Vietnam: Journey to the Centre of the Earth Part III

Starring James Mason as Professor Lidenbrock, the 1959 film of the Jules Verne novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth enthralled a young boy named David Angus, who is now a Portsmouth-based travel writer and planetary modeller. The young David marvelled over the giant mushrooms, dimetrodons and the sea at the Earth’s centre. That sea even had clouds over it. Surely no cave was really big enough for clouds? Many years later, David would travel not quite to the centre of the Earth but pretty far down, and he would find out whether a cave could have clouds.

The jungle at the so-called Garden of Edam was not so even. Some of the toughest terrain yet, it was like trying to get over a rockery in a hothouse.

I could see the camp on a stretch of sand in another tunnel-shaped cavern. The cavern entrance could have housed a cathedral. It wasn’t the end of today’s journey though. Before that I came across perhaps the most bizarre place I’ve ever seen.

After re-joining the expedition at the camp, I went into the darkness and met a cave centipede: a black creature several inches long with multiple long legs as thin as hairs propelling it away on an expanse of slick rock. Since then I’ve read there are snakes and even monkeys in parts of Son Doong Cave. I was sorry I didn’t come across any snakes in the Garden of Edam. I’m the kind of nut who seeks them out.

The cave formations were bulbous masses of fascinating textured detail. Glimpses in the darkness of a building-sized stalagmite like a gigantic upright fir cone, other stalagmites coloured and shaped in the manner of some alien organ. There was even a formation known as the ‘Dog’s Bollocks’ and there was some resemblance.

The going was very easy, like walking along a beach of firm sand though there were still areas of smooth rock to cross, lulling one into a false sense of security perhaps, for as we were about to go down through a small gap in the rock I – whoops/wallop! – slipped and skinned my left elbow. I was lucky to get away with that when I thought of my friend’s broken arm. Just a case of ‘this’ll sting a bit’ with some iodine and then carry on as normal. Although I sported this injury for a while and can still see the mark this really was superficial stuff. Got off lightly.

There seemed to be a general progression from mostly rocky terrain to mostly sandy throughout the length of Son Doong Cave. I could be wrong but wondered if it was down to deposition caused by whatever lay ahead?

After my fall we could see the main attraction: a massive ‘V’-shaped trench below us winding off into the darkness. We were warned not to take cameras further. They called it ‘Passchendaele’. It was named that because it was reminiscent of that First World War battle in the mud. All the mud of Son Doong cave was here because further on was a calcite formation known as the ‘Great Wall of Vietnam’ across the cave blocking the underground river apart from one small exit. The result was an undergound lake when the river level was up and so much mud deposited when it was low that there was an enormous eroded trench of it to explore now.

Despite it dwarfing human beings, the trench at the bottom consisted of a channel too narrow to walk down normally: I had to put one foot in front of the other down its length. Progress was OK though for it was gravelly underfoot with a few inches of water apart from the odd low rock creating a shallow pool to slosh through.

Eventually we were at the Great Wall of Vietnam. A sheer, vertically fluted wall ascending into the blackness above covered in mud. How could there be anything worse to climb? But explorers had climbed that and found not so much another doline on the other side but the other end entrance of the cave. John drew my attention to a hole at the bottom of the wall about the size of a small sink, where the river went under the wall. That explained why there was so much deposition here. The ‘Devil’s Arsehole’ it was known as, and since we were in a place that reminded me of old illustrations of the deeper reaches of Dante’s Inferno without the tormented sinners, who was I to disagree?

The route was narrow so we were obliged to climb the side of the trench then circle back into it to go up it again. Slipping into the mud on the way up roused a cheer, others following my bad example got mud everywhere creating hilarity in hell; but I just had to go one better by misjudging the depth of a footprint, or mud-hole. The daunting darkness of the backside of Son Doong cave was rent by a colossal fart of a noise as mud shot out of the hole on to the backside of one of the Danes in front of me, followed by my grave diagnosis at the sight of the Dane’s brown bum.

‘Oh dear.  Severe case of diarrhoea there, I’m afraid.’

This fairly slew with laughter the Vietnamese ‘sit down David, let go David’ fellow helping me. He might not have understood all the English but sure got the gist of it. Boy did he have a sense of humour!

And he continued giggling all the way back up the trench. Yup. Just made a friend for life there.

Morning. Somehow I’d cleaned all the mud off me. My friend for life and John accompanied me on the rocky climb after breakfast, starting back before the others, taking photos of each other on the way up. I regaled John with the mud incident and how all it would take was one rude noise from me to set ‘Let go David’ off again. ‘See what I mean?’

When we started the descent from there a mist swept over us and I looked back taking photos of porters who had become grey silhouettes on a rocky slope.  Looked just like a Scottish mountainside in bad weather. There really was cloud in Son Doong Cave.

Beyond that I thought the going was smoother until we realised I’d lost track of where we were and thought we were further forward. John said this often happened with tourists. Then there was ‘Watch out for Dinosaurs’ with the descent to the mother of all rockpiles on the other side. What happens if one of those boulders is unstable and should ….? John’s response was, ‘Well that’s a risk of caving that one lives with’. He and Watto had mentioned that one the size of a truck had fallen – together with a tree – off the top of the Garden of Edam, making a grand slam of an impact and a cloud of dust. I thought of a name for the area around where one contorted under the boulders: the ‘Meat Grinder’. Only members of the expedition discovering the cave had the right to name parts of it, but as names went that wasn’t bad I was told.

After lunch at the Watch out for Dinosaurs camp, Watto took over. I’ve no memory of things being especially tough through the rocky region around Hand of Dog. Maybe I’d got used to it but there was still the underground river and whether I could climb out of Son Doong after that without a major embarrassing rescue. I suggested a quick water break above the cleft leading to the crossing which we duly took and I ended. ‘Alright gentlemen, shall we continue?’ The river crossing went smoothly.

When John caught up with us below the roped up rock climb he triumphantly flourished my gloves!  I’d left them exactly where he thought I had at the Hand of Dog. Then there was the question of who was going up first on the ropes. ‘You are’ was his response. Maybe because I’d mentioned I wasn’t sure if I could get up that climb again without help.

‘Put your foot over the rope!’ yelled Watto sergeant major fashion from below. ‘Which foot?’ I shouted back.

‘The right one!’

‘OK, that’s something I can work with.’ In this fashion I met the challenge, working my way up the near vertical heights of the water channel. It was best to pretend I was in the army. Wasn’t so far from the truth since I felt a marine would have found some of this expedition ‘interesting’. Be all you can be! With a confusion of voices shouting support and advice from below.

I made the halfway shelf and got my breather while being managed and harnessed up for the next haul upwards. Again: gung ho up we go without giving ourselves time to think and worry. This time it was the small overhang. Just when I thought I’d made it over my feet slipped and down I went. Starting again the same thing happened. Then repeatedly to my chagrin until sounds of running feet below led to hands thrust on to my bum shoving me up over the slippery bit. The Oxalis staff guys had run up the short slope and given me the necessary if undignified kick start to this climb. Now it was all up to my skinny arms – my weakest feature – and my willpower to pull through.

Again the ding dong battle of mind over matter. My arms were really aching or tired, not even sure which but those knots in the rope one had to unclip and clip around were lifesaving objectives now, for once above one you couldn’t fall down the rope you’d come up. I felt the tough times in my life had developed my ability to tough it out, to train me up to this point. Failure is not an option! But you could really run out of strength and will to go on upwards on this climb. The top of the near precipice was near and I was making it and to my surprise those above ran down the easy slope above to grab me. Could have got up it but I was past arguing.

When I reached the very top, Vu was there and on impulse I hugged him with relief. And yes, I did feel proud now. I had plenty of time for my heart to slow down and stop hammering, to recover from exhaustion, to drink enough water and relax, while the others came up. Could I make it out of Son Doong cave? I just had and things were going to be easier from here.

Then it was photography and the trek to Hang En Cave. Down the jungle slope, an easy stroll through the beautiful lost valley but not another climb once inside Hang En. Instead, to my relief, we were led through a cave section like the one where we’d first entered the whole system: wide but low, eroded by the river. Then, to my surprise, the camp was right in front of us.

When I got to my tent, I stripped off my gear and just ran into the lake.  The cool water being such bliss after the exertions of the day. Back in the camp Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ was played from Watto’s tent in this far out place. It was his birthday.

That night we celebrated that and everything for weren’t we heroes? Partying in a setting more suitable for Lord Of The Rings than present-day Earth, drinking everything in sight including rice wine and that red wine I’d seen while toasting in Vietnamese: ‘Mot, Hai, Bai Yo!’ (‘1,2,3, Go’ in Vietnamese)

‘Again!  So I learn!’ Yup. This demand was a sure sign I was drunk and to my delight the revelry descended with enthusiasm into purple underwear. My compliments to the lady concerned, who was a good companion and didn’t seem to mind at all.

John, myself and ‘Let Go David’ left camp early after breakfast on the trek back to civilisation. Emerging from the cave, we made rapid progress up the valley. Pausing for photos of ‘Let Go David’ and me beside one of the upright rhubarbs for scale and John beside ‘2nd Wife’, a plant possessing a sting which would last for a long time. It felt like a carefree end to the adventure but the adventure wasn’t over yet.

We reached the village and I took photos under the headman’s house again. John approached me with a real surprise. There’d just been a request from the village headman for me to take photographs of him and his lady upstairs. Nobody had been invited up there before so it was an honour. What a splendid conclusion to the expedition! I had to get a move on though. I took my boots off and hurriedly asked John if there was anything else I should do. There wasn’t and, overawed by this development that was in best tradition of adventure stories, I made my way upstairs.

I bowed at the entrance for lack of a better idea. I was waved impatiently out of that with a chuckle by a thin, wizened but still healthy-looking headman. I don’t remember much furniture at all in the large room apart from a mat covering most of the floor and a black and white photo of the family – presumably – on the opposite wall. I took photos of he and his lady under that photo. The flash tended to blot out the details on that but I got a few decent ones and to reinforce that took more of them downstairs including one of his lady kissing him. There was also a few of him and me. I looked every inch the grizzled explorer since my electric razor had broken down in the cave and I had several days’ stubble. Much later I sent a selection to Vietnam and nagged Oxalis to get them to him. I was absolutely determined not to let this chief down who’d honoured me. The rainy season really delayed things but it seems the photos arrived at the village around Christmas.

The others caught up so we moved on to the stream. Oh well, just the mountain to get up now.

