Book translation and History Society talk

February 11, 2016

This is my 500th blog post! Thanks to all my followers and readers.

In the post this morning, I received a copy of the translation of my last academic book (before I retired) into Japanese. This is the 2nd book I’ve had translated into Japanese, the previous one being Teaching Information Skills in Schools. The new translation is of Improving Students’ Web Use and Information Literacy. The book is for teachers and school librarians and has been used in schools and universities in many different countries around the world. It aims to provide school staff with both theory and practical advice – with many case studies of schools – on how to ensure that their students/pupils are effective users of the Web. My own research showed that students were often poor web users i.e. they could find lots of information but struggled to find relevant information for their school work. Developing students as information literacy practitioners implies that students identify a purpose for, find, analyse and effectively use information from a range of sources. It also implies that they will reflect upon and transfer these practices.

Scan book

English version of the book

Scan_20160210

Japanese version of the book

Yesterday evening I was the guest speaker at the Dunbar and District History Society. My current research is on my home town of Dunbar in the early 1950s and this talk was on New Housing and Entertainment. The first topic related to the building of new council houses in Dunbar from 1949-1953. I’m using oral history interviews to record people’s memories of moving to these new houses, situated in what was (and is) called the Tree Scheme, as all the streets were given names of trees e.g. I grew up in Cedar Street. The interviews revealed a phenomenon identified across the UK after the 2nd World War – overcrowding. The postwar baby boom was not accompanied by a housing boom, due to shortages of materials and men, and the poor state of the British economy. As a result, many young families stayed with their parents, usually the wife’s parents. Two of my interviewees lived in small flats with shared toilets, with the parents sleeping in the living room and two or more children in a bedroom. Another interviewee moved from a rented house with only gas light.

Tree scheme photo

Pine Street Dunbar in 1950

On the whole, young families were delighted with the new houses as they at last had a home of their own, with front and back gardens, inside toilet and bath (as opposed to outside toilet and tin bath), spacious rooms and (by 1950 standards) modern kitchens. My interviewees are mainly children and young adults who moved to these houses. When I interviewed males, the reaction was totally positive. My female interviewees expressed delight for themselves with their new homes, but noted that their mothers’ experiences were not totally positive. For women, who often had several children, the new houses did not provide a release from the drudgery of washing clothes using 2 sinks and a hand wringer and cooking for large numbers. They had much more space but no longer had their mother on hand to help with these onerous tasks. They had to spend long periods in the kitchen. One feature of these houses was that they were heated by coal fires with back boilers in the living room but the coal was not kept in an external bunker, it was stored in a large cupboard in the kitchen. The plan below is not very clear but you can see the word FUEL in the top left hand corner. As you came in the back door, there was a larder, a second storage cupboard and then what was called the coal cellar. For women, this meant that once a fortnight, when coal was delivered, the coal men came in the back door and deposited the coal and created a coal dust storm which filled the kitchen – and had to be cleaned. I asked the female section of my audience whether they thought these kitchens were designed by a man or a woman. You know the response. There was thus a gendered and a class aspect to the design of these houses. The architects – presumably middle class men – were designing kitchens for working class women, so their view of the expectations of the women were, it’s clear, much less than the women’s own expectations. Even in 1950, you would not have chosen to have a coal cellar/space in your kitchen.

2016-02-05 15.31.46

Plan of ground floor in the Tree Scheme

My second topic was entertainment and although I have recorded interviewees’ memories of listening to the wireless (later called the radio) in these pre-television days and going to local dances, I only covered their memories of the two picture houses (as they were called then) in Dunbar in 1950. The old cinema, The Empire, was a large hall built on a slope, with a narrow entrance. It had been built in the 1920s and was, according to one person ” a pretty dingy place” but it was cheaper. The local paper advertised the films and an example follows. At the talk, I played part of the YouTube trailer for the Marx Brothers film.

Empire 1404-page-001

Empire Cinema Dunbar advert in 1950

The newer cinema was The Playhouse, opened in 1937 and a much grander affair altogether. It held over 1000 people. One of my interviewees – now a sprightly 90 years old – told me that there was a story that the cinema designers had visited Dunbar in the summer time, when the population swelled because of the seaside visitors and based demand on this and not the normal population – thus the large cinema in a small town. The inside of the Playhouse was decorated in the art deco style shown in the photo below.

playhouse 6

Inside the Playhouse in Dunbar in 1950

The Playhouse was much more luxurious than the Empire, with a proper balcony section, as opposed to the rope divider in the old cinema. It also had a café. The Playhouse showed 3 lots of films in one week, plus a Saturday matinée for children, as this advert shows.

