Professor Keith Smyth and blossoming Inverness

May 16, 2015

A step back into the past for me and a huge step forward for one of my former undergraduate and postgraduate students this week. I was invited to the inaugural lecture of Professor Keith Smyth at the University of the Highlands and Islands in Inverness and was more than happy to accept. I first met Keith as a raw 18 year old who joined the first year of the BA(Hons) Information Management at what is now Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh. I was the head of department and also taught on the course. Like myself, Keith was a late developer and someone who did much better at university than at school. At the end of his fourth year, Keith was top of his class with a first class honours degree. My then colleague Kathy Buckner (also at the lecture) persuaded Keith to do a PhD, with Kathy as principal supervisor and me as second supervisor, and he gained his doctorate 4 years later , having also done teaching for the department in the final year. He then went on to Edinburgh Napier University as lecturer and then senior lecturer, before getting the professorial post last year. So, my boy done good. Keith was kind enough to identify a PhD meeting with Kathy and me as a pivotal moment – we told him in no uncertain terms that he must stop revising chapters (a common fault amongst PhD students) and get it finished ASAP – and he did. He is professor of pedagogy, which is often defined as referring only to teaching, but which Keith argued was about learning and teaching, and he will lead the university strategy on developing a range of teaching methods, including face to face, online, open and blended learning. HIs lecture was thought provoking and entertaining and raised many questions about who has access to learning and what spaces – physical and digital – are made available to everyone who is willing to learn, in a formal or informal manner. Keith has given me permission to use the photo below.

Professor Keith Smyth

Professor Keith Smyth

The lecture gave me an opportunity to go to the highland city of Inverness (good photos) which I haven’t visited for years. It’s an interesting train journey from Edinburgh, going through Perth, Dunkeld and Aviemore (more good photos). In Inverness, I stayed at the excellent Sandwood B&B – 4* hotel quality at B&B prices. Inverness is a city as it has a cathedral but it really a fair sized town. It is dissected by the fast flowing River Ness and there’s a very pleasant walk along the river on both sides.

River Ness, Inverness

River Ness, Inverness

On the bank of the river is the cathedral a huge stone structure encasing an interior of vaulted ceilings and delicate wood carving. On the day of my visit, there was a strongish wind which was blowing the blossom of the trees next to the cathedral and forming a confetti like carpet. The photos show the entrance to the cathedral, the confetti carpet and a view of the cathedral from Inverness Castle, and a view of the castle from the river

Inverness Cathedral

Inverness Cathedral

Blossom carpet at Inverness Museum

Blossom carpet at Inverness Museum

Inverness Cathedral seen from the castle

Inverness Cathedral seen from the castle

Inverness Castle

Inverness Castle

My stay was brief, but Inverness is certainly worth a visit and there are many places  of interest, both historic and scenic, to the north, west and south of the city. Put it on your list.

Luke Rendell on whales and the colours of tulips

May 9, 2015

As part of my local history research on my home town of Dunbar in the early 1950s, I’ve interviewed local people on a range of topics including the stranding of 147 whales at Thorntonloch, near Dunbar in May 1950. I’m writing a short local history book on this event and it will examine the press coverage (which greatly exaggerated the number of people who saw the whales), as well as an analysis of the interviews, covering how people got to Thorntonloch,their description of the scene on the beach, how people behaved and their feelings about what they saw, the social aspects of the event i.e. what it tells us about society in 1950, and an examination of why the whales stranded. This week, I interviewed Dr Luke Rendell for the last chapter of my book. He is an expert on whales and dolphins and is the joint author (with Hal Whitehead) of a fascinating new book, cover below, entitled The Cultural Life of Whales and Dolphins, described in a Guardian review as “provocative, brilliant”. Luke Rendell told me that there was no definitive theory of why pilot whales strand in such large numbers, but that it definitely had to do with the social structure of the whale communities. The authors argue that there is a strong culture within groups of whales and dolphins and that these animals (from the Guardian review) “observe rituals of the dead and exhibit grief”. You can hear Luke talking about whales and dolphins (cetaceans) on Start the Week or download the podcast from April 21st 2015.

