Archive for the ‘boats’ Category

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

 

Back to St Abbs and Spring flowers (2)

March 26, 2017

On Sunday, another visit to one of our favourite places, St Abbs Head (good photos), featured many times on this blog. It’s a small village but you can vary your walks and views nearby and always see something just a bit different from the last time. We parked at the National Trust car park and walked down past the farm on our left, which had a shed full of sheep just about to lamb. We saw some lambs in a nearby field and I managed to capture them amongst some shapely reflections of the trees.

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Lambs at St Abbs (Click to enlarge)

We went up the first part of the cliff top walk – going west to east – but only wanted a short walk, so we didn’t go any further. On the way back, you look across the to village of St Abbs Head, past the ragged shaped outcrop of rock (Photo below). It made me wonder whether, in a hundred or two hundred years, that rock column, sculpted by the weather, will still be there. It’s a superb view, taking in the harbour and all the houses built on the once empty cliffs above. There was only a gentle swell on the sea that day, with the waves edging slowly around the rocks, and not crashing over them as they often do.

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Rock column and St Abbs Head village

The next photo is from an angle I don’t think I’ve taken a shot from before. It is looking back across the edge of the harbour towards the clifftop walk, with the impressive Northfield House prominent on the cliff. The rock column in the photo above is just to the top right of this photo. Behind the house on the left with the red roof, with chimneys at either end (like the house to its right), there is a wooden staircase which leads you up to the impressive St Abbs Visitor Centre, which is well worth a visit.

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View across St Abbs Head arbour to the cliff walk

We walked back to the car park and, at the end of the farm buildings, I came across a trailer load of neeps – see photo below. In Scotland, we call them neeps or turnips. In England, they are called Swedes. What people in other parts of Britain call turnips, which are much smaller than neeps, we call white turnips. Around Dunbar, you will also hear people referring to Tumshies, another name for neeps/Swedes/turnips. Very confusing? For your amusement, but maybe not illumination, read this excellent Guardian article on the subject.

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A trailer load of neeps at St Abbs Head.

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Close up of neeps at St Abbs Head

And so to the second reflection on Spring flowers. In many towns in Scotland, councils in recent years have greatly expanded the planting of Spring flowers and it is not unusual to see great swathes of bright yellow and white crocuses at the entrance to these towns. Councils also planted thousand of daffodils and it is they which now take centre stage, as the crocuses have faded. There is something uplifting about seeing large groups of daffodils and I think Wordsworth had something to say on the topic in two versions (see website). I took a photo of daffodils on a banking at The Glebe in Dunbar. This small park overlooks the sea and the harbour entrance. The photo looks towards the remains of Dunbar Castle(good photos).

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Daffodils on a banking The Glebe, Dunbar

My aim every year is to take very clear close-up photos of flowers, to get to the heart of them and look at them as abstract shapes as well as attractive flowers. In the first photo below, I took two contrasting daffodils, one with white petals and one with yellow petals. They are both enchanting flowers but maybe the white petals emphasise the yellow, choir boys’ ruff of the flower’s centre more. Both have delicate stigma which thrust out to attract the pollen seekers. They are like mini corn on the cob with extensions.

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Two daffodils in my garden

In the final photo, I like the delicate folds in the prawn cracker petals and the ragged edge of the flower is similar to the rock face above at St Abbs. Also, the colour in the flower is not uniformly yellow but contains various shades, making it even more attractive.

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Yellow and white daffodil in my garden

 

Harbour reflections and making Minestrone

December 14, 2016

I took my camera for a walk along to Dunbar Harbour (good photos) last week. The day was so wind free that the water in the harbour hardly moved and the wee boats, which are usually swaying gently to an unheard waltz tune on the accordion, were statuesque. It’s very unusual not to have any kind of wind in Dunbar and at one point, it looked as if the sea had given up coming into the harbour, as the water appeared – very briefly – to be motionless. Then a gentle ripple spread from the entrance to the harbour across to the boats.

