visas. So Geoff went on alone, but soon made friends with various tourist types who gave him a lot of assistance, both physical and moral. When he reached Kano, he trundled along toward the airport where he had arranged to meet his wife, who was flying in from England. But before he got there, he saw a figure in the distance whom he at first thought was another native, but soon realized it was Mrs. Howard. Ecstatic reunion.
Geoff went back to his job as Reverend in Salford, England, where he stayed right up until the present day, apparently. This was a most amazing story. Mr. Howard displayed more grit and guts than any explorer i've ever heard of; the daily pain and exertion would have killed or discouraged almost any other person attempting such a feat. It was at times painful reading about the hardships, quandaries, and dilemmas the small group managed to deal with daily. The writing was standard English prose, very readable and clear, and, if anything, understated the horrors that they faced every day. I'd read this book again if I hadn't already read it. Maybe i will anyway. Excellent and inspiring...
Sunday, June 14, 2020
SYMZONIA: A VOYAGE OF DISCOVERY
John Cleve Symmes, Jr. (1780-1829)
The beginning of the 19th century was a time of increasing general interest in scientific phenomena. All sorts of innocent and occasionally weird theories arose, among which was the one about a hollow earth. John Symmes was rather taken away by the thought and wrote articles and one novel describing and explaining how such a geological curiousity had come about, and what it was actually like down there.
Captain Seaborn, hired to lead the expedition, had a 400 ton ship built, with which he intended to sail through the Antarctic seas to the inner earth. The vessel was steam-powered but was also equipped with masts and sails. The driving force was via mechanically operated paddles that protruded through the ship's sides at an angle. They were designed to be retractable in hazardous situations, as in plowing through heavy ice. After obtaining a crew, he set out on August 1, 1817, the initial destination being the Falkland Islands. This archipelago (over 400 islands) was portrayed as having a mild climate which supported hogs and goats, being covered with tussock grass, an ideal fodder. Penguins were abundant and Seaborn and his crew admired the towns the animals had built for themselves, with neatly designed streets and house-like nests arranged just like city blocks. They seemed to have an active social life, and an organized political structure that could only (according to Seaborn's observations) have originated from a civilization inside the earth. Approaching South Georgia, the Captain also explained why the South Pole must be free of ice, citing refracted sunlight and the seven months of sunshine lasting 24 hours a day.
Not all of the crew were sanguine about this theory, and one of them, Slim, fomenting rebellion, led them in a mutiny. But Captain Seaborn managed to convince them that if nothing else, they would find lots of seals to harvest which would make them rich. They continued on and soon found land and a large harbor. Dropping anchor, they explored the vicinity a bit and were surprised upon returning to the ship to find it sitting on dry land. Soon after, however, a tidal bore was seen approaching which lifted the vessel 80 feet. They were pushed up a nearby river for fifty miles into an old growth forest and discovered, after debarking, a number of mammoth bones lying around. Later a live one appeared and encouraged them to regain the ship. Returning to the bay, some of the crew set up permanent house-keeping and planned on spending the winter hunting for seals. The rest of the contingent continued on toward the south, but soon ran into an ice barrier along the edge of which they traveled until they came upon a gap which provided access to the interior. The ice was apparently a sort of girdle that surrounded the South Pole, and was (according to the Captain) created by the condensation of warm air emanating from the inside of the planet meeting the cold air common to the polar region.
The Captain and his crew resumed sailing but after a short period noticed that the compass was now pointing north. After five days they veered to the east for another seven days after which they sighted land. A ship with five masts and narrow sails appeared and after a short exchange, the two vessels entered another harbor behind an island (sort of like the relation which the Isle of Wight bears to the English mainland). The new arrivals saw a land of rolling hills, cows, green with tussock grass and trees with snow covered mountains in the background. Captain Seaborn landed by himself and was conducted to a large white building, resembling in part a sort of ancient Greek temple. He met a short man who bowed and sat on his feet like an East Indian and they attempted to communicate. Over several weeks, Seaborn became familiar with their language, but the little person has already learned English. They are, evidently, extremely intelligent.