Whitehead and Rendell book

Whitehead and Rendell book

Another Radio 4 programme caught my ear this week. Word of Mouth which is presented by the children’s author Michael Rosen (poems, articles and performances on this site). This week, the discussion was on the names that people have given to colours over the centuries. Rosen and his guests discussed how, for example, what we now call pink did not always have the same meaning and that, in some languages, there are no words for certain colours such as blue. You can listen to the podcast of the programme and think about what names you allocate to certain colours and how some colours are not defined e.g. mauve. Interestingly, Michael Rosen and his guest pronounce mauve as “mowve” (as in to row a boat), which I would pronounce it “mawve” (as in raw). After listening to this I was out in the garden taking photos of my tulips of which I have this year a “rampant array” (Richard Ford). The photos below show the vibrant colours of the tulips and their abstract appearance when shot in close up. Tulips were originally grown wild in Turkey and came to Europe in the 17th century. The lack of strong winds this spring has helped to make the tulips last longer and the colours – reds, pinks, yellows and purples i.e. different shades of each colour, are a joy to look at. Enjoy the following:

Pink tulip beginning to break up

Pink tulip beginning to break up

Red tulip with yellow heart

Red tulip with yellow heart

Tulip head as abstract

Tulip head as abstract

Pot of tulips in front of my stone wall

Pot of tulips in front of my stone wall

Richard Ford novel and along the Tyne in Haddington

May 1, 2015

Richard Ford, originally from Mississippi, is one of my all time favourite writers. I have bought many of his novels and short story collections in hardback over the years, as soon as they’ve been published. His novels include The Sportswriter, Independence Day and his latest work -which I’ve just finished – Let Me Be Frank With You. All of these novels feature Frank Bascombe, a former sports journalist himself and also a former realtor, the US name for someone who sells houses. Bascombe is a well meaning character who often frustrates himself and others around him, particularly his family with his attempts to mean well. The new novel is 4 interlinked stories of Frank’s ( after reading the novels, you think you know him and how you’d call him Frank if you met him) experiences and thoughts while meeting people in a nearby area, in the north eastern seaboard of the USA, which has suffered hurricane devastation. The new novel is very well written, as all of Ford’s novel are, and he produces phrases and sentences that you could not think of any other novelist writing. US troopers have “their tiny lethal riflery strapped to their chests”. The aftermath of the hurricane is described “.. as if a giant had strode out of the sea and kicked the shit out of everything”. Frank can be devastatingly sarcastic about people for whom he has no respect and he does not spare pretentious people from any walk of life, race or political or religious persuasion. In this novel, he reflects on a person with right wing views – “He’s also a personhood nutcase who wants the unborn to have a vote, hold driver’s licences and own hand guns so they can rise up and protect him from the revolution”. Ford is also a writer of precision – “Forsythia was past its rampant array”. That last phrase will come to mind now every time you see groups of flowers in bloom. For me this novel is too brief – 238 pages in fairly large print and at times, Ford tries to be too funny. I would have liked to have seen more about the characters whom Frank meets, is related to, and lives with. Now this may just be a fan of Ford’s whose expectations of a new Richard Ford novel could be too elevated. The reviews of Let Me Be Frank With You were universally excellent – try it for yourself and I guarantee that you will not be disappointed.

Let me be Frank with you

Let me be Frank with you

The town of Haddington (good photos) is 11 miles (18K) from Dunbar. It is a historic town and is known as the birthplace of the religious reformer John Knox and Samuel Smiles, the author of Self Help in 1859. Many books on this topic are still being published today but Smiles is seen as the originator of the term. We had a walk along the River Tyne which flows through part of the town on a pleasant Spring day. Our walk included going over a refurbished bridge frequented by cyclists and walkers. The sun was behind me as I took the photo below and I liked the combination of the white criss-cross of the bridge and the black criss-cross of the shadows.

