Monday, 17 October 2016

The Lions of Al-Rassan

TL;DR: I enjoyed it, but it is poisonous when considered carefully. As are so many others. But as a fine exemplar of this-kind-of-novel, its also a fine exemplar of poisonousness.

The Goodreads people liked it. And wiki has an example, from which I'll quote a bit that annoyed me:
The Lions of Al-Rassan is a work of historical fantasy by Guy Gavriel Kay... based upon Moorish Spain... the relationships between the three peoples: the Kindath (analogous to the Jews), the Asharites (analogous to the Muslims), and the Jaddites (analogous to the Christians), although the religions of the Kindath, Asharites, and Jaddites, as described in the novel, bear no relation to Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.
What annoyed me is that it is like Moorish Spain, and contains peoples, as wiki says, analogous to historical peoples, and yet their bloody names bear no relationship. So at the start of the book, when you're trying to work out who is who, you're constantly flipping back and forth, to the "index of characters", to the map, and so on; trying to remember who is who. I'm not asking for the bloody "Kindrath" to be called the Jews - that would tie them too closely - but couldn't they be something that would help you remember? And so on with the others. It isn't even done consistently. The Spain bit is "Esperana" and the old Jew is Ishak; the A-rabs are all "bin" and the Jews are all "ben" and the Spaniards all have those funny accents above their "n"s, the Frogs have "de" and so on.

Here's a review that I agree with quite a lot, except I actually enjoyed the book.

Why is the world-map clearly a map of Europe, except somewhat blurred? Why does the Tagus river basin become the wasteland of the Tagra? Though that I can kind of excuse, since it provides some convenience to the narrative.

And why do the peoples "bear no relation to Judaism, Islam, and Christianity"? (Although it isn't true: they do bear a relationship: just not a close one). The book would work just as well if they did indeed bear a close relationship. Come to that (spoiler alert!) what about Diego and his gift. It jars. It isn't needed. It is a complete outlier in the world of the book; an anomaly.

Let's take a brief break from the whinging to say what I liked about it. After all, after being offered this as "read this instead of Game of Thrones" I did; and I enjoyed it. Anyone vaguely familiar - as I am - with the history of Spain will be pleased to be reminded of it; perhaps more so if - like me - you don't know enough to be jarred. The settings are interesting, the characters are all noble, heroic, and beautiful. And they have lots of sex and its always wonderful and they're always beautiful; and never get pregnant except when they want to. There's a complex plot that interlocks nicely - perhaps a little too nicely, ah, Carruthers, it makes me suspicious that this isn't perhaps actual real life.

Enough niceness. What of the poison? It is of two kinds. The first is pervasive in books like this, so in a way hardly deserves mention: only the main characters matter. Everyone else can die in huge numbers in hideous ways unmourned. By which I mean that the author is happy to slaughter these (admittedly fictional) people merely to move the story along or to elict our sympathy. Example: after the raid in which Diego gets his head bashed in, the book needs - well, actually, it doesn't need at all; it just wants, for reasons perhaps simply of emotional manipulation - Ishak to save him dramatically, whilst Jehane looks on in awe. So everyone else there has to have died. Had they been badly wounded, she'd have to have been off helping them, and that would have been dramatically inconvenient.

And the second is the way... I find this hard to say accurately or comprehensibly. The way the characters put honour above common sense. The way their fine sensibilities are more important than anything else. That probably makes no sense, or is unconvincing. The main example is Ammar. He is forced to choose between serving Ramiro, or helping "his own people". He makes the wrong - but setup as "honourable" - choice; and by his actions he prolongs the war of reconquest from a few years to decades. The worst possible war is a well balanced one; anyone with any kind of sympathy for the people is obliged to choose the stronger side (with qualifications, of course) so it can win quickly. There is not the least hint of that as a problem in the book; instead, the death of millions and the sacking of cities gets a few words, but chiefly so the main characters can look sorrowful.

As a minor niggle, the astonishing skill of the old physician Ishak is implausible in the terms it is described, within its world. And in its relation to our world, well, trepanning is commonplace, not unknown. Didn't the author think of that?

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Refuge du Glacier Blanc, 2542

The Refuge du Glacier Blanc has it's own website, so this brief page is just my own observations and photos.

