Archive for May, 2009

Nick Smith’s feature on Iran in Geographical magazine, June 2009 (full text)

May 26, 2009

A new dawn for Iran?

Ever since the Islamic Revolution in the 1970s Iran has been something of a closed book to the west. But as the election of Barack Obama as U.S. President heralds a softening of attitude towards Iran, travellers are starting to rediscover a country radically different from the image presented by the media. By Nick Smith

Sitting in a teahouse in Esfahan smoking an apple-scented ghalyan, Hassan tells me he is quietly optimistic about Iran’s future. ‘For us Persians it has been a confusing time. When America invaded Iraq, we were happy.’ Hassan seems to use the words ‘Iran’ and ‘Persia’ interchangeably, but as I get to know him better it becomes just about distinguishable that the former refers to the modern political state, and the latter to the geographical region and cultural empire he still lives in.

Hassan regards himself as informed on international issues. He’s been a shop assistant in London, a taxi driver in California, and fought in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. These days he is retired, and prefers to spend his time drinking tea and talking with the increasing numbers of foreigners who travel to see the most splendid city in Islamic Iran. At the end of the 16th Century, Shah Abbas – the greatest influence in the creation of modern Iran – made the remote desert town of Esfahan his capital, commissioning beautiful works of art and grand architecture. Esfahan has been described for centuries by the people who live there as ‘half of the world’, and it is easy to see why.

For several mornings Hassan and I listened to news reports of the run-up to the Presidential election on an old valve radio in the teahouse in a side-street running off the Royal Square. On more than one occasion, he confided in me that his only real worry was that once America withdrew from its occupation of Iraq, it would turn the spotlight on his homeland. ‘I always believed that my enemy’s enemy is my friend,’ he said, crunching his way through a plate of saffron-flavoured sugar crystals. But for Hassan, this simplistic expression of ‘realist statecraft’ might at last be coming true, because with the subsequent inauguration of Barack Obama as America’s 44th President, the pressure, for the moment at least, is off.

In his inaugural address in January, Obama made it clear that his foreign policy in respect of the Middle East would differ radically from that of his predecessor George W Bush. ‘To the Muslim world,’ said Obama, ‘we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.’ Less than a week later, he elaborated on this, saying: ‘My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy.’ Not so much as a whiff of the ‘axis of evil’. The Wild West rhetoric of Bush’s post 9/11 pronouncements – ‘either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists’ – now seems to belong to a different age.

Meanwhile, former UN chief weapons inspector Hans Blix has said that Obama’s inauguration raises hopes for a peaceful solution to the issue of Iran’s nuclear programme through diplomatic engagement. According to Blix: ‘Bush was the worst for treating people without respect. The policy was that the US was the good guy and they would keep order among the unruly children of the world.’ While back in February 2008, Bush was steadfastly refusing to rule out any ‘options’, his replacement will, as Blix says, ‘be more ready to enter into direct talks. We should get a much more creative and positive attitude.’ During my recent visit to Iran, I only saw one piece of evidence to suggest international relations are strained. As I drove past a heavily guarded power station on the highway between Yazd and Kashan, I saw clusters of mobile rocket launchers and gun emplacements with their sights trained north, scanning for incoming air raids from Israel.


Iran’s image is changing. This is happening because of the popularity of films such as ‘Persepolis’ and the trendy contemporary books such as Reading Lolita in Tehran. And although you can’t easily read Reading Lolita in Tehran in Tehran (much less Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita), the rules are starting to relax. The increasing ease with which you can travel here means that it’s becoming popular again. In the late 1960s and 1970s, Iran was the Middle East’s top tourist destination, but numbers dwindled following the overthrow of the Shah. Three decades on and the tourism industry is booming again. Statistics released by the Iranian tourism office show that the number of foreign tourists has doubled in the past three years.

‘Roughly one million tourists visited Iran in 2004,’ says Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei, Chief of the Iran Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization (ICHHTO). Mashaei highlights the improved facilities provided to tourists and recognises the contribution electronic visas are making in simplifying the immigration procedure. To date, 250,000 e-visas have been issued, while reports of visa applications quadrupling from territories such as South Korea are becoming the norm. Iran’s ‘20-Year Vision’ document projects investment of over $32 billion in the country’s tourism sector. The document also predicts that Iran will account for two per cent of all international tourists by 2025.

One of the reasons for this is the success of the touring exhibition The Glory of Persia, which recently moved from Japan to South Korea. A dazzling exhibit of artifacts dating back to the 6th century BCE, the exhibition introduces Iranian history, culture and art to other nations. The ICHHTO, which has also recently taken major Iranian cultural exhibitions to Germany, Switzerland, Italy, France, Britain and Mexico, is now planning to set up camp in the Louvre Museum in Paris, where it is scheduled to host an exhibition in 2013.

More immediately, currently running at the British Museum is Shah Abbas: the remaking of Iran, the first major exhibition to explore the rule and legacy of Shah Abbas, Shah of Iran from 1587–1629. According to Sheila Canby, the exhibition’s curator: ‘Shah Abbas was restless, decisive, ruthless and intelligent. This exhibition will provide a rare opportunity to learn about this important ruler. Shah Abbas was a critical figure in the development of Iran and his legacy is still with us today.’

But it’s not just a question of Iran touring the world. Although independent travel in Persia is still difficult, travel companies at the more adventurous end of the spectrum are starting to turn their attention towards offering Iran as a destination for escorted travel. One such operator is Simoon Travel. Managing Director Amelia Stewart explains: ‘the reason we wanted to move into Iran was that we knew it would be so different from the much-maligned portrait painted by the Western media. We wanted to see for ourselves, and we weren’t disappointed.’

Simoon’s itinerary is based on a classic journey along an old Silk Road trading route from Shiraz north to Tehran. Enthusiasts for Robert Byron’s classic The Road to Oxiana will be familiar with the names of many of the places of archaeological and architectural interest… Persepolis, Pasargadae, Esfahan and Yazd. Those with a wider-ranging knowledge of Persian travel literature will recognise the trip as an almost exact replica of one of the legs of Michael Carroll’s ‘Travels in Old Iran’ from the 1960s, which he describes in his largely forgotten classic From a Persian Tea House. Travellers expecting a literary, cultural and archaeological feast won’t come away empty-handed: ‘One of the great things about travelling in Iran,’ says Stewart, ‘is that the people make it. They are so warm and welcoming, charming and funny. They will go out of their way to ensure your time in Iran is memorable.’


Many writers have tried to capture the magic of Persia. Isabella Bird, Vita Sackville-West and Freya Stark have all chipped in with their observations on subjects as diverse as the beauty of Persian gardens, traditional village weddings and descriptions of the qanats or ancient underground irrigation tunnels that deliver water from the mountains to the desert cities. Lord Curzon, the great imperialist and President of the Royal Geographical Society immediately prior to the outbreak of the Great War, wrote perhaps the most important book on the subject, Persia and the Persian Question (1892). This had such a penetrative influence that even two decades later, writers daring to comment on Persia were openly apologetic to Curzon for encroaching on his territory.

One such was W P Cresson (a fellow of the RGS) who, writing in 1908 in Persia: The Awakening East, describes his arrival in Tehran in such wonderful prose it’s worth quoting at length: ‘since daybreak we had been hoping, at every moment, to catch our first glimpse of the towers and minarets of the Persian capital. From time to time, in answer to repeated questioning, our sleepy driver would wave his whip in a comprehensive sweep that took in the whole sky-line ahead, empty of any sign of habitation except the occasional distant village of high-walled garden, and muttering a reassuring “Tahran Anja” would lapse once more into a state of blissful unconsciousness.’