Haddington Bridge

Haddington Bridge

We continued our walk eastwards and enjoyed the reflections in the water of the trees along the bank (1st photo below) and particularly of the willows – in their new green attire – near the houses (2nd photo). The serene calm of the water enhanced the walk.

River Tyne reflections

River Tyne reflections

Willows on the River Tyne

Willows on the River Tyne

At the end of this part of the walk, stands St Mary’s Church originally built in the 14th century. It is a magnificent building and you have to admire the quality of the stonework on the face of the church. Inside it is cavernous with very high ceilings and ornate woodwork. This is a building that can be admired by both the secular and religious, and it must have seemed to the 14th century peasants working the land around the town that a monumental edifice was being built, which would dominate the town and the surrounding countryside. The photo shows the front of the church and takes in some of the large gravestones erected for wealthy (and therefore seen as more important) locals, as well as some well manicured topiary.

St Mary's Haddington

St Mary’s Haddington

Stones and flowers; stones and flowers

April 24, 2015

In January, I found 2 boxes of daffodil bulbs on a garage shelf – I’d forgotten that they were there but I planted them even at this late stage. They have flowered very well and I noticed the other day that they showed off the stone wall (built with the excellent tuition and proper stonemason tools of Ian Sammels) to very good effect. That it was a warm and sunny spring day helped to enhance this photo.

Stone walls and daffodils

Stone walls and daffodils

There was more sandstone on view, this time in a natural setting, on our walk from Tyninghame Links to Ravensheugh Sands (good photo) which is often referred to as Tyninghame Beach by locals. The nearby hamlet of Tyninghame (pr Tinning him) has an excellent coffee shop. There was a strongish NE wind, so we set off into the wind to the small stretch of beach at the end of the woods. I’ve written about this here before, not least Chris Rose’s wonderful painting of dunlin. The painting’s depiction of the rocks in the sun is stunning and the photo below shows some of the other sandstone rocks near the exposed roots of a tree. The 2nd photo shows stratified rock and I liked the combination of the swirling curves of the rock, the seaweed’s greens and the sea’s sun generated blue.

Sandstone rocks at Tyninghame Beach

Sandstone rocks at Tyninghame Beach

Stratified rock at Tyninghame Beach

Stratified rock at Tyninghame Beach

At the end of the walk, there was a pleasant surprise as we came across a large bed of wild primroses, with not just the normal yellow flowers but also some with delicate purple flowers (see photos below). The poet Wordsworth wrote “Primroses, the Spring may love them; Summer knows but little of them” but come the summer, this patch of forest will be a very plain green again.

Purple primroses in Tyninghame Woods

Purple primroses in Tyninghame Woods

Yellow primroses in Tyninghame Woods

Yellow primroses in Tyninghame Woods

Appleby in Westmoreland and the Bowes Museum

April 16, 2015

We’ve just returned from a couple of days away to the northwest of England and we stayed in the former market town of Appleby in Westmoreland (good photos). This is a historic town which has a long, wide high street with a cross at either end, indicating where the market used to begin and end. St Lawrence’s church has impressive cloisters and at the other end of the steep street, there is the ruins of Appleby Castle, part of which has been turned into a conference/wedding centre. There’s a pleasant walk along the river Eden, which flows through the town and a very solid bridge. The photos below show the bridge and the spring flowers along its banks.

Appleby Bridge

Appleby Bridge

Appleby Bridge

Appleby Bridge

A highlight of our 2 day break was a visit to the Bowes Museum which was built on the edge of the town of Barnard Castle. The museum, as shown in the photo below, is a magnificent building, in the style of a French château and built by the very wealthy John Bowes and his wife Josephine, and it dominates the landscape for miles around.

