New tatties and Van Gogh in Arles

September 10, 2019

Last year’s dry summer in Dunbar meant that the potato crop in the small plot in my garden only produced tatties the size of golf balls. They had the requisite thin skins and were tasty, but we soon got through them. This year, the rains came – often fortunately at night – and this, combined with some warm weather has meant a bumper crop. The photo below shows the potatoes which have just been dug out of the ground with the fork. This was from two of the smaller shaws at the front of the plot. They tasted delicious and I enjoyed eating the first, gently boiled potato with some butter. I’m sure that there is some psychological effect of tasting a vegetable that you have planted in the Spring, watched as the shaws developed and the flowers came and went, and then saw the slight yellowing of the shaws, and then dug them up to eat an hour or two later. They are still tasting as good as on that first day. Add some creme fraiche to the chunks of potato on your plate to enhance the flavour.

Newly dug potatoes in my garden (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

This being my blog, regular readers will know that I cannot mention digging without referring to Seamus Heaney’s wonderful poem about watching his father in the garden. This is one of Heaney’s best known poems but it is always rewarding to read it or hear Heaney himself reading it, as in the video below. The poet hears ” a clean rasping sound/ When the spade sinks into gravelly ground” and he remembers his father digging potatoes twenty years before. The father knows how to dig properly i.e. ” The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft/ Against the inside knee was levered firmly”. Every year when I dig up the new tatties, I remember Heaney’s line “Loving their cool hardness in our hands” as I pick up the still dirt stained, solid potatoes. It is a joyful moment.

Back to France. Arles is rightly famous for its Roman heritage (last week’s blog) but it is also known for its Van Gogh connection. The first venue was the Espace Van Gogh in the centre of town. This is the site of what was Arles’ main hospital and it was here that the demented painter came when he cut off his earlobe in a depressive state. The photo below is of the well manicured gardens and you can still see part of the cloistered walkway which was part of the hospital. Despite it being a scene of horror for Van Gogh, this is a very tranquil area today. The artist painted the gardens (see below) and there has been an attempt to recreate what he saw during his time at the hospital.

Espace Van Gogh in Arles
Le Jardin de L’Hotel de Dieu by Vincent Van Gogh

Our next stop was the Vincent Van Gogh Foundation (good photos) in Arles. This is a modern building housing extensive exhibition space, plus workrooms and a library. We saw the exhibition of Niko Pirosmani (good photos) paintings, which were impressive. There was also a smaller – but still fascinating – exhibition of some of Van Gogh’s own work. The highlight was his different versions of The Sower or Le Semeur in French. The photo below shows the version entitled The Sower 1888. What is interesting about this painting is that while the fields below the sower are depicted in impressionist styles, the tree, the sun and Le Semeur himself are quite clearly shown, and this was deliberate on Van Gogh’s part. It is a stunning painting to look at – so much colour and light and detail in the figure, the tree and the sky. You need some time to study this work of art and take in all its different components to really appreciate it. Every time you come back to the painting, something different catches your eye.

Van Gogh’s The Sower

The next photo shows a close-up of part of the painting and if you enlarge this, you will see the swirling lines in the sower’s coat and hat, as well as the range of colours in the field being sown. I thought that this gave me a fuller sense of the construction of the painting and its constituent parts. It’s a real privilege to see these paintings as actual works by Van Gogh and looking at them again, I’m still in awe of his talent.

Close up of part of Van Gogh’s Le Semeur

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Arles’ Roman heritage and Washington Black

September 3, 2019

Our next trip after Poland was to the south of France and the historic Provence town of Arles (local pronunciation Arr-le). We flew to Marseille and the train from the airport direct to Arles takes a mere 38 minutes. As well as being very well known for its Van Gogh connection (later post), Arles was a major town during the Roman occupation, (as locals would have called it) of what was later to become Provence, in the 1st and 2nd centuries. Some of the ruins in the town were built during the reign of Augustus Caesar and thus fall into the BCE i.e. they are over 2000 years old. The most impressive – and the most visited – Roman built edifice in Arles is the huge, circular amphitheatre. It was built in the late 1st century as an arena of public entertainment and crowds of up to 20,000 could watch chariot races and combating gladiators. It is still used today for bullfighting as well as plays and festivals.

It is a very impressive sight as the photo below shows. You do not get a true picture of the arena today as it is covered with scaffolded seating, but it is not difficult to imagine the crowds sitting on the stone terraces and cheering on their favourite charioteers or gladiators. While today’s football and rugby stadiums may be bigger, more comfortable and technologically advanced compared with the Roman version, this first century feat of architecture, engineering and stone masonry matches them.

