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long walkFirst published in 1956, mine’s a used 2010 reprint in paperback, presumably intended to cash in on publicity for the Peter Weir movie, “The Way Back” – 2011 – and which is allegedly based on true events. It’s a best seller, half a million copies sold, and translated into 25 languages. But there’s a problem with it.

We begin with the narrator, Slavomir Rawicz, a Polish officer, wrongly arrested for spying by the Russians after the invasion of Poland in 1939. He’s tortured into signing a false confession which results in his being sentenced to 25 years hard labour in the infamous Gulag system and is sent to one of the remotest labour camps in northern Siberia from where he escapes with a group of fellow captives. But instead of heading east, the more obvious and shorter route to freedom, via a boat to Japan, they go south, walk four thousand miles, through Siberia, across the Gobi Desert, the Himalaya and eventually find sanctuary in British India.

Apart from being an epic of adventure and survival, this would be one of the earliest known accounts of life in the Gulags, perhaps the more famous being Alekzander Solzenystin’s “Day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch (1966)”, so it might be considered quite a find for anyone interested in that period of Soviet history. Solzenystin’s story, though based upon his own harrowing experiences in the Gulag around the same period, is sold purely as literary fiction, whereas the Long Walk is sold as heroic fact.

However,…

Rawicz’s arrest and torture, also his transportation by railway cattle-wagon to Siberia ring true enough, but his depiction of events at the camp began arouse suspicion, suddenly reading more like a boy’s own comic-book story, especially when held up against Solzenystin’s forensic descriptions of actual camp life in “Ivan Denisovitch”. Then we are sold a somewhat simplistic escape, implausibly aided by the commandant’s wife, to say nothing of being persuaded malnourished men could travel thirty miles a day, on foot, over trackless tundra in the teeth of a Siberian winter. And then there’s the eerie encounter with a couple of Yetis.

All of this gave me pause, so I set the book aside and did some digging.

Sure enough there’s been considerable controversy about the veracity of this story ever since publication. Ghost-written by Daily Mail reporter, Ronald Downing, the suspicion is that the pair have spun us all a bit of a yarn. Later documentary evidence suggests Rawicz was actually released from the Gulag in 1942, that while the early part of the book might be based upon the facts of his arrest and torture, the escape is pure fiction.

Or is it?

Well, here’s where we leave the text of the story and turn instead to the story of the story, as traced by researchers working on the film adaptation. They became aware of the controversy early on and wanted to get to the bottom of things, like was it a true story or not? Their researches duly turned up another man living in Cornwall called Witold Glinski. Glinski claims to have been the one who actually made the journey, that he never spoke a word of it to anyone, except to British officials on his arrival in India. The explanation for his silence, he said, was on account of one of his fellow escapees, a murderer who’d threatened him and, on settling in England, he’d not wanted to draw attention to himself for fear of his life.

On subsequent publication of Rawciz’s “true story”, Glinski recognised the gist of his own escape, including details of his companions, though with much added that was implausible. It was then he recalled being accosted by a pair of chancers back in the 1940’s, wanting to know how he came to England, and whom he suspects were actually Downing and Rawciz. He told them nothing but speculates they had somehow got hold of the transcript of his interview with officials at the Polish embassy, and wanted to pass the story off as Rawciz’s. That said there is no evidence to support Glinski’s claims either, so we’re still left wondering.

There is however tantalising evidence that someone did indeed make that incredible journey, this being from the account of a retired British intelligence officer who recalled interviewing a group of ragged men who had come out of the Himalaya, claiming to have escaped from Siberia, an account corroborated by a Polish engineer who had acted as translator.

While much has obviously been lost in the fog of war, on balance it seems likely the story is true at its heart, though it’s less likely we’ll ever know the real identities of the men who took part, or what happened to them afterwards. The only thing that seems certain from here is that Rawciz was not one of those men, and it’s for this reason his character was written out of the movie.

I didn’t finish the book, felt a bit cheated by it actually, and didn’t get past that encounter with the Yeti. Still, it’s a remarkable tale in many ways, though not for the obvious reasons.

Personally, I would rather have had Glinsky’s version of events.

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Hartsop old wayThursday evening, came home from work early. Long weekend in the offing, glad to have nailed it after a pig of a week. Walked in, looking forward to savouring every moment, only to find my Broadband router showing a stack of red lights instead of the usual blue. Everyone is glum. No internet. Looks like a call to BT, except I need to go on-line to get the number.

Ah,… right.

So I burn a few precious minutes of 3G data on my phone. Number in hand I call the help-line. I’m connected to India in a matter of seconds. I’m half an hour on the line, and across five thousand miles they’re testing my line, testing the router. What a marvellous thing it is we have invented, this global computer. Or is it?

What devices do I hook up to, sir? Couple of laptops, several tablet devices, iPods, phones, a couple of  Playstations,… I realise the list is endless, and this surprises me. My entire life has moved on-line.