Playhouse ad 0812-page-001

Playhouse cinema advert 1950

I played part of the Challenge to Lassie film. It’s Lassie as you never imagined and the accents are awful. My audience enjoyed it as well as the memories of my interviewees who recalled going to the Playhouse on a regular basis. In the advert above, you will see that, at each showing, there was the Gaumont British News. This was the only way that people could see the news in 1950 as television did not come to Scotland until 1952.

Cooking Beef’n’Beer, RSNO Concert and tulips

February 2, 2016

We were having family over for a meal last week and we decided to cook something that has been off our menu for a few years. Beef’n’Beer i.e. beef cooked in beer is very simple but very tasty, and has the added value of a crusty bread topping. We’ve had a Le Creuset casserole dish for many years and the wee book that came with the dish has the recipe in it – now it’s online here. For my Beef’n’Beer, I used round steak instead of the beef chuck  (aka chuck steak) in the book. Round steak is much more tender and certainly takes less time to cook – it’s also much less fatty. For four of us, I bought 1.5lbs (0.68KG) of round steak. In our local butcher’s, everyone still asks for their meat in a pound, three quarters of a pound, half a pound or just “a quarter” e.g. of cold meat. I covered the steak lightly in flour and gently browned it in some Flora oil. I then added 2 medium sized shallots (I sometimes use a red onion) , a garlic clove, 2 thickly sliced carrots, 2 bay leaves, some dried thyme and rosemary (the recipe recommends fresh herbs) and some fresh parsley from my garden. After the shallots had softened, I added a bottle of real ale, in this case, a bottle of locally brewed Belhaven St Andrews Ale. I cooked this in the oven at 180 degrees Centigrade for about an hour and 15 minutes – you are always better to try it for tenderness after an hour. You can eat the dish on its own but adding the topping makes all the difference. I cut thick slices from a large baguette bought in our local community bakery (photo below) and covered the top of each slice with some Dijon  mustard  (interesting article). Two things are key here. Firstly, you need to make sure that you have enough liquid for serving the meat, as the bread will soak up some of it. Secondly, you need to squeeze the slices to maximise the number of slices – I allocated 2 slices per person. You put the dish back in the oven and in 20 minutes, the bread should be going brown at the edges. I served it with mash potatoes and broccoli but other vegetables  e.g. peas, green beans or buttered carrots would do as well. It is very tasty and …. roll of the drums... this is what it looks like.

IMG_0072

Beef’n’Beer cooked in a Le Creuset dish.

bakery front-page-tbd

Dunbar Community Bakery

I haven’t been to a classical music concert for years although every year I’ve promised myself that I will do so. Last week, I took the plunge and went to the Brunton Theatre in Musselburgh which is half an hour’s drive from Dunbar, to see the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. The concert started with the lively Romanian Concerto (very good video) by Ligeti, a composer unknown to me. Ligeti was a Hungarian composer who received many honours for his wide range of works. The second part was Mozart’s enchanting Bassoon Concerto in B Flat Major (video of the piece), featuring the principal bassoonist of the RSNO, David Hubbard (interesting video). It was fascinating to see how Hubbard controlled his instrument and seemed intent on getting the best out of it. The sound was melodious and you could not help but admire this man’s craft. The main event of the evening was Brahms’ Symphony No 4 (video of the whole concert with Daniel Barenboim). To this uninitiated listener, this was a melodic and joyous symphony with a combination of slower, softer sections and a crescendo of a final section. For a more detailed analysis – and a much darker view of the piece – see Tom Service’s review. So, a very enjoyable concert – the only thing missing being my camera. The photo below is included by permission of the RSNO.

rsno

Section of the RSNO

We’re still in thick of winter in Dunbar but it’s now February and my garden is suddenly strewn with emerging heads of daffodils and a few tulip heads have also appeared. Today, with Storm Henry approaching, they are being blown about relentlessly. Inside the house, safely and serenely arranged in a vase are a bunch of multi-coloured tulips. These tulips are a welcome flash of colour, and a promise of Spring being not so far away, on an intermittently dark and windy day. Tulips have their origins in Turkey and came to Europe in the 17th century. An interesting fact from this website is that multi-coloured tulips were originally diseased but the modern versions are safe hybrids. The first photo shows the tulips in a resplendent array of contrasting colours, offset by the green of the stems. The second photo is taken from above the flowers and shows them in a completely different way, possibly bursting into song or yelling with pain at being shown at such an unflattering angle?