Roman amphitheatre in Arles (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

When you look at the huge walls (1st photo below) and the corridors (2nd photo) behind the seated areas, you can appreciate just what an accomplishment the building of this amphitheatre was. The Romans had no mechanical stone-cutters, no no forklift trucks, no digitally controlled cranes and no cement lorries. This arena was built by labourers and stone-masons with very basic scaffolding and block-and-tackle pulleys which were manually operated. When you look up at the size of some of the stones used as lintels in the corridors, you are reminded of the superb knowledge and skills that the Romans had in creating something this spectacular. This amphitheatre could last another 1000 years. How long will our modern day stadia last?

The walls of the Arles’ amphitheatre
The corridors of the Arles’ Amphitheatre

I took this video of the arena and it includes views across the town of Arles, through which the might Rhone river elegantly flows. You can watch the video here.

Not far from the Roman amphitheatre in Arles, there is another hugely impressive feature of Roman architecture. The Roman Theatre (very good photos) held 10,000 people when it was full and was an important cultural centre in the town during the Roman occupation. It was here that the more educated class of people in Arles could watch Greek and Roman plays. The photo below shows the view from the stage and the circular seating area. Standing on the stage, you can imagine the actors in full voice – there was no artificial amplification then – acting out a tragedy or comedy.

Roman Theatre in Arles

At the back of the stage, two of the original pillars have survived and the bases of other pillars are clearly visible (photo below). The audience would therefore have seen the stage and its highly decorative backdrop, made possible of course, as this is an outdoor theatre. In the background in the photo below, you can see the many other stone remains of the Roman period and some of the sculpture on the stone is very impressive. This is a very large area and there are two more sections to the left of this photo where you can wander around the huge and small blocks of stone. The Romans built big – to show the might of the Empire and to impress the locals by the sophistication of the different elements of the stone structures, as well as the aesthetic qualities on show in the plays.

The Roman Theatre in Arles

The theatre was surrounded by thick stone walls, with a number of gates through which the audience could enter. The photo below shows one of these gates. Of course, entrance would be controlled and there would have been special entrances for the Roman governor, his administrators and his troops. You can see some of the many arches above the gates in the photo and there is a range of styles in the stone which form the arches. This is one of Arles’ must visits and the ability to walk round and feel the smooth stones which were originally moved, sculpted and put into place in 12BCE, is an enhancing experience.

One of the entrance gates in the Roman theatre in Arles

We also visited the extensive Roman baths (good photos) – the Thermes de Constantin – and you can see the areas in which people took their baths. The information board tells you that these were the baths for the ordinary people of Arles, and that men and women bathed naked here at allocated times. The wealthier locals and the Romans did not use these baths , as they had their own private baths in their extensive houses.

The Canadian novelist Esi Edugyan has written an intriguing novel in Washington Black (review). The book begins in a slave plantation in the West Indies and we are introduced to 11 year old Washington Black, who witnesses the horrors of the slave trade. While memories of the plantation haunt the man reflecting on this time and indeed haunt the book, the story moves on quickly as Washington Black is taken on as an assistant by Christopher (Titch) Wilde. The boy proves to be intelligent and artistic and soon gains knowledge of hot-air balloon technology, as well as the natural world.

This is an adventure story as well as a reflection on freedom – from slavery and from families – and Washington Black escapes with Wilde to the Arctic, where they find Wilde’s eccentric father. In further escapades, he is taken to Morocco and London. While some of the story means that the reader has to accept unlikely escapes e.g. from a bounty hunter, Edugyan is a brilliant storyteller and you are carried along by the story. Edugyan is also a stylistic and at times poetic writer e.g. her descriptions of the view of the plantation from a nearby hill or the Arctic ice scapes. Later in the novel, Black shows himself to be an inventor and natural scientist, the equal of his white employees. Whether he will get recognition for his work is not in his hands. The novel is a rewarding read and, despite some of the hard to believe coincidences and outcomes in the book, I recommend that you buy it.

Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic and Gdansk church buildings

August 27, 2019

Note: The images have been sorted and now show as they should i.e. vertical

When I read a new book of poetry or a novel which has extensive reviews at the beginning, I try to avoid reading what will obviously be praiseworthy (but sometimes exaggeratedly so) comments. I have just finished reading Ilya Kaminsky’s outstanding book of poetry Deaf Republic (review). Unusually for a book of poetry, Kaminsky is telling a story – in a series of incidents – recalling a fictional town somewhere in eastern Europe which has been occupied by soldiers. The book begins with a reflection on the occupation, with the title of the first poem being We Lived Happily during the War and the narrator states that when houses were bombed, “we opposed them/ but not enough”. Kaminsky has some beautiful images throughout the book. The people of Vasenka tell the story while “on balconies,/ the wind fondles laundry lines”. A deaf boy Petya, is shot by soldiers in the snowy street and the people respond by adopting a collective deafness, which “passes through us like a police whistle”. There continues a passive – although not always – resistance as the people refuse to hear the soldiers. “The body of the boy lies on the asphalt like a paper clip” is a startling image, perhaps denoting how insignificant the oppressors view the boy and the other citizens of the town.