Seaborn is invited by Surui (his teacher's name) to a Senate session to see how the government operates in the new country. Leaving the crew and ship behind, they travel up the local river about 100 miles. In the distance is seen the Auditory, a building 750 feet high, made of stone on top of a hill. It's supported by massive columns, and the hill has been dug away and the resulting cavity has been converted into an arena with benches placed on the sloping embankment so that the entire structure resembled a football stadium. Surui and Seaborn enter the establishment along with thousands of natives and they listen to a concert played by a 500 piece orchestra. Afterwards, the Best Man (equivalent to a president) sits in a swivel chair and deals with issues brought up by the audience.
Later, Seaborn meets with the Best Man in person, and they discuss various subjects. At first the natives had mistaken Seaborn for an escapee from the north part of the country, near our North Pole, a kind of penal colony established for the rare disaffected and violent persons who cannot live in society. In fact, after some deliberation, the Best Man believes that the inhabitants of the exterior of the planet originated from prisoners migrating through the hole at the north end of the planet to populate the outside of it. Seaborn attempts to justify his own civilization but without much luck. He teaches them about books and printing, these being the sole benefits the locals value from the strange visitor. The "internals" are universally peaceful and quiet, eschewing alcohol and drugs of any sort and are not ambitious or greedy. They believe that "Usefulness is the test of value", being basically Utilitarians. Their clothes are all made out of a cobwebs harvested from a large local spider.
But Seaborn does discover that long ago there had been war between two segments of the internal civilization. The Belzubians had invaded from the east and had been defeated by a weapon developed by the defenders: a sort of very large blimp attached to an enormous flame thrower that was capable of burning up whole armies at a time. At the mere appearance of this engine, the enemy fled and peace had reigned ever since.
After the Best Man had read some of the books that Seaborn had donated to the internals, they expelled him and his crew because they came to believe that the externals were "pestiferous beings spreading moral disease and contamination". So, back at the ship, the explorers retraced their voyage and sailed back to the island where the remnant of the crew had stayed for the winter. Discarding some of the supplies to make room for more seal skins (100,000 of them), the expedition sailed for the nearest commercial port. They sold the skins and bought products that were in demand in America, and set off to cross the Pacific ocean. Caught in an enormous hurricane, they lost most of their cargo and the materials that Seaborn had brought from the internal world, but managed to arrive safely home. The remaining materials were entrusted to an agent, a Mr. Slippery, who stole all the money, and Captain Seaborn was forced into dire poverty and wrote this book to recoup his losses.
This was an occasionally unintentionally funny book, and also somewhat grim in representing the attitude of the characters as regards killing and conservation. It was more than evident that attitudes toward natural preservation were a lot different then than they are now. I'd guess that this work was more widely known at the time; probably read by Mr. Verne, i'd suspect, and possibly other authors dabbling in descriptions of fantasy worlds. Certainly the subject of internal civilizations has been utilized by quite a few writers ever since: Burroughs, C.S. Lewis (Perelandra), etc. I've been sort of looking for more; time will tell if i succeed, haha...
Saturday, June 6, 2020
Baron Ludvig Holberg 1684-1754
Niels Klim was a Norwegian student with aspirations. He graduated from the university at Copenhagen and pursued a career as a mailman for four years. Tiring of that, he returned home and occupied his time in studying the geology of the mountains surrounding his home town of Bergen. With several friends, he climbed Florien mountain and found a large cavern at the top that had warm air flowing out of it. He decided to explore the inside of it and descended on a rope held by his friends. The rope broke and Niels fell for a long time, until the darkness began to recede and sunlight displaced the blackness. A new world impinged itself on his eyes as he floated around in the atmosphere for three days. A very large eagle made a pass at him and he fended it off at first with a boat hook he had had the foresight to bring along. But the danger became greater so Niels stabbed the bird with the boat hook and they both plummeted to the ground, the eagle cushioning Niels fall. it happened to be dark at the time and Niels found a soft spot and went to sleep. A ferocious roar woke him up and he saw that a large bull was about to attack, so he jumped up and ran to the nearest tree and began to climb up. With a low, shrill scream, the tree hit him with a branch and knocked him to the ground. Another tree came along and picked him up, and with a sort of arboreal entourage, carried him into the nearest town. Later Niels was informed that he had greatly offended the local sheriff's wife.
