Le Tour de France: Col de La Madeleine and How To Wash A Heart by Bhanu Kapil

September 24, 2020

Another Le Tour comes to an end and this year’s climactic time trial made it one of the most exciting penultimate days of the race I have ever seen. There were a number of very steep climbs on this year’s race and one of the toughest was the Col de La Madeleine, a fierce, demanding climb. It may be in a beautiful setting but Le Tour cyclists will be paying little attention to the scenery and concentrating on get up the very long climb which has some very steep sections.

The photo below is from a previously quoted book Mountains: Epic Cycling Climbs by Michael Blann. This gives you part of the climb which you can see is steep even at this point. It also gives you a feel of the mountains in which the race takes place, with the peaks on the left hand side still covered in snow. There is then a succession of peaks towering above the wooded area below and dwarfing the village in the valley below.

Col de La Madeleine from Michael Blann’s book (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

The photo below shows that the cycle up the Col is not only very steep and very tough, but it winds up the mountain. Cyclists will be able to see the higher route from below and unless you are very fit, this can be a frightening prospect. The route up is near the village of Feissons-sur-Isère (good photos) which is near some of the leading ski resorts in the Savoie region of France. The cycling websites indicate that the professional cyclists will get up the mountain in an hour but even very fit cyclists are likely to take 90 minutes. This one is not on my list.

Col de la Madeleine winding route (Creative Commons Image)

To get an idea of a) how hard a cycle this is and b) how the route contains some wonderful scenery – for non-cyclists, watch this video below.

The summer 2020 Choice of the Poetry Book Society was Bhanu Kapil’s How to Wash a Heart (review). Ms Kapil is described as British Indian and her book focuses on the immigrant experience in Britain where the narrator is being “hosted” by a British family. The poems are meant to be read aloud at one of Kapil’s performance readings but they do not suffer from being on the book’s pages. They convey the stress suffered by the narrator who often feels helpless and restricted. So there is a dark side to these poems – “But this is your house/ And there’s no law/ That requires/ What you’re offering me to last”. There is also a lack of trust – “I don’t want you taking her out/Without asking me first” the host says, referring to her daughter. This follows the host sharing shampoo and saying “What’s mine is yours”.

On the other hand, Kapil is a very expressive poet – “It’s inky-early outside”, “I come from a country/ All lime-pink on the soggy map”, “Here in the black and silver café now / And it’s wonderful” and feelings “That moved through my body/Like sheets of rain/ Embossed/ With navy blue diadems”. The immigrant – unnamed as is the host – remembers her family and better times with her grandfather growing mangoes and her mother cooking “okra/ with caramelized onions”, so there is joy in the book as well as pain. I found some of the more surreal dream sequences not as convincing as they might be – a touch of self-indulgence on the poet’s part. On the whole, this is a very original take on the immigrant story and I am sure that the poems might well have a more telling effect if heard at one of the poet’s public appearances.

Waterston House: Liz Myhill’s paintings inside and slate garden outside

September 15, 2020

We visited Waterston House in Aberlady again – the first time for months i.e. before lockdown. The new exhibition there features three artists – Emily Ingrey-Counter, Helen Kennedy and Liz Myhill. Of the artists, it was the work of Liz Myhill that caught my eye and I was sent examples of Ms Myhill’s work by SOC’s exhibitions officer.

The painting below – Nest Ledges, St Abbs – is a portrayal of guillemots which nest in their hundreds at St Abbs Head. The picture is a mixture of the static and the action. On the rocks, the guillemots have a haughty look and seem preoccupied with themselves rather than what is going on around them. At the bottom of the painting, kittiwakes are also nesting. You can see the guillemots crowding on the vertiginous ledges from the footpath at St Abbs and Myhill captures this scene very well. Off the rocks, there is a fury of birds in the air and with simple brushstrokes, the artists gives expression to the aerial movement of the birds.

Liz Myhill painting (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

The next painting below is entitled Pilgrim Haven, Isle of May. Here we have more very steep cliffs above a very active sea below. We can see the Isle of May (good photo) from our house in the distance, just off the Fife Coast. This picture shows the birds nesting on the cliffs and whirling in the air, as the one above did, but here the artists focuses on the dramatic jaggedness and verticality of the dark cliffs. This contrasts with the green of the island itself, the whiteness of the crashing waves and the range of blues in the sea. These cliffs look forbidding and unwelcoming to humans but provide a safe haven for the nesting birds. The scene is a dramatic one and you can almost hear the sound of the onrushing waves and the cries of the circling birds.

Liz Myhill painting

The final painting below – Nightfall on The Merse – has a tendency towards the abstract, although the hills, the sea and the mass gathering of geese are clearly visible. The Merse is a large area on the Scottish borders south of Berwick Upon Tweed (good photos). There is a well captured contrast between the dark of the hill – in the rain – and the geese gathering together and perhaps awaiting the storm – and the seaward side of the painting. The colours get more delicate as you go from right to left in this very atmospheric depiction of a coastal scene. The exhibition is on until the 27th September and is very well worth a visit.

