Cosmonauts and Astronauts

That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

Cosmonauts – sailors through the cosmos; astronauts – sailors among the stars

It was the summer of 1969 and I was nearly 11. My family – my mum, my grandmother, my kid sister and I – were on our way north. We were going to stay for a week in the English Lake District. Mum had rented a cottage by Lake Windermere, but it was a longer journey then, all the way from Brighton to Cumberland, and we were breaking our journey at a hotel in London. We couldn’t afford it, but Grandma’s youngest brother was currently in funds and he’d rented the room for us. It was palatial. There were beds for all of us, an en suite bathroom and a mini-bar with chocolate (there may have been other things, but I remember the chocolate). Most impressively – and importantly – there was a TV. This night was the night of the Apollo 11 moon landing, this evening a man – two men – would walk on the moon for the first time, and the whole event would be broadcast live.

I think everyone in the family was interested – it wasn’t just that I’d been talking of nothing else for days – but each person was interested to a different degree. We were all awake the Eagle separated from the mother craft and I know Mum, at least, was still awake when Eagle landed at Tranquility Base at a quarter past 9 in the evening, but at 3:56 in the morning I was the only witness to Neil Armstrong’s hop down onto the moon’s surface and his words.

Of course he should have said “one small step for A man”. That’s what he’d rehearsed, but he fluffed it. Not that it mattered. Not that I or almost anyone else noticed at the time.

Amazing to think the Soviet Union had come so close to beating the Americans.

In 1989, twenty years after the Apollo 11 moon landing, the secret came out. The Soviet Union had its own moon programme and its own moon lander. The plan was to reach the moon before the Americans. It would be a propaganda triumph in the same style as putting Sputnik, the first satellite, into orbit, or Laika, the first dog in space, or launching Gagarin and Tereshkova, the first male and first female cosmonauts, into space and safely bringing them back down.

The Soviet programme, like the American, had its disasters but they were hidden away and never openly discussed. Failure was not deemed acceptable. Sending someone to the moon had to be done successfully and in public, or not at all. If it was public and it failed, the propaganda effect would be disastrous. In the end the technology was deemed unsafe. There was no way to guarantee a successful landing and successful return. The programme limped along for a few years into the 1970s but was eventually abandoned and classified as top secret.

That was then. Now one of the never used Soviet lunar landers, the LK-3, is on display as the key exhibit of Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, an exhibition about the Soviet space programme showing at the Science Museum in London. The exhibition runs through to mid-March 2016 – after which I guess it will travel on to other places. I hope it does, though with the state of political tension that exists between Russia and the West, who knows. It’s a small miracle that it’s taking place at all, though I suppose given the time necessary to set up an exhibition of this sort it, was probably conceived and approved long before tensions got so bad.

And, of course, the space programme continues to be one conspicuous area of co-operation set aside from politics. No doubt because everyone has more to gain from keeping it so. The BBC has recently been following the adventures of Britain’s latest astronaut, Tim Peake, to the International Space Station. He was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the old Soviet launch pad and the only one in the world that can currently put people into space.

Cosmonauts featuredWhen I was 11, I wanted to be an astronaut. I wasn’t alone, I’m sure of that. Wandering around the Cosmonauts exhibition, as I did when I was in London in October, I overheard many an older gentleman of my generation (and one or two ladies too) steering grandchildren around and reading aloud, in hushed and reverent tones, the signs on the exhibits. Sputnik and Soyuz, Gagarin and Tereshkova. Let’s not forget, these were our heroes and our inspirations too – along with Eagle and Apollo, Armstrong and Aldrin.

Some at least of the kids seemed interested.


The illustration at the head and foot of this article is a collage of Soviet era space-race posters, together with the poster advertising the Cosmonauts exhibition at the Science Museum. They are all clipped out of photos I took of the posters on sale in the Science Museum’s shop.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Review of Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands

Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands:
Fifty islands I have not visited and never will

by Judith Schalansky
translated from the German by Christine Lo
published by Penguin Books

This is a most fascinating, delightful and beguiling book.

It is fascinating for the information it contains. In one sense, it is a gazetteer of fifty islands scattered about the globe with snippets of the stories – often just one story – and people associated with each. Fifty delicately drawn maps, all to the same scale. Brief notes on the islands, what they are called – or have been called – their allegiances (which states claim sovereignty), their physical sizes, populations or otherwise. And for each the distances from three other pieces of dry land at three different points of the compass, and the merest outline sketch of a timeline.

The book is delightful for its beauty and elegance. It is a pleasure to hold. The quality of the paper, the printing, the binding – the care that has gone into creating it. The typography and layout, the maps. The pocket version that I have is something you want to carry about with you and the full sized version would adorn any bookshelf.

Robinson Crusoe's IslandHowever the Atlas of Remote Islands is also beguiling because of the clash it illustrates. The crash when the desert island paradise romance runs full tilt into the sometimes sordid, sometimes horrific, sometimes cryptic, sometimes heart-wrenching reality. Here are stories of castaways and disappointed explorers, mutiny and rebellion, insanity and corruption, rape, incest, murder and cannibalism, lonely scientists and erotically disturbed merchants. The very title of the introductory essay is: “Paradise is an Island. So is Hell”. Don’t say you weren’t warned!

