Frosty days and Pitcox farm

November 29, 2016

Last week, we had a series of very frosty days in Dunbar. When you get frosts in November, there are always gloom merchants around who see this as a sign of a bad winter to come. Likewise, if you get a comparatively warm day in November, there will always be someone in the street saying “Aye, we’ll peye (pay) for this!”. This view of life of course, sees the world in simplistic terms, for every gain ( a sunny day), there will be pain ( a frosty day). We optimists argue that you should enjoy both sunny and frosty days – if you can. I was out cycling last week on 2 of the frosty days and I took my camera on the second one. Unlike last week, both these cycle rides were very enjoyable – sunny days, with big Australian clear blue skies, on my mountain bike and hitting the occasional thick patches of ice en route in the countryside. The thick tyres on this bike mean that you can crunch through icy puddles on the road. The key thing is never to touch your brakes on the ice, as you inevitably end up lying on the said ice and looking up to the big sky, and feeling an ever-growing pain in your knee.

I stopped the bike at Pitcox Farm, of which more later. On the roadside, the fallen leaves had been highlighted by the 3 days of frost. I took these close up photos and looking at them when enlarged, I’m sure we may see different things. What do I see? What strikes me most are the patterns on the leaves, some like splayed fingers, others like branch lines of a metro system, some like a child’s drawing of a tree and others like protruding veins, which are white, unlike their varicose counterparts. There are also twigs, leading your eye from line to line.

img_1110

Frosted leaves in November (Click to enlarge

img_1109

Frosted leaves in November

Back home, I went out to the back of the house to catch the thick frost on the beach. There looks like a confrontation in the photo below. The frost has marched out from the stone wall towards the incoming tide and the two armies are separated by the Independent Republic of Sand, upon which the sun shines. The tide receded, the frost stayed put and then it was completely annihilated by the invisible Thaw. The following day, there was high tide and the jubilant sea laughed its way up to the wall. There’s a lovely image in Amy Lowell’s poem The Hoar Frost, with these lines: “And when I came into my garden,/My silken outer-garment/ Trailed over withered leaves”.

img_1132

Frosted East Beach in Dunbar

Back to Pitcox Farm, which usually makes an appearance here in late January, early February when the first snowdrops for miles around can be seen. The farm, with its impressive house and farm cottages is 4.5 miles (7.2K) from Dunbar and you get there on quiet country roads. I was on my way back when I took the photos here – of where I’d come from and the road down to the cross roads.

img_1119

The Pitcox to Stenton Road

img_1114

Approaching the Pitcox crossroads

At the place in the photo above, the roadside was frost-filled, the leaves static, the air cold and my breath steamy. At the bottom of the road, just past the crossroads sign, the sun was out and the frost had been banished, with the leaves enjoying the temporary heat, as in this photo, which appears to contain unknown stick insects.

img_1128

Autumn leaves in the sun

There were also magnificent shadows cast by the now leafless trees in the garden of Pitcox House. In this photo, the shadows look animated as if engaged in mid morning tree shadow aerobics and the trees themselves stretch out as far as they can.

img_1121

Trees and shadows at Pitcox House

 

Late autumn trees and the woes of cycling

November 22, 2016

When I came back from my cycle this morning, having passed a field of frozen sprout plants standing motionless in the field, their now yellow lower leaves stuck to the ground, and also having gone past an exquisitely coloured avenue of trees and roadside leaves at Bowerhouse (local pronunciation Boorhoose), my intention was to add to my photos of late autumn trees and early frosts here. This plan was thwarted as the wind from the east got up and the rain arrived, meaning leaden skies and rising temperatures. A walk last week through Lochend Woods in Dunbar (about 1K from our house) was particularly enjoyable because of the variety of colours in the trees and on the floor of the woods – a hundred shades of yellow, brown and green. So I went back with my camera.

