Friday, August 31, 2007


Left: Original cover of the first edition of 'The Greenpeace Story' (first published 1989);
Above: The original Greenpeace crew on their way to Amchitka in 1971. From left (top) Robert Hunter, Patrick Moore, Bob Cummings, Ben Metcalfe, engineer David Birmingham; (bottom) Richard Fineberg, Dr Lyle Thurston, Jim Bohlen, Terry Simmons, Bill Darnell and skipper John Cormack.

Memories were triggered the other day when my dear friend Keiran Mulvaney sent me a link to his blog and I discovered that he was on a new Greenpeace boat heading once more for Amchitka. As explained below, this is where Greenpeace began. Its hard to believe its almost 20 years since we put Greenpeace's history together.

There have been many other books written before and since. These include
The Greenpeace Chronicle by Robert Hunter
Greenpeace: How a Group of Ecologists, Journalists, and Visionaries Changed the World by Rex Weyler
Making Waves by Jim Bohlen
Shadow Warrior: The Autobiography of David McTaggart

The definitive story of this remarkable organisation still remains to be told. I hope we made a useful contribution to that end.

Read more about the Bering Sea 2007 Campaign tour here
From this link you can follow the voyage on Google Earth

Below Kieran's blog entry on the first landing on Amchitka.


Thirty-five years, eleven months, and eighteen days later, we finally made it.

On September 15, 1971, a crew of twelve set out from Vancouver Island in an eighty-foot halibut seiner called the Phyllis Cormack on a daring, even foolhardy, mission: to steam to the Aleutian island of Amchitka and protest, or even prevent, the detonation of an underground nuclear test. When the plan was first hatched, the group that organized the mission went by the name of the Don't Make a Wave Comittee. By the time the Cormack set out to sea, they were calling themselves Greenpeace.

The Cormack didn't make it to Amchitka. President Nixon delayed the test, the crew put into the Aleutian port of Akutan to figure out next steps, and the US Coastguard arrested them on a technicality. But the mission was a success: although the explosion, dubbed Cannikin, went ahead, it would be the last on the island: a further four tests were scheduled but canceled in the face of the enormous protests that found a voice in the Greenpeace voyage.

And yet, ever since, a circle has remained broken, a path unfinished. Almost thirty-six years have passed, the island has become a wildlife sanctuary, and a kind of calm has returned in this most remote of realms, and yet, no Greenpeace ship had completed the Phyllis Cormack's journey and reached the shores of Amchitka.

Until today.

To the last, Amchitka seemed determined to keep its secrets. We arrived as night was reluctantly yielding its grip, and even when daylight barged its way through, Amchitka lay shrouded in thick, seemingly impenetrable fog. An initial boat ride in search of a suitable landing beach provided little of great promise, but at least one option, and after lunch we headed ashore.

The island is ringed by thick kelp beds--the reason it was once lush habitat for sea otters, all now gone, whose violent deaths as a result of the blasts angered Irving Stowe and motivated him to protest the explosions, a move that gave rise to the Don't Make a Wave Committee and thence Greenpeace. There was no doubt that the kelp could do serious harm to the propellor of the African Queen, our large inflatable, so we employed a shuttle service: from Esperanza to African Queen to the smaller Novuraina, which threaded its way uncertainly through the shallows, before we began an undignified clamber across kelp-coated rocks and finally made it ashore.

We had made it. We were on Amchitka. But the object of our attention lay a couple of miles away yet, over the intimidating-looking hillside that sloped down toward us. Undaunted, we picked and clambered and hauled our way to the top of the island, and there, of all things, stood a concrete hut at the end of a gravel road. It had been, presumably, a form of sentry post.

We stepped inside. On the floor there sat what appeared to unexploded shells. We stepped back outside.

We wandered along the road, but according to our charts and calculations, we needed to head inland a short distance. And so we marched across spongy mosses that sprang back up as our footprints left, along thick tundra that enveloped our feet as if trying to suck us into the ground, and tall grasses that hid holes into which at least some of us sometimes stumbled and fell.

Then we rose over a ridge and there, ahead of us, was what we had come to see: Cannikin Lake, created when the force of the blast caused the land to collapse, forming a crater which filled with water from nearby White Alice Creek.