The citizens of this newly discovered country were trees. Some of them were quite large, and they all had human-type heads situated in their tops. They were mobile, but slow, meandering about upon their lower appendages that resembled roots. The town consisted of high, tower-like buildings in which the tree people lived, and featured larger structures that housed the various mayoral entities, secretaries, attorneys, judges, etc. There was a class framework of sorts, based on the number of branches possessed by the citizens. They were in general a peaceful population with a high regard for their traditions and law-abiding to a fault. Law-breakers were scarce and when they were apprehended, were sent off to a distant town named Maholki, populated by thorn trees that were appreciably more contentious than the general run of trees, and frowned upon as a result.
Niels was imprisoned for a year while he learned the language and the social character of his jailers. He learned about their religion and the country's constitution. There were five holy days a year, there were no sects or prejudices, and attempts to explain or interpret their holy books were punishable by law. A King ruled the country and the Kingship passed down through the eldest sons. The system of justice was based on principles, not laws, and strict equality was observed in the courts. There were three "academies"that taught history, political economy, math, and the like, but education was not particularly respected, as the habits of the people were slow and methodical, eschewing haste in any form.
After two years of inculcative instruction, permission was granted to Niels to travel the world and make reports on what he discovered about the inhabitants. The land of Quamso was the home of oak trees. They were passionless and boring, as contrasted to the occupants of Lalak who lived in a veritable paradise and were idle and drowned in luxury. Cypresses lived in Mardak, where class distinctions were measured by eye characteristics: how many and what shape they were. Kimal was the largest and most powerful state, as that country had extensive gold, and silver deposits, and had an abundance of pearls as well. But they were of nervous temperament because of their wealth, which attracted myriads of thieves and carpet-bagger types. In Quamboja, aging was reversed, babies being old and recovering youth as they grew. The trees of Kokleku were possessed of a feminist government, the males being servants and the females rulers of everything. Maskattia had terrible roads and a decayed infrastructure, probably having to do with the universal addiction to philosophical wrangling that occupied most of the citizens most of the time. Niels was beaten by some of the more intense debaters, and made his escape from that country just before they were about to dissect him out of curiousity. etcetera...
After returning to Potu (the city near his initial touch-down) and publishing a book on his travels, he offended the government by suggesting that ladies don't belong in official positions. As mentioned, equality is universal in Potu. So Niels is banished to the Mezendoric archipelago, which is the name for the separate civilization that occupies the inside of earth's crust. The island he landed on is called Martinia, an aristocratic metropolis that has a king and a religion that features hundreds of sects, inspiring endless arguments, wars, debates, and disagreements. The denizens are monkeys who are devoted to endless numbers of pointless projects, like burrowing through the crust to the earth's surface. They deride Niels, of whom they credit his species as "long-eared mortals, in perpetual fogs, oft losing their way in horrid bogs". Niels can only find a job as a porter, carrying the king around in his sedan chair. Later he makes wigs. But he gets in trouble when the Queen falls for him and he's sentenced to be a galley slave.
Aboard ship, he visits many more countries and describes their occupants. Picardania is inhabited by intelligent magpies, Music-land has live instruments, bouncing bass-viols and flying flutes that communicate with musical phrases; Pyglossia is a very stinky country, Iceland has sentient icebergs, and Mezendoria, the largest island, has many different species: a lion is regent of the country, senators are elephants, geese are counsellors, magpies are lawyers, goats are grammarians, and wolves are bankers. A sow writes Niels a love sonnet.