Arriving in modern Tehran today is nothing like that, although the reasons for wishing to go there in the first place are probably identical. Iran ranks 7th in the world in terms of number of UNESCO heritage sites, and knocks spots off the overcrowded commercialised mega-archaeology of Egypt, Greece and even Turkey… When you go to Persepolis today, or for that matter Pasargadae or any other of the wonderful sites of ancient archaeology, you’ll most likely find yourself on your own. As you wander around these old rocks and stones you can mentally reconstruct the scenes of Darius’s palatial splendour in his summer palaces. British-naturalised Iranian photographer and explorer Henry Dallal tells me: ‘when we were kids we all went to Persepolis on a school trip – it’s the greatest place on earth.’  

The more I traveled through Iran, the more I realised that every preconception I’d based on television news bulletins and the foreign pages of the broadsheets was almost entirely wrong. Our media insists on bombarding us with absurd clichés of rogue nuclear power reactors, public executions and starving, oppressed masses forced to eat the bark off the trees to survive. On the other hand, if you believe the romantic fiction of most guidebooks published today, you’ll be forgiven for thinking that modern Iran is awash with nightingales, pomegranates and poetry. ‘I don’t understand any of this,’ says Hassan as we embark on yet another glass of sweet tea. ‘We’ve only got one nuclear power station, and we use it for generating our domestic power. And I haven’t seen a nightingale in years. When you go home tell your friends to come and see Persia for themselves.’


Iran – Travel co-ordinates

Nick Smith travelled to Iran with desert and cultural specialists Simoon Travel who organise tailor-made and group tours to Persia as well as Libya, Algeria and Oman. Experienced guest lecturers often accompany the tours and groups do not exceed 15 in number. The company also works closely with schools to offer educational trips to these destinations. For a brochure call Amelia or Clare on 020 7622 6263 or visit

Nick Smith’s review of ‘The Language of God’ by Francis Collins, as published in E&T magazine (archive stuff)

May 26, 2009

The Language of God: A scientist presents evidence for belief

Francis Collins, Pocket Books, £8.99, ISBN 9-781847 390929

If you’re a scientist and want to sell books then you’ve got to write about God. Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project, and as such probably one of the world’s leading scientists of the day, is happy to oblige. A committed former atheist, some time agnostic, but now member of what we broadly think of as the Anglican Church, Collins has come up with a compelling rationale for why religious belief and Big Science are not mutually incompatible.

While it is very tempting to see the hand of the publisher guiding Collins toward simply writing a rebuttal of Richard Dawkins’s splenetic ‘The God Delusion’, Collins has actually got something interesting to say about compatibility issues between the world of objective technological reality and the less observable world of matters spiritual. While it’s true that he’s openly scornful of Dawkins – dismissing some of the British scientist’s claims as ‘eye-popping’ – his agenda has more to do with unification and harmony of differing approaches to thinking, which is one of the main attractions of ‘The Language of God’.

Clearly, with any such project there are key landing spots: Copernicus, Darwin, Crick and Watson, Intelligent Design, Young Earth Creationism, the Big Bang, and so on. But Collins has also stepped into the equally challenging world of moral philosophy and theosophy, both of which add intellectual ballast and balance to his ideas. Influenced by the seminal Oxford thinker of the mid-20th century, CS Lewis, he derives some beautifully crafted logical propositions for the mutuality of religion and science. And he is right to hold Lewis in such high regard: Lewis can make the subtlest of theological points clear and precise for the ordinary man. This is an interesting echo of the great physicist Ernest Rutherford, who said: “A theory you can’t explain to a bartender is probably no damned good.”

Whether or not ‘The Language of God’ is sufficient to silence the hordes of aggressive atheists rallying to Dawkins’ flag is moot. Of course, it all comes down to faith, and faith, unlike science, does not require evidence. For Collins, this explains why many scientists are uncomfortable with an argument where something more nebulous replaces data. On the other hand, recent research reveals that 40 per cent of all scientists believed in a god of some sort, Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin and Stephen Hawking among them. One thing I know is that, for sheer clarity of argument and magnanimity of thought, this important book knocks Dawkins’s ‘The God Delusion’ into a cocked hat.

Nick Smith’s interview with Stephen Urquhart, President of Omega, as featured in E&T magazine (full text)

May 23, 2009

Timing for success

Omega is the world’s largest watch manufacturer and has developed a portfolio of marketing alliances with aspirational brands such as James Bond, the Olympics and even NASA’s Lunar Landings. Nick Smith talks to Omega’s president, Stephen Urquhart…

Stephen Urquhart studied Industrial Management at the University of Neuchâtel and has been a member of Omega’s Management Board since 2000. With dual nationality (British and Swiss) Urquhart is currently President of Omega, part of the Swatch Group, the world’s largest manufacturer of finished watch products. Urquhart began his career at Omega in 1968 and although he has worked for other companies since he returned to the Swiss manufacturer in 1997.

Omega has regularly been the official timekeeper for the Olympics since the 1932 summer games. The Swiss manufacturer has been the official timekeeper for every Olympiad this century including the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. They will be operating in the same capacity at the 2010 winter games in Vancouver, Canada (see Engineering & Technology ‘Olympic Time’, 23rd April 2009) and will be on hand with several new technical developments for London 2012. In the 2008 Olympics, Omega bought out an Olympic limited edition edition watch with its logo on the second hand. Olympic swimmer and multiple gold medalist Michael Phelps is an Omega Ambassador and wears the Seamaster Planet Ocean.

Today, the Swatch Group continues to invest heavily in research and development, driving the steady expansion of its leading position in materials and process technologies and in product design and manufacturing. In particular, the Swatch Group engages in significant development activities in microelectronics and micromechanics. Sports timing and measurement technologies, although not a core business, play a key role in Omega’s brand and corporate visibility.

Nick Smith: Describe the relationship that Omega has with the Olympic games…

Stephen Urquhart: Everybody knows we started of in 1932 the first ever watch brand to be commissioned by the IOC. We sent three watchmakers to Los Angeles with a little briefcase of stopwatches and they timed a few of the events. And then we went to Berlin and London. We missed a few for different reasons – so there’s a very historical basis. Second, I think we would be crazy not to pursue this association with the Olympic world because it is a unique world, a unique entity. Secondly sports is very much part of our brand’s equity. We’ve been involved in diving, sailing and golf over the years, but to have the Olympic games as your main hook for your message is a chance to go in for the long run – we’ve done 23 games and Vancouver will be our 24th. It’s part of the brand’s DNA. We don’t sit down and ask ourselves ‘do we as part of our strategy sponsor or become a partner for the Olympic games’. It’s part of our future and it goes without saying. So we’ll be at the London Olympics, then Sochi (Russia Winter Olympics 2014) – that’s definite – and also the 2016 games. We don’t know where they will be yet, but Omega will be there.

NS: What are the tangible commercial benefits of this relationship?

SU: For Omega to be where it is today, somewhere along the line the Olympics must have played an important role. There’s an old saying in marketing, which is ‘half of what you spend is a waste of money, but you don’t know which half.’ And the thing about the link to the games is that it has helped us to build up the brand in terms of seriousness, reliability and quality. Obviously to be a part of the games in Beijing for us as a brand was an incredible opportunity to make the brand known in China. For the Chinese, it was such an important event for them. We saw the result there: we saw the build-up, during and after. If the brand is strong today in China then the Olympics has doubled our strength there.

NS: Can you put a graph on the wall and say these are the results?

SU: I don’t want to put a figure on it. It’s brand image and that is hard to measure. At every Olympics we launch a limited edition watch to coincide with the games and there will be a new one later this year for Vancouver. Okay, so we know that we can sell these watches because of the Olympic connection. But we’re not investing all this money and effort just to sell a few more watches. A watch is nice to have and it is part of our whole message, but it is not really our main message. That is to convey that Omega is heavily involved in the most universal sporting event in the world. But I can’t put a graph on the wall.

