Archive for the ‘American authors’ Category

The Underground Railroad and cloud formations on the horizon

September 15, 2017

I’ve just finished reading one of the best books I’ve read in a good while. Colson Whitehead is a new author to me but on the basis of this book, I’ll be trying more. The Underground Railroad has won many awards, including the famous Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The novel begins on a slave plantation in Georgia with one particularly sadistic brother in charge. The heroine Cora knows that her mother escaped the plantation and abandoned her as a child. Cora has no intention of trying to escape but is persuaded to do so by Caesar. The horrors of slave life – constant hard work, poor conditions and regular beatings – are well described in a series of incidents. Whitehead is an excellent storyteller but, as the Guardian reviewer points out, other novels have covered this ground. What makes this novel unique – and this is no spoiler – is that the author takes the well known escape routes for slaves, known as the underground railroad and transforms it from a series of safe houses into an actual underground railroad, with tracks, stations and locomotives . So we are asked to follow the author’s leap of imagination and this is not difficult as Whitehead is such an accomplished writer. The novel then focuses on both those who seek to help Cora, liberal whites as well as former slaves, and on those who wish to capture Cora and take her back to the plantation. The slave catcher Ridgeway is a key character in the novel and Whitehead manages not to demonise him, despite his gruesome occupation. Ridgeway views the world in an uncomplicated manner “It is what it is” he says e.g. slavery exists and different people make money from it. The novel ends on a hopeful note although the reader does feel that there is no guarantee about Cora’s future. This is a novel which is harrowing at times, but you are driven along by Whitehead’s excellent narrative which often has you on the edge of your seat. The Underground Railroad is a passionate and imaginative novel so go out and buy it immediately. You can hear/download an interesting interview with the author here (left hand column).

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The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, winner of The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (Click to enlarge all photos)

 

At the end of summer, we often get changeable weather and this is accompanied by a variety of cloud formations in the evening. Last week, looking out from the back of our house, we noticed an interesting light on the sea. Normally, it is when the moon is full and over the sea, or the setting sun casts its light. On both occasions, there is what appears to be  a silver (moon) or a golden (sun) pathway across the water, as in the photo below. In this photo however, the sun was not yet setting and this view looks north, with the sun at this point in the west.

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Light across the sea on the east side of Dunbar

So, first the light, then the cloud formation itself in the photo below. This appears to be a nuclear explosion or a volcanic eruption in the sky, and the many shades of blue on display was impressive. There’s a white castle in the middle and monster racing dolphins underneath. Otherwise, it’s a piece of abstract art representing the chaos in the world now, or what the end of our known world (or its beginning) might look like. That’s what I saw, what do you see?

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Interesting cloud formation on the horizon, looking north from Dunbar

Turning my attention west to the town of Dunbar itself, there was also an interesting formation of clouds above the town, in the photo below. Here, the clouds are in more anarchic mood, splitting up and diving off in different directions. It was one of these evening when you looked at the clouds, turned round to look north, and when you turned back the shapes had changed, as had the colours. A wonderful sight.

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Early evening cloud formation above Dunbar

 

 

 

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Meeting Richard Ford and summer flowers

September 1, 2017

As a follow up to last week’s blog on the Edinburgh International book Festival, I struck lucky on the last day of the festival. I looked up to see who was on and, to my surprise and delight, Richard Ford was in conversation with Kirsty Wark. There was a Sold Out sign next to the listing but there was advice to check for returns on the day. I did so – by phone and email – and got a ticket for the afternoon session, which started at 3.15. By 2.30, people were queuing up, eager to get good seats. I am not queuer, so I waited in the bookshop tent – reading part of Richard Ford’s memoir of his parents, of which more below. My luck continued as I was one of the last people in the tented theatre but, when I asked a young man if there were seats up the back, he removed a Reserved sign from a seat 4 rows from the front and gave me that one. Ms Wark talked to Richard Ford about contemporary USA and they covered a range of aspects, including of course Donald Trump. Ford is a wonderful writer but also a highly articulate and amusing speaker and he had some caustic comments on the current president, as well as on the weaker side of the USA press and on race relations.