The two photos below are taken at the east end of the harbour and the perfect reflection in the 1st photo shows how calm the water became. There’s a hint of movement in the water in the 2nd photo and the wee boat looks isolated. This is because all the small yachts that lie in the harbour in the summer have been removed for safety. I like the way the harbour walls are reflected in the water in the 2nd photo.

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Calm day at Dunbar Harbour

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Calm day at Dunbar Harbour

The next 2 photos are taken at the castle end of the harbour. In the first photo, the reflections look as if they might come from an impressionist painting e.g. the squiggly lines in the castle walls’ reflection. It was a cold day but the colours in the boats and in the fish boxes on the quayside inserted a warm feature into this walker’s experience. In the both photos, the castle ruins still show the white patches left by the nesting kittiwakes, who visited in the summer. The kittiwakes have featured on this blog more than once e.g. here. In the 2nd photo, the wider angle shows the castle ruins and the narrow entrance to the harbour. Another unusual feature of this visit to the harbour was the absence of birds on the water, as you often get small groups of eider duck. On this RSPB site, you can listen to the gurgling, whoo-hooing of the eider duck, and you can usually hear this from the harbourside.

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Fishing boats near Dunbar Castle

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Reflections of the ruins of Dunbar Castle

Having made lentil and vegetable, tomato and lentil, and parsnip and pear soup recently, I thought that it must be the turn of minestrone. The term minestrone comes from the Latin minestra meaning soup with pasta (and/or other ingredients) and one as a suffix meaning large, thus giving us a soup with big vegetables. The soup is mentioned in a cookbook by Apicus (the whole book from Project Gutenberg here) published in 30CE, so it has ancient traditions. You could spend the rest of your life looking at the myriad of minestrone recipes on the web i.e. almost anything goes as long as you have vegetables and pasta in it. Almost all recipes include tomatoes. Today, my minestrone has a large leek, 3 stalks of celery, diced turnip (aka swede) and carrot, dried basil and oregano, a tin of tomatoes, 2 tbs tomatoes puree and a litre of chicken stock. I put a little oil in the bottom of my large soup pan and added the basil and oregano. I then sweated the leeks and celery, and added the turnip and carrot until it looks like this:

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Sweating the vegetables in the making of minestrone

I then added the tomatoes, tomato puree and broken spaghetti, brought it  to the boil and simmered it for c20 minutes. I always find that you should never eat minestrone soup right away – let the flavours develop for at least 8 hours or preferably overnight. You can then have a colourful, tasty and winter warming soup which served up will look something like this photo from last year. Have it for lunch with crusty bread and if you are lucky like me, go for a walk along to the harbour with your camera afterwards.

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A plate of minestrone soup with basil leaves

The Bone Seeker, views of St Abbs and the Number Four gallery

December 6, 2016

I’ve just finished reading M J McGrath’s  The Bone Seeker, a crime novel set in the Canadian arctic. This is a crime novel with interesting characters, including the heroine Edie Kiglatuk, a teacher who is seconded to help the police solve the mystery of a local girl’s murder. One the key “characters” in this novel is the arctic itself as well as the local Inuit culture. McGrath introduces us to Inuit words like  qualunaat – white people and avasirnguluk – elder, to create a convincing environment for her story. The history of the exploitation of the Inuit by outsiders, such as the US and Canadian governments, is  covered but with a light touch. McGrath is a story teller and the plot is well-paced. The reader does get a real sense of how people live in this (to most of us) extreme climate. Most of the novel is set in the summer where darkness is absent and the endless light can prevent people from sleeping, but winter approaches fast near the end of the novel and the transformation of the land and sea is well portrayed. Perhaps the ending features too much action in a short space of time in this book where the story builds to a complex conclusion. This is not just a book for readers of crime novels, so get it if you can.

