Titanic History

Object of Rearrangement:
Deck Chair from the Titanic, from the
Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Halifax

105 years ago tonight the Titanic met its fate. Short excerpt from my new book Out in the Cold:

As in the Swissair tragedy, when the Titanic sank in April 1912, ships were dispatched from Halifax to recover bodies, since Halifax, then as now, was the nearest big port with continental rail connections.

The Mackay-Bennet, a Halifax-based steamer normally used for laying communications cable, led the recovery effort. Two days after the sinking she set out with a cargo of coffins and canvas bags, an undertaker and a preacher.

Over the next four weeks two ships from Halifax followed, the Minia and the CGS Montmagny. Together they and the SS Algerine, sailing from St. John’s, Newfoundland, recovered over three hundred bodies. Some were buried at sea, but 209 bodies returned to the Halifax shore.

Just 59 were sent away to their families. The rest, including the Titanic’s unidentifiable and unclaimed victims, were buried in Halifax, and local businesses donated bouquets of lilies. The Maritime Museum on Halifax’s waterfront has an extensive Titanic exhibit – complete with deck chair.

Haligonians couldn’t have imagined it, but after the Titanic an even more horrific tragedy lay five years down the road, and this was all Halifax’s own. In 1917 Halifax harbor fell victim to the greatest conflagration of the Great War. I don’t know if it’s just me, but polling people I know, it sounds like nobody else knew about the largest man made explosion before Hiroshima either….

Weekend Reading

Join me in exploring these articles over the weekend, which for a lucky few is three days long. I’ve bumped them over to Instapaper but haven’t finished them all myself. Let’s see where they lead.

Thanks for your participation in yesterday’s photo quiz, and if you haven’t ventured a guess yet, you have until next Thursday to do so. I’ll draw from the correct answers then and send the winner a copy of the audiobook version of Common Sense and Whiskey. We’ll do this Fridays for the rest of the summer.

Meanwhile, this is a momentous weekend for the Turks, who go to the polls on Sunday to decide on granting more power to President Reçep Tayyip Erdogan. Opinion leaders can’t decide among themselves which way to lead; either the Turkish President is a badass anti-democratic juggernaut, or a defeat could put him in peril:

Win or Lose on Referendum, Turkey’s Erdoğan Spells Trouble
How Erdogan’s Referendum Gamble Might Backfire

But enough of that for now. On to some articles for your weekend perusal:

Icebergs by George Philip LeBourdais at thepointmag.com
Operation London Bridge: the secret plan for the days after the Queen’s death by Sam Knight in The Guardian
A Town Under Trial by Nick Tabor in the Oxford American
Why some infinities are bigger than others by A W Moore in Aron Magazine
The Case For Butterfish by Neal Ascherson at Granta.com

 

Fan Photos of Istanbul in Huge Week for Turkey

This is a fateful week for the beleaguered Turks. Next weekend Turkey will vote in a referendum on whether to extend significant new powers to President Erdogan. With war on its borders, terror in its biggest cities, a tourism industry in collapse, a tenuous agreement with the rest of Europe over refugees, spats with individual EU governments ginned up for electoral advantage, an astounding 40,000 jailed after the attempted coup last year, well, Turkey has no shortage of challenges.

In spite of it all, Istanbul remains one of the world’s five greatest cities (In no particular order, mine are Istanbul, Hong Kong, Paris, Sydney, San Fransisco. Yours?) So I’d like to reprise a few fan photos of Istanbul in the good old days. Click them to make them bigger. And there are hundreds more photos from Turkey here, in the Turkey Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.

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Outside the Grand Bazaar. Through that gate and down in the bazaar, march in and get yourself thoroughly lost. Wander for half a day. I once asked around for the Afghan section and came away with three fine pakols, tailored to my head size, from a milliner from Kandahar.

 

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Again, the Galata Tower in the center back. Ferries like these ply the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus over to Asia, carrying commuters to work at dawn.

 

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The fabled Haydarpasha Train Station in Kadaköy, on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. On arrival from London via the Orient Express, from here well heeled tourists could travel on to Ankara, then Kars, then Baghdad and Teheran.

 

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Day labor at the break of dawn. Happening every day in the Grand Bazaar.

 

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The Blue Mosque.

 

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This is seven photos stitched into a 180 degree panorama. Each photo consists in turn of seven exposures combined into an HDR image. We are looking west into the Golden Horn at dawn, the Bosphorus Strait at our backs. See each end of the Galata Bridge on the far left and right.

 

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Here is the Ortakoy Mosque in a trendy part of town some way up the Bosphorus on the European shore, the bridge behind leading to Asia, on the far side.