That mountain nearly killed me. That’s how it felt. Everyone left John and I behind as I just seemed to be running out of energy, like a battery running down. Inclines were my weakness it seemed; should have trained more for that at home! Surely I wasn’t going to fail now? My breaks had to become frequent and, although I kept drinking water, it just seemed to go straight through me in the tropical heat, from my mouth straight to my skin pores. John carried my backpack. When I ran out of water, he assured me he had plenty more. Again there’s that lesson: water is the most important thing on a trek across tricky terrain. I couldn’t catch my breath when I made any sustained effort, then not at all on that never-ending slope of rocks and roots in front of my eyes.

At long last I just made the halfway mark: the break with boulders. I collapsed and lay flat on my back at the lower edge of them. The rocks beneath me felt like a comfortable mattress in comparison to the discomfort I’d just been through. Feeling that a mountainous hillside in Vietnam on a sunny day was a good place to die, I lay there heart pounding and gasping like a stranded fish. I probably had died at this spot if the theory of parallel worlds with alternate lives is true.

Some porters with their towering loads came charging up the slope, greeting me cheerfully as they steamed past. This comical contrast was emphasised when one of them decided to fan me with a large leaf. Their irrepressible spirit began to bring me round. Then John and a few others told me to look at a tree by my left side. A lizard had come down the trunk to check I was alright. That’s the way it seemed, anyway.

‘It gets easier from here,’ said John. I had recovered enough to move on up, on my own to my surprise.  John just stayed chatting. I knew he was right though; above the boulders the trail was a path through the jungle compared to before. It had an easier incline, even levelling out in one or two places. I still needed to stop often though, on my own in the jungle. The trail just went on and on as I knew it would. I was seriously worn out. Surely I wasn’t far from the road now and was that a murmur of voices up ahead? Then I heard Watto holding forth. No mistaking that. He couldn’t know it but his voice was a lifeline keeping me going up that final stretch.

As soon as they noticed I’d emerged from the jungle, a huge cheer went up. Why? I disguised my embarrassment and gratitude with a casually triumphant raised fist. The first person to speak to me was the oriental mystic who put it into perspective: I’d inspired the younger ones by coming through it all despite my age. Or, to put it more accurately, not holding the group up much I felt. All I could do in reply was ask for a drink. And there was beer here.

The road back to civilisation wound back through the verdant green hills while I just relaxed into a daze, getting used to modern air conditioned luxury while thinking occasionally about what the mystic guy had said. We didn’t stop at the expedition hotel but kept going over the river then back towards the hills.

We were arriving at a hotel complex built – judging by its name – on a farm. Still looked pretty open and green. On the left was a luxury kidney-shaped swimming pool, on the right the office. I found myself holding a glass of congratulatory champagne, along with the others. A nice surprise but truly weird, just hours after being honoured in a jungle village that might have been around when the Ice Age was on in Europe. I felt like a confused time traveller arriving back in the 21st century.

I couldn’t phone home, though, for there was an ‘issue’ with the phones; an unexpected setback. Later I rediscovered a 21st century hazard too: a luxurious bill after sampling luxuries.

The manager was a Canadian woman. She told us the Americans had dropped a lot of ordinance in the hills during the war that had failed to explode because it was World War II vintage. Unexploded bombs were a hazard I was aware of before coming to Vietnam but forgot about during the expedition. Another hazard was the storm I’d seen from within Hang En cave on the first night. It had hit the expedition hotel and we were asked why we weren’t flooded.

We were shown to our rooms through a park-like setting. Mine was upstairs in one of the many spanking new white blocks, four bedrooms in each. Feeling as though I’d gone further into the future than the 21st century I got up to mine, showered and slept for a few hours in this impossibly clean place.

Then I joined the others at the pool. The Red Bull group invited me to a promotional interview and I was able to tell them Red Bull was one of the drinks I’d quaffed in a pocket heatwave on a sponsored walk I did from London to Chichester. Then I relaxed by the pool.

Watto was having a birthday party elsewhere but John was here and was head of ceremonies at the evening farewell banquet. Another surprise: we actually received medals for ‘conquering’ Son Doong cave. I would have preferred ‘experienced’ or ‘explored’ but I treasured the medal and would be wearing it to parties and evening meals back in the UK like a military honour. This was the icing on the cake and it was a thorough job, possessing a similar weight to a gold medal I’d handled worn by a cosmonaut who was a hero of the Soviet Union.

‘I did alright,’ I remarked to John.

‘You did good,’ replied John.

After John had gone we gathered by the pool in the tropical night drinking continuously until midnight and beyond, telling each other our life stories. What a great bunch of people I was with and what a shame we were splitting up just a few days after we’d met and shared the adventure of a lifetime. But over time the significance of what the mystic man had told me would become clear.

When I was a teenager a man by the name of Sir Francis Chichester had sailed around the world in a yacht on his own, in his eighties! I admired that not only for the achievement but because it made me feel I had much more time than I thought to accomplish things. If what the man said was true it seemed that by chasing dinosaurs I’d found myself wandering into the same kind of territory: showing others that old age needn’t be the end of it all, that one had more time than one thought.

It was perhaps the best achievement of this adventure: the realisation that I now had the this kind of inspirational power. It was a pretty good way to be for a man over sixty years old.

Photography by David Angus.

What Kind of a City Are We? How Portsmouth Treats Refugees

Many international problems have a local dimension, and the refugee crisis is no exception. Andrew Larder asks whether our city, which has a long and proud tradition of welcoming desperate people from all over the world, could be doing more for those fleeing violence, privation and persecution. 

How far is twenty miles from Portsmouth Guildhall? To the west, Eastleigh, to the north Petersfield, south is Shanklin on the Isle of Wight, and to the east there is Chichester. Twenty minutes in the car on the motorway, considerably more if you have to walk it. The Isle of Wight has a stretch of water to negotiate, so a bit longer.

How do we treat people from these places? As a Pompey fan I like a bit of banter but at the same time there is an irrational section of football supporters who really do not like Southampton. People from Petersfield or Chichester are often thought of as a bit ‘posh’. Derisory remarks are also heard about the residents of the Isle of Wight, referring to them as ‘caulk heads’. And how do others outside of Portsmouth refer to our city? Skates; a city full of crude ruffians. These same people are our neighbours, live in the same county and are all classed as southerners. Divisions are everywhere if we look for them.

But in the words of the late Jo Cox MP, ‘we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.’

Twenty miles is also the distance between Dover and Calais. Our European neighbours are currently dealing with a situation where thousands of folk wish to cross the channel and enter the UK to become one of us. Flattering in some respects. That families would risk their lives several times over just to come and live in Great Britain. In February, singer-songwriter Billy Bragg was lambasted for suggesting on BBC Question Time that we, the UK, had a duty to help refugees, including an estimated 3,000 unattended children in France. People on social media questioned that we had a duty to take anyone in. But we do, as we are one of the 142 countries signed up to the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol. International Law that we agreed to shows we have a duty. ‘What kind of country are we?’ Bragg asked.

In 2015, our then prime minister David Cameron described the Calais Camp occupants as the ‘swarm’. If you break down the ‘swarm’ there are some distinct groups. Refugees fleeing war, asylum seekers escaping persecution and economic migrants looking for a better life. The problem is not UK- or Europe-specific, it’s a global one. However, I often hear people saying that schools, hospitals and our infrastructure cannot cope.

Historically Portsmouth has welcomed those seeking a new life. There is a Jewish cemetery in Fawcett Road dating back 270 years. In 1834, 212 Polish soldiers were taken in by the local community after a failed coup in Russia. Muslim mosques and Sikh temples are well established. Chinese, Kurdish, Bangladeshi and African communities live here. So, there is both the tolerance and potential for communities to exist and integrate here in Portsmouth.

I approached both Donna Jones, leader of Portsmouth City Council, and spokespeople for the Council’s Housing Department for their views. I did not get a reply. I wanted to know what chances a refugee has of getting a home in Portsmouth. Point 3.4.6 in the Portsmouth City Council policy on housing states ‘Anyone fleeing violence who does not meet the local connection criteria will be considered under the homeless legislation.’

The process for asylum seekers applying for legal status in this country is a long, undignified and frustrating one. After surrendering themselves to the Border Force, they are housed by a private company contracted by the Home Office. The three main cities in the southeast of England that accommodate refugees are Hastings, Southampton and Portsmouth. Despite our local council voting in 2015 to end Portsmouth’s status as an ‘asylum hub’, Conservative councillor Luke Stubbs said in February this year that the Home Office would endeavour to limit the number of refugees who re-settle in our city to 200. Currently there are between 140 to 150 in Portsmouth, this includes fewer than 10 children of school age.

Sustained by lottery grants and national fund-raising campaigns, British Red Cross offers support and advice to refugees, asylum seekers and vulnerable migrants. Malcolm Little of their Portsmouth office believes the 200-person cap is simply wrong. He also told me about the struggles displaced persons face when they come to Portsmouth: ‘Asylum seekers are given £36 a week towards food, clothing, and transport. This is on a card and can only be spent at certain shops. Refugees must sign on at Fareham police station, wrongly conflating police and immigration control roles. Whilst waiting for a decision on their status, sometimes for years, they are not permitted to work and contribute to society. The UK is the only country in Europe that detains people in detention centres indefinitely.’

Furthermore, Malcolm told me, ‘delays in processing their applications exacerbate any mental health problems they may have and seems to me a deliberate implication of an inhuman policy.’

I tried to find out how many refugees and asylum seekers attempted to enter the UK via Portsmouth Continental Ferry Port. The Home Office does not publish figures for individual ports; the only available statistics refer to the ‘number of clandestines detected’ when desperate people try to enter the country. From 2010 to 2013, this number was an average of 10,000 people per year. This spiked in 2013/14 to 19,000 and in 2014/15 before dropping back down to 11,920 the following year.

The British Red Cross website estimates that refugees currently living in the UK make up 0.18% of the population. That is 117,234 out of 64.1 million people. Last year less than 45% of applications to remain in the UK were approved. In February 2017, there were an estimated 3,000 unattended children in Calais. Portsmouth are accommodating around twelve children. Hardly a swarm that will cripple our infrastructure.

One question I wanted to ask the Council was could Portsmouth cope with a housing crisis. Ours is a densely-populated city, homes are in demand. However, the city has responded to much larger problems before. During World War II, thousands of American soldiers were camped at Hilsea in preparation for D-Day. This year on Southsea Common a small town will exist during the Victorious Festival. If we can facilitate tens of thousands of people for music and war, surely, we can organise something similar for humanitarian reasons?