The first photo is of rose hips. I have now learned that you can make rose hip syrup although it looks like it might be too sweet for me. Also, rose hips can be cultivated from sophisticated garden roses and not just the dog roses you get in the wild. I like the contrast between the bright red of the hips and the leaves, which are in various stages of maturity i.e. from green to pale yellow.

img_1088

Rose hips in Lochend Woods (Click to enlarge)

The next photo takes in a range of trees. In this photo, I like the way the leaves contrast with the dark trunks of the trees. The erect trunks draw your eye up and down the photo and when you look closer, many of the trunks are not straight but bent at various angles, and they are of various girths. The sun on the woods here actually makes some of the trunks look darker than they are.

img_1090

Autumnal trees in Lochend Woods

Contrast this photo with the one above. In this photo, the sunlight is making the tree trunks lighter and the trees take on the look of gum trees in Australia. This photo is deceiving as you might think that it was taken on a very hot day if you only look at the shining trees. I also like the shadows on the ground which are extensions of the trees and often lead your eye from one tree to another.

img_1098

Sunlight on trees in Lochend Woods

I also liked this photo. Firstly, there is the startling colour of the yellow leaves, made paler by the sun and they show off the smooth tree trunk behind. Secondly, there is the real sense of height and I think the photo makes these trees look taller than they actually are. There are many lines to follow in this photo – up, down, to the right and left and back again.

img_1092

Autumnal trees in Lochend Woods

On the way home, at a house on the edge of the woods, I passed this copper beech hedge, shown in close-up below. This is purely accidental on my part but when I look at this photo, I have the impression that the leaves are in motion and are falling although they are not. Also, the shadows of the leaves appear to increase the number of leaves on show. The colours and leaf patterns are fascinating the more you look.

img_1105

Copper beech hedge leaves in autumn

So to cycling, at least last Friday’s cycle. There are some days you go on a bike and no matter how flat the road or how light the wind, it’s a struggle. It was a very cold but bright morning and I was well rugged up in my winter gear. One thing about late Autumn/winter cycling is that it takes a long time to get ready. In the summer, on go the shorts and top and shoes and helmet and half finger covered gloves – and off you go. At this time of year, it’s top and shorts and leggings and another top and a jacket and head cover like a monk’s cowl and a buff and a helmet and shoes and overshoes, which are tight and hard to get on. 5 minutes later – off you go. I was about a mile into the bike ride on Friday and started to feel my legs heavy and my back sore. Now, in these situations, to what extent your legs and back are  actually sore is open to question. What happens is that your mind takes over. Then there’s the good angel and the bad angel. The bad angel says “Well, you were going for 20 miles (32.4K) but, hey if you turn at 6 miles, who’s going to know?”. The good angel says “Who will know? YOU will know! Are you  a man or a mouse? Forget 6 miles pal, 10 is the turning point – if not further”. The nearer I get to the 6 mile mark, the voices get louder. Which one will win? I nearly turn at the roundabout at 6 miles but keep going and – this always happens – once I’m on my way, my legs are lighter and my back is not sore. What you need to do when cycling on these kind of days is to detach your mind from your body and just let your legs take over. On these days, there much more sense in your legs than in your weak and complaining brain.

 

The Clematis and the Bee; St Armand Canal Paper and Cornflower seeds; and The Patient Who Had No Insides.

November 14, 2016

Before checking my email this morning, I turn the page on my poetry calendar – still the one from 2013 as there appears to be no replacement. One day (next life?) I will do my own poetry calendar which will probably have to be online, but don’t hold your breath. Today’s poem is called The Search by Eamon Grennan and it begins “It’s the sheer tenacity of the clematis clinging to/ rusty wire and chipped wood-fence that puts this/ sky-blue flare and purple fire in its petals”. It’s an interesting concept that “tenacity” rather than natural growth is what makes the clematis grow. The poet praises the plant for “lasting and coming back” despite the autumn weather. There’s another poetic observation “.. the way the late bee lands/ on its dazzle, walks the circumference of every petal” before “.. drinking/ the last of its sapphire wine”. You can easily envisage the bee as it skirts the petals before feeding on the “sapphire wine” – a startling combination of words. Next time you see a clematis, think about its tenacity.