Test results inconclusive! They need to send an engineer to poke about with a screwdriver, to tug at the wires, to test the physicality  of my connection. How about next Tuesday? What? That’s nearly a week! How am I supposed to manage a week without internet? I don’t say this to the guy in India of course – he’s doing his best. My heart quaking, I just say okay.

There’s a pall of silence when I end the call. Tuesday? We’ll have to manage until Tuesday! We are a family of four, and I am not alone in my total dependence on the world wide web for passing the time, for entertainment, for education, for news, for pseudo-nourishment, for information,…

When did this happen? At what point did so much of my life begin pointing in at this window? When did so much of my life become aimed at shaping an imaginary world online, of adding to to the info-glut of words and pictures and video, writing a blog, writing fiction, playing MYST? Dammit, I’d been looking forward to chilling out for a couple of days doing nothing but playing MYST!

So,… nothing for it then. No Internet. For days and days and days.

What now?

Well, what did I used to do? Sits down to think? Write! There was always the writing, sure and most of that ending up double spaced on A4, either in the post or in my bottom drawer when I’d given up on it. I used to draw too, and paint,… I used to read – and I mean PAPER books.

So I pick up a PAPER book I’ve had since it came out in 2012 – Macfarlane’s “The Old Ways”. I’d begun the book enthusiastically, but left off a few chapters in, not because I found the book dull, but because my head is always being lured back inside the online world. And the lure is strong. But in the space of a few minutes I reconnected with the book as Macfarlane took me a walk along the Broomway, off the coast of Essex. Then he took me up to the Western Isles, to Harris, then a sail into the Atlantic in an ancient open sailboat, to a tiny speck of the British Isles that doesn’t always make it onto the maps – North Rona. This is a voyage with a salty crew who know their way around the old sea roads. I spend a night on an uninhabited island in the Minch, belly warmed by good company and fiery malt, and I meet characters who still speak the stories of place, of physical places, places I touched once, a quarter century ago when I passed this way myself and which lit up my life in ways unexpected.

A few summers and a lifetime of memory.

And I remembered my old novel, the pre internet “Singing Loch”, which was about how I felt the land die whenever the old stories were lost, ripped up, forgotten, concreted over, and how the world descended then into a kind of grey. I remember how I’d once burned with the lust of the old ways, and believed with all my heart it was important we kept a spiritual tryst with the land. Then I remembered the books of Patrick Harpur, and again the tales from the mysterious north, the lore of the Norse and the Celt, of the spirits of place and of the mysterious Shee, whom only the Irish, full blood or part descended have the eye to see. And all of this is important because, although the stories are in our minds, we meet them in the land, because the land is where we are supposed to be, and when we honour it on bended knee, the spirit of it comes to guide our way.

And then I’m looking at my father’s old maps – crumbly and curly now – Ordnance Surveys of the West Pennine Moors, six inches to the mile, mapped in the 1840’s. There are marks on the map, old ways we once walked together, and the broad arrow benchmarks we came upon upon chiselled in stone by the sapper men upon the peaty moor – days of mist when the whole world was a figment of imagination, and summer days when the larks were aloft and time stood still.

And then, as I slept the shee were whispering in my ear what I knew already, that the Broadband Router is fried, and that’s all a week’s wait for the BT guy will tell me. Inscrutable race, the Shee – wise, curious, sometimes mischievous, sometimes helpful even in their misdirection. So then I’m off to Tesco at dawn break for a new router. £50 and I’m plugging it in. Blue light is on, and we’re back online,…

But I’m not sure this is a good thing any more. Maps, books,… memories of walks, of the old ways, set aside, forgotten again. For a moment last night, the spirit of the old days, the old ways crept back in at the door, and Shee had begun to look over my shoulder, guide my hand, my heart, my mind,…

But there are no spirits of place in here, no old ways to be explored. It is a place where the Shee do not venture for old things are like as not simply deleted. There is no archaeology on the Internet, no myth, no folklore. It is a dead place! What do they mean opening this portal again and pushing me back in? I write this piece after playing MYST till my eyes bleed. I tag, I click, I post,…

What is the internet for?

And is it friend of foe?


					

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henry cordier

When browsing second hand bookshops, one occasionally comes across old hand-written diaries. Now, unless the author was famous, it’s hard to put a value on such a thing. As an historical curiosity they’re clearly worth something, though often contain only self conscious ramblings. So, when I discovered the diary of Thomas Marston at a flea market, I wasn’t expecting much. It’s a thick Quarto sized journal dating from 1870 to 1873 – a lot of spidery ink and faded pencil, pages stained and torn, the cover battered and half missing. Its condition alone suggested a hard life and an epic journey. I was intrigued by it. It cost me £10, and it turned out to be money well spent.

Marston was a captain in the Queen’s Highland Light Infantry, posted to the northern Indian province of Himachal Pradesh. The early part of the diary recounts the minutia of military life on the frontier of Empire, which is interesting enough, but where it gets more interesting is when he describes a hunting trip he made while on leave in the summer of 1873. Since, as far as I’m aware, this diary was never published in print form, the information Captain Marston came into possession of during that trip is now known only to me, and in a moment I’ll be passing it on to you.