The writer was then asked about his latest book, which is his recollections of his mother and father. It is entitled Between Them – Remembering My Parents and you can hear the author reading the beginning of the book here. Richard Ford told the audience that writing this memoir – about his mother 30 years ago and his father recently – was an attempt to portray his experience of his own childhood, but also of his parents’ lives. It’s a small book and has some very poignant moments in it. Ford is a high quality writer and his descriptions of his father coming home on a Friday from working away encapsulate a boy’s wonder and admiration superbly. I mentioned my favourite quote from Ford’s books in the last blog post and I included it in a question I asked at the session. My question was “In one of your novels, Frank Bascombe [protagonist of 4 Ford novels] refers to ‘the normal, applauseless life of us all’. Do you think that this applies to your parents’ lives?”. Richard Ford agreed that it did and added that this did not mean that they did not have mostly happy, full and successful lives. I met the author briefly as we all left the tent and I told him that it was my favourite quote from his work. “It’s one of my favourite quotes also” he said, patting me on the shoulder “thank you for reminding me of it”. My new claim to fame. The not too clear photo below, taken on my phone, shows Ford being interviewed by Kirsty Wark.

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Richard Ford being interviewed by Kirsty Wark (Click to enlarge all photos)

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Richard Ford’s memoir of his parents

It’s now late summer and as I write, today (31 August) is the last official day of summer in the UK. Many of the flowers in my garden are now at their peak or e.g. the lobelia are showing signs of fatigue, with fading colours and drooping stems. In this photo, you can see the lobelia struggling to match the burgeoning of the gladioli and geraniums.

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Plants on our decking

At our back door, from late spring we have an ever expanding hydrangea which is now covered in large pink flower heads and I captured a close-up of this one just after a rain shower. The bunches of 4 petalled flowers nestle into each other to form a perfect ball and the petals are like little fans, ready to protect the delicate centre at any time. The flowers’ pink colours develop and change over weeks, from pale pink to brighter pink and then back to pale, almost pallid pink as late autumn and cold nights take their toll. This is a much admired plant.

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Close up of hydrangea ball

At the front of the house this year, we have three different colours in the gazania plants I bought in the spring. The one shown below has intriguing shades of purple, yellow, brown and white. It is a celebratory plant which opens in full sunshine and might be yelling out how wonderful it is to be alive. I like the cluster of Sydney Opera House type petals which brandish their bright colours in contrast to the more reticent yellow of the centre.

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Gazania daybreak

One of the welcoming appearances in the past few days have been brightly coloured butterflies which feed on the gazanias. The first one I managed to photograph was a peacock butterfly  shown below. Butterflies are like bees – playful. They wait until you think you have a perfect photo and just as you are about to click, off they flit and land on a nearby flower. The markings on the seemingly ragged wings are surreal and multi-coloured, spread out from the slim, curved body with its twin antennae constantly checking the environment. In this photo, there is a lovely contrast between the realist flower heads and the surreal marking on the butterfly.

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Peacock butterfly

The second one is a small tortoiseshell butterfly. I find this one more restrained in its colours than the peacock. I love the symmetry of this butterfly. If you (metaphorically) sliced it in half and folded it over, there would a perfect match. The colours appear to have been daubed on to the wings and the body shaped from a mould. The twisted hat-pin antennae are both a warning to the butterfly of approaching danger and a warning to potential predators. So we now have new arrivals to join the bees which are still feeding on the lavender but having to work harder, as the lavender is fading also.

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Small tortoiseshell utterfly

 

Edinburgh International Book Festival and The Bow Bar

August 25, 2017

It’s the same every year, I’m afraid. I get the catalogue for the Edinburgh International Book Festival about a month before the tickets go on sale. I go through it and mark the ones I’d like to go and see. Then I forget all about it. In the blink of an eye, it’s six weeks later and I’m reading about an author who will be appearing at the festival. I check up and – you guessed it – all the authors I was hoping to see are sold out. I was in town yesterday for lunch with my pal and I went along to the festival at Charlotte Square in Edinburgh. The book festival is thronged with people of all ages, as retirees peruse the bookshelves at their leisure, side by side with uniformed schools students of both genders, who appear to be in more of a hurry. At the entrance, classes of primary school children make a chatterbox entrance, lining up in pairs, with a teacher at the front and back of the bendy, snake-like body of kids.

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Entrance to the Edinburgh International Book Festival (Click to enlarge all photos)

Once inside, you see an open space with tables where people sit and read or talk about books. Around this, there are a series of marquees which host the talks by authors. If I had been alert (and early) enough to get tickets, I would have gone to see Colm Toibin, Sebastian Barry, Stuart MacBride , Bernard McLaverty, and Coulson Whitehead. There’s also a large bookshop and browsing the shelves, I came across a book by one of my favourite authors – Richard Ford – of which I’d never heard.