IMG_0074

A dazzling array of tulips

IMG_0077

Tulips from above

Sylvia Plath wrote “The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here” in a rather melancholy poem entitled Tulips. A much more joyous celebration of tulips comes from A E Stallings and she writes “The tulips make me want to paint” and “Something about the way they twist/ As if to catch the last applause” which could be an acute commentary on the 2nd photo.

 

 

The French Table and Kalamkari exhibition

January 20, 2016

One of the highlights of our recent trip to London was going to the delightful The French Table (aka TFT) restaurant in Surbiton. We were staying nearby with relatives in Thames Ditton and we were out celebrating our nephew Sid’s 21st birthday. The staff at TFT had added fine touches to our table, including red and white ribbons round the menu, as Sid supports Southampton FC. Also, at the top of the menu, they had written “Happy 21st Birthday Sid”. We were given a warm welcome by the cheery, helpful but not intrusive staff who were willing to answer questions about the menu – see below.

Scan_20160117

The French Table Menu

This was a menu – with the exception of the cauliflower – from which I could choose any of the dishes. To start with, my wife and I had the butternut squash crème brûlée. This was a new dish for us and it did not disappoint with the combination of the squash, the crunchy top, the flavoursome vegetables and tasty dressing. I’m going to try to make this and found a recipe (with video). Will it be as good as TFT? – unlikely but watch this space. I had the venison for main course and it was cooked to perfection – tender and pink in the middle, with a real depth of flavour. Two of the party had the monkfish which was praised for its flavour and superb accompaniments of crispy samphire and truffle froth. Zoe from TFT kindly sent me some photos of their dishes and the monkfish is shown below.

TFT 2

Monkfish at The French Table

We all shared a plate of delicious desserts and my favourite was the chocolate and peanut fondant with malt ice cream. Mmm – the malt ice cream was among the best I’ve had. There are two more photos below – the rabbit terrine and cherry soufflé.

TFT 1

Terrine of rabbit, ham hock, green olives and foie gras with homemade piccalilli and toasted walnut bread from The French Table

TFT 4

Morello cherry soufflé with pistachio ice-cream from The French Table.

So, if you ever anywhere near the Surbiton area –  and it’s not far from London – try out this restaurant, as it’s a real find. Next time we’re at our rellies (as the Australians say) we’ll be back.

From food to art and particularly fabrics. There’s a new exhibition at Waterston House in Aberlady and it features the work of the Dundee-based group Kalamkari. The group’s title derives, as the useful handout indicated, from ” a fabric painting and dyeing technique known as ‘kalamkari’ or ‘qualamkari’. There is something for everyone in this exhibition and the standard of textile art on show here is of a very high standard. The theme is nature and this is interpreted widely by the various textile artists on show here: Jan Reid, Carol Gorrie, Maureen Shepherd, Lorna Morrison, Lyn Gourlay, Mona Clark, Morag Gray, Mary Wallace and Sheila Paterson. There are flowers and birds here, but also shorelines,fantasy dolls and abstract pieces. We will certainly return for another viewing. Mona Clark kindly sent me photos two pieces I selected from the exhibition and the two on show here – Land of the Midnight Sun by Lorna Morrison and Rockface at Lunan Bay by Morag Gray – are indicative of the quality of the overall exhibition. If you can get to see the exhibition, please do, or look out for the work of the Kalamari group in the future.

Kal2

Land of the Midnight Sun by Lorna Morrison of the Kalamkari group

Kal 1

Rockface at Lunan Bay by Morag Gray of the Kalamari group

 

London trip: Victoria and Albert Museum and T S Eliot prize readings

January 13, 2016

This posting is rather late as we went down to London for the weekend last Thursday. We stayed in a hotel just around the corner from the London Eye, the huge Ferris wheel overlooking the River Thames. It’s an impressive piece of modern engineering but you do wonder what those who built Big Ben across the river might have thought if they could see into the future and look across to the Eye.  The photo below was taken on the manual focus setting as my camera has a problem – it will not take photos with the  automatic focus on.