Liz Myhill painting

At the back of Waterston House, there is a pond with a little waterfall flowing into it from the right. At this time of year, the water lilies – fairly dull and flowerless for most of the year – come to life with their delicate, graceful flowers. The photo below – taken on my phone, so not the best quality – shows the water lilies looking like little pink eggs in a nest. It’s a very peaceful scene with only the gentle muttering of the water to be heard. The pond often attracts birds but there were none on display on the day of our visit.

The pond at Waterston House

At the front of Waterston House, there are well designed, well tended and attractive garden plots. The distinctive feature of these mini-gardens is the shale used on the garden, to give a flat rockery effect but there is also – see the photo below – a small piece of shale rock which looks like a miniaturised standing stone. The grey of the shale shows off the greenery of the small trees but it also has an elegance of its own, as it changes colour subtly when the sun fades or it is in shadow. Sitting on the bench and looking out on to the gardens at Waterston House is a very peaceful experience, particularly in a warm and sunny day such as this.

Outside Waterston House

On my way back to the car, I took a photo of this young rowan tree, resplendent with berries in the sun. Rowan trees have long been associated with superstition and mythology. Traditionally e.g. in Scotland and Wales, rowan trees were planted to keep witches away and also to prevent disease from reaching a house. People were more likely to believe the witches story than the disease one. Also, if the poor women suspected of being witches were associated with rowan trees, this was more likely to show their “guilt”. This site lists many other examples of rowan trees being linked to superstition in different cultures. In these (in most ways) more enlightened times, rowan trees are admired for their show of berries.

Rowan berries at Waterston House

Harvest time at Whittinghame and Neil Young’s harvest songs

September 5, 2020

It is early September here in the south east of Scotland and time for the harvest – of barley, wheat and oats – to be brought in. We drove around the countryside yesterday looking for a combine harvester, with no luck until we came up the hill at the historic hamlet of Whittingehame (pr Whitting – Jim). The photo below shows the combine just about to turn around and go back down the hill, churning up the grain as it goes. The photo depicts the East Lothian countryside well, with the extensive woods behind and the large fields, some of which have been already cut. Beyond the trees lie the Lammermuir Hills (good photos) which are a popular walking area. On my bike, this is a steep climb going both ways past Whittingehame and at the top of hill in this photo, there is a private road to the historic Whittingehame House.

Combine harvester at Whittingehame (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

As the combine turned, it lowered its front section, with its rows of metal teeth, and began to take in the crop, keeping the grain inside and spewing out the straw at the back. The photo below shows the trail of straw left by the combine and the black tube on the left, from which the grain is disgorged into a waiting tractor trailer. When fields of wheat like this one were cut by hand before the arrival of mechanised harvesters, the fields would have been much smaller and it would have taken a squad of men and women with scythes to cut and stack the grain, before it was put through a threshing machine. These people would be amazed to see this monster machine easing its way up and down the fields and doing the work of twenty men and women in hours rather than days.

Combine in action at Whittingehame

These same people would have been fascinated to see the modern bales, tightly packed straw in what looks like a large cotton reel. The photo below shows one of the bales that had been “born” before I got there. The circles of straw are compressed in most of the bale but look looser in the middle of the bale, almost as if this was an egg with a soft centre or that the middle was a nest for a large bird. I like it when the farmers leave the bales on the ground as a bale-strewn field has a grace and elegance of its own. Unfortunately, these days the farmers tend to remove the bales soon after the field is harvested.

Straw bale at Whittingehame

The final photo below shows the straw and some wheat heads that have escaped the jaws of the devouring combine. Most of the grain pods are empty but some have still held on to their no doubt precious cargo. The scattered straw and heads of grain make dazzling patterns as they lie on the floor of the field. The patterns will not last as the field will soon either be ploughed or lightly drilled as the farmer prepares to put in his or her next crop. Also, in the photo, you can see why the grain pods are called ears.

Heads of wheat at Whittingehame

When I think about songs relating to the harvest, I immediately call to mind Neil Young’s wonderful Harvest Moon (lyrics) with its brilliant, memorable introduction and swaying melody that makes you want to dance. You can see the great man performing the song here.

Neil Young’s Harvest Moon

In 1972, Neil Young produced one of the best albums of all time, in the form of Harvest (tracks). Every song is worth listening to but Heart of Gold (lyrics) is probably the one known to most people. Here is Neil Young with that classic song.