NS: Who is the message for? Is there a profile of the Omega client, how do you reach them and what is the method of delivery?

SU: Let’s face it, the purchase of a watch these days is not a rational decision. Today, who needs to buy a watch to tell the time? And if you do, who needs to spend thousands of pounds on one? But below the surface, to own a brand that has the notions of longevity and quality makes a difference, I think, to people’s decisions when hey come to buy one. Obviously people will buy a watch for many different reasons – it could be spontaneous, it could be for prestige reasons, or maybe even to show off – but they need to have a brand that has reliability. When our consumers spend three, four, five thousand pounds on a watch this image does play a role. If you ask the consumer, they’ll tell you that it doesn’t, but it does and our surveys say it does. When the market gets difficult, such as the economic environment we find ourselves in now, issues such as reliability and quality play an even bigger role.

NS: What part do the brand ambassadors play in establishing this reassurance?

SU: They play a role. I think maybe it’s above the line, with the precision, accuracy and reliability below the line. When you see James Bond wearing Omega, that’s when you can put a graph on the wall. We can show that during the period of promotion for Quantum of Solace the sales of the James Bond watch went like that [Urquhart points to the ceiling]. Cindy Crawford has been with the brand now for more than a decade associated with one particular product that is heavily promoted in Asia, and that line is now 60-70% of our business out there. I won’t say it’s entirely due to Cindy Crawford, but the ambassadors are there to help. They are people that the consumers can relate to, and they can relate to them much more tan to time keeping. In Beijing we had Michael Phelps along as an ambassador, and that helps. I am sure of it.

NS: Famously, Buzz Aldrin was wearing an Omega watch when he walked on the moon in 1969. The Speedmaster Professional is the first and only watch to make it to the lunar surface. What sort of effect does branding like that have on your business?

SU: Although there hasn’t been a mission to the moon for twenty or so years, to this day the Apollo 11 mission still has incredible appeal. We know that there are a lot of people out there who still follow this, so every year we celebrate the moon landing and to celebrate the 40th anniversary this year we’ve made a very special version of the moon watch. It’s sort of semi-limited and we’ve made a lot of them because there is a big following for the Speedmaster and a lot of people will want to own it. At the Basel Watch Fair in March there was a big event where we actually had Mr Aldrin with us. I am amazed to see how this story still has mass appeal to people of all ages, even people who weren’t even born when the moon landings happened.

NS: The lunar landings were technology at its most flamboyant…?

SU: I agree. And it’s technology that doesn’t really exist any more. If you go to NASA’s Johnson Space Centre in Texas and have a look at the stuff they’ve got there you can’t believe that they got to the moon and back using just this technology – it’s so rudimentary. I’ll always remember meeting the astronaut General Stafford, who didn’t actually walk on the moon, but was commander of Apollo 10, and did the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project where he made the historic meeting with a Soviet Cosmonaut. He picked me up at the airport in Dallas in a small Japanese car and said: ‘Stephen, do you know that there’s more computing power in this car than there was in the whole of the whole of the Apollo space programme.

Nick Smith’s interview with Pen Hadow in E&T magazine (Catlin Arctic survey – pre-departure)

May 19, 2009

Techno explorers take to the ice

This month a team of explorers lead by Pen Hadow will set off on foot for the North Pole. Man-hauling ice-penetrating radar instrumentation for more than 1,000km, the expedition will relay back to the scientific community crucial data about how climate change is affecting ice thickness in the Arctic. By Nick Smith

Sitting in his expedition headquarters in Leadenhall Street in London’s financial district, Arctic explorer Pen Hadow is at the centre of operations of his latest mission. His Catlin Arctic Survey is about to head off to the Arctic – hauling their own bodyweight of monitoring equipment across the ice – to do something satellites and submarines can’t.

“Circumstances are changing up in the Arctic Ocean so quickly that it’s just not possible to get the technology into space on time,” says Hadow

Satellites could easily carry ice-penetrating radar and, orbiting overhead, complete a survey in a fraction of the time that it will take Hadow and his team to cross the late-winter ice that surrounds the North Pole. But the difference lies in the phrase “on time”. It takes years to assemble and launch a satellite. The bleakest plausible prediction that says there will be no seasonal ice left to measure in just five years. “The shrinkage and thinning is happening at a pace that’s outstripping our ability to get new technology onto satellites.”

Getting up close and personal to the Arctic ice is worthwhile, Hadow explains. “There isn’t, and never has been, an accurate enough method of determining by satellite what’s going on with the ice.”

Existing satellite technology is able to measure the thickness of the ‘freeboard’ – the combined depth of ice and snow above sea level. The presence of snow is not relevant in the prediction of ice meltdown, but it does have a nasty habit of contaminating remote telemetry measurements. This is because radar cannot differentiate between the two, and so we can’t tell how much snow is depressing the ice cover. As the end reading is an extrapolation based on the assumption that the freeboard represents only one-ninth of the total ice thickness, any errors caused by snow become magnified to produce wildly inaccurate results. Submarine-based surveys are better at estimating the ice thickness, because their onboard technology measures the much larger draft of the ice. But even extrapolations based on these readings aren’t accurate enough. And, besides there’s hardly any submarine data available. So, it’s back to people hauling instruments on sleds in scenes that have not changed much since the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, when the likes of Ernest Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott were gunning for the South Pole.

Hadow’s business card says director and head of surveying, and it’s been his full-time job since he drew a line under his high-profile 2003 expedition, when he became the best-known polar explorer of his generation. That year, he became the first person to walk solo and unsupported to the North Pole, then regarded by the polar community as the last of the classic uncompleted challenges. A shadow was cast over his success at the pole by a media controversy that inaccurately depicted Hadow’s delayed scheduled airlift from the pole as a ‘rescue’.

For Hadow, the 2003 expedition was an eye-opener. In all his years exploring the north polar icecap, never before had the explorer seen so much thin ice and open water in the Arctic. “To travel my route in a straight line to the pole – 478 miles as the crow flies – I found myself needing an amphibious option.” Hadow equipped himself with an immersion suit and, in order to keep the route as short and straight as possible, when he encountered water he simply swam across it.

During the course of his research for his book Solo, his account of the 2003 trip to the pole, Hadow “started to better understand the process that was bringing about this increased open water and sea ice: global warming”. He also discovered that there was one critical data set that scientists did not have if they wanted to predict when the ice cover on the Arctic Ocean would disappear more accurately.

For Hadow, the solution was simple. He would check the existing data by dragging an ice-penetrating radar, its associated instrumentation, computers and communications technology across the Arctic. “Many of my previous expeditions have been about achieving something for me, seeing what I could do. Now I think that what we’re doing with the Catlin Arctic Survey is real exploring, going out into the field and gathering data that could be vital to our understanding of climate change. This data could provide our science partners with what they need to convince those in government that something needs to be done about how to manage fragile environments sustainably.”

Although going solo is something Hadow is used to, there is simply too much work to be done on this trip to go it alone. To assist him he has enlisted the help of two fellow explorers, Ann Daniels and Martin Hartley. Daniels is in charge of field operations – handling navigation and other logistics – while Hartley is the expedition photographer and filmmaker. Hadow will pull the sledge containing the radar equipment and computers. Apart from the ice-thickness readings, the on-ice team will conduct 50 different sets of measurements and samples, from the water column, the ice sheet and the atmosphere. Some devices will record the data continuously; other measurements will be taken hourly, daily or weekly. Getting across the ice is hard enough without having to do the science as well. “It’s going to be hard work,” says Hadow.