As the website will tell you, there is no Wifi and no mobile coverage, not even enough to get texts. Indeed that might have been true in Ailefroide too, I forget. There are no showers, which I found particularly annoying, since the French-style "squat toilets" could so easily be converted to double up as showers.

Most used, I'd guess, as a way station to the Refuge des Ecrins. Also suitable for Les Agneaux. For views and notes on the way up, see "my arrival". Here's the hut as you see it from the little plateau below.


And here it is in the early morning before the sun has got onto it.


Like the other refuges in the Ecrins, it is primarily for climbers and the facilities are spartan, though the evening food was decent. You can book online. The contrast with Austrian huts with their near-hotel levels of service and "gemutlich" charm is striking. The only clear advantage over Austrian huts is the "plastic crate" system, where you just select on of the empty crates and stick your "common room stuff" in it. This is more like a provincial French cafe used to serving only locals; though I should adds that the Guardian(ne) were friendly. Well, take a look inside.



I assume the benches were up on the tables because the end of the season was approaching.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

A quiet week in north Devon

Miriam organised us a week in Peppercombe. It was a deliberately quiet trip. During the day, spent in silence, M was mostly meditating, and I was mostly running. In the evening we talked.

14390674_10154549429157350_1233257755501537732_n The 1920's wooden bungalow is all wood inside and out and rather lovely. With only two of us there was plenty of space. Most days it rained, more at the start of the week perhaps; fortunately this didn't much matter. It is down at the end of a track / road which is steep and a little potholed but easily driveable if taken slowly. Peppercombe itself (map) is a steep wooded valley off the A39.

We ended up getting up quite early. Several days, after I'd finished breakfast and pottering, I was surprised by how early it still was. And to bed early too.

Friday: arrive, 6 ish. Go to "Atlantic village" for the thrill of Aldi for the week's food (and a bottle of Romanian Nonius wine) before returning to the Coach and Horses at Horn's Cross for a drink and dinner. Reading "Full of myself" by Jonny Dawes.

Saturday: morning: 6k run west along the stony beach (hard work!) to Buck's Mills, then back along the coastal path along the cliffs; also hard work. Afternoon: 24k run (ahem, and walk) along the road to Bideford, then back via Yeo Vale (my watch ran out at 15k). Would have cut off some of the loop to Bideford if I'd realised how long it was. Began raining at about 10k. Pic: the stony beach.

Sunday: run 6k NE along the coastal path and back. After this I realised that I wasn't going to get the kind of distance running I wanted (I have the Amsterdam marathon on the 16th of October) from the coast. Ironically (perhaps) I think the Barnstaple marathon and half was on today. I'd have joined if I'd known.

Monday: drive into Bideford - it isn't far and do 21k along the "Tarka Trail" which is a bike path along the old railway line. 1:52, tolerable for marathon pace and after the last few days work. Preceeded by sitting in a cafe for a couple of hours catching up on the internet and drinking coffee and eating soup.

Tuesday: back to Bideford, same cafe, less rain, do 15k in the other direction "inland". Quite different: the Barnstaple / estuary direction is quite open, this is often in a tunnel of trees. Starts off crossing the river on the old bridge as before, then after a few k comes swooping back over the railway bridge. Evening, use the wood burner with what I've gleaned from the beach and the surrounding woods, and it works.

Wednesday: tried Barnstaple this time - really didn't get on with the parking - do the Tarka Trail back towards Bideford. Decided - during the run - that 26k would be good, so turned round a few k out of Bideford. 2:22, again a reasonable pace for a marathon training run. Evening: fire again.

Thursday: enough running, it was time to walk to Clovelly, which turned out to be 7 k  away, a bit further than I thought. M joined me, we walked there along the beach, this was hard work due to the aforementioned stonyness. Lunch at the Red Lion which didn't have wifi though it claimed to. Soir: meal up at the Coach and Horses. Walk back along the coastal path is longer - 18k round trip - though it starts off level on Hobby Drive it soon goes up and down. 6 hours round trip.

Friday: pack and leave by our appointed hour of 10.