In the last eighteen months, we have seen harrowing pictures of refugee children drowning to reach safety. The bottleneck at Calais has temporarily cleared. But what if one built up at Le Havre or Cherbourg? Just twenty-six miles away. How long before fear and frustration builds up and leads to desperate acts? We should try to take control of the situation now before it is too late. But I fear that nothing will be done until children are washing up on Eastney Beach.

Once a refugee himself, Dr Ahmed Terkawi sits in Sweden and via his mobile phone guides thousands of refugees making the treacherous sea crossing from Turkey to Greece. Dr Terkawi once put his own family at risk completing this crossing.

‘When my children are older,’ he says, ‘I will teach them that there is only one nationality and that is humanity.’

Photography by Sarah Cheverton.

Abuse and Addiction Are Devastating: I Choose Not to Be a Victim

Lauren Sherry shares a poignant family story of abuse, addiction and violence, and argues that such suffering needn’t necessarily lead to the misery of victimhood.

From an early age I knew my dad was an alcoholic.

He’d had an odd relationship with his parents. While I was raised smothered with affection, by contrast my dad rarely even spoke to his father. His mum was more loving, but even so the bond between the trio was far from the loving connection I had with my parents, and that I assumed to be normal within every family.

According to the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, there is little research into the number of children living with an alcoholic parent in the UK. However, in 2004 the Government’s Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy estimated there were between 780,000 – 1.3 million children affected by parental alcohol problems in the UK.

This was true of my family too. My dad would drink to mask his despair about his own unhappy childhood, and by doing so, sabotage both his future and his relationship with me. He’d suffered physical violence from his dad and was brainwashed to believe that he couldn’t achieve anything – especially compared to his brother, who was the favoured of the two.

As a result, he got into fights with schoolmates, did poorly at school and lost all hope for the future. Only booze could numb his pain – but the result was pain for others around him.

Chaos would always seem to strike my family during summer. One afternoon, my mum picked up our house phone. It was my dad. He’d been assaulted in the street on his way home. Standing by the open window, my mum’s hair was still in the sticky air. She ended the call abruptly, prodding the red button and chucking the phone down on the sofa. She could see my anxiety, as I sat on the edge of the sofa, my heels raised and my fingers crossed. My guts felt like they were travelling up to my mouth.

‘He’ll be all right, he’s just an attention-seeker,’ my Mum sighed. She poked her head out of the window.

Soon we heard the blare of ambulance sirens in the near distance. We raced down stairs and out the front door to the source of the noise in the next street. My dad was on the floor, covered in blood, four paramedics attending to him. He could barely move but that didn’t stop him hurling abuse at the person who had ‘done him in’. In a drunken brawl he’d been wounded in the arm with a smashed bottle.
The next day, I passed the bloodstained pavement on my way to school. It was something I wanted to bury deep within the soil of my mind, where no one would ever find it or bring it up again. In retrospect, I view that horrific summer’s day as a seed planted in my memory to strengthen me for any difficult obstacles I might face in the future.

In the weeks following the accident, my friends would come for dinner, and I would be forced to explain in embarrassment that the four inch scar on my dad’s forearm was the result of him falling off a ladder.

As the years passed, my dad suffered more and more from ‘the double demons of depression and addiction’, as Dennis C. Daley characterises it. He contracted diabetes and chronic pancreatitis. Doctors told him that if he didn’t cut his boozing down, he would likely be dead at fifty.

This was only six years away.

In the summer of 2014, after causing a decade’s worth of anguish for himself and our family, he finally admitted himself into a rehabilitation centre. He learned to manage his addiction and address the root of his decline – his neglectful childhood. The distressing details of the abuse he experienced growing up made me that not all children were loved and treasured as much as I was.

I was living with Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; sometimes my dad would be my idol and, at other times, an inebriated mess. Every day after school, I would wave my friends goodbye at the iron gates and call home to let my mum know I was on my way. As I strode across Clapham Common, my black patent school shoes brushing against the warm grass, I made the daily phone call that would make or break my mood.

‘Hi Mum, I’m on my way home now, just walking across the-’

‘Hi love, um, I thought you had rehearsals after school today?’

‘Not today, they were postponed until next week because nobody remembered their scripts.’

‘Oh. Well erm, I’ll see you in a bit darling, okay? Do you fancy doing something later, getting out the house? Perhaps we could go and see that film at the–’

She didn’t even have to say anything else. I knew instantly that today was a bad day. Out of the 365 days in the year, today was one of many I wish would end as quickly as possible. And then the cycle would begin all over again.

The tenor of my mum’s voice said it all; she felt sorry for me having to come home to a drunken dad, who’d demand money to squander at the local pub and explode with rage if he didn’t get his way. She felt sorry for me as I walked through the front door that day and went straight up to my bedroom, blocking out the shouting with the television. She felt sorry for me when I would wake up the next morning and have to listen to him vomit in the bathroom, followed by endless apologies for his behaviour. My stomach would turn every time I heard him open another can of beer, which he would then hide at the bottom of the bin or at the back of his wardrobe once it was empty. Every day there’d be a promise in his monologue of remorse that the problems wouldn’t happen again.

But they always did.

My dad’s excuse that his childhood produced his bad adult behaviour would seem to fit wider social trends. According to the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health, in 2009 a staggering 80% of crimes in the United Kingdom alone were linked to some form of behavioural trouble in the offender’s childhood or adolescence. But is the statistic a bit deterministic? Don’t we all – criminals and alcoholics included – have free will?

America’s TV sovereign Oprah Winfrey has a net worth of $3 billion and has won numerous accolades including a Tony Award, Peabody Award and People’s Choice Award. Winfrey had an appalling childhood, during which she was sexually molested. She made a conscious decision to abandon her troubled home life and moved in with her dad in Tennessee. She then enrolled at Tennessee State University and got a job in local radio. She’s now a household name. Winfrey is an example of our endless capabilities – she proves that it’s possible to surpass the limitations we set ourselves in our youth.

Of course, I cannot disregard the countless times I felt sorry for myself as child, as I watched my friends’ dads sip wine at dinner, while mine chose to glug cans of lager uncontrollably. But I decided to use my experiences to make me a stronger and wiser person; I worked hard to prevent a cloud of bitter memories from obscuring my future.

At the same time, I’m fully aware that my family environment was not as dark and dysfunctional as others. I was fortunate to be raised in a family with both parents who loved me unconditionally, regardless of any problems that arose.

In a study by the Ministry of Justice Analytical Services, results highlighted that ‘familial circumstances and relationships in childhood may have a strong influence on an individual’s future and their behaviour.’ It would be wrong to assume that all individuals can transcend their environmental conditions at all times providing they stay disciplined. Some environments are more severe than others, of course. Aileen Wuornos, for instance, was a Michigander who murdered seven men and claimed that she would ‘kill another person because [she has] hated humans for a long time’. As a child, Wuornos fell victim to some atrocious incidents. She was sexually abused by her granddad and raped by his friend, leaving her pregnant at the age of fourteen. There’s no denying such events will scar you heavily.

Children raised in problem homes are ‘five times more likely to suffer damaging mental troubles’. Contributing factors include coming from a low income family and having troubled relationships with parents. But at any time in our youth some difficulty or other is bound to occur within the home. Whether your parents did drugs, were unemployed or you had trouble finding friends in school, you don’t have to be a victim.

Although I sympathised with my dad throughout his battle with addiction, his weakness and selfishness frustrated me; why should his painful childhood cast a shadow on my life? Why should I have to experience the whiplash of his misfortune? I could never understand why I possessed so much hope and ambition, but my dad couldn’t manage the same.

I began to question the passivity of human nature, and how easily we point the finger at the struggles of our youth. As a child and teenager witnessing such hardship, I could have chosen a path filled with aggression, truancy and violence. But instead I’m a university undergraduate determined to excel in life rather than replicate the adult behaviour I’ve suffered at the hands of. I’m not saying I’m unscathed – I squirm with repulsion every time I hear a beer can being opened. Even so, I refuse to be labelled as ‘damaged’ because I come from a ‘broken’ home, as the Daily Mail might have it.

Two years on, my dad now has his addiction under control, and is finally someone both he and I can be deeply proud of. Channelling his angst and resentment about his past into an active, constructive future, every day looks a bit brighter. For a long period of time, my dad just wasn’t ready – but simultaneously, he didn’t want to change then. Those first brave steps in seeking help were enough to show the world that he was strong enough to overcome his demons.

In an article exploring the effects that childhood can have on adulthood, M. Farouk Radwan claims that ‘your adulthood is just an extension of your childhood experiences’, and that adults develop habits and attributes as a result of their upbringings. Radwan is right, but we as individuals have the power to decide whether these past traumas push us in a negative or positive direction. If you can’t change the past, seize the future.

Photography by Moshe Tasky.

Vietnam: Journey to the Centre of the Earth Part II

Starring James Mason as Professor Lidenbrock, the 1959 film of the Jules Verne novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth enthralled a young boy named David Angus, who is now a Portsmouth-based travel writer and planetary modeller. The young David marvelled over the giant mushrooms, dimetrodons and the sea at the Earth’s centre. That sea even had clouds over it. Surely no cave was really big enough for clouds? Many years later, David would travel not quite to the centre of the Earth but pretty far down.

When we got going again there was a long hard climb. Rocks and roots again, though it flattened out or became easier in a few areas, but it was a climb that went on and on. I was relieved now and then with photostops for an orchid like flower Watto had noticed, another butterfly, a buttress tree and shots of the jungle. It would be easy to hide a lot in this kind of country: limestone karst scenery and old limestone at that, out of which very tough terrain and massive caves could be eroded, all smothered in jungle. Glimpses of the valley proved it again, especially if the cave entrance was high up on the hillside.

We reached level ground in a grove of banana trees, or relatives of them.There was serious rock climbing gear here. I’d heard we were to be roped up for one section and assumed it was a health and safety requirement, but as things were explained and we set off through increasingly jagged terrain, it became clear that this was the real thing instead. We reached Son Doong cave entrance – not a big entrance like Hang En, no wonder they lost it for a few years. Within, the descent involved two ropes going down a rock slope and dropping out of sight into a black void. John had told me that, though it was counter-intuitive, you were supposed to lean backwards so your feet could get a better grip. Harnessed and hooked up to a rope, I walked backwards down the slope and leaned back as I went over the edge holding on to the rope, and went into the black abyss below.