Much of the scientific and communications equipment the explorers will be using has been developed specially for the survey, with more data – including audio, video and biotelemetry – being transmitted than on any other polar expedition before. Taking up the most room and perhaps most important to the expedition is ‘Sprite’. The name is short for “surface penetrating radar for ice thickness establishment”, but Hadow says the name also doffs its cap to the Scott Polar Research Institute, one of the science partners that has played an influential role in the survey.

Not surprisingly, Sprite is robust. The team will drag it across fields of rubble and send it tumbling down pressure ridges over a total distance of more than 1000km. The impulse radar unit is a mere 4kg – 25 times lighter than equivalent radar systems used in aircraft surveys. It is mounted behind the survey’s sledge boat, effectively converting the sledge into a survey vessel, called the Lady Herbert, after the wife of one of the greatest polar surveyors ever, Sir Wally Herbert.

Built by Cambridge-based scientist Michael Gorman, Sprite will take a high-resolution cross-profile of the snow and ice every 10cm along the route. Sprite’s own computer will then process the raw data before transferring it to the central data unit, otherwise known as the ‘onboard sledge computer’. Here the data is compressed and sent using the Iridium network of orbiting communications satellites back to the survey HQ. There it will be reformatted and distributed to the Survey’s science partners.

Iridium is the only satellite network available in the Arctic and but explorers do not much like it. It’s narrow bandwidth channels result in a low data-transmission rate. The sledge computer, developed by Andrew Jackson, has to use a custom-built multi-modem data uplink system that can receive, format, store, compress and transmit the data back to the UK on a live, ‘delayed live’ or overnight basis.

While out on the ice, the team will be communicating with each other, and the UK HQ, using a three-way person-to-person communications system developed by IET member and independent engineering consultant Perran Newman. Designed especially for the survey, the rig consists of an ear-mounted, jawbone-sensing headset and separate throat microphone, connected through a wiring harness built into the sledging suit, to a belt-mounted control box. Team members’ control boxes are networked via radio links to allow three-way voice communications. The boxes are also linked to a radio-transceiver mounted on the Lady Herbert, containing the uplink facility to the Iridium array. Toggling between control box functions is by push-button, meaning that the explorers won’t have to risk frostbite by uncovering their hands to operate the system. Other features include voice-activation, and a ‘live commentary’ link that will allow armchair explorers to follow the expedition on the survey’s website.

The explorers will also be wearing a chest-belt with integrated biosensors that will measure and record physiological data such as heart rate, respiration rate, skin temperature and body orientation. Developed by Hildago, the Equivital system has been adapted from telehealth applications aimed at first responders and paramedics. Its use on the Catlin Arctic survey will provide an opportunity to assess how the body responds in the polar environment. Team members will also be taking ‘tablets’ that contain miniature temperature sensors, batteries and radio transmitters that will transmit information about their core temperature, as the pill negotiates its way through the stomach and the intestines.

By linking reportage-style web-cam footage and live audio commentaries to data generated from body-worn bio-monitors it will be possible to not just follow the team’s progress but to experience it too. Anyone passing the survey’s HQ in Leadenhall Street should watch out for the huge screens Hadow is planning to put in the windows of the offices donated to him by his main sponsor. Those in the City worrying about the economic climate will over their lunchtime lattes also have the opportunity to worry about the real climate.

Unlike so many modern adventures into the Polar Regions, the Catlin Arctic Survey has a real scientific mission as its main objective, and has more in common with the polar exploration of the Heroic age than any other recent expedition. This small team of explorers is going out onto the ice at great personal risk to themselves because there is no other way of getting the data. If they succeed, everyone on the planet stands to benefit. “There are times when I feel quite overburdened by the significance of the survey, and there are others when I just want to get on with it”, says Hadow.

All three members of the Catlin Arctic Survey – Pen Hadow, Ann Daniels and Martin Hartley – have been to the North Pole before, so there will be no need for personal ‘milestone bagging’ on this tour. Hadow says the team will focus entirely on securing the relevant scientific data and if that means they don’t get to the pole, then they don’t get to the pole: “we just want to ensure that we get the longest possible transect of meaningful data before we come home.”

But there is a very strong sense in which the real work won’t really start until they return. As Hadow says: “Were just the foot soldiers getting out into the field collecting the information that the scientists need to do their work.” And with the Arctic Ocean and surrounding High Arctic environment more responsive to climate change than most, the urgency for the Catlin Arctic Survey to get out there and do just that is greater than ever.


Chilling forecasts for ice meltdown date

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) thinks that seasonal disappearance of the Arctic Ocean’s sea ice will occur between 2050-2100. This is based on the best figures for the rate of the shrinking surface area and the IPCC’s long-range global climate forecasts. As if this weren’t scary enough, a super-computer model developed by the US Navy’s Department of Oceanography puts the meltdown date at within five years. Their calculations are based on the ice thickness estimates (as compared with surface area).

As Hadow says though, the accuracy of the models are merely a function of the quality of the data relied on. The data returned by the Catlin Arctic Survey will “allow for the re-evaluation of satellite and submarine digitised observations.

Climate Change modelers will be able to use the findings emerging from the survey to assist in validating or modifying projections made by the IPCC’s Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis report. The survey data can be factored into related areas of scientific work that until now had been based on satellite and submarine data, but unverified by a ground-truth survey.

Evidence for an earlier meltdown date than the IPCC’s – the most frequently cited and widely accepted – would mean that the environment lobby could apply more pressure on governments to take sustainable and responsible management of the environment more seriously. When it comes to Global Warming international agreements are the only route to success. But agreements can only be made if scientists can provide policy makers with higher-resolution forecasts than they already possess.


Global impacts of climate change

The complete meltdown of the North Pole ice cap as a perennial global feature is a major marker in the progress of climate change. Here are some of the impacts anticipated from climate change in general for different regions of the planet:

* Scientists have major concerns about 15 cities across the globe, 13 of which lie in coastal plains. If current warming trends continue London, Bangkok, Alexandria and New York will end up below sea level, displacing tens of millions and causing worldwide economic damage if adequate flood protection measures are not put in place.

* Large numbers of people living along the coast in South and East Asia (as well as in West Africa and the Caribbean) are at risk of losing their homes and their livelihood.

* Sea levels are rising in the Bay of Bengal affecting villages in Orissa’s coastal Kendrapara district in western India.

* Between 15 and 20 per cent of Bangladesh lies within one metre of sea level. Predicted rises in sea level will affect between 13 and 30 million people, potentially reducing rice production by 50 per cent.

* Pacific islands such as Tuvalu are already being evacuated as people leave to escape the rising waters. Tuvalu’s highest elevation is 4.6m, but most of it is no more than a metre above the sea

* Concerns are mounting in Shanghai, China’s economic capital, as the northern Pacific Ocean could rise by 7000mm before 2050. This impact will be exaggerated by the fact that Shanghai is sinking due to exploitation of groundwater needed to supply the population of 18million.

* About 80 per cent of the Maldives’ 1,200 islands are no more that 1m above sea level – the archipelago’s 360,000 citizens could be forced to leave in the next 50 years or so

* A rise of between 8-30cms in sea level could lead to the loss of 2,000 of Indonesia’s 17,508 islands

* Global warming could cost the Brazilian rain forest up to 30 per cent of its biodiversity and turn large areas into savannah

* Maize production levels could plummet by as much as 25-50 per cent in the next 50 years in countries such as Brazil, Nigeria, Mexico, South Africa and Tanzania due to rising temperatures and shifting rainfall pattern.