Continuing on their trading mission, a giant storm develops that wrecks the ship and Niels is cast away in the land of Quama, the home of humans. This is a type of Mongolian civilization that has a lot of horses and a rather inadequate government. Over time, Niels rises in importance until he becomes King of the country. He builds a vast army and makes war on his neighboring countries, eventually creating his own empire. At one point he has the entire library of Tanaquite transferred to his castle and finds a fragmented manuscript that was written by an explorer of Europe. He reads various summaries of European cultures, German, French, Italian, that parodize the individual cultures in unflattering estimations. Germany has many rights, but they're not available to the people. In England the population lives on smoke. Religion allows no independent thinking. Science promulgates the opinions of the few over the sentiments of the many, Spaniards live on air, Rome sells heaven, philosophers preach self denial until they are rich, and so on...
Niels conquers all and turns cruel and unjust, a veritable Nero. Finally a disgruntled faction gains enough power that they are able to defeat his armies and Niels vacates the castle and disappears into a dark wood in which he falls into another cave and apparently due to momentum, finds himself back on the surface of planet earth. He's a poor scholar again. He gets a job as sacristan in a local church, marries and has three sons and discusses his adventures underground with nobody. After a calm and pleasant life, he gently passes on in 1695.
This was a somewhat mind-bending book, considering the early date at which it was written. And it's hard to believe that Jules Verne didn't read it before writing "Journey to the Center of the Earth". It's a lot different than Verne's book, but even wilder in the events and figures it describes. It's obviously supposed to be satirical of practically every solemn cultural component of the time. Religion, clothing style, politics, government, war, peace, are all viewed through a mordant microscope; how Holberg managed to stay out of the hands of the authorities of the time seems a mystery. But it was fun to read, and turns the society of that era on it's head, so to speak...
Saturday, May 30, 2020
THE PURPLE PLAIN, by H.E. Bates (1905-1974)
Forrester became engaged to a nice girl just before WWII and they were married after the war began and went on a honeymoon for a week or so. While dancing at a dance hall in London, the building was hit by a bomb and Mrs. Forrester was blown out of Forrester's arms and her body was never found. In a more or less permanent state of shock, her husband joined the RAF and built a reputation for his daring and reckless skill during missions. In fact he was trying to kill himself, but he received promotions and medals anyway.
After several years of perilous action he was garrisoned in Burma, where he was promoted to squadron leader. The area he was stationed in was a semi-desert with very high temperatures and very little water. Heat and dust were the principal environmental issues, creating tension and hostility between Forrester and his men. He had a checkered reputation: admired for his piloting competence, but shunned for his black and sarcastic attitude toward his subordinates. The local doctor, Harris, is concerned about his mental health and invites him to dinner one night at a Mrs. McNab's house in a local village. She's a short, skinny, fiery sort who yells a lot. And he meets Anna, the younger sister of a nurse, who, with McNab, survived a 500 mile trek from Rangoon to the village, during which most of the contingent died. McNab, especially, was respected for having saved many lives at that time with her indomitable drive and medical skills as a nurse. Forrester falls in love with Anna.
Back at the airfield, he arrives in time to see one of the last planes belonging to the squadron crash while attempting to land, killing the pilot and the navigator. This event, combined with his awakening love for Anna, bring about a sea change in his psyche, so that he realizes that he's been in a state of delayed shock for the last several years. His attitude begins to improve at this point and he starts to become aware of other people in a way that was new to him. He starts seeing them as individuals, each with their own difficulties and characters. It's as if he'd suddenly been released from a psychological prison that he'd built for himself over the previous few years.
