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GP 5 November 2008: Familiar Journeys around the Sun

Comrades. We’ve said before that the late Stephen Ambrose, a great and popular historian, was at his best in Comrades, Brothers, Fathers, Heroes, Sons, Pals. He is best known for his work on Eisenhower and the Battle of the Bulge, and for his work on the National D-Day Museum. But we like best this little volume on male friendship. We think it is a theme that is really at the heart of all his work.

Friends, Mates, Chums. As time goes by, the penumbra of friendship is what warms the cockles of the heart, even as the blood slows. It livens days that would otherwise be pedestrian. It provides chaps with whom you can discuss biases and sins—the number of warts growing ever more vast over time even if some churches provide a confessional where we try to wipe the slate clean—and with whom you can be a bit outrageous and yet know the bonds will never be severed.

Back in the days when Washington still worked and business still flourished, friendship was the elixir that made for laughter and led to deals where everybody wanted everybody to win. We ourselves have a friend or two hither and thither about the globe with whom we have been able to achieve common purpose, because we and they speak a common language, even though they may have a foreign tongue.

Rowing Round the Hebrides
. One such is Maxwell MacLeod. He is a rambunctious Scot, delightful writer, comical poet, worthy deerslayer, maybe a singer, and a comet who may drop out of the sky or one’s computer at any moment. We happened on each other because he wrote a lively death notice about a chum who passed away a few years back. His personality, even his work, makes us think of the electric English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose sprung rhythm took him to heights that Victorians rarely explored. The Times of London has rightly memorialized his recent trip around the Hebrides:

In 1777 a Highland minister called John MacLeod made an epic 100-mile journey, rowing himself in an open boat from the north of Skye to Fuinary, on the Morven Peninsula. He did so on the instructions of the Duke of Argyll, who wanted him to oust the Jacobites in Argyll through the power of prayer.

Some 230 years later the minister's direct descendant has successfully retraced his forebear's route by rowing through the Hebridean islands in an 18ft skiff, crossing large stretches of open sea.

Maxwell MacLeod, 56, set out on his sentimental journey in May and took four months to complete.

The only really touchy moment came at journey’s end when he turned on his motor and tried to look about, no longer a man with a purpose but just an aimless tourist:

“Pride comes before a fall,” he said. “I was motoring off the Torran rocks, off the southwest corner of Mull, when a gathering storm forced me to crash land in Balfour's Bay in Erraid, the very spot that David Balfour is supposed to have been shipwrecked on in Robert Louis Stevenson's book Kidnapped.

“I then spent two uncomfortable nights fighting hard to prevent my boat being smashed up on the rocks until two Welsh farmers arrived in sea canoes and helped me pull it up the beach to safety.”

The rowing trip itself was not that dramatic, a little boring perhaps, according to MacLeod. The surprise came from the marvelous wildlife he saw along the way—an otter here, sharks there,  seals, an orca and sundry birds, and perhaps most of all, the mackerel:

I suppose I have fished for mackeral in the Hebrides for most of the last fifty summers but I have never seen them in such profusion as I saw them this year, indeed mid July they reached such a density that I remember once thinking that although I was surrounded by shoals I would leave catching my dinner till later in the evening as I could rely on them still being there whenever I wanted them.

Obviously MacLeod was alone for much of his journey. Whether at sea, or hunting, or mixed up in a social event, he has a distance about him, an elusiveness born of having too much going on in his head. Certainly Captain Joshua Slocum, author and subject of Sailing Alone Around the World, did not have any more solitary moments than our MacLeod.

Walking out in Wales. Cedric Lumsdon has now flown the coop from England, making his home now in the Confederacy. Business school lecturer emeritus; consultant to an assortment of corporations, many American; occasional construction boss in Dubai; lover of wines; partaker of all sorts of game—he is a conversationalist for all seasons. 

Every year he meets up with a band of cricketeers, long-retired from the field, overtaken by age, and bruises, and changes in jobs, and travels that took them away from the field of play. Congregating at some new fine locale each year, they go out for a long walk, extended conversation, and eating and drink that is good enough to be talked about until their next get-together. This started 28 years ago, so they have been at it for a while. This year it was Wales. You can read about their doings in"Walking out in Wales." It is no surprise perhaps that a meal at the Walnut Tree seems to be an especial highlight:

That evening we took the taxi to an old inn out in the Welsh countryside. Quite a famous place in Welsh gastronomy. The Walnut Tree Inn. It was started in 1966 by an Italian Franco Taruschio and his Welsh wife. When he retired in 2001 it was one of the best eating establishments in the UK. Since then it fell on hard times. But in 2008 it was bought in a joint venture by William Griffiths, who runs the Angel in Abergavenny and Shaun Hill, one of my favorite cooks, who single handedly ran the Merchant House, a Michelin starred restaurant in Ludlow. Hill is a modest man who hates fuss and pomposity, and tries to give great food at a good price. It’s a warm unpretentious space: nice bar, big fire, good space between tables, calm but professional service—and the food! We all agreed the best we’d had all year. For the record I had calves brains in brown butter followed by wild duck and morels, then the cheese board. Delicious! About 28 pounds, or $56, but was so good.

We think it fair to say that, in all things, the English take their identity from some small pleasant group, and it is no different when they are out for an adventure. This was no splendid solitary walk, but a pilgrim’s progress, a processional where each, as in Chaucer, brings his own story to the walk. So imbued with strains of domesticity, it reminds one of the early English novels, or even of Angela Thirkell in our own century.

Many Suns Ago. With MacLeod and Lumsdon, we see most the value of ritual. Reaching back into history, MacLeod re-enacts the explorations of his ancestors. So many walks and 28 years later, Lumsdon crosses into Wales to take a familiar trip in peaks and valleys he has not traversed before. The geography is a little unfamiliar, but the habit is ingrained, making for a successful trip. Such rituals will probably become more important now in this century as we work our way through exotic territory when all the familiar sights in our economy, our government, our religions, in just about everything are destined to disappear.

P.S. Simon Hopkinson writes so nicely of the Walnut Tree Inn. His comments are even of some historical interest. English food used to be dreadful and now it is often quite good, even if not topflight. In our own experience, it is Italian influences since the war that have tamed the fiercesome things once put on English platters: in this case, Hopkinson rhapsodizes about Ann and Franco Taruschio. In the 18th century, the Duke of Newcastle carried on an intense diplomatic correspondence with the English ambassador in Paris, anxiously looking for a French cook to complete his household.

P.P.S. Perhaps the best show on television, Boston Legal, is in its last season. David Kelley combines immense buffoonery with reasonably serious discussion of some of the serious legal issues that face our society. But the show’s best moments feature the close friendship of senior partner Denny Crane and legal whiz Alan Shore.

P.P.P.S. A walk, rowing out in a boat, maybe a bicycle ride are the only ways to see a place. Perhaps a train ride’s not too bad. With fast autos and jet planes, we never see or hear a thing.  Aristotle, of course, was a Peripatetic which means his philosophic insight grew through walking.

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