It wasn’t actually a sheer drop but a near vertical slope you wouldn’t want to fall down.  I was told to be sure to unclip one clip at a time and clip up again when getting round a knot in the rope (safety measure I assume), never both at the same time which courted disaster. I did that efficiently and got on with the job in hand, working my way down while making a point of ignoring the fearful darkness outside my lamplight. But the audacity of making a go of it despite never having done it in my life before! But I was having less luck with getting a grip, with my feet slipping when I’d thought I’d mastered the knack of leaning backwards. I flopped over an overhang but it was only a small one and the end of the descent was near enough.

The first one anyway. Despite it being partially rocky here, this break in the descent was a narrow shelf providing an easy traverse across the cave to the next descent. This one was down another precipitous slope with a black void around one. I was going down what looked like an eroded water channel with John above this time shouting advice and encouragement, when I sussed that the best way of coping was planting my feet firmly either side of the channel and going down that way.

‘Good!  Good!  Good!’

Eventually I edged around a shoulder of rock, then down a sloping ledge and I reached the bottom. I’d got a photo or two after the first descent and did the same thing here.  Much later when I brightened one up enough on Adobe Photoshop I found a bat in flight in the pic. The same thing had happened with an underground river in the Philippines where I bagged about six without even knowing they were there. They were here as well and had plenty of space. I even wondered later whether mysterious bright dots on photos of the vast reaches of the cave were bats’ eyes.

Though the light from my helmet was powerful it still faded into blackness as I aimed it into what was beyond, hinting at the size of what we were in. Welcome to Son Doong Cave. Would I have the strength to get out again?

The next obstacle was an underground river. We were to cross just above a waterfall which reminded me of ones on the Greenland ice sheet plunging into a sheer drop and certain icy death below if one got swept in. One rope stretched across and that was all we had to hang on to. Gripping that tightly, I began my crossing, thinking at least the current isn’t much here. I then fell down a hole.

Vu was at my side fast but I righted myself just before he could grab me and before the current swept me over the edge to a sticky end. It was classic Hollywood cliffhanger stuff! Supplied by yours truly. The rest of the crossing was smooth enough although somewhat cautious in my case, then I edged past a fellow protecting me from disappearing down the waterfall in spite of everything. I went up a rock cleft and I was in the clear. The waterfall wasn’t a sheer drop after all and most likely survivable, but you would also most likely be bashed about and break some bones, I was assured. The tripod was set up for photos.

For a while the going seemed easy enough along essentially a terrace with a drop into the river on the right. Geological wonders were on the wall to the left, particularly a big crystalline pattern shaped roughly like a long leaf with a white streak at its centre. John described it as a ‘crystalline fault’ and I had to get photos, thinking of a geologist friend at home. There were white veins in the rock reminding me of marble. Don’t know if it was that but there might have been some down here since marble’s metamorphosed from limestone.

Further on were treasures such as a mass of banding in rock that was actually a broken chunk of huge stalagmite; the banding showed its growth like a cross section of a tree.  At the other end of the scale were small stones like twigs with the sand worn away around them so they formed the tops of miniature sheer sided mesas and buttes, like a model of some alien Monument Valley.

By then we were working our way through an expanse of rocks of every description, size and shape; jagged, rounded, smooth and looking slippery though they were firm, rough but slippery. It was hard to tell what the surrounding black expanses of the cave were like and whether – unless we were lost – we were working our way around huge stalagmites. One had to focus on getting on with the job without breaking any bones.  Before this trip a friend had broken his arm on a curb in Portsmouth and I was aware of just how much easier it would be to do that sort of thing in here.

A long way in front was a light, like the light at the end of some immense tunnel containing piles of rubble. The light was where the roof had fallen in; I was aware it had in a few places. At the top of an incline one of the helpers was on a bulbous stalagmite formation in front and light was being flashed about this colossal chaotic space. It was a technique known as ‘painting’ where the camera would pick up all the cave that had been lit in the time it took to take the photo. Profiled against the light was a formation known as ‘Hand of Dog’. It looked more like a dog’s head to me.

I went down and up towards that through another trackless jumble of rock. I had to work out each move step by step, jump by jump, twist ones limbs every which way as required and just have the stamina to keep going. This was where the exercise I’d been doing in preparation for the expedition really counted. Had I done enough?  Missed out on one activity too many? Now it was being proved one way or the other in a ding-dong battle of endurance with the sweat simply pouring out of me.

My T-shirts became as sweat-sodden throughout this cave as they would have been in a washing machine. That’s why it was so important to carry a good supply of water throughout this expedition.

John told me that up ahead was something he’d think would impress me. Watch out for dinosaurs. I could almost see the pterosaurs sailing through the clouds.

‘This is a life defining moment,’  I declared.  ‘Awesome!’

The praise even if profane could never encompass the sight before us. The life-defining moment was the terrific victory of winning through – despite being 66 years old – to the sight of such an immense cave as this in which there really were those clouds, ever-changing ethereal veils of mist; like something out of ‘Excalibur’ leading your eyes up from a chasm of gigantic stalagmites, pinnacles and building-sized boulders to faraway tiers of green under a tremendous sunlit cliff ascending out of sight into the world above.

Just the right setting for pterosaurs, dinosaurs, explorers and heroes; this was Journey to the Centre of the Earth for real!  Watch out for Dinosaurs was an area under what is known as a ‘doline’ where a cave roof has collapsed forming a skylight allowing daylight to enter the cave and vegetation to grow within. Perched to the right of this scene of almighty grandeur was a broad sandy shelf of rock on which was what looked like an minor infestation of brightly coloured bugs. It was our next camp.

We set up the tripod and we took turns taking photos, though my memory’s unclear but if the photo featured here was taken by John the credit should go to him. Some images on the internet are more focused but conditions were the very toughest for photography.

We made our way down to the camp.  The first tent contained porters merrily playing cards; an oddly comforting outpost of civilisation in surroundings of such gigantic scale.  I can only describe the porters as being superhuman; as though human evolution was taking a fork like the Morlocks and the Eloi in HG Wells’ The Time Machine. On the one hand were small, wiry, youthful lads, jungle born and bred, who were incredibly tough since they could cheerfully carry the heaviest loads through the toughest terrain at speed while wearing flip flops. On the other hand there was the easier lifestyle and frequent overweight of larger Westerners, British in particular where ill health seemed to take over from the weather as the main topic of conversation. I felt I belonged to a nation of invalids by comparison and began to realise what the Americans were up against during the Vietnam War; these men in the Vietcong would have made formidably endurable and resourceful adversaries. Not that the porters didn’t have their problems; smoking like chimneys they were prone to lung cancer. Frankly I admired them and brought up the subject of tipping them at mealtime, which John latched on to.

Another wiry Vietnamese Oxalis staff member would be assisting me over rocks. I’d worked out that on a steep descent it was sometimes better just to sit down on the job, a rock, for a moment rather than take a great downward step off it. ‘Sit down David!’  became one of his two cheerful commands. ‘Let go David!’ was for when it was quicker for him to haul me up rather than me grappling with a rock on ascent. Just like the porters his size belied his strength and I would have trusted him with my life. To my shame I can’t remember his name.

Before supper there was another place for a swim. In a small side cave at the bottom of what had looked like a chasm from the Hand of Dog. The drop into it from the shelf turned out to be a negotiable slope. I’d been warned that access wasn’t easy though and when I got there the scene was one of a slot crammed with people and sounds of splashing from around a corner. No level ground anywhere and no room for boots so I was obliged to swim in them.  John had asked me if I could swim out of my depth? I didn’t want to with boots on so I consoled myself with a rock pool further back that turned out to be the coldest thing I’d encountered on this trip. Refreshing then.

Back at the camp the conversation included news that the Chinese wanted to open up this cave to the masses with a cable car. This was likely to ruin the whole nature of the place and since I’d just experienced Chinese tourism no man was more well aware of that than me. It was the same old story: beautiful environments and the natural world under threat from intrusive commercial excesses. John and I held similar views on the ecology of the planet being under threat, apart from me being more optimistic or less realistic. Watto alluded to some pollution disaster at Dong Hoi too. Maybe that was why I might have had a peaceful swim just north of there: no sealife left.

I’d always been at odds with the commercial world and distrusted marketing PR hype, the sort of positive thinking that wasn’t based on fact and accuracy. Now an honest assessment of my strengths and weaknesses had led to a reliance on mental stamina and maybe just enough exercise to punch above my weight and get through what I regarded as my Mount Everest of physical achievements. That was my strategy and it had got me this far. Not everybody made it. One of the porters had carried somebody back at speed with a ruptured blood vessel. Another porter went missing for a day because he had to carry a woman back up the mountain to the road; she hadn’t been allowed to proceed further through being unfit. People could underestimate what was needed for this expedition.

I slept better that night, despite being close to the card game.

Morning daylight. Just outside the camp the the oriental mystic – whom I’d met in the vehicle that picked me up – sat absolutely motionless. He remained like that for a long time watching daylight and sunlight from a fringe of jungle around the far above skylight play on the ever-changing mist. It was like a subtle act of worship and I regretted that I’d lost his patience. The wonders of nature were all around us. Stalactite formations that looked as high as skyscrapers – and maybe were the equal of shorter ones – drooped and dropped down the opposite chasm wall. Giger – the artist who worked on the Alien film – would have been inspired. Rimstone dams – determining the shape of previous pools by forming on their edges – writhed across cave floor gradients.

Watto would accompany me today. I asked him what the going would be like up to Watch out for Dinosaurs?

‘There’s a tricky bit,’ he admitted.

That sounded ominous and I couldn’t find my gloves. John thought I’d left them behind at Hand of Dog when being overwhelmed by the view, but I wasn’t going back to get them. It became normal for the guides to leave camp with me early because I was slower moving and the last thing I wanted to do was hold the group up.

The ‘tricky bit’ turned out to be an alternative to the original route which was blocked by a landslide: a descent into the mother of all rockpiles where at one point my feet had to go along either side of a V-shaped gap, followed by contortions under boulders instead of over them, followed by a terrific mountainous ascent. Again, this taxed my reserves to the utmost.

At the top was a kind of mini plateau between the part of the cave we had just emerged from and where we were going, formed from the cave roof at the bottom of the huge doline hole. Back below we could see the others making their way through the boulders as the tiniest bugs yet. As for the camp, all we could see of that were one or two of the porters visible only as dots. Up here the vegetation was not so much jungle as savannah sprinkled with saplings and huge ferns just right for dinosaurs, mysterious in the occasional swirling mist. The ground was not so rocky, indicating this cave collapse might have happened a long time ago. Off towards the rest of Son Doong cave were surprisingly regular looking features green with short plants. They looked like fortifications and just might have been truncated stalagmites, broken when the roof caved in.