For more on the Catlin Arctic Survey visit

For more details about Pen Hadow visit

For more details about Ann Daniels visit

To see more of Martin Hartley’s polar photography visit

Nick Smith’s interview with Brix Smith of the Fall in Guitarist magazine (December 1996)

May 19, 2009

Was it really thirteen years ago when I interviewed the Fall’s legendary Brix Smith for Guitarist magazine? Apparently so. To be honest I’d forgotten all about it, but in trying to track down some of my earlier feature work for the ‘archive’ section of my mythical website-in-development, I found this lurking in a dark corner of the internet. I’ve not edited it at all, which was pretty brave of me, because I can’t quite believe how embarrassing my attempts at ‘cool’ journalism were. Still it’s no worse than looking at photos of those bad haircuts from the mid-1990s. Times change I suppose, and even if we don’t get cooler as we get older, we come to a better understanding of the semi-colon. But even so… ‘Schlepped’, ‘mega-babe’, ‘miserablists’, ‘real deal’, ‘agit-pop’… Really? What on earth was I thinking?


The Fall Girl

Brix Smith has again played her ‘last note ever’ for The Fall but happily she is going right back into the wonderful and frightening world of the solo artist. She talks to her near namesake Nick Smith about The Fall, the guitar and the future

It’s impossible to say just how many records The Fall have made over the past twenty years. Even the experts don’t know. Brix Smith, twice serving guitarist with her trademark white 330 Rickenbacker, certainly doesn’t. What about ‘Fiend With A Violin’ (1996 Receiver Records)? “Yeah, I got that one at home somewhere. It’s a live compilation, isn’t it?” And ‘Sinister Waltz’ (1996 Receiver Records)?

“These things are just out-takes, aren’t they? From ‘Shiftwork’ and ‘Extricate’ – I don’t listen to that stuff’ much, it’s kind of collectors’ stuff.” And there are others ­­– including a live double – less than a year old, but she can’t put a name to them. This is because, for her, there has been only one Fall record this year, and that’s the stunning ‘Light User Syndrome’, showcased on a European tour including a Sunday afternoon appearance at the Phoenix Festival, finally winding up, for Brix at least, on October 4th in Cheltenham. She’s left The Fall again.

Quite how Manchurian miserablists The Fall ended up with an American guitarist, and how she became a legend is a long story, and Brix takes evident delight in telling it. It all started in the early 80s in Vermont’s famous liberal arts college, Bennington where Brix was studying theatre and literature. Naturally, there was no actual work done here, as everyone just wanted to hang out, play guitar and be in a band.

Up until this point Brig’s only brush with the instrument had been her bluegrass-playing father’s tuition and a friendly babysitter who taught her how to play Joan Baez songs. “So my first chords on a small acoustic guitar were A, E, D, E minor. In college we were listening to Joy Division, Echo and The Bunnymen, and The Clash. I just wanted to be like The Clash. I used to go around singing Guns Of Brixton all the time. I guess that’s how I got my name.”

Inspired by Peter Hook – she had yet to fall under the spell of “the greatest” Fall bass player Stephen Hanley – she spent her first term’s book money on a bass guitar, a second-hand Carville. “It was the most horrible kind of thing you could imagine, but it was black so it was okay. My friend Lisa had a red Epiphany, and we used to have fights over her Pignose amp. The band started gigging in school in 1982.” Lisa is important – it’s her fault Brix joined The Fall first time around.

Thinking it would be easier to get a record deal in Chicago (she was wrong) Brix moved into the third floor of her mother’s house, which quickly became an improvised rehearsal studio for her new ensemble Banda Dratzing – ‘Clockwork Orange-speak for fighting band’. They were a moody garage outfit, a cross between Joy Division and The Go-Gos. Cautioned by the local cops, Brix and Lisa decamped to a disused abattoir: “There were no carcasses left in there,” she says reassuringly.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, The Fall had stunned the music scene with albums such as ‘Live At The Witch Trials’, ‘Dragnet’, ‘Slates’ and a stream of jarring, anti-establishment singles. They were the real deal, the only authentic art/punk band, and it was only a matter of time before Brix caught up with them. “I was looking through the import bins in Wax Trax in Chicago, and I found ‘Slates’. I took it home and became obsessed. It was the most brilliant thing I ever heard. It was outrageous. Two weeks later they were playing Chicago at Cabaret Metro, so Lisa and I went along. Stephen Hanley was totally, totally hypnotic. I was scared of Mark E Smith. They played a lot from ‘Slates’. After the gig, Lisa took off with some boyfriend, leaving me at the bar on my own. Before I knew what was happening I was talking to Mark E Smith.”

Three months later she was married to the lead singer of The Fall. “I never intended joining. The idea was that Mark was going to produce Banda Rating’s first album, my first record. But when he heard my song Everything For The Record he wanted it for his ‘Perverted By Language’ album, and he wanted me to guest guitar on it. I couldn’t play guitar at the time – I was a bassist – but he said, ‘Do it, you play just like Lou Reed’. I was like someone with emphysema running a mile – I just couldn’t do it. And when he asked me to sing it, I thought I was going to die. So I did it on an electric guitar that wasn’t plugged in, just miked up, and I sang into the guitar mike and it came out quite interesting with Mark playing some sort of 3-string violin on the top. There’s real magic there. It’s the song that became Hotel Bloedel.” Brix was now in The Fall.

She may have been a musician and a songwriter in her own right, and she may have been a fully paid-up member of The Fall, but this did not signal the beginning of a happy relationship with either the media or the group’s fan-base. In Banda Dratzing she had been her own woman, bristling with confidence and arrogance, but now these strengths were chipped away. When she played live she could see what was written over everyone’s faces: she’s married to the singer, she can’t play. It was the Linda McCartney and Wings syndrome. “It was like being scalded with burning oil or being burned alive. There was this dark, brooding, northern, train-spotting band with this American girl no one had ever heard of. I could have coped with being Yoko Ono, but Linda McCartney…”

This was the one thing that really hurt. The press carped that she’d single-handedly ruined The Fall. In fact she’d singlehandedly saved them from repetition and being typecast. “Mark was pissed off with the dissenters, but eventually the disdain turned to grudging respect and after a year or so it became open respect.”

As things got better, with Brix’s first fully-fledged Fall album ‘The Wonderful And Frightening World Of The Fall’ her acceptance was complete. Brix’s songs started to become, if not a creative backbone for The Fall, then at least a vital organ. In this incarnation she toured the world non-stop for five years at the rate of 150 gigs a year. The Fall were on a roll.

At this point the story gets confused. When Brix joined the band her attitude towards her guitar playing had been: I’m only good for one thing, but at least I can do it. But after five years she had become good enough to hold her own with anyone she wanted, with a creative urge to front her own band again. She reaIised she’d forgotten the limitless possibilities involved with running your own show or simply being available to session for other bands – something she loves doing. Her relationship with Mark was at an all-time low.

“I’d been in The Fall since I was 19, and I’d missed out on a load of things. I was spiritually dead, I had no independence and I couldn’t even write a cheque. I suffered from stress and I’d become hypoglycemic.” She freely admits to having ‘bitch alerts’ on tour. Surrounded by press, tour managers, fixers and a general entourage of people seemingly put there just to get on her nerves she would lose her temper and become impossible to deal with. It was time to spin out into Adult Net.

Adult Net was Brix’s first solo project since Banda Dratzing. She was still in The Fall and her Svengali, Mark E Smith, wanted to produce the first single – a cover of Strawberry Alarm Clock’s Incense And Peppermints. The single appeared in 1985, but it was John Leckie – one-time Fall producer, more recently associated with Radiohead, Cast and Kula Shaker – who sat at the controls. Mark’s influence was still pervasive – the name Adult Net comes from ‘The Wonderful And Frightening World of The Fall’. There’s a lyric buried somewhere in the mix which you can only hear on the left channel with headphones on where Mark, for no apparent reason, says ‘Adult Net, net of mesh.’ Brix likes this; “It sounds like a prophesy of pornography on the internet.”