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Richard Ford books amongst others

It’s a 1981 novel, entitled The Ultimate Good Luck and I’m looking forward to reading it. One of my favourite phrases from Ford’s novels is “the normal, applauseless life of us all”, a reflection by Frank Bascombe, Ford’s brilliantly enduring character. There is still over a week to go of the book festival, so I might get lucky and hear an author who intrigues me.

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Richard Ford’s 1981 novel

And so to lunch, (via the National Library of Scotland for a wee bit of research) at The Last Drop in Edinburgh’s famous Grassmarket. The pub’s name refers to the last hanging in the area. Nowadays, people go there to eat, drink, indulge in gallows humour and catch up on all the noose. From there, we went to the zenith of real ale pubs in Edinburgh (and most other places) The Bow Bar.

This is an enchanting pub, partly for its array of old mirrors and signs advertising beer, whisky and cigarettes from past ages, partly for its unreconstructed interior, but mostly for the excellent range of beers it offers and the knowledgeable and friendly staff who serve you. The first photo, which I took, shows different beers and whiskies, and while some e.g. Boddingtons are still with us, Mackay’s Edinburgh Pale is long gone.

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On the walls of the Bow Bar, Edinburgh (mobile camera photo)

I gained permission of The Bow Bar’s staff to download two photos from their website. The first shows the sign outside the pub, with drayman, his horse and beer barrels on the cart. The bar is in the intriguingly named West Bow where one of the city’s medieval gates would have been.

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Bow Bar sign

The second photo shows the inside of the pub. No modern, cushioned seats, plain wooden tables and hard chairs – the clientele love its traditional (do NOT say old-fashioned) décor. If you are a whisky enthusiast, then the 300+ malt whiskies on display will make you think that you’ve found nirvana. For us real ale drinkers, this pub is fantastic as I don’t think I’ve ever seen the same selection of beers on offer. On this visit, we had pints of Odyssey which is brewed in the bonnie village of Kippen (good photos) in Stirlingshire. The bar staff here are very up to date with where the beers come from, what they taste like (and they’ll always offer you a wee taste) and how they compare to others. I commented to the young woman behind the bar that there was an album that came out before she was born – Odyssey and Oracle by The Zombies. To my delight, she had heard of both the LP and the group. Some things just endure. If you are ever in Edinburgh, The Bow Bar is a must-visit.

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Inside The Bow Bar, Edinburgh

 

Darktown and summer evenings

August 11, 2017

I’ve just finished reading Darktown by US author  Thomas Mullen. The setting for this novel is Atlanta in 1948. While it can be described as a crime novel, as it involves the police and the solving of a crime, this book is no mere run-of-the-mill thriller. The main focus of the book is the inherent and ubiquitous racism that pervades the city and in particular, its white police force. The book uses the word Negro from the start and the N-word is used repeatedly by white officers. So many people might find it an uncomfortable read, but that should not put them off reading it, as it is a very well plotted story with interesting characterisation. As an experiment, the city of Atlanta has appointed its first 8 black police officers but they are very restricted in what they can do e.g. they can attend a crime but not investigate it further, as that must be done by white officers. The main story revolves around the murder of a young black woman who had earlier been seen with a white man. The two black officers, Boggs and Smith discover that their report has been altered and the murder case is not to be followed up. Against all orders, Boggs in particular seeks to solve this mystery. The two main white officers are Dunlow, a vicious racist with sadistic tendencies, and Rakestraw, a troubled young officer who is more sympathetic to black people. All the characters – even Dunlow – are shown to have good aspects to their characters and this is not simply a good guys versus bad guys book. The racial attitudes and the politics of race are shown to be complex in this riveting, often very tense and supremely well-paced novel. Go and buy it.

 

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Darktown by Thomas Mullen (Click to enlarge)

We’ve had a very mixed summer, weather-wise, in Dunbar this year, with more rain than normal and very few noteworthy sunsets. We had a short spell of interestingly coloured and shaped evening skies and here are some examples. This photo shows the town of Dunbar’s east beach shoreline houses with the High Street in the background to the right. Ominously looming above the town is what looks like an anti-ballistic missile on its way from Donald Trump to Kim Jong-un or vice versa? As of today, we are unscathed.

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Evening sky above Dunbar

The next photo shows two of the ships which are parked out to sea. These are oil or gas related vessels which are waiting for business and park on the horizon (or so it seems) looking out from the back of our house, as they can park there for free. I like the delicate pinks next to the deeper blues of the amorphous clouds, which constantly change shape before it gets dark.