 

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And Taksim Square, foreground. Gezi Park, a green space and the focus of the protests a couple of years ago, is just below and behind this vantage point. From here you can see past the Golden Horn and out into the Sea of Marmara. From this vantage point the Bosphorus, to the east, is just off to the left.

 

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Here is the fabled Golden Horn, with the Galata Tower across the way. The Bosphorus is out of the frame on the right, the Sea of Marmara behind the photo and the Black Sea at the end of the Bosphorus at two o’clock from here.

And while we’re in the region, here’s a link to one of the chapters in my first book, Common Sense and Whiskey, about a trip through Turkey’s eastern neighbors, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

Book Excerpt from Out in the Cold

Here is a bit of weekend reading for you from my new book, Out in the Cold. In this excerpt we visit the easternmost point in North America, closer to Galway, Ireland than to St. Louis. Welcome to St. John’s, in the province of Newfoundland, Canada.

ONLY ONE SUNNY DAY, NO EXCEPTIONS

Everybody has come out to bask on that first, sunshiny day.

The crusty, balding stalwarts of the Royal Canadian Legion fill the town from across the country to debate by-laws and elect officers, to show the wife a good time and test out that new hip replacement all in one go. Banners and berets, sashes with ribbons and medals fill the streets, even a marching band with someone still hardy enough to march inside a tuba.

They spill out of George Street, the locally famous concentration of debauchery, restaurants and bars, where touts invite you to get “Screeched In,” a transaction by which they’ll call you an honorary Newfie if you gulp their booze, then kiss a fish.

Traffic stands down in good-natured deference for the old guys. We fall in with two men in berets who have peeled off from their wives for a pint of locally-brewed Iceberg lager down at the Celtic Hearth pub. Men have come not just from across the land, they say, but from Germany and even New Zealand and one man from Australia.

They comport themselves with earned honor. One old soldier gives me a Prince Edward Island lapel pin he has a pocket full of and says it is the friendliest province in Canada. I’d like to believe it, I say, but it would be hard to top the hospitality right here in St. John’s. Just come and give us a try, he says.

These two old war horses must have just come from a remembrance, for, eyes misty and each embellishing the other’s words, they relive for our benefit the bloody battle and desperate fight for survival at Blaumont-Hamel on the first day of the battle of the Somme, its centennial imminent on July 1, when 801 Canadians of the Newfoundland Regiment went in and only 68 came out alive.

Older Newfoundlanders tend toward considering themselves Newfoundlanders first and Canadians second. It was just in 1949 that a referendum bound Newfoundland to Canada, prior to which it had been a British colony after a brief period as an independent British dominion. At the height of the war some 100,000 Americans lived and worked in Newfoundland and many hoped the colony would become part of America.

And then, uh oh, the vets realize how long they’ve been away. Wide eyed, making haste, they flee to find the old ladies.

•••••

Fun while it lasts, the warmth and sunshine, but the next afternoon down at a used bookstore called Afterwords, the heater rumbles right here in mid-June and wet coats reinforce the natural musk of old books. Rain overfills the gutters, slaps against the pavement and slings itself at the plate glass.

The proprietor, upturned nose above a popped collar in some Victorian conceit, says he reads from the very poetry book Mirja buys for six dollars, prompting us to ask if he’d rather keep it. No, he’d rather sell it, he mumbles. How riveting could his marble-mouthed readings be?

Heaters chug inside restaurants up and down Duckworth and George Streets. Newfoundland cuisine is cod, cod, cod a hundred ways. Cod baked, battered, broiled and fried, cod en papillote, confit of cod, cod roasted and poached. Lapland does this with its reindeer.

A recent law, a thunderclap of sensible governance, will give cadres of regulatory officials in Ottawa palpitations. Restauranteurs may now buy what food they wish from whomever they want – meaning right off the boat. Your lobster claws may still be twitching.

Then there is fried bologna, “Newfie steak.” The local paper says that if the rest of Canada shared Newfoundlanders’ bologna fervor the country would consume 141.1 million kilograms of the stuff each year.

Poutine, dastardly poutine. “Shed Party,” made from Lamb’s spiced rum, bologna gravy, caramelized onions, pork sausage and green peas. You may plead for poutine as comfort food here in the cold and the fog and the wind, but you may not claim it promotes good health. Still, in a pub on the 13th of June, heater ablaze and rain pounding the roof, you can make a fine case for poutine’s home food attraction.