The Bowes Museum

The Bowes Museum

The museum’s collections are wide ranging and they also have a series of exhibitions each year. At present, there is an excellent exhibition of drawings by the political cartoonist Gerald Scarfe. These drawings are all caricatures of Margaret Thatcher, the former British Prime Minister and are drawn very much from an anti Thatcher point of view. Those people who saw Thatcher as a saviour of Britain in the 1980s should definitely NOT visit this exhibition. Those people who saw Thatcher as more destructive than constructive will enjoy the drawings – some in colour – which satirise Thatcher and her policies. You can see a virtual tour of the exhibition here. The title Milk Snatcher refers to the Thatcher policy of stopping free milk for schools in the 1980s. The photo below is at the start of the exhibition – no photos of the drawings were allowed.

Scarfe exhibition

Scarfe exhibition

The other current exhibition is fashion-oriented and entitled Birds of Paradise. There are many exhibits showing a range of dresses and shoes and one stand out (photo below) is a black dress with wings at the back, featuring feathers from Birds of Paradise. Whether you admire this or not may depend on a) your taste and b) your sensitivity to the use of bird plumage in fashion.

Birds of Paradise dress at the Bowes Museum

Birds of Paradise dress at the Bowes Museum

Other highlights which caught my attention were a Rococo Clock and the complex metal work at the top of a staircase.

Rococo clock at Bowes Museum

Rococo clock at Bowes Museum

Ornate metalwork at Bowes Museum

Ornate metalwork at Bowes Museum

The most famous artefact in the museum is the Silver Swan automaton which is a beautiful piece of sculpture, with the swan surrounded by silver fish. At 2pm (too early for us) the swan rotates its head to music in a spectacular display. I tried to photograph the swan but the lighting made it difficult, so it’s worth while exploring the website to see close-up photos of the swan and its piscine entourage. The museum is worth spending a fair of time in, with its large art galleries containing many famous paintings and sculptures – see photo below of one of the high ceilinged galleries. If you are in the area, don’t miss it.

Bowes Museum gallery

Bowes Museum gallery

Spring day in Edinburgh and Easter Sunday walk

April 7, 2015

At last, Spring has arrived in Scotland and while the tulips, daffodils, crocuses and primroses have been out for a couple of weeks, the has been a definite lack of warmth. At the weekend, temperatures rose to an enjoyable 14 degrees. Now, obviously, if you are reading this in certain parts of the world, you may shiver at the thought of 14 degrees but for us, it’s a welcome doubling of the temperature from the last 3 weeks. On Saturday I was in Edinburgh to meet my 2 pals for a lunchtime beer or two and then we went to the football (aka soccer). It’s too painful to write about the latter but we enjoyed drinking Village Idiot real ale in Robbie’s bar. Earlier, I had a walk in the centre of town along Princes Street Gardens which have been transformed from a winter scene with an ice rink and German Market, into a spring flower showcase. There is now a profusion of daffodils, polyanthus and wallflower. The 3 photos below (taken on my phone) show two new polyanthus rings above the gardens, a view along the gardens to the west end of Princes St and a bed of pansies above the hedge lined walks in the gardens. All year round, this is a multilingual area and you hear several languages in a small stretch of the walk.

Circular polyanthus beds in Edinburgh

Circular polyanthus beds in Edinburgh

View west along Princes St Gardens

View west along Princes St Gardens

Looking down on to Princes St Gardens

Looking down on to Princes St Gardens

We woke up yesterday morning – Easter Sunday – to a bit of a haar and the harbour and most of the north sea had disappeared. It quickly cleared and we set of south to our frequent haunt of St Abbs Head, featured many times on this blog but there’s always a slightly different experience. As there was a slight east wind, we walked the circular route (photos here) around the cliffs from east to west. As it was the holiday weekend, it was much busier than normal but it’s a friendly as well as a scenic walk and most people passing each other say hello. The haar was covering the village of St Abbs but the coastal walk was clear and sunny. The first photo (click to enlarge for best effect) shows the village just peaking above the haar. We walked along the high clifftops and past rocks once again covered with guillemots. This is lambing time in Scotland and we passed at least 3 flocks of sheep, one on the steep hillside (2nd photo) and another where a mother was feeding her lamb (3rd photo).