While the story is a mainly tragic one, there are scenes which show that humour can still exist in time of war. The people hang puppets outside their doors to mock the soldiers. Other scenes talk of the love one of the narrators has for his pregnant wife, as he reflects on their courtship – “we kissed a coin from your mouth to mine”. The people’s deafness to the soldiers means that they develop sign language and Kaminsky – partially deaf since the age of four – reflects on deafness at times in the book, but not in a didactic manner. This is the best book of poetry I have read for a long time and it fully deserves the glowing reviews such as that of Andrew Motion “Deaf Republic is a wonderful book, comprised of brilliantly realised vignettes in which violence, tenderness, exuberance and suffering combine to create a folk drama that feels archetypal, yet is deeply revealing of our here and now”. If you only buy one book of poetry this year, make it this one.

Kaminsky’s brilliant book of poems (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

There are many churches in Gdansk and you only have to look at the skyline to see the proliferation of spires to realise this. St Kathryn’s church is one the first to be seen on the main tourist route in the city. It dates back to the 14th century and had its ceiling repaired after a fire in 2006.

The photo below shows the outside of the church with its attractive tower and spire. The tower contains what the above website calls ” a 49 bell carillon”. This is a new word to me and carillon means ” a set of fixed chromatically tuned bells sounded by hammers controlled from a keyboard”. The bells sound every hour and as you walk around Gdansk, the sound of bells from different areas of the city are a pleasant feature.

St Kathryn’s church in Gdansk

Inside the church (photo below) you can see the patterned ceiling done in an abstract manner and you start to follow the lines across the ceiling until you reach the altar. For a long established Catholic church, St Kathryn’s is relatively unadorned. The pulpit on the left has some delicate woodwork and at first, you wonder how the priest might enter this small space. You then see the two folds of the small door at the back.

Inside St Kathryn’s church in Gdansk

There is a donations box – more a of a trunk than a box – and you can see from the photo below that the church has never taken chances with the money being deposited in the trunk. The huge padlocks would take some shifting. The church obviously appreciates the generosity of it parishioners and visitors, but is also aware of potential thieves.

On a much grander scale is St Mary’s Basilica (good photos) which dominates the city and can be seen from most areas. It claims to be the largest brick church in the world and it certainly has a very impressive exterior. The view below is from Mariacka Street, featured in the last blog post. It is when you walk to the end of the street and round to your right, that you see the extent of this huge edifice. I wondered how many bricklayers (and how many bricks and how much composite material i.e. mortar) worked on this church and for how long. As a student in Edinburgh, I worked on building sites as a labourer and in my third year’s summer break, I got a job as a brickie’s labourer. In the hierarchy of building sites, this is a major step up.

St Mary’s Basilica at the end of Mariacka Street in Gdansk

It also has an unusual interior, with dazzling whiteness greeting the entrant to the church. The photo below shows the white walls and patterned ceiling, which provide a suitable back drop for the suspended candelabras. As with St Kathryn’s, there is a starkness about the church, but it is beautifully adorned with flags and sculptures. It has a huge interior with 31 chapels lining the sides of the church and it would take you a long time to walk around the whole cathedral and visit all the different chapels.

Inside St Mary’s Basilica in Gdansk

One of the most striking parts of the basilica for me was the organ (photo below) as it has a beautiful symmetry, with the organ pipes clearly on show and topped with elaborate decoration, in contrast to the main part of the church. I am sure that it must make a mighty sound in order to fill this cavernous basilica. You had admire the craftsmanship of those who built this majestic instrument, as well as its predecessors. This organ dates from 1985, but the earliest organs in the church go back to the 15th century and were destroyed in the fire of 1945. We will never see the original organs but we can imagine that they too would have the grandeur of their descendant.

St Mary’s Basilica’s organ

There are many more churches to visit in Gdansk, as well as several museums, one of which is the Museum of the 2nd World War, which is housed in a very modern building, with its huge glass front (photo below). We visited the museum but there were very long and immobile queues, so booking online is probably the best bet for this potentially fascinating museum.

The Baltic city of Gdansk and the Literacka restaurant

August 21, 2019

A two week break in the blog as we were in the south of France for a week, meeting friends from Australia. We spent a day in Gdansk on our trip to the wedding in Poland and it is a very impressive city. When you walk around some parts of Gdansk, you feel as if you could be in Amsterdam as you look at the narrow buildings in some of the streets. The photo below shows one of the decorated set of flats in one of the main streets in Gdansk. It looks as if it might have been slotted in between the two wider houses on either side.