An enchanting birthday present last month from my sister in law and brother in law. They had visited Gilbert White’s Garden in Selbourne, Hampshire and brought me 2 presents. The first is a book of poetry by the Canadian Julie Berry. The poems are based on the diaries of Gilbert White who was the local parson but also a very keen gardener and naturalist. The little book is beautifully produced.

white-poems

Cover of “I am, &c.” by Julie Berry

The cover is of soft paper and made of St Armand Canal paper for which the makers use “fibers left from clothing industry offcuts, white tee-shirts, blue denim and flax straw from farmers”. The book cover has a lovely soft feel to it. At each end of the book, there is a flyleaf which is made of Thai Tamarind paper which is tissue like. As you see in the photo below, this delicate paper contains dried (and dyed) tamarind leaves and bits of grass which makes it very attractive. This small, 24 page book is an artwork in itself.

white-poems-2

Flyleaf in Julie Berry’s book “I am &c.”

Along with this beautifully produced book was this.

white-poems-3

Cornflower Seed packet

The packet of seeds is inside this creamy coloured and very attractive wrapping. I will sow the seeds in the Spring and get an eye-catching display of what the packaging tells me will be “Dark blue flowerheads born from late Spring to Early summer”. I like the use of the word “born” here.

I am still working my way slowly through Denise Riley’s remarkable book Say Something Back. There is a five-part poem in the book entitled The patient who had no insides and this relates to the author’s illness and hospitalization – not a subject which you think might be expressed poetically, but Riley does this with aplomb. Part of the poem shows her acquired knowledge of terminology which all hospitalised patients pick up, due to repetition by clinicians. For example “Enzymes digesting tissue grind/ In rampant amylase and swollen lipase counts” send the reader to the dictionary but to patients suffering from liver disease, these are everyday words. Riley’s description of parts of our insides are both graphic and imaginative. The liver is “A plush nursery for the vegetal spirit”. The spleen is “sole-like” and “roughened, its shoe-shape/ Splayed into an ox tongue”. The poem also covers the potential thoughts of doctors about the disease they treat. The patient is released from hospital even though “Your liver tests are squiffy Mrs R..”. Once outside, the patient reflects “A smack of post-ward colour shoves us back to life”. This is a very impressive book of poetry which covers topics which can be unsettling for the reader, but you cannot help being full of admiration for Ms Riley’s poetic talents. Still another 20+ poems to read.

 

 

Dirleton Kirk and the Dunbar Creel Loaders sculpture

November 7, 2016

A recent walk in the attractive village of Dirleton which is up the coast from Dunbar, took us around the village green, past the impressive Dirleton Castle (good photos) and on to the local church yard. In Scotland, a Presbyterian church is called  a kirk which originates from the Old Norse kirkja or the Old English cirice. The word kirk was used – I assume – after the Reformation to distinguish these Protestant churches from their Catholic counterparts, called chapels. When you turn the corner to see the kirk, it is the tower that first catches your eye. On the day we visited, the RNLI flag was flying. There’s an extensive graveyard with many old headstones, some of which tell the occupations of the people buried there. As with all churchyards, the people seen to be the most important – usually the wealthiest – in the area, got the biggest headstones. There are 3 books on the headstones available.

img_1074

Dirleton Kirk (click to enlarge)

One of the most attractive features for me in the kirkyard is the presence of well coiffured yew trees (see below) whose proper name is Taxus Baccata, probably derived from the Greek for bow and the Latin for berry. The yew trees have the look of green headstones and perhaps, if you knew where to look, there might be a secret inscription inside.

img_1076

Yew trees in Dirleton Kirkyard

As you walk from the kirk back to the village green, you get a superb view of the village trees, the wide open green and the castle walls in the background. This view (photo below) was greatly enhanced on our visit by the magnificent tree with its autumn finery on display and its random scattering of leaves the ground adding to the colourful scene. We’ve had very strong NW winds this weekend in East Lothian, so it’s likely that this tree will now be fairly bare, but the elegance of its structure and branches will remain.

img_1077

Dirleton village green in the autumn

We have a new sculpture here in Dunbar. The Creel Loaders (photos below) is the work of sculptor Gardner Molloy who has done a number of public sculptures in East Lothian. This work sits at the junction of Victoria Street (on right in photo below) and Castle Gate. This is very near the harbour and the sea can be seen in the middle left.

img_1080

The Creel Loaders by Gardner Molloy

Gardner Molloy writes “My carving style is vigorous, simple and strong and I relish the use of textural tool finishes to provide contrast. I feel that neat chisel marks enhance the finished surface”. The words “vigorous, simple and strong” could be applied to the Creel Loaders on first looking at this very impressive piece of sculpture, but there is a complexity to work that emerges on closer examination. The woman’s head, which reminded me of an Egyptian goddess, is delicately carved and there is a determined (and maybe resigned) look on the woman’s face.