The album ‘Spin This Web’ was recorded with future Lightning Seed Ian Broudie in the Penthouse at Abbey Road but never released. “I went to the States and took it to Geffen. They really, really liked it, but told me that the record was only good enough for demos. This totally knocked my confidence, because in those days I thought the record companies were God and that they knew everything. So I sat on the album. But I went back to the UK and did one gig at the ICA with The Smiths as my backing band and got a deal the next day with Phonogram, who bought the album. So I got to re-record it.” The new version produced by Craig Leon and renamed ‘The Honey Tangle’ (1990) was much better. Recorded at North London’s Church Studios, with dubbing and vocals at Jimmy Page’s Buckinghamshire Sol Studios, the album drew on the skills of Blondie’s drummer CIem Burke and The The’s bassist James Filer, as well as the classical might of the Brodsky Quartet.

By this time Brix had left The Fall (“and The Fall left me”) and was in the messy process of divorce from Mark. She had also developed the crippling repetitive strain injury Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, a form of tendonitis making it impossible for a guitarist to even think about playing the guitar without wincing in pain. The fear of the pain duly turned Brix’s CTS into a psychological illness as well as a physical one. Coerced by her parents she underwent physiotherapy at the University of Chicago with a hand specialist. For nine months she walked around with a packet of frozen peas strapped to her arm. Brix’s inability to play led to the inevitable. Phonogram dumped her. Not surprisingly, without a band, without a record deal and with a profound aversion to the guitar she was now “really unhappy”.

Whatever else she may be, Brix is a survivor and an opportunist, and after nine months of bleak depression, through a chance sequence of events, she was back on the road with Susannah Hoffs of The Bangles. A friendship had also been struck up with super-hip Fall fan Freedy Johnston, a gent more renowned for his work with Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and Butch Vig. Johnston’s agenda was to get Brix back into thinking positively about writing and playing again – an agenda that led to Brix rehearsing with Courtney Love’s upcoming mega-babe grunge act Hole, as well as detailed discussions with Mark (the first in six years) about “fucking The Fall up the ass”. After initial mistrust of his ex-wife, Mark eventually warmed to the suggestion and invited her back. One problem was that Brix couldn’t be the front woman in either band. Hole was always going to be the Courtney Love Show, and The Fall isn’t really The Fall unless Mark E Smith is the bullish centre of attention. Brix says of the Hole episode: “It was around 1993 when I rehearsed with Hole for two days, and stayed with Courtney. “She’s smart – I mean real smart and the band are great too, but they’re not as hard as The Fall. And in any case they only wanted me as the bass player and I had loads of my own material I wanted to contribute. With The Fall I could be Mr Spock to Mark’s Captain Kirk.”

Second time round was no easy ride, but there are two classic albums in ‘Cerebral Caustic’ (1995) and ‘Light User Syndrome’. Brix was less overawed by the band, and far more assertive, becoming recognisably more integral to the creative process. It’s no coincidence that The Fall make better records when Brix is around. But, unless you’re Mark E Smith, The Fall is not a band that you can hang around in for the rest of your life.

At Cheltenham Brix played her final note for The Fall ever. And she means it. “I feel like I’ve done The Fall, enjoyed it, given the most I could to it and got the most out of it. But now it’s time to move on.”

Brix’s cutting loose marks a new beginning and a series of new projects. So what’s the new stuff like? “Oh, it’s really heavy, and hard and good.” And the guitar playing? “Now I’m happy with that. Sure, I sweat and I worry, but now I have the room to be as improvisational as I want. But it only works when you’re comfortable. I love playing real hard. Chaos and order seem to work together.”



A staunch Rickenbacker user throughout her career, Brix is virtually synonymous with her mid-80s white 330. While in reasonably good condition, it’s a bit of a mongrel, with much earlier Rickenbacker components fitted to it by the Rickenbacker Doctor in Los Angeles. Brix uses incredibly light strings, helping prevent any recurrence of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, making it extremely easy to play and allowing those huge chord bends which are part of her melodic, loopy, groove-based style. The guitar retains blood spatters from an on-stage mishap at the Phoenix Festival. Brix once owned the guitar’s twin – a black 330 –, which was stolen from her brother’s flat in Los Angeles. Her other Rickenbackers include a short-scale limited edition John Lennon signature in black and gold with Bigsby tremolo arm, and a “truly beautiful” midnight blue 12-string. Brix’s other main guitar is the phenomenally rare cherry red 63 Gretsch Corvette, which was given to her by the guitarist from Joan Jett And The Blackhearts. “It was my first real guitar, and my first guitar in The Fall – I did my debut with it on The Tube. When Johnny Marr saw it, he called me up and said that he wanted to buy it, and I said nobody’s going to buy this. But a year later our van got broken into and everything got nicked, including my Gretsch. It broke my heart.

“I put ads in the paper trying to track it down, and called music shops. I tried everything but couldn’t find it. Then about five years later I was walking around Denmark Street and I went into Andy’s and there it was on the wall. It had been butchered a bit – ah the brass fittings had been taken off and replaced – but I knew it was mine from the scratches from my belt on the back of it. So I bought it back, and I’m using it today. I love it,” Having sworn that she’d never sell it, Brix found the irony behind having to buy it back most unamusing. It turns out that the brass fittings are probably worth as much as the guitar itself, so if you’ve got them you’d better watch out. Brix wants them back.

Another guitar that tends to get schlepped around on tour is a pink Paisley Fender Telecaster (early 80s reissue), while for songwriting at home Brix is using her recently acquired Yamaha 12-string acoustic/electric.

As for amplifiers, Brix doesn’t have one. She used to own a MESA-Boogie, but when she left The Fall the first time the band confiscated it. “It was actually in my divorce agreement that I got it back, but by that time it was completely trashed. They’d dragged it around the world and beaten the hell out of it. Since then I’ve never had an amp. When we went on tour I hired a Vox AC30.”

GUITARIST, December 1996, pp. 139-146

Nick Smith’s feature on North-West Passage exhibition at National Maritime Museum is in the Daily Telegraph today… (original text)

May 16, 2009

Route masters

A new exhibition on the North-West Passage retrace the routes of the early explorers who gallantly searched for a shortcut to the East. By Nick Smith

In the 16th century, England was looking for a sea-route between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans that would enable merchant ships to ply their trade with China. Martin Frobisher was the first of our explorers to weigh anchor and set sail in the hope of discovering a navigable route across the top of the New World through the Arctic sea ice.

Frobisher spent three voyages trying to discover the passage he was convinced existed. Each time he failed, ending up in what is now North-eastern Canada as so many did after him. And yet, such were the potential commercial rewards involved, the search for the passage became a national obsession.

Despite his failure, Frobisher didn’t return empty handed. In 1576 he brought back to Britain several hundred tons of what he believed to be gold-bearing ore. A leading Italian alchemist confirmed Frobisher’s suspicion and Queen Elizabeth I promptly ordered the seafarer back for more. The existing samples were considered so valuable that they were kept at the Tower of London under quadruple locks. That they turned out to be worthless – quite literally fool’s gold – did not deter a stream of British explorers who had their sights set on the more important goal of the passage itself.

In the 19th century – the Golden Age of North-West Passage exploration – great naval officers such as Sir James Clarke Ross, Sir William Parry and Sir John Franklin all tried and failed. But by now more than commercial gain was at stake – the pride and prestige of a nation depended on success, especially as Russia was now interested in the route for strategic military reasons. The matter was finally settled at the dawn of the 20th Century, when in 1906 Norway’s greatest explorer became the first to forge a way through. His name was Roald Amundsen, Britannia’s nemesis, the man who was to beat Captain Scott to the South Pole five years later.