Colourful building in Gdansk (click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

Farther down this street, you come to the magnificent Town Hall – Ratusz in Polish – which was built in the late 14th century and its tower and spire dominate the city skyline. As you can see in the photo below, the tower is a magnificent site and is all the more remarkable as it was mostly destroyed in 1945 and rebuilt. The building now houses a museum which charts the history of the city. You can climb up the tower to a balcony just above the clock, although we passed on this as there was a large queue.

The tower of the Town Hall in Gdansk

If you keep walking on this street, you come to a gateway which would have, at one time, separated the port from the rest of the city. The Vistula River goes into the sea at Gdansk and part of the river side has been transformed into a row of restaurants on one side and hotels on the other. The side with the restaurants is very similar to the port side in Copenhagen. One of the most famous landmarks in this area is The Crane (good photos) which is a 15th century structure formerly used to load and unload cargoes and also insert masts on to ships. As you can see below, it is a magnificent sight when viewed across the river and would have completely dominated the harbour area in its functional days.

The Crane in Gdansk

From this side of the river, you also get superb views of the Gdansk skyline with its many spires and towers, as well as the Dutch looking buildings – old and new – across the river. The newer buildings are aesthetically pleasing with their traditional shapes and attractive glass. On the river itself, there is a constant flow of cruise barges and boats. The city was jam packed with tourists in some areas but there are also many quieter back streets to stroll along.

Gdansk skyline from the riverside

Parallel to the main Dluga Street, with its rows of restaurants, street performers and sellers, is the Ulica Mariacka which is a much quieter and narrower street, and during the daytime it is filled on both sides with little stalls selling amber goods. You can see some of the stalls at the bottom of the photo below. At the top of the photo is the tower of St Mary’s basilica. We noticed a promising looking restaurant at the end of the street and returned there in the evening – a very good choice. The Literacka (good photos of the inside) is a wine bar and a restaurant with a difference. The name of the restaurant means literary in English and the very helpful waitress explained that the building was formerly known as The House of Poets, as it was used by writers and poets in the Polish Writers’ Association. The food was excellent and we had (phone photo below) beautifully cooked sea bass on snow peas, with potato puree and a jug of delicate sauce. The cost of the main course was about £10 each, so excellent value, given the service, the tasteful interior decoration, white table cloths and friendly service.

Sea bass at the Literacka

When we had finished our meal, the waitress brought the bill in this book (photo below) and told us that each person paying the bill got a different book – what a brilliant idea! I told the waitress that I had two books by Cesare Pavese the famous Italian author of the 20th century. I looked up the title in Polish and it means beach in English. I checked my shelves and the 2nd photo below shows my copy – an English translation of the same book, so a neat connection. The restaurant is well worth visiting if you are ever in this strikingly attractive city.

Plaza by Cesare Pavese in Polish
Novel by Cesare Pavese

Local history exhibition and Lake Ilawa, Poland

August 5, 2019

Dunbar and District History Society (DDHS) have a new exhibition in Dunbar Town House, entitled Summers in Dunbar. The exhibition, excellently curated by DDHS secretary Pauline Smeed, presents a range of information and images from the 1960s onwards, showing how Dunbar was a very popular holiday resort. The town is still an attraction for tourist as this Tripadvisor page (good photos) shows.

Returnable keys at The Roxburghe Hotel in Dunbar (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

The first photo from the exhibition shows what was the magnificent Roxburghe Marine Hotel, which was one of Scotland’s leading hotels in the 1950s and 1960s. My former classmate Nigel Marcel’s parents owned the hotel in the 1960s and 1970s and he confirmed that when guests mistakenly went away with hotel keys, they would inevitably be returned with a stamp affixed to the key. Room 42 was on the top floor facing the sea. The hotel was later demolished and the area now contains a block of 4 storey attractive flats, many with sea views and a row of cottages which overlook the sea in front. We are lucky enough to live in one the cottages. Nigel remembers cutting the long grass where our house now stands, with a scythe.

Dunbar’s east beach in the 1960s

The second photo from the exhibition shows Dunbar’s east beach, probably in the late 1950s or early 1960s. The beach over the years has lost its sand and has become less used. The people in the photo appear to be very well dressed, so this photo may have been taken on a Sunday, with crowds gathering possibly for a Faith Mission meeting. In the background of the photo, above the beach itself, you can see the remains of the old granary and distillery buildings which stretched along from the harbour. At the bottom right of the photo is an early – and what looks like a very basic – pram. You can see more photos  from the exhibition and more examples of summers in Dunbar on the DDHS website

We were invited to our friends’ son’s wedding in Poland last weekend. The wedding took place in the idyllic setting of Lake Ilawa. There is a complex of large and small lakes in this area and we were in  the town of Ilawa, which is on one of the smaller lakes. 