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Ships on the horizon and the evening sky

The final photo shows another evening sky above the town. This photo was taken just after we Dunbar folk launched our own anti-ballistic missile as warning to Trump and Jong-un. The bold Donald has been strangely silent on this issue but don’t worry – he knows. I would tell you more but I’m sworn to secrecy.  It was a beautifully coloured sky with a multiplicity of shades of pink, blue and purple – perfect for a glass or two of pale pink Provence wine – and a missile launch.

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Evening sky above Dunbar – interesting streaks

 

Bordeaux visit (1) and The Black Eyed Blonde

May 24, 2017

We are not long back from a week’s holiday in Bordeaux, the beautiful city on  the river Garonne in the south west of France. It’s only a two hour flight from Edinburgh and we got through customs quickly. The hotel recommended that we get the Lianes 1+ bus, so we got that. We hadn’t realised that this bus stops everywhere and it took us 1 hour 10min to get to where we changed for the tram, because of rush hour traffic. So we just had to thole it. There is always an element of uncertainty when you travel to a new place and you never quite relax until you get to where you are staying. Where we did stay – the Hotel Vatel – was excellent in terms of comfort, staff and location.

From our hotel, we could see the River Garonne which flows around the city. It’s a wide river and some cruise liners (not the huge ones) parked on the quayside. There are a number of bridges across the Garonne, with the oldest being Le Pont de Pierre (good photos) which was ordered to be built by Napoleon and opened in 1822. It is a very impressive piece of engineering, with 17 spans, most of which you can see in the first photo below. You can walk or cycle across the bridge or cross it by bus or tram. Bordeaux has an excellent tram/bus service and you can get a ticket, which you can use on the tram and/or bus for 1Euro 50cents – this takes you anywhere you want in the city and lasts for an hour. There is a new bridge in Bordeaux, Le Pont Jacques Chaban Delmas (good photos) down river from Le Pont Pierre and it is a stunning example  of modern design, engineering and architecture. Unusually, the bridge has a vertical lift (see website) to allow the larger ships to pass under. You can see the bridge’s elegant towers in the second photo below and also, in the background, in the drum band photos below. The towers reminded us of the modern architecture we were used to seeing in Dubai when our son, daughter in law and twin granddaughters lived there.

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Le Pont de Pierre, Bordeaux (click to enlarge)

 

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Le Pont Chaban Delmas in Bordeaux

Another feature of the riverside is the promenade or quayside (good photos) where hundreds of people walk, cycle, roller blade and run every day. You have to watch carefully as some of the cyclists and roller bladers go at high speed, weaving their way in between walkers and runners. On the Sunday morning, we could hear the sound of drums further up the river, away from the centre. The drumming got louder and louder and the first of the drum bands approached. All the bands were brightly dressed and drummed with passion – it looked very hard work, so they must have been very fit to do the drumming.  This was a great addition to our Sunday morning stroll and very much appreciated by the many people on the quayside. Two of the bands are shown below.

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Sunday morning drum band on the quayside in Bordeaux

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Drum band on the quayside in Bordeaux

On the plane home, I finished reading Benjamin Black’s (aka John Banville) The Black Eyed Blonde, given to me by my good friend John. The book is written in the style of Raymond Chandler (podcast by John Banville) and features Chandler’s world-weary detective Philip Marlowe. It is a wonderful read, with a well-paced plot, interesting and believable characters, sharp dialogue and Marlowe’s accurate and often witty observations on people he meets and the world in general. Like the Chandler novels, this is one of these books that you can open at random and find something quotable. Marlowe is asked by a Miss Cavendish to find a man called Nico Peterson. Miss Cavendish is (like many women in Chandler novels) beautiful and Marlowe reflects on “.. the tip of her nose – and a very nice tip it was, to a very nice nose, aristocratic but not too narrow or too long, and nothing at all like Cleopatra’s jumbo snozzle”. This is typical of a Marlowe reflection – detailed and often containing wit. It turns out that Peterson was found dead but, on Marlowe’s second meeting with Miss Cavendish, she claims to have seen him alive. Marlowe follows a number of leads and meets a range of flawed (and sometimes unsavoury) characters and is subjected to serious violence at times in the story, like many detectives in novels. The ending is neat and not melodramatic. My (very literate) friend John argues that many crime novelists lose their nerve when it comes to ending their books and go for wildly dramatic and often violent scenes. Neither Chandler nor Black is ever likely to do that. This is a memorable novel, so get a hold of it any way you can.