Travelling with an Afghan cook and an Indian manservant, Marston spent several weeks working his way up into the Himalayas, along tracks that are now well known to backpackers ascending the peaks and glacial valleys towards Tibet. The hunting was poor, and Marston berates both the weather and the incompetence of his cook. By no means a genial chap, he comes across, at least in the earlier part of his narrative, as a both a racist bigot and an upper class prick.

Eventually, wearied beyond cheering he begs shelter in a remote monastery. Here, a mixture of boredom and curiosity at the “superstitions” of heathen natives leads Marston to observe and describe the meditation techniques of the monks. Though hampered by language difficulties, he is able to make a good accounting of it and, presumably having little else to do, because of the still atrocious weather, tries out the practice himself. At this point the narrative takes on an almost psychedelic tone, as if Marston were suddenly imbibing opium, as he describes the peculiar psychical effects he experiences. What’s also interesting here is the change in Marston’s attitude, as reflected in his narrative – becoming more introspective, and humane, as if we are witnessing the elevation of his consciousness to a more sagely plane.

Marston spent six weeks at the monastery – rather a grand term for what he elsewhere describes as: an unfortunate congregation of mud and stone buildings clinging precariously to an unstable mountainside. He was there from August 23rd, and departed in late September, which suggests either his leave entitlement from the British Army was incredibly generous, or we’re not getting at the whole of the truth here and Marston was in fact some kind of spy. Although this sounds like something from a Kipling novel, it’s not beyond possibility, nor is what happened next.

Marston and his party climbed from the monastery to a ridge overlooking the valley, from where they intended turning West and heading to Kashmir. As they do so, weeks of incessant rain releases a catastrophic mudslide which engulfs the valley below, swallowing the monastery and everyone in it. Marston’s party were lucky to escape with their lives.

From this point Marston seems at pains to detail the meditation method, as if aware now he might be the last man alive who knows anything about it. As a method, it’s very similar to Transcendental Meditation, which aims to still the mind and open the gates to “transcendence” by the repetition of a word or a mantra. In the latterly “trade-marked” Transcendental Meditation, the mantra is considered personal and is passed on to the adept after a period of paid study by the “teacher”, but in Marston’s method, the mantra is derived by taking measurements of the lines on the palm of the hand. The angles between the lines are then reduced by a simple formula into a series of notes or tones that are hummed or even just imagined under the breath. Since everyone’s hand is different, this will yield a different musical “key” to enlightenment for each person.

To the uninitiated, it sounds like an improbable mixture of palmistry and numerology. However, although sceptical at first, I have been practising the method now for several weeks and the results are astonishing. Within the first few sessions I experienced a powerful sense of oneness and transcendence, an experience that has been repeatable and, quite honestly, mind blowing. I could, and probably will write volumes on the potential of this technique, but for now my aim is to bring it to the attention of a wider audience.

Listen up then, all you have to do is this:

Send me a scanned print of your hand, and non-refundable payment (by Paypal only please) of £5000. Then I’ll send you by return your personal mantra as a set of musical notes. I cannot guarantee success of course, as for all I know you may be tone deaf or simply doing it wrong. In the near future I shall also be organising a workshop, by invitation only, to a select group of the most attractive celebrities with whom I plan to share the method for deriving this mantra, since ordinary people are unlikely to possess the qualities necessary for this subtle aspect of the work.

Now, even after swallowing hard at that hefty price tag, I know you really want this method to be true, in spite of your natural born cynicism and the overripe smell coming from the rather cheesy fiction by which I claim to have discovered it. If you’ve not rumbled me yet, then let me say now I have, of course, made the whole thing up, and by doing so hope to have cast a light on our acquisitive natures, and on the all pervading belief that a thing is worthless unless we’ve paid a lot of money for it, also that there has to be a secret special key that will instantly and easily transform what we imagine to be the untidy imperfection of our lives into the solid gold of something infinitely better.

But the good news is you can learn everything you need to know about meditation for nothing. There are thousands of methods to choose from and none worth their salt will carry the label “secret” or a hefty price tag. Simply Google “Meditation Methods”. Explore them, and adopt the ones that appeal to you. Or you can follow my own (again free and fully detailed) method here.

The bad news is there are no short cuts to what we seek, no magic formula. We sit, and we practice, and though we do feel better for it in all sorts of ways, it’s counter-productive to expect transcendence, enlightenment, or any other peculiar psychic happenings, no matter how much we’ve paid our teacher. So, please, to be absolutely certain, don’t send me your hand print, I was being ironic. As for the price tag, there have been bigger scams than that, and always someone desperate enough to pay. So again, just in case: Michael Graeme doesn’t want your money, because, like Captain Thomas Marston, Michael Graeme does not exist, and neither does his secret method to transcendence.

Remember people sometimes might just be telling stories.

So hey,

Lets be careful out there.

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