Archive for December, 2009

Nick Smith’s interview with explorer and environmental scientist Tim Jarvis, as featured in current edition of E&T magazine

December 8, 2009

Words with the environmental explorer

As an explorer he’s walked from pole to pole. As an environmental engineer he’s worked on sustainability projects the world over. As a motivational speaker he sets new goals for tomorrow’s management and gives the odd talk about cannibalism. Nick Smith hears Tim Jarvis’s story…

‘Environmental engineering is exploratory by its very nature’ says Tim Jarvis, whose CV says he’s an environmental engineer and explorer. ‘Both disciplines are in some ways looking for solutions to energy and sustainability issues. During the course of my journeys I’m taking water and soil samples, documenting what I see in articles, books and films. It’s the photographic evidence that has the greatest impact of all.’

Jarvis is also a motivational speaker on the corporate circuit, where demand for what he’s learned in the field has never been higher. ‘Ironically, I find that I use my expeditions more than the engineering degrees when it comes to communicating environmental or management messages. This is because expeditions to the Polar Regions throw up so many lessons relevant to the business world.’

Jarvis was for some time best known for his Antarctic expedition a decade ago. This propelled him into the record books with the fastest journey to the Geographic South Pole and the longest unsupported Antarctica journey in history. He is the author of ‘The Unforgiving Minute’ a book that recounts his expeditions to the North and South Pole as well as the crossing of several Australian deserts. More recently he recreated the Antarctic journey of Douglas Mawson, the subject of a TV documentary and a best selling book entitled ‘Mawson: Life and Death in Antarctica.’

He is currently serving under Yale’s World Fellows Program for 2009 that aims to broaden and strengthen the leadership skills of emerging leaders as they work on progressing thinking on global issues and challenges. Jarvis has co-written a course for the Open University on environmental management. The course will be linked in with the BBC’s Frozen Planet series due to be broadcast in 2011. If that weren’t enough, his immediate plans include the recreation of legendary explorer Ernest Shackleton’s ‘Boy’s Own’ voyage of heroism from Elephant Island to South Georgia in replica of the original open whaler, the James Caird.

As an environmental scientist Tim Jarvis is used to cold places. An Associate Director at engineering and environmental professional services firm URS Corporation Jarvis says he’s ‘committed to finding pragmatic solutions to global environmental sustainability issues.’

E&T: Describe a typical geo-engineering project you’ve worked on recently…

Tim Jarvis: Last year I was project manager and technical peer reviewer of Environmental/Social Impact Assessments for a number of large open cast iron ore mines in Sweden and Finland. These were situated in sensitive locations adjacent to human populations and sensitive river and wetland environments. I was responsible for developing various extraction, waste disposal and rehabilitation options.

E&T: Typically what sort of training and lecturing do you do…

TJ: I normally speak about the lessons I have learnt related to problem solving, teamwork, change management and goal setting with perhaps a little bit of cannibalism thrown in. After a decade of polar travel, and almost twice that long working as an environmental scientist, I also talk about topics related to human-induced environmental change and how industrial and domestic consumers can reduce our environmental impacts. I also look at the associated opportunities and costs, how to manage change in our personal lives, as well as at a corporate level.

E&T: How do you think that your role as explorer helps cast light on this?

TJ: I provide first-hand information on the fascinating regions in which I have travelled and worked, with expedition analogies offering insights into the parallels in the business world.  I think my expeditions provide motivation for those looking to embark on the process of achieving their personal and professional goals, set against a topical background of polar ice cap melt and an ever more interconnected world.

E&T: As an engineer and an explorer, are there any conflicts of interest?

TJ: No. The expeditions I do involve going to remote places of high environmental and wilderness value. This gives me the chance to highlight their value in the books, films and articles produced. This allows me to draw to the wider public’s attention any environmental change I observe in the regions I visit.

E&T: Do you feel that expeditions are in some ways businesses in microcosm?

TJ: The whole process of planning expeditions is an exercise in business planning: determining an original concept and an understanding of whether a niche exists for it in the marketplace; what level of support there might be for it; taking it through to marketing, planning, risk assessing and costing all aspects. These are all parts of the process of project management.

Expeditions can demonstrate and highlight areas of business execution, including problem solving, teamwork and so on. Typically, the talks I deliver focus on the parallels that exist between extreme expeditions and running a business.

E&T: Who was Douglas Mawson and why did you recreate his sledging epic?

TJ: Douglas Mawson was a scientist, geologist, explorer and industrialist. He accompanied Shackleton on his Nimrod expedition, when he famously trekked to the South Magnetic Pole. I retraced Mawson’s subsequent journey – his famous survival journey of 1912/13 in which two of his colleagues died. The modern expedition used the same clothing, equipment and starvation rations as Mawson to allow us to test various theories about what had happened. At the time many believed that Mawson had been forced into cannibalism in order to survive.