New orders arrive for Forrester to fly his tent-mate, Blore, to a new assignment farther up the Irrawaddy river. Together with a recently-arrived navigator, Carrington, he takes off and begins what he expected would be a routine flight. Except Carrington sees oil coating one of the wings of the plane. Forrester does a 180 degree turn, but it's too late: the plane catches on fire. The ground-cover is mostly jungle, with wide streaks of bare soil and rock that demarcate seasonal flood areas washed clean of vegetation during the monsoon rains. Forrester makes a desperate landing on one of these cleared patches and wrecks the aircraft in doing so. He and Blore escape relatively unhurt, but Carrington has badly burned legs. They have little food or water left, but decide to try to walk to safety, as the area is a remote one, and the chances of being rescued are not very good. They hadn't had a chance to use the radio.
So they begin walking, Forrester carrying Carrington on his back. They have difficulties; Blore falls over a six fool shale escarpment, damaging his ankle, and the heat is so intense that they decide to only travel at night; luckily there's a full moon. But they make progress even though they're not sure where they're going. They come to a fork in the dry river bed they are following and Blore, being several hundred yards ahead, takes the right fork while Forrester and Carrington are resting. He disappears in the distance and Forrester has to chase after him to bring him back, as he's convinced the other branch will take them to a village. They start off again the same night, traversing the sometimes rocky terrain that features occasional shelfs (waterfalls without water) that cause them to
trip and fall. Then they reach a large dry lake. Totally exhausted, it seems like the end. While the others are asleep, Blore leaves by himself. The other two are awakened by a gunshot. spoiler ahead:
Blore has shot himself and is dead. Dragging up his last reserves of energy, Forrester with Carrington tramps onward until he can't do it anymore. He leaves Carrington and continues on, eventually, at the very last second, running into some native bearers who rescue him and the navigator. Carrington survives and Forrester is reunited with Anna.
I read this book mainly because i'd previously read, some years ago, Fair Stood the Wind for France: another book by the same author that i liked quite a bit. This book had a few problems i thought, but also had some astute recognitions of psychological states that in general afflict many people. I became aware once again, while reading it, that many experience shock in their daily lives without ever knowing it, and that that can cause all sorts of problems from interpersonal relationships to mental blocks impeding the attainment of desired goals of one sort or another. Bates definitely makes it overt in this work that he is aware that the most mysterious problems or enigmas in life lie within the depths of one's own personality, not so much in whatever outside environment an individual may happen to exist in. And that the solutions or resolutions of adversities or quandaries may often depend upon self-awareness as much as on manipulation of situational complexities. It's sort of like tuning a guitar: it takes a developed ear to be good at it; and successfully dealing with the world we live in takes a lot of tuning also: a kind of evolving theme and variations, haha... anyway, this book was well worth reading; exciting and informative both...
Saturday, May 23, 2020
A STRANGE DISCOVERY, by Charles Romyn Dake, 1849-1899
A few followers of this blog may recall that some months ago i wrote about a Jules Verne sequel to Edgar Allan Poe's "A Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket"; well, this is another one. Charles Dake was a homeopathic physician in middle America and this pastiche concerns the experiences of a narrator (who remains anonymous) in the U.S. after he receives a behest from his deceased father in Newcastle, England and travels to this country to sell some land. The year is 1877. While staying in a hotel, the Loomis House, in Bellevue, Illinois, he becomes acquainted with two doctors. One is Dr. Bainbridge, a gentle, competent physician with a quiet approach to patient care, and the other is Dr. Castleton, a riotous, opinionated, self-aggrandized polymath who has, according to his own lights, never been wrong about anything. Through his association with these two, the narrator learns about one of their vic, uh, patients, who lives in a tumble-down cabin several miles from town named Dirk Peters. Peters was apparently the former companion of Pym's during their mutual experiences in Antarctica in the 1820's.
A brief summary of Poe's story: Pym was a restless youth and stowed away on a ship where he hid in the hold and was fed by Peters for several months. A mutiny occurred and most of the crew were killed in a subsequent ship-wreck and Pym and Peters found themselves in a small boat sailing toward Antarctica. Caught by a powerful current, they passed through dangers galore, including escaping from tribes of black savages, passing through a gigantic wall of mist, and espying, at the end of Poe's account, a large feminine figure looming in front of them at the end of the story.