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The Black Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black

 

Say Something Back, A Spool of Blue Thread and autumn flowers

October 8, 2016

I am just back from Milan and the city will feature in the next posting. I was aware that the last 4 posts have been on cities I/we have visited, so I thought that the blog might be turning into some kind of Trip Advisor, thus the break from travel. The latest Poetry Book Society Choice is Say Something Back by Denise Riley. The first part of the book features a long poem A Part Song (podcast of the poet reading the poem) which is Riley’s sometimes candid, sometimes emotional reflection of the death of her adult son. I read this poem, which has different voices, and tried to take in the poet’s shock and wonder at how her son could die and some of the lines nearly brought me to tears. For example: “Each child gets cannibalised by its years./  It was a man who died, and in him died/  The large-eyed boy, then the teen peacock”. In other parts of the poem, the mother attempts humour in speaking to her son: “O my dead son you daft bugger/  This is one glum mum. Come home I tell you/  And end this tasteless melodrama – quit/  Playing dead at all”. There are also some beautifully constructed lines which accompany the mother’s grieving: “Ardent bee, still you go blundering/ With downy saddlebags stuffed tight/ All over the fuchsia’s drop earrings” – imaginative imagery here. I am still reading this superb book – two poems each day.

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Say Something Back – poems by Denise Riley

I’ve just finished reading Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread and I enjoyed its quirky humour and its ability to tell a family story in a deceptively simple way. Tyler has written about the Whitshanks – a middle class family in Baltimore – and has told tales of similar families during the course of many novels. The story highlights the present day complications of the family – the errant son, the bossy daughter and the ageing parents Abby and Red, along with their grandchildren. There are a number of strands to the novel such as family holidays at the beach; Abby’s growing forgetfulness and Red’s increasing deafness. Tyler tells this family story with ease and you are drawn into the tale by her apparently straightforward prose. This is interspersed with telling comments about a character’s past or attitude. The novel then goes back in time to detail the romance and marriage of Red’s father and mother. Tyler is sometimes classified as being a “light fiction” novelist but this novel was on the Booker shortlist for 2015, so this is a harsh judgement on a fine writer.

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A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

Now that we are into October, some of the flowers in my garden are starting to change colour, especially the hydrangeas. As the photos below show, some of the flowers have gone from bright pink to a more delicate pale pink with veins and red spots but they are no less attractive for that.

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Semi-fading hydrangea flowers

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Fading hydrangea flowers

The fuchsia plants are now flowering well although I have not spotted bees amongst them as in Denise Riley’s poem above. However, when you see the fuchsia flowers, you appreciate Riley’s metaphor of drop earrings. The fuchsias will last for a few more weeks without fading as the hydrangeas do.

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Dangling fuchsia flowers

 

 

 

Tracey Herd poems, crocus show and shiny sea

February 27, 2016

Last week, the new Poetry Book Society padded envelope came through the letter box, with the new Choice inside. I didn’t (and haven’t) opened it as I still hadn’t started the previous one, Tracey Herd’s Not in this World. I heard Ms Herd speak at the Royal Festival Hall in January – see previous post – at the T S Eliot Prize readings. Herd has some arresting images in her work which is often quite dark, not to say menacing. In the first poem What I Wanted “There was a muffled/ silence each night when/ darkness married with snow”. In the 3rd poem Little Sister, the younger sibling of the narrator from America’s Midwest is killed “in a moonlit road accident”. The final 2 lines are hauntingly ambiguous “She was pushed in front of a car./ I pray to God for my own salvation”. In The Living Library, a woman’s bookshelves are filled with crime novels and the books are “sitting/ well-mannered on the shelf,/ pushed in tight to keep/ their suave murderers inside/ their victims’ choked cries unheard”. I’m only at p20 of 73 pages, so I’ll come back to Ms Herd.