E&T: What conclusions did you draw that are transferrable to business/engineering?

TJ: I learnt a lot about how difficult it is to conduct al forms of business the old way. But I learned to make the best with what I have – old, often unreliable gear and starvation rations – and work towards more manageable goals when bigger, more optimistic goals are not possible. I planned and risk managed accordingly to cope with these eventualities. Operating with limited resources has good parallels with the corporate world in that business often has to make do with budgetary and resource constraints and plan accordingly (although often fails to do this).

E&T: The Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration is almost a century behind us now. Why do we keep going back to it – and in particular Shackleton – for our leadership lessons?

TJ: Shackleton had many characteristics that made him a phenomenal leader –charisma, fund-raising ability and general empathy with people. He was brilliant at managing change, and ensuring that his team really worked as a team. In terms of everyone pulling together, he was very inclusive, being careful not to isolate anyone and was prepared to muck-in with the men. He also broke down the very real class divides that existed amongst his men.

E&T: What do you think was his key leadership characteristic?

TJ: Shackleton’s ability to change direction was a key strength too. Once the South Pole had been reached by Amundsen Shackleton saw that he must switch his goal to crossing the whole of Antarctica on the Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition. His esteem, reputation and legacy were all wrapped up in this one trip. But then with the sinking of his ship Endurance he was forced to re-evaluate his goals once more and, despite his desperate disappointment he pursued the new goal of getting his entire crew home safely with the same dedication and determination (see box ‘recreating the voyage of the James Caird’).

This showed tremendous presence of mind and a great leader who not only recognised the original goal is no longer achievable, but is prepared to act unequivocally on the new goal. This is a valid message for the changed world in which we find ourselves post-credit crunch, where financial plans of a year ago are no longer viable and we need to re-set goals and pursue them with the same vigour as the now unachievable goals of a year ago.

In Shackleton’s footsteps – recreating the voyage of the James Caird

Explorer Tim Jarvis uses his expeditions to communicate positive leadership and self-development messages. His next major expedition will be an attempt to retrace Ernest Shackleton’s journey in the James Caird from Elephant Island to South Georgia. This is often cited as one of the greatest rescue missions in the history of exploration: Shackleton, with a handful of men set forth in a plucky little open top whaler of just 23ft traversing 800 miles of the most hostile seas in the world.

As a result of Shackleton’s leadership the mission was a success, and to this day the great man’s leadership style is still central to curricula at many business schools. Whether it be looking at environmental issues such as climate change, or the state of disarray in the credit markets, Shackleton’s message of individuals putting differences aside and working to their strengths to collectively overcome seemingly insurmountable problems has real resonance.

The expedition will start from the Antarctic Peninsula, where much of Antarctica’s ice cap melt has occurred, several hundred kilometres from the infamous Larsen B Ice Shelf. The expedition aims to document the status of Antarctic ice with Jarvis in his role as environmental scientist.

Jarvis takes up the story: ‘In terms of the relevance of exploration, I think we need to challenge ourselves to find out more about the world and our place in it. This is because mankind relies upon adventurous souls taking a few risks to progress. This human spirit of adventure lies at the heart of artistic expression, advances in science, medicine or politics, or any other sphere you care to mention.’

To this day no one has been able to replicate Shackleton’s ‘double’ – sailing a replica boat from Elephant Island to South Georgia and then climbing over the mountains to Grytviken in the way he did. In 2011, Jarvis will attempt this, under the patronage of The Hon Alexandra Shackleton, granddaughter and closest living relative of Sir Ernest, in an expedition that has been dubbed the Shackleton Epic Expedition. A documentary film and book will be made about the expedition. ‘I want to do it honour Shackleton’s legacy, and because I want to see if a modern team can accomplish such a feat in the modern era.’

The expedition will set sail from Elephant Island at the end of the austral summer 2011 in a replica of the James Caird and, in an attempt to relive Shackleton’s experience, will use only technology, food and equipment that he would have had available in 1916.

Shackleton Epic Expedition appeal for sponsorship

The Shackleton Epic Expedition is seeking sponsorship support from both corporate sponsors and individuals to assist with funding the expedition. A breakdown of expedition costs and opportunities associated with sponsorship can be obtained by contacting Tim Jarvis (via http://www.timjarvis.org). Opportunities include wide international media exposure, and presentations to staff and clients of sponsoring organisations. Costs relate mainly to logistical support, clothing and equipment, the construction of the replica James Caird boat, and transport of the expedition team.

