A turbulent flight to Bristol, then a train to Totnes, via Exeter, along the bottom edge of England, on a track running so close to the coastline that the waves splash up against the carriage windows. After that, a bus ride to Buckfastleigh, down threadlike country roads, past a village called Hunter’s Moon and an inn that began serving in the year 1327. The driver will, like James Brown, “take you to the bridge”. From there, you can walk the last half-mile. Physically then, it’s a long way from the streets of central Scotland – where Buckfast Tonic Wine is drunk in public and private, by old-timers and underagers, habitually and anti-socially – to the Devonshire abbey where that wine is made in cellars by monks. And spiritually, it’s even further.
IN THE universe of Doctor Who, all moments in time are occurring simultaneously. The trick is moving back and forth between them. With that in mind, let’s go to Saturday, November 23, 1963, as this curious new programme about an irritable, inscrutable alien gentleman suddenly appears on BBC television, in the space between Grandstand and Jukebox Jury – although most viewers don’t notice at first, distracted by the news of President John F Kennedy’s assassination, which happened only yesterday.
ON my first morning, I am issued with work gloves and boots, a hardhat, a dust mask, and a red and yellow boiler suit. My team leader Dave Ludvik, being Australian, calls this garment a “onesie”. I already love my onesie, and I will later wear it to jobs that don’t really call for it. Today, Dave says it’s essential, as the two of us will be driving to the “gomi-yama”, or “mountain of rubbish” down at Ishinomaki port, where assorted debris from the great tsunami is still piling up, more than two years after the event.
STANDING over Pablo Neruda’s grave, a young attendant named Lorena said she wasn’t sure about any of this. The exhumation had not yet begun, and the flowerbed looked undisturbed above the poet’s burial mound at Isla Negra, just outside his former home on the rocky black volcanic coast of Chile. But court-appointed investigators had already been out to survey the site and measure the depth of the remains. Asked for her opinion on Neruda’s cause of death, Lorena told me that she didn’t know what to believe. “There’s a lot of stories, but no proof,” she said.
WE crossed from Argentina into Chile over the Andes. The bus was angled upward like a plane taking off, the narrow road rising to an altitude of almost 12,000 feet at the border checkpoint, in a high pass called Los Libertadores. The peaks loomed above us on all sides, with Acongagua in the distance – the tallest mountain outside of Asia, a factory for generating clouds. It was literally dizzying. My nose bled, and my girlfriend fainted in the long queue at the immigration desk.
BY Japanese standards, Onagawa was a young town. Or, at least, a relatively new port, formally founded in 1926 but incorporating much older fishing hamlets. It was located near the north-east limit of Japan’s main island, Honshu – on the Sanriku coast of the Tohoku region – where thickly forested mountains drop into the Pacific, and submerged river valleys form a fjord-like landscape of deep bays and narrow inlets. Human settlers have been living in those margins for centuries, feeding off two fertile ocean currents that converge just offshore, carrying saury and silver salmon practically into their mouths. Less than 50 miles out, there is also a volatile tectonic fault plane, in the trench between the Japan and Okhotsk plates.
ONAGAWA was not destroyed, they kept saying. The survivors were insistent on that point when I first visited last April, less than one month after the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of March 11, 2011, which had effectively wiped this small port town off the map. “We are still here,” said local teacher Ikuo Fujinaka, standing in the ruin of his house. “Onagawa still exists.” More in memory than reality, I thought. In percentage terms, it had suffered greater losses than anywhere else along the Tohoku coast – over 80% of its buildings, more than 50% of its homes, and almost 10% of the population, leaving Onagawa literally decimated.
RONALDO Quinn was 21 when he was sent to liberate the Malvinas Islands. Thirty years ago tomorrow, on April 2, 1982, Argentina’s ruling military junta dispatched a small force to reclaim those tiny, distant South Atlantic islands from the British who called them the Falklands. Though already two months over his mandatory year of national service, Quinn was “invited to participate”, as he puts it today. “I was just a conscript in the army,” he says, “and probably one of the worst. My performance was always poor. I used to oversleep. I was not made to be a soldier at all. Then suddenly I was a part of Argentina’s history.”
I FELT the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, in the same way that you might get a spot of drizzle from the tip of the tail of a hurricane. At 2.46pm on Friday, March 11, I was walking home from the library in a small, quiet town called Daishoji, some 400 miles west of the epicentre. The pavement shifted side to side, ever so slightly. I had been drinking the night before, and my first thought was for my lost youth, when I could handle a few beers and a couple of shots without wobbling off a footpath the following afternoon. It took a full five seconds to register that this movement was occurring outside my skull, and a little longer to recognise the sensation.
TWO people climb a mountain, connected by a rope. They go up together in concerted motion, taking turns to carve out a path. If one falls, so does the other. This method is known as “alpine-style” – the purest kind of mountaineering. It has the simplicity of a proverb and it loads the rope with meaning. When Simon Yates cut the cord between himself and his friend Joe Simpson during their fraught descent from the summit of Peru’s Siula Grande in 1985, he was taking the only possible, practical action. The act itself was resounding. There were only two people on the mountain, but everybody heard about it.