 

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Tracey Herd Not in this World

Last month it was snowdrops, so this month it must be crocuses. There is some debate about whether it should be crocuses or croci as the plural of crocus, but as that word is mainly thought to be originally from the Greek then, as my Latin teacher Mr Jack Milne would have said, it can’t be croci. Around Dunbar over the past few years, there has been a welcome upsurge in the planting of spring flowers by the local council and, just up the road from me at Spott Road, there has been a sudden growth of bright yellow on the grass next to the pavement. The crocus flavus – to give it its Sunday name – originated in Greece and Turkey and the ancient Greeks saw it as a bringer of cheerfulness and joy in the late winter – it is thought, although I’m never too sure about the veracity of some websites on this. Emily Dickinson’s poem LXXXIV starts with “The feet of people walking home/ With gayer sandals go-/ The Crocus-till she rises/ The Vassal of the snow”. An interesting take on the crocus being a vassal as this was a feudal tenant who was granted land by a nobleman in return for loyalty and perhaps military service. Even although the crocus is in the earth, Dickinson sees the snow as its master – until of course, she rises.

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Crocuses at Spott Road Dunbar

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Crocuses at Spott Road Dunbar

Having taken photos of the crocuses, I walked back down Golf House Road, near my house, to the beach. You could hear the waves before you saw them – an incessant, unstoppable  thundering. When I got to the promenade, the late afternoon sun was shining on the waves a bit out to sea and there was a superb light on the waves. This is very hard to capture i.e. with my limited photographic skills, but I tried. Hart Crane in his poem Voyages writes “The sun beats lightning on the waves,/ The waves fold thunder on the sand” and this beautifully describes what I was watching. I met my friend John who was coming along the prom and he said “Look at this! How lucky are we to have this on our doorstep?”. Very lucky indeed.

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Sun on the waves

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Rocks and the incoming sun-kissed tide

Cooking Beef’n’Beer, RSNO Concert and tulips

February 2, 2016

We were having family over for a meal last week and we decided to cook something that has been off our menu for a few years. Beef’n’Beer i.e. beef cooked in beer is very simple but very tasty, and has the added value of a crusty bread topping. We’ve had a Le Creuset casserole dish for many years and the wee book that came with the dish has the recipe in it – now it’s online here. For my Beef’n’Beer, I used round steak instead of the beef chuck  (aka chuck steak) in the book. Round steak is much more tender and certainly takes less time to cook – it’s also much less fatty. For four of us, I bought 1.5lbs (0.68KG) of round steak. In our local butcher’s, everyone still asks for their meat in a pound, three quarters of a pound, half a pound or just “a quarter” e.g. of cold meat. I covered the steak lightly in flour and gently browned it in some Flora oil. I then added 2 medium sized shallots (I sometimes use a red onion) , a garlic clove, 2 thickly sliced carrots, 2 bay leaves, some dried thyme and rosemary (the recipe recommends fresh herbs) and some fresh parsley from my garden. After the shallots had softened, I added a bottle of real ale, in this case, a bottle of locally brewed Belhaven St Andrews Ale. I cooked this in the oven at 180 degrees Centigrade for about an hour and 15 minutes – you are always better to try it for tenderness after an hour. You can eat the dish on its own but adding the topping makes all the difference. I cut thick slices from a large baguette bought in our local community bakery (photo below) and covered the top of each slice with some Dijon  mustard  (interesting article). Two things are key here. Firstly, you need to make sure that you have enough liquid for serving the meat, as the bread will soak up some of it. Secondly, you need to squeeze the slices to maximise the number of slices – I allocated 2 slices per person. You put the dish back in the oven and in 20 minutes, the bread should be going brown at the edges. I served it with mash potatoes and broccoli but other vegetables  e.g. peas, green beans or buttered carrots would do as well. It is very tasty and …. roll of the drums... this is what it looks like.

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Beef’n’Beer cooked in a Le Creuset dish.

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Dunbar Community Bakery

I haven’t been to a classical music concert for years although every year I’ve promised myself that I will do so. Last week, I took the plunge and went to the Brunton Theatre in Musselburgh which is half an hour’s drive from Dunbar, to see the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. The concert started with the lively Romanian Concerto (very good video) by Ligeti, a composer unknown to me. Ligeti was a Hungarian composer who received many honours for his wide range of works. The second part was Mozart’s enchanting Bassoon Concerto in B Flat Major (video of the piece), featuring the principal bassoonist of the RSNO, David Hubbard (interesting video). It was fascinating to see how Hubbard controlled his instrument and seemed intent on getting the best out of it. The sound was melodious and you could not help but admire this man’s craft. The main event of the evening was Brahms’ Symphony No 4 (video of the whole concert with Daniel Barenboim). To this uninitiated listener, this was a melodic and joyous symphony with a combination of slower, softer sections and a crescendo of a final section. For a more detailed analysis – and a much darker view of the piece – see Tom Service’s review. So, a very enjoyable concert – the only thing missing being my camera. The photo below is included by permission of the RSNO.

