T S Eliot Prize readings and Inside the V&A

January 18, 2018

We are just back from a long weekend in and near London. On Sunday evening, I went to the Southbank Centre at the Royal Festival Hall for the annual T S Eliot Prize readings. The ten shortlisted poets are each allocated 8 minutes to read from their book published in 2017. The evening is hosted by the inimitable Ian McMillan who, before introducing the poets, launched into a very funny riff on how people were trying to get him to leave poetry for prose e.g. he had been offered 350 million words a week to leave poetry. For those outside the UK, this was a take-off of the truly awful  leave campaign in the referendum in 2016. This event is both a collective and a personal experience, as each poet comes to the stand and reads maybe 3 or 4 poems. The collective clap and then each persons listens as if the poem is addressed to them personally. There were a range of delivery styles on show, as some read their work carefully and slowly, while others recited by heart and produced lively performances, such as Caroline Bird (check Performances). A poet I’ve long admired is Douglas Dunn, now 75 years old and his classic book Elegies, which was published in 1985 was a moving evocation of his wife’s dying. Dunn recited Cognitive Disorders in which he described seeing  “.. the snails on their silky pilgrimage / Over the slippery slabs of a garden path./ I’ve heard ants’ martial marching songs/Their tiny tambourines, trumpets and gongs. Too-whoos of the nocturnal polymath”. Although the ten poets all read their poems, no winner is announced. This is not some TV show at the end of which one of the presenters looks deadly serious and tells us what we already know – there can only be one winner – and then proceeds to announce the winner only after an annoyingly long pause, which is supposed to increase the tension but only induces yawns amongst viewers. The winner was announced the following day and it was Ocean Vuong with his book Night Sky with Exit Wounds . His performance had the audience gripped with the intensity of his reading. One of the poems he read was the intriguingly titled “Someday I’ll love Ocean Vuong” including “Ocean,/ are you listening? The most beautiful part/ of your body is wherever/ your mother’s shadow falls”. Chair of the judging panel stated that Vuong’s book “.. deals with the aftermath of war and migration over three generations. It is a compellingly assured debut, the definitive arrival of a significant voice.”

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Winner of the T S Eliot Prize 2017 (Click on all photos to enlarge)

A visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum is always rewarding. In fact, you could spend most of the rest of your life going around the museum and always finding something new. The hanging sculpture at the entrance (below) quickly catches your eye. This radiant splash of colour and anarchic shapes contrasts with the more traditional – yet magnificent – dome above.

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Sculpture at the entrance to the V&A.

Just along from the main desk is the room containing material from the “Medieval and Renaissance [period] 1350-1600”. What strikes you first when you enter the room is the vast array of sculptures on show, but then your eye goes upward to the very modern ceiling with its row of tubes and the line of central windows which let the natural light flood the exhibits.

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Medieval and Renaissance room at the V&A

I wandered through the Europe 1600 to 1815 galleries, which are one of my favourite places to visit in the V&A, and I came across a new creation – The Globe (check out the video). Sitting inside The Globe (photo below) is like being in a wooden igloo, with gaps, and your eye is drawn around the smooth wooden walls and up to the central hole in the “ceiling”. It’s very peaceful to sit and appreciate this beautiful creation. One of the curator’s comments is “The structure refers to several images from the Age of Reason. It can be viewed variously as a hemispherical map of the world, a bookcase, an interior from a great library classifying all human knowledge, a symbol of the universe, or an architectural model”. So, despite this being a 2015 installation, it fits in well with the 1600-1815 objects on display in the various rooms. I thought it was a brilliant idea, creation and space.

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The Globe at the V&A in London

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Santa delivers, patterned frost and New Year’s Day walks

January 8, 2018

Firstly, a Guid New Year tae ane’ an aw (one and all) and I hope that 2018 brings you love, luck and laughter. There may be a Santa Claus after all, as I duly got the Canon 750D that I asked for. There’s an accompanying CD which I am determined to follow so that I can learn all the settings and use the camera to its best effect. I had my previous camera for 10 years and never got round to checking out all the settings. So this blog has the last photos taken with the now ten year old Canon 1000D. The new camera has a video capacity, so I’m hoping to feature some videos on the blog – another learning curve for me. As an academic, I read much about lifelong learning in relation to school pupils/students and now I’m putting it into practice. Stimulating your brain will not guarantee you a longer life – only luck will do that – but it helps to enhance your life.

Just before Xmas, we had an extended cold spell with some heavy frosts. One morning I went into the conservatory and the roof was covered in a heavily patterned frost – on the outside of course. People of a certain age who have lived in cold(ish) climates may remember looking at, and admiring, frosted windows with delicate patterns on the inside of the windows, in pre-centrally heated, cold houses when they were children. In the photo below, I can see ferns, feathers and seaweed.  The blue colours come from the clear sky above the roof.

