HASTE – Mary Celeste

I was asked to attend a sailing ship in the North Atlantic, where it was believed some illicit alcohol was being carried. On November 7, 1872, the 282-ton brigantine Mary Celeste had set sail from New York on its way to Genoa. On board were the ship’s captain, Benjamin S. Briggs, his wife, Sarah, and their 2-year-old daughter, Sophia, along with eight crewmembers

My bosses were concerned that Sophia might come to some harm if the crew started sampling the booze on board. I landed on the ship and sought out the captain.

“Do I have the pleasure of addressing Mr. Benjamin Briggs, captain of the Mary Celeste?”

“You do, sir, and who might you be?”

“My name is Brian Snape and I am from the Health and Safety Time Executive.”

“Health and Safety – never heard of it; I’ve never had much time for unions myself, but I suppose they’re a necessary evil.”

“We ensure that accidents don’t happen by pointing out to people how they can improve their working environment. Such as here for example on board this ship, there is a lot of illicit alcohol aboard and I have been asked to remove it before some harm comes to your child Sophia.”

“How do know my daughter’s name and just how did you get on board my vessel?”

“It is my job, so please show me where this alcohol is kept and I can do something about it.”

“The alcohol is for sale in Genoa, a private transaction for the crew to make more money from their crossing.”

“They have already started drinking the alcohol, so I am not sure how much of it will be left to sell in Genoa or anywhere else for that matter. I am worried that your family’s life is in danger.”

“They are drinking just a few bottles of rum – there’s nothing wrong with that. Sailors will be sailors. It will be one long party all the way to the Mediterranean.”

“Aren’t you worried things might get out of hand especially if they get used to drinking on a daily basis – what happens if they take a fancy to your wife and child?”

“That won’t happen.”

“No it won’t, because I am going to throw the alcohol over the side – into the drink as it were – and save yourselves from a larger problem. If you don’t allow this, I will issue you with a ticket of violation – L21A-LSW2.”

“Alright, I wasn’t aware that we were breaking the law of the seas, so go ahead. Oh, what’s that I hear?”

I headed into the forward galley to seize the first few boxes of alcohol and saw a line of people shouting loudly coming up the steps from below. At the front was the captain’s wife holding her young daughter in one hand and an open bottle of rum in the other.

When they all reached the deck, they formed a conga line and started to dance around the ship. I took the chance to go into the hold and remove the remaining boxes of hooch. I threw them over the side as the conga line moved around the deck. The captain joined and the whole crew was cavorting this way and that.

Eventually the crewman at the front of the line took a slightly wrong turn and headed over the side, closely followed by all the members of the crew, leaving me alone on board. I did what I could, I lowered the yawl and rowed around for a while, but all the people had disappeared from view.

I had tied the yawl to the boat and so I could haul myself back to the Mary Celeste and return to base to make my report.

The Waterboarding Duck

Evolution has been kind to the duck family. Ducks are viewed as benign creatures, who wouldn’t say boo to a goose. However, don’t be fooled by the ducks that have survived through to the modern day. A few centuries ago a particular branch of the duck family, called the waterboarding ducks, were found in parts of Leicestershire and Rutland where they terrorised the local wildfowl populations.

Ducks such as teal and the mallard are called dabbling ducks, which means they tip up in shallow water, putting their beaks and heads under the water and look for things to eat. The waterboarding ducks were dabbling ducks of a different kind and behaved in two different ways. If another duck was already in the dabbling position, the waterboarding duck would ambush the dabbling duck and try and drown it by forcing its backside under the water. The dabbling duck would come to the surface, but would be disoriented and the waterboarding duck would then steal whatever food was in its beak.

The other tactic used by the waterboarding duck was to force other ducks to dabble by grabbing their throat and forcing their head under water. The duck would by nature try and feed and then once it had caught something, again the waterboarding duck would steal its food.

The behaviour of the waterboarding ducks alienated them from other waterfowl, who would always fly away, perhaps not surprisingly, when the waterboarding ducks came near. This behaviour led to many waterboarding ducks starving to death as they had lost their innate ability to find food for themselves.

The Hopping Race in Trevelez

Trevelez is a beautiful village in the Sierra Nevada mountains just to the south-east of Granada. This village is situated around 1,500 metres above sea level, making it the highest in Spain. Some of the streets in the village are narrow and others are extremely steep, which is why Trevelez hosts a unique hopping event that tests people’s leg strength and balance to the limit.

On the last weekend in August hoppers from all over the world flock to Trevelez where they take part in the Trevelez Hopping Extravaganza or the THE as it’s known in the English-speaking world.