To find out more about the Shackleton Epic Expedition visit http://www.timjarvis.org

To find out more about URS Corporation visit http://www.urscorp.com/

Nick Smith’s article on visiting the North Pole as appearing in current edition of E&T magazine

December 8, 2009

Breaking the ice at the North Pole

You don’t have to be an Arctic explorer to visit the Geographic North Pole these days. E&T sent intrepid reporter Nick Smith to Murmansk’s Atomflot, where he joined the nuclear icebreaker 50 Years of Victory on a trip to the top of the world…

I’m standing on the bridge of the world’s largest and most powerful nuclear icebreaker. It’s been days since we’ve seen land and even longer since we’ve seen anything approaching darkness. Here in the high latitudes in summer it never gets dark, and in the eerie silent fog, the Arctic seems like the loneliest place on earth. My GPS says we’re at 89° 59 999’N, which means we’re about as close as we can get to the North Pole without actually being there. In fact, given the size of the 50 Years of Victory – 159.6 metres long, with a breadth of 30metres – it’s perfectly possible that part it is already at the Pole.

Of course, it doesn’t matter what my GPS says – not because of any possible margin of error – but because the only navigational reading that counts is the one on the bridge. We’re only technically at the Pole when Captain Dmitry Lobusov of the ‘50 лет Победы’ says we are. Positioning a 23,439 tonne ship on such a precise point as 90 degrees North, while simultaneously smashing through a pan of multiyear ice several metres thick, is a tricky job. Captain Lobusov has until now operated an ‘open bridge’, but we’ve been temporarily invited to leave to allow his crew some breathing space, to concentrate on this moment of pinpoint navigation. I leave reluctantly because the tension is mounting and it’s obvious that the precision of the final phase of the navigation is a matter of extreme seriousness. This is the world’s largest nuclear icebreaker and we’re going to stop it on a sixpence.

And the Victory truly is huge. For all the facts and figures (see side panel ‘Specification Sheet’), nothing can really prepare you for the experience of simply being aboard this huge work of engineering art. Of course, compared with some of the commercial ocean going cruise liners such as the Independence of the Seas (which is twice as long) the Victory is a big minnow. But the idea of being aboard a ship powered by two nuclear reactors that’s going to blast its way through the ice to the Pole is simply awe-inspiring. To think that even in the heaviest of icebreaking conditions the Victory consumes only 200g of nuclear fuel per day – about the weight of an apple – borders on science fiction.

It’s getting on for midnight on 15th July 2009 and after several attempts to ram a pan of multiyear ice out of our way, the icebreaker finally moves into position. ‘Ladies and Gentleman’ says an excited voice on the ship’s PA system, ‘we have achieved our expedition’s objective.’ The ship’s GPS reads 90° 00 000’ N (and for the record 172° 51 811’ E, although that hardly matters) and so it’s official – we’ve finally arrived at the Geographic North Pole. Most of the ship’s 124 passengers gather on the bow deck to celebrate, while the crew sets about the business of parking the ship (‘park’ is the technical term for mooring an icebreaker). Preparations are made for a party out on the ice at a ceremonial pole the following day. As the engines stop and the relentless vibration subsides it’s a great feeling to think we’ll be walking on the ice tomorrow.

It’s hard to imagine what the great explorers of the past would have made of all this. Technology has advanced so far in the pat century that a feat of navigation that was once only the dream of visionaries and madmen is now a reality for adventure tourists. In 1909 no one had set foot at the North Pole for certain – Commander Robert Peary of the US Navy claimed to have arrived there with a team of dogs that year – and it was to be another 60 years before British Explorer Wally Herbert could claim to be the first human to have beyond all doubt arrived at the Pole on foot. The challenges for these pioneering explorers were enormous: apart from the constant battle with 5-metre high pressure ridges and ‘leads’ (rivers of open water), there was the gnawing sub-zero temperatures, ravenous polar bears and the intellectual rigours of navigation with compasses, wristwatches and the stars (on the rare occasions when the sky was clear or dark enough). It was a mind-bogglingly tough existence that these men chose, and one that’s hard for the passengers of the Victory to understand.

A new day doesn’t dawn, but the clock tells us that it’s another day, and so on 16th July the ceremonies begin and I celebrate being the 22,500th person to set foot on the ice at the North Pole. This figure was calculated for me by onboard polar historian Robert Keith Headland, formerly archivist of the Scott Polar Research Institute, who has kept meticulous records of every arrival – and even disputed arrival – since Peary claimed to have attained ninety degrees north.

As you stand with your feet on what T.S.Eliot called the ‘still point of the turning world’ the significance of this place slowly sinks in. Look directly upwards along the earth’s rotational axis you’ll come to Polaris, the North Star, the so-called celestial pole. Look down and beneath your feet after a couple of metres of sea ice, there are 4,000 metres of sea. Then, after 14,000km of planet, you’ll reach sea level at the South Pole, after which there are then another few hundred metres of rock, followed by 2,835 metres of ice. If you’ve maintained a straight line down through the globe you will end up almost in the middle of the geodesic dome of the Amundsen-Scott science research base at the South Pole.