IMG_0043

The London Eye on the Southbank

On Friday, we went to the Victoria and Albert Museum which is one of our favourite haunts when visiting London. It’s a vast complex of rooms with ” unrivalled collections of contemporary and historic art and design” and you can go from huge castings of Roman columns to miniature paintings and jewellery within a few minutes. We elected to go to the exhibition of the mid 19th century photography of Julia Margaret Cameron. There’s an excellent video on her on the Vimeo site by the curator of the exhibition. Cameron was a wealthy woman who took photographs of her family, her friends and acquaintances (some famous such as  Charles Darwin) and her servants, who posed for many photographs in which Cameron tried to combine art and photography. The photos below – reproduced under Creative Commons from the National Media Museum – show examples of Cameron’s remarkable work and, given that the photos are 150 years old, the clarity is remarkable.

Darwin

Charles Darwin by Julia Margaret Cameron

Cameron 1

Miss Philpott or May Hillier by Julia Margaret Cameron

We also went to see the Europe 1600-1815 exhibition and there were some beautiful rooms on display as well as some remarkably detailed pieces of furniture such as The Endymion Cabinet (very good silent video). Another outstanding feature was the Mirrored Room with its centrepiece a harp. You can see the room and listen to an audio description here. There are endless visits to the V&A and you’ll never live long enough to see them all, but what a wonderful place to go back to.

It was a busy weekend and coincided with my nephew Sid’s 21st birthday on Sunday. On Friday evening, we went to the excellent The French Table restaurant in Surbiton and this will be featured in the next posting. The original purpose of going to London was for me to go to The Royal Festival Hall for the T S Eliot Prize for Poetry readings, featuring many of the shortlisted poets. The evening was hosted by the distinguished poet and excellent presenter Ian McMillan who joked that his taxi driver had summed up an evening of poetry readings as “Another bloody do for people who wear cravats”. As McMillan said, although the Royal Festival Hall is a huge venue, when the individual poets were reading there was an intimate feeling in the hall. It was an inspiring evening as well as being entertaining, with McMillan’s introductions and anecdotes from Don Paterson. Below is the cover of the booklet given to the audience. The winner – announced the following day at the V&A – was Sarah Howe for her collection A Loop of Jade.

Scan_20160112

T S Eliot Prize for best collection of poetry 2015

 

 

Winterfield walk, apricot stuffing and Auld Year’s Day

January 1, 2016

Note: The photos do not appear to be opening in a new tab as normal – trying to fix this.

A bright and sunny day with a big tide haring towards the shore around Dunbar meant that it was ideal for a walk along the promenade at the end of  Winterfield Park. The origin of the name Winterfield is thought to be related to the fields where cattle were put in the winter, probably as it’s by the sea and less prone to frost. In the park, there is still the Pavilion standing, although it is likely to be demolished. My own memories of Winterfield Park and the pavilion include seeing cricket matches and sheep-dog trials. It was a very stylish building in its heyday but has been neglected for many years.

pavilion

Winterfield Pavilion Photograph by Richard West used under Creative Commons Licence

Once we got on to the promenade, originally built in 1894 as a gift to the town from the local Baird Family, we were presented with an outstanding view across the Firth of Forth to Fife and west to Edinburgh. In the article from the local paper in the previous link, it was stated that “a more commanding position could not be found where from to survey the wildest tumults of the North Sea when under a winter sky it rushes against the cliffy defences of the town. From far up the Firth out as far as the eye may pierce there stretches a scene of stormy thunderous turmoil”. On this walk, there was much evidence of the sea in turmoil with the waves engulfing the rocks around the shore. As it is still the holiday period here, the promenade was quite busy with families, including visiting relatives, out walking on the prom.

IMG_9973

Incoming tide viewed from Winterfield promenade

IMG_9979

Waves hitting the rocks near Winterfield promenade

When you leave the promenade, you go along a path at the edge of the picturesque Winterfield Golf Club (good photos) which was busy with golfers and walkers. You are then presented with a panoramic view across Belhaven Bay (good photos), now a major surfing site all the year round. The tide was well in on our walk and the waves had smoothed out as they stretched across the wide span of the beach. I always love watching the waves extending themselves when they reach the flat beach and, fresh from hurling themselves at the rocks, taking a more leisurely approach, like a long distance swimmer.