img_1086

The Creel Loaders – detail of the woman’s head – by Gardner Molloy

The sculpture was built to remember the harbour women of Dunbar who put a wicker creel/basket on their backs and waited while two men loaded the creel with fish – herring in particular in the early 20th century. The women then walked many miles into the countryside along the Herring Road (good photos) to sell their fish. This was backbreaking work and a perilous journey in the winter. What is often forgotten is that the women not only carried the fish as far as Lauder (33 miles/54K away) but they also often bartered their fish for fresh vegetables, which were in short supply in the poor harbour area, and carried the vegetables back home. This may account for the determined and resigned look on the woman’s face.

Of course, there is more to this sculpture than a realistic representation of an historic event. In the photo below, you can see the elegant lines, flowing curves and intricate patterns in the bodies of the people (and the cat), in the woman’s headband and in the wicker creel. There is much to admire in this superb addition to Dunbar’s public art works and repeated visits will, I’m sure, reveal even more complexity in the work.

img_1083

The Creel Loaders – side view – by Gardner Molloy

Huntly Castle and Mac the Mandarin

November 1, 2016

On a recent family trip, we stayed at the delightful Craigellachie Hotel which boasts the world’s best whisky bar. The Quaich (good photos) has over 900 malt whiskies and at this time of year, you can sit by an enchanting log fire with your favourite malt. I tried a Bruichladdich 1998 which was superb. My wife’s home town of Huntly (good photos) is a half hour drive away, so we went for walk around the town and down memory lane – to where my wife used to live and where she went to primary school. We were joined by our son, daughter in law and 3 grandchildren at Huntly Castle (good photos) and we bought tickets and went inside this very impressive edifice.

huntly-3

Huntly Castle exterior (Click on photo to enlarge)

Inside the castle, there are many useful panels explaining the use of the various rooms. There are three floors to the castle and from the top, you can see the commanding view that the Earls of Huntly had. They could see enemies approaching from all sides of the castle, which also has outer and inner moats. The castle is build of rough stone but is no less attractive for that, with the huge round tower and some elegantly designed windows on the top floor. The autumnal trees next to the castle helped to highlight its features as shown below. The castle sits next to the River Deveron which was clear and fast flowing on our visit and reflected the autumn colours in the trees – see photo.

huntly-5

Huntly Castle and autumn trees

huntly-2

River Deveron near Huntly Castle

In the latest edition of Scottish Birds which I receive as part of my membership of the estimable Scottish Ornithologists’ Club, there is an article by Harry Scott entitled Mac the Mandarin. The article tells of how this mandarin drake was seen by Harry Scott in Aberdeen and on investigation, he discovered that the bird had been ringed in Norway and also found out that few mandarin have been known to travel between countries. So, an interesting tale but what brought this bird to my attention was its superb appearance. I emailed Harry and he kindly sent me two of his photos to use here.

scott-mandarin-1

Mandarin drake – photo by Harry Scott.

The photo above is superb not just for its colours but the reflections of the bird in the water. The mandarin to me seems to be composed of a set of shapes and patterns, each with an elegant colour – pink, yellow, green, blue, brown, white and black. It’s patchwork quilt of a bird but none the less attractive for that. The distorted reflections of the mandarin and the  trees in the river give the photo a surreal element and there is a sense of serenity about this almost magical bird as it glides effortless through the water.

scott-mandarin-2

Mandarin drake – photo by Harry Scott

The second photo has the same elements of the first and when I saw it, I thought that it would make a great subject for a Lisa Hooper print. Lisa’s birds tend to have shapes of solid colour as well as flowing lines denoting the shape of the bird and the sections of feathers. It would be interesting to see how Lisa, as a printmaker, would represent the beard like flow of brown feathers at  the side of the bird’s head. Mac the Mandarin  – the name given to the bird by Harry Scott – is certainly an autumnal visitor as some of its colours can be seen in the leaves and trees at this time of year, as well as in the stones in the Deveron River photo above.

