Missing: Victorian Librarian

Somewhere high in the Austrian Alps there may lie the body of a librarian, for that is where Robert Proctor was last seen, at the head of the Taschach valley, on the morning of Sunday, 6 September 1903.

How could anyone resist an article with an opening sentence like that? The article, by C. J. Wright, entitled The Missing Librarian, appears in the latest issue (no.59) of Slightly Foxed, which subtitles itself ‘The Real Reader’s Quarterly’. If you have never read Slightly Foxed, or are not yet a subscriber… WHY EVER NOT? Of all the publications I subscribe to or have ever subscribed to, this is the only one – the only one – that I read, without fail, from cover to cover. It describes itself as:

The independent-minded quarterly that combines good looks, good writing and a personal approach. Slightly Foxed introduces its readers to books that are no longer new and fashionable but have lasting appeal. Good-humoured, unpretentious and a bit eccentric, it’s more like a well-read friend than a literary magazine.

And it is just what it says on the tin. It’s a constant source of discovery and delight. I used to think I would need to search out and read every single book its contributors write about, which would have proved a challenge when so many are now out of print. And yes, it has introduced me to lots of previously unknown books and writers I have since enjoyed. But that’s no longer essential: it’s often sufficient to eavesdrop on the enjoyment of the article writers, some of whom have indeed come to feel like fascinating friends. (If I have one small niggle about them, it’s that so many do seem to be the product of a private school, or at least a boarding school, education. But we can’t all be State-school kids, I suppose.)

And for this particular retired vicar, in whose breast still beats the heart of a librarian, how could I not be intrigued to read of a colleague who met such a mysterious fate over a century ago? According to Wikipedia, one of Proctor’s friends thought the missing librarian may have committed suicide up there above the Taschach valley. But C. J. Wright leaves the mystery much more open. Perhaps in the far future, a few thousand years hence, his frozen and preserved body will be found, like that of Ötzi the Ice Man, and the mystery of his death be finally resolved. But perhaps it’s more fun that it’s not.

Songs someone should have written #1

Driving in the car yesterday I find myself asking Alison: ‘So what is that song that goes
“Fish gotta sing, pigs gotta fly…?”‘

I can’t help feeling it’s gotta be the song for these surreal, crazy times we live in.

38 years a priest

38 years ago today, I was ordained as Priest in the Church of England. In my morning prayers today, I looked up the Ordinal in the Book of Common Prayer to read the exhortation in The Ordering of Priests. These are not quite the words we heard in that service, which I suspect had been brought in line with Series 3 or some other revised form of service. But these words express the same sentiment. And they are scary…

YOU have heard, brethren, as well in your private examination, as in the exhortation which was now made to you, and in the holy Lessons taken out of the Gospel and the writings of the Apostles, of what dignity and of how great importance this office is, whereunto ye are called. And now again we exhort you, in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you have in remembrance, into how high a dignity, and to how weighty an office and charge ye are called: that is to say, to be messengers, watchmen, and stewards of the Lord; to teach and to premonish, to feed and provide for the Lord’s family; to seek for Christ’s sheep that are dispersed abroad, and for his children who are in the midst of this naughty world, that they may be saved through Christ for ever.

Have always therefore printed in your remembrance, how great a treasure is committed to your charge. For they are the sheep of Christ, which he bought with his death, and for whom he his blood. The Church and Congregation whom you must serve, is his spouse and his body. And if it shall happen the same Church, or any member thereof, to take any hurt or hindrance by reason of your negligence, ye know the greatness of the fault, and also the horrible punishment that will ensue. Wherefore consider with yourselves the end of your ministry towards the children of God, towards the spouse and body of Christ; and see that you never cease your labour, your care and diligence, until you have done all that lieth in you, according to your bounden duty, to bring all such as are or shall be committed to your charge, unto that agreement in the faith and knowledge of God, and to that ripeness and perfectness of age in Christ, that there be no place left among you, either for error in religion, or for viciousness in life.

