Sunday, October 28, 2007

Into the Plateau

Crete is the largest of the Greek islands. This year my wife and I visited it for the first time. I used to think of Crete as being a very boring sun - scorched rocky place where few people in their right minds would want to visit - let alone spend a holiday. If you look at a map of just the outline of Crete, it looks like it should be rocky - it is a rather odd elongated shape with lots of sharp bits jutting off of it. A sea monster would stab itself on it if it got too close. There looks to be much scope for foundered and long-sunken ships. It is apparent that whatever route nature chose to bring to birth this rough honed island - it must have been violent. My negative leanings towards the island changed last year when we vacationed in Rhodes and met people who encouraged us to visit Crete. So we did.

I was stunned by the soaring grandeur of the place. It is a land of high mountains, steep gorges, hair-pin bends, vertigo inducing drops, valleys, canyons, beaches, beautiful towns and villages, friendly people, fantastic weather, ancient ruins, tradition, Greek Orthodoxy and good beer. In other words, I liked it and reprising General Douglas MacArthur - "I shall return" - but for an entirely different reason!

We hired a Jeep committing ourselves to explore deep into the interior and as far away from the tourist infested resorts as possible. We, of course, were not tourists ourselves, but explorers in a strange land! Studying the map, I spotted a winding road pretending to be a snake leading from Malia up into the mountains and finishing at the Lassithi Plateau. This looked like a day's adventure with the promise of "interesting" driving, lots of scenery and a good place to take lots of inspiring photographs. When I travel, I tend to photograph anything in sight that looks in the least bit interesting. Every day in Crete, I found lots of subjects which met this criterion, so my camera was kept busy, and it's going to take an age to sort out all the resulting images.

After driving upwards on the seemingly endless mountain road, becoming more and more mesmerized by the view the higher we got, we stopped off at the Ambelos Pass. The wind was howling around us whipping up dust which stung the eyes. It was reminiscent of the scene in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" where investigators are looking over a squadron of WWII aircraft which turned up in the wind-swept desert having disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle. The wind was like that. The reason for stopping was the line of seemingly giant ruined windmills guarding the entrance to the plateau from the slopes above. To a distant eye they formed a "v". In their former lives before becoming ruins, they were used for grinding wheat and barley to feed the villages of Lassithi. In all, there were 26 of them, only today they stand in a variety of stages of ruination. They stand like remnant sentinels at the entrance to the plateau.

Around the corner there were many tourist coaches pulled up at the gift shop and restaurant. Some people, though not many, had ventured up the adjacent slope to explore the ruins. I ventured up myself to satisfy my curious urgings, especially where ruins and echoes of the past are concerned. My wife decided to stay down and looked around the gift shop in my absence. I half ran and jumped up the rocky shale like one half my age and with the agility of a kri kri goat. I came to a desolate spot at the top windmill, above the hubbub of the crowds below with the breeze, tamed by the expanded space of altitude, my whispering companion.

This was a spot which had been encroached upon by twentieth century technology, there being microwave receiving and transmitting masts with supporting cables and power lines fanning and criss-crossing like the creation of a spider on a bad night. On the ground amongst the rocks, there lay strewn about many modules of redundant electronic hardware. Clearly, it was easier for the visiting technicians to litter the landscape with this high tech junk than to take it away and recycle it.

I surveyed the scene. Looking south I observed the road which spat out its final bends before leveling out into a circular route around the Plateau. The Plateau stretched out ahead of me, enticing in its appeal, and home to 16 villages - its fertile flat landscape a direct contrast to the surrounding barren mountains. But for the moment, it was time to stand in wonder, like Moses on the mountain top peering over into the Promised Land. After a little while, responding to my innate yearnings to take photographs, I explored each windmill in turn as I made my way back to the windy base of the path where my wife was patiently waiting for me. We drove into the Plateau.