It looked, frankly, disconcertingly peaceful and calm, the water gently breaking against the lush grassy coast, But its placidity is deceiving: samples have shown that the lake, the creek, and the mosses and lichens contain radioactive elements, which are still seeping into the groundwater from the blast chamber a mile below the surface.

At ground zero itself, close to the lake, the reality was more evident. Here, in stark contrast to the lush environment on the way in, the ground was all but lifeless, the remnants of scorched lichens clinging to bare earth. And there was something else, something I hadn't truly realized until talking later with Raymond back on the Esperanza. This is an island that has felt but a handful of human footprints for more than thirty years, that is an undisturbed wiildlife reserve. But there is virtually no life here. Oh, there are some seabirds, some songbirds, moths and spiders and flies here and there. But compared to the other Aleutian islands we have visited, it is lush but desolate. The place just feels wrong. It feels violated. It feels ... dead.

The crew had made it clear they had no intention of allowing us solely to come and monitor and document the site without making at least a symbolic statement, and so we stood, facing the lake, with the ship's flags tied to poles and waving bravely in the strong wind, a testament to how Greenpeace has grown globally in scope in the decades since its founding, and how, on behalf of the nations of the world, we were reclaiming this patch of inhumanity and calling for peace.

Then the flags came down, and everyone stomped back over the hill, leaving Brent, Clive, myself--and Barbara. Barbara Stowe, 14 years old at the time of the Cormack's sailing, our connection to the founding era, had sold pins and buttons on street corners for 25 cents a pop to raise money for the Cormack's voyage. And now, representing all of those who had devoted so much time, energy, and emotion into making that seminal event happen, she was here, with us, bearing witness firsthand to the place her late father had sworn to protect.

We filmed some interviews, and then again we did battle with the terrain, forcing weary limbs through unforgiving ground, and then precariously down the slopes we had earlier climbed, before once more running the gauntlet of rocks and hitching a ride back to the welcoming Esperanza.

On the beach, some of the crew had arranged driftwood to spell "Bering Witness" in honor of the campaign, a quiet message visible only from the cliff tops.

And at the test site, too, a memorial now stands: a small piece of driftwood, which Diek retrieved from the shore and tied to a short post. In the wood, he carved a simple message: Phyllis Cormack 1971, Esperanza 2007. And now it stands on the shore of Cannikin Lake, a solitary sentinel, bearing witness on our behalf to a silence broken only by the blowing of the wind, the calls of the seabirds, and the gentle lapping of the waves.

Sunday, August 19, 2007


Following on from my immersion in the ocean that is the blues (see previous posts) these other southern delights are highly recommended.

Originaly released in 1972, based on the novel by James Dickey who also wrote the screenplay and makes a cameo appearance in the film as a sheriff, 'Deliverance' still packs a wallop.

I well remember going to see the first press screening in London at that time and sitting down next to a female scribe, who grabbed my hand during the course of the film and dug her nails in so hard that there were visible marks when we came out, shaken, into the early evening light.

It remained from of the prime examples I would quote, when arguing over a drink, about the relativity of film viewing - when and where you see the film has a defining effect on your opinion of it. (Obviously this excludes 'dogs' that no circumstance would alter or improve).

Cos later, still remembering the nails in my hand, I got excited about seeing the first run of the movie on tv (there were no dvds in those days and VHS releases lagged way behind the release date). First-time round, we had no prior knowledge of the film, were seeing it blind in an ideal environment (plush screening room) and thus the shock factor was at maximum. Seeing it again on tv, interrupted by adverts, took all the heat and steam out of it.

This point is underlined by a short review on Amazon by L.A. Hay "Saturnicus" from Scotland, entitled '35 years too late': 'At the time of its release this film had mega hype. John Voigt and Burt Reynolds were the glamour boys of the day and had the girls drooling. At the time I probably would have liked it; or would I? We children of the sixties were notoriously fickle and gave credit when it was due. Finally getting round to see it, (cannot imagine why I was prevented seeing it in the beginning), I was disappointed. The subject of male abuse would have no doubt been lost on me in 1972 as I would not even known what it was, so perhaps that was a major stunner at the time. Over the years no doubt many other features in the movie so innovative back then, have become commonplace...The lessons it may have taught us, and horrors it showed us, have dissipated with time.'