 

Milan (2) and my gladioli

October 23, 2016

One of the most striking historical places to visit in Milan is the Sforza Castle. It has very impressive battlements, huge moats and you get a real sense of the builders of this castle wanting to show the strength of their power as well as their aesthetic design. There were numerous drawbridges around the castle walls and you can see the remains of them quite clearly. The castle has many museums but on our visit, we found that notice saying that the museums were open from 9am to 5.30pm meant nothing as the ticket office was closed at 1.30pm! It is still an experience to walk around the walls and the numerous courtyards in the castle.

img_0991

Drawbridge at the entrance to Sforza Castle

img_0993

Inside the walls of the Sforza Castle

img_0997

The clock tower in the Sforza Castle

The history of the castle is long and complicated, from the original castle to the marvellous extensions built by Francesco Sforza Duke of Milan, to the foreign occupation including that of Napoleon.

Napoleon Bonaparte’s conquest of Milan was obviously a major victory for the French emperor and there is an interesting legacy to Napoleon’s time in Milan. Far from wanting to be seen as a conqueror, Napoleon built a very impressive arch not far from Sforza Castle which portrays him as a peacemaker. The arch, set at the end of the beautiful grounds of Sempione Park, (good photos) is a stunning piece of architecture seen from a distance, and close up the detailed sculptures, smooth arches and commanding figures on the top are fascinating. It takes quite a time to see all the parts of the arch.

img_1007

Napoleon’s Arch of Peace, Milan

img_1011

The top of Napoleon’s Arch of Peace in Milan

One of Milan’s worldwide claims to being of cultural importance is of course the La Scala Theatre. The front of La Scala is, by Milan’s architectural standards, fairly plain but the inside is much more impressive. On the day of our visit, the theatre itself was closed as there was a rehearsal of the ballet Giselle (click on videos), but we could see the rehearsal through a little window, thus the lack of clarity in this photo. There is an extensive museum inside the theatre which contains many busts of composers, paintings of famous singers and musical instruments, such as Liszt’s piano, shown below. The La Scala visit was entertaining and educational and we watched a superb video of Riccardo Muti the famous conductor.

img_1025

Giselle rehearsal in La Scala, Milan

img_1035

Liszt’s piano in the La Scala Museum, Milan

Earlier this year, I came across an online offer for 150 gladioli bulbs for only £10 – it was a clearance as the bulbs should have been planted earlier if people had wanted summer gladioli. I prefer my gladioli to come out in the early to mid autumn, as they give an outstanding display of colour and texture when most of the other plants are starting to fade. Gladioli are also known as sword lilies because of their sword like structure and a flowering sword is a nice image – used to appeal to the aesthetic and not to violence. I like the variety of shapes and patterns of colour in gladioli, especially when you look close up. In this photo, the swirls of pink in the flowers are complimented by the deeper pink veins in some petals and the white of the stamen.

img_1064

Close up of gladiolus flower

I also like to photograph the gladioli after it has been raining as the raindrops appear to enhance the range of subtle colours and the more prominent stamens as in this photo. The stamens look like the tentacles of a creature reaching out from inside the flower to capture an unsuspecting passing fly.

img_1071

Gladiolus after the rain

Against the background of what was a hugely enthusiastic incoming tide, the gladioli and the fuchsia became even more attractive to the eye.

img_1068

Gladioli, fuchsia and rushing tide

 

 

 

Lisa Hooper exhibition and Milan (1)

October 14, 2016

It’s 2 years and 11 days ago since I posted a review of an exhibition by the artist Lisa Hooper. Interestingly, Lisa calls herself “a printmaker, specialising in wildlife/bird art” and I’m sure we could have a long conversation about whether she is primarily an artist (her talent, her chosen profession) who uses print techniques or a printmaker (her craft and an aspect of her chosen profession) who produces works of art. I recognise that I may be belittling printmakers here – not the intention. Lisa’s new exhibition at Waterston House in Aberlady, HQ of the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club is an outstanding collection of prints, mainly of birds but it also includes some rural landscapes. I contacted Lisa and she kindly sent me examples of her work, shown below. What attracts me to these prints are the shapes and the patterns which the artist/printmaker produces to such telling effect. When you first look at a Lisa Hooper work, you can see that there are a series of patterns which are repeated. However, when you pay more attention, you see that the patterns (and indeed the shapes within the patterns) are not exactly repeated. The first print below portrays my favourite birds – curlews. I’m lucky enough to live by the sea in Dunbar and I can watch the curlews land on the rocks through my scope. Curlews have a great ability to poke their beaks under stones and seaweed to feed. What I particularly like about this work is that the beaks have been slightly exaggerated by the artist and are black. This gives an abstract quality to the work and I think that it makes the curlews look even more magisterial than they are in real life. I also admire the way that the artist has reflected the shapes of the birds in the rocks on which they stand.