IMG_9983

Incoming tide at Belhaven Bay

I’ve featured Belhaven Bridge many times on this blog and taken photos of “the bridge to nowhere” when the tide is in. You never get the same height of tide, or the same light or the same motion of the waves around the bridge. As ever, there were people taking photos of the bridge and I’m sure some of them were wondering why it was there at all.

IMG_9991

The bridge to nowhere at Belhaven Bay

I’m not a great turkey fan but I get outvoted in our family when I suggest that we have something different. So, the highlight for me at the Xmas Day meal – food-wise of course – was my home made apricot stuffing. I still use a recipe from the 1977 book Farmhouse Kitchen and the photo below shows our well-worn copy. The book was one of series from the popular 1970s TV show Farmhouse Kitchen.

IMG_0012

Farmhouse Kitchen book

There are many apricot stuffing recipes of course, but this one is simple and delicious. You can of course stuff your turkey or chicken with this but I prefer to cook it separately. I finely chopped 2 small shallots and sweated them in butter. I made 6oz (it’s a 1970s recipe!) of wholemeal breadcrumbs ( FK recommends white) and in a bowl, I mixed the shallots, breadcrumbs, 4oz chopped apricots, 2 oz chopped peanuts, 1 tablespoon chopped parsley from my garden, the grated rind and juice of a large orange, salt and pepper and one beaten egg. I just mixed it with a spoon until it was moist but not wet. I put it into a flat, greased metal dish and cooked it for 30 mins at 180 degrees. This is it before it went in the oven. No post cooking photo as pressure was on to serve. All agreed that it was very tasty.

Apricot stuffing uncooked.

Apricot stuffing uncooked.

Today in Dunbar is known as Auld Year’s Day and later as Auld Year’s Night. No New Year’s Eve (too southern) and no Hogmanay (too northern) in this wee part of south-east Scotland. I was wondering how it might have originated. I’m sure one    theory may be that it was a product of strict Presbyterianism. The more extreme Protestants were very suspicious of being presumptuous. So, saying New Year’s Eve would be to presume that you would, in fact, see in the New Year but, sinner that you were, how did you know that you would be spared? So Auld year’s Day looks back to the year past and not the year ahead – until it arrives! To all my readers, have a very Good New Year and a lively 2016.

Barns Ness and The Last of the Light

December 23, 2015

A walk on Sunday along the beach at the White Sands, which is about 2 miles (3.2k) from Dunbar. The wind was in the south-west, so the sea was calm although rippled by the wind. If the wind is in the north, there can be breakers on this beach, but on Sunday, there was only Philip Larkin’s onomatopoeic “the small hushed wave’s repeated fresh collapse” from his poem To the Sea. At the east end of the beach, you find a series of limestone pavements, which were formed “with the scouring of the limestone by kilometre thick glaciers during the last ice age”. It’s hard to imagine a glacier being one kilometre thick. One of the most interesting features of limestone pavements are the visible fossils, of plants and animals, on the pitted surface of the hard rock.

 

IMG_9945

Limestone pavement at the White Sands

Once you reach the end of the beach, Barns Ness Lighthouse comes into view and there are alternative paths which take you to the lighthouse. We walked through the gorse bushes (some of them had unseasonable flowers), and then along the edge of the beach where the oystercatchers (includes video) were in a constant search for food at the waves’ edge.

Oystercatcher_(Haemotopus_ostralegus)_-_geograph_org_uk_-_786915

Oystercatcher. Photo by Mike Pennington and reproduced under the Creative Commons licence

Barns Ness Lighthouse first shone its beams across the sea in 1901 and the light continued to shine until 2005. It was originally manned by lighthouse keepers and then automated in 1986. One of our sons’ favourite picture books when they were young, was The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch and you can watch it on a YouTube video (not sure about the copyright on this). It’s a great story for children, amusing and educational at the same time.

lighthouse

The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch by Ronda and David Armitage

The lighthouse has been recently repainted and repaired and it is one of our local icons as it stands proudly at the sea-shore. There may not be a light shining any more but it is still a very impressive and fascinating building.