Haar covering St Abbs village

Haar covering St Abbs village

Sheep on the hill above the gorse at St Abbs Head

Sheep on the hill above the gorse at St Abbs Head

IMG_8934

Edmundbyers, stone walls and Barter’s Books

March 30, 2015

A bit late with this blog post as we have family here from Dubai. Two weeks ago, we went to the north of England to catch up with a couple we  first met in Wagga Wagga, as they both went to Wagga Wagga Road Runners. They had a cottage in the County Durham village of Edmundbyers. The village is set in beautiful countryside and the Derwent Water is nearby. It’s a great place for running, walking and cycling and we had an enjoyable walk up Muggleswick Common, from which you get a grand view across the rolling hills, down to the village and across to the Derwent Water. One of the fabulous features of this part of the country is the dry stone walls, which were built to separate land and to keep sheep enclosed. Many visitors to the north of England are amazed by the length, width and depth of these walls, and today there does not seem a particular reason for having such extensive walls, which would cost a fortune to build today. One of the answers to this is that, when the walls were constructed by the stonemasons, probably in the 18th and 19th centuries, both the materials for the walls – slate stone around here – and labour were cheap and plentiful. If you look closely at the walls, you can see how intricately built they are, with two outside layers of smooth stone and rougher stone in the middle. Building these walls is an art as well as a craft. The photos below show the village of Edmundbyers, some of the stone walls and fishermen sheltering from a very cold wind on our walk at the Derwent Water.

Edmundbyers, County Durham

Edmundbyers, County Durham

Dry stone wall

Dry stone wall

Derwent Water

Derwent Water

Within the village of Edmundbyers, we visited the 12th century church and, passing one of the houses, I noticed a plaque on the walls which read Cross Peels (photo below). I looked this up and peels, which look like oars on this plaque, are tools used by bakers to put bread into and take bread out of an oven.

Cross Peels

Cross Peels

On our way back to Dunbar, we stopped in the historic town of Alnwick, very well known for its castle and extensive gardens (good photos). We have visited these sites before and if you are in the area, they are certainly worth going to. On this visit to Alnwick, we went to Barter’s Bookshop (interesting video on this site), which is housed in the old railway station. There is a café next to the bookshop and it serves meals, coffees, teas and cakes in the old waiting rooms, including a ladies’ waiting room and first, second and third class waiting rooms. It’s likely that those who used the first class waiting room would be appalled that the hoi polloi can now use the same room. The bookshop has a wide range of second-hand books, some of which are valuable and at the entrance, there is a model railway which winds it way along the tracks above the customers’ heads. The photos show the main bookshop and the railway.

Barter's Books, Alnwick

Barter’s Books, Alnwick

Model railway in Barter's Books

Model railway in Barter’s Books

Robert Macfarlane, rocks and flower heads

March 20, 2015

I get The Guardian delivered 6 days a week. On Saturday, the paper comes with several sections, including The Review, which has an extended article related to literature, and I keep this to read on a Sunday morning. A recent Review article by Robert Macfarlane was one of the most interesting I’ve read for a long time. Macfarlane writes “I have long been fascinated by the relations of language and landscape – by the power of strong style and single words to shape our senses of place” and his new book, Landmarks is a gathering together of local words for place, flora and fauna from across the UK. Macfarlane seeks out the old worlds, but also the new words being coined by children. An example provided: “On Exmoor, zwer is the onomatopoeic term for “the sound made by a covey of partridges taking flight”.” Many local words have traceable ancient origins but others have just been developed, such as terms used by miners in the NE of England, a dialect known as Pitmatical or Yakka. An example from Dunbar is the very localised word for a crab – poo which is not used elsewhere in the neighbouring coastline. The most frequent example quoted in the town is that, whereas people in the posher areas of Dunbar might eat crab sandwiches, fishermen have poo paste pieces, with the word “piece” referring to a piece of bread. I urge you to read this article.