Sebastian Barry’s A Thousand Moons and pre-harvest Spott village

August 23, 2020

Three years ago, I posted a review of Sebastian Barry’s outstanding novel “Days without End”. I have now read the follow up to that book – A Thousand Moons (review) – and was not disappointed. The new book is much shorter than the previous one and focuses on one character from Days Without End – Winona Cole, the adopted daughter of Thomas McNulty and John Cole. Winona is a native American – referred to in the book as Indian – whose family was slaughtered by the American army in which McNulty and Cole served. At the start of the novel, Winona recalls that “In early times, I was Ojinjintka, which means rose”. Her family were “..souls of the Lakota that used to live on those old plains”. The teenager Winona, who may be 17 or 18 when the novel takes place in 1870s Tennessee, relates her story in the first person and is a realist. “Even when you come out of bloodshed and disaster, in the end you have got to learn to live”. We are only on page 2. Barry is an enviably graceful writer and the novel is full of memorable sentences e.g. “But the years went by fleet of foot. Like ponies running across endless grasses”. Winona often uses reference to her Indian background.

Winona lives with Cole and McNulty on Lige Mangan’s farm along with two former slaves. They are poor and live in a state dominated by racism where black or Indian people can be assaulted legally. The main plot revolves around Winona’s brutal rape and how she resolves to revenge it and identify her attacker. The background to this is how people’s lives intertwined in the state of Tennessee still haunted by the Civil War and where there is a struggle to combat lawlessness. Winona is an articulate girl and works for the lawyer Briscoe, who seeks to bring a shared sense of what is right amongst the people of the town of Paris. Barry deftly describes the wide differences between the affluent lawyer and the poor farmers to give a convincing portrait of the times.

The book is not at all dark despite the circumstances in which Winona and her “family” live. On a Whitsun holiday, there is merriment, with Lige Mangan taking out his fiddle “.. and shone it up with wax and tightened his strings and off he flew with his Tennessee jigs and reels”. Winona dances wildly – “I let my limbs be crazy and there was no civilised name for how I did”. Rosalee, the former slave also dances – “she threaded herself through the air like a lithesome swan”. Barry also writes poetically about the land and the air – “A high cold sky was speckled with stray blues and greys like a bird’s egg”.

There is drama – but not melodrama – in the book’s conclusion as the plot comes to a climax. A lesser writer than Barry would have over dramatised the ending but we are in the hands of a master writer here and what we read is convincing. I bought the hardback version of this book and it is well worth reading now or when it comes out in paperback. As always with Sebastian Barry, readers are treated with an excellent story, vivid characters and moral dilemmas which the reader must face and sometimes question his/her prejudices. You can listen to an interview with the author on Friday 28 August as he takes part in the online Edinburgh Book Festival.

A superb novel from one of today’s best writers (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

I was recently asked if I would give permission for one or two of my blog photos of Spott village to be used in a local calendar for 2021. My photos are resized and sometimes cropped for use in the blog and the two identified, from 2015, might not have a high enough resolution for the calendar, so I went back to Spott which is 2.6 miles/4.2K from Dunbar. Spott sits in the now lush East Lothian countryside, with swaying fields of barley and wheat, and green fields of potatoes and sprouts on view. The first photo below is taken in the graveyard of Spott Kirk/Church (good photos). I like the shadows from the trees and the gravestones, some of which appear to be leaning towards each other, like two Scottish country dancers preparing to start. In the enlarged photo, over the wall, you can see the fields of wheat and barley in front of Wester Broomhouse farm (photo). In the 1853/4 Name Books, Wester Broomhouse is described as “A farm house with offices, a thrashing Mill worked by steam, some Cottages, and a large farm attached; belonging to Mrs Ferguson of Beil”.

Spott Kirk graveyard and beyond

Crossing the road, I took this view of the kirk (Scots for church). The kirk, with its little bell tower, looks crowded out by the trees around it and in the foreground, there is a field of wheat, which will be harvested in the near future. The heads of grain are large, sharp and have taken on the colour of late summer. There is a variety of trees on view, with the tall, skinny looking pine tree taking centre stage and lofting it over the rest.

Spott Kirk beyond the wheat field

The photo above was taken at the side of the road up to Spott House (history) and the one below shows the driveway up to the house. The trees are in full leaf and displaying many shades of green. The dappled shadows across the road and on the grass make little patches of white. Compare this to the next photo – from a blog post in 2019 – where the trees are bare and their rather inelegant branches appear to be stretching out. On the other hand, the Spring photo shows the brilliant display of daffodils at that time of year. The shadows are also thinner in the 2nd photo. So there is always something different to see here no matter what time of year you come.

Driveway to Spott House
Driveway to Spott House in Spring

I left Spott and drove down the road to Wester Broomhouse to get a view of the village from the north. You need to enlarge the photo for best effect. The wee kirk is just to the right of centre and Spott House driveway can be seen to the left of the red roofs. This photo also gives a view of the pre-harvested fields of barley in the foreground and wheat above. This is a view that will not have changed much in a hundred years, with the sheep in ultra relaxed mode and the fecund fields of grain. The big difference would be that the fields would be much smaller in 1920.

