Our Travel blog
At the beginning of the last blog entry I described, in a somewhat flamboyant way, a sunny day at the castle. True to form it has since rained almost continuously. Mull enjoys, and I realise that’s a debatable term, around 4500 mm (177 inches) of rain a year. In an average year it rains somewhere on Mull for 283 days. That’s…well it’s a lot of rain. It is windy too, which combines to create horizontal precipitation of a curiously penetrative nature. Mull does though have one trick up its geographical sleeve though. Due to the mountainous nature of its centre the weather can be very local. It’s not unknown for us to leave home in fine weather and arrive 10 minutes later at work in driving rain. While we’ve battened down the hatches our neighbours back in Lochdon are slathering on the sun-cream and wondering if 10 am is too early for a G&T.
We don’t let the weather spoil it though. Thanks to the Gulf Stream the climate is mild and on a day off we can usually head for a part of the island that isn’t half submerged. On one such jaunt we took ourselves to the north of Mull to walk up to Crater Loch; which, as you’ve probably guessed is a loch in the crater of a long extinct volcano. It’s about 60 million years since its last eruption so we felt reasonably safe. We were able to walk around the rim and enjoy spectacular views across the northern end of the island while speculating on the possibilities of the cone being hollowed out as the lair of a supervillain. My instinct is to now write a background about the conditions that created it but geology has its own language in which words like denudation and diagenesis feature heavily. I’m working my way through the book Mull in the Making by Rosalind Jones at the moment. According to Rosalind’s introduction it’s intended for ‘the layman and interested amateur geologist’. I think that was the last sentence that I fully understood. In contrast many of the walking guides to Mull are delightfully vague, written by enthusiastic amateurs where precision and detail take a back seat to flowery descriptions and the assumption that you instinctively understand, for example, how far to walk uphill before the gate on the left that you have to pass through to avoid becoming sport for the bull or a red splash on the beach after a lively tussle with gravity. The route to and from the Loch was simple enough though even if our guide book suggested we start from a place that doesn’t exist.
On our return journey we passed a family group cycling their merry way along the narrow undulating road. We see a lot of cyclists here on Mull enjoying the fresh air and healthy exercise. Actually I very much suspect none of them are enjoying themselves if only they’d admit it. They are inevitably led by a father who last mounted a bicycle when he was 15 years and 5 stone younger. The kids just wanted to go to Centre-Parcs and think cycling is boring, Mull is boring, mum and dad are boring and if dad points out one more fucking eagle they’ll insert it where its beak will make that saddle he keeps moaning about a lot less comfortable and mum is wondering why she’s ended up carrying three rucksacks and how she let herself be talked into this when Portugal was cheaper, hotter, flatter and had inexpensive wine on tap.
Older children and family holidays don’t always mix but we were fortunate though to have my two adult children visit for a couple of days. We picked them up in Glasgow after we’d been ‘south’ for a wedding and to see Alison’s parents. Her son turned up to surprise her which just made a perfect reunion even better. The wedding went well, we had glorious sunshine which meant we were the only couple to turn up carrying rucksacks full of coats, waterproof trousers and sweaters, and the reception was a fabulous affair in stunning surroundings.
After falling for the local trick of sitting on the portion of the train that doesn’t leave the station we met my two half an hour after the designated time and proceeded to fling them around every tight bend on the road to Oban. The ferry headed into a glorious golden sunset as we sailed over to Mull, with plumes of cotton-wool cloud rising like smoke from the peaks. Back on the island we introduced them to some of the delights that Mull has to offer, including the castle, Tobermory, a drive around stunning Loch na Keal, Whitetail Gin and 17 different types of rain. We took them on a walk to the abandoned settlement of Shiaba in the sunshine and had an encounter with a hissing adder which we narrowly avoided stepping on. Their visit culminated with a home cooked veggie chilli in Mavis and, possibly her personal highlight, Alison winning at cards.
It was a brief interlude, just 5 days and 1000 miles before we were back at work and my two boarded the ferry to make their way home by boat, train and plane. However old they are, however grown up, children are our most precious gift; brief lives in the cycle of the universe that we nurture and give to the world where we hope they’ll make a difference, live contented lives and leave the earth a tiny bit better off than when they arrived. All in a world where we face political uncertainty and the spectre of terrorism and war hovers. Whatever the cost in life in 2017, where a pop concert can be considered a legitimate target, where the bongs of a big clock are more newsworthy than ongoing atrocities in Syria and Palestine (to name just 2 examples) nothing these days can compare to the slaughter of WW2. Compared to the 1940’s we must remember that our children here in the West are still comparatively safe.