We chose to travel anti-clockwise around the plateau, though that is irrelevant as either direction brings you back to the same spot. The plateau is some 860 meters above sea level, though you wouldn't know it, but for the dramatic journey up to it. Years ago there were around 10,000 windmills spread across the plain pumping up water to irrigate the farmland. We never saw one windmill, only the odd one which had been deliberately constructed near various tavernas, their purpose not to pump water, but to attract the tourists and boost the local income. The locals use diesel powered pumps today instead of windmills. Windmills look a lot nicer - but then that’s progress! We passed through a number of villages. They were all unspoiled and traditional rural Greek. Compared to ourselves and our lifestyle, there seemed to be a lot of poverty; we seemed to be stuck in a kind of time warp. In one of the villages I parked up and got out to take some photographs of the local architecture when I spotted an old lady in black, a widow - on a donkey. I snatched the camera to my eye - but deleted the resulting shot - out of focus - snatch shots are always hit and miss, and I missed on this one! The people of the plain have suffered a lot historically. Over the past few hundred years, Lassithi has suffered under two foreign invasions, first from the Venetians from the 13th to the 17th centuries. That was bad enough, but paled into insignificance compared to the utter savagery and brutality they endured under the Turkish occupation during the 19th century. The plateau was unprotected as the resistance fighters were fighting elsewhere on the island. When the Turkish army set foot in the plateau they utterly destroyed and massacred everyone - women, children, cripples and of course, the men. Cutting off the heads from the corpses they constructed a pyramid from them in one of the villages. No doubt they thought they had done a good day's work.

The plain itself had a hypnotic effect upon me. Having just driven through such rugged and steep terrain, the sheer billiard table flatness of the landscape inexorably drew my attention - though not too much, as I didn't want to crash the car! I was particularly interested in visiting the Dictean Cave. This is a cave in the side of the Dikte Mountain above the village of Psychro. According to tradition and legend, it was in this cave that Rea gave birth to Zeus, father of the Gods and men. There are various myths about Zeus, and one asserts that he lived as a man and died, and was buried in Crete. This was anathema and blasphemy to many in the ancient world and this version of the story of Zeus caused much indignation against the Cretans. A Cretan philosopher called Epimenedes lived around 600BC. He wrote a poem in honour of Zeus in which he states:

"They fashioned a tomb for thee, O holy and high one
The Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies!
But thou art not dead: thou livest and abidest forever,
For in thee we live and move and have our being."

I have to admit, the last 2 lines of this stanza have definite biblical overtones. Talking of the Bible, in the Apostle Paul's letter to Titus, who he left to lead and nurture the church in Crete, he quoted Epimenedes thus:

"Even one of their own prophets has said, "Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons." This testimony is true. Therefore, rebuke them sharply…….."

In Paul's case, he was not concerned about the memory of Zeus, but rather a contamination by the "circumcision party" (don't ask!) of the gospel message he was trying to promote. I find it interesting that he should actually quote Epimenedes as the ancient philosopher's concern was for Zeus - whom to Paul would have in any case been a complete falsehood. The parallel here is of course, that they were both trying to protect what they saw as a divine truth and Paul quotes him, in my opinion, because it was convenient to help make his case.

Staying with Epimenedes for a moment, we are presented with a problem of logic. This is because he himself was a Cretan. Therefore, if he states "All Cretans are liars" - and he himself was a Cretan, then the converse must be true in that all Cretans must tell the truth! This is what has become known as the "Epimenedes Paradox." Paul either ignored this, or it had never occurred to him! As for Epimenedes himself, all his writings have disappeared. We only have glimpses of his writings through the writings of others. It's a shame he didn't have the Internet!

We drove into Psychro village and spotted the sign up to the cave. We turned up the steep track until we came to a dead end in the form of a car park with the local tavernas off to one side. Guess what! The cave was shut so we never got to see it! ("I shall return")……… There was no notice at the bottom of the road to warn you that it was shut on this particular day. The logic I guess was that the locals wanted all the tourists to go piling up there and drown their sorrows or comfort-eat when they discovered that the cave was shut. We comfort - ate a couple of really nice, big ice-creams - lovely!