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Frost patterns on the glass roof

 

In the second photo, taken from a different part of the roof, there are more surreal images, maybe of as yet undiscovered sea creatures – there do appear to be a lot of tentacles. This might also be what you see through a microscope when examining some form of disease. What do you see?

 

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Frosted pattern on the glass roof

On New Year’s day, we had two walks, the first along to the nearby Dunbar Golf Course on a bright, sunny and relatively mild (for Scotland) morning (7 degrees). The course shone with many shades of green. In the photo below, we were standing behind the tee of the 3rd hole, looking west towards Dunbar Harbour (good photos). Beyond the harbour, the volcanic Bass Rocks looms. The rock is bare in winter but is a brilliant white in summer, due to the influx of 150,000 gannets who pack themselves in to nest.

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Dunbar Golf Course, with the harbour and the Bass Rock in the background

In the afternoon, we walked up to the top of Doon Hill with our older son who was down for the New Year. I’ve featured Doon Hill in the summer previously on this blog. By the afternoon, cloud had spread in and rain threatened and there was a distinctly chillier air 600 feet up the hill. There are panoramic 360 degree views from the top and the photo  below shows the view looking north west, with the sandy spit, known as Spike Island, clearly outlined. Spike Island was used by the army as a post WW2 training area and walkers there regularly find bullet shells. On the right hand side of the photo, you can just see the outline of the Bass Rock.

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View from Doon Hill to Spike Island and out to sea

On the way down, we passed a dead tree and in the photo below, the tree looks as if it could be replicating the pattern of a lightning flash in the sky. An exhilarating walk but we were glad to descend, as the louring clouds looked threatening and the late afternoon temperature was dropping rapidly. Time to go home and enjoy a glass of good red wine on New Year’s Day.

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Dead tree near the top of Doon Hill

 

Scottish Birds cover and last post for 2017

December 25, 2017

Through the post recently came the latest copy of Scottish Birds which I receive as a member of the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club (SOC). I was struck by the front and back covers which I think are possibly the most attractive of the year. The journal contains articles on in-depth research on birds in Scotland – their numbers, their habitat and trends in population. There are also shorter articles on rare sightings of visiting birds. I have to admit that I don’t read the research articles in full, but I particularly enjoy the photographs of birds which accompany the articles. I don’t count myself as a birder as I don’t do any serious bird watching. Please don’t use the term twitcher for bird watchers as this is regarded as pejorative, a bit like referring to serious runners as joggers or The Inuit as Eskimos. I’ve been given permission to scan and use the covers by the good people who run SOC. The front cover below shows a water pipit which was photographed at Skateraw, which is along the coast from Dunbar and on one of my mountain bike cycling routes in the winter. The article on this bird stated that is has a “prominent pale supercilium”  – unfamiliar terminology to me. Looking it up, supercilium (good illustrations) is “also commonly referred to as “eyebrow” — is a stripe which starts above the bird’s loral area (area between beak and eyes), continuing above the eye, and finishing somewhere towards the rear of the bird’s head”. Loral area is more new terminology. The scanned photo is not as clear as the journal cover photo, but you can see that this is a strikingly attractive bird, with its sharp beak which has a lightning streak of yellow, its pale plumage neatly folded to keep out the rain, its blacksmith crafted legs and feet, and black snooker ball eye.

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Scottish Birds front cover (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The back cover has this photo of a Spotted Crake, captured at Doonfoot, near Ayr. This bird has the wonderful scientific name of Porzana, Porzana and there is a short video of the bird at this location here. While the spotted crake does not (I think) have the elegance of the water pipit, as it has a patchwork-looking foliage, it does have a fascinating beak, with what looks like a small boat on the upper part. As with the pipit, the spotted crake’s eye is prominent and alert to food in the water. Of course, the bird’s reflection and the reflection of the reeds by the water add much to this well composed photo.

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Scottish Birds back cover

This is the last post of 2017 as your blogger is taking a rest over the New Year, to return reinvigorated in early 2018. So where did 2017 go? Or 2007 or 1997 or ….? In a flash is the answer. Looking back on my extensive range of photos for 2017 and earlier blog posts, I recall the colours and reflections in a rockpool at Seacliff Beach on New year’s Day.

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Vibrant colours and reflections at Seacliff Beach

In May, it was the smooth lines of the tattie dreels that drew my attention. Soon after, the first sign of green shaws appeared and before we knew it, September was well under way and the tattie machine was lifting the crop. This field is now a vibrant green, with the spring wheat coming through.

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Smooth tattie dreels near Dunbar

Smooth tattie dreels near Dunbar

In September, the Tour of Britain came our way again and I was up Redstone Rig with my cycling pals – and many other cyclists – to see the peloton approach the big hill, with the rolling country side of East Lothian in the background.

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Peloton at the top of Redstone Rig

Then I blinked and it was December and Seafield Pond was frozen over on a very bright, sunny and freezing cold day.

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Seafield Pond frozen over

 

If my letter to Santa has been received and the white bearded reindeer driver is in a good mood, I may return with a brand new DLSR camera, with a video function. I’m off to leave out carrots for the reindeer and a large dram of Bunnahabhain for the man. I wish you all the very best for the festive season and a Guid New Year when it comes.

Re-reading Thomas Hardy and walk to Seafield Pond and West Barns Bridge

December 17, 2017

Recently, I’d come to the end of the new books I’d bought and, looking along my bookshelves, I picked up a copy of Thomas Hardy short stories (cover below). I bought this book in the mid 1970s and opening the book and starting to read the first story The Three Strangers, I was immediately taken back to Hardy’s eloquent and flowing style. The story begins “Among the few features of agricultural England which retain an appearance little modified by the centuries, may be reckoned the long, grassy and furzy downs, coombes or ewe-leases, as they are called, according to their kind, that fill a large area of certain counties in the south and south west”. What struck me was the length of the sentence – typical of nineteenth century writers like Hardy – and the local words used by the writer. “Furzy downs” are stretches of rural land covered in what we might call gorse and a “coomb” is a deep valley. More explanations here. In his excellent introduction to the short stories, the novelist John Wain wrote that Hardy once said that a short story “must be unusual and the people interesting”. Wain also notes that Hardy’s short stories are unlike more modern versions, which tend have a single theme around which a tale is told. In Hardy’s stories, such as “The Withered Arm” or “The Distracted Preacher” the reader is presented with different characters, some of whom have their own intriguing tales to tell. It is the context of the stories – rural Dorset in the early to mid-nineteenth century – that distinguishes them from even contemporary short fiction. The isolated cottage in “The Three Strangers” or the village in “The Grave by the Handpost” where ” a lane crosses the lone straight highway dividing this from the next parish” and where “the whispers of this spot may claim to be preserved”. There are also echoes of Hardy’s novels in the stories such as the character William Dewy of Mellstock and the town of Casterbridge. Hardy is a superb story teller and in each story, the reader is given an early indication of what might be to follow. In “The Withered Arm”, the setting is “an eighty cow dairy” in the early evening and, with most of the cattle milked “there was opportunity for a little conversation. “He do bring home his bride tomorrow, I hear. They’ve come as far as Anglebury today”. Hardy continues “The voice seemed to come from the belly of the cow called Cherry, but the speaker was a milking-woman, whose face was buried in the flank of that motionless beast”. The reader knows the setting and is intrigued by the conversation. I have enjoyed reading these stories again after many years and I encourage you to try them.

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Short stories by Thomas Hardy (Click on all photos to enlarge)

There’s a good 2 mile (3.2k) walk from our house to Seafield Pond (good photo)  and West Barns bridge. The most picturesque route is firstly to  Dunbar Harbour (historical photos), then along Winterfield Promenade and on round part of the picturesque Winterfield Golf Club. I was headed for Seafield Pond first, to try to get some more photos of the pond and its birds. A previous attempt can be seen here. When I got to the pond, it was frozen over and not a bird to be seen, just some bits of wood from the nearby trees stuck to the ice. There was however, a nice reflection (see below) from the adjacent caravan/mobile home park, where you can now hire a “Deluxe running water wigwam with WC” – what next?

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Seafield Pond at Belhaven, near Dunbar

The birds were all on the beach over the wall but firstly I walked along to West Barns bridge, which spans the Biel Burn (small river). It was a very sunny day and the previous night’s sharp frost can be seen on the entrance to the bridge here.

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West Barns bridge and the Biel Burn

Because of the position of the sun in the early afternoon, there was a superb reflection in the water below the bridge, with the brilliant blue water becoming paler and paler as the sun caught it fully on the bend of the river. This part of the Biel Burn is where the fresh water meets the incoming tide.

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West Barns bridge

I know a few people – of a certain age – who spent quite a bit of their youth on the Biel Burn guddling for trout, and they each have their own secret method. This is a form of fishing in which the potential fish catcher does not use a rod or a net, but his/her fingers to catch the trout. I’m assured by two former poachers that it is an art and not a science, and that an expert guddler is born with a gift. There’s a PhD in there somewhere for a dedicated scholar e.g.  “Guddling: A phenomenological analysis”. Guddling was – and probably still is – carried out in shaded areas, such as at the tree line end of this photo.

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Guddling spot near the trees on the Biel Burn

It was on my way back along what is known as the Dump Road as there used to be a council tip nearby, I tried to capture some of the birds on the beach and on the water on Belhaven Bay. I was using my zoom lens and it’s difficult to get very clear photos without a camera stand. The two best were firstly, a redshank on the move, with some nice reflections of the rocks and the vegetation.

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Redshank amongst the rocks and grass at Belhaven Bay

I’m more pleased with the second photo, which is of a curlew flying off across the water. While the beak is not all that clear, I do like the light on one wing and the shadow on the other, plus the reflection in the water. I used my Sports setting for this one.

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Curlew flying over Belhaven Bay with the tide in

So a very rewarding walk on a cold but bright day and on the way back I reflected how lucky I am to live in such an entrancing environment.

Darren Woodhead exhibition and Pascal Petit’s Mama Amazonica

December 10, 2017

The latest exhibition at Waterston House in Aberlady is by Darren Woodhead, a very well known and respected wildlife artist. This is a stunning exhibition, with the visitor impressed and intrigued from the first painting of Long-tailed Tits in Hawthorn (reviewed below) , to butterflies, geese landing over Aberlady Bay (good photos) and bee-eaters in Nottinghamshire (includes video). There is so much to see that a second visit will be necessary. I contacted the artist and he kindly allowed me to download two of his paintings. The first painting is a riot of colour, with the pink and red hawthorn berries immediately catching your eye – and the berries are depicted as lush, juicy and a feast for the birds. Then you see the bird themselves, nestling in the branches, well-camouflaged in their more subtle colours, but no less attractive for that. I really do like and appreciate the rather hazy parts of the painting – this is not photo-realism, but Darren Woodhead’s exquisite interpretation of what he sees when painting this busy scene.

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Long-tailed tits in the hawthorn by Darren Woodhead

The second painting features birds seen in this part of the country in winter – the fieldfare and the waxwing with the latter often seen in flocks (good photos). This is another very active scene with the birds, in particular the resplendent fieldfare, busy feeding on the buckthorn, which is called “the baked bean tree” around here. The painting also captures the very spiky nature of the buckthorn bush and it is this spikiness that can protect birds from predators. So, another rush of colour which takes your eye across the painting, with the spots on the birds not unlike berries. The artist also captures the elegance of these birds very well. The exhibition is on until mid January, so if you can get to see it, you will be wonderfully rewarded by a show by one of our finest wildlife artists.

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Fieldfare and waxwing among buckthorn by Darren Woodhead

From nature at its most colourful and joyful to a portrayal of nature which is both beautiful but also savage. Pascale Petit’s Mama Amazonica is a PSB Choice and it is one of the most intriguing and disturbing books of poetry I have ever read. The setting of the poems is a psychiatric ward where the poet’s mother is a patient. This is accompanied by a second setting – the Amazonian rainforest – and the poet’s interpretation of her mother as being transformed into a range of animals that inhabit the rainforest. We also learn of the mother’s trauma at the way her husband viciously treated her before and after the marriage. So, it is often a painful read but at the same time, it is often astonishingly beautiful in its depiction of the  rainforest’s animals. For example, in the title poem which begins “Picture my mother as a baby, afloat/on a waterlily leaf”. The mother is transformed into the flower in the jungle and, as a representation of her mother’s illness, “She hears the first roar/ of the howler monkey,/ then the harpy eagle’s swoop,/ crashing through the galleries of leaves,/ the sudden snatch/ then the silence in the troop”. Further poems outline how the mother was initially raped by the father and further mistreated, and when I read the poems – only a few at a time – I wondered if I should continue, but there is relief in many of the poems, which celebrate the wild. In My Mother’s Dressing Gown, the poet writes “Her face was an axed mahogany./ Her hands emerged from emerald sleeves/ to meet on the table, talons tensed,/ like a puma challenging a tayra”. We are presented with a superb metaphor but also – and this happens often – sent to the dictionary to identify an animal. A tayra is a large weasel. In a subsequent poem, in trying to describe  her mother’s illness, mania is seen as a side effect – “Imagine a mother with a mind/ hyper as a rainforest,/ the ward echoing with/ whoops of titi monkeys”. A new species of this monkey was recently discovered. In short, this amazing book of poems can delight, disgust and educate and while it is a challenging read, it often rewards the reader with spectacular images. Try it – even the cover is intriguing.

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Mama Amazonica by Pascale Petit

 

 

Planting bulbs and the East Lothian Banking Company scandal

December 4, 2017

I’ve just finished planting the last of my spring bulbs. Now, for many garden experts, this is a bit late in the day but I like my daffodils and tulips to appear in the Spring as far as possible and not in midwinter, as is happening due to climate change. There’s a certain degree of creativity in planting bulbs, as you know that the combination of what is a rather dull looking object – a daffodil bulb – will combine with the earth to produce firstly a green stem and then a piece of sculpture as the head opens up. Also, you know that when you plant the bulbs and the pansies and polyanthus, a rather bare and forlorn section of the garden – brown earth dotted with plants – will be transformed into an eye-catching and neighbour-praising object looking like this.

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Spring garden (click on all photos to enlarge)

So there is a great deal of satisfaction – and anticipation – to be had in planting bulbs and I always feel better when I’ve emptied out the last bulbs from the previously filled old shoe boxes I have in the garage over summer. I’ve completed one task and can look forward to the transformation in the garden in a couple of months, from bare earth to this.

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Tulip bulbs in Spring

When you are doing research of any kind – academic or personal – there’s a kind of serendipity that ensures that at some point you will come across material that is not relevant to your current research, but is very interesting. As an academic researcher or PhD supervisor, my advice was to leave this well alone, but with personal research, you have time to meander down some alleyways for a while. Recently, I was interviewing the daughter of the owner of a shop in Dunbar in the 1950s about her youthful memories of the shop and she produced a folder that her parents had left with her. Inside the folder were two nineteenth century Scottish bank notes – not your regular Bank of Scotland or Royal Bank of Scotland notes – but notes from the East Lothian Banking Company.

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One pound note (front) issued by the East Lothian Banking Company

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Five pound note (front) issued by the East Lothian Banking Company

The bank notes’ design reflected the county of East Lothian’s farming and fishing communities. To the modern eye, these notes look like cheques, where the name of the recipient is to be entered, along with the date. These notes, like other 19th century bank notes, were not circulated as bank notes are now, but were issued from a book of notes. The East Lothian Banking Company was set up in 1810 here in Dunbar and its funds came from local merchants and farmers. The records show that the bank did good business for some years and it appointed William Borthwick a very young man at 22 years old as cashier – the equivalent of chief executive today. Borthwick turned out not only to be relatively inexperienced, but to be an embezzler of the banks’ funds and he took off, probably to America, in 1822 with the bank in serious debt. Thus the scandal of the county bank.

Another interesting feature of the bank notes is that (see below) on the reverse of each note, there appears “Five pence” on the one pound note and “One shilling three pence” on the five pund note, which may have been a tax to be paid, although I’ve found it difficult to find out exactly what this represents. Also, the designs on the back of the two notes are different. One the one pound note “GR IV”, presumably referring to King George IV can be seen. As George IV reigned from 1820 to 1830, this note must have been issued in the last years of the bank’s existence. There’s no reference to royalty on the back of the five pound note. As we approach a (mainly) cash society, these notes are a reminder of different times. It should of course be remembered that very few people in East Lothian society in the early 19th century would ever have seen, never mind handled, a five pound note. This was a rich man’s (and it was men in control then) business.

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Back of a one pound note issued by the East Lothian Banking Company

East Lothian Banking Company Five Pouds back

Back of a five pound note issued by the East Lothian Banking Company

Art in Florence and autumn in Binning Wood

November 24, 2017

So on to Florence for culture and an exciting football match at Fiorentina‘s stadium, with the home team winning 3-0 against Torino, having survived a potentially calamitous first 20 minutes. When you say to people that you’ve been to Florence, their eyes light up and many tell you how often they’ve been. It’s a culture-stuffed city to visit, with numerous art galleries, museum and public sculptures. This was my second visit to Florence – previous visit here. I hadn’t been to Florence’s most famous art gallery, the Uffizi, so I booked tickets in advance (a wise move, given the queues even in late October) for my pal and me. The Uffizi gallery is, like the Prado in Madrid, huge and has multiple rooms – 101 shown on the floor plan, each with many stunning paintings. If you started at the beginning and worked your way through, it could take weeks. The gallery helpfully provides a free “highlights” brochure and we followed this. The Uffizi is, again like the Prado, heavy on religious paintings, many of them dark and fairly morbid, although the artwork is unquestionably superb. One of the key themes highlighted is how artists over the 14th to 18th centuries portrayed the Madonna and Child, with Giotto’s interpretation (see below) being one of the most famous. Giotto was praised for making the figures appear more human than had been seen in previous interpretations and this was seen as a new style in painting.

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Giotto’s Madonna and Child in the Uffizi Gallery (Click to enlarge all photos)

The gallery’s best known work of art perhaps is Botticelli‘s exquisite Birth of Venus (below) and it is a stunning work of art. There is myth and fantasy in this painting as Venus is shown being carried on a shell to an island. There is so much to see in the painting that you can stand for a long time, admiring the colours, the figures, the sea and the trees. Venus herself is portrayed as a beautiful young woman and Botticelli’s use of nudity was controversial at the time, as eroticism was not approved of in many artistic and political circles.

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Botticelli’s Birth of Venus in the Uffizi Gallery

The 2nd major gallery we visited was the equally extensive Palacio Pitti which houses the massive collections of the Grand Dukes of Florence from the 15th to the 17th centuries. As well as the many works of art on display in the various museums, the Royal Apartments are lavishly decorated (check website) with ornate carpets, curtains, wall hangings and beautifully made furniture (good photos). Once again, religious paintings predominate, as was the main style of the times but there are also some eyebrow raising works, such as Marina by Salvator Rosa. The photo below does not do justice to the impact that this very large painting makes on the viewer. It is full of intriguing elements, from the light house on the right, to the ships in the middle, to the people at the bottom of the painting and the brilliant effect of the sun shining across the scene.

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Marina by Salvator Rosa

Back home and a walk through Binning Wood to delight in the autumn colours and experience the splendour of the leaves still on the trees, although they were falling as we  walked. If there was colour, contrast, light and shade in Florence’s museums, then there is an abundance in this East Lothian wood, which lies just over 6 miles (c11K) from Dunbar. I had cycled past the woods two days before and was determined to take my camera before this autumnal outpouring of colour, shape and texture would disappear as quickly as it appeared. We began our walk on the west side of the woods and walked through to a point where the paths diverge (photo below). In the winter, my pals and I cycle through here on our mountains bikes and would follow the path on the right of the picture. On our walk, my wife and I took the left path, which goes deeper in to the woods. This reminded me of Robert Frost’s great poem “The Road Not Taken” which begins “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,/ And sorry I could not travel both/ And be one traveler, long I stood/ And looked down one as far as I could/ To where it bent in the undergrowth;”.

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The path divides in Bnning Wood

Frost’s “yellow wood” could be Binning Wood at this time of year, with trees still holding on to leaves of different shades of green and yellow, as in the photo below. The path at this point in the wood was covered with fallen leaves, providing a contrast in colours, with the fresh yellow leaves on the trees and the now orange/brown of the fallen leaves, as well as the various colours on the tree trunks.

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Trees and a leaf strewn path in Binning Wood

The wood continues across the road which leads to nearby Whitekirk (good photos) and I crossed to try and capture the thinner trees here and their shadows on the floor of the wood. The sun was still high enough to hit the smooth and elegant trunks of the trees and cast shadows, which appear to be fallen trees on the ground. Passing the same woods yesterday – 10 days after taking these photos – I could see more branches and much fewer leaves. Another 10 days and they’ll all be gone, so it’s good to be able to capture this fleeting burst of colour.

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Tall trees and shadows in Binning Wood

Called for jury service and Piazza dei Miracoli

November 20, 2017

Note The previous post has been fixed, using Google Chrome, which I am maybe being forced to use for editing?

I was recently called  for jury service at the Sheriff Court in Edinburgh and, although I was not actually selected to serve on the jury, it was a strange experience. Firstly, I arrived at the court to be sent to the Jury Room. Here sat about 50 people, all in a strange environment. Few people spoke to each other and most either checked their mobile phones, read books or stared into space. This was a formal setting, not a social one and it was clear that no-one had any idea how long we would be there, as little information was forthcoming. After an hour, a clerk appeared to tell us that there might be two trials on today and that she would be back in 10 minutes. Half an hour hour later, the clerk reappeared and took us through to court ten, shown here. After another 10 minutes, the phrase “Court rise” was heard and we all – the potential jurors, the court staff and lawyers present – stood up and sat down again. The judge/sheriff talked to one of the lawyers and we could just about her the lawyer say that the trial could not go ahead. The judge thanked us for our attendance and our patience and said that normally, lunch was 1-2pm but there was good news. We all looked up expectantly. The good news was that we could go for lunch early and come back at 2pm as there was definitely another trial to be heard and a jury was needed. This was beginning to appear like the crime novel I’d taken along – too much padding and too little action.

So we all returned at 2pm. Another clerk said that she would be back in 5 minutes to take us through to court 12 for a jury to be selected. One advance in the tale was that there was now only 15 jury members to be selected from the 50 of us and not 2 x 15. The chances of being selected was reduced by 50%. As no-one in the jury room knew how long a trial would last or when we could start making plans again for the next few days, I got the feeling that few people wanted to be selected. 25 minutes later, the clerk took us in to the court and the ballot began. As each name was called out, the picked juror went forward and a collective sigh could be heard amongst the rest of us. Eventually 15 were picked. People started looking at their watches, as in it’s 2.30pm so we’ll be released soon. Hopes were dashed when one juror recognised the accused and was excused. Another selection, another collective sigh. The judge ordered that the clerk read out the charges – sexual assault with details given – again. Then another juror said he could not hear the judge and this man was excused, to whispers amongst the still potential jurors that he might be trying it on. The final selection was made and final sigh of relief uttered, and the great unpicked left the court room and the court. What was interesting was that, by the time the ballot was taking place, I was ready to be picked, having earlier hoped that I could not be. So, an odd day spent in an environment where I had very little control over what I could do, apart from the lunch break.

Edinburgh Sherriff Court (Click on all photos to enlarge)

My pal Roger and I went on our annual trip to a European city to a) see the sights and b) go to a football (aka soccer) match. This year’s holiday started in Pisa, where we stayed 2 nights before going on to Florence to see the game (next blog post). While Pisa is best known for the leaning tower – La Torre Pendente – I think that the other buildings in the Piazza dei Miracoli (includes video), the Square of Miracles in English, are more fascinating. There’s no doubting the uniqueness of the Tower but its attraction is mainly because of a mistake. It is, of course, worth seeing.

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La Torre Pendente, Pisa

Also within the Piazza, is the magnificent cathedral, seen below. It is famous for its marble exterior, Giovanni Pisano’s intricately carved pulpit (close up photos) and high, vaulted ceilings which are brilliantly decorated. Whether you have religious leanings or not, you cannot fail to appreciate the superb artwork and interior design on display.

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Pisa Cathedral

You can also visit the  hugely impressive Battistero (Baptistry), with its high dome and a balcony from which you can look down on the large baptismal font and exquisitely carved pulpit, photo below. The official website refers to the “women’s balcony”, so perhaps women were excluded from the ceremonies below?

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Pisa Battistero

My own favourite building in the Piazza was the Camposanto (good photos). This is the cemetery and inside there are many statues to famous university teachers and members of the powerful Medici family. The most fascinating part of this huge complex are the frescoes which line the walls, as in the photo below. Some of the frescoes are still quite fresh looking, even though they date from the 14th century. The frescoes are of course, mainly religious although there are some battle scenes. A common theme in the range of frescoes is the battle between going to heaven or hell, and you can see why 14th century people might be terrified by the depictions of hell, where the devil is seen as eating humans amid  a scene of torture. It was the violence in so many of the frescoes that intrigued me – designed to inspire but also to threaten. As works of art, these are impressive in their range of colour and detail and well worth a visit.

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Frescoes in the Camposanto, Pisa

All that Man Is and Cliveden House, near Windsor

November 10, 2017

In most cases, when I buy a book in a bookshop – I try to do this mainly, although I do order online as well – and read the blurb and the recommendations from reviewers, I enjoy the book, and mostly agree with the positive reviews on the cover of the book. I have just finished David Szalay’s novel All that Man Is but I found myself not agreeing with most of the review quotes. In the book, there are 9 stories of men of different ages and nationalities telling the reader their woes – often related to romance or the lack of it. There are some quite humorous scenes and there is no doubt that Szalay writes very well for the most part. I agree with the Guardian reviewer that 9 stories do not a novel make, despite the fact that there is a common theme of men in some sort of trouble and doing a lot of soul searching. I imagine that many female readers – as well as male readers – might find that some of the men in the stories are pathetic and need a good shake, although some female reviewers praised the novel. There are some very good passages in the stories and in the last one, the man reflects on how, to him, the present often seems to be impossible to define, that indeed impermanence is the only permanent factor in  our lives. Szalay writes “How little we understand about life as it is actually happening. The moments fly past, like trackside pylons seen from a train window”. On the other hand, this guy thinks he is old  and not long for this world as he is 73. My cycling pal  John is 74 and he floats up hills on his bike. The book was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016 and you can read a very positive review of the book here,  so don’t let me put you off trying it. If you’ve read it and enjoyed it – post a comment.

Szalay

In mid-October, we went down to by train to Thames Ditton for my sister-in-law Hilary’s significant birthday celebrations. We had a charming walk along the Thames, going through part of the impressive Hampton Court. On the Thames, we passed numerous house boats which were reflected in the river, and enhanced by the  backdrop of autumnal trees, as shown here.

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House boats on the River Thames

On Hilary’s birthday, we all went to Cliveden House (pronounced Cliv-den) with its magnificent grounds and luxury hotel. The property was built by the famous American millionaire William Waldorf Astor, who passed it on to his son Waldorf. The grounds are extensive and on a sunny day, you can enjoy a peaceful, rural walk past the modern sculptures, seen here in the context of the grounds and then, closer up, looking back to Cliveden House.