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Section of the RSNO

We’re still in thick of winter in Dunbar but it’s now February and my garden is suddenly strewn with emerging heads of daffodils and a few tulip heads have also appeared. Today, with Storm Henry approaching, they are being blown about relentlessly. Inside the house, safely and serenely arranged in a vase are a bunch of multi-coloured tulips. These tulips are a welcome flash of colour, and a promise of Spring being not so far away, on an intermittently dark and windy day. Tulips have their origins in Turkey and came to Europe in the 17th century. An interesting fact from this website is that multi-coloured tulips were originally diseased but the modern versions are safe hybrids. The first photo shows the tulips in a resplendent array of contrasting colours, offset by the green of the stems. The second photo is taken from above the flowers and shows them in a completely different way, possibly bursting into song or yelling with pain at being shown at such an unflattering angle?

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A dazzling array of tulips

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Tulips from above

Sylvia Plath wrote “The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here” in a rather melancholy poem entitled Tulips. A much more joyous celebration of tulips comes from A E Stallings and she writes “The tulips make me want to paint” and “Something about the way they twist/ As if to catch the last applause” which could be an acute commentary on the 2nd photo.

 

 

Nora Webster, Brooklyn, late autumn harbour and sudsy sea

November 28, 2015

A double dose of author Colm Tóibín this week. Firstly, I finished reading Tóibín’s remarkable novel Nora Webster. On the face of it, this is a simple tale of a woman whose husband has died and is struggling to cope with the too early onset of widowhood. A lesser writer than Tóibín might have presented Nora Webster, a woman living in a small town in the  Irish Republic, in a sentimental and melodramatic way. However, Tóibín writes a compelling story, taking episodes from the lives of Nora and her family, their relatives, friends and (sometimes unwished for) acquaintances, and identifying the complexities of their lives. As the novel progresses, Nora becomes stronger and more independent, having to a certain extent lived in the shadow of her late husband Maurice, a popular school teacher. The author describes apparently small events in her life in detail but the prose is never dense, and the reader gains an understanding of Nora as a person e.g. her developing love of music, and not just as a mother or sister. There are some very moving scenes in this book, both in Nora’s recollection of her time with her husband and in her relationship with her two sons and (to a lesser extent) two daughters. This is a book of high quality and if you haven’t read it, then you surely must.

Nora Webster by Colm Toibin

Nora Webster by Colm Toibin

This week, we went to the cinema to see Brooklyn, based on Colm Tóibín’s novel of the same name. The film also has a very strong female character. Eilish is a young woman growing up in (like Nora Webster) a small Irish town in the Republic, but unlike Nora, she is due to emigrate to the USA at the start of the film. The story follows her to Brooklyn and highlights her homesickness and then her growing maturity and relationship with a young Italian. Eilish returns to Ireland when her sister dies and the film develops into a tale of the complexities of love and morality. I haven’t read the novel but I’m sure that Eilish’s character is more fully drawn in prose. The actress Saoirse (pr Seer – sha) Ronan is superb in the part. There is also humour in the film and while, at times, it veers on the edge of tweeness and sentimentality, it nevertheless tells a powerful story and it is certainly worth seeing.

November is nearly gone and we’ve had a taste of winter in Dunbar already with ice lining the sides of the country roads on my cycle ride last weekend. We’ve also had strong winds and big tides and this was reflected on my walk on Sunday morning. I stopped at the Old Harbour aka The Cromwell Harbour, which was built in the late 17th century. In summer, the occasional fishing boat is moored, often for work to be done. On Sunday, it was packed with fishing boats, sheltering from the heavy swell that affects the main harbour at this time of year. The boats nestled together in this sheltered haven.

Fishing boats in the Old Harbour

Fishing boats in the Old Harbour

Fishing boats in the Old Harbour

Fishing boats in the Old Harbour

By contrast, the Victoria Harbour which was built in the 1830s, was nearly empty. It’s an unusual sight to see so much of the water in the harbour and on Sunday, it looked abandoned, as if a storm (or malevolent sea serpent) had arrived and driven all the boats out to sea. The photos below show the harbour last Sunday and in the summertime.

Victoria Harbour bereft of boats

Victoria Harbour bereft of boats

Dunbar Harbour in summer

Dunbar Harbour in summer

In my poetry calendar this week, these lines appeared:

“The ocean’s grey today, like someone’s dingy laundry,/ the flop and slosh of sudsy waves agitate on the sand,/ and the sky’s like the inside of an ashtray at some salty dive”.