Barns Ness Lighthouse

Barns Ness Lighthouse

IMG_9956

Barns Ness Lighthouse

In last week’s Guardian Review, there was a review of a book on twilight The Last of the Light by Peter Davidson. I very rarely read non-fiction books these days but I’m going to buy this one. Davidson refers to the fact that in 2016, there is so much unnatural light that we forget what twilight – ” the last glimmering of a way of seeing” is really like. The author looks at prose, poetry and art in discussing the time between light and dark at the end of the day and also considers twilight in a range of countries. For example, the French refer to twilight as the time between chien et loup – the dog and the wolf. The French for twilight is le crepuscule which comes from the Latin crepusculum. I’ve noted here before that one of my favourite words is crepuscular referring to the twilight. Crepuscular is a muscular word.

twilight

The Last of the Light by Peter Davidson

Six little terns, wintry St Abbs harbour and green shoots

December 16, 2015

I’m reading the new Poetry Book Society ChoiceLes Murray‘s Waiting for the Past. Murray’s poems are dense with images and he has the poet’s knack of reducing into a few words what the rest of us would need a paragraph to explain. One of the early poems in the book is entitled Dynamic Rest:

Six little terns

feet gripping sand

on a windy beach

 

six more just above

white with opened wings

busy exchange of feet

 

reaching down lifting off

terns rising up through terms

all quivering parallel

 

drift ahead and settle

bracing their eyes

against the brunt of wind

So we have four short verses and like all the poems in this book, you need to read and re-read to gain an insight into the depth of what the poems is about and what happens in the poem. The title is an oxymoron in that dynamic and rest appear to be contradictory. My English teacher at school, Mrs McKie, would be impressed that I remembered the term oxymoron. The terns are “resting” on the beach and in the air, and in the last verse, they “settle”. Murray imagines the birds – I assume that you cannot see birds “bracing their eyes” – perhaps narrowing their eyes in the face of a strong (and cold?) wind. The last phrase is “the brunt of wind” i.e. not the brunt of the wind, suggesting a forceful and unpleasant wind for the birds. The wind also affects the birds on the ground as their feet have to grip the sand. So the poem is dynamic, with “terns rising up through terns” and there is constant movement in this attempt at rest. Murray’s white terns are common in Australia and have striking blue/black beaks and black eyes.

White tern (Public domain photo from http://www.ozanimals.com/Bird/White-Tern/Gygis/alba.html)

White tern (Public domain photo from http://www.ozanimals.com/Bird/White-Tern/Gygis/alba.html)

We drove down to St Abbs Head on Sunday on a cold and damp winter’s day. It was grey all day and dark in the morning until 8am and dark again at 4pm. Despite this, we were well rugged up for a short walk, there was still plenty to see. The harbour, which still contains the now defunct lifeboat station, has fewer boats, with some on the shore for maintenance (see photos). The sea, of course, never stops and the waves were gently caressing the sea walls – the wind was light and south westerly, so no dramatic coastal scene on Sunday, but the sea still looked cold. There were some people about but you felt an absence – of tourists, divers and fishermen that throng the harbour in the summer.

St Abbs Head harbour in winter

St Abbs Head harbour in winter

St Abbs Head harbour in winter

St Abbs Head harbour in winter

St Abbs Head harbour in winter

St Abbs Head harbour in winter

Before walking to the harbour, we parked at the Nature Centre and visited the excellent Number Four Gallery. On the way to the gallery, I remarked that it would not be long until we saw snowdrops here. Looking down at the leaf strewn ground, there was no sign of growth, but when I pushed back some leaves, the green shoots of the snowdrops were well above the ground – see photo. I pushed the leaves back over the stems for protection. I remembered the final lines of Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind – “O Wind, / If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?”. Apparently not, as the snowdrop growth looked strong and healthy and the green provided a good contrast to the ever-fading leaves from the trees, although some ivy leaves were still green.

Emerging snowdrops at St Abbs Head

Emerging snowdrops at St Abbs Head

Guardi painting and William McIlvanney

December 7, 2015

In a collection of essays on art – Keeping an Eye Open, the novelist Julian Barnes urges us to go to an art gallery and study one painting in detail and perhaps write down our thoughts. I took his advice recently on a visit to the wonderful Scottish National Gallery and studied the painting Santa Maria della Salute, Venice by Francesco Guardi.

Santa Maria della Salute, Venice by Francesco Guardi

Santa Maria della Salute, Venice by Francesco Guardi

So, here’s what I ask you to do. Click on the painting to enlarge it and then, before reading what my interpretation below, think about what you see in the painting.