It is this search for the shortcut to the orient that is the subject of a new exhibition, North-West Passage: An Arctic Obsession at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. One of the curators is Claire Warrior, who has assembled the display of 120 exhibits – paintings, letters, maps and artefacts – from the museum’s priceless polar collection. ‘In some ways it’s a fictive concept’ says Claire, ‘because there’s no such thing as the North-West passage. There are lots of passages. The trouble is that they used to be heavily blocked with ice, and so for the British it was a question of trying to find a route through that was most easily navigable.’

The exhibition focuses mainly on the 19th century, and examines some extraordinary stories. But it is John Franklin’s tale that best typifies the isolation of those early days of the North-West Passage. For two winters, Franklin’s ships Erebus and Terror were trapped in the ice as one of the great tragedies in British exploration unfolded.

‘Franklin probably died on board the ship’, says Claire, ‘but his body has never been found.’ The rest of the crew abandoned ship, started to walk for the mainland, and were never seen again. Some skeletons have been found along with evidence of cannibalism, ‘but nobody really knows – and that’s the attractive thing about the Franklin mysteries – nobody really knows what happened.’

Franklin’s wife Jane decided that she’d find out for herself and dedicated much of the rest of her life searching for her lost husband, coordinating several rescue missions that were valuable cartographic and surveying ventures in themselves. She was not alone in thinking that Franklin must have survived. ‘People were convinced that this expedition couldn’t have failed. It was so well equipped. It had the creature comforts, it had the tinned food,’ says Claire. But six years later Jane was still writing letters to Franklin. One of the most poignant exhibits on show is a letter in Jane’s hand that starts: ‘My dearest love. Should this letter ever be opened by you after the many I have written to you in vain, it will be a happiness indeed. You must always have felt that I would never rest till I had more tidings of you. It is my mission upon earth, it keeps me alive…’

The final irony of the Franklin expedition is that it may have been the ‘creature comforts’ that killed the men. Recent forensic evidence has revealed that the 8,000 tins of food the expedition had on board were sealed with solder containing high levels of lead. If their supplies were contaminated, lead poisoning would have accelerated the men’s deaths.

There’s no longer as much ice in the North-West Passage as in Franklin’s day, which means adventurous types can follow the routes of Franklin and Amundsen in near clear seas during the summer. As you sail from Resolute Bay through the straits, islands and waterways that bear the names of the most heroic of Arctic explorers, you’ll see polar bears and musk oxen, white whales, narwhal and northern seals. Cruising in the lonely northern waters offers a taste of what Franklin and his contemporaries endured, although it’s almost certain that lead poisoning and cannibalism will be off the menu.

North-West Passage: An Arctic Obsession is running at the National Maritime Museum from 23rd May 2009 – 3rd January 2010, admission free (see




Ends all]

Nick Smith interview with Colin Thubron from 2008 (as published in Geographical magazine – heritage stuff)

May 15, 2009

Writer on the road

One of the true elder statesmen of travel writing, Colin Thubron muses on his new book, the dangers of vodka and why you’re never alone when you’re on the road.  Words and portrait by Nick Smith

Colin Thubron disappears into his kitchen to make coffee. He’s concerned that his telephone doesn’t seem to work properly since he tried to install broadband, and he is irritated on my behalf that crossing London on the Underground network has taken an unfairly long time and has made me late for my appointment with him. We’re in his smart west London apartment in a leafy avenue near Queen’s Gate, and while the silver-haired Thubron waits for the kettle to boil we make small talk about how difficult it is to hook up to the Internet. As he clatters around with mugs and spoons I surreptitiously scan his bookcases.

His book collection tells its own narrative of a man as fascinated with the progress of 20th century English literature as with travel. The novels of William Golding share shelf-space with the travel classics of Patrick Leigh Fermor, while the poems of T S Eliot are up there with histories of the Mughal princes.  This duality of the literary and the geographical is an important thread that runs through Thubron’s life. While it is true that he is one of our best loved and most accomplished travel writers he is also a novelist of some stature. He may well have won the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award in 1988 for his epic Behind the Wall: A Journey through China, but as recently as 2002 he was short-listed for the far more prestigious Booker prize for his fictional work To the Last City. His opinion obviously matters: there are new books scattered around clearly sent to him by publishers in the hope that he might favourably review them. And there are others by friends who are authors sent in the hope that he might simply read them (‘I wish I had time to read books by my friends’.)  Although he doesn’t mention it, his roots in literature are deeper still, being an indirect descendant of one of the real heavyweights of the English canon, the 17th century Augustan poet John Dryden. Watching over this literary melting pot in the corner there is an imperious stuffed eagle-owl he dragged back from Spain some years ago, in the days when you could ‘do that sort of thing without raising too many eyebrows.’

Thubron is of course currently in the spotlight on account of his much-anticipated new book, Shadow of the Silk Road. To say it has done well is an understatement with it being easily the best-selling travel book over the Christmas 2006 period, while its author has given an unprecedented three lectures on the subject at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG). Scenes created by disappointed punters turned away from the Ondaatje lecture theatre amounted to little less than dignified rioting. However, this is not to say that Shadow of the Silk Road has met with unmixed critical acclaim. His staunchest supporters admit he can be difficult to read and ‘old-fashioned’. But what seems to have annoyed some of the newspaper critics this time around is his decision to include imaginary sequences of dialogue between himself and ancient Silk Road traders, something that the Observer finds ‘embarrassing in their melancholic self-regard.’ Strong stuff indeed, and in no way justified as a criticism of a book that is not just about the objective realities of traveling.

It is also a view that overlooks the point that Thubron is an innovator who, in order to create the emotional and imaginative depth his books require, is happy to experiment by integrating novel writing techniques into his travelogues. This approach is in fact something of a revelation at a time when there are too many undistinguished travel books being put out by mediocre publishers. Some of today’s best authors slip anchor and quietly join another genre (William Dalrymple is now a best-selling popular historian; Philip Marsden is reportedly writing a history of the Battle of Magdala; Justin Marozzi a biography of Herodotus). Lesser writers continue to publish accounts of travel stunts contrived purely for the sake of writing about them. But Thubron, the elder statesman of his art delivers original, literary observation that will still be in print long after we have forgotten the names of some of today’s writers.

Is this alleged decline in travel writing simply down to the fact that there’s nowhere left to go? ‘I do think it’s a slight illusion that there’s nowhere left to travel’ says Thubron. ‘I remember doing a journey in the 1970s in which I took an old car across Asia through Iran and Afghanistan through to Kashmir, North Pakistan and Lebanon. All these places have become difficult, if not impossible, to travel in today. At that time China and the Soviet Union were off the map altogether and I thought I’d never get to explore them. And then suddenly the exact opposite happened – these two massive areas for exploration fall open, while the central Islamic countries are becoming harder to travel in. Things change all the time.’

For the past century, ever since Sir Mark Aurel Stein brought the region to the attention of the wider public, the Silk Road has been a rich hunting ground for explorers and writers. Since the Millennium there has been a major exhibition at the British Library, a television series on the subject by geographer Nick Middleton, as well as the much publicised all-women horseback ride along the length of the route by Alexandra Tolstoy and her three companions. So isn’t this rather over-exposed territory for Thubron? ‘What fascinated me was the countries themselves, the idea of inner Asia, central Asia, Northwest China, the Islamic countries… the sort of in-between countries, those porous borders, the cultural transfusion that resulted from the endless movement of people in antiquity. All that interested me a lot and came before any idea of traveling the Silk Road itself. Then later as a result of my research I realized that the one binding element between all these countries was the Silk Road and so I came to it in a secondary way. I realized by the end of the book that almost all political borders are fake and the real borders are elsewhere.’