They are from the poem “The Winter Sea” by the Pennsylvanian poet Barbara Crooker and I like the laundry metaphor. As I walked back from the harbour, I passed the east beach, which used to be covered in pristine sand but over the past 5 years or so, the sand has gone to be replaced with stones and often large mounds of seaweed. The waves were rushing to the shore and there was certainly a distinct “flop and slosh”.

"Flop and slosh" on the east beach

“Flop and slosh” on the east beach

Perfidia, Hopes Reservoir walk and autumn colours

October 2, 2015

I’ve just finished reading James Ellroy’s epic novel Perfidia – a huge, action-filled book, full of intrigue, plotting, counter-plotting, licit and illicit sex, violence, murder, racism, politics, jealousy and rage. There are no purely good characters in Ellroy’s novel, so don’t expect any here. There is a hero – Hideo Ashida, the Japanese detective – but he is flawed and corrupted by the system. The two other male protagonists Bill Parker and Dudley Smith who are more senior detectives, are ruthless and Smith is a murderous psychopath who gets away with his killings as he is protected by police. The action takes place in Los Angeles in 1941 with a Japanese family brutally and perhaps ritually murdered. The next day, the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbour and there begins a round up of suspect Japanese citizens and a general distrust/ hatred of anyone who appears to be Japanese, by large sections of the public. As the Guardian review (link above) noted “from this point on, the entire cast of Ellroy’s city chase liquor and drugs with such savagery that, by the end, you’re murmuring about how Irvine Welsh is going to have to be re-shelved with the children’s books”. So, not for the squeamish but Ellroy is such a good writer and one who captures a range of different styles of dialogue amongst his characters, and whose plot structure makes the galloping pace of the novel addictive. It’s written in Ellroy’s distinctive staccato style, with short, dramatic sentences. He is one of my favourite writers and I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It is the first of a promised quartet. I bought this one in hardback as soon as it came out and will do so with the next one. Ellroy writes big novels, so a hardback does his novel more justice.

Perfidia by James Ellroy

Perfidia by James Ellroy

At the weekend, we went up the Lammermuir Hills for a 7 mile walk which is featured as a trail run in Susie Allison’s book Scottish Trail Running. We parked at the Hopes Farm and walked over the path on the low side of the Hopes Reservoir.

Approaching the Hopes Reservoir

Approaching the Hopes Reservoir

Looking over the Hopes Reservoir

Looking over the Hopes Reservoir

The route in the book takes you up over Lammer Law and we duly did this. The instructions in the book then become a bit vague and it’s not quite clear which track should be followed and where you are supposed to turn off. I’m sure that the orienteers among you will be scoffing – why didn’t we have a proper, detailed map? As it turned out, we took the wrong track and ended up crossing deep heather and coming back on part of our outward route. However, it was a beautiful, clear and warm day – Indian summer here this week – and we enjoyed the walk. It’s quite a stiff climb up to Lammer Law.

Path up to Lammer Law

Path up to Lammer Law

When you get to the top of the Law, you are rewarded with some spectacular views across East Lothian and over to Fife. There was a slight haze on Sunday and not clear enough for good long distance photos. There’s a clearer photo here.  We ended up doing 9.5 miles instead of 7 miles but on such a glorious day, with only a light breeze and hardly any other walkers, it was a delight. At one point, if you stopped, the only sound you could hear was the gentle gurgling of a nearby burn (stream). At another point, four faces looked suspiciously at us and identified us as non-sheep i.e. intruders into their territory. Having finished their disdainful look, the four faces turned and nonchalantly went down towards the burn.

It’s autumn now in Scotland but the mild weather has meant that most of the trees are still green although some have turned to reds and browns and their leaves are falling like snowflakes. This week’s summer-type days have produced some stunning colours in the sky just after sunset. There is no end to taking photos of the sky above our town when the sky seems lit up by rows of burning coals, in contrast to the black outlines of the buildings, as in these photos. I also love the pink sea in the 2nd photo.

Autumn sky over Dunbar

Autumn sky over Dunbar

Autumnal sky over Dunbar and reflection in the sea

Autumnal sky over Dunbar and reflection in the sea

Another source of vibrant autumn colour came in the form of a male red admiral butterfly in my garden and there’s a nice contrast with the yellow top and while petals of the daisy. It’s as if the butterfly was carrying its own evening sky on its back.

Male red admiral butterfly

Male red admiral butterfly