In the Spring of 1944 port cities in the South of France came under heavy bombardment from Allied Forces in preparation for the planned invasion of Southern France. Marseilles, Lyon, Grenoble and Lyon were all hit hard and on 11th March 1944 B-52 Liberator bombers and B-17 Flying Fortresses of the US 15th Airforce attacked Toulon. A bomb passed through the top deck of U-410, a German V11C submarine under repair in Missiessy dry dock. The ensuing fire led to the entire dock being flooded and the submarine put out of action. It was eventually captured by Free French forces. No personnel were aboard at the time and all 53 crew members survived.
Before putting into dock for repairs U-410 had been in action in the Mediterranean where, on the 18th February she fired 2 torpedoes 16 minutes apart, hitting and sinking HMS Penelope. Only 206 of the 415 crew survived. Capt. G.D. Belben, DSO, DSC, AM, RN went down with The Penelope, as did Able Seaman Walter Henry Canham. At just 20 years old Walter was my father’s elder brother, one of 3 boys and 2 girls that Walter (Snr) and Florence Canham raised in Tottenham amongst streets with names familiar to me from tales passed down by family.
HMS Penelope was in many ways a remarkable ship, or at least it was remarkable that she survived as long as she did. An Arethusa class light cruiser she took part in many successful operations during WW2, although judging by the amount of damage she sustained one is tempted to conclude that her main function was to draw enemy fire. Of course in war one expects to come under attack but the Penelope seemed unusually attractive to enemy ordinance. For example during sustained air attacks by The Luftwaffe in March 1942 she was holed both forward and aft by near-misses. Once in dock in Malta the attacks didn’t cease, to the point where there was so much shrapnel damage she gained the nickname HMS Pepperpot. The crew gallantly plugged these with long wooden pegs so that she could sail to safer harbour in Gibraltar earning her the temporary nickname ‘HMS Porcupine’ for a while. HMS Penelope had been involved in, and inevitably damaged at, the second battle of Sirte, an engagement with the Italian Navy off The Gulf of Sirte in NW Libya.
The author of the Horatio Hornblower series of books, C. S. Forester dedicated his 1943 book The Ship, "with the deepest respect to the officers and crew of HMS Penelope". Although it is a work of fiction set on a light cruiser the plot roughly follows events of the Second Battle of Sirte. Forester was aboard The Penelope at the time of the engagement at the invitation of the Royal Navy command; The Ship may have been written expressly for the Navy as propaganda but it is also a superb evocation of the community of men that made up a WW2 Warship.
Walter was completely unknown to me; a name mentioned with reverence on occasions at family functions and as a name on The Kings Scroll that hung on the wall of my Grandmothers flat, declaring deepest regrets at his passing and signed on behalf of the King. Its peculiar to reflect now that so many lives were sacrificed, so many lost fighting against the axis powers, the fascist states that would willingly commit genocide for no other reason than their own economic success, where to be ‘different’, to think for yourself, to belong to a religion or race that the state disapproved of, to have a disability or to be bold enough to defend those who did meant death. Walter was just one person out of 60 million who were victims of WW2 in one way or another. One precious life, nurtured, worried over, the cause of laughter and tears, playing with his younger brothers and sisters, going off to school full of hopes and dreams, only to be lost at sea, barely an adult, sacrificed in his prime. As were most of the young men he faced in battle, many of whom were recruits and not necessarily sympathetic to the Nazi cause. The captain of U-410 was just 25 years old. That’s war; indiscriminate culling of a generation on behalf of politicians, warped ideologies and rampant nationalism…And yes, sometimes we have to fight back to resist those who would do us or their own people harm.
That’s why I believe we must resist fascists wherever we see them. Better a scuffle over a statue in Charlottesville now than bullets and bombs later. Better to call out and resist the extreme right wing trying to stand for Parliament, the very hub of our democracy, than risk them gaining a stronghold. Far preferable to stand up for women’s rights, Pride and religious tolerance than let repressive cultures gain a stronghold. Hitler didn’t rise to power on a manifesto of torture and inhumanity. The conditions were created for later atrocities by gradually eroding liberties, by dehumanising and scapegoating people, by blaming sections of society for all the ills of the state and controlling popular opinion through the press. Resisting totalitarian power may just prevent more of those scrolls on the wall of widows, mothers and siblings that cast a shadow that no amount of sunlight can remove.
 So I’m told; I’ve yet to read it but its next on my list.
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