Looking south towards Spott village

Richard Ford’s Sorry For Your Trouble and new virtual talk

August 14, 2020

A new Richard Ford book is always a highly anticipated treat for a long time Ford fan like me. So the arrival of his new book of short stories Sorry For Your Trouble (review), was something to be savoured. The stories in the book range from middle aged people meeting again after 35 years, an older woman visiting friends after the death of her husband and a shy teenage boy with a more outgoing and eccentric friend. One of the key themes in this book is the connection in all the stories between the characters and Ireland. Although the title does not have the word “Troubles” (plural) in the title, there may be a hint of Irishness here as well.

Richard Ford – now 76 – still writes in an enviable fashion and as you read the stories, there are words and phrases that are so appropriate – and sometimes original – that you can only wish that you could have written them. Only Ford could describe one of his characters as unsolaceable. In one of his most famous novels The Sportswriter, Ford refers to “the normal applauseless life of us all” and that is my favourite Ford quotation. In the present book, Nothing to declare, is a story set in New Orleans, Ford writes of the couple “They were at the great river now, where the air expanded and went outward, floated up and away in a limitless moment before returning to the vast, curving, mythical, lusterless flood”. This is a breathtaking description of the New Orleans river.

In Happy, in which a newly widowed woman comes to visit old friends, the hosts Tommy and Janice recall former meetings and disagreements and Tommy wants to recreate former times by going to the beach. “There, would be a thin stratum of last low-horizon light. Blue and orange fading to greenish dark, conferring a sense of peace and complicity”. Ford’s use of low-horizon and complicity make this an intriguing passage. The author has an exquisite way of making the reader think about what s/he has just read and you constantly do this in a Richard Ford novel or short story collection.

In the final story – 53 pages long – a divorced couple meet up again as friends, as the woman wants her former husband to accompany her to see her dying mother. Charlotte looks out of an aeroplane window “high above the Atlantic’s pearlescent curve” and on the next page, sees the “whitely, shimmering sea”. Both pearlescent and whitely are Fordisms which my spellchecker questions as words. In fact, the suggestion for pearlescent is preadolescent, which might amuse Mr Ford. But the latter is a word which stuck in my mind and later in the same day as reading this, I looked at the horizon from my house and thought about the curve of a pearl.

As John Self’s review – link above – in the Irish Times states, Ford’s stories “… have the usual grace and subtlety we expect from Ford, the usual elegant sentences, and the way his characters wind their way slowly toward answers to the crises they face”. If you have never read Richard Ford or perhaps only read one of his books, this collection will bring you a pleasure which you can only get from reading outstanding fiction.  

Richard Ford’s short stories. (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

I have now done three virtual talks for Dunbar and District History Society initially, then passed on to other interested groups. The latest talk is based on a film made in the early 1960s by the owner of the local chemist’s shop, Bobby Aitken. The shop – Aitken the Chemist’s as it is known locally – is still there today. The film was taken at Dunbar Harbour and features the lifeboat Margaret going out to rescue a stricken yacht and returning with the vessel in tow. The photo below shows the lifeboat in Dunbar harbour. The photo is shown with the permission of Dunbar RNLI (good photos).

The lifeboat Margaret in Dunbar Harbour

The film is interesting in many ways. It shows the lifeboat and some of the crew climbing down a narrow ladder to go to the lifeboat via a small vessel. The lifeboat is subsequently seen returning to the harbour with the yacht in tow and carefully manoeuvring the tricky entrance to the harbour. The coxswain of the lifeboat at this time was Robert George Brunton, who was one of six brothers to serve on the lifeboat. In the photo below, he is shown with his brothers. L to R – Jimmy, Peter, Ralph, Davie, Robert George, and Willie Brunton with Bob Marr who was another crewman.

The Brunton brothers with Bob Marr

The film is thus of interest in relation to the lifeboat, but also to the harbour itself. Crowds of people had turned out to see the lifeboat return with the yacht and they can be seen swarming round the harbour entrance. This was a time before health and safety regulations came into place. Also in the film, you can see people walking along the top of the castle ruins. This is now closed to the public. The photo below shows the castle walls today and you can see why people would not be allowed up there now.

Walls of Dunbar castle

After my talk was published, I was sent this photo below by Ronnie Marr, grandson of Bob Marr – shown above with the Brunton brothers. This shows Bob on the back of the lifeboat, in his oilskins as he is in the film, with a yacht being towed. It is not certain that this is the same yacht as in the film but it looks very similar. We need Richard ford to write a description of this scene to do if full justice.

Bob Marr on the lifeboat towing a yacht

The talk is on my YouTube channel and is shown below on YouTube. You will note that at the beginning of the talk, my Scottish name Jim is used. Outside Scotland – in the rest of the UK and the world, I am known as James.