Saturday, 1 October 2016

Fixing my Citroen C5 tourer rear washer water

We have newly acquired a second-hand, perhaps 3 year old, 50k mile, C5. But, the rear washer water wasn't coming out even though the reservoir was full and the front worked. Looking, the flexible pipe that leads from the body into the tailgate on the right side was broken. However, gaffer taping it together didn't help, and so some dismantling was required to look further.

This post on the Citroen owner's club was helpful for how to dismantle; it links to this post also about how to dismantle. I'll assume you've read those two, or at least skimmed them. But to write down the bits that puzzled me:

1. Take off the two "obvious" Torx30 screws (which I did with a plain flat head, lacking a 30. Fortunately, unlike so many screws on so many things, they hadn't been tightened to death and came easily).
2. Now you have to pull off the plastics. This is a pain, hard to do cleanly (mine had clearly been done before by an unskilled hand as the screwdriver marks on the plastics were obvious) and the fastenings that are supposed to just pop out don't always do so easily. There are two layers if I reall correctly; the "outer" and "inner" of which the inner was harder. The inner didn't need to come fully off to get access to...
3. The two "hidden" Torx30. Once these are off its still a bit awkward to lift the "spoiler" containing the top light unit out of which the water is supposed to come. It kind of "hinges" upwards, restrained by some more pop fastenings, but no more screws.
4. Having done that you can push out the "light unit", though you may not need to.

OK, now you have access to the bits you need to see. Let's have a picture:


This is the "spoiler" lifted up, held as you see by the pliers. The water piping is bizarrely complex. WHY are there so many sections? A single piece of flexible hose would appear so much easier and less error prone (but see below for the true answer). The joint in the middle is particularly problematic.

It is actually joined by the little joiny-piece shown below. Which looks like a simple joint, but it isn't, oh no, that would be far too easy.


Inside, as you can just about see from this pic, is a tiny little ball bearing, pushed by a tiny little spring. Why? Possibly as some kind of pressure-reducing mechanism? [No: thanks to HT who points out that it is a non-return valve, and the purpose of it is to stop the fluid flowing back into the tank, which means that the fluid-squirting happens sooner. Apparently its part of the MOT test for squirting to happen without much delay.] Anyway, that's why there's a join there. Incidentally, pulling the joint out of the rubber is a right bastard. That little flake of white plastic was in there, leading me to suspect aha! That's the problem: the little flake is jamming the "valve" somehow. But no. Nor, indeed, did removing the valve entirely and gaffer taping the pipe together help.

My last pic shows the true problem. At the bottom is the washer fluid outlet. In the middle is the hole at the edge of the light unit plastics that the pipe is supposed to go through. And on the pipe itself is obvious crimping showing clearly that the idiot who reassembled the unit failed to get the pipe in the hole, thereby constricting the pipe so much that no fluid could flow.


The fix is then simply to reassemble carefully, getting the pipe in the hole (having squidged it with pliers back into circularity). I did reassemble the odd ball-valve-thingy, even though it appeared to make no difference to the flow.

I was then left with the odd co-incidence of two problems not one: the broken flexible pipe, and the crimped tubing. Possibly the broken pipe is breakable, and the extra stress of the tube being crimped caused it to fail? I will never know for sure.

And, yes, it then worked.

One last thing: on my first go at reassembly, I had a panic when nothing at all worked: even the rear wiper no longer did anything. However, that turns out to be because I hadn't shut the tailgate fully. Do that and it springs into life.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Ecrins: arrival and Refuge du Glacier Blanc

Ecrins part 1: arrival. I get off the overnight train from Austerlitz to a sense of Southern light and space. The railway station is perhaps grander than it's current status warrants; the night train is on the "socially necessary" list. And indeed many of the people looked to be "just folks" not tourists.


Anyway, Briancon itself is "behind" the station in this pic; I'm standing on the (unused) car-train platform; the real platform is on the left. Around me are mountains - but not, I know, the high ones, I can't see those yet - and stretching away behind me is the valley.

I have a cup of coffee in the station cafe, enjoying the harsh light, and after a short comedy (there is no actual car hire office at the station it transpires; there's just a bloke who cunningly carries no identifying marks; and since the train was late and I sat around drinking coffee, I'm about an hour later than he expected. Also, I have no credit card only a debit card) I have a car which I drive cautiously away. Have I ever driven alone abroad before? Yes: in New Zealand. But the roads in the South Island were near empty.