Drs. Castleton and Bainbridge are treating Peters in his cabin and through their discussion of his case, the narrator learns that Peters was in fact Gordon Pym's former Antarctic associate. So he takes a ride with them both to visit the old seaman and finds a short, seasoned veteran of the seas who seems to be expiring from old age. Castleton wants to purge him with calomel and home remedies, but Bainbridge, mainly because Castleton becomes distracted with other business, manages to heal the old sailor to the point that he agrees to share his story.
Over a series of visits, Bainbridge learns what really happened to Peters and Pym, and, in nightly sessions, relates the tale to the narrator. To wit: Pym and Peters discovered a race of white people living in a temperate zone behind a wall of fog in an archipelago of sorts, with one large island and many smaller ones. At the South Pole itself, an area about 30 kilometers in diameter had fallen into the center of the earth, allowing hot magma to rise and heat the surrounding area. The resulting heat enabled the growth of a civilization as mentioned. The inhabitants had arrived there in the fifth century after escaping from Italy with the Huns on their heels and without knowing their destination, they were whirled by the current into the confines of Antarctica. They had created a society of peace and tolerance and were a quiet and intellectual people. Their architecture had something of the Roman about it, but with touches of pre-BC Egypt and a bit of Greece. The indigenes called their country Hili-li. They supported themselves through farming, viniculture, and a modest amount of fishing. The ambient temperature stayed at around 90 degrees year-round.
Pym fell in love with the king's daughter, Lilama, who reciprocated his affection, but a jealous rival, Ahpilus, maddened with devotion, kidnaped her and sailed away to Volcano bay, a local inlet at the base of a mountain eight miles high named Olympus. There was a small colony of exiles at this locale, who were ostracized by the Hili-li rulers for being overly belligerent. Possessed by his maniacal desires, Ahpilus, clutching Lilama, ascends the mountain and is followed by Pym and Peters along with some relatives of the kidnapee. The two groups meet each other near the top, and glare at one another across a forty foot chasm. Ahpilus is about to jump off and take Lilama with him, when Peters (he was about 4'8" tall and immensely strong; rather orangutangish, actually) leaps across the gap and rescues the girl. He breaks Ahpilus's back in the process, eliminating him as an enemy. (spoiler ahead),
They all return to Hili-li, where the malefactors are forgiven and Pym and Hili-li are married. Shortly thereafter the whole country falls victim to a sudden freeze, a phenomenon that occurs every 500 years or so, and many citizens die, including Hili-li. Pym is distraught and decides to leave, which he does, accompanied by Peters. They sail a small boat north until they meet a coasting schooner that provides Pym passage to a port from which he arranges transportation home. Peters spends many years following his profession as a sailor until he retires to the small town of Bellevue.
This was the only novel Dake wrote, and it worked quite well, i thought, as a completion to Poe's tale. The writing style was 19th centuryish, but readily comprehensible. The only critique of the book(which i actually found quite entertaining) had to do with the frequent oracular expeditions by Castleton (he had a tendency to extrapolate at length, and often, about his opinions concerning politics, business, economics, travel, agriculture, etc.) and the peculiar antics of Arthur, a sort of hotel odd- job boy who ranted about his desire to operate an ice cream store. It was fun and exciting at times, and offered a different perspective on 19th C. writing and authorship. I wonder how many other Pym-related books are out there, unrecognized and waiting for some curious reader to find them...