We took our photos on top of them and one flat topped circular ringed feature further down – perhaps formed in the same way – and descended into the rest of Son Doong Cave.

It was a predictably steep and rocky descent but we didn’t seem to go as far down as we’d been on the other side. At the bottom was a vast hall of a cavern with pools and a series of rimstone walls or dams snaking about. Rimstones formed from water flowing over the edge of pools. Calcite is crystallised out there and forms walls of any size from miniature ones of millimetres to much begger ones metres in height.  One area was cordoned off for conservation.

Watto set up the tripod, declared he didn’t like Nikons – guess what my camera was – and muttered about not getting a clear image. I thought it best to stay clear for awhile and let him get on with it while I became clammy with all the sweat in my NEVER STOP EXPLORING T shirt. Maybe I should have thanked him more for his effort. I’m fairly sure he took the one featured here looking up towards Watch out for Dinosaurs and the credit should go to him. Like me he was a perfectionist but our approach to photography was one of opposites: my strength lay in composition and lacking technical ability I was an opportunistic risk taker, whereas he was much more thorough in the technical department. His approach was better in such an place as this.

Whatever one’s shortcomings there’s usually someone worse. Like one millionaire with a Leica who, after they’d assembled on top of a formation for that unforgettable shot, presented the guides with the camera in its box and expected them to take it from there.

Other photos included me in explorer pose with Watch out for Dinosaurs in the background, grimacing because I was trying to hold my balance on a rock. There were also attempts to record a great shaft of sunlight beaming down, leaves fluttering down within looking like flecks of gold.

Watto and I shared some banter. I’d taken a chance on winding him up with Monty Python’s ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ sketch which he initially called ‘inane’, but he got into the spirit of it and continued in the same spirit later with John.

The others caught up with us, we had lunch, then continued. The cave terrain through this stretch was not nearly so rocky so progress was less severe from what it had been to easy going.  Also there was light at the end of the tunnel again which could be made out from as far back as Watch out for Dinosaurs.  It was the other doline and before too long it seemed we’d trekked through the mysterious dark shapes of this cavern and were approaching the ascent up to it.

This was a long one but easier in some ways than the previous ones for instead of rocks a series of rimstone dams of the bigger sort formed a natural surreal staircase on a grand scale.

I’m not sure if it was here I saw more cave pearls.  They would often occur within rimstone dams and the ones I’d seen earlier around the size of marbles neatly compartmented within little partitions of calcite.  Like some mentally disturbed design for a for a ‘shopping experience’ with a difference in a jewelry store.  Cave pearls were formed when water dripping into a cave too fast to form stalagmites precipitated calcite around a nucleus such as a grain of sand.  Given time they tended to grow into perfect spherical stones, usually smooth and often glossy.  Some in Son Doong were the size of baseballs.

It was still tiring repeatedly stepping over abrupt ridges of rock but the other doline was near.  Here was ‘The Garden of Edam’.  The play on the obvious name was because the explorer naming it didn’t like organised religion.  There  was a real jungle this time, big enough to hide primeval monsters, beginning with a few weedy plants on the rimstone staircase steadily increasing in number and size to a striking stand of rain forest  up ahead like a paradise at the bottom of another colossal hole fringed by more forest above.  The ground should level out now I thought.

Photography by David Angus.

Films Are Not Your Friends: A Multimedia Workshop on Movie Propaganda

Do you ever wonder if films and TV shows are deliberately trying to make you think a certain way? Is anything “unsayable” on screen? And what happens if you do say it? In this 90-minute multimedia workshop, you can select clips from dozens of films – including the Marvel, James Bond, and Meet the Parents franchises – to discover how they have been secretly manipulated behind the scenes by powerful organisations like the Pentagon, White House, and CIA.

The presenters, Tom Secker and Matthew Alford, have had exclusive access to government files via the Freedom of Information Act, which indicates that the scholarly community has underestimated the scale, range and depth of this state-corporate propaganda nexus. The findings will be of interest to all those engaged with cinema, media, and US politics.

Includes Q&A and opportunities for debate.

Please book your free ticket here.

Faculty of Creative and Cultural Industries, University of Portsmouth, Eldon Building Lecture Room 0.20

Wed, July 26, 2017
10:00 AM – 12:00 PM BST

Image by Moshe Tasky.

The Southsea Food Tour: The Belle Isle

Our resident gourmand Emily Priest returns with another review as part of her ongoing series on Southsea eateries.

With the summer approaching, the Belle Isle has been getting busier and busier with people drinking and laughing outside it in the sun. Now, with a new menu, it’s even more popular so I thought it was about time I paid the Belle a visit.

The Osborne Road gastropub has been open since 2010 and is a proud partner of Victorious Festival. I used to live on Kent Road, minutes away, but I never visited before. I had peeked in a few times and eyed up the menu. However, their old one never enticed me the way the new one does.

The décor really captures the true spirit of Portsmouth with its wooden tables, colourful wall designs, leather sofas and nautical accessories such as anchors. There is a breezy outdoor seating space as, after all, the sun is an essential part of Pompey. When I arrived, the side doors were open and a few individuals were reading newspapers and sipping cool cider outside. It’s large and airy inside, with plenty of space for parties to sit down and eat, and friends on a Friday night to enjoy a cold one.

I took a menu and sat down on the patio chairs, enjoying the sun whilst it lasted. The new menu had a wider lunch choice and some extra main meals. Vegetarian and gluten-free options abounded. My attention was grabbed by the shipwrecked mussels, lamb and beef meatballs, and the brie and mango open sandwich. I say a few because I can’t list the entire menu. There were flavours from all across the globe from Mexico to Southern Europe, all blended together to create a unique menu which adds spice and flavour to our great seaside city.

I approached the bar. The back of it was decked with rows of coloured bottles from vodka to boutique gins. Underneath, were lots of fridges holding bottled real ales, ciders and soft drinks. There was enough variety for everyone.

A sign listed the beers on draught including Stowford Press and Blue Moon. But the prices took me aback. £4.20 for a pint of cider and £4.95 for a lager? It was like I’d taken a wrong turn and ended up in London.

I placed my order: Mediterranean olives, lamb and beef meatballs, onion rings and the falafel for my friend who had joined me. The bartender turned around and hubba hubba! A definite plus for the Belle Isle is its attractive staff. He was a little shy but in hindsight that may have been my fault, being the female equivalent of a creepy old man. He nervously served me my drinks and olives and then went back to tidying.

I sat back down and tucked into my olives. They were stacked in a baked bean tin with a handful of toothpicks. ‘Waste not want not,’ I chanted as I ate one, staring at the repurposed receptacle.

Those were good olives. They were marinated in oil with what I think was garlic, peppers and rosemary. Each olive was soft and sweet. I polished them off pretty quickly. Even the black ones which nobody likes.

The main came a while after but I didn’t mind the wait too much. The food is all cooked from scratch and fresh every day which anyone knows is worth it. Although I had started chewing the toothpicks to keep me going.

The lamb and beef meatballs came in a metal pot on a board with parmesan and seeded bread on the side. A bit different from the expected pasta. I opened the lid and steam shot out, eventually dissipating to reveal a pile of large balls, in thick red sauce, with a dense layer of melted cheese on top. I jabbed my fork in and yes, it did taste as good as it looked.

The sauce was made with beans, giving a southern twist on the Italian classic. It was full of flavour and complemented the meat brilliantly. Each meatball was just bigger than a golf ball and packed densely and generously. I counted six in total but couldn’t finish them. It filled me right up – good comfort food.

The onion rings were crispy and well cooked and inside were thick, juicy rings of onion. They weren’ t too greasy like most and were perfect dunked into my bean sauce.

The falafel was also large, covering a huge plate with sweet potato fries and homemade coleslaw. It was also homemade and thick, made with coriander and chickpeas. I managed to steal a morsel. It blossomed with taste and I could smell all the herbs with each bite. The hummus was plentiful and made the falafel anything but dry. As a passionate meat eater, I was surprisingly won over.

I did wonder how the other meals tasted. I wanted to try everything but I don’t think I could afford that. I should have gone into the kitchen and flirted with the chef. If the bar staff are so lovely, I bet the kitchen staff are too.

The cost for food is a little over average, depending what you buy, and I do find it odd that their online menu doesn’t show you the prices. But their portions are large, tasty and freshly made with local, homemade ingredients. Their meals are different too.

The vibes are relaxed and chilled and the food is juicy, flavoursome and unique. The Belle Isle does Southsea proud but I’m not too sure on the drink prices.

Just talking about it is making me hungry and yes, I am talking about the food this time…

All images by Emily Priest.

Zapped by Emperor Galloway: Portsmouth UKIP, the Homeless and Science Fiction

Horror author and satirist Justin MacCormack examines UKIP’s latest local gaffe through the lens of dark and dystopian science fiction.

In the wake of the Grenfell Tower inferno, I expected there to be a respectful pause before our politicians began calling for a purge of the poor. But no, UKIP quickly stepped up to the plate to make comments about Portsmouth’s homeless population that evoked the 1973 science fiction film Soylent Green, which posits a gruesome solution to poverty and overpopulation.

In the wretched hive of scum and villainy – sorry, that’s the Mos Eisley spaceport from Star Wars. What I mean is Portsmouth City Council, from whence UKIP Councillor Colin Galloway called for our police commissioner ‘to put pressure on his police force to help us clean up this unwelcome detritus.’

Immediately following this statement, Mr Galloway zapped one of the nearby journalists with lightning from his fingertips – ah no, sorry, that was the evil megalomaniac emperor of the Star Wars films. Strange how I keep making these mistakes.

Naturally, I was curious about what kind of support – if any – Mr Galloway will offer the homeless in Portsmouth. Horrifyingly, he went on to say that the homeless ‘must be removed from our city and placed in specific care whether they want to or not.’ I wondered if he would be housing them in one of his spare rooms. Somehow I doubted it.

In earnest, I asked to meet Mr Galloway and discuss his plans for caring for the most vulnerable in our society. ‘You mean the poor defenceless aristocracy and their billionaire friends?” he replied. ‘The homeless are like vampires. Leeches, I tell you! Quick, we must flee, before they rise from their crypts to devour us all!’