The first event is the hopping marathon from Lanjaron to Trevelez, which takes place on Friday. Competitors can hop using either leg, but they must come to a halt before changing legs and they must draw the attention of the Switching Judge to this change before proceeding. This is to stop people from skipping along the road. Crafty contestants switch legs at the water stations along the course. Contestants are also not allowed to tie both legs together and hop using both feet at the same time; this rule was introduced in 1934 when a hopper, Ferran Alberts, tripped over the kerb, hurtled down a steep embankment and broke both limbs when he caught his legs in an olive tree.

The record for the course is 4 hours 45 minutes by Lanjaron native Fernando Villa in 1969, one of the five times that he won the event during his career. Fernando switched legs every two miles and also held his other leg for the first two minutes after each change in order to stretch the leg and prevent cramping. The ladies record is 5 hours 14 minutes by Angela Steuben from South Africa, set in 1998; she trained for the race by hopping up and down Table Mountain three times a day for three months.

Even though it’s a marathon race, the Lanjaron – Trevelez is not the hardest race of the weekend. The blue ribbon event takes place on Saturday and it’s called the Backwards Hop race, where competitors hop around Trevelez five times in reverse. In this contest only one leg can be used for the entire race; to ensure this rule is strictly enforced the other leg is tied. Competitors can use wing mirrors attached to their shoulders to help guide themselves around the course; they must not be guided by a coach and can’t attach guide dogs to their bodies.

The steepest part of the course is at the southernmost edge of Trevelez where one 400-metre road connects the lower town with the upper town; this is the part of the course where the race is won and lost because most people have difficulty walking down this road in a forwards direction in dry weather. In fact most competitors spend more time on this section of the course than on the rest of the course altogether. Grooves are cut into the surface of the road to make gripping the surface slightly easier but even then it’s horrendously difficult. Most injuries are caused when people overbalance on the later laps due to exhaustion. Even the strongest hoppers can spend ten minutes negotiating this road.

The rest of the circuit is through narrow streets, past bakeries, shops, and cafes – the downhill section is fairly gentle and allows racers to gather their strength before the uphill.  The person who has won this race most often is Benjamin Ortega from nearby Juviles with eight victories between 1948 and 1963; he trained for the race by hopping backwards up Alcazaba the third highest peak in the Sierra Nevada three times in succession. His advice for hopping backwards up the steep hill during the race was to take small hops and always keep the back straight so as to avoid overbalancing.

Extract from the book: Sports the Olympics Forgot

The winners of the Sony world photography awards 2017 – in pictures

From Saudi single mothers to Chinese child gymnasts, the winners of the world’s largest photography competition have documented scenes across the planet

Freddie in the Douglas Fir

After many successful forays into the garden, Freddie suddenly decided that he wanted to start climbing things such as the fence and trees. He found the fence very hard to navigate as he didn’t have the strength to pull himself up the links. Trees on the other hand weren’t too difficult and he enjoyed climbing into the branches so that he could be higher than me when we were in the garden together.

Eventually Freddie decided that the Douglas Fir in the corner of the garden was his Everest. The lowest branch was around twenty feet from the ground and the trunk was too wide for me to put my arms around. Freddie stood at the bottom of the tree and jumped on to the bark and clawed his way up a few feet miaowing to himself, before falling off. He decided that more momentum was required so he began his run-up ten feet from the tree; about two feet from the base he leapt on to the trunk and started to climb again miaowing to himself for encouragement.

The problem was that as he climbed his front paws became further apart, so that by the time he was fifteen feet from the ground his face and tummy were pressed tight against the tree. He couldn’t go any further; he gave a distress miaow and then fell off the tree, landing on his feet of course. Freddie was undeterred and started his next run-up fifteen feet from the base of the tree; he must have reached one foot further up the tree before falling off.

However, Freddie was encouraged by this progress and started his next run-up right by the house; again he leapt at the trunk from two feet away and climbed steadily, but around 17 feet from the ground his face was pressed against the bark and he fell off. I had seen enough and tried to stop him make another attempt, but he dodged me and attacked the tree again, but with the same results.

I stood right by the trunk to stop Freddie making another attempt, but he approached from a different angle and landed on the trunk near my head. I took a hold of him and tried to pull him away from the tree but he dug his claws into the bark and refused to move. I prised his paws away one at a time and took him back into the house with him yowling in my arms. The next time Freddie went into the garden I watched him very closely, but he contented himself with sitting at the base of the tree and practiced jumping onto the trunk. He was happy doing that although who knows what he tried to do when my back was turned.

Extract from the book: Where is Freddie Cat?