This is what I wrote down on my viewing of the painting. There is 3/5th sky and 2/5th water, with the sky lighter than the water. The viewer sees a contrast between the hard working and poorer gondoliers and fishermen in the larger boats, and the grandeur and opulence of the large church. The people outside the church appear to be more wealthy and some may be clergy. The gondolas appear to be transporting goods or people, in enclosed cabins, as opposed to the normal view of tourists in gondolas. The gondoliers all have red hats and they all wear trousers which stop below the knee. The building next to the church looks to be in poor condition and there appears to be washing hanging from one window. The bell tower dominates the right of the picture as the mast of the fishing boat dominates the left hand side. This is a busy painting, depicting everyday life, and while the church is magnificent and imposing, it is not (for me) the main focus of the painting, despite the title, as it sits in the background with the other buildings. There are vertical lines on the ship’s mast, on the church front and on the bell tower. There are horizontal lines in the motion of the gondolas. The gondoliers appear to be straining to push their crafts along. There are statues on the church, and some appear to be pointing, as is the woman in one of the gondolas. So, my interpretation is about the content of the painting and not the style.

One of my all time favourite writers, William McIlvanney, died at the weekend, aged 79. He was perhaps best known for his crime novels featuring the enigmatic Glasgow detective Laidlaw but in literary circles, McIlvanney was recognised as one of Britain’s finest novelists. I remember reading his 2nd novel Docherty when it came out in 1975 and it had a profound effect on me as a reader. Here was a novel about a working class man in the west of Scotland and the rigours of his and his family’s life but it was McIlvanney’s style of writing and use of striking metaphors that separated this novel from others of its kind. In fact, it can be argued that Docherty was an innovative novel which challenged existing perceptions of the Scottish novel, although to class it merely as a Scottish novel is to ignore its universal themes and the book was widely admired in many different countries.

Docherty by William McIlvanney

Docherty by William McIlvanney

He was also an accomplished poet and when I got him to talk to my students at The Robert Gordon University in the mid 1980s, he told me, over lunch, that few people appeared to know that he was a poet. One of my favourite extracts from These Words: Weddings and After (1984) is his reflections on cats. “Indoors they are connoisseurs of sleep/Contortionists of ease…. Poses appear/ To melt into each other. They present/ A show of peace, are sculptors of content”.

 

Nora Webster, Brooklyn, late autumn harbour and sudsy sea

November 28, 2015

A double dose of author Colm Tóibín this week. Firstly, I finished reading Tóibín’s remarkable novel Nora Webster. On the face of it, this is a simple tale of a woman whose husband has died and is struggling to cope with the too early onset of widowhood. A lesser writer than Tóibín might have presented Nora Webster, a woman living in a small town in the  Irish Republic, in a sentimental and melodramatic way. However, Tóibín writes a compelling story, taking episodes from the lives of Nora and her family, their relatives, friends and (sometimes unwished for) acquaintances, and identifying the complexities of their lives. As the novel progresses, Nora becomes stronger and more independent, having to a certain extent lived in the shadow of her late husband Maurice, a popular school teacher. The author describes apparently small events in her life in detail but the prose is never dense, and the reader gains an understanding of Nora as a person e.g. her developing love of music, and not just as a mother or sister. There are some very moving scenes in this book, both in Nora’s recollection of her time with her husband and in her relationship with her two sons and (to a lesser extent) two daughters. This is a book of high quality and if you haven’t read it, then you surely must.

Nora Webster by Colm Toibin

Nora Webster by Colm Toibin

This week, we went to the cinema to see Brooklyn, based on Colm Tóibín’s novel of the same name. The film also has a very strong female character. Eilish is a young woman growing up in (like Nora Webster) a small Irish town in the Republic, but unlike Nora, she is due to emigrate to the USA at the start of the film. The story follows her to Brooklyn and highlights her homesickness and then her growing maturity and relationship with a young Italian. Eilish returns to Ireland when her sister dies and the film develops into a tale of the complexities of love and morality. I haven’t read the novel but I’m sure that Eilish’s character is more fully drawn in prose. The actress Saoirse (pr Seer – sha) Ronan is superb in the part. There is also humour in the film and while, at times, it veers on the edge of tweeness and sentimentality, it nevertheless tells a powerful story and it is certainly worth seeing.