On the street in St. John’s, Newfoundland

SOME QUALITY TIME IN THE RAIN

“St. Johner” can’t be right. St. Johnsian? St. Johnite? What do you call a St. John’s resident? A Townie, it turns out. It means either native-born, or someone who has come from a Newfoundland village to the main town. In Rock-think, there is no one beyond the island.

Bullets of rain sling themselves into the door of the Ship Pub, away from the determined fun purveyors on George Street, entrance to the side, across the street from the Fog Off clothing store. The storm rumbles outside while we hear about the life of Beth Twillingate, not born a Townie. She started life as a fisherman’s daughter. St. John’s is a big city to her and a fine and comfortable home, she says as she serves up Iceberg beers.

She answers a cell phone on the bar.

“No. No, I’m a bartender. In. St. John’s.

In Newfoundland.”

A woman she’d never seen before was in here not twenty minutes ago and left the phone. We wonder if she has just caused a divorce. The chill makes that humor wry, not sardonic.

She plays music from the Halifax band Hillsburn, a song with the refrain, “I killed Billy but Billy wouldn’t die.” On the relative culinary merits of the local wildlife, caribou, says she, is more gamey than moose. And Newfie steak is just fine.

A retired railroadman in a red jacket, a regular named Melvin, recalls the good old days when he worked the stretch of line from Argentia to St. John’s. He remembers the days when the trains would leave Port aux Basques with five locomotives to carry 140 rail cars up the grades in the interior, but now there is no rail line in the province, and toward the end of his working days he helped to pull up the narrow gauge rail he worked all his life. They sold it to Chile for their coal mines.

If you visit St. John’s, chances are it will rain.

Rain pounds the pavement when the door opens. Here is Martin, a philosophy doctoral candidate, who helps us all handicap the prospects of the coming end of Western civilization, beginning with the then-imminent Brexit and followed by the elections of Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen, and then the collapse of the EU. It sounds just possible.

The whales ought to be here in ten days, two weeks, and they will bring tourist dollars. Things are looking up. Hard to imagine how they couldn’t be after the howling wind and spitting showers of the night before. We won’t be here, but by Saturday they’re looking for nineteen degrees, proper basking weather again. Trouble is, it’s only Tuesday.

•••••

If you enjoy this excerpt from Out in the Cold, please go and get yourself a copy of the whole book. Here are a few other excerpty bits:

France in North America, Svalbard by Snowmobile, Naked and Freezing on Vatnajokull

Saksun, Faroe Islands

An excerpt from my new book Out in the Cold, exploring the tiny northern Atlantic archipelago called the Faroe Islands:

Five people live in Saksun now, way up at the end of Streymoy, 44 kilometers from Tórshavn on the far end of the island, at the end of the world. It’s one of a kind, a real find, but around here there’s one of a kind around every bend.

The air fills your chest so fresh it stings. The bay, the mists, the waterfalls that fill the hillsides, the pop-up rills after rain, everything in sight glittering, utterly pristine.

When Lars Gunnar Dehl Olsen was born in the 1990s, Saksun was home to 33. Tow-headed, lanky with a free range beard, Lars Gunnar stands in benevolent welcome at the end of the road. Which is also his farm.

For a time he rented a big white house from Johan Jogvonsson, a man in the “village.” There are more than enough houses in the village for five or 33, because some are summer cottages. Now, out here on the point Lars Gunnar and his wife will endeavor to raise sheep and to do their part to keep Saksun alive, having just bought their own freehold in paradise.

Lars Gunnar calculates that 600 sheep is the minimum to make a farm viable and he has 700. Would more be better? If he had more he would need many more, enough to hire a farmhand. Seven hundred is about all he can handle by himself.

It’s part of the old farm Dùvugarðar. Now a National Heritage Museum, its outbuildings – with turf roofs – recreate life in the old times. Today the museum stands tiny and deserted, locked tight, beside a hjallur, or curing house, those wooden, slatted buildings for air-curing skerpikjøt.

We can only peer through the museum windows at cooking pots and an iron tea kettle, a lambskin rug and a grandfather clock. There is bedding on bunks reminiscent of the tiny sleeping quarters at the Hanseatic League museum in Bergen, bunks much shorter than a grown man today.

Perhaps the Olsens’ role is as much cordial host as lonely farmer. In the space of our visit, ours and two other cars call at their farm, for here at the end of the road is a fine panorama.

One thing for sure, the Olsens are safe from Viking raids. Sand has made the mouth of the bay so shallow that these days it is navigable only by small boats at high tide.

People may be a bit sparse out this way but the Olsens can rest content in their surroundings. Saksun is just utterly gorgeous.