Away down the lane aways is very lovely, and I get my first view of the heights.


It is hard to tell what is what from the valley even with a map. Happily there's a plaque: yes that is the Barre. This is just by the giant iron statue of Whymper. Off the main valley, the start of the side valley to the Barre, Argentiere-la-Bessee pleased me; I stopped for a coffee and bought a fougasse.

Driving up the valley towards Ailefroide I was struck again and again by how gorgeous everything was; happily I was alone so could stop whenever I liked.


The slight lateness of the train, and the coffee in the station, and the car comedy, and the other coffee, and the stopping, had all put paid to any plans to get to the start of the walk-in early and push on up. And I didn't really have any such plans. So I stopped for a bier in Ailefroide. It was quiet; my first hint that the season was ending(errm, apart from it being September, of course). I'd brought some food from England - four Mars, four Bounty, oat cakes, breakfast-biscuits, dried soup, peppermint tea (and stove). But I'd kinda wanted some porridge, which I'd bought but forgotten. Sadly porridge isn't very French and was entirely beyond Ailefroide's store.


Looking at the bus timetable I realised that, transport-wise, I could probably have done without the car. But, meh, it was handy and cheap, and a useful place to store stuff. Moving up valley, you can see the Glacier Blanc peeking out, if you look closely. Unsurprisingly, it has retreated a lot over the last few decades.


I had the E20 formule at the Pre du Madame Carle. Very nice, perhaps too much even. Since Norway I've been doing my best to eat less.


The restaurant / chalet / dortoir has fine views. I sat out the heat of the noonday sun lingering over my meal and the included dessert of tarte aux myrtilles; packed and repacked my gear; and selected what would be coming up with me.


It is two hours up to the hut, and I did have the obligatory reservation. There are views up into the Glacier Noir valley; the morraine ridge looks appealling; and the views back too:


The route up passes easily: I have a carefully constructed light sac, and I'm fit. The long painful slog I remember from many many years ago with full bivvy gear with Miriam is but a memory. After the bridge you can see up to the hut if you look closely. I have a separate page about the Refuge du Glacier Blanc.


Next waymark is the plateau where the old hut is. Miriam and I bivvied here in the old days. There's a stream and a little lake, very quiet and peaceful. Up above is the new hut, the highly crevassed snout / ice fall of the Glacier Blanc, and the obvious smoothed rock it has retreated over. Link to pic: the little plateau from above.


Once up the last little bit to the hut, there are fine view across to the Pelvoux. I got there at 4; about 1:30 up fulfilling my desire to beat the book time. Below: a parapentist, briefly. I fill the space between then and dinner at 6:30 in saying hello (awkwardly, obviously) and sitting in the sun, reading and resting and revelling in the view. My OAV card is accepted as a proper "reciprocal rights" card.


It was still lovely even after sunset.


Tuesday, 6 September 2016


I haven't finished writing up Norway, but I did do Devon. And of course I've shuffled this into time order, but it wasn't written first. I've put a brief post onto Stoat, and used the pix too. But this is the "overall" post.

* Tuesday 09/06: Cambridge -> London -> Paris GdN -> Austerlitz night train
* Wednesday 09/07: Briancon -> Ailefroid -> Pre du Madame Carle -> Refuge du Glacier Blanc
* Thursday 09/08: -> Roche Faurio (epaule) -> Refuge des Ecrins
* Friday 09/09: Dome du Neige des Ecrins
* Saturday 09/10: -> Ref Glacier Blanc -> Col du Monetier / Tuckett -> down; Chalet Pre du Mme C
* Sunday 09/11: -> Ref des Bans -> Vallouise
* Monday 09/12: -> Refuge du Sele -> Briancon
* Tuesday 09/13: Briancon rest day
* Wednesday 09/14: -> le Casset -> Col d'Arsine and up -> Briancon night train
* Thursday 09/15: Austerlitz -> GdN -> London -> Cambridge.

Page about the Refuge du Glacier Blanc.

This is currently my favourite picture form the trip.