Looking across Lake Ilawa

The photo above shows the view of Lake Ilawa and this smaller lake had a 2K circumference. This is looking across the water to the Hotel Stary Tartak (good photos) where we stayed and where the wedding took place. The hotel is very comfortable and very cheap by UK standards. Walking around the lake was a pleasure as once you got past the shopping area, few people were about.

Lake Ilawa through the trees

This photo shows the lake through the trees which cover the lakeside but do not obstruct your view and add interest to your walk. We did take a boat trip which began on this lake and went round an island in the next, much bigger lake. It was a very relaxing 50 minutes and although much of the trip passes the lakeside reeds, these are wonderful to look at, as they swayed in the breeze, just like the barley fields at home at the moment.

A coot swims at the lakeside in Ilawa

At the landing where the boat trip starts, there were many ducks and also a number of coots which have the scientific name Fulica Atra. These are very attractive birds but they tend to be very wary of humans in this country and will swim away rapidly at your approach. At the lakeside in Ilawa, the coots are obviously accustomed to people approaching them, so I was pleased to get this photo of the coot and its reflection in the swirling water, with its varied light patterns.

Water lily on the lakeside at the Stary Tartak

Water lilies by the lakeside at the Stary Tartak

At the back of the Hotel Stary Tartak, were outside seating areas and some loungers at the lakeside. When you got to the water’s edge, you could see the large cluster of water lilies (Nymphaea). In the close-up photo above, you can see the beautiful pink petals – inspiration for the Sydney Opera House maybe? – and the delicate yellow stamens reaching for the sun. The 2nd photo shows the water lily flowers sitting on their fan-like leaves amongst the reeds. If you ever need to be away from it all and relax , go and look at some water lilies.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie and swans at Belhaven

July 25, 2019

The latest novel which I have just finished reading is Home Fire (review) by the now renowned author Kamila Shamsie (interview with author). This is a fascinating and very well written story about the clash between politics and religion and the family strains that involvement in such a clash can involve. Karamat Lone is Home Secretary in the UK and is of Pakistani origin. He is regarded as a Muslim although he is a humanist. The story involves Lone and his son Eamonn, who becomes romantically involved with another family, also of Pakistani origin. Eamonn first meets Isma in the USA and then her sister Aneeka in the UK. The main story revolves around Isma’s and Aneeka’s brother Parvaiz, who is indoctrinated in London and goes to join ISIS in Syria. No spoilers here, so I will give no more of the plot. The author does present us with an intriguing story and although moral choices may be at the heart of the novel, the plot nevertheless keeps us reading. Shamsie, like all good novelists, is an excellent storyteller and we can easily identify with the characters and the decisions they do and do not make. I highly recommend that you read this intriguing novel.

K Shamsie’s intriguing novel (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

With the warm weather we have been having in Scotland over the last week, we have been going for short walks in the evening after our meal. A few days ago, we went down to Belhaven beach and walking past the bridge, coming towards us was a family of swans, with two adults and eight fast maturing cygnets. The photo below (taken on my phone, so not as clear as I would wish) shows the approaching swans. The group formed a straight line at first and looked like the peloton at Le Tour. When they came to the sandbank, they broke up and one cygnet (see photo) climbed on to the sand. At this, the two parents turned round and headed back out towards the sea. There is an elegant perfection in adult swans.

A family of swans at Belhaven beach

This prompted me to think when I last featured swans on the blog and this 2015 photo shows swans on Belhaven Pond, which is not far from the beach. This shows the swans in action, gliding along the smooth pond and making ripples. The trees in the background are in full leaf and I like the tranquillity of this scene.

Swans and ducks on Belhaven pond

For a more close up view of a swan family, we need to go back to this 2010 photo which was taken on the rocky shoreline next to Dunbar Golf Course, which is on the other side of the town from Belhaven Beach and just along the road from our house. This is a contrasting setting for the swans. Gone is the smooth pond at Belhaven, but there is still great attraction in the rocks and pools and rock formations here. The adults and cygnets look very contemplative in this photo and paid no heed to this human interloper into their resting place.

Swan family on the shore east of Dunbar

One of my favourite poems is Wild Swans at Coole by W B Yeats and these lines show his admiration for these magnificent birds who give us all so much pleasure when we see them in the water, on the shore or in the air.

Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

This post appears earlier than it might as we are off to Poland this weekend for a friends’ son’s wedding. Watch this space.