Forasmuch then as your office is both of so great excellency and of so great difficulty, ye see with how great care and study ye ought to apply yourselves, as well that ye may shew yourselves dutiful and thankful unto that Lord, who hath placed you in so high a dignity; as also to beware that neither you yourselves offend, nor be occasion that others offend. Howbeit, ye cannot have a mind and will thereto of yourselves; for that will and ability is given of God alone. Therefore ye ought, and have need, to pray earnestly for his Holy Spirit. And seeing that you cannot by any other means compass the doing of so weighty a work, pertaining to the salvation of man, but with doctrine and exhortation taken out of the holy Scriptures, and with a life agreeable to the same; consider how studious ye ought to be in reading and learning the Scriptures, and in framing the manners both of yourselves, and of them that specially pertain unto you, according to the rule of the same Scriptures: and for this self-same cause, how ye ought to forsake and set aside (as much as you may) all worldly cares and studies.

We have good hope that you have well weighed and pondered these things with yourselves long before this time; and that you have clearly determined, by God’s grace, to give yourselves wholly to this office, whereunto it hath pleased God to call you: so that, as much as lieth in you, you will apply yourselves wholly to this one thing, and draw all your cares and studies this way; and that you will continually pray to God the Father, by the mediation of our only Saviour Jesus Christ, for the heavenly assistance of the Holy Ghost; that, by daily reading and weighing of the Scriptures, ye may wax riper and stronger in your ministry; and that ye may so endeavour yourselves from time to time to sanctify the lives of you and yours, and to fashion them after the rule and doctrine of Christ, that ye may be wholesome and godly examples and patterns for the people to follow.

Clearly no one is worthy, or can fully live up to that high calling. (God knows how any priest could physically or spiritually abuse any person, if they at all remembered those words about causing any hurt or hindrance to any member of the body of Christ, by their negligence…) The ordinary harm we cause by the ordinary negligence of ordinary sinners is a hard enough burden to bear, with words like ‘horrible punishment’ hanging over our heads. The only comfort is that Jesus called some pretty unworthy people to be his disciples and apostles (see the Gospels, passim); and that the Everlasting Mercy is always greater.

How did I dare to do it for all those years? And how do I still dare, when I’m asked to? Because somewhere, and sometimes it seems against all experience and evidence, I do believe that Mercy always triumphs over Judgement.

New Zealand: 16. We stand on the Misty Mountains

The next day was the hottest day so far, with temperatures reaching 37° C. This is supposedly unheard of in those parts of South Island: I’ve already mentioned that the hotels down there don’t have air conditioning, on the grounds that they don’t need it.

And we finally got our promised helicopter flight, from Queenstown Airport to the top of the Remarkables. I wasn’t the only member of the group who had been feeling some trepidation about this, even though (very fortunately) it was the day before four British tourists were killed in a helicopter crash at the Grand Canyon, and not the day after… But it was actually a great experience. A short one – which is probably also a blessing.

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The thing that surprised me was that it didn’t feel like we were travelling fast, though it only took a few minutes before we were landing at the top. Yes, there was a slight moment of “Aargh! There’s a mountain side just a few yards to our right…” And here we are:

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Enjoying spectacular and beautiful views of Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu

View of Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu

Safely back on land and boarded the coach, we continued to Arrowtown, a quaint old gold-mining town, near the river where I had tried my hand at panning for gold a couple of days earlier. It feels like some kind of old cowboy town, with its old-style clapboard houses and street furniture.

Arrowtown Post Office

Arrowtown post box

After lunch we had another long drive on to the Kawarau Gorge, Cromwell and the Lindis Pass – at 965 m above sea level, the highest road we drove over in New Zealand, and so on to the junction town of Omarama, where we were to spend the night at the Heritage Gateway Hotel. There weren’t many places to eat in town (it’s not much of a town) so we all ate together in the hotel restaurant. It was good to share a more communal meal, which hadn’t been a frequent event during our stay. It was also a pleasant summer evening to sit outside with pre- or post-mealtime drinks. Some of our fellow-travellers stayed up to see the stars of the southern hemisphere, including the Southern Cross. I didn’t manage it: after all the early starts and long coach rides I couldn’t stay awake long enough, especially as it didn’t get dark until very late.

Shame. It would’ve been quite a sight.

stars of the southern hemisphere

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New Zealand: 15. Fjord and cave

The next day was another long day on the road which left us feeling tired and irritable. But what a day! An early start meant getting up at 0530 in order to leave the hotel at 0700 for the drive along the Eglinton Valley, and stopping briefly at aptly-named Mirror Lake, to our chief destination at Milford Sound in New Zealand’s glacier-carved Fjordland. Our Lonely Planet guide tells us that “the world-beating collage of waterfalls, verdant cliffs and peaks, and dark cobalt waters is at its best” on a clear, sunny day. “More likely, though, is the classic Fjordland combination of mist and drizzle, with the iconic profile of Mitre Peak revealed slowly through shimmering sheets of precipitation.” Well, we were the lucky ones: the weather was near perfect.