November is nearly gone and we’ve had a taste of winter in Dunbar already with ice lining the sides of the country roads on my cycle ride last weekend. We’ve also had strong winds and big tides and this was reflected on my walk on Sunday morning. I stopped at the Old Harbour aka The Cromwell Harbour, which was built in the late 17th century. In summer, the occasional fishing boat is moored, often for work to be done. On Sunday, it was packed with fishing boats, sheltering from the heavy swell that affects the main harbour at this time of year. The boats nestled together in this sheltered haven.

Fishing boats in the Old Harbour

Fishing boats in the Old Harbour

Fishing boats in the Old Harbour

Fishing boats in the Old Harbour

By contrast, the Victoria Harbour which was built in the 1830s, was nearly empty. It’s an unusual sight to see so much of the water in the harbour and on Sunday, it looked abandoned, as if a storm (or malevolent sea serpent) had arrived and driven all the boats out to sea. The photos below show the harbour last Sunday and in the summertime.

Victoria Harbour bereft of boats

Victoria Harbour bereft of boats

Dunbar Harbour in summer

Dunbar Harbour in summer

In my poetry calendar this week, these lines appeared:

“The ocean’s grey today, like someone’s dingy laundry,/ the flop and slosh of sudsy waves agitate on the sand,/ and the sky’s like the inside of an ashtray at some salty dive”.

They are from the poem “The Winter Sea” by the Pennsylvanian poet Barbara Crooker and I like the laundry metaphor. As I walked back from the harbour, I passed the east beach, which used to be covered in pristine sand but over the past 5 years or so, the sand has gone to be replaced with stones and often large mounds of seaweed. The waves were rushing to the shore and there was certainly a distinct “flop and slosh”.

"Flop and slosh" on the east beach

“Flop and slosh” on the east beach

Munich visit: architecture and Hofbrauhaus

November 21, 2015

Following on from last week’s post on Munich Museums, here are my reflections on some of the magnificent architecture in Munich. As you approach the famous Marienplatz, you pass St Michael’s Church with its magnificent façade and its expansive and ornate interior. The front of the church is shining white and the statues stood out on the sunny day when I took this photo.

St Michael's Church Munich

St Michael’s Church Munich

Not far from St Michael’s, you come across the astounding Rathaus – the town hall. The building is 100 metres in length and it takes quite a while to look at all the various aspects of this stunning piece of architecture. The photo below shows the main part of the façade with the clock tower at the top and the figures on different levels. There is a spectacular show involving these figures 3 times per day – a 12 minute extravaganza not to be missed.

The Rathaus in central Munich

The Rathaus in central Munich

Another eye-catching building in Marienplatz is the Spielzeugmuseum – the toy museum, which houses a huge range of toys, some which date back to the 19th century. We didn’t have time to visit this museum which is akin to the Museum of Childhood in Edinburgh but it would have been on our list in an extended stay.

Spielzeugmuseum Munich

Spielzeugmuseum Munich

You have to walk around Munich to get a sense of the architecture and you are constantly amazed e.g. when you turn the corner into the huge square which contains the magnificent Munich Residenz which contains a number of museums and art galleries. The interior – which we saw only briefly as it was closing – is ornately designed, with high, vaulted ceilings. Like the Deutsches Museum, the Munich Residenz cannot be done justice in one visit.

Munich Residenz

Munich Residenz

There are many more examples of breath-taking architecture in Munich and I’ve included some in my Photopeach slide show.

Munich of course is famous for its beer and its large and lively pubs. The most famous drinking establishment is the Hofbrauhaus. On the ground floor is the historic beer hall. This is a huge space and can take up to 1300 people. When it is full, the noise must be overwhelming. It was quieter on our visit in the late afternoon but the many waiters were constantly on the move, some carrying huge trays of litre sized beer glasses. A nearby table of about 16 people gave the waiter a round of applause as he presented his beer-laden tray. There is a highly decorated ceiling in the Hofbrauhaus, depicting the pleasures of eating and drinking and there are Oompah bands (Youtube video) which play regularly in the beer hall. There’s not much subtlety about the Hofbrauhaus – it’s a place of loud enjoyment for most visitors – but it’s certainly worth a visit.

Hofbrauhaus in Munich

Hofbrauhaus in Munich

Hofbrauhaus in Munich

Hofbrauhaus in Munich

Oompah band in the Hofbrauhaus in Munich

Oompah band in the Hofbrauhaus in Munich


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 291 other followers