Researching in the National Library of Scotland and prolific lavender in the garden

July 19, 2019

When I was a student at the University of Edinburgh many years ago, access to the National Library of Scotland was denied to undergraduates until they entered their honours year – the fourth year of study. I spent much of this final year in the National Library as I could get documents relating to my dissertation which the university library did not have. I also found it a very conducive place to study as it was quiet and had an academic atmosphere. I was took one of my friends to the Reading Room and he had to leave after a short period of time as he said it was too quiet. Study habits, such as where and when to study, tend to be formed when students are in their early teens and, despite claims you will find on the internet about e.g. the study habits of successful students, individuals differ in the preferences. When I took up local history research a few years ago, after retiring, I went back to the National Library of Scotland (NLS) to get books and articles relating to my research on my home town of Dunbar in the 1950s. I still find the NLS an enthralling place to visit.

Stairs up to the Reading Room in the National Library of Scotland (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

The photo above (taken on my phone) shows the stairs which lead up to the main Reading Room and the NLS have taken to insert quotations from famous scholars on view here. David Hume was an eighteenth century philosopher who was born in Edinburgh and is recognised as one of the most important philosophers in the world. So there is a grand stairway leading up to where the real research is done.

Looking down from the Reading Room level at the NLS

This photo shows the view from the 2nd flight of stairs above the main stairs. The window frames at the top right are only part of this huge window ” comprising square glass panels each etched with alternating panes of a thistle and Scottish crown and the arms of the principal benefactors of the library”. The ornate banisters on either side are “painted in black with gold leaf and [each] has a mahogany handrail”.  A fuller description can be found here. On the walls are framed examples of some of the illustrative work to be found in the NLS archives. Many visitors come up to this point to admire the interior but only NLS members i.e. people doing research, can enter the Reading Room.

Inside the NLS Reading Room – upstairs

Once you go through the Reading Rooms, you have to place your NLS card on a reader to go further. To get your reserved books – and this is still a predominantly book-based library – you go to a desk where the assistant will retrieve your ordered material. I reserved three books yesterday and collected them today. It is an excellent service as you can return the books and and get them back for another five days. The NLS is not a lending library. Upstairs in the Reading Room, in the photo above, you can see the domed and squared roof windows which let in natural light. This library is for serious research, so it is quiet and therefore conducive to learning. This is not to say that all libraries should be quiet. Far from it – lending and children’s sections of public libraries should encourage conversation and school libraries (one of my former areas of research) should be places where students, teachers and school librarians can discuss what is being studied. The NLS also has regular free exhibitions which are certainly worth visiting.

It is now midway through our summer in the UK and in our garden, the lavender bushes are now at their peak. Lavender plants are prolific growers, with their abundant stems reaching up to one metre above the base. In the winter, the lavender is almost invisible – a series of grey patches in the garden – but in summer, it shoots up to dominate the landscape in a furious burst of colour.

Prolific lavender in our front garden

The photo above shows how the lavenders of different kinds have spread themselves across the garden. Every time I walk into the house, I rub my fingers on a lavender head and take in the wonderful scent provided by the bush. After a shower of rain, if you open the front door, the lavender scent wafts across your face and you can inhale the welcoming odour.

Lavender, hydrangea and roses

The photo above shows how the lavender provides height at the back of our small patch of garden outside the front door. Near the front, the smaller lavender, with its much thicker heads has spread itself over the ground in the past year. The poppies still in flower on the right hand side are accidental i.e. not planted by us but spread by the wind or the birds. Lavender has featured in literature for many centuries. Shakespeare (Winter’s Tale) wrote ” Hot lavender, mints, savory, marjoram;/ The marigold, that goes to bed wi’ th’ sun”. Lavender has also been seen as health giving. A 1545 herbal states ” I judge that the flowers of lavender quilted in a cappe and dayly worn are good for all diseases of the head”.

A rose after the rain

Finally, one of the climbing roses, seen in close-up – my favourite form of photography. There is startling beauty in this rose – the delicate petals still holding on to the raindrops and the exquisite centre, with its pink and orange. The flowers may only last for about a week in total but the look and smell of them linger in the memory for much longer.