Gannet diving frenzy and Aeneid Book VI translated by Seamus Heaney

August 4, 2020

Over the past five days, we had had spectacular displays of gannets diving into the sea at the back of our house. At times, there seemed to be hundreds of gannets feeding on what were presumably large shoals of fish. Watching the action through my scope, I was amazed how the birds would dive – perhaps ten at a time – into a small area of water, and never hit each other. There is a very good explanation of the gannets’ diving technique in this Smithsonian Channel video on Youtube. The plethora of gannets diving simultaneously into the water on this film is exactly what I was watching.

It is a mesmerising sight to see this bird frenzy in action, as it seems at times to be raining gannets. This photo of the birds was taken by just off Winterfield Golf Course which is on the other side of Dunbar from us. This photo captures the energy of the gannets – some diving, some hovering, some taking off again and some still in the water, digesting what they have got. It looks anarchic but this is a very well organised and coordinated raid on an unsuspecting shoal of fish. After a while, a large group of gannets were floating on the sea – a very unusual sight. I assumed that they were resting, with full stomachs, before flying back to their chicks on the Bass Rock.

Gannets off Winterfield Golf Course. Photo by Brian Turner and published with his permission. (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended).

The photo below – a less close up view – shows the sheer amount of gannets which have descended ravenously on this new feeding ground. The rapidity with which each individual gannet flies over the sea, spots a fish, dives in – closing its wings just at the final moment – emerges, and takes off again, is quite breathtaking. These are huge birds with six foot wingspans and they must use a tremendous amount of energy on each dive and return to the air. Their swift return for more fish shows why people who eat too fast are called gannets.

Gannets off Winterfield Golf Course, Dunbar. Photo by Brian Turner and used with his permission.

These gannets come from the massive Bass Rock colony in the Firth of Forth. It is the largest colony in the world, with over 150,000 birds on the island each year. At least a few thousand of them were around Dunbar over the past few days. I found a slow motion video of gannets diving on Amy Novotny’s blog and it is very revealing and enjoyable to watch. My own video is rather shaky but does show what I was witnessing. It also tells me that I need to do videos with my camera on my tripod.

Seamus Heaney’s translation of Virgil’s Aeneid Book VI (review) has been sitting unread on my bookshelves for quite a while. Maybe I was put off by my lack of knowledge of the mythical characters in the story – and there are many of them. When I did decide to read the book – a poetry book of 45 pages – I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was taken along by Aeneas, the book’s protagonist, and his struggles to get to the underworld to see his father once again. I also read this, of course, because it was a translation of the Latin by one of my own poetic heroes Seamus Heaney, who died too young in 2013, aged only 74.

The story of Book VI is relatively straightforward. Aeneas goes to the temple of Apollo in southern Italy and asks Sybl – a high priestess – how he might visit his father – Anchises – in the underworld. Sybl tells Aeneas that he must find the golden bough, which will allow him to be taken across the river Acheron by the ferryman Charon. Aeneas gets to meet his father who tells him about the glorious future of Rome.

Interspersed in this tale is what and whom Aeneas meets on his journey. Some sections of the book, in particular the descriptions of those being eternally punished, may be hard going for some readers but Heaney’s eloquence and use of language pull you on. For example, “Those who thought to hide wrongs done in the world above” are punished by “Vengeful Tisiphone” who has “a whiplash / Lapped and lithe in her right hand, [and] in her left/ A flail of writhing snakes, scourging the guilty”. Heaney uses the words “lapped and lithe” and “flail” and “scourging” to great effect here. A lesser poet might have become overly melodramatic, but Heaney presents these horrors to the reader convincingly.

There are areas of the underworld that seem to represent what some might regard as hell, other areas are like purgatory where there is a promise of salvation and others might be seen as more heavenly, where those who suffered injustice are looked after. In this area, those who suffered wrongs on earth, Aeneas sees ” feasting in lush meadows/ Or singing songs together to Apollo”. These people live forever in the “Groves of the Fortunate Ones” and here the poet Heaney, as opposed to the literal translator, comes into his own. ” bees in meadows / On a clear summer day alighting on pied flowers / And wafting in mazy swarms around white lilies”. The phrase “wafting in mazy swarms” provides us with a complex image in four words.

In his introduction, Heaney admits that the final section of the book is a dense “vision of a glorious Roman race” and the translator is “likely to have moved from inspiration to grim determination” as Virgil has seemingly endless lists of Roman heroes and victories. Despite this, Aeneid Book VI is a masterpiece of original poetry enhanced by Seamus Heaney’s exquisite translation.

Flowers after the rain and songs about rain

July 27, 2020

As regular readers of this blog will know, I love taking photos of flowers in the garden after there has been rain. This is an endless quest to capture the perfectly tearful flower. Given that the flowers are refreshed after heavy rain, these are, of course, tears of joy at being reinvigorated by the short downpours or the steady drizzles or the prolonged precipitations. There are new flowers in the garden since the last rain photographs – hydrangeas, impatiens and geraniums, which are all putting on a dazzling show of colour at the front and back of the house.