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The ground never dries. The sheep squish-step about and drink from pools surrounded by moss. (How do they not get hoof rot?)

Forests of pine, birch and aspen covered Scotland, the Orkneys, Shetlands, Faroes and even Iceland up to around 5,000 years ago, when the northern climate grew cooler and wetter. Land waterlogged and trees died off, replaced by peat-forming mosses that sealed in rainwater, furthering the wetness. I have read that peat accumulates at the rate of perhaps a meter a millennium.

There are not many trees in the Faroes so settlers burned peat for heat and cooking. Like their ancestors, villagers make roofs of sod. Early inhabitants did it because sod was ubiquitous – and free. They still do it today because it works.

Here is how they do it: The earth is cut to manageable one-foot squares three or four inches thick and applied two-ply, with the first square grass/moss-down and the second upright so that they grow together into one impermeable unit.

While there are boards underneath (or birch bark where there are birch trees), the weight of the sod, about 500 pounds per square yard, helps to compress the logs in log homes and that helps to reduce the draft inside.

•••••

Life was hard for settlers and it still isn’t easy, even here in gorgeous, glittering, scrubbed-clean Saksun. In his book Harvest, Jim Crace suggests the tenuousness of living on the edge of the world: “We do not press too closely to His bosom; rather we are at His fingertips. He touches us, but only just.”

Dining with Darlene

Quirpon Island, between Newfoundland and Labrador:

Wind rattling the windows, we sit before the locally famous Jiggs dinner: Roast beef and carrots with potatoes, puréed turnips and dressing, each served from ice cream scoops, and gravy from a gravy boat for every two people.

I believe it may be served every night. Learn one thing, learn it well.

The kitchen crew of Marilyn, Mariah and Madonna prepare breakfast, dinner in two seatings, and keep the kettle on for visitors. They serve tonight’s meal, repair to the back and we dine, strangers at the common table.

Stooped and graying Reiner and his wife Ellen from Kitchener. Two German girls, one pregnant. A young woman and her consort, neither terribly fetching, whose names are never revealed because they never say a single word except “hi.” Nor do they make eye contact. Ever.

Showing an easy disfluency with politesse, Darlene, a formidable woman who gives her chair disquiet, regales us with tales of her extensive travels to Myanmar, Sossusvlei and Maccu Pichu. She makes sure we know of her extreme devotion to photography and shares a blow by blow of her fall getting into the boat earlier today.

Rapacious with our little group’s time, she lectures with apodictic certainty on the state of Canadian politics while the table prefers a much more politically vegetarian conversation. Ellen stares at her scoop of turnip.

Sometimes klatches of strangers provoke stimulating conversation, but often there is a Darlene. I’d like to advise her that if one is convinced she is the smartest person in the room, she will find greater mental challenge by changing rooms. Alas, here there is a shortage of rooms.

So I take my own advice and find an early opportunity to track down the boys in the back. Angus and Ed and Brian are downing beers, TV on, sound down. This is a small house, this inn, once the lighthouse keeper’s residence alone, and the boys sit atop one another, furniture and belongings in a jumble, a rumpled, strewn-about place far more lived in than the anodyne common space.

Time worn jokes about needing to get around to some remodeling. You have to close the door to the hallway to open the door to the toilet, which is full of toothbrushes.

These men provide all the brawn on Quirpon Island, the laboring face of Ed’s lighthouse business. Ed, the leader, lanky and craggy with long teeth and a formidable Newfie accent, folds himself into his chair. Brian, the quiet one, is charged with running the ATV up and back across the island, not an inconsiderable task.

Angus, the great outdoorsman, says they dress to be out all day every morning, because they never know quite what chore will have to be gotten up to, and the wind is blistering and he guesses maybe 250 icebergs arrive each year, having sailed the 1,600-odd kilometers fromGreenland (The Titanic’s fateful berg drifted in this same way down the Labrador current from Baffin Bay south of here). And after another day out amid the wet and the wind and the icebergs, Angus is simply and openly baffled why we would ever want to go back to St. John’s.

I want to hear stories, but they are in their home space and I don’t begrudge them their private time.

So: Squeeze down the hallway to the kitchen, gaze at the gale through the window, then look around this tiny kitchen in this modest building. Consider the even more modest one in which we stay. These two buildings, when full, hold 22 max. I must surmise that Marilyn, Mariah and Madonna spend an indoor life constrained. We make the short walk back to the building where we’ve been given a bed.

•••••

Another tiny excerpt from my new book. Go grab it, it’s good stuff. And sign up for a free audiobook version of Common Sense and Whiskey by clicking the box on the right. Drawings every Friday.