To date the only nuclear-powered icebreakers to have been built are Russian. The reason for this, according to Captain Lobusov of the 50 Years of Victory, is simply that Russia is the only country that needs them. Of those countries with extensive Arctic Ocean shorelines, only Russia relies on the commercial transportation of goods through the sea ice. ‘We have very vast country from west to east and there is a need to carry cargo by sea and so we need an ice fleet.’

Captain Lobusov explained how the development of nuclear technology has led to icebreakers of increasing power and range, with the ability to remain at sea for long periods without refueling. In the Arctic summer, when the atomic fleet is less in demand for keeping open commercial seaways, icebreakers such as the Victory and her sister ship Yamal become available to adventure tourism companies such as Quark Expeditions, who commission these ships in order to make the armchair explorer’s dream of going to the North Pole a reality.

Ten nuclear powered surface ships have been built in Russia, nine of which are icebreakers, with the tenth a container ship with icebreaking capabilities.  And although the specifications differ from one to another, those in the Arktika class – of which the Victory is the newest member –are fundamentally the same, becoming more efficient, powerful or faster as evolving technology allows for higher performance.

Power for the Victory is supplied by two pressurised water KLT-40 nuclear reactors, each containing 245 enriched uranium fuel rods. Each reactor weighs 160 tonnes and is enclosed in a reinforced compartment. Fifty kilos of uranium isotopes are contained in each reactor when fully fuelled, with a daily consumption of approximately 200g a day of heavy isotopes when breaking thick ice. This means that the Victory can remain operational for four years between changes of the reactor rods, Used cores are extracted and new ones installed in Murmansk, where spent fuel is reprocessed and waste is disposed of at a nuclear waste plant. A total of 86 sensors distributed throughout the vessel monitor ambient radiation. While on my way to the North Pole I was taken around the engine and control rooms, shown the nuclear reactors and I spoke to several of the officers in charge of keeping the Victory moving. Of course, you’re not allowed to photograph everything, but the Russians are far more open about showing you the technology of this ship that perhaps might be expected.

After spending a day at the Pole it’s time to turn around and sail back to the Victory’s base at Atomflot in Murmansk on Russia’s northern coastline. While the voyage north had often been a bone-jarring experience as we smashed our way through the ice, the homeward leg was a much more sedate affair. The wake of broken pack ice that we’d left behind was now at times a mile wide and the process of sailing ‘downhill’ the way we came was a positively sedate affair by comparison. From time to time we slowed down to watch polar bears out on the ice, or the occasional ringed seal and we even saw a pod of walrus as we approached Franz Josef Land.

But for anyone thinking that we were on a pleasure cruise there were several reminders that we were on a working nuclear surface vessel, including being buzzed by Norwegian military aircraft and being warned from passing too close to the Novaya Zemlya archipelago, where rocket testing made this route ‘dangerous to shipping’. We’d also been told by Moscow that we weren’t allowed to arrive at the Pole before 15th July, which seemed a bit odd as the Geographic North Pole – frozen wasteland or not frozen wasteland – is in international waters. I mentioned this to one of the Russian officers who corrected me very politely, informing me that we were on a Russian ship and if Moscow tells us not to go somewhere, for whatever reason, like it or not, we’re not going there.

The original Russian nuclear icebreaker: whatever happened to Lenin?

If 50 Years of Victory is the most recent, state-of-the-art nuclear icebreaker, then it owes much to the very first of all, the NS Lenin. Launched in 1957 Lenin was both the world’s first nuclear powered surface ship and the first nuclear powered civilian vessel. According to Soviet-born features editor of Engineering & Technology magazine, Vitali Vitaliev, it was: ‘the greatest ship in the world – a masterpiece of Russian engineering. As children we had pictures of it on our bedroom walls.’ It also featured on Russian postage stamps.

Lenin was decommissioned in 1989 because she was literally worn out. Years of crashing through the Arctic pack ice had worn the hull thin, and as a result she was laid up at Atomflot in Murmansk, where she was converted into a museum ship that opened in 2005. Lenin is held in such affection in Russia that when I visited in July earlier this year there were several wedding parties queuing up to have their official nuptial photographs taken in front of this imposing vessel.

On board, the technology looks very similar at first glance to that on 50 Years of Victory. And while there are obviously fewer computers and more mechanical dials and levers on view, the real difference is in the officers’ quarters, the mess rooms and the wardrooms. These are all exquisitely decked out with Art-Deco style interiors. While 50 Years of Victory is all about form and function, with its utilitarian magnolia paint and rudimentary furnishings, Lenin is simply opulent. With wooden paneling and brass everywhere, it resembles a floating palace more than a working icebreaker. The Party obviously knew how to look after itself.