The photo below shows the wettened head of a hydrangea. These flowers have ancient origins and fossils from over 40 millions years ago have been found in North America. The word hydrangea, according to this source, originally comes from “the Greek ‘hydor,’ meaning water, and ‘angos,’ meaning jar or vessel. This roughly translates to ‘water barrel’, referring to the hydrangea’s need for plenty of water and its cup-shaped flower”. There also appear to be many myths about hydrangeas e.g. that the white specimen below signifies boastfulness or arrogance. I like this photo not only for the shiny water droplets but also because it shows the white petals which have been perfectly formed, as well as the tiny heads – purple and white, from which the new flowers will emerge, like butterflies out of caterpillar cocoons.

Hydrangea flowers open and emerging (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

The next photo is from the same plant, but shows the green leaves of the hydrangea, which line the tall stems of the plants before the flowers form at the top. The raindrops are more prominent on the leaves, with their symmetrically veined structures and the smaller middle leaves look as if they might be an all-green butterfly just landed on the hydrangea. The flowers may be brighter and more likely to catch the eye, but if you look closely at the leaves, you can see that they have their own grace and elegance. The pattern on the leaves remind me of looking at my palms, with the the lifelines on view, but lacking the symmetry of the leaves.

Hydrangea leaves after the rain

Next up, in the photo below, comes an impatiens flower. This source states “Impatiens is a huge genus of about 1000 species of flowering plants in the family Balsaminaceae, native to northern hemisphere and tropic areas”. I do not know which particular type of impatiens this is, but if you enhance the photo, you can see that there is a delicious richness of colour and texture, particularly in the wet leaves, with their dark red veins and smooth surfaces, dotted with raindrops. On looking at this photo again, I noticed, in the right hand corner at the bottom, the blurred head of a poppy which is yet to flower. This plant has produced flowers for weeks now and will be equally productive for the rest of the summer.

Impatiens in a pot

The geraniums – of which we have quite a few plants at the front and back of the house – are now multi-headed and have a seemingly endless succession of pink, red and white flowers. The photo below shows one of the pink geraniums. I like the way this photo has captured the raindrops on the flower’s petals, with their delicate fan shapes. Each petal appears to me to be veined in a slightly different way and at the centre of the flower, it looks as if there could be an insect of some kind burrowing its way into the flower. On the right, you can see the newer buds which are desperate to burst out and flaunt their petals, as their predecessors have done. The source quoted above states that “Most of these species have fanciful, aromatic foliage and saucer-shaped, radially symmetric flowers with five separate petals”. I am not sure about the saucer-shaped reference. I prefer fan or scallop-shell.

Geranium flowers and flower heads

In the blog, I have previously referred to The Move’s song “Flowers in the Rain” but there are many more songs with rain in the title or in the lyrics. I am sure that there are more contemporary songs with references to precipitation but my memory goes back firstly to Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”, with its poetic lyrics:

I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains
I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways
I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans
I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

The video below shows a young Bob Dylan singing this intriguing and haunting song. A warning – you may find yourself singing the chorus of this song all day.

Dylan’s A Hard Rain

The rain also brings to mind a song by The Searchers (showing my age here) entitled “What Have They Done to the Rain?”. Its lyrics are less strong and more sentimental than Dylan’s song but it is a pop song I have always liked. Here are The Searchers singing it.

The final rain song is a gutsier, more forceful song “Have you ever seen the Rain?” by Credence Clearwater Revival. The song is a lament of a kind, ending with the lines “I want to know, have you ever seen the rain?/ Comin’ down on a sunny day”. So despite the driving sound of the tune, this is not a happy song. Here is the group singing it.

Dunbar Harbour on craning -in day (delayed)

July 18, 2020

Each year, normally in the first or second Saturday in April, the sailing club vessels, of difference sizes, are lifted into Dunbar Harbour by a large crane. This is known as craning-in. The boats are then lifted out of the harbour in early October, known – unsurprisingly – as craning-out. The high winds and high tides of winter could do damage to the yachts and small boats, so they are removed in October. This year, craning-in did not take place until this month and the organisers picked a perfect day for it, with Dunbar Harbour looking as it does in the many picture postcards of it. The photo below shows the harbour, with the crane seen on the right hand side, under a blue summer sky, with high, intricately patterned white clouds. The large propeller at the bottom right of the picture, is a tribute to Dunbar man Robert Wilson, whom some claim to be the inventor of the propeller, although this is disputed by others.

Dunbar harbour on craning-in day (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

We walked round to the eastern side of the harbour to get a better view of the craning. The photos below show one of the small yachts being lowered into the water. This is a slow and delicate business, and communication with the crane operator is vital, particularly in the second photo, where the boat is about to go into the water. On view here is the Dunbar Lifeboat (good photos) shed and offices – next to the lowered boat. On the left of the crane, the dark red building with the writing on it is one of the local pubs, the Volunteer Arms (good photos) which has just reopened with the easing of the lockdown. This pub is well known to locals and visitors alike for its real ales and upstairs restaurant.