Malcolm Mackay novel and Peebles revisited

July 9, 2019

Having taken a few weeks to read Milkman (previous post), I read Malcolm Mackay’s How a Gunman Says Goodbye in a week. This is a crime novel – which won the Scottish Crime Novel of the Year Award – with a difference. In most crime fiction, the police are the main characters and the focus is on their thinking and their procedures and (mostly) how they solve the crime. In Mackay’s novel – the 2nd in a trilogy about the Glasgow underworld – the focus is on the criminals themselves and in particular, on Frank MacLeod who has spent his adult life as a gunman or hit man for organised crime in the city. Mackay takes us very convincingly into the mind of Frank (as he is referred to in the novel) and his boss Peter Jamieson, who runs legitimate bars and nightclubs but is also involved in drug dealing. The novel is written in short sentences and short chapters but this adds to the quality of the writing, rather than detracting from it e.g. “People [other gunmen] get surprised by something and freeze. Never happened to Frank”. There is an excellent array of characters with some deep insight into the mindset of Frank, a young gunman Calum and Jamieson. The plot moves with alacrity and the reader is constantly wondering what will happen next. My attempts to second guess Mackay all failed. Frank MacLeod is obviously a bad person, who has killed many people to order, but the reader will have some sympathy with Frank’s dilemna – no spoiler here – around which the book is shaped. We should not sympathise with such a character, but we do. There are policemen in the book but they are on the sidelines. So how does a gunman say goodbye? You will have to read this highly recommended book. There is a very good interview with Malcolm Mackay here.

Excellent crime novel (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

At the weekend, we had a visit from my friend and ex-colleague Bob, on a visit from Australia, who has been to Dunbar a number of times but had never visited Peebles in the Scottish Borders. We had a walk along Peebles’ attractive High Street with its late Victorian architecture and I took Bob down a close (Scots for alley or vennel) to see the door of what is still a painter’s and decorator’s business. In the photo below, you can see that this ornate leaded window on the door shows the much wider extent of the business in former times. A gilder was “someone whose occupation was to apply an overlay of gold or gilt” according to one dictionary. The firm also installed windows – glazier and painted signs for businesses – sign writer. A bellhanger turns out to be what it says on the tin – a skilled tradesman who hung bells, presumably in churches.

Windows on a door in Peebles

We then had a 4 mile walk (good photos) along the River Tweed which runs through Peebles. It was a sunny day and there were excellent reflections of the trees across the river. In the photo below, you can see how the reflections slightly blur the image of the trees, but still give you a double view of the trunks and extensive branches of the trees that line the river bank.

The River Tweed in Peebles

Further on in the walk, we looked up to see Neidpath Castle and the website cited contains a very good aerial view of the castle at this time of year. I took the photo below in the winter time, so the trees are bare, but this gives you a clearer view of the castle itself. The castle has a long history going back to the 12th century and it is described as “rubble-built” i.e. mainly of rough stone and you can see this from the ruined section to the left of the castle.

Neidpath Castle near Peebles

The walk then passes a very impressive bridge along which the railway used to run. The photo below – again taken in the winter on another visit – shows the structure of the bridge, which has eight arches and in the column at the side of each arch, there is a cross., the significance of which I could not find. Above the arches, you can see the cast-iron railings which are another attractive feature of what is called the Neidpath Viaduct.

The old railway bridge near Peebles

The walk continues to another bridge which we crossed and made our way back to Peebles over the hill and along the side of the extensive forest.

Milkman by Anna Burns and poppies at the side of the railway

July 1, 2019

I have just finished reading Anna Burns‘ Man Booker Prize winning novel Milkman (good review). It was a controversial winner of the prize as some reviewers did not enjoy the intensity of the book, which features many long paragraphs describing the feelings of an 18 year girl growing up in an unnamed country in the 1970s. There is no doubt that Burns has created a character – whose name we never discover – with a unique voice, relating to family troubles, her relationship with “maybe boyfriend”, her stalking by a local “renouncer” and her reflections on being an unusual late-teenage girl with conflicting feelings about herself, her environment and her family. We are quickly aware that we are in 1970s Northern Ireland, possibly in Belfast, where Burns grew up. There is a universal aspect to this claustrophobic society, where rumour is rife and controls what people think of each other.

It is also a controlled society, with the powerful state on one side, represented by an oppressive army and police force. These forces – we assume them to be the British – harass the girl’s community ( not stated but clearly Catholic) and support the people “over there” (not stated but clearly Protestant) in the city and “over the water”. There is also internal control by the “renouncers of the state” – the IRA – who rule the girl’s home area and mete out severe punishments on suspected informers. The protagonist, only known as “middle sister” or “daughter” or “maybe-girlfriend”, is seen as unusual as she does not conform to unstated and unwritten rules of her community.

The book can be difficult to read at times – it is occasionally repetitive about this closed society – but Burns manages to move the story on and include some dark humour to illuminate a potentially gloomy plot. It is certainly a different kind of novel but one well worth buying. I read it in small chunks and it might be more rewarding to make a more sustained effort to get the best effect.

An intriguing novel (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

We seem to have had an extended period of wind from the east this year – and that means cool to cold around here – so I have been cycling in that direction for a while now. The route takes me on the road to the local cement works, where I join a cycle path. At the moment, the countryside is full of growth. The once green barley now has multi-grained heads and has turned slightly yellow, as it sways in the wind. The sprout plants which looked pale, forlorn and unlikely to survive, have now blossomed into more substantial and healthy looking plants, although they still have a lot of growing to do. The potato fields are now in flower as are the fields of peas, which must be profitable this year as there are many more stretches of pea-green to be seen. On the side of the fields, there are scatterings of poppies, some bright red, some pale red and a few purple heads can also be seen.