Milford Sound on a perfect day

Lots and lots of photographs as the boat took us along the fjord and as far as the open sea, which we gazed upon, turned about, and returned into the calmer waters of the Sound. Captain Cook never actually discovered it, because his view from out at sea didn’t show it as a inlet at all. He just sailed on by, and missed a treat. “The fjord remained undiscovered by Europeans until Captain John Grono discovered it c.1812 and named it Milford Haven after his homeland in Wales. Captain John Lort Stokes later renamed it Milford Sound. (Source: Wikipedia)

Milford Sound

Apart from the scenery, there were also glimpses of basking seals.

basking seals

This is Alison’s picture. She was convinced that the bird in the background was a penguin. Me, I think it was just one of the seals getting dressed for a fancy dress party.

From Milford Sound, it was south again to the most southerly of all our overnight stays in New Zealand: Te Anau. Here’s where I faced and didn’t exactly overcome, but at least survived, one of my worst phobias. Alison really really wanted to visit the world-renowned glowworm caves. I thought I could do without. I do not like caves. I do not like them, Sam I Am. Perhaps it comes of reading Tom Sawyer as a child – those nightmare chapters in which Tom and Becky get separated from everyone else and are lost in the caves, and become convinced they’re going to die, and when they do eventually see a fellow-human being, it’s the terrifying Injun Joe… It’s the darkness, the sense of millions of tons of rock over your head… And don’t even get me started on the thought of potholing, and the crawling through narrow tunnels not even on hands and knees…

(Quick break till I stop hyper-ventilating and the panic ebbs away…)

But in the end I went because Alison wanted me to, and she wanted to see the caves so much. It was worth a visit. But it was terrifying too: the noise of the rushing water, the walkways over drops into the abyss. Strangely enough, the glowworm part wasn’t alarming at all, even though it involved getting into a small boat on an underground lake (by this time, thankfully, we were away from the rushing of mighty waters), and then being moved along in total darkness by the guide pulling on a rope or wire or something. And then suddenly there are the lights of these strange creatures hanging in the blackness above and around you. It’s like nothing on earth. Naturally you can’t take any flash photos because it scares the poor worms to death, so you’ll either have to go there yourself, or do an image search (try Te Anau glowworm caves) with your favourite search engine. (Incidentally, I am currently using Startpage because it is “the world’s most private search engine”, and it also lets you view images, a feature that Google has just removed.)

I have faced one of my worst fears (-ish) and have survived.

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New Zealand: 14. Lord of the Rings. Etcetera

When we got back from New Zealand, we wanted to watch or re-watch some of the films and TV series set in NZ, to enjoy memories of the places we’ve been. So we started with Top of the Lake on Netflix, filmed in and around Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu.

Let’s just say, it was a Disappointment. New Zealand noir just doesn’t suit our memories of the place. No doubt there are paedophiles, rapists, drug-crazed incestuous hippies, bent coppers, murderers, and gangsters in New Zealand. But thankfully we didn’t see them; and the country also prides itself on having relatively little crime. But apart from the crime, we couldn’t make much sense of the characterisation and motivation in the story. One minute people are having a violent showdown; the next they’re somewhere else entirely, and behaving as if nothing has happened. One minute they’re fighting and saying it’s all over between them; the next we see them having sex (again). I think there has been a second, more recent, series. We might give it a try, sometime. We’re a bit like Homer Simpson about that. Doh!

In TOTL, Queenstown is described as a “millionaires’ playground”. Which may be true. But it was still a great place for lots of other people who aren’t millionaires. There was so much to see and do, that our itinerary allowed us a “free day” there, to make our own choice from the smörgåsbord of possibilities. Alison and I had already, the previous evening, enjoyed our first meal in a Vietnamese restaurant – which cheered us up after our gruelling day on the road. On the “free day” we went different ways. Alison chose the Kiwi Birdlife Park, where she actually saw some kiwis in their special nocturnal environment. I opted for one of Nomad Safaris, which was not quite the all-LOTR safari that most of our little group of 5 were hoping for, but was very interesting all the same.

It took in Skippers Road, the “most dangerous road in New Zealand”,
Skippers Road warning

a single track dirt road winding up into the hills, with seemingly impossible passing places and sheer drops to the side. It’s the old road used by the gold prospectors of the New Zealand Gold Rush. One of those rides where you’re willing the driver to keep his eyes on the road, not keep looking round to see how his passengers are enjoying themselves… where you feel yourself automatically leaning away from the cliff edge as if you could stop the landrover from falling off the road…

It also took us to Arrowtown, one of the old gold rush towns, and to the Arrow River to try our own hand at panning for gold. Me, I didn’t find any. But Paul did: he held his speck of gold like a mote of dust on his fingertip for about 5 minutes before it somehow disappeared. The end of another wonderful fortune. Apparently there are still real nuggets to be found up there. But not very often.

And yes, we did see a couple of places which Marcello the driver claimed had been used as settings in the filming of LOTR. Of course, the whole amazing range of The Remarkables, which feature so often, snow-covered and in summer, as the Misty Mountains. But also, the bend on the Arrow River which had been the Ford of Bruinen, where Frodo escaped from the Black Riders…
The ford of Bruinen
the path near Arrowtown which had represented part of the Gladden Fields…
The Gladden Fields
the place where Aragorn fell in the battle with the Warg Riders… (You have to use your imagination here: it’s the little edge just beyond that clump of trees in the foreground.)
where Aragorn fell

But really, the landscape is so splendid that it’s easy to imagine yourself there in the story. I don’t know how much Peter Jackson has been worth to the New Zealand tourist economy. Much more than his weight in gold, I would think.

After the tour I met up with Alison at the Kiwi Birdlife Park, and we took the Skyline gondola to the top, to enjoy the view of the city, the lake, and the mountains. Selfie!
selfie on the skyline gondola

And in the evening, another of Queenstown’s attractions: a cruise on a 100-year old steamship, the TS Earnslaw, which took us to the other side of the lake for an evening meal and a demonstration of sheep-shearing. The excursion includes some olde-time community singing on the way home. Hmm. My old dad would have loved it.

And here’s a thing about South Island. We had saved our warmer clothes, thinking it would be cooler when we got this far south. Instead, they were “enjoying” unprecedented temperatures in the high 30s C. Hotels in South Island don’t have air-conditioning: they never need it. So we had a few nights of poor sleep because of the heat. A problem we had not expected.

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New Zealand: 12. Over the Alps and down to the sea

The Tranzalpine is one of the world’s great train journeys, and one of New Zealand’s most exciting, too: from Christchurch on South Island’s east coast, across the Canterbury region, up and over the Southern Alps, and down to Greymouth on the west coast. It was also one of our earliest morning starts: we had to leave the hotel at 0715 to get to the station in time to catch the early train.

The whole journey from Christchurch to Greymouth takes almost 5 hours, but we left the train at Arthur’s Pass to rejoin our coach (which had made the distance in less time) for the westward descent. We had still been able to enjoy the spectacular views from the train as it climbed into the mountains. We even saw snow – though not much of it – on the highest peaks.
Leaving the Tranzalpine at Arthur's Pass

The descent by road was one of the steepest gradients I’ve ever been driven down, and I was happy not to be the driver, especially of a coach full of 51 people and their luggage. Our first stop was at Hokitika, now a small coastal town, but in the 1860s it was a bustling gold rush town, filled with prospectors from all over the world who had come to the west coast to make their fortunes. Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Luminaries is a fascinating mystery that also gives a picture of the town and the period.

Hokitika today is a centre for the traditional greenstone industry, but its major industry now is tourism. We had the best lunch here of any of our NZ travels, at the Aurora Restaurant where we shared a grilled chicken open sandwich – freshly prepared! unlike many of the plastic-wrapped lunchtime sandwiches we had eaten on other days – and some Bundaberg ginger beer.

After lunch our journey took us onward down the west coast highway to Franz Josef. Here we made our first unsuccessful attempt to get a helicopter ride to take us up onto the Franz Josef Glacier. First you have to be weighed so they can select a passenger manifest of the right total weight, and distribution in the helicopter. Then we even got as far as being allocated to groups, given wrist bands and taken through the safety instructions (main point: Always approach the helicopter from the front; never go anywhere near the tail end. Anyone who’s ever watched ER won’t need telling…) We were led out of the office and halfway across the road to the landing site, before the message came through that flights were cancelled because of poor visibility.

There’s not much else to see at Franz Josef, and not too many eating places (though a few more than Denis let on about…) so the whole party ate at The Landing.

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