Actually, he didn’t say that. Mr Galloway did not agree to meet me. I suspect that we would not get along well enough to maintain a civil conversation. After all, I was raised to believe in equality, compassion and social justice – a position which clashes sharply with a scientific study funded by UKIP released last year which states that the poorest in society are biologically closer to newts than they are to other human beings.

OK. That didn’t happen either, but it could have.

In 2014, Portsmouth was home to eight homeless people, a number which, according to official stats at least, has trebled since then. The consolation, though, is that UKIP’s share of the vote in the last election fell by 13%.

While Mr Galloway may well go on to spend the next few days trying to petition the House of Lords to pass a law allowing him to legally hunt the poor for sport, and to televise it in some kind of national Hunger Games-style competition, the rest of us can rest soundly knowing that for every crackpot UKIP councillor who says something truly bone-chillingly deplorable, the likes of which even a James Bond villain wouldn’t utter, there will be at least one other person out there offering a supporting hand to those who need it.

Justin’s books are available here.

Photography by Moshe Tasky.

Vietnam: Journey to the Centre of the Earth Part I

Starring James Mason as Professor Lidenbrock, the 1959 film of the Jules Verne novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth enthralled a young boy named David Angus, who is now a Portsmouth-based travel writer and planetary modeller. The young David marvelled over the giant mushrooms, dimetrodons and the sea at the Earth’s centre. That sea even had clouds over it. Surely no cave was really big enough for clouds? Many years later, David would travel not quite to the centre of the Earth but pretty far down, and he would find out whether a cave could have clouds.

Under the sunlight of a spreading blue sky and the fresh air of Vietnamese hill country, a river stretched below the hotel balcony I was standing on, big enough for boats and an island on which boys were playing football. On the far side of the river, nestling in the jungle beneath the limestone hills was a village and a brightly hued church. Vu, the young Vietnamese guy who’d collected me for the expedition, joined me to inspect everything I had. Most of it was OK.

Was this expedition expensive? Well let’s face it, the whole enterprise was a major expense but Oxalis – the company running tours and expeditions through the caves of this region – had made it clear that what I was after was the biggest challenge, demanding high physical ability. I’d put myself into my own army in attempting to exercise, anything from dancing to indoor climbing plus a 50 mile hike. But I was 66, on blood pressure tablets and doing this in the tropical heat of a Vietnam summer so would I make it? Ah well, now I’d got this far and was enjoying a beer downstairs near the end of the day, I was determined to enjoy as much of this experience as fate would allow.

As the dusk fell like a comforting blanket on the valley, the briefing began in the hotel restaurant with a roof but no walls. We had two guides who were British: a tall Lancastrian, John, and a burly Yorkshireman nicknamed “Watto”. They were close friends. There were also around 25 porters and helpers. The group itself consisted mostly of Asians, most of whom were Vietnamese, though one lived in New York and another, a woman, dwelled in Singapore. There was actually a group within the group: prize team winners of a Red Bull promotional competition sporting red T-shirts, one of whom was the only other woman in the whole group. The only two white people apart from me were a couple of Danes, whom I initially thought were Australian.

One thing was made clear: this was not a race. Much of the terrain was going to be tough and care was needed.  I was glad to hear it since they all seemed younger – apart from the guides and the Oriental mystic I’d met in the vehicle or – in the case of guides and porters – experienced.

Watto wanted to know who’d brought tripods. Several people had, but the one I’d lugged through China in my backpack was the only full sized one. Photography conditions were going to be tough too for this ultimate challenge.

Son Doong Cave or Mountain River Cave is the biggest known cave on this panet. It was only discovered after the Vietnam War by a local, then lost again until a British expedition rediscovered it later. Fewer people had been through it than had been up Everest but we were going there. It’d take a day’s hike through jungle to get there and likewise coming out. We’d then have to spend three days in the cave system before getting through another cave in order to access Son Doong: two for the price of one then!

Son Doong Cave. Over 5 kms long, eroded along a fault line with a river flowing through it. 150 metres wide and 200 metres high. That’s over 600 feet. Big enough for a jet airliner to fly through parts of it and for its own weather system, for layers of mist formed – yes – rudimentary clouds! Like in Journey to the Centre of the Earth. In a few places the cave roof had fallen in, allowing ever-changing sunlight to alter local air temperature/humidity and creating those clouds and allowing tropical vegetation to grow inside the cavern.

It had it all! Awesome caverns with stalagmites 200 ft high, underground rivers, primeval jungle and clouds. The icing on the cake was the name given to one of these places: ‘Watch Out For Dinosaurs’.  A name like that was rocket fuel to the credulous child within me, the boy who’d refused to grow up and give up his sense of adventure. Although there was no way it could be taken literally, my own Journey to the Centre of the Earth seemed achievable after all.

I took supper with John and his wife.  I’m not sure if it was that evening or later I found he was on the British expedition that had rediscovered the cave.  I was in good company.

Dawn. A spectacular one I managed to get a photo of. It felt like Christmas when I was a boy: awake early in anticipation.

We were on our way in morning sunlight. The road threaded up into the hills.

There was a junction and our route led over a bridge, high over a river, scenery carpeted in jungle.  The correct name would be rainforest, but I preferred ‘jungle’. Like ‘expedition’, ‘jungle’ suggested ‘adventure’ and after all, wasn’t that what we were on our way to?

We seemed to be the only vehicle on the new road which wound around a lot through banks of tropical foliage and the odd view of green carpeted mountainous hills. Later I learned this was part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, actually a series of hill trails leading down the length of Vietnam.

When I’d got used to that we were suddenly at shelter on a mountain. I’d thought we were going to follow a stream up a valley to the cave.  But the shelter was the marshalling point for the start of the expedition proper. People started following the trail by disappearing down into the shrubbery which became tree tops and then you were in very real jungle.

Indiana Jones was going through my head as I descended into the green depths, trying to get the odd photo of people disappearing around tropical tree trunks into exotic undergrowth, with the odd liana coiling about like a solidified python. To my delight the trek just went on and on mostly downhill. It was surprising how long it was going on for, my mental soundtrack replaced Indiana Jones with the theme tunes of more desperate jungle adventures. The descent just went on and on. I hoped there was a break soon for, although the trail wasn’t rough, the distance and incline were taking their toll. Better start praying there’s a break soon.

The break was where the trail seemed to end in a jumble of boulders on a steep incline, when one had to slow right down to cope. A necessary water break in the heat.

Just after we got going again I fell over, luckily on some roots instead of rocks. That’s what the trail was now – roots and rocks – with an incline that looked like one in one if you were lucky. If the rest of the journey was going to be as hard as this I was going to be in trouble.

By the time we reached the stream I’d fallen most of the way behind. It was a corner of heaven saving me, with its clear water bathing my feet amongst the rocks and exotic foliage. Someone had mentioned leeches but Watto said there weren’t any in the water itself, though there might be a few in the vegetation near a river we would wade through later. I mentioned that someone could help me out by carrying my small backpack. The look I got indicated I should pull my own weight. Fair enough.

As luck would have it, the trail on the other side of the stream was much easier. We were off the mountain. Then I realised we were walking through a village.

Thatched huts with floors raised clear of the ground, spaced out amidst a variety of vegetation hinting at cultivation, populated with the odd inhabitant, infants, chickens and short haired slim dogs who spent much of the time lying around as though they were dead.  It was straight out of a television documentary on jungle tribes, which is, more or less the sort of place this was. Our arrival seemed routine, as would our return presumably.

Lunch was held under the village headman’s house. Various goodies were laid out on a tarpaulin on a cement floor. The food was anything from exotic spiky fruit which stained my trousers to commercial chocolate bars. A few dogs relaxed in our company by imitating corpses. Across the way, near a pawpaw tree, a few infants watched us warily.  They had a school here, though it was just a hut with a corrugated iron roof and a Vietnamese flag.

After lunch the trail continued to be easy going, across a fence or two and then we were at a river. The one that went through the caves. There were a few deep pools but it was more of a shallow stream and, although we crossed and recrossed it, this was a piece of cake in fact; provided one watched the slippery pebbles. Otherwise the terrain was flat apart from the banks. It was easy enough for me to nip around to various vantage points for good photos not only of the expedition but the fantastic vegetation. This included forest giants sometimes smothered by climbing plant parasites, beds of reeds much higher than the people passing through them and a plant looking like an upright version of a rhubarb with leaves big enough to cover a head and torso; a good meal for a monster. Not that we saw any animals apart from a stick insect someone noticed right under us on the trail. I’d heard of the odd tiger in this region but they were very rare.

One of the cave entrances was pointed out: a limestone cliff down the valley that looked overhanging. We would be entering the cave system lower down.

When we got there I was reminded of the scale of nature. Think of a skirting with a small gap between that and the floor with some tiny invertebrates where the dark line of the gap is. Except the skirting is really a curved band of rock, the gap is the cave entrance and the bugs are really people. Somewhat daunting if you dwell on our existence where natural forces could squash us just as easily as those bugs. But I revelled in the scale.

Time to don the helmets and we were shown how to work the lights on them, which could be powerful. Necessary to cope with the dense darkness of a cave. This entrance to the Hang En Cave led to the other, Son Doong, and had been eroded by the river. Although it was broad, the roof was only about room height or less. Some way into the darkness the route struck up towards the left.

There was a precarious scramble up rocks and boulders. All of a sudden it became clear how cosseted we were in the civilised world even when wandering around on foot as I did. Well, this was not only what I’d signed up for but expected: piles of this sort of thing to get over underground. Then we were out of one cave into something much bigger, its roof soaring above. On top of a boulder was a view of a great boulder field slanting up towards the higher distant cave entrance and the other way? The light from the entrance revealed…

…Well it wasn’t the Lindenbrock Sea but there was actually a lake at the bottom of the boulder field, complete with sandy beach beyond. The awesome thing was the sheer size: those tiny brightly coloured items on this underground beach were really tents and a cooking area, beyond which was a mountainside ascending into darkness. Except it wasn’t a mountainside but part of Hang En Cave. Not a cave as one knows it. It’s size had to be experienced to be believed. I don’t know why the word cavern – with its suggestion of size – wasn’t used with these caves. Maybe a new word should be invented for these smaller caverns.

In John’s company I gingerly made my way down to what had resembled a matchstick over the end of the lake. It was a single plank bridge. Once across that there were submerged sandbags to be crossed like stepping stones. Then we’d arrived and one of the last things I expected to see was there: a bottle of red wine upright on the sand. This had the style of eccentric Victorian explorers who’d go on adventures fashionably attired and down claret or some other pricey plonk in the most unlikely settings. John remarked it wasn’t for tonight but later. My tent was erected I was told. I was happy that I was here and that it was ready. I strode across and shook the hand of the grinning Vietnamese guy who seemed to be in charge. He turned out to be the boss of the porters.