hooper-curlew-collagraph

Curlew by Lisa Hooper

The second example of Lisa Hooper’s work shown below is her impression of a short eared owl. This bird has eyes to make small mammals shiver and humans to note the presence of a fierce intelligence. Again, the shapes are exquisite and intriguing, individual but collective, both in the bird and in the representation of the stone wall behind. I also think that there’s a surreal quality to this print – the black round the eyes, the misshapen nose and the stripes on the head.

hooper-short-eared-owl

Short Eared Owl by Lisa Hooper

Two years ago, my wife bought me Lisa Hooper’s book First Impressions for my upcoming birthday and last week, while at the exhibition, my wife bought me Lisa’s new book  Printing Wildlife. So I’m looking forward to putting the new book on my little easel and turning a page every day. If you are able to get to this exhibition, you cannot fail to be impressed by the quality of the work on show here. Lisa Hooper’s prints should be viewed and then looked at more closely.

My pal Roger and I make an annual trip to a European city to see a top class football (aka soccer) match, to see the sights and enjoy the food and wine in the restaurants. This year, we went to the impressive city of Milan, with its wide streets, stunning piazzas with elegant statues, monumental architecture in the cathedral and many churches, and balconied buildings. We went to an excellent match where A C Milan won 4-3 against Sassuolo in the magnificent San Siro Stadium (scroll down for photos). Milan, as other cities, is best seen by walking through the streets, laid out on a grid system. On many occasions, you look up (as you should always do in cities) to see statues on the buildings, like this one near the arch in Porta Venezia, one of the gates into this formerly walled city.

img_0958

Statues in Milan’ Porta Venezia

The most famous building in Milan and the one to which tourists throng in their thousands, is the Duomo (good photos) – the breath-taking cathedral in the city centre. There are always long queues, so it is better to book online in advance, which we failed to do, so no inside view. The Duomo sits in a large square and you are reminded of St Mark’s Square in Venice. The cathedral is so big that you need to walk around it to appreciate its true size. When it was being built in the 14th and 15th centuries, the peasants living in the area nearby would have been amazed to see this huge structure rise from the ground. The Duomo would have been hundreds of times the size of the peasants’ houses and it would have struck awe and fear into the local population. The two photos below show this multi-spired, multi-statued work of architecture/art which remains an inspiring sight today for people who take a religious or a secular view of life.

img_0962

The Duomo in Milan

img_0970

The Duomo in Milan

Just off the square is the Gallery Vittorio Emanuele which was built in 1877 and named after a king of Italy. It has a striking glass roof, beautiful murals and a wonderful mosaic floor. It now houses upmarket shops, cafes, a hotel and the very helpful Milan Tourist Office. The photos below show the entrance and interior of the Gallery. This area is always crowded with tourists but it is certainly worth seeing.

img_0966

Arched entrance to Galleria Vittore Emanuele

img_0968

Murals in the Galleria Vittore Emanuele

img_0969

Balcony, statues and mural in the Galleria Vittore Emanuele

Say Something Back, A Spool of Blue Thread and autumn flowers

October 8, 2016

I am just back from Milan and the city will feature in the next posting. I was aware that the last 4 posts have been on cities I/we have visited, so I thought that the blog might be turning into some kind of Trip Advisor, thus the break from travel. The latest Poetry Book Society Choice is Say Something Back by Denise Riley. The first part of the book features a long poem A Part Song (podcast of the poet reading the poem) which is Riley’s sometimes candid, sometimes emotional reflection of the death of her adult son. I read this poem, which has different voices, and tried to take in the poet’s shock and wonder at how her son could die and some of the lines nearly brought me to tears. For example: “Each child gets cannibalised by its years./  It was a man who died, and in him died/  The large-eyed boy, then the teen peacock”. In other parts of the poem, the mother attempts humour in speaking to her son: “O my dead son you daft bugger/  This is one glum mum. Come home I tell you/  And end this tasteless melodrama – quit/  Playing dead at all”. There are also some beautifully constructed lines which accompany the mother’s grieving: “Ardent bee, still you go blundering/ With downy saddlebags stuffed tight/ All over the fuchsia’s drop earrings” – imaginative imagery here. I am still reading this superb book – two poems each day.