In the introduction Judith Schalansky – a designer and typographer (of course), an author and a teacher – describes how, as a child born in East Berlin, she became an armchair traveller at an early age. How she used an atlas to explore the world she could never visit, until the fall of the Berlin Wall suddenly opened that world to her. But the reunification of Germany also revealed the insidious political agenda of the atlas.

The first atlas in my life… was committed to an ideology. Its ideology was clear from its map of the world, carefully positioned on a double-page spread so that the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic fell on two separate pages. On this map there was no wall dividing the two German countries, no Iron Curtain; instead, there was the blinding white, impassable edge of the page. That, in turn, the provisional nature of the GDR was depicted by the mysterious letters SBZ (Sowjetische Besatzungszone, ‘Soviet Occupied Territory’) in the atlases used in West German schools was something that I only found out later… Ever since then I have not trusted political world maps…

Of course, all maps are ideological. Flat representations of the world in atlases, projections of a three dimensional globe onto a two dimensional surface, skew the image of the world into something we are all familiar with and take for granted with barely a thought. Europe, that hard-to-delimit peninsular sticking out from the Asian landmass, is at the top and in the centre of the world map (unless you are in the USA in which case North America is top centre). The rest of the world is beneath, below, peripheral – with all that implies. And Africa, the world’s second largest continent, appears the same size as Greenland, which is in fact 14 times smaller. (I note that, for the endpaper maps of the world in this book, Schalansky has chosen what I take to be an equirectangular projection which avoids the Greenland/Africa distortion to some extent.)

Is a globe better?

The globe is certainly a better representation of the Earth than the collection of maps in an atlas, and it can rouse wanderlust in the young. But the shape of the globe is problematic. Constantly in motion, this Earth has no borders, no up or down, no beginning and no end, and one side is always hidden from view.

This is an approximate book. It contains the truth – “I have invented nothing,” says the author – but like an atlas, for all its apparent objectivity it is a subjective and partial report of these remote islands. An approximation. An interpretation.

Easter IslandAnd there’s a warning even in the title of the book. That little subjective word “remote”. What is remote, after all, depends very much on your point of view. Easter Island nearly 3700km from South America in one direction and a little over 4000km from Tahiti in the other is, from a European perspective, one of the most remote places in the world. The locals, though, call their island Te Pit Te Hunua – Navel of the World.

In an interview, Judith Schalansky describes herself amused when she comes across her Atlas shelved by bookshops in their Travel section. I understand her. The book is more akin to poetry and/or philosophy – even geography – than it is to guide books. But at the same time, I understand the bookshops too. It is about travel; about travelling in the mind and the imagination.

So, the Atlas of Remote Islands – hard to categorise, but well worth searching out.


This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

This review also published at Goodreads.com here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1464082556

I am diminished

This week I am diminished, made smaller, because last Friday I helped to bury my friend.

This is a blog about travelling, and what are our lives if not the journeys we make from birth to death, passing through this world? What are our travellers’ tales if not accounts of memories of what we have encountered along our way through life?

Adrian was my oldest friend. I met him when I was about 10½ and he was just 11, and though we did not walk much together through the world, still we saw one another from time to time and compared notes. We’d had more contact lately, what with the Internet and Facebook, but even before – for thirty years, more – there were letters and the occasional phone call and a meeting now and again.

And now no more.

I met up with him most recently about two weeks before he died. He was in good health. OK, he was fatter around the middle and balder on top. The tall, slim, fair-haired boy from 1969 was gone, but which of us have not changed dramatically from our pre-pubertal selves? (I speak with the weight of many added kilos and, to be sure, a great deal more facial hair.) But he looked in good enough health.

True, he had a story to tell of great sadness in his recent life, of separation and divorce. But he was joyful too, talking about his daughter’s achievements and his own rediscovery of Buddhism after all these years.

We parted that mild, damp October evening promising to stay in touch and, on my part, with a plan forming for another visit to Brighton and another meeting in the not too distant future. Perhaps in the New Year.

I was in Florence when the news reached me that Adrian was dead. There was, it seems, no warning. On Sunday 1st November he’d visited a friend in Shoreham, and then gone for one of his long walks across the Downs, the rolling chalk hills that embrace Brighton and Hove. He’d come home to his room at the Brighton Buddhist Centre and there he’d suffered a heart attack caused by a blood clot, and died.

No one is an island, complete and self-sufficient. Everyone is a piece of a continent, a part of the whole. If a piece of earth is washed away by the sea, the whole of dry land becomes smaller in just the same way as it becomes smaller if a headland were lost, or a peninsula, or the garden of one of your friends, or your own. In the same way, the death of someone close, of a friend or a family member, may be felt more keenly, but truly anyone’s death diminishes me, because I am a part of the continent of mankind.

And Adrian has gone, and I am diminished.


Yes, you’re right, I have borrowed from John Donne – the Meditation XVII.

Now this bell tolling softly for another,
says to me, Thou must die.

Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill as that he knows not it tolls for him. And perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that…
All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again, for that library where every book shall lie open to one another; as therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come; so this bell calls us all…
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee…

The photo of Adrian at the head of this is a selfie taken from his Facebook Page, behind is a school photo from 1971. The boy in focus, that’s Adrian.

In the sound recording the Buddhist prayer bell comes from a recording on Freesound.org by user Itsallhappening, for which many thanks. The sound of the sea is an ambient recording I made myself in Brighton.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.