The porters were putting the finishing touches to the camp and preparing food. Those of us who’d come along for the experience swam in the lake. I swam across and jumped off a big boulder on the other side where others had been diving, then back again. Although it was bound to be cooler underground than outside, it wasn’t by much so after the hike the swim was most welcome.

Supper was served; we would always be well fed on this trip. There was even some rice wine to sample. I did not drink much of though, it could be potent. Two secluded toilet tents were also available, with signposts you could swivel to mark ‘vacant’ and ‘occupied’.

The high cave entrance framed great photos of clouds drifting through rain forest trees. Things were flying up there that I initially took to be bats but turned out to be swifts. Later there was a storm.

I didn’t sleep well that night though as things turned out it didn’t affect the day after much.

At long last light returned to the upper cave entrance. The light of dawn. At breakfast we decided I would wear contact lenses instead of glasses from now on – glasses slid off my face too easily. I’d also don the gloves I’d brought for going over rocks. There was the advised option too of lightening my load here for the trip ahead and collecting it on the way out.

Next day’s adventures began with a tough climb up the underground mountainside. But near the top I could catch my breath as my photo was taken with a view of Hang En camp for a background. John had apologised for an excitable card game last night but I’d assured him that even a whisper would be hard to hide in such an echoing expanse and I didn’t like to stop people having fun. One last noteworthy detail of the place: there were signs on the far wall of locals scaling giddy heights to reach birds’ nests and their valuable eggs.

At the top was a smaller part of Hang En Cave in the total darkness. I set my tripod up and we got to grips with the difficulties of cave photography.

Further on was the surprise of a tree trunk stuck on some boulders. An enormous flood which would have put our campsite well underwater had we left it there. Just after that was a rocky descent to leave Hang En cave. Its rear entrance was like the mouth of a colossal railway tunnel.

The ground was sandy and the going good, so I had time to take photos. The first view really did look like a lost valley comic illustration come to life: the expedition members wandering off down a boulder strewn stream through a lush steep sided valley hidden from civilisation, speech balloons above them would have been declaring things like ‘So it really does exist’ and ‘The legend said there were Dinosaurs here.’ On the near right a bank of foliage fantastic with gigantic leaves was crying out for the illustrator to part it with the head of a monster.

I waded after them, ankle deep down in the crystal clear gravelly-bottomed stream. I just revelled in walking through this incredible place I could only have dreamed about. The triumphant ‘sense of wonder’ part of the ‘Jurassic Park’ theme music was playing through my mind now. John took photos of me while I felt a compulsion to check over my shoulder, in case that brachiosaurus was coming round a bend in the stream craning its neck to reach that tall tree behind me.

Downstream there was a tree trunk across the stream to climb over. It had been there for a long time judging by the bromeliads growing out of it. Then there was a stretch where there was an overhanging cliff on the right. We had a break just beyond that where I decided to relax by just lying down in the stream, yes with clothing and kit, apart from the camera.

‘Just having a bath,’ I explained to John, who calmly accepted it. You could do that sort of thing in the heat here. A beautiful bronze butterfly joined us. I couldn’t stop taking photos of it.

The only other way into this valley was via a 19km-long cave – more than 10 miles – which is – bearing in mind the terrain and darkness – a hell of a long way underground.

A valley that could only be reached by caves was truly ‘a lost valley’!

Photography by David Angus.

The Southsea Food Tour: Monty’s

In the latest episode of her grand culinary journey around the city, Emily Priest saw an advert for a special tasting event at Monty’s on Castle Road and knew she had to go.

I couldn’t refuse the offer of seven courses with seven cocktails. It was the perfect opportunity to review this tucked-away restaurant and cocktail bar while, at the same time, treating myself after a long, hard week.

Monty’s has only been open a year and serves English-style cuisine, using local suppliers for both food, drink and décor. But that isn’t what makes Monty’s special. It’s nothing special to have a seasonal menu, but Monty’s have a new one every month. That’s quite impressive.

This ‘A Taste of Monty’s’ event was the first of its kind since the establishment opened, yet it won’t be the last. At £60 per person, it’s great value especially considering how many high-quality courses – and cocktails – you get.

The inside is decadent. The tables are laid with thick cloths and polished cutlery. The chairs have a crushed velvet exterior, the bar is marble effect and the lighting an ambient mix of fairy lights, tea lights and candelabra. It is beautiful but small, very small. Walking in on a busy day you have to push past chairs and people. The seating is limited so make sure to book in advance.

I was called the day before by someone I believe was the manager to confirm our booking. Friendly and helpful, he warned me about the broken card machine. I really appreciated this as it showed care and attention but also saved me the embarrassment of my card getting declined.

‘Please come for 6.30pm for canapes and aperitifs,’ he said, ‘and then we shall start the night at 7pm.’

The next day I did as he asked. There were no canapes or aperitifs so I found myself sat down, waiting for the night to start. I was served a drink early on but I found out that this was the first cocktail listed on the menu, so what was the point of arriving early?

Maybe they said 6.30 to ensure everyone arrived on time and that things would get off to a smooth start. Good idea but punctual people like me were left waiting around, fiddling with the cutlery on the table.

The staff were very polite and formally dressed in smart shirts and grey bow ties. The bartender was helpful and continued to tell me the ingredients of each cocktail. One waiter kept ensuring I had enough to drink throughout the whole night… although I did feel a bit cheeky ordering tap water rather than sparkling or fresh spring.

Soon enough our first course appeared.

‘Sandwiches’: chicken and lettuce, LBLT, cheese and pickle with Lady Luck Cocktail.

I wouldn’t call them sandwiches, more like dainty layered crackers. Three were placed on a slate board in front of me. First up was the goat’s cheese biscuit with homemade pickle, which melted in my mouth. The pickle was sweet, complementing the cheese flavour brilliantly.

Next was a tiny layering of chicken and lettuce, just smaller than a die. I gobbled it up in one and enjoyed it. The last morsel was composed of lamb, bacon, lettuce and tomato. The layers were precise and bursting with taste. The tomato was soaked in tea to accentuate the tang and the lamb was rich and succulent. I regret scoffing them in three swift bites, but each left an imprint on me. I wanted to approach the manager like Oliver Twist and beg, ‘More please sir!’

Summer is coming: Salad of asparagus feta, pea, watercress and burnt cucumber mayonnaise with Goodbye Spring Cocktail.

The cocktail comprised prosecco, gin, syrup and blueberries and was served in a tall, elegant glass. It was a good mix of dry and sweet and gave me a tantalising sense of what was to come.

The presentation of the salad was done with the utmost care and precision. Peas were dotted here and there between slices of asparagus and chunks of feta cheese. Purple flowers were on top to garnish with squirts of the burnt cucumber mayonnaise lining the edges. As someone who has always hated peas, I wasn’t too fond of this course, but I can still say that it gave me a very clear and fresh palate afterwards.

The cocktail, made with cucumber, gin and sparkling water, was the ultimate partner for this spring-themed main. It was fragrant and gave me images of sitting on a freshly cut lawn somewhere with the sun beating down.

Parfait spiced pears, savoury granola with Pearshaped Cocktail.

The parfait was served in an espresso cup with a single crouton on the side. The drink came in a large patterned tumbler with plenty of ice and a dried apple slice. This was made with cherry brandy, pear vodka, cloudy apple juice and an egg white. The parfait was beautiful. The granola had a slight crunch on top and underneath was creamy and sweet. The flavour grew in intensity with each mouthful. I’d have appreciated more than one crouton as, although the parfait was gorgeous, more substance was required.

Served in a large Martini glass with an orange to garnish, the Violet Supernova was made of Midori lemon liqueur, orange liqueur and prosecco. Unlike the name suggests, the drink was deep green in colour. It was very sweet and syrupy although after a few sips I had to put it down.

Cod with brassicas, cured fillet, broccoli fondant and puree, pickled cauliflower and purple potato with Violet Supernova.

Why? I foolishly hadn’t eaten much all day before all this drinking. So when the cod came out, I was relieved. It was a thick, juicy fillet that nonetheless crumbled apart subtly. It worked well with the broccoli puree. The purple potato was also scrumptious. I’ve never eaten one before but it wasn’t too different from the ordinary potatoes in my fridge.

Classiness going out of the window, I ate this course up in a desperate attempt to soak up the alcohol in my stomach.

Belly of pork, braised for 1 day, rolled ham hock, tea-bagged prunes, celeriac puree and pickled apple with Smoked Cigar cocktail.

 

The pork was tender and abundant with flavour, and was probably the best I have tasted. I ate it with the pickled apple and quickly went onto the ham hock, wrapped in cabbage. It too was devoured in seconds. It was good to finally have some substance in me. I left the tea-bagged prunes as I wasn’t too sure what the chef had done to them. The cocktail, mainly whisky-based, wasn’t to my liking as I’m not too fond of anything over 40% ABV, and I’d started to go dizzy. Even though the cocktails had half the amount of alcohol in them as usual, I still think that maybe a tasting size would have been better, rather than seven large glasses.

Although others didn’t seem to mind so much so maybe it’s my fault for being such a lightweight.

Now time for dessert. Once again the presentation was impeccable with neatly arranged rhubarb, a dollop of panna cotta and pink flowers. But this was one concoction I couldn’t get behind. The courses before were all brilliant, with an explosion of flavours that complemented one another to perfection. It was as if the chef had formed some sort of mathematical equation to make the ultimate taste palette. But this time, sorry Monty’s, I wasn’t won over.

Crossover goat’s cheese panna cotta, rhubarb, hazelnut crumble with a hazelnut Martini.

Other people seemed to enjoy it but cheese and rhubarb don’t mix, not in my opinion anyway. I managed a mouthful and another but I couldn’t go on. I tried to wash it down with the martini made of hazelnut liqueur, vodka and syrup but that wasn’t for me either. I can’t stand nuts. I did try. I thanked the waiter anyway and stuck to my glass of ice cold water, excited for the final course.

Now we’re talking. A gooey yellow dome sat in the middle of the plate with three baby meringues stuck on top. Next to it was a pile of salted caramel sprinkles with strawberries, just begging to be eaten. Well how could I refuse? The ‘pie’ or sticky lump had an unbelievable tangy lemon flavour. The meringue and caramel gave a worthwhile texture and sweetness to it – the perfect blend of fluffy, crunchy, sweet and sour. Once again the cocktail finished the course with rhubarb, ginger gin, lime and sugar. It was a drink that mimicked the dessert’s tanginess and sweetness, ending the night on a fantastic, lasting note.