It was easy to find the right turning to leave the plain. The give away was the sighting of the V-shaped pass and it's sentinel windmills. I shall return.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Creative stirrings

Back in 1970, I was living in Singapore. I was then, and still am a very keen photographer - in fact I can't stop doing it! It was here that I bought myself a Pentax Spotmatic, a through-the-lens-metering 35 mm single lens reflex camera. A friend of mine - Gary - had just bought himself an all black model. I tried to buy one but was unfortunate as they'd sold out, so I bought a standard chrome version. Shade aside, it performed the same, and Gary and I had many happy excursions looking for things upon which to exercise our creative photographic urgings.

One of the things I love about the medium is that it is very individual to the person doing it. This is because we are all different and see things in our own unique way. It’s a bit like modern art. I might see something in an avant-garde picture which fires me, but not you. How often have you looked at a picture or image of some sort and thought "that's a load of crap" while others have stood by, entranced by the very thing you find a complete turn off. Sometimes it helps a person's appreciation of an image to know something about it - how it came to be taken, its history, the photographer's intentions. Photographs are human creations. They come from the mind of the photographer. Yes, the subject has to be there in front of the camera to be photographed, but it is the way - the approach- the photographer takes in making the image which makes the final result so unique - so much a part of the photographer's psyche, which is often lost on the second-party beholder. I am being somewhat of a purist here, in that I am talking about photography as a creative, rather than a recording, or snapshot medium. When we go on holiday and take photographs of the kids on the beach, that’s what I mean by a recording medium - it's simply that - a record, snapshot, of the kids at that moment - or the hotel we stayed in - or the pub we drank in etc…. When a photographer is using a camera creatively, he (or she) is trying to view things in a more thoughtful way. He will look at the subject from different angles with a certain "feeling" in mind he is trying to capture. The photographer may spend, therefore, a seemingly large amount of time just peering through the viewfinder from many different angles and perspectives until he finds the framing which comes closest to what he is trying to capture. He might, and probably will, take several different shots from slightly differing views in order to compare the results later at leisure before making the final selection. I am both a creative and snapshot photographer. Both have value and neither is to be decried.

On a certain day in 1970, in Singapore, Gary and I were out looking for subjects to photograph. We made our way down a narrow road, crowded in and darkened by shading palm trees. The road was trying to be a track, and nearly succeeding. We didn't know where it was leading us. To us it was totally unexplored territory. Presently we came out into a very large, wide expanse of agricultural land. It was land in waiting for the farmer to decide what to do with it. It was in a kind of limbo. It wasn't sure what to do with itself or what it wanted to be. There was lots of grassy and pointy starburst like plants eking an existence in the heated landscape. Most of it, however, was lightly tilled, and stretching off from its edge to the far horizon, with just the odd far off hill peering over the distant enclosing fauna as if to remind us that there was more to this land than the flat expanse framing us. I was feeling quite entranced by the place. It was lonely. I like lonely places. There was only Gary and myself around. No one else existed. The place had a bit of a dream like quality about it. I knew I wanted to come away with a memorable photo which enshrined some of my feeling and innermost impression of the nature of the place. I spotted, lying in the soil, an old piece of iron-work, probably part of the sub frame of a long dead vehicle.

It lay like a rusting skeleton, with elements of stag beetle about it. It reared up out of the ground looking as if it had been there since the land was created. It was part of the landscape and belonged to it. Its functioning days were over - but not quite. It had found a new function in that it gave me a sense of focus to capture something of this silent, lonely landscape. I walked around it considering how I should - if I should - make use of it. Eventually I was drawn to a wide angle view looking along the structure into the surrounding countryside. I noticed that nearby there was an abandoned agricultural tilling wheel, or some such implement in the near distance. I felt it important to include this in the frame as an indicator of the past - and probable future use - of the land. I framed this within an aperture of the metal structure. It is small and does not immediately reveal itself, but lurks surreptitiously to reward the enquiring eye. The frame points out to a frozen timelessness which could go on into a distant future unchanging like lunar soil, defying the intuition which knows better.