But Lenin had a chequered operational history and was involved in two nuclear accidents.  And while these happened in the mid-1960s, they did not become widely known until after the fall of the Soviet Union.

In February 1965, after shutting down for refueling, fuel elements melted inside No2 reactor as a result of the coolant being prematurely removed. More than half of the fuel assemblies fused on to the reactor core, resulting in the need to remove of the fuel unit for disposal. The entire assembly was taken away, quarantined in a special cask and stored for two years before being dumped in Tsivolki Bay (near the Novaya Zemlya archipelago) in 1967.

Later that year a cooling system leak happened shortly after refueling. In order to locate the leak engineers needed to smash through the reactor’s concrete casing. They did this manually with old-fashioned sledgehammers and in doing so caused irreparable damage to the casing. As a result all three OK-150 reactors were rendered unserviceable and were subsequently replaced with two OK-900 reactors in an operation completed in early 1970. These two reactors provided steam for four turbines that in turn powered Lenin’s three sets of electric motors.

Specification sheet: How big? 50 Years of Victory in facts

50 Years of Victory is one of six Arktika class icebreakers operated by the Rosatomflot (Russian Atomic Fleet) of Murmansk on behalf of the Russian Government (the others are Arktica, Sibir, Rossiya, Sovietskiy Soyuz, and Yamal.) The ship’s name commemorates the defeat of the Nazi forces invading Russia on the Eastern Front during the Second World War. The keel was laid on 4th October 1989 in St Petersburg and the Victory was launched on 29th December 1993. After a prolonged fitting out – delayed by financial restrictions in Russia following the fall of Communism – the icebreaker finally came into service on 23rd March 2007. Engineering & Technology magazine joined the Victory for only its second commercial passenger voyage to the Geographic North Pole.

  • Length overall 159.6m – at waterline 136m. Breadth overall 30m – at waterline 28m. Draft 11.08m. Height keel-to-masthead 45m. There are 12 decks (4 below waterline)
  • The bow is ‘spoon-shaped’ – a new design for icebreakers – and has a 480mm thick cast steel prow, with an ‘ice tooth’ 20m aft
  • Displacement 25,840 tonnes overall (22,335 light ship). Registered tonnage 23, 439
  • The hull is double with water ballast in between them. Ribs are deployed at 50cm centres
  • The outer hull is 46mm thick, argon welded, armour steel overlaid with a 5-7mm plating of stainless steel (high molybdenum content) where ice is met (the ice skirt), and 25mm armour steel elsewhere
  • Nine bulkheads allow the icebreaker to be divided into 10 watertight compartments
  • The hull is also divided into two main longitudinal bulkheads – important areas are in independent watertight compartments
  • For fire protection the hull and superstructure are divided into 4 vertical zones by three bulkheads
  • Ice breaking is assisted by an air bubbling system delivering jets from 9m below the surface, specialised hull design, friction reducing alloy ice skirt, and capability for rapid moving water ballast
  • Ice may be broken while moving ahead or astern
  • A helicopter is carried for observing ice conditions up to 40km ahead of the vessel
  • The icebreaker is equipped to undertake close-coupled tow operations when assisting other vessels through the ice
  • Search lights and other high intensity illuminations allow work to be carried out in winter darkness
  • Complement 108: 51 officers and 57 other ranks. The infirmary has 2 medical staff

Nick Smith travelled to the North Pole on board the 50 Years of Victory with the assistance of Quark Expeditions. To find out more about Quark’s scheduled voyages into the Polar Regions visit http://www.quarkexpeditions.com/

Nick Smith reviews William Dalrymple’s ‘Nine Lives’ in Bookdealer, December 2009 edition

December 1, 2009

Letting India speak for itself

Nick Smith reviews, Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, by William Dalrymple

A lot’s changed in the two decades since the young William Dalrymple published his first book In Xanadu. India has changed, the world has changed and so too has travel writing, he tells us in his introduction to his latest, Nine Lives. In the 1980s, the genre was all about the writer, with the far-flung landscapes and the people who inhabit them relegated often simply to an exotic stage setting. Indeed, while Dalrymple was cutting his teeth on his first India book City of Djinns, another well known travel writer, Michael Palin, was broadcasting Around the World in 80 Days and Pole to Pole to a public that, dazzled by his celebrity, seemed to have developed an insatiable appetite for travel journalism provided it was about the journalist and not about travel.

But fashions change and our objectives have evolved into something slightly more ambitious than simply reporting on how unlike us foreigners are. Palin is now president of the Royal Geographical Society and Dalrymple is recognised as a leading popular historian specialising in India. In the past decade, in terms of book publishing at least, he appears to have turned his back on producing any more of those beautifully rendered travelogues that made his name, preferring to concentrate on delivering the first two volumes of his monumental commentary on the Mughal Empire. He’s also edited Begums, Thugs and White Mughals – The Journals Of Fanny Parkes, which falls into the same category of historical production. But, there’s been very little in the way of sustained travel writing. And yet, if we are to believe the Guardian, Dalrymple has ‘effortlessly assumed the mantle of Robert Byron and Patrick Leigh Fermor.’