Sunday, May 17, 2020
Karl Capek: 1890-1938
In an imaginary 1943, C.H. Bondy has succeeded almost beyond his wildest dreams. He owns the Bondy Metallo-Electric Company which is doing well, but Bondy is looking forward. There is currently a coal crisis in the country and new sources of power are desperately needed. So he's interested in inventions and in exploring innovative uses of natural resources. While investigating various areas of research he learns about an old school friend, R. Marek, who apparently has discovered or invented a machine that has interesting possibilities. The two get together and Marek, evidently on the verge of bankruptcy, invites Bondy to visit his factory, where the machine he's invented is located in the basement. Arriving at the plant, Bondy walks down the stairs alone, as Marek seems highly nervous and apprehensive about something. A large copper cylinder is sitting by itself in the middle of a broad concrete floor. There's a light bulb on top of the cylinder and attached to it is a massive flywheel. The bulb is lit and the flywheel is slowly revolving. After a while, Bondy begins to feel slightly giddy and euphoric. Light-headed and somewhat ecstatic, he returns to where Marek is anxiously waiting and asks for an explanation.
Marek says that he's discovered a technique for the total release and utilization of quantum energy, the force that holds electrons and atoms together. The machine, the Karburetor, operates on coal but uses a very small amount to release an unlimited supply of power. Bondy becomes excited as he envisions the financial possibilities looming before him. The Karburetor could be used to power whole cities, countries even, constructing a firm basis for the expansion of progress throughout the entire planet. But Marek says there's a problem. A byproduct of the process is that a sort of spiritual energy is released as a result of liberating the quantum forces, and human beings experience that release as the presence of God. In the presence of the Karburetor, people become highly religious and enraptured and capable of performing miraculous feats such as levitation, curing diseases through the laying on of hands, mind-reading, and predicting the future. Also, the machine seems to have a mind of its own. It's capable of refining its own operations and inventing new processes to improve its own function, and apparently does so with a great deal of enthusiasm.
Bondy convinces Marek to let him market the device and in remarkably little time, Karburetors are operating world-wide. And vast segments of the population are performing miracles, fore-seeing the future and forming sectarian groups devoted to assorted religious didacts that soon start to condemn each other's devotional rites, to the point that religious wars are eventually raging all over the globe. It's not long before the activity turns political, so that large areas of factionally similar believers are combining to invade and conquer other countries. At one point a sort of Napolean conquers most of Europe, and equivalent demagogs are successful in many other locales. At the same time, the Karburetor is running wild, reproducing itself and consuming quantities of matter to make submarines, airplanes, trains, cars, lawn mowers, dish washers and a multitude of other products.
Because the Karburetor's source of power is infinite, it never knows when it's made enough stuff. One philosopher compared it to the origin of the universe, wherein the destruction of quantum matter resulted in the release of infinite amounts of God, or spiritual force, which drove the remnant particles in a sort of explosion that created the stars, galaxies, super-novae, etc. as we currently observe them. At any rate, a true world war developed on Earth, so that four or five major powers were fighting each other and destroying the infrastructure almost faster than the Karburetors could replace it.
The main reason, besides the uncontrollable operations of the Karburetor, for the global genocide was that each machine's devotees couldn't imagine that their belief was only a part of a planetary whole; that they couldn't imagine that anyone else was in possession of the, what seemed to them, absolute truth. So war continued unabated, in due course causing Bondy and Marek to flee civilization. Bondy retires to a south sea island named Hereheretia and Marek builds a little cabin in an isolated valley north of the arctic circle. (spoiler ahead).
Ultimately, the war dies out, with only a few humans left. Thirteen soldiers are left napping under a Birch tree and after twenty years some kind of universal tolerance has reluctantly made an appearance. Mr. Byrch: "... you know the greater things are in which a man believes, the more fiercely he despises those who do not believe in them. And yet the greatest of all beliefs would be belief in one's fellow-man."
This was a terrific book. Capek had a profound understanding of human nature and the creative ability to express that vision in original and telling ways. Like his other two books, he's a master of extrapolation: taking an idea and developing it satirically into an exhaustive version reflective of human foibles. He's one of the very few authors i've read who can combine horror with humor and turn the resulting shambles into an image of human conduct. Or maybe a mirror image...