Boat being lowered into Dunbar harbour
Boat about to hit the water at Dunbar harbour

We then went into The Battery (good photos and history) which was completely refurbished a few years ago and is now an increasingly popular site for visitors to the harbour. The photo below was taken from the wall of The Battery, looking west across the harbour. The enlarged photo will show the wee boat being finally lowered into the water. It was a beautiful summer’s day and the harbour water was glittering in the sunshine. On the right hand side of the photo is the walkway around the harbour, which can be reached only when the bridge (seen in the photo above) is down. So you can stroll along the walkway and around the corner to The Gripps (blog post from May 2020). On the bottom centre and left of the photo are stacks of fishermen’s creels. Dunbar was once a fishing port but the only fish caught now come in the landings of prawns and langoustines brought in by the bigger boats. There are a number of creel boats which land crabs and lobsters. These are in action again now that restaurants have reopened.

Looking across Dunbar harbour from The Battery

The final photo shows the lifeboat parked under the castle walls. Dunbar Castle (good photos) was once one of the strongest castles in Scotland and dates back to the 11th century. It has been a ruin since the late 15th century when parliament ordered that it be cassyne doune and alutterly distroyit. It was finally demolished in the mid 16th century, and only the outer walls and a section of the topmost part remains today. Behind the lifeboat, on the castle walls, you can still see the nesting kittiwakes (Video). The young birds could be clearly seen from under the main wall of the castle and once they are fully fledged, the kittiwakes will leave and go out to sea until returning in 2021. The birds were very noisy on craning-in day and their distinctive call, which sounds like kitt-i-wake, kitt-i-wake could be heard all across the harbour. So a shortened sailing season began for the yachts and boats restored to their watery berths on a warm and very pleasant day in Dunbar.

Dunbar lifeboat under the castle walls

Wind blown Gifford trees and James Ellroy’s This Storm

July 10, 2020

A couple of Sundays ago, we drove up to the bonnie village of Gifford (good photos). There was a very strong south westerly wind and I was drawn to the swaying of the trees as we walked around the village. At times, when the wind was whooooshing through the trees, it made a similar sound to the waves on a big-swell sea day. I was also interested in capturing the variety of trees on show in the village and the multitude of shades of green. The first photo was taken at the village park and as it is a still image, you will have to imagine the trees swaying in the wind, almost as if they were keeping time with some music unavailable to the human ear.

Swaying trees at Gifford park. (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

From the park, we walked towards the river across the main road and on this side of the street, there are some large sandstone houses which are shielded by trees of different kinds. The photo below shows one of these impressive, multiple-windowed, red sandstone houses. On show in front of the house are tall trees, both deciduous and evergreen, towering over the smaller trees and bushes below. Again – note the numerous shades of green across the photo.

Impressive house behind the trees in Gifford

Walking up the avenue which eventually leads to the path to the former railway station, we came across this fir tree (photo below) which had sprouted large cones all across its branches. You associate cones with the autumn, when they fall to the ground and not with July, so this seemed a strange site. In some ways, this is an inelegant tree, with its branches sticking out at angles and the top of the tree looking like a dishevelled shelter in a forest. On the other hand, it has its own beauty and grace and I thought it looked like a very relaxed tree.

Hanging cones in Gifford

Just before we got back to the car park, we crossed the river again. The photo below shows the river, which is quite low at the moment, almost hidden beneath the lushness of the trees. On view is also a superb copper beech tree at the far end. The second photo below was taken at the end of December 2019 and shows almost the same scene. The contrast is startling between the frozen garden and riverside and the white, sterile-looking branches overhanging the river, and the dazzling array of greens in the first photo.

I have recently finished James Ellroy‘s doorstop of a novel – This Storm (review). The story is set in Los Angeles in 1942 and it is a tale of corruption, crime, extreme right wing politics and internal city and federal police intrigue. Ellroy’s style sets out to tell the story at a fast rate with short staccato sentences, portraying Los Angeles as a city of sleaze e.g. police run brothels where two lots of people pay – one to participate and the other to watch the participants. Ellroy is not to everyone’s taste, both as a novelist and as a provocative person. There is extreme violence in parts of the book, especially against the Japanese residents who are being rounded up by the police after Pearl harbour.

The protagonist is Dudley Smith, an Irish police sergeant in L.A. who is multiply corrupt himself but tries to solve three crimes involving a range of characters including other corrupt police and politicians on the make. You either like Ellroy’s roller coaster stories which show the dark side of the city, or they appal you and you would give this book up after a few chapters. There does not seem to be readers who can take or leave Ellroy. I have read a number of Ellroy’s books and enjoy them for their style, the intriguing plots and larger than life characters. This Storm is a follow up to Perfidia and, for the first time reading one of this author’s books, I began to think – at times – that I read a particular scene before. This may be because some of the same characters, such as Dudley Smith, turn up in a number of Ellroy’s novels. If you enjoy reading a book in which all the characters are guilty of avarice and some form of corruption, but is fast moving and has many interesting men and women – including real ones like Orson Welles – then this is for you and it comes highly recommended.