The journey that makes up Shadow of the Silk Road was complete by Thubron in two legs, the first in 2003 and the second in 2004. It was impossible for him to get from China to Turkey in one hit because of the war in Afghanistan, a place where according to Thubron ‘it’s not a good idea to take a car.’ Despite the fact that he researched his subject for a year-and-a-half before setting out, the journey was planned in ‘rather a scattershot way’ with a broad idea of which counties he was to travel through, but only ‘the vaguest notion of where I was to go in them.’ He says that this is the only way to do it, having learned that if you try to arrange meetings, book hotels, stick to timetables then the only things you can guarantee are endless hassle, problems and disappointments. ‘You have to get out of that mood you have in England where you expect everything to work for you’ he says glancing mournfully at his telephone. ‘Why should everything work for you? If the buses don’t run, you miss the train, the camel goes lame or the car breaks down then you kind of have to accept that as part of the personality of the country you are in. Whether what happens is bad or good, it doesn’t really matter provided there’s a book at the end of it.’

The idea of there being ‘a book at the end of it’ is something that is always in Thubron’s mind and a driving force behind some of his scarier adventures. To be traveling alone, he says, means that there are always two of you on the journey. In this apparent paradox there’s the one who is physically doing the traveling and the other sitting on your shoulder with a notebook and pencil. And it is the latter who thinks, just as you are being mugged ‘hmmm, this is good copy… I think I’ll we’ll use this.’ It’s a tension between self-preservation and daring that not even the best of writers can resolve. After all, if you are traveling sensibly, at least in theory, then nothing much bad will happen to you. You end up looking for experiences or even worse manufacturing them, whether consciously or not. ‘I’m very ashamed of this,’ says Thubron, ‘but I am aware all the time I am on a journey that it is for a book. All the time there’s this dual business going on. You are going for experience and you push yourself to do things you’d never normally undertake. Maybe something dangerous. But that’s not courage.’

Rather than courage he sees it as application to his trade. While traveling as a professional writer he claims to imagine himself invulnerable in a way that he would not were he on holiday with his girlfriend, for example. Out on assignment he is looking for experiences in a way that others do not, experiences others would try to avoid. He cites as an example the moment he nearly died on the Silk Road journey. It had nothing to do with terrorism, insurgency, Islamic fundamentalism, gun-toting tribal warlords or even natural disaster. It was simply his inability to judge a mundane situation where both he and his Kyrgyz companions had been drinking vodka before getting in a car and driving away. ‘I hadn’t realized how drunk they were. Like most of the Central Asian peasants they were subverted by vodka. The whole car seemed to pass out at the same time, including the driver.’ The car veered slowly towards what Thubron says must have been the ‘only lorry driving in central Kyrgyzstan that night, and I don’t know how we missed it.’ 


Colin Thubron is slightly different from most travel writers today – he comes from a generation when his chosen genre was at its apex. The competition were far fewer in number , though his contemporaries – Bruce Chatwin, Eric Newby, Jonathan Raban, Paul Theroux – were a fearsomely talented and diverse bunch. But what he has in common with all of them is that he is a writer first and a traveler second. He elaborates by making the point that ‘years ago someone made the distinction between travelers who write and writers who travel.’ He his happy to place himself in the latter category and equally happy to admit to being the ‘someone’ who made the distinction in the first place. ‘Since I was a child I wanted to be a writer. I write novels and I wrote bad poetry as a teenager…’ The telephone rings and we look at each other significantly before agreeing that it must be working again. The interview has come to a close, but there is one last question. I ask him how when the day comes, he would like to be remembered. As a writer? He looks thoughtful before saying: ‘I suppose so, yes. Though it’s difficult to know what a writer is.’

Nick Smith’s recent Daily Telegraph article on traveling through Iran (full text)

May 14, 2009

Priceless Persia

Modern Iran can provide a desert adventure with a real difference. Nick Smith spent a fortnight driving across old Persia, soaking up the ruins, mosques and bazaars

My first encounter with Iran was reading Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana, a classic that for many still defines the romance of Persia. Byron travelled to that most famous of ruined desert cities – Persepolis – and described in minute architectural detail the splendours of Iran’s great mosques in Esfahan and Yazd. Oxiana has proved so enduringly popular that Iran has become an imperative for the adventurous traveller. Anyone wishing to sample the splendours that await should pay a visit to the British Museum’s current exhibition Shah ‘Abbas: The Remaking of Iran.

As a destination Iran can match the grand scale archaeology of ancient Egypt or Jordan, the souks and bazaars of Morocco or Tunisia, or the deserts of northern Africa. And yet, unlike these tried and tested destinations, Iran is blissfully free of package tourists. You will often find that you have archaeological sites all to yourself. Sadly too many people are put off travelling through this exquisite country because of concerns over safety.

My tour of Iran started before I even got to Heathrow. As I packed I listened to Radio 4’s Excess Baggage where John McCarthy discussed Iran with Amelia Stewart of Simoon Travel, a specialist in the region. We’ve all got the wrong idea, said Amelia. These days Iran is safe for everyone. Even women? Especially women. It’s always a good idea to check the Foreign Office ‘travel advisories’ before going anywhere further afield than Spain, but there’s hardly ever any need for special caution when it comes to Iran.

By pure coincidence Amelia was to be my guide for my fortnight in Iran. We met at Tehran before flying south to Shiraz to begin our winding journey across the high salt deserts of old Persia. This ancient Iranian capital city, despite its name, no longer exports fruity red wines, but is now famous for its serene rose gardens, the imposing architecture of the Regent’s Mosque and for being home to the tombs of the great Persian poets Hafiz and Sa’di. Most tours of Iran start in Shiraz because of its proximity to Persepolis, the ruined summer capital of Darius the Great. The bas-reliefs of the procession of the tributary nations on the stairway of the Apandana are a glorious reminder of the achievements of the ancient world.

After Persepolis my tour moved to the tombs at Naqsh-e Rostam, one of the most important Achaemenian and Sasanian sites in the country. Four immense royal tombs have been hewn out of a sheer cliff face in a feat of civil engineering to rival the Pyramids at Giza. Opposite lies the Cube of Zoroaster, thought by archaeologists to be another royal tomb or fire temple. We visited more Zoroastrian sites in Yazd where a sacred flame has burned uninterrupted for 1,500 years. Just outside today’s modern city are the gruesome Towers of Silence where bodies of the dead were, until the 1970s, left exposed to the sky to be picked clean by vultures and crows.

Threading our way through the great mountainous expanse of the Dasht-e Lut desert we stopped for the night at a restored Silk Road caravanserai at Zeinoddin. Here we drank cups of tea sweetened with saffron sugar before experiencing Iranian cuisine in all its glory. A local dish called fesenjan, a type of bitter stew made with pomegranates and walnuts, is served with rice and slices of watermelon, dates, cherries, peaches and dried apples. It’s all washed down with doogh, a refreshing mint flavoured yoghurt drink.

All roads it seems lead to Isfahan, one of the great cities of the Islamic world and the capital of the founding father of modern Iran, Shah ‘Abbas. Isfahan’s Royal Square boasts the two most glorious mosques in Iran – those of Shaykh Lutfallah and Masjid-i Shah – as well as the magnificent Ali Qapu palace. For the souvenir hunter the labyrinthine bazaar sell carpets, silverware and antiques. Horse-drawn carriages take tourists on trips around the city, while side roads dotted with comfortable teahouses drift down to the river where herons and egrets fish at sunset by Isfahan’s famous bridges.

Travelling in the Islamic world requires some knowledge of the basic etiquette, but you might be surprised by how liberal day-to-day Iran can be. Iran – or Persia as you will end up calling it – is relaxed to the point of being laid back, and the people are the friendliest you will meet anywhere. Complete strangers will ply you with tea and invitations to their houses. The only thing a Westerner could ever possibly feel uncomfortable about is the feeling of being overwhelmed by the generosity of the local people.