say-something-back-9781447270379

Say Something Back – poems by Denise Riley

I’ve just finished reading Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread and I enjoyed its quirky humour and its ability to tell a family story in a deceptively simple way. Tyler has written about the Whitshanks – a middle class family in Baltimore – and has told tales of similar families during the course of many novels. The story highlights the present day complications of the family – the errant son, the bossy daughter and the ageing parents Abby and Red, along with their grandchildren. There are a number of strands to the novel such as family holidays at the beach; Abby’s growing forgetfulness and Red’s increasing deafness. Tyler tells this family story with ease and you are drawn into the tale by her apparently straightforward prose. This is interspersed with telling comments about a character’s past or attitude. The novel then goes back in time to detail the romance and marriage of Red’s father and mother. Tyler is sometimes classified as being a “light fiction” novelist but this novel was on the Booker shortlist for 2015, so this is a harsh judgement on a fine writer.

tyler

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

Now that we are into October, some of the flowers in my garden are starting to change colour, especially the hydrangeas. As the photos below show, some of the flowers have gone from bright pink to a more delicate pale pink with veins and red spots but they are no less attractive for that.

img_0951

Semi-fading hydrangea flowers

img_0949

Fading hydrangea flowers

The fuchsia plants are now flowering well although I have not spotted bees amongst them as in Denise Riley’s poem above. However, when you see the fuchsia flowers, you appreciate Riley’s metaphor of drop earrings. The fuchsias will last for a few more weeks without fading as the hydrangeas do.

img_0954

Dangling fuchsia flowers

 

 

 

San Sebastian: beach and museum, and Santander’s bronze figures

September 27, 2016

We spent three days in San Sebastian, the picturesque resort which is close to the French border on the Bay of Biscay. The internationally renowned San Sebastian Film Festival began while we were there – in the pouring rain. Fortunately, the previous two days were warm and sunny and we could walk along the semi-circular promenade next to the beach. This is similar to the Promenade Des Anglais in Nice and all day and well into the evening, people from a multitude of nations stroll along, looking at each other and wondering where everyone comes from. They also look at the wide sweep of beach where swimmers and surfers enjoy the breaking waves. On a sunny day, as in the photos below, the colours are contrasting – blue/turquoise sea and white waves; blue sky and white clouds.

img_0875

San Sebastian beach

img_0876

San Sebastian Beach

At  the end of the prom is a funicular railway which takes you to the top of Mount Igueldo from which you get spectacular views across the bay and far into the mountains.

img_0880

San Sebastian from Mount Igueldo

San Sebastian is famous for its food with a number of 3 star Michelin restaurants in the city such as the famous Arzak which offers a delicious tasting menu with a glass of champagne, although this will cost you about £150 per person. We thought we’d keep it for our next visit. We also went to the San Telmo Museum (good photos) which is near the sea front. This gave a fascinating insight into the history of the Basque people, in particular their agrarian background. While the first part of the museum is very modern, you walk through cloisters with beautiful ceilings (photo below) into an old church with its dramatic frescoes by Josep Maria Serp. One of the key features that you immediately see in San Sebastian (and to a lesser extent in Bilbao) is the prominent use of the Basque language. San Sebastian is the Spanish for Donostia, the Basque name for the town. All signs and menus are in Euskera, the Basque language, first and then in Spanish and then in French.

img_0897

San Telmo Museum cloister ceiling

Our last port of call was Santander where we only stayed one night but could have stayed longer. The town has a large ferry port and extensive promenade which leads to it sandy beaches (good photos). On the promenade, there are four bronze figures (good photos) of young boys, one of whom is diving into the water and it is fascinating to look at the figures from different angles.