HASTE – At the Giza Plateau

I was called to the Giza Plateau near Cairo in Egypt where a giant building project is being undertaken by the Pharaoh. I meet with the Grand Vizier amidst reports of many people being killed during construction.

The Vizier greets me warmly and we walk to the site, where I see that a giant cube is being built. The walls are around 30 metres high. Men are hauling massive stones from the ground up the sheer sides of the cube using ropes that are tied under the stones – the ropes occasionally break with the stone plummeting to the ground as a result.

“Does that happen often?” I asked indicating the stone lying on the ground with men standing around scratching their heads.

“It happens frequently because the ropes are not strong enough to haul the stones up the walls for more than 15 metres. I am not sure what we are going to do as Pharaoh requires another 110 metres of height over and above what we have now.”

“Well, the first item I must give you is a warning that none of the people working are wearing a hard hat, proper boots, or protective clothing in contravention of edict YTGF7777-88d8d of the construction worker’s code.”

“But if a ten-ton stone lands on your head it won’t matter whether you’re wearing a hard hat or not.”

“It’s the thought that counts. You have to be seen to be trying to look after the welfare of your people.”

“Appearances are everything. Even though people are willing to die to help Pharaoh.”

“Are they being paid to do this work or forced to be here?”

“They aren’t being paid, but they do get accommodation and food provided for them.”

“And they can leave when they wish?”

“Not really – it is thought an honour to be here and help with this building. The work is very tiring and we don’t force people to work for too long as they can cause their fellow workers problems if they are fatigued.”

“It would count as volunteering I suppose, but even then, this site is still a work environment and the employment safety laws still apply.”

“I understand completely – would you like a closer look?”

“Why does Pharaoh want to build a cube?”

“Because it is perfectly uniform in three dimensions, width, height, and depth. It’s perfect like him and he believes it will be his legacy for future generations and they will know him because of The Cube. There will be paintings on it and an inscription that will read ‘Look upon my work ye mighty and despair’, or something similar.”

“That sounds very poetic – how big will the letters be?”

“Two metres high roughly.”

“Where is all the stone coming from?”

“It’s coming from quarries along The Nile and is being carved on the edge of the plateau before being moved up here on stone rollers.”

“Is The Cube being built on a right of way – there seems to be a path heading to that corner? I must ask you to move the whole structure 1 foot to the left – I will issue you with a Blocking Right of Way notice B76-909-JJJJ-2929.”

“That means relocating 100,000 tons of stone.”

“You’re breaking the law – some poor sheep herder will have to drive his flock around the whole structure. Whilst you are doing that I would also suggest re-aligning the whole structure with that tree on the horizon – that will impress people in the future. They will try and prove the alignment relates to where a particular heavenly body appears over the horizon on the longest day of the year, or the shortest day. Perhaps burrow into the structure too and leave some parts of The Cube hollowed out, that will confuse them no end.”

“Oh, I see, leave a few mysteries for those to come to solve.”

“Except they’re not mysteries, you are just playing with their minds – leave a boat under The Cube for example, have a few empty rooms containing hieroglyphs, build steps down into the sand that don’t go anywhere.”

“I like the way you think – all these items will allow the name of Pharaoh to endure beyond his time to the stars and back.”

Just then a worried-looking man ran over to the vizier and asked him for a private conversation. They were away for about two minutes before the vizier returned.

“It seems we have a major problem,” said the vizier stroking his chin, “but perhaps you can help us?”

“What is the problem – are the stones too heavy to be hauled up off the ground for the required distance already?”

“They are and as I said earlier we have another 100 metres to go straight up.”

“Well, might I suggest a pyramid then, a stepped pyramid with a base angle of 52 degrees or so, whatever angle it has to be to rise to 139 metres. You can drag the stones up the various levels. Or build a spiral ramp.”

“Or use the Wand of Osiris which allows the stones to float lighter than air.”

“Why don’t you use that for everything?”

“Well, I do – I go around straightening things and making sure they’re aligned, closing gaps to make sure the rats can’t get in, making the structure waterproof, not that there’s much rain here of course. But I wouldn’t use the Wand all the time, because that would defeat the purpose of channelling the people’s efforts into creating monuments and making sure they have a common purpose of helping cement the legacy of Pharaoh rather than uniting to oppose him.”

“It also tires them out so they can only think of sleep when they’re not working.”

“There is that too, but they do get a day off every month.”

“That’s insufficient time – I will issue you with a notice as you’re contravening edict 8282-3ij3393-333fl relating to worker’s rest time over a calendar month.”

“Most people only work for six weeks at a time and then return to their home villages for the rest of the year.”

“It is still a contravention of the law.”

“Perhaps they won’t have to work as hard on a pyramid as they do on a cube.”

