Sunday, 30 November 2008

The Brocken Spectre 2, or A Poem for Billo, who is still away

Against Biography
by William Bronk

We came to where the trees, if there were trees,
say, a little group of them, or a house
maybe, something there, whatever it was,
a man standing, someone, it would be clear
enough, sharp at the edges but everything else
was blurred, all running together or else
moving - sideways, back and forth- or the scale
was wrong, some of the things close by
were smaller than those set further back, so that though
we saw something, and saw it plain enough
we saw it nowhere, there wasn't any place
for it to be, or any place for us.
We wandered. Not quite aimless. Man here, though,
would live without biography: it needs
a time and place: there isn't any: who
could say, not smiling, me and my world
or so and so and his time, and stage a play
clothed properly in front of sets,
and believe that this made time and place of the world?

No, we have come too far for that belief
and saw ourselves as ghost against the real,
and time and place as ghosts; there is the real.
It is there. Where we are: nowhere. It is there.

The Brocken Spectre

Frost at dawn, as I walked back early over the high fields with the dogs. To the west, deep banks of fog lay darkly over the sea, mist drifting along the Sea Brows, veiling the pines. To the east, the sun rose over the Skiddaw fells. Then I saw myself! A huge shadow on the sea. I waved the dogs' stick, and bright splinters of light spilled out from the moving shadow.
I've never witnessed this phenomenon before. This is the Wikipaedia account:
A Brocken spectre (German Brockengespenst), also called Brocken bow or mountain spectre is the apparently enormously magnified shadow of an observer, cast upon the upper surfaces of clouds opposite the sun. The phenomenon can appear on any misty mountainside or cloud bank, or even from an aeroplane, but the frequent fogs and low-altitude accessibility of the Brocken, a peak in the Harz Mountains in Germany, have created a local legend from which the phenomenon draws its name. The Brocken spectre was observed and described by Johann Silberschlag in 1780, and has since been recorded often in literature about the region.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008


There was a double rainbow on the morning of my birthday.
It was very uplifting. I wondered if it was a sign - or something.
The weather was classic rainbow weather, rain falling through sun, light flashing on the streaming tiles of the houses. The light and colour on the sea were magical. Then the light and the colours faded back to slate-grey, clouds covered the sun, the sea became white-flecked and choppy.

Browning said:'The best is yet to be.' I wonder about that.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Seven Years in Tibet (revisited)

I’ve just been re-reading this book, which I read for the first time last year. It still made a profound impression on me and I felt curious to find out more about Heinrich Herrer. As he didn't die until 2006, aged, I think, 93, there are obituaries and also plenty of biographical material about him on the Internet.

The publication of the book, in fact, brought him much acclaim both as a travel writer and mountaineer but also prompted people to investigate his past. As a very young man he had been a member of the SS but always averred that it was only because he was thereby offered the chance to become a ski instructor and trainer and that he had no political or ideological commitment to the organistation or the Nazi party.

All this has been well chewed over, especially by anti-Nazi propagandists who can get extremely worked up about people of Herrer's background. Added to that, he became a close friend of the Dalai Lama during his time in Tibet, a friendship which continued and was cemented suring the latter's exile. The fact that the Dalai Lama apparently had friends and supporters among ex-Nazis added fuel to the fire although some might think that the Dalai Lama would welcome friends of any persuasion. In the end I felt that the question of Herrer's past and suspected political leanings didn't detract from the achievement which the book represents.

When I'd finished the book, I began to think more about Peter Aufschnaiter, who is something of a shadowy figure in Herrer's narrative. (He's shown in the accompanying photo, taken while he was serving in the War.) He was Herrer's co-escapee from Derha Dun prison and his companion over the years of their escape and travels through Tibet to reach Lhasa. Resorting to the Internet again (of course), I found quite a bit of material about him. He was a very different character, more solitary and completely immersed in his work and his passionate calling as an explorer and mountaineer. For much of the time that he and Herrer were in Tibet together, Aufschnaiter lived outside Lhasa, working on various engineering projects for the government.

In 1951, Herrer left Lhasa and went straight to Nepal, whereas Aufschnaiter continued to travel around Tibet, exploring and mapping previously unknown areas and climbing. During this time he lived with local people in all the areas he visited, including with some nomadic tribes, thereby gaining a unique insight into their lives and customs. He left Tibet the following year, due to the Communist take-over, but only returned to Europe after twenty years absence.

Herrer achieved fame and recognition because of the publication of Seven Years in Tibet, in 1953, whereas Aufschnaiter published only some papers and articles during his life-time. On his death in the 70s, his friend Martin Brauen, of the Ethnological Museum, University of Zurich, compiled, collated and edited the voluminous notes and journals, and, importantly, photographs, which Aufschnaiter kept during his travels. These were published in 2002, by a small Bangkok publishing house specialising in Asian titles, under the title Peter Aufschnaiter's Eight Years in Tibet and I was able to buy it on-line.

This book is NOT the travel classic which Herrer's book is. But it IS a unique and gripping picture of life and times in Lhasa and the rest of Tibet before the Chinese invasion. It also reveals Aufschnaiter as a dedicated and passionate explorer and climber, and a meticulous recorder of all his observations and map-makings. There's a lot of technical detail about the mountains and general terrain, which can become a bit tedious for the non-explorer/mountaineer, but it's also full of fascinating observation of the people and life-styles he encounters in his travels. It's illustrated throughout by Aufschnaiter's wonderful photographs. The style and editing are rather choppy but I enjoyed it nonetheless and felt it enhanced and enlarged upon my reading of the Herrer account.