Lemon meringue pie with salted caramel and rhubarb sours cocktail.

Gourmet food has never been to my liking for obvious reasons. The courses are too small, sometimes the flavours don’t complement one another and there is always one ingredient that doesn’t seem to fit. Yet Monty’s overcame all those issues. Sure, there were a few courses that didn’t take my fancy and there was too much alcohol for food, but it didn’t take away the magic from the evening.

Monty’s is a beautiful place to go and the tasting session was still an experience. The flavours flourished on my tongue like nothing else and the staff made me feel warm and welcome. Next time, I’ll eat a little beforehand, to soak up the booze!

Photography by Emily Priest.

Consiglio Cittadino: A Dantean Journey Through Portsmouth City Council

By Simon Sykes

 

At one point some way along our path in life, I woke in Verge’s place,

Amongst the dark wood, within the city, a wilderness, harsh and brute.

Verge, having saved me from wolf or leopard; I forget – at first mute, then spoke;

‘Tea?’  I replied only to provoke his wise commentary;

‘We record our gains willingly, until the hour that leads to loss;

Then every single thought is yoked on tears and sadness!’

He handed me my tea; ‘I believe you’re right, my man.’

Some time lapsed as we both considered the exchange. Then;

‘I have to go to the Council…miseria ‘. He shifted his frame.

‘Countless attempts through trial and costly error to restore

The simple antique drainage!

They send a poor incumbent; he fails; another comes; he fails better…

Countless others follow, failing, complaining

Of money, of parts, and then of leaders; then of fear, then of apathy;

Whilst I complain simply of a nauseous marsh about my own abode!’

He breathes deeply and hears that shrill cry;

‘Did you not once know that place?’

‘Something of it.’ My sombre retch unravels; ‘Why seek such grief and harm?’

It’s a sore waste to climb that ravine… Why should we climb?’

I looked outside as Verge contemplated an axe falling, and crouched low;

‘Beatrice! She had her say and in tears she turned her eyes away.

And so unwanting every want, and so altering all at every altering thought.

‘Though entrammelled on the hill, he must free himself from fear!’

Verge swings upward; ‘There is another road. You should follow and I shall guide.

You will see those souls.’ The prospect of it sickens the Guide even.

‘I have seen those souls already and dread the sight again.

They live in fire, content only to hope…’ I protested.

Verge made to move and I, unable to refuse, stood ready to come behind…

‘We’ll listen to the end … and then.’

As with all plans and projects in harness – and as with Truth and Beauty,

And the Love that lingers – and their seeking and adoration; we lingered longer still.

Verge spoke then; ‘If we were to journey…imagine…

Finish your tea, then we should go.’

 

 

Dawn long gone, preparing as for war, we took the deep and savage road,

We passed the empty foreclosed premises,

Laid waste and ravaged by clumsy, counting, ideologue.

Then the vast retail deserts of miles of valueless nothing.

We approached the concrete ravine; Verge stopped as in dread.

‘Look at me hard’, I said. ‘Am I in spirit strong enough?’

He mused; ‘a single Will inspires us!

See the Sistema in motion; to and for the citizens?

It snuffs out the living wits of men.’

We moved toward the summit doors; I muttered out the words inscribed thus:

“Welcome to YOUR Council”. ‘What does that mean?’ I shiver;

Niente!’, spoke Verge, ‘you read it wrongly; see the dark tones!  Listen !’

“Per me si va ne la città dolente

per me si va ne l’etterno dolore

per me si va tra la perduta gente

Dinanzi a me non fuor cose create se non etterne, e io etterno duro

Through me you go to a city of grief

through me to everlasting pain

through me to pass among lost souls

Nothing till I was made was made and I endure eternally…

 

Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate

Abandon all hope as you enter…”

 

‘Good grief,’ I whisper, my head tight-bound in confusion.

‘Here we are all – now among the souls who have lost the good that intellect desires to win.’

Verge placed his hand on my own shoulder, and set me on in.

There, discordant tones, harsh accents of horror, tormented words, the twang of rage, Strident voices – the sound of smacking hands;

The foyer, large and dim with swirling sand it seemed…

The mob, the citizenry, the baleful condition; the noisome choir,

A few I recognised.

Maintenance?’ my Guide enunciates amid the storm and torrent.

‘That way, Mate’, replies the deceiver demon with hot-coal eyes.

He swept all in and struck at any dawdler with his oar.

We assimilate to the lift. ‘This will only give a callous impression of ascent,’ warns Verge.

‘The ascent is in fact a harsh contrariness – we descend in raw despair;

These are not Floors to perch upon; they are Circles that gallery another ravine.’

Everywhere, furrow after furrow of eternal bodies crouched in terminal light;

‘Let us not speak to them; look if you must, but pass them by!’

 

We exit to the deep stream that swept all in.

‘Wrong floor – circle, “Finanza”, “Informatica”, suggested Verge.

Thunder rolling heavily in our heads, we scanned each view.

‘Let us descend and enter this blind world.’ His face was pale.

‘It is the agony of those below that pale-paints my face.’

We skirt the circle peering into the space of those suspended there.

Seven gates and beyond, the seas of souls whose merit falls far short.

‘No one here has ever been redeemed…Brutus, Lucrecia, the Sultan Saladin,

Entire city states, ‘so spoke Verge with bewildered stare.

‘No! Wrong circle… again! “Servizi Cliente”- Perhaps!’

 

We descend deeper to the bounds of a lesser space and therefore to greater suffering.

‘Watch as you enter, and in whom you trust,’ whispers my Guide.

‘Don’t be fooled by the wide threshold…’

 

We were, it seems, all but lost and when we enquired: “Maintenance”?

They said without conviction, these tortured souls;

‘There is no greater sorrow than, in times of misery,

You hold at heart the memory of happiness…further on you must go.’

Ha! “Communicazione”’.

 

We came to conscious mind at this new torment.

Here, beings flattened by battering rain…

‘This can’t be the place,’ spoke Verge; he rubbed his tattooed arm.

‘These are those whose mouths are full of hunger for the meal to come…

Those with some kind of pretence at heavy labours’.

“’Cultura”’?’ I spoke in shallow breath. My Guide arched a brow, ‘it’s possible…’

 

So on around the sour, revolting pit we seek and find again the lift.

Our new pallor born of retreating courage is unchecked,

Whilst ever downward we are confronted with hypocrisy’s guardian;

A Gorgon, a Medusa seeking revenge on Theseus’ raid.

‘Turn around! Your back to her!’  Verge spoke and made me turn,

His hands closed on my own as I shielded my eyes.

(All you whose minds are sound and sane, look hard at the veiled meaning beyond the curtain here…)

The Gorgon stepped over us and drove through a thousand ruined souls or more,

Scattering them against the multitude of uffizi doors,

Open like tomb covers, releasing cruel lamenting from within.

I look in horror at my Guide…

‘“Risorsi Umane”’, he mumbles out, ‘“Contenzioso” to boot; for all their sins,

The Master Heretics; the Tyrants’ right hand;

They live between the torments and the high battlements’.

 

We circle the curve around that labyrinth, our own fury gnawing us inwardly away.

Down to a chamber where two factions; or perhaps more,

Holler in numbers greater than elsewhere,

Sending great boulders of insult against each other.

Cry and counter-cry across the dismal curve to either end,

(The diametric points), screaming shamefully insulting chants and back again;

‘What the fuck is this?’ I ventured to my guide. And Verge explained as if remotely:

‘Without exception, all of these have squinting minds

And can bear no check or measure on expense.

In this lot, avarice displays its worst.’

‘I should recognise a few’, I say.

‘Maybe…their mad sprees or febrile hoardings have wrung out of them

Any beauty in the world and brought them straight to this ugly brawl.’

Counsellors’ I venture further.

Consiglieri; you know it – but greater pain than this awaits… so perhaps…’

 

By the gorge on the brink of the sheer escarpment we find,

A stink arises from an utmost depth; we huddle together by the lid.

‘Best go down slowly; accustom ourselves to this grim belch.’

Each step is crammed with the spirits of the damned.

Deceit, Lies, Fraud, Betrayal of all that is dear – and the Traitors, every one.

‘This was never a place other than vile. Here the petty officials and their kind

Pay for every corrupt transaction made to the human detriment, in time.

Percentage thirty-niners intertwined by all that we abhor…

Depths plumbed in blood and spew and cowardice of scales unfathomed.

Fix your eyes ahead across the parapets’. We are near.

 

A great contraption had appeared; Sistema Infernale; I knew it from before.

Creatures were arranged therein, ice-cold; some heads raised,

Some soles aloft and grief must proceed from them all.

And centrally, a fallen body, not just two-faced, but three,

The rightward dirty yellow, the leftward the colour of the Nile’s source,

All conjoined; ice-bound…controlling All.

Each mouth, chews eternally on those above it; the centre jaw devours Judas Iscariot,

The sides take Cassius and Brutus – and any prominent traitor,

Responsible and accountable; cowardly and brutal in their ambitions;

Those who lived vindictively as they heaped on only pain and misery.

We cower in awe, our minds skewered in recognition;

Between the machinations, a Traitor true cries out;

‘What business do you have here!

You who stand firm and fight, you who twist and kick out;

So, what business?’

Verge emerges, I behind him, to confront the Inquisitor;

‘I have a “Maintenance” matter…it pivots in universal standstill…it…’

‘Wrong place! “Alloggio” here,Housing” here, idiota!

Can you not see the signs so clear,

Behind the tides of misery and sorrow and sulphurous haze?

You need to crawl to another place! Begone!’

 

We’ve seen it all; this condemnation upon damnation.

Here the perpetual and eternal merge as one to show the way.

Verge looks about him in awe, ‘it’s time to quit this place.’

We slither through the centre grasping the stenched and icy sides,

We struggle back along a cruelly hard road.

I sway downward in confusion and in fearful cold to the Fire Escape I fall,

But Verge invokes me upward.

There, empty, void; a rank nothingness now set out before us.

‘How can this be?’ I stammer.

In answer, my Guide trudging on and upward, snorts derision…’Lunchtime is all’.

Moving in opposition to the river of oblivion, we reach the outside and touch the sky.

‘What a waste of time, precious time…until the next time and the next.’

 

Intervallo

 

Picture used according to a Creative Commons licence. By Wolfgang Sauber (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons