The Seamus Heaney Archives Exhibition in Dublin

September 17, 2018

We were in Dublin last week for 4 days. The main impetus for our going was to see the Seamus Heaney – my favourite poet – archives exhibition in the Bank of Ireland Cultural Centre on the city’s famous College Green. We had heard the excellent preview of the exhibition on a Front Row podcast which is well worth listening to. As you enter the building, you see the poster for the exhibition which shows Heaney looking contemplative.

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Seamus Heaney Exhibition in Dublin (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The first section deals with Heaney’s childhood and features 2 famous poems by him relating to his mother and father. The first is the 3rd sonnet from Clearances and here is Heaney reading it. Listen out for ” Like solder weeping off the soldering iron” and “Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives”. It is a very moving poem.

At my own mother’s funeral, I wrote a eulogy for her and included another Heaney poem in which he refers to “the cool clothes off the line” and folding sheets with his mother. They held the sheet and either end and “flapped and shook the fabric like sail in a cross wind”. The sheet then made “a dried-out, undulating thwack”. I am sure many people remember such happenings.

The poem in memory of his father – Digging – is even more famous. Below is a compilation of BBC clips of Heaney reading this poem. The poem begins “Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests; snug as a gun”. You can imagine a “squat” fountain pen in the poet’s hands. He then looks out of the window to see his father digging and he remembers his father digging potatoes 20 years before. The children picked the potatoes “Loving their cool hardness in our hands”. Heaney then reflects on his grandfather, who ” cut more turf in a day/ Than any other man on Toner’s bog”. This is a very physical poem but the poet also reflects on his own trade, stating that “But I’ve no spade to follow men like them./ Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests./ I’ll dig with it”. The repetition of the first lines are made more effective by the statement that Heaney will “dig” with his pen and be creative in another, less physical way.

The exhibition also covers Heaney’s poetical reflections on The Troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s. In his poem Punishment, Heaney describes – graphically but also lovingly – the skeleton of a woman found in an Irish bog. At the end of the poem, he makes a subtle comment on the tarring and feathering of women in Ireland during The Troubles. Listening to Heaney reading the poem at the exhibition was a very moving experience. Here it is.

The final poem that sticks out in my memory from the exhibition is The Rain Stick which is a hollowed out cactus branch into which small stones have been put. These were used by tribes in South America to bring rain. Heaney’s take on the stick is that it sounds like rain when shaken. This poem shows the musicality in much of Heaney’s poetry and when you hear the poems read, as in the clips above, you can hear the melodies in Heaney’s language. The poem begins

Upend the rain stick and what happens next
Is a music that you never would have known
To listen for. In a cactus stalk

Downpour, sluice-rush, spillage and backwash
Come flowing through. You stand there like a pipe
Being played by water, you shake it again lightly

And diminuendo runs through all its scales
Like a gutter stopping trickling. And now here comes
A sprinkle of drops out of the freshened leaves,

Then subtle little wets off grass and daisies;
Then glitter-drizzle, almost breaths of air.

I urge you to read this poem out loud to yourself or get someone to read it to you. Then you will hear the rain in the “Downpour, sluice-rush, spillage” and “glitter-drizzle”. We came away from this exhibition uplifted by Heaney’s words and voice and also regretful that this Nobel Prize winning poet only lived until he was 74. If you can get to see it, then you must do so. If not, this introduction will give you a flavour of this entrancing exhibition.

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Prague Nights and the Food Programme on seeds

September 10, 2018

I have just finished reading Benjamin Black’s intriguing historical novel Prague Nights. Benjamin Black is the well-known pen name of award-winning Irish writer John Banville and in this novel, which could be described as crime fiction also, we get a mixture of the lyrical writing of Banville and the more playful writing of Black. The novel begins “Few now recall that it was I who discovered the corpse of Dr Kroll’s misfortunate daughter thrown upon the snow that night in Golden Lane” – a good crime novel starts with a body. Further on we read “Such stars there were! – like a hoard of jewels strewn across a dome of taut black silk” and this is more Banville than  Black. I got the impression that Black/Banville was having fun in creating the characters in this novel. Firstly , there is the protagonist Christian Stern, a by turns over-confident and fearful young man who comes to Prague in 1599 and finds a dead body in the street. Stern is fortunate that the emperor Rudolf II, whose dead mistress Stern has found, sees the new arrival as an omen for good and adopts Stern as his protégé. He also demands that Stern finds out how murdered the young woman. Secondly, there is the lascivious seductress Caterina  Sardo with whom Stern has a torrid affair. Stern quickly finds out the machinations of Rudolf’s court and discovers that he can trust no-one, including Sardo – a partly comic character. The city of Prague in winter is another character in the novel – this is really a novel with (no spoiler here) more than one murder, rather than a crime novel – and Black gives a detailed account of the abject poverty and  lush richness at both ends of the social spectrum. For those hoping for a fast-moving plot, this is not for you. The author’s plot is meandering but gets there in the end. What you remember is not so much whodunit but where it was done, who was involved and what will happen to Christian Stern, who at times has a seemingly precarious existence. Black/Banville is always worth reading for the quality of the prose and the laconic wit. Highly recommended.

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Benjamin Black’s engrossing historical novel (Click on all photos to enlarge)

A recent Food Programme podcast caught my ears to good effect. The topic was seeds and the programme covered a range of different aspects of the grain which humans have used over the millennia for food and drink. The programme begins with an interview with Noel Kingsbury, the author of Hybrid: The History and Science of Plant Breeding who states that today’s “natural” foods which people increasing seek out, are in fact the results of “selective breeding and hybridisation over thousands of years”, although that does not make them less healthy than processed food. Another interviewee notes that legislation has meant that many varieties of seeds are now privately owned and that some “traditional” seed varieties are not covered and cannot be sold. One organisation trying to preserve seed varieties in the UK is the Heritage Seed Library at Garden Organics in Ryton, Coventry and the work of the library, which encourages people to grow and swap unusual varieties of vegetables, is discussed in the programme. There are now a range of programmes across the world which seek to preserve seed varieties threatened with extinction and some of these programmes research the quality of wheat and barley seeds before giving them to farmers to grow. I found this a fascinating programme, so give it a go. This issue of the Food Programme coincides with harvest time here in East Lothian and it is a real pleasure to cycle around the countryside past fields where the farmers have left bales to stand and be admired. I think that it should be compulsory for farmers to do this, as an aesthetic contribution to the countryside, rather than removing the bales immediately. This year, I have noticed more square bales, such as these taken at St Abbs head recently.

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Square bales, farm buildings and sheep in the field at St Abbs Head

 

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Horses, trees, square bales and hills at St Abbs Head

Finally, a photo of round bales first featured here in 2014. This was a field of barley from which beer is made and in Dunbar we have our own Belhaven Brewery, the oldest in Scotland.

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Round bales in a North Belton Farm field, near Dunbar

Michael Warren paintings and flowers after the rain

August 30, 2018

The exhibition by the excellent wildlife artist Michael Warren at Waterston House in Aberlady is about to end but his work will be available elsewhere during the year. I featured the artist’s work on the blog in 2012, with a picture of his amazing book on American birds. Over a long career, Michael Warren’s many achievements include designing stamps for the famous Audubon Society in the USA. The current exhibition shows why this artist is so highly regarded, as it demonstrates his high level of technique, his observation of birds in a variety of environments and his mastery of colour. Michael has generously made available some of the paintings for this blog. The first is a painting of a redstart (includes video) which has the fabulous scientific name of Phoenicurus Phoenicurus. What I really appreciated in this painting is the way the artist draws your eye from the impressionist-like leaves on the tree branches at the bottom of the painting up to the bird itself. Once you see the bird, it takes centre stage in your viewing but it is not centre stage in the painting. The larger leaves at the top of the work are clearly delineated and contrast well with the less well-defined leaves at the bottom. You can almost hear the bird’s song ringing out across the forest when you see the painting. It is an exquisite work of art.

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Redstart by Michael Warren (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The second painting is of Slavonian grebes (scroll down to audio and video). This is a large painting and the startling colours of the adult grebe immediately catch your eye. I like the lines in this painting – the straight and crooked lines of the reeds and the rivers of white curved lines in the young grebe. This bird has an awkward scientific name podicepa auritus but it is very elegant when seen in the water. In Michael Warren’s portrait of the adult grebe, there is added elegance, shape and colour. The yellow cropped feathers above the grebe’s focused eyes reminded me of Elizabethan ruffs and there is a delicate smoothness in the rest of the bird’s body, which reflects the gentle swell in the surrounding water. This is a painting which rewards close inspection and you cannot fail to appreciate the artist’s talent and skill on display here. Overall, a wonderful exhibition which we visited twice, to very good effect.

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Slavonian grebes by Michael Warren

More summer flowers – this time taken after a day of rain, of which we have not had much this long and mainly warm summer. The photo below is a close-up of some sweet William flowers in a hanging basket outside our front door. The rain had barely stopped when I went outside to capture the tiny bubbles of fallen rain on the leaves and flowers. The leaf to the bottom right looks like a frog with hyperthyroid bulging eyes. The raindrops appear to be rolling down or dancing on the leaves and the photographs reveals more detail than you can see with the naked eye.

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Sweet William flowers after the rain

The next photo shows a begonia flower which is still holding on to its raindrops and showing off its many contours in the multitude of petals on show. Begonias strike me as very demonstrative, look-at-me flowers and while they are strikingly pretty at times, they can appear gaudy. This is a more delicate specimen, wearing its raindrops like a form of make up.

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Begonia flower head after the rain

This photo of geranium leaves has a surreal quality and might be something that Geoff Koons would produce and add to his tulips outside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Some of the raindrops appear to be magnified and hollowed out, and they look like craters scattered across a petal shaped planet. The bottom petal/planet appears to have a landmass similar to Australia.

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Geranium petals after the rain

Finally, I took this photo of an emerging rosebud and although you can barely see the remnants of the rain on the flower, it struck me as almost a form of perfection in terms of delicate colour and shape.

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Rosebud after the rain

For people of a certain age, of course, flowers in the rain can only ever mean this.

As we are off to Dublin next week for a few days, the gap between blog posts will be longer.

Fredensborg Slot – the lake, the palace and the gardens

August 22, 2018

Our final destination on the trip to Denmark and Sweden was back in Denmark. We crossed on the ferry from Helsingborg (good photos) in Sweden to Helsingor in Denmark. Helsingor is famous for its Kronborg Castle (good photos) which is best known as the setting for Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. The photo below shows the castle as seen from the ferry.

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Approaching Kronborg Castle on the ferry to Helsingor (Click on all photos to enlarge)

Our destination was the pretty town of Fredensborg (good photos) which is mainly known for the Fredensborg Slot or Castle, of which more below. You can walk down – through an avenue of lime trees – to the shore of the huge Lake Esrum, the 2nd largest in Denmark, from the town and we enjoyed the views across the lake. We also drove to Nødebo on the other side of the lake. When we arrived, this family of mallard ducks was next to the walkway. They were undisturbed by our presence and posed for this photo.

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Mallard family at Lake Esrum

We went on a tour of Fredensborg Slot – slot being the Danish for castle or palace. As this is the Queen of Denmark’s residence for part of the year, it was referred to as a palace by  the guide. You are not allowed to photograph inside the palace. The guide gave us  a history of the palace and told us much about the present queen and her family. In doing so, he tended to ignore the many beautiful objects and furnishings inside the palace. The tour of the gardens was much more interesting, with an enthusiastic guide – a tall, sturdy, bearded young Dane who was passionate about horticulture. Previous to the tour, we walked around the lawns and trees of the palace grounds – you can do this for free. There is a very peaceful walk down an avenue of lime trees (picture below) and there was resonant birdsong all the way down towards the edge of the lake.

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A walk through the lime/linden trees at Fredensborg Slot

The paid tour took us into the private gardens and they were a delight to the eye. The first part of the gardens is the formal rose garden and looking down from the steep bank above the gardens, you can see (photo below) the immaculately manicured hedges in the small maze-like structure, as well as the numerous statues around this section.

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Formal gardens at Fredensborg Slot

The next section was the rose garden, with its impressive water lilies at the side of the roses. I took a wee video of this.

From there it was on to some small gardens – one for each season, so some were in full flower and others more subdued – and then to the huge vegetable and herb garden. At the entrance to the garden was this peach tree. I like the photo below as the exposed trunk takes your eye up the centre of the tree and then on to the dangling leaves, behind which the maturing peaches seem to lurk.

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Peach tree at Fredensborg Slot

The vegetable garden has a huge range of vegetables – potatoes, carrots, leeks, cabbages, lettuce and beetroot – and each section was separated by a small hedge as in the photo below.

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Fredensborg Slot vegetable garden

When you walk through the middle of the vegetable garden, you are under a trellis of roses (photo below) and it really was a pleasure to walk under the roses, with neat boxed hedge on the border. Inside the hedge were wild strawberries which were heavily fruited. You can see more photos of the vegetable garden here.

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Rose trellis at Fredensborg Slot

This was an afternoon well spent and I would recommend Fredensborg as a place to visit when in Denmark.

Arild, Sweden and summer flowers

August 16, 2018

On our recent trip to Denmark and Sweden, we drove across the famous Oresund Bridge. When you drive on to the bridge, you are under the water for a while and this doesn’t become clear until you see it from the air. It is a magnificent piece of engineering. Our destination was the very pretty seaside village of Arild and we stayed at the excellent Hotell Rusthållargården. It is a tiny village but has a very attractive harbour and pleasant walks along the rocky shoreline. We saw many people going swimming there and the water is much warmer than you might expect for Sweden – much warmer than in the UK. One surprising local custom is for people to go swimming and walk back up the road to their house or hotel in the their dressing gown. This could be seen all day and in the evening i.e. not just in the morning. The harbour (photo below) was once the preserve of the local fishing fleet, but today it is mainly leisure craft, with only a couple of fishing boats to be seen.

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Arild harbour (Click on all photos to enlarge)

There is still evidence of fishing in the village as seen in the nets which were hung up to dry next to the harbour (photo below). A local told us that these were eel nets and he hinted that fishing for eels may not be legal.

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Eel nets in Arild

I took a video of the harbour.

We visited the local church, known as Arilds Kapell which has origins in the 15th century and the modern Lutheran church dates back to the 18th century. It has an interesting interior, with its austere seating brightened up by the decoration on the side of each pew (picture below).

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Inside Arilds Kapell

At the back of the church is a collection box which, as you can see below, was very well protected from thieves by 3 large locks. Whether this reflects on the honesty of the local population over the centuries or a “take no chances” attitude of the church authorities was not made clear.

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Arilds Kappell collection box

What was more impressive were the model ships hanging from the ceiling – a reflection of the village’s past fishing history and one of the ships is shown below. In 1827, this must have been a magnificent sight just off the coast of Arild, as a ship of this size would not have been able to enter  the harbour.

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Model ship in Arilds Kapell

The church is hardly used now but remains a striking building, which is obviously well looked after by the locals. Arild is a busy little village in the summer and there are a range of walks along the coast. Not far from Arild is the Kullen Lighthouse which we visited after walking along the  high cliffs nearby and enjoying the spectacular views. The countryside around Arild is very much like that of East Lothian with fields of barley, wheat, oats, potatoes and cabbages to be seen, so we very much felt at home.

It’s summer flowers time on the blog, as the garden is probably now at its peak. The weeks of warm and mainly dry weather this summer has meant a lot of watering of plants and my hose has never been out of the garage as much as recently. The lavender in front of our house has been particularly prolific this year (photo below). Lavender’s botanical name is Lavendula and the plant has an interesting history. The name comes from the Latin lavare to wash and lavender has been used in perfume and soaps for thousands of years. Leonardo da Vinci wrote that to make good perfume, use rose-water and then “take a lavender flower and rub it with your palms, and you will have the desired effect”.

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Lavender in our front garden

The lavender has attracted hundreds of bees each day and, in the never-ending pursuit of close-up bee photographs, I managed to capture this bee on a lavender flower.

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Bee on a lavender flower

We’ve also had a better show this year of agapanthus flowers. In the photo below, the white, bell-like flowers of the white agapanthus are interspersed with the lavender. This happened as the agapanthus grew up beside the lavender bush. Agapanthus or African Lily have delicate flower heads, which are stunningly beautiful when they appear, but they do not last long particularly if there is a strong wind. When we lived in Australia in the 2000s, agapanthus was seen as a weed – an alien species from South Africa – in some states, as it spread rapidly and often replaced local plants.

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Agapanthus with intruding lavender.

This was the first year we had white agapanthus, having only had the blue variety since we bought 2 plants, and this is evidence of how they can spread. The blue flower heads (see below) are a delight. The head appears slowly and then reveals a multitude of blue raindrops which develop into delicate trumpets in a few days.

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Blue agapanthus flower head

I will return to our summer flowers in the blog in due course, but this is definitely the best display of flowers we’ve had for many years, due to the continuing warm, dry weather we’ve had for weeks.

Lincoln in the Bardot and the Danish National Art Gallery

August 9, 2018

All the winners of the Man Booker Prize come with lavish reviews from across the world. Most of the Booker winners which I have read have deserved much praise, but often I’ve found that some of the reviews are a little too praiseworthy. I have just finished George Saunders’ astonishing novel Lincoln in the Bardo, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2017. This books deserves all the praise it can get. Having said that, there is a leap of the imagination to be done when reading this novel. Most of the science fiction and fantasy novels I have read have been disappointing, as I’m unwilling or unable to make this leap. Saunders’ novel – his first as he is globally recognised as a fine short story writer – begins with a ghost/spirit speaking from a place where bodies are stored and recounting how he died. The OED defines bardo as ” (in Tibetan Buddhism) a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to a person’s conduct in life and manner of, or age at, death”. So the story is set in a type of bardo, as Saunders does not define this space as being related to any specific religion.

The main story then emerges and it is a sad and often poignant account of the death of Willie Lincoln, the son of Abraham Lincoln. Willie is still in his sick-box, which is the termed used for coffin by the multitude of ghosts/spirits, who describe the place they are in and how macabre and often dangerous it can be. Lincoln, worn down by the civil war in which casualties are increasing dramatically, visit his dead son and there appears to be historical evidence of this, although we are not sure. Saunders appears to be quoting from books and articles about Lincoln, his son and his distraught wife, but there is no bibliography at the end of the book. This does not matter as the novel is convincingly and at times vivaciously written, and the reader is carried along. Just when you think Saunders is dwelling too long on one aspect of the story, he continues another part. The book also focuses on aspects of society at this time – the civil war, race issues and class differences – but never in a didactic way. It is at times a very funny book, with some bawdy exchanges, and there are aspects of the surreal as the ghosts/spirits try to survive attacks. The main memory of this book will be Lincoln and his son. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is a compulsive novel. Go out and buy it.

Lincoln in the Bardo

Click on all photos to enlarge

On our visit to Copenhagen, we went to see the collections in the Danish National Art Gallery (Statens Museum for Kunst). I have to admit to knowing nothing about Danish art, so the walk around the extensive gallery was a learning experience as well as an aesthetic one. The gallery is an impressive stone building and has recently added a beautiful extension at the back. The extension (photo below) is much more open to the light than the existing structure and has walkways leading to the new exhibition spaces.

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The Danish National Gallery’s extension

The gallery has a wide range of paintings and installations ranging  from the 13th to the 21st centuries. I was particularly attracted to the late 19th and early 20th century paintings and include a selection below. Firstly, a painting by Theodor Philipsen of Cattle on the Isle of Saltholm. The national gallery regard Philipsen as an innovator in his time, especially in relation to light and colour and state that he was Danish impressionist, focusing on his nation’s countryside. This is a dramatic painting when you see it and your eyes are drawn to the movement of the cattle, but especially to the effect of the light on cattle’s bodies and the shadows cast. The painter catches the variety of colours of the cattle and the brightness of the sky in the sunshine. Saltholm is an island in the Oresund (famous for its bridge), the strait between Denmark and Sweden.

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Long shadows. Cattle on the Isle of Saltholm by Theodor Philipsen

The second painting is by Laurits Andersen Ring and depicts a labourer working in the fields at harvest time. The painting is simply called Harvest and represents the hard work done by farm workers in the fields at this time. Again there is movement in the painting and your eye is drawn to the swirl of the hay as the man turns it into a stook. The metal tool is obviously designed for this purpose and we can see that the man has to be strong to wield such a tool. The sun on the uncut barley behind the worker turns part of the crop’s top white and the light shines directly on part of the emerging stook. The man’s clothes are ragged but there are many shades of blue in his top. As the gallery notes, this is a monumental painting and it takes centre stage on one of the gallery walls. I liked it for its boldness and vigour. It is harvest time around here at the moment, so this painting was very timely.

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Harvest by Laurits Andersen Ring

The final painting here attracted my attention because of its size, its colours, its characters and also because it resonates with my local environment in Dunbar. Michael Ancher’s painting The Lifeboat is Taken through the Dunes  is a large painting which dominates the room in which it is hung. The gallery notes that it has a photographic quality and like the Harvest painting above, this is an active scene. Your eyes are drawn up the line of men preparing to launch the lifeboat, but having to pull it through the dunes – not an easy task, even with the horses at the front. The men are talking and maybe discussing the rescue about to take place and the man on the far right is calling back – for more assistance? Launching and rowing a lifeboat in these times was a hazardous task for these volunteer fisherman, but Ancher portrays these ordinary men – heroes to some – as calm and purposeful. What adds to the potential danger is the snow on the dunes and we can just see the crashing winter waves above the dunes. We have a lifeboat here in Dunbar and some old photos show men hauling the non-mechanised boat over the beach.

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Michael Ancher’s The Lifeboat is Taken through the Dunes

If you are in Copenhagen, the national gallery has paintings to suit all tastes and it is a very relaxed space in which to wander about and select what you want to see.

The end of Le Tour and Aamanns 1921 restaurant in Copenhagen

August 1, 2018

No blog last week as we were on our travels in Denmark and Sweden. After 3 weeks of often gruelling cycling across the whole of France, Le Tour De France ended in Paris, with the Welshman Geraint Thomas emerging as the victor. As an amateur cyclist, with a medium-range road bike, I am at first in awe of these cyclists, then perhaps slightly less in awe of them as they are a) young men and b) professional cyclists. It is on the mountain stages however, that my admiration rises, given the speed at which they cycle up the sometimes vertiginous slopes. The modern-day cyclists of course, have superb equipment in terms of bikes, helmets and racing gear. The event itself is also much bigger than it used to be. On holiday in France a few years ago, I picked up this postcard  (below) of Le Tour. Looking at the cars, my guess is that it may be from the 1960s. There are a number of interesting aspects to this photo. Firstly, none of the riders are wearing helmets and secondly, there are no crowds lining the route. What has not changed is the mountain roads ahead up which the riders have to climb, but the riders in this picture would have had heavier, less streamlined  bikes, with fewer gears. Today’s Tour participants might go faster, have more back up in the form of masseurs, physios etc but are they stronger and relatively fitter?

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Le Tour de France from the 1960s? (Click on all photos to enlarge)

Le Tour is inspiring for cyclists, so when I tackle a biggish hill tomorrow, maybe I should imagine that I am “G” (Geraint Thomas) heading towards a stage win at the top of the hill and retaining the yellow jersey. One thing that “G” and I do have in common is a yellow jersey, although his is better known than my Bicycle Wagga Wagga top below.

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Bicycle Wagga Wagga cycling top

On the early highlights of our trip to Denmark was the Aamanns  1921 Restaurant in Copenhagen. The interior of the restaurant – see photo on website – is very well designed with lighting partly provided by two wooden circles above you. The chairs are Scandinavian in design and are extremely comfortable. This is very much a Danish restaurant, specialising in smørrebrød and other dishes which have unusual combinations of ingredients and look absolutely wonderful. For dinner, we chose selections from the menu and my first selection (Shown below) was “Pan fried plaice with hand-peeled shrimps, pickled tomatoes and mayonnaise”. Now this looked an interesting dish on the menu, but it was when it was put on to the table in front of me (by one of the very helpful and informative staff) that the visual impact of the dish was felt. The topping included flower petals and the slice of hot lemon on the side added to both the flavour and the presentation. It was mouth-wateringly delicious.

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Plaice and prawn smorrebrod from Aamanns restaurant in Copenhagen

I then had the “Ravioli with Krystal Karl cheese, mushrooms, hazelnuts and summer truffles”. Each dish was carefully introduced and for this dish, one of the sous chefs came out and grated the truffle over my dish, explaining how the dish was made. A shared dish was “Braendende kaerlighed” in Danish and consisted of potato compote, gooseberries, sorrel, onion and bacon. Again the presentation was excellent (as shown below) with the extra touch of the colourful flower heads enhancing its beauty. It almost seemed a shame to eat it, but we did and the depth of flavour was superb.

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Potato compote dish from Aamanns 1921 Restaurant in Copenhagen

At the end of the meal, we were treated to a sample of the restaurant’s homemade schnapps. The bottles line the shelves and on the counter (photo below) you can see the jars of maturing liqueurs. I often find schnapps rather harsh, but this was smooth and fruity. The charming young sous chef Laura Melodie Trillot came out to explain how they made their food and exchanged ideas amongst the staff. You can see some of Laura’s intriguing and colourful photos of the restaurant dishes here. This restaurant is not cheap but the value and quality is of the highest standard. If you are in Copenhagen/Kobenhavn – and can afford it – then definitely put this restaurant to the top of  your list.

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Maturing schnapps at Aamanns 1921 Restaurant in Copenhagen

Woolf and Cox exhibition and the other side of St Abbs Head harbour

July 18, 2018

We were late in going to see the exhibition by Colin Woolf and John Cox at Waterston House in Aberlady, but I was so impressed by both artists’ work that I wanted to include it here. The exhibition closed last week but the work of these two fine painters will be on show elsewhere. Both wildlife artists generously responded to my requests for photos of their paintings.

Colin Woolf is an experienced artist with a wide range of paintings and he is a superb stylist. In the first painting below, which is a large and very impressive work of art when you see it in the exhibition, Woolf shows that his skills are not limited to birds. The depiction of the mountains over which the eagle is soaring is excellent and you get a real sense of height. What impressed me most was the way the artist painted the swirling clouds above the mountains. I was reminded of the paintings of Frederic Edwin Church I saw at an exhibition in the Scottish National Gallery a few years ago. The exhibition noted how difficult it was to paint clouds. The eagle may look small up in the thermals above the mountain but there is an elegance in its flight which Woolf captures.

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Eagle Sky by Colin Woolf (click on all photos to enlarge)

In the second painting, the birds take centre stage, although there is huge competition from the beautiful silver birch. At the bottom of the painting, the artist has included 2 pin feathers and writes that the scene is “Painted entirely with this pair of pin feathers from the same bird”. If you want to read more about this unusual technique, check out Colin Woolf’s beautifully illustrated and very educational article, as a guest blogger. In the blog post, Woolf explains the joys and the difficulties of painting with pin feathers. The birds featured here are woodcocks which have the magnificent Latin name of Scolopax Rusticola, and Woolf depicts them in motion, perhaps in a ritual display. The detail and symmetry of the birds’ wings and tail feathers is intricately painted and you can almost feel the whoosh in the air. The silver birch (Betula pendula) is one of my favourite trees and Woolf shows the elegance of this tree and its magical bark. Woolf is a cosnummate painter of wildlife and these paintings were a joy to behold.

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Pin feather painting of woodcocks by Colin Woolf

John Cox is also a highly respected wildlife artist. At the exhibition, he displayed many fine bird paintings showing an array of species and settings. John Cox sent me four photos of his work and the two I have chosen show the breadth of his skills and two different environments in which the birds are displayed.

The first photo shows a pair of oystercatchers and they have the rather unattractive sounding Latin name of Haematopus Ostralegus, which sounds like serious disease or an operation you might get. I love the way the light blue colours on the birds’ undersides match those on the rocks and in the water, as if there could be a reflection on the bird from the water. The oystercatchers are very well captured, with the strong colour of their beaks matching the strength of the actual birds’ beaks. The birds look reflective in the painting, as they often do in the evening on the rocks near our house. The more you look at this painting, the more patterns, shapes and colours you see and this reflects the artist’s skill.

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Oystercatchers in rocky pools by John Cox

Oystercatchers – which do not catch or eat oysters – are one of my favourite birds and we regularly get them on the rocks near the back of our house. Through my scope, I have seen a determined oystercatcher poke away around the sides of a large limpet and finally move it off the rock. The bird then used its beak to ease the flesh of the limpet from the shell, picked up the flesh and washed it in a nearby pool before swallowing it.

In the 2nd of John Cox’s paintings below, a completely different environment is depicted. Here a short eared owl (Asio Flammeus) hovers hungrily (for itself) and menacingly (for its prey) above some bushes. I really admire the artist’s use of light in this picture e.g. how the setting sun’s rays eke through the owl’s outstretched wings and the evening sky can be seen above the trees and the town in the distance. The trees, bushes and wildflowers are delicately and expertly captured by the painter, as are the green fields behind. The urban setting to the upper left, with the church (I assume) dominating the skyline, reminded me of some of Constable’s paintings such as The Vale of Deadham shown below and downloaded with permission of the National Galleries. John Cox’s contribution to this wonderful exhibition, showing his exquisite skills, matched that of Colin Woolf. If you can get to see either (or preferably both) of these artists, do not miss the chance.

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Short eared owl in a countryside setting by John Cox

 

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Vale of Dedham by John Constable

Another trip to St Abbs Head (good photos), one of our favourite places and a site that makes a regular contribution to this blog, on a warm and sunny Sunday afternoon. The harbour was busy with visitors and, looking out to sea, we could spot four  boats taking divers around the coast to special areas. For a change, we walked across to the other and quieter side of the harbour. Looking back at my many and varied photos of St Abbs Head, I noticed that there were none taken from this part of the harbour. What I discovered were some beautiful reflections in the clear blue water in the harbour. The first photo shows the lifeboat station and some small creel boats, and their shimmering reflections in the water. The solid stone walls built around the harbour to protect the boats are impressive.

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St Abbs Head Lifeboat station from the east side of the harbour

The 2nd photo is one taken from a new angle for me. Again, there is an eye-catching reflection of the wall and the boats. Above left, you can see part of the village and above right, you can see the coastal walk and the cliffs where thousands of guillemots nest. On the harbourside, the lobster creels are stacked in readiness for another trip.

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Inner harbour at St Abbs Head

The final photo looks across to the entrance to the main harbour on the left. A diving boat had just returned from a trip and the divers were unloading their gear from the boat, using the mechanical hoist you can see above the boat. Two seagulls kindly posed for a photograph in front of me. The village, the harbour and the surrounding countryside looked resplendent on the day we visited.

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Bernard MacLaverty’s “Midwinter Break” and Scottish Birds’ photos

July 10, 2018

The literary output of the author Bernard MacLaverty stretches over many years and has always been of the highest quality. For MacLaverty fans, a 16 year wait for a new novel is a long time to wait but his new book Midwinter Break is certainly worth waiting for. It should be noted that MacLaverty has produced superb books of short stories in between the novels. This is a book that can be read and appreciated by readers of any age, but it will be particularly poignant to older – but definitely not old – readers in their 60s. The protagonists of the book are Stella and Gerry, who have been married for many years and are spending a weekend in Amsterdam in the winter. The couple live in Edinburgh but originate from Northern Ireland, where they lived during the Troubles. In a number of flashbacks, MacLaverty brilliantly presents key moments in their lives, such as  their early romance and Stella’s trauma and Gerry’s visits to the hospital. In Amsterdam, Stella is seeking solace in her life as she feels unaccomplished. She considers joining a group of women who share her religious faith, but this would mean leaving Gerry.

A key feature of the book is Gerry’s love of – and struggle with – alcohol. MacLaverty cleverly – and often humorously – shows how Gerry tries to hide his whisky drinking from Stella, but he also writes about how much pleasure Gerry gains from his first dram, then his second and then – what the hell? – his third. Of course, the hungover Gerry regrets his drinking, but not for long. There is a superbly written confrontation between Stella and Gerry about his drinking near the end of the novel. MacLaverty writes in detail about the couple’s daily habits and makes this intriguing to the reader. The novelist’s ear for conversation is sharp and the dialogue between the couple is utterly convincing.

MacLaverty also has his two protagonists referring to literature and Stella recalls Thomas Hardy’s poem on snow, following a storm in Amsterdam. The poem begins

Every branch big with it,
Bent every twig with it;
Every fork like a white web-foot;
Every street and pavement mute:

The last line above is particularly observant – how snow takes away some of the noise we normally hear. It is one of the best novels I’ve read recently – buy it and you will not be disappointed.

Bernard MacLaverty’s new novel. (Click on all photos to enlarge)

 

In the latest edition of Scottish Birds, which I receive as a member of the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club, the front cover (below) shows a high-flying and imperious-looking glaucous gull, taken by Iain Leach. It has the equally imperious Latin name of Larus Hyperboreus. I had to look up glaucous which means having a “dull, greyish-green or blue colour” according to the Oxford Dictionary. It is by no means a pretty bird but its magnificent wing span has a multi-patterned elegance.

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Glaucous gull on the front cover of Scottish Birds

On the back cover, an extraordinary photo of a raven (Corvus Corax), taken by Jim Smith. In the notes above the photo (see below), Smith writes that the raven flew down to pick up a piece of bread on the ground, but “It would then rise up higher in the thermals, before flipping on to his back and floating back down”. This appears to me like a raven having fun and laughing at the world, in a look-at-me pose. Note the sharpness of the beak and the feet, appropriate for this often aggressive carnivore. Who would have thought that you might see a raven doing the Fosbury Flop?

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Raven flying on its back by Jim Smith

A more gentle and much more colourful bird can be seen in the photo (see below) by Harry Scott, which featured in an article by R Craig and T Dougall on siskins in a small garden. The siskin (Carduelis Spinus) is a resident bird across the UK but particularly in Scotland. You can see a small flock feeding here. This is a very colourful little bird, with its range of blues and yellows across its body. As it clings to the feeder, its body is compact, with the wing and tail feathers neatly tucked in, but ready for flight at any second. The successive layers of feathers have an abstract look to them and resemble layers of stone that you see on beaches. You can hear more about the siskin and its call in this Tweet of the Day from Radio 4.

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Siskin by Harry Scott

Tyninghame House and gardens

July 2, 2018

Last Sunday, we went to see the gardens at Tyninghame (pr Tinning’am) House, which were open for the day as part of Scotland’s Gardens Scheme, which features a wide range of gardens in Scotland which are not normally open to the public. Tyninghame House is a magnificent looking structure. The brochure we bought tells us that there had been a residence there since medieval times, but the modern building was developed in the late 1820s by the architect William Burn.

In the first photo below, you get an idea of the extensive parts that make up the house. It was the seat of the earls of Haddington for centuries and is now broken up into flats. It retains its impressiveness when you look at the quality of the sandstone walls, the turret and the unusual chimneys. A critical eye might think that it is overcomplicated, with turrets and chimneys vying for space, but as walk around it, you can appreciate the architect’s achievement.

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Tyninghame House and part of the gardens

In the 2nd photo, you get a better view of the smoothly conical towers – dunces’ hats to some – and the rectangular chimneys. The stonework on the rounded towers is outstanding, so the masons at the time must have been very skilful to achieve such sandstone elegance.

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The turrets and chimneys of Tyninghame House

So to the gardens, which you come across immediately you walk behind the tall hedges in front of the house. The parterre is what you first see and consists of a series of beds which are edged by box hedge and feature a number of rose varieties. The brochure informs us that the roses are “mainly white Iceberg and yellow King’s Ransom and Graham Thomas”. The King’s Ransom roses were most impressive and had a delicate scent. In one of the beds, mainly filled with flowering peony roses, a delicate white rose had emerged between the more blowsy peony roses, see the photo below.

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A rose fights for space with the larger peony rose flowers

At the south side of the house, you can walk through the trees to a vegetable garden, which is of course much smaller now than it would have been when such houses were self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables. A set of stairs leads you up to a small courtyard and on each side of the steps is an attractive Grecian-type urn. The photo below shows one of these and the leaves on the urn are nicely complemented by the yellow roses behind and the newly flowering lavender

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Decorative urn at the south side of Tyninghame House

To the west of the house is the Secret Garden which was created in the 1950s. The brochure refers to the date as a cringeworthy 1950’s. When I was teaching, I got to the stage of telling my students not to use apostrophes unless they knew how to do so. The photo below shows the “white painted gazebo sheltering a statue of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers and spring”. This is a very peaceful garden even in the presence of the many visitors, you could feel that it would be a haven to come to on a quieter day. Again, the border is of fragrant lavender and the roses include Gertrude Jekyll (good photo) and Bloomfield Abundance (good photo). Many of the roses had delicate but beautiful scent, unlike many roses you get in flower shops today.

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White gazebo in the Secret Garden at Tyninghame House

When you see the various colourful beds of roses at Tyninghame House, you can’t fail to think of Elvis Costello and …

At the end of our tour of the gardens, which included the exquisite lawns and hedges of the walled garden, the wilderness and the herbaceous border, we walked down the avenue of lime trees to St Baldred’s church (good photos) which is an attractive ruin. The guidebook tells us that “Two fine arches remain from the church enriched with chevron ornamentation” and these can be seen in the photo below. The church was first built in the 12th century and added to and changed in the 17th and 18th centuries. It lies in an idyllic spot, surrounded by farmland and trees. The stonework on the arches is remarkably well preserved and there are many shades of pink and grey in the sandstone of the church.

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The remains of St Baldred’s church at Tyninghame House

On the day, we visited, a herd of cows in the field next to the church were curious onlookers to the numerous visitors to the church’s ruin. For one calf, however, feeding time was more important, as you can see in the final photo.

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Cows in the field at Tyninghame House

You can see the extent of the house and the gardens in the wee video I made during our tour of Tyninghame House gardens. Ignore the first 4 seconds, as I have yet to learn how to delete sections in Movie Maker.