To these eyes, watching it more than 30 years later, it looks timeless. The cinematography is stunning , the famous 'Duelling Banjos' still works as a hokey then creepy opener and Boorman's mastery of the growing sense of dread (all a question of pace) draws you in until, like the film's protagonists, you find yourself caught on a emotional ride that you cannot get off.

One thing a re-viewing brings home is how editing techniques have changed. Boorman takes his time. The camera lingers longer. One has space to absorb the stunning landscapes, the sound of the river. Compare and contrast the way the film's violent episodes are handled. Imagine how many jump shots there would be in a modern movie. The gore factor would have to be upped to compete with today's hyper-realism.

In retrospect, the 70s was a classic Hollywood period when a new generation of film-makers stormed the walls of Babylon and had a party. This point was underlined by watching the DVD of 'Easy Riders, Raging Bulls' - the excellent documentary of Peter Biskin's book. Particularly stunning are the extras: a really tremendous set of beautifully shot interviews with some key characters. Check out Dennid Hopper's stories about the making of 'Apocalypse Now'.

Check out also the BBC4 web site connected to their screening of the film: audio interviews with Hopper, Altman, Scorsese and Schlesinger. Also audio link to interview with Biskind. Read critique of the book here.

Boorman is currently working on an adaptation of Marguerite Yourcenar's bestseller "Memoirs of Hadrian," which is written in the form of a letter from the aging emperor to his young successor, recounting the story of his early political career in the second century A.D.
Read his 2001 Guardian article 'That's All Folks': Big movies now cost $100m and that figure is going up. How can the studios afford it? They can't. Film-maker John Boorman on an industry facing meltdown.

James Dickey, who was a decorated fighter pilot and US poet laureate, died in January 1997, four days after his last class at the University of South Carolina, where from 1968 he taught as Poet-in-Residence. Audio interviews with Dickey here

'Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus', a film by Andrew Douglas, is a captivating and compelling road trip through the Southern States in the company of singer Jim White. Originally shown on BBC's Arena programme, this a truly amazing and innovative film, suffused with a strange darkness, full of exquisite music and great storytellers. The DVD is not cheap but it pays repeated viewings.

Just been up half the night reading 'Moonshine, Monster Catfish and other Southern Comforts', Burkhard Bilger's account of his investigations into such southern traditions as eating squirrels, fighting cocks, noodling catfish and playing rolley holer - a strange form of marbles. Bilger is a staff writer for the New Yorker and a brilliant reporter and stylist. Here are visions of other worlds beyond our ken. Delightful and insightful. Read an extract here.


It has been a rare privilege over the last month or so to immerse myself in the roots of the blues via two detailed conversations with the authors of two recently published books:

'In Search of the Blues: Black Voices, White Visions' by Marybeth Hamliton is published by Jonathan Cape [£12.99]

‘Hand Me My Travellin’ Shoes: In Search of Blind Willie McTell’ by Michael Gray is published by Bloomsbury (£25.00)

The first challenges the myths surrounding the Delta Blues; the other brings to life one of the great seminal blues players. Both add immeasurably to our knowledge of both the music and the societies that spawned them.

You can hear these interviews on the Audio Generalist - for free!

Californian-born Marybeth Hamilton teaches American History at Birkbeck College, University of London and has previously written 'When I'm Bad, I'm Better: Mae West, Sex and American Entertainment.'

Read Mick Brown's review of 'In Search of the Blues' on The Telegraph site.

Michael Gray is best known as the author of ‘Song and Dance Man’ the first ever book-length critical study of Bob Dylan’s work, published originally in 1972. Over the years it has grown and developed to the point where ’Song and Dance Man III’, published in 2000 and reprinted five times in the years since, is now 918pp long including the index.
His excellent Bob Dylan Encylcopedia blog can be found here
He has also started one on Blind Willie McTell

Read the lyrics of Bob Dylan's song 'Blind Willie McTell'

This new CD set is one of a recently released series which includes Robert Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson - all of which

I purchased for The Generalist's turntable. At £10.99 each they are also great value.

They are issued by Snapper Records,who have also just released 'The Early Blues Roots of Bob Dylan'

A great album in the same vein that my old friend Nick gave me for my 50th birthday, which also comes highly recommended:
'Led Astray - The Folk Blues of Page and Plant'

Blues In Britain is building the most comprehensive list of blues resources on the internet.