img_0912

Los Racqueros in Santander

Like Bilbao and San Sebastian, the architecture in Santander is outstanding with many balcony strewn buildings which are kept in very good condition, as below. This was a new part of Spain for us but it comes highly recommended for many reasons.

img_0907

Santander architecture

Bilbao: Architecture, pintxos and the Guggenheim Museum

September 22, 2016

 A delayed post as we were in the north of Spain for the whole of last week. We spent the first 3 days in the very attractive city of Bilbao. This is an architecturally outstanding city with some very grand buildings in the main street, the Gran Via (good photos) and lots of narrow streets in the old town (click on photos), with tall buildings featuring some very elegant balconies as in the photos below. Bilbao is a city to explore on foot, to be a tourist and stroll down one street after another, passing the niche shops and many, many eating places. One of the gastronomic features of the Basque country is their pintxos – a Basque word for a small bite-sized snack, with a crusty bread slice for a base and a wide variety of toppings e.g. cream cheese and smoked salmon or prawn. You choose your pintxos (pr pinchos) from the range displayed on the bar and in some bars, the range was extensive. We did not find one which was not a very tasty lunchtime snack to accompany a beer, glass of wine or sangria.

img_0786

Old town Bilbao

img_0787

Balconies in Bilbao

The highlight of our visit to Bilbao – indeed of our whole trip – was a visit to the magnificent Guggenheim Museum  (good photos). The building itself is a work of art with its various shapes at the front and back and on the roof. The photo below shows the approach to the main entrance. You have to stop and take in the enormity of the building, which looks complicated at first, until your eyes go over the curves and folds.

img_0822

The front of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

If you think there’s a definite Wow factor to the outside of the building, when you go inside, you will be amazed at the height of the Atrium, with its huge expanses of glass and large tiled walls, with light flooding in from a skylight 3 floors above you. The architect Frank Gehry’s design (good photos and drawings) is breath-taking. You look up to a long shapely glass curtain which you then discover is a shield for the elevator. Then to your left, you see a curved tiled block on a plinth which rises to the upper floors. The excellent free audio commentary tells you that none of the tiles are exactly the same shape. The first photo shows the glass curtain and the second shows the tiled block.

img_0797

Glass curtain in the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

img_0795

Curved tiled block in the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

The commentary then invites you to go out on to the balcony and you are greeted with a burst of colour from Jeff Koons’ Tulips. These large, stainless steel, shining “flowers” are not only visually delightful (to my eye) but they reflect the curves of the museum building itself, meaning that where they are placed is as important as what they are, as the photos show.

img_0798

Jeff Koons’ “Tulips” at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

img_0803

tall Tree and The Jeff Koons’ “Tulips” at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

Two other external sculptures are equally eye-catching. The first is Anish Kapoor’s Tall Tree and the Eye which consists of 73 reflective balls which rise to form a tree-like shape. When you look at this sculpture from different angles, you see the building and the surrounding area reflected in the individual balls and each ball reflects its neighbour. This mathematically designed object is both craft and art.

img_0811

Anish Kapoor’s “Tall Tree and the Eye” at the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum

The second sculpture, which you see as you approach the museum from the river side, is Louise Bourgeois’ Maman. This looks like a huge spider and is dedicated to the artist’s mother who was a weaver. It’s a fascinating construction and you can walk under it and between the spider’s legs. You see the spider close up on your approach to the museum and then from the museum’s balcony. Each time you look, it seems to be slightly different. The spider is both monstrous and protective of the eggs in the middle but it is also very elegant.

The final external work of art is the monumental Puppy, also a creation of Jeff Koons. This is a huge sculpture in the shape of a puppy – I think that it looks more like a cat – with the outside covered in flowers which are bedding plants and presumably change with the seasons. It’s an amazing sight but also a very attractive one.

img_0819

Jeff Koons’ “Puppy” outside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

 

img_0821

Jeff Koons’ “Puppy” outside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

I’ll cover what exhibitions we visited in the next blog post but as you can see from the photos, the Guggenheim Museum is a unique piece of modern art and sculpture. The museum is a modern (if non-religious) cathedral and just as people hundreds of years ago were agog at the construction of the world’s many cathedrals, so the people of Bilbao must have looked on in awe as this superb edifice rose from the side of the river. It is by a country mile the most impressive museum we’ve ever been to.