A walk along Belhaven Beach on the east side next to the golf course revealed a variety of rock formations and a variety of colours and abstract forms in the rocks. The rocks are predominantly sandstone but the more malleable texture of the sandstone has created a wide range of both colour and shape to the rock formations and individuals rocks. The first photo shows a delicately coloured sandstone pavement, the second a lichen covered rock with an attractive pale green coating, and the third a large rock with apparently random abstract lines.

Sandstone pavement on Belhaven Beach

Sandstone pavement on Belhaven Beach

Rock on Belhaven Beach

Rock on Belhaven Beach

Rock lines on Belhaven Beach

Rock lines on Belhaven Beach

It is officially spring hereabouts and the spring flowers are now making a grand entrance en masse in some parts of the town. In my garden, tete-a-tete mini daffodils, dwarf tulips and polyanthus are all showing off their resplendent colours, and the closer you can get with your camera, the more abstract the patterns of the flower centres become. I’m always trying to get the perfect close up photo, but of course, there isn’t one, as only the original can be deemed to be perfect. The photos below show the tete-a-tetes, dwarf tulip and the centre of a polyanthus.

tete-a-tetes

tete-a-tetes

Dwarf tulip

Dwarf tulip

Polyanthus centre

Polyanthus centre

A Word A Week Photograph Challenge – Raindrop

March 13, 2015

One of my favourite tasks with a camera is to catch raindrops on flowers. Here are my attempts, see many more at Sue’s website.

Iris after the rain

Iris after the rain

IMG_3697

Gladiolus

 

Wagga Wagga rose

Wagga Wagga rose

IMG_7280

 

 

 

Howard Towll and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie interview in Dubai

March 11, 2015

A new exhibition at SOC’s Waterstone House features 2 artists, Howard Towll and John Busby. I contacted both artists to ask for photos or permission to download and the former got back to me. Howard Towll’s exhibits were very appealing to the eye, with a mixture of wood block and lino block prints. He is also a painter and one of the striking works on his website is Curlew at Dusk – see below. Everything is subtle in this painting, in particular the reflections in the water of the curlew and of the rocks and seaweed. We get quite a few curlews on the rocks at the back of our house and through my scope, I often watch the patiently searching bird, which thrusts its long beach into the rock crevices to seek out food. One of the lino prints in the exhibition is Gannet Heads – see below. What I find most intriguing about this print is the sharp lines of the birds and their determined expressions. They could be soldiers marching to orders or runners/cyclists completely focused on winning the race. Looking through my scope, I have just had my first sighting of gannets  flying to the Bass Rock this year. My choice of the wood block prints would be Eiders, as these are another species which I often see in the sea around Dunbar. There is an attractive abstract quality to this print, which captures the soft green on the back of the male eider’s neck. The call of the male eider duck is a gurgling, burbling sound and can be heard clearly when groups of eiders are in Dunbar Harbour.

 

Curlew at dusk - H Towll

Curlew at dusk – H Towll

Gannet Heads - H Towll

Gannet Heads – H Towll

Eiders - H Towll

Eiders – H Towll

While in Dubai, we went to the Dubai Festival of Literature in the plush Intercontinental Hotel. I went to see Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who was talking about her novel Americanah, which I reviewed on the blog last July. In her interview, Ms Adichie talked articulately and intelligently – and often quite humorously – about the novel’s contents and about her experience of living in America as a black woman. It was a fascinating insight into the novel and she explained that, as a writer, she was two people – the writer as performer on the stage being interviewed, and the writer sitting alone in her room, writing a novel. “These are not the same person” she said. One aspect of the novel which was given much attention, was hair. In the novel, the protagonist visits a hairdressing salon and there is an interesting and amusing discussion of African women in America getting their hair done. She hinted that some of the coverage in the media may have been sexist. This highly intelligent, thoughtful and very attractive writer – who has amazing hair (photos below) – held the audience spellbound for the one hour session. My wife went to see Jenni Murray who hosts Woman’s Hour in the UK and found it a fascinating talk.

Chimamanda Adichie

Chimamanda Adichie

Chimamanda Adichie

Chimamanda Adichie


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