I processed the film in Ilford ID -11 developer at a higher temperature than the standard 20 degrees centigrade, due to the fact that tap water flowed out of the faucet at a considerably higher temperature. The development time was adjusted downwards accordingly. I liked the final image, but felt it lacked impact as a small print. I blew it up to twenty inches by sixteen and printed it on Kodak Bromesco paper. Bromesco had a certain magical quality about it. I particularly delighted in the way when it was in the developer the image had a slightly lack-lustre appearance, but once the print was placed under the fix, a sort of "fog" seemed to clear from the surface of the image and the photograph sprang to life, like some life-giving force had suddenly been injected into it. I liked the final result and I displayed it on the wall above my bed, along with other images. I still like it, and it still speaks to me. I do sometimes wander if the land on the image has changed much. My suspicion is that it is now all built upon with high-rise flats which have been built since that day in 1970, to house the ever burgeoning population of Singapore which has multiplied itself many times over since the years I lived there. Everything changes, and surely must - but the spirit of the image lingers on.

Sunday, October 07, 2007


I was deeply shocked and troubled by the death of Colin McRae. More than that, I felt a sense of emptiness, as if a sudden dark void had entered somewhere in the depths of my being.

I have never met Colin. I have never seen Colin except on TV. I am someone who while not a fan of rallying, likes rallying. Motor sport to me has always been something pretty boring. That ceased to be the case when my youngest son encouraged me to watch some of the World Rally Championships on the box. I found it both exciting and thrilling. Colin could easily have been one who drove in endless circuits around a Grand Prix track. Instead he chose the varied challenge of hairpin bends on mountain roads, forest roads, driving through snow and ice, taking off and flying from the crests of hills, crashing off sharp bends, rolling over and over, smashing up cars in a gladiatorial struggle to be at the top of the podium, showing no fear but only a steel determination to win through. He was - and is a hero.

It is because of Colin that I drive a Subaru. Let me explain. I used to drive a Rover. That in itself is a good enough reason to change to a Subaru! However, that is not how it came about. My Rover had served me well for some years but was now giving me more trouble than it was worth. On the day I bought the Subaru, I hadn't planned to buy a car - let alone even look at a new car. I took my wife and my youngest son ten pin bowling in St Neots. It's what I do. I bowl. After bowling, we were at a bit of a loose end and it seemed too early to go home. There was a Rover garage nearby and so we found ourselves looking at cars. The bloke in the garage was trying to flog me a series 2 1.4 litre and I wasn't terribly impressed. My son suggested we take a ride out to Marshals in Cambridge, near the airport and look at cars there, so that is what we did. While I was looking at used Rovers, my son and wife were not looking at Rovers. They were looking at an Impreza. It wasn't a turbo model, but an Impreza nonetheless. Encouraged by my son, I took it for a test drive, liked it and bought it. Since then, I have moved onto a moody black Subaru Turbo Forester which is a real mean machine. I love it.

My son would not have pushed me in the Subaru direction were it not for his devotion to Colin who did a lot to enhance Subaru in the public eye by winning the World Championship in one. After that he went on to drive for Ford, but never became as indelibly linked with a brand as he did with Subaru.

My son wants to be a rally driver. He has entered competitions to win a rallying scholarship, and did well to get near the final stages. He is an excellent driver and frightens the living crap out of me when he takes me out for spins around the country lanes of Scotland where he now lives. He covets the dream of being a rally driver himself. I believe he will. He has fleetingly met Colin when he was helping out at a rally and was asked to take something to Colin who was sat in his car at the time. It was a moment he will never forget.

So here's to Colin. An inspiration, role model, sportsman, brave, fearless, determined, champion, hero, "Flower of Scotland". May his memory live for ever.