One of the reasons for his being one of our most important travel writers is that when he turns his hand to the craft there are simply few better than Dalrymple. With Nine Lives he has proven once again that you don’t need to prolific to be of literary importance (Leigh Fermor’s books emerged at a rate of about one per decade). So, even after a decade’s absence from the fray, when the man who gave us From the Holy Mountain says it’s all changed, we’ve ripped up the programme and we’re doing it differently now, it probably makes sense to listen.

What exactly is different about Nine Lives? To answer that question it’s helpful to start with why it’s similar to Dalrymple’s collection of travel journalism The Age of Kali. In Kali he explores the juxtaposition of ancient and modern in India. But you could do that with any country. What’s so fascinating about India is the rate of change, and this is what gives Dalrymple his hook. Thousands of years of unchanging tradition, he says, are under attack from all sides by the skirmishers of the digital revolution. The new India loves technology: but while everyone in the city is becoming a software engineer, drinking Starbucks in their Levis and Ray-Bans, a few miles outside the city men in dhotis are tending the land with agricultural utensils that haven’t changed in five millennia. If you want to express the rate of growth of India’s economy on a graph, just point the line straight up. If it continues like this, by 2050 India’s economy will lead the world.

How Dalrymple chooses to express the changing face of India in Nine Lives is what’s different. Gone is the intrusive self-consciously literary narrator scribbling in an unfamiliar landscape (although Dalrymple can’t resist telling us about his ‘slowly filling… notebooks’). In a moment of artistic self-extirpation he’s banished the central narrator of old, to make room for the people of India tell their own story. So what have we got? Nine people, nine lives, all based on interviews in eight languages and all cracking entertainment.

In ‘The Nun’s Tale’ we are told of friend who undertakes sallekhana, a ritual fast to the death; in ‘The Daughters of Yellamma’ we hear the harrowing story of the devadasi (or temple prostitute) who introduces her two daughters into a trade that she regards as a sacred calling, only to lose both teenagers to AIDS; there is the story of the woman who leaves her middle class family in Calcutta and her job in the jute factory only to find unexpected love and fulfillment living as a tantric in a skull-filled hut in a remote cremation ground; and there is an idol maker, the thirty-fifth of a line of sculptors going back to the Chola bronze makers who sees creating gods as one of the holiest callings in India, but has to reconcile himself to his son, whose ambition it is to study computer engineering.

The cast of characters, drawn from different walks of life, with their heart-breaking, life-affirming and often plain weird stories, invites immediate comparison with Chaucer’s pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales, and to his credit Dalrymple acknowledges this straight away. But this isn’t ‘a modern Indian Canterbury Tales’ as the accompanying PR blurb enthusiastically trumpets, because there’s no pilgrimage to while away, no journey, no raiding of the memory banks of the oral tradition. Nine Lives does something else; something entirely different, more akin to an Impressionist painting, where the deftness of the brush strokes, rather than the detail, paints a subtly textured and unexpectedly complex piece that has Dalrymple’s fingerprints all over it.

That Nine Lives is unmistakably and so assuredly from the pen of Dalrymple is a tribute to his depth of knowledge of the people and places of India. As deployed in his The Age of Kali, his main strengths are his instinctive feel for what details matter, how much they weigh and how to articulate them in his understated, but quite lovely prose. While so many of today’s travel writers shift from territory to territory in search of new thrills, Dalrymple goes deeper and deeper into the landscape of India in order to return with clearer images of the people who live there. And in trying to appreciate their lives, we enrich our understanding of our own, and this is why Nine Lives might well be William Dalrymple’s most important book to date.

Nick Smith writes for the Daily Telegraph and has been a judge on the Thomas Cook Travel Book of the Year award.

Nine Lives is published by Bloomsbury, £2.00, pp 285 · ISBN 978-1-4088-0061-4

Nick Smith interviews BBC wildlife photographer Doug Allan in Outdoor Photography magazine

December 1, 2009

Into the cold, wet world

BBC wildlife cameraman Doug Allan spends his life in remote, freezing places, quite often underwater. All in the pursuit of that magical image. Nick Smith hears his story…

Doug Allan is a freelance wildlife and documentary photographer and cameraman working underwater, on land and especially on the polar ice. Born in Scotland, he graduated with a degree in marine biology from Stirling University in 1973. This was to propel him into a career in field science that gradually transformed into one of wildlife photography. Today he is one of the leading wildlife photographers of his generation with a feast of credits including the BBC’s  ‘Blue Planet’ and ‘Planet Earth’.

Doug was working as a diver on an Antarctic research station when he met David Attenborough in 1981 while the BBC was filming polar sequences for ‘The Living Planet’. For Doug that was the ‘decisive moment’, as it dawned on him that the cameramen he was watching weren’t doing anything physically that he couldn’t. With his specialist knowledge and prodigious abilities as a diver, all he had to do was ‘work on my photographic skills’. And so a career-long relationship with the legendary presenter was launched.

Much of Doug’s wildlife photography involves physically overcoming the environmental harshness of some of the world’s wildest places and then waiting for his subject’s behaviour to reveal itself. ‘I do like working in really wild situations’ he says. The advent of digital has improved his life no end – he can spend more time underwater without having to surface to reload film. As for processing, he remembers Kodachrome film taking a year to get from Antarctica to a UK lab and back.

Doug has won the underwater category in Wildlife Photographer of the Year twice as well as the Royal Geographical Society’s Cherry Kearton Photography Medal. He has also won Emmy and BAFTA awards for his moving images.

Nick Smith: When did you realise you were going to become a wildlife photographer?

Doug Allan: When I first went to the Antarctic in 1976 I was thrown into an overwintering environment with only about 15 other people on base. Most were photographers and some had a very good eye. With the penguin colonies and the seals on my doorstep a serious interest was kindled.

NS: What was your first camera?

DA: A Petriflex given to me by Dad in 1971. It was a very simple SLR. I don’t think I had a wide- angle lens, just a standard 50mm. For underwater photography it was the old faithful Nikonos II – it was the most advanced then, but no electronics at all.

NS: What formal training do you have?

DA: I didn’t have any. I feel almost more in need of formal training now with digital than I did back in the days when we used to do our own processing. Now there is so much you can do in post processing, and you have to be careful if you want your digital files to be around in 30 years time.

NS: How important is it to specialise?

DA: I’m a specialist in wildlife and wild places with an even narrower niche of cold weather environments both underwater and topside. I don’t shoot weddings. Well, I shot a wedding once as a favour and it was the most traumatic thing I’ve ever done in my life.

NS: What is the best assignment you’ve been on?

DA: It’s hard to pick one or two. What I’m interested in is ‘difficult-to-get-behaviour’ from genuinely wild animals. That’s where I get the buzz – being in the wild and seeing things happening for real. What turns me on is being in the company of big mammals. You can’t hide from a polar bear – he hears and sees as well as you do, and yet his sense of smell is better than a bloodhound. In those situations your body language, behaviour and even what you’re thinking are ultra important. It’s like you have to talk to your subject in a non verbal way.

NS: What’s the worst thing about being a professional photographer?

DA: It can be frustrating if you’ve put a lot a lot of effort into a shoot and you feel it’s not been given the best chance on screen because the editing or production is sloppy or misses the point. But, mostly I’ve had the chance to work with high class production teams.

NS: Film or digital? Why?

DA: Digital encourages experimentation and as a stills photographer the field is absolutely wide open to interpret whatever you see in whatever way you can imagine. Shooting with film teaches you  the basics very well, with each press of the shutter having an associated cost. There was no alternative when I started. Digital frees you up creatively and the sky’s the limit.

NS: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from another photographer?

DA: I just went the classic route – the base I was on in the Antarctic subscribed to National Geographic. We’d look at the pictures and admire them. I’ve always preferred the wide-angle from up close rather than the telephoto. I liked Ernst Haas with his long exposures to experiment with blurring movement. We used to try that on base and quickly realised it was much harder than it looked. Also the early Jacques Cousteau and Hans Hass books influenced me a lot – the idea of exploring the undersea world with a camera.

NS: What does photography mean to you?

DA: I realised after 10 years in Antarctica that photographing and filming animals encapsulated so much of what I enjoyed doing. Travel, adventure, being part of a team, doing something you think is worthwhile – all those things come together in what I do.

NS: What makes a great wildlife photograph?

DA: You have to take yourself to exciting landscapes or put yourself in front of inspiring animals. Unless you’re really interested in your subject you’re not going to catch that special magic.

Doug’s 5 golden rules

1 Look around and find out what impresses you

2 Ask yourself what your shot is trying to convey

3 Stand on the shoulders of the great photographers

4 Get out into inspiring landscapes

5 Underwater, remember: the closer the better

Doug’s gear (stills)

Canon EOS 1Ds-Mk II,

Lenses: 14mm f/2.8, 17-35mm f/2.8, 24-105mm IS f/4, 100-400mm IS, 600mm IS f/4

Seacam housings

http://www.dougallan.com

 

Nick Smith’s feature ‘Omega’s Gold Standard’ from the Sunday Telegraph, 22nd November 2009

December 1, 2009

Omega’s Gold Standard

In February 2010 Vancouver will host the Winter Olympic Games. Nick Smith flew to Canada to look at the new technology put in place by official timekeeper Omega...

It’s one of the most beautiful places on earth. Up high on Blackcomb Mountain in western Canada the conifers are a deep emerald green, the clear skies are cobalt blue and the snow, well it’s as pure as driven snow. This is Whistler, an exquisitely sleepy village tucked away in the crisp, cold air of the Fitzsimmons Valley. Home of the Vancouver Winter Olympics ‘sliding sports’, it’s hard to believe that in a few short weeks Whistler will be packed with some of the fastest, most adrenaline-fuelled athletes on the planet.

When it comes to the Olympic sliding sports – bobsleigh, skeleton, luge – timing is everything. A mere hundredth of a second can mean the difference between a gold or silver medal. These athletes can reach up to 90 mph and for the people in charge of timekeeping there’s simply no room for error. A billion people will watch the games on their TVs, and so the technology simply has to work, and it has to work every time.

Here at Whistler, a team of engineers and technicians has been busy integrating and testing a massively complex system of infrared emitters and receivers, sensors and transmitters, that will make sure nothing, at least with the timing, can go wrong. As the countdown progresses to the opening ceremony on 12th February, technologists from Omega are preparing for the competition, where for the 24th time, the Swiss-based watch manufacturer will serve as official timekeeper.

Omega’s president Steven Urquhart is on hand to launch a commemorative Vancouver 2010 watch. He tells me that sport, particularly Olympic sport, is part of his brand’s equity. ‘We’ve done 23 games and Vancouver will be our 24th, and so we’re in it for the long run. We’ll be at the London Olympics in 2012, the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 and at Rio in 2016.’

As each competitor breaks any of the 42 infrared beams installed at intervals around the track, time-tagged data is transmitted to a bank of computers in a control tower. It’s complicated stuff and this nerve centre where all the split-times, rankings, sector times and so on are automatically compiled, collated and published looks like mission control at NASA. There are dozens of technical people swarming around the tower, checking software, wiring, power… One man in the middle of it all is radiating calmness.

Christophe Berthaud is head of Olympic timing at Omega. He’s got more than twenty years experience in developing new electronic timing systems, and he knows the six-year rhythms of bringing new technology to the games. His faith in technology is astounding and his job is to ‘remove the possibility of human error.’ He’s currently in Whistler to oversee some timing technology trials using real athletes.

Berthaud says that most of the technical innovations he’s been involved with have arisen from controversies and he’s adamant that although you can blame the timekeeper for virtually anything, he has a good relationship and reputation with the competitors. ‘You have to remember’ he says, ‘that Omega does not deliver the world records. The athletes do that. It’s all about the athletes and their results only become official once they are approved by the International Federation, the ultimate timekeeper.’

When Berthaud’s team arrives in Vancouver next year he’ll be spearheading the largest technical support operation the Olympics has ever seen. Although he’s not revealing the exact figures, at the Turin Winter Olympics back in 2006 he deployed 208 people – 127 timekeepers and 81 data handlers – with more than 220 tonnes of equipment. These were the games when speed skaters had transponders strapped to their ankles for the first time. These were to measure bursts of acceleration, the speed around a hairpin bend, or in the case of a skater crashing, sudden deceleration. According to Berthaud, Vancouver 2010 will ‘blow that away.’

But it wasn’t always like that. The first Winter Olympics Omega was involved in was way back in 1936 at Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Germany. A lone timekeeper from Switzerland arrived with a suitcase full of stopwatches to time each event. Admittedly, these timepieces were certified chronographs, and there were twenty-seven of them, but for nervous competitors expecting instant results, they were in for a long wait. The official rankings were posted on a notice board often hours after the event.

Back at the track Christophe Berthaud can take one last question before he getting back to his time trials. I ask him what will keep him awake the night before the Olympic games start. ‘Nothing’ comes the reply, because he knows it’s all going to work.

 

Timepiece to remember

As the clock counts down to the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, Omega is releasing two commemorative watches. The Seamaster Diver 300m ‘Vancouver 2010’ is being produced in 41mm and 36.25mm versions, each in an edition limited to 2010 pieces.

The Vancouver watch has a distinctive white lacquered dial with red anodized aluminium bezel rings, recalling the maple leaf on the Canadian national flag. There is a further connection to the Games with the addition of the five Olympic rings on the counterweight of the red-tipped rhodium-plated second hand. All hands and indexes are coated with white Super-Luminova, creating a soft blue reflection in low light.

The ‘Vancouver 2010’ has its caseback embossed with the Winter Olympics Games logo, including a design based on the stone cairns erected by Canada’s First Nations peoples as a greeting to visitors in their territories. Called Ilanaak – the word means ‘friend’ in Inuktitut – it is the official symbol of the 2010 Vancouver Games.

http://www.omega.ch/