“Let’s hope so for their sake.”

“Less working hours, better working conditions, I think you’ll agree.”

When I returned the following week, I found the Egyptians were working on building a nice new pyramid and working conditions seemed safer.

Gobekli Tepe

Gobekli Tepe is an unprepossessing archaeological site in Northern Mesopotamia – the area between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. No postcards of the site are on sale and no
guidebooks. Indeed, the gatekeeper has only one book for sale and that’s an English translation of the work by Klaus Schmidt that first alerted the world to his significant
discovery in southern Turkey near the Syrian border.

The archaeologists believe that Gobekli Tepe was built by hunter-gatherers somewhere in the period 7500BC – 9500BC, which means this site is at least 5,000 years older than
Stonehenge and The Pyramids at Giza in Egypt. Gobekli Tepe was built just after the last Ice Age and yet people in those times weren’t supposed to build things, to carve stone,
and to raise monoliths in the name of religion. Prior to the discovery of Gobekli Tepe it was thought that these huntergatherers just hunted, gathered, and then moved on in their nomadic existence.

Those thoughts have to be rethought as these particular hunter-gatherers obviously had advanced building and artistic skills and a desire for something to worship. Their society had an artisan class, a priest class, and so was almost certainly hierarchical. Visitors to the site walk on gangways above the four enclosures that have been unearthed so far. Each enclosure contains numerous monoliths that are surrounded by 2-3 metre high stone walls. Enclosure A was discovered in 1995 and excavated between 1996 and 1997.

The main features of this enclosure are the T-shaped megaliths. On the two central pillars there’s a depiction of a net made of snakes above a ram and a vertical row of a bull, fox, and crane. Enclosure B was excavated between 1998 and 2002 and contains two
pillars that are 4 metres high and show reliefs of foxes. The floor is made from a substance similar to concrete, which is waterproof. Enclosure C was discovered in 1998 and contains two concentric circles of pillars. Enclosure D, discovered in 2001, contains two central pillars 5.5 metres high. Another pillar contains an image of a headless man
with an erect phallus.

Another pillar in this enclosure possesses a similar image. Both of these men are wearing a belt with a loincloth. Other carvings in this well-preserved enclosure depict boars, bulls, gazelles, foxes, spiders, scorpions, and snakes. Currently only about 5 – 10% of the whole site has been opened to the elements – the remainder lies under the dirt, soil, and detritus that the centuries piled on top of Gobekli Tepe after it was abandoned by its creators.

However, the archaeologists do believe that when the site was abandoned, Gobekli Tepe was covered by the ancients with 500 cubic metres of earth, which created an artificial mound that remained hidden for around 9,000 years. Standing at the entrance to the walkway over the four excavated enclosures it’s difficult to comprehend that 11,000
years ago hunter-gatherers were creating a religious site at all let alone one that will be an acre in size by the time the whole site is excavated.

Looking at the carved monoliths the visitor has to comprehend that these stones weren’t dragged here from a local quarry and roughly erected. They were shaped expertly and some had their surfaces carved with a lot of skill. There didn’t appear to be any mistakes, there were no half-carved animals or rough attempts that had been discontinued – everything was complete and looked as though it was meant to be.

Where did the carvers and shapers practice their skills – what remains to be discovered? Were there journeymen craftsmen who travelled around the ancient world and created these sites for the people of the time in a similar way to the tradesmen of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries who carved their insignia into the cathedrals of Lincoln and Trondheim?

One of the 5.5 metre high monoliths rests on a square,  stone base. On one edge of this base are carved seven wading birds standing proud from the rest of the stone. These birds are evenly spaced and from a distance look remarkably similar. Their beaks are well defined and their bodies appear curved and smooth – such carving is quite remarkable given that, according to our current timelines, the birds would have been carved with stone tools, not metal ones.

At some point the stone base has been damaged meaning that two of the birds have lost their heads, but their bodies are preserved. The bodies of all seven birds exhibited no discernible chipping marks that you might expect with a stone implement and indeed it looked to me as though the carvings had been sanded as they seemed so smooth.

The only other side of the square base that I saw didn’t contain any carvings, so why was so much lavish ornamentation confined to one side of the base? The answer to this, and many other questions, remains to be found in the secrets that Gobekli Tepe still keeps to itself.

Extract from the book: Travel Tales from Exotic Places

Autophoto: how photographers fell in love with cars – in pictures

An exhibition at the Fondation Cartier pour l’Art contemporain in Paris examines how the car gave photographers a new way of exploring the world. The 500 works include pictures by Jacques-Henri Lartigue and Lee Friedlander. It opens on 20 April