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Sculptures and maze at Cliveden House

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Sculptures with the back of Cliveden House

Cliveden House is historically best known for the infamous Profumo Affair, the repercussions of which brought down the Conservative government in the early 1960s. When you walk down to the river, you pass the cottage where the affair took place. It was a lovely autumn day when we visited and we saw some startlingly beautiful trees by the river, such as the one below. You can also walk by the pond which has a pagoda, a range of trees and on this day, a very calm heron, seen below. Cliveden House and its gardens are well worth a visit if you are in the area.

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Autumnal splendour at Cliveden House gardens

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Heron at the pond near Cliveden House

 

Making soup and the Crystal Palace in Madrid

November 3, 2017

Back to normal after a very successful trip to Pisa and Florence, of which more later. There’s an old Scottish saying relating to being on holiday and returning to the usual routine – “It’s back tae auld claes and parritich” i.e. back to old clothes and porridge. It’s not cold enough yet for me to have porridge in the morning but a new pot of soup is welcome all the year round. Today, I was making courgette, and basil soup. It’s fairly straightforward with the following ingredients: 1 medium leek, 4 good sized courgettes, one large potato and dried basil. Now I know that a good many people who read this blog will call courgettes zucchinis. This source claims that there are differences between the two e.g. that courgettes are smaller than zucchinis, but I think that the only real difference is in where the terms are used – courgette in France, the UK and (so the website claims) South Africa and New Zealand; zucchini in Australia and North America. I’m not sure about New Zealand, so a comment on that would be good. To start, sweat your chopped leek in a little oil, to which you have already added the dried basil – amount according to taste. In your solid soup pan, it should look like this i.e. a thing of beauty that might be submitted for the Turner Prize as a work of contemporary art, signifying the integration of human thoughts and deeds across the newly green world. On the other hand, it’s still a thing of beauty but a photo of leeks.

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Leeks sweated in oil and basil. (Click to enlarge all photos)

I never use a processor to chop my vegetables. There is something calming about washing your leek, cutting it into 3 and then slicing it up, although this obviously has overtones of violence. Add the chopped courgette and, magically, you have another potential submission to the prize, representing …mmm you tell me. It now looks and smells very good.

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Chopped courgettes and leeks in basil and oil.

To this, you add the peeled and chopped potato and one litre of the stock of your choice – I used chicken stock cubes. Simmer for about 20 min and take off the heat. I then mashed it down with a potato masher and then liquidised it with my hand-held blender, one of the best kitchen implements in which I have ever invested.

Here is one serving of the soup, with the chopped end of a 70% wholemeal loaf from Dunbar Community Bakery.  This raises another philosophical issue – what do you call the last slice in a loaf of bread? My wife would say heel, while in my family when I was growing up, it was always called the outsider. A relative called it the Tommy – rhyming slang for Tommy Steele perhaps? What did your family call the last slice? Another Turner Prize entrant – the four islands in the speckled green sea: the post-nuclear world. Discuss.

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Courgette and basil soup with fresh bread croutons

For the final posting on Madrid, I swithered between the magnificence of Madrid’s cathedral – especially the internal colours – and the Crystal Palace in El Retiro Park, featured here recently . Having been out cycling this morning in the cool, fresh air and enjoying the autumnal spectacle of the countryside at the moment, I chose the latter. While walking through the large park, it’s easy to miss the sign to the Crystal Palace  or Palacio de Cristal, to give it its proper name. Once you see not only the palace itself but the setting, you cannot be unimpressed. The first photo shows what you see approaching the palace – a light filled building on 3 levels, with beautiful arches over the windows and ornate decoration around the bottom, a close-up of which is shown in the 2nd photo – here is a swan – like, mythical bird, with no feet and a tail of flowers.

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Palacio de Cristal in El Retiro Park, Madrid

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Decoration on tiles at the Palacio de Cristal in El Retiro Park, Madrid

Once you pass the entrance to the palace, which has been closed for a long time for internal redecoration, you can walk around the large pond, with its fountain. You pass the tall, thick-trunked trees whose leaves differed in colour,  from light green to dark green to reddish-brown. You can then see across the pond to the palace. It’s a very peaceful place, made even more pleasant by the late September sunshine and 25 degrees. The final 2 photos show the palace from the side of the pond and from the opposite side of the pond to the palace. This is a slice of remote countryside which has been picked up and placed near the centre of one of Europe’s busiest cities. The Madrilenos are lucky to have it.

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The pond, the trees and the fountain at the Palacio de Cristal in El Retiro Park, Madrid

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Looking across the pond to the Palacio de Cristal in El Retiro Park, Madrid