I stopped my bike on the cycle path next to the railway on one side and the muddy tracks of the cement works on the other, to admire a mass of poppies. In the photo below, you can see that when you get closer, you are looking at more than poppies, as scattered amongst the swaying redheads are a variety of wildflowers and thistles.

Poppies at the side of the cycle track

I last posted on poppies in 2016 and quoted the poet Sujata Bhatt and her poem which describes wild poppies as “a living flame of love” and as “a wildfire / by the roads”. The poet sees “how their sheerest silks glisten in the sun” and if you look close at poppies, you see their silk-like heads. I took a video on my phone of the scene and you can see the contrast between “the living flame” of the poppies and the green of the ivy.

Poppies at the side of the tracks near the cement works

One of the photos of a large poppy head in my garden in 2016 was used in that blog post. You can see in the photo below that the petals do have a silky sheen and that the centre piece could be mistaken for some kind of tarantula, either real or mythical.

Inside a poppy head

As I was scrolling through photos of this year, I came across this close up of a tulip head and it has a striking similarity to that of the poppy head, but with a different species of 6 legged creature in the middle. They are both exquisite examples of design in nature which provides inspiration to poets and artists alike.

Tulip head with tarantula centre

Book on East Lothian and the Longest Day

June 24, 2019

One of the books I was given for my significant birthday in October was East Lothian which contains striking photographs by Liz Hanson and a well written brief history of my home county by Alistair Moffat. It can probably be described as a coffee table book, but it has been up on my little book easel for weeks now, as I (if I remember) turn over a page every day. This means that we see the images and perhaps read some of the text on a regular basis, as opposed to having the book lying about – maybe on a coffee table – and hardly being opened. So, if you have some books – maybe as presents – I urge you to buy an easel, so that you get much more pleasure from books with many photos or paintings in them.

Lavishly illustrated book on the county of East Lothian (Click on all images to enlarge – recommended)

The book covers the major towns in East Lothian, including Dunbar, as well as much of the farmland. East Lothian is known as the garden of Scotland because of its rich red soil, which is ideal for barley, wheat, oats, oil seed rape (canola in Australia), potatoes, peas, beans and turnips (swedes). The famous golf courses in East Lothian are also featured.

Looking towards Bolton

The photo above shows an oil seed rape field at its brightest, next to the hamlet of Bolton (good photos) , near the county town of Haddington. Bolton is best known for its graveyard, where the mother of Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns, is buried. I cycle through Bolton from time to time and it’s a very pleasant spot.

Bare trees and shadows in Gifford

The photo above is taken in the very attractive (and affluent) village of Gifford (good photos). The trees overlook a walled area, known as the village green, but which may well have been used to graze sheep or hold a sheep market in the past. You can walk round the village, with its mixture of traditional solid sandstone houses (seen in the photo) and more modern housing. There is a river which flows through part of the village and you can overlook the river from 2 bridges in the village. I like the way Liz Hanson has captured the shadows of the winter trees across the green. I have enjoyed this book and it will take its place on the easel again at some point.

On Friday, it was the longest day of the year here. Of course, in Australia – where many of you are – it was the shortest day. The summer solstice occurs when the sun – in summer here – is closest to the equator, as one definition has it. Now, given the size of the earth and that of the sun, we should surely talk about the earth’s equator being closest to the sun. Otherwise, we could be seen as going back to the old beliefs that the sun went round the earth. An article in IB Times states that “The origin of the word ‘solstice’ is derived from the Latin word sōlstitium. It literally translates to ‘the (apparent) standing still of the sun’.” A definition of solstice – a French word – covering both seasons states  “the time of year that seems to never end. The longest days of summer the unending nights of winter”. So our nights are getting shorter, although only by a very small amount of time. A local expression here is “Aye, the nights are fair drawin’ in”.

Sun rays over Dunbar on the longest day of 2019
Red sky and pink sea on the longest day of 2019

I took the two photos above at 22.45pm on 21st June, although the actual solstice took place at 16.54pm. To the naked eye, it was lighter than in the photos, but the sky was an intriguing mixture of shapes and colours, both of which were changing all the time. In a matter of a couple of minutes, clouds changed their shapes e.g. became more elongated, and colours both deepened – red – and brightened – pink. The second photo shows the reflection of the sky in the sea, which took on a light pink colour, like looking at a tasty bottle of Provence rosé.

I took this video twenty minutes earlier and it is something we can return to in the winter, when there will be more than eight hours less light on the shortest day of the year.