The Longest Day 2020 and adapted fish recipe

June 30, 2020

The longest day of the year in the UK is often thought to have a fixed date i.e. 20 June but according to this article , it can vary between 20th and 22nd June. The longest day in Scotland this year – in Shetland, the most northerly point – was 18 hours, 55 minutes and 30 seconds long. So here in Dunbar, it would be shorter than that. In Orkney – see here – a solstice ceremony takes place at the Comet Stone which is a 1.75m standing stone, at 7pm and its organisers state “We welcome the sun at its zenith, at the height of its powers. We also acknowledge the cycle of the sun’s descent to its nadir as the days will now start to become shorter”. It’s traditional around here that if you meet someone the next day, your greeting will be “Aye, the nights are fair drawin’ in!” as a joke.

On the longest day in Dunbar, we had the best sunset of the year. The photos below – not the clearest I have ever taken – go from 10pm to 10.45pm on the day of the 20th June, which I had assumed was the longest day. At 10pm – photo below- the sky and the sea had become pinkish/purple, with an orange glow on the horizon and it was difficult to pinpoint the exact colour scheme as it was constantly changing, as were the shapes of the clouds, which appeared to be wandering aimlessly across the sky. The sea itself was multi-coloured and again, it changed by the minute, with streaks of almost white, then pink, then purple appearing and disappearing in different parts of the water. It was mesmerising to look at.

Longest day at 10pm (Click on all photos to enlarge- recommended)

The next two photos were taken almost simultaneously. The first photo shows how the sky darkened by 10.45 and the pink sky was fading rapidly. Five minutes later, it has gone altogether, so this brief but dramatic skyline was still a delight to witness in the warmth of the late evening.

Fading light in Dunbar on 20.06.20

The final photo is the same as the one above, except that I pressed the Auto Correct button on Picture Manager. While this brightens up the scene and highlights the pink sea lapping the rocks, it was not what I saw from the back of our house that evening. However, I did like the cloud shapes, with the two dolphin like on the right appearing to be heading straight for some mythical creature in front of them. Had it not been for the approaching cloud mass, it would have stayed lighter for much longer, as it did the following night.

There is no such thing as a definitive fish stew and there are a myriad of recipes out in cyberspace for the cook/chef to follow or adapt. I came across this Turkish recipe a few months ago while looking for recipes with haddock and red peppers – capsicum in Australia and other parts of the world. The recipe contains capers, of which neither of us are particularly fond, so I omitted these and further adapted the recipe, which is reasonably simple. It involves chopping up red onion, red pepper and fresh tomatoes and in this version of mine, leek, along with mandolin potatoes. I had often wondered why the slicer on the side of my grater was referred to as a mandolin and I found out that it is: either the action of slicing the potatoes (or other vegetables) in a strumming fashion like playing a mandolin or it is named after the inventor of the Guillotin’s girlfriend. Given that slicer like kitchen tools have been existence for thousand of years, that latter may be unlikely. To confuse things further, the term mandoline is also used.

Back to the recipe. I placed two haddock fillets on the base of a greased Pyrex dish. The online recipe does not advocate pre-cooking the vegetables, but I sweated the red onion, leek and pepper/capsicum in olive oil and added chopped herbs from the garden. As the photo below shows, this is a colourful dish at this stage and the next stage, and it takes on the appearance of an abstract painting.

Sliced vegetables on top of haddock fillets

I then added the sliced tomatoes on top as in the photo below. The abstract becomes still life as the tomato slices lie like sunbathers on a beach. So this dish is a visual treat before it becomes a culinary one.

Added colour to our fish dish

I then added the mandolin potatoes, salt and pepper added and brushed with olive oil. I originally wrote mandolined but it appears that the word is either a noun or an adjective, and not a verb. My primary 7 teacher Miss Murray would have delighted in teaching my class such interpretations. I am sure that we went up to secondary school with a much better knowledge of grammar than those in other schools. The sliced potatoes take away the sun from the tomatoes, but it will come out again later. The photo below shows the potato topping after it came out of the oven, with the slices browned at the edges and the topmost layer of potatoes were very crisp.

Out of the oven ….

I am aware that when I read similar recipe descriptions, I am often asking myself at this stage (or before) “Yes, yes but what does it look like on the plate?”. The photo below shows the served dish with steamed fine green beans added. The fish was moist and very tasty and the vegetables did not overwhelm the taste of the haddock. The myriad of colours on the plate add to your appreciation of the dish.

The dish going to the table

This recipe is essentially for a fish stew, so you can adapt it to suit your own tastes e.g. you could add fennel seeds as in another fish stew I make. I may not make exactly the same dish again.