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The Bone Seeker by M J McGrath

Regular readers will know that my wife and I visit St Abbs Head on a regular basis and these visits have featured on this blog many times. This visit was on a very cold and frosty Sunday morning but the sky was huge and Australian blue. Leaving the car parked at the number four art gallery (of which more later), into which my wife ventured, I walked along the path which leads to another path, which leads to one of the cliff-top walks. In this photo, you can see the cliffs in the distance, with sheep in the field and before that rows of winter wheat, which are a delicious green in the winter sun.

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Looking towards the cliff-tops at St Abbs Head

I crossed the road towards the village, with a large field on my right and the disused church at the top of the hill. What I liked about the field (photo below) was the bright yellow of the grasses at the edge of the field, and the way your eyes are drawn to the lines in the field, both the narrow crop lines and the wider tractor tracks. All seem to lead to the now abandoned church on the hill. The pink-tinctured clouds are also attractive.

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Stubble field at St Abbs Head

Across the road is the imposing Northfield House, with its head of St Ebba above the gates. I’ve photographed the gates from front-on and the head in close up before, but I’ve never taken a side-on shot of the entrance. In this photo, the impressive stone entrance is shown off by the field and sky. There is a large walled garden here, part of which is in view.

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Side view of the entrance to Northfield House in St Abbs Head

I walked to the St Abbs Visitor Centre (open March-October) and looking down to the harbour, I saw a strange sight – a tractor was reversing into the harbour. On a second look, I could see that the two yellow poles behind it were part of a platform. One of the wee fishing boats reversed and sailed gently on to the tractor’s trailer.

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Tractor in St Abbs Harbour

I walked back to the car in the fading afternoon light and you could feel the cold deepening, ready to freeze anything that didn’t keep moving. We’ve been to the number four art gallery many times over the years and have bought paintings and glassware for our home and for presents. With my camera at hand (and this blog already in mind) I took some photos, with permission. The gallery is part of a very well maintaned stone built row of what presumably were farm buildings and has a very attractive entrance – photo below.

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number four gallery in St Abbs

The inside of the gallery (photos below) is bright, well laid out and encourages you to walk around to view the paintings – some superb landscapes were on view on our visit – prints, glassware, ceramics, sculpture and jewellery. See examples here.  One of the reasons many people revisit this gallery is the warm welcome given by the staff, who are very helpful, informative but unobtrusive. The original works available here are of excellent value, so pay a visit if you are in the area.

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Inside number four gallery in St Abbs

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Inside number four gallery in St Abbs

Trip to Tokyo (2):National Museum of Japan and National Museum of Western Art

September 10, 2016

While in Tokyo, I had the chance to visit two of the many museums in the city. The first visit was to the splendid Tokyo National Museum. It is a beautiful building and has a very attractive entrance – a large pond with water lilies and on the day I visited, the building was reflected in the water.

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Tokyo National Museum

This is a very large museum with separate buildings for some collections, so I only got to see the collections in the main building. There is a useful YouTube video of the museum. At the start of the permanent collection, there is some early pottery on show, as well as some sacred statues which are very elegantly designed and have intricate detail.

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Early Japanese pottery

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Religious statue in Tokyo National Museum

One of the most striking artefacts in the museum is the range of 18th and 19th century kimonos. Kimonos change according to the seasons and the one below is a 19th century hitoe which was worn in June and September. The kimonos on display in the museum are very ornate and  were presumably worn by the richer women in Japan.

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19th century hitoe kimono

In the ceramics section, there are many examples of beautiful plates, many featuring flowers, as in the one shown below, also from the 19th century. The photo shows the range of colours on the plate but when you see this plate close up, the colours are far more striking and makes you appreciate the quality and precision of the artwork.

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19th century large dish with flowering plants

My next venue was the National Museum of Western Art which is also in the vast Ueno Park. The museum’s building was designed by Le Corbousier and is a stunning example of modern architecture. As with the other museum, there are many rooms to visit and you can only appreciate part of the collection in one visit. I always find that spending one hour in an art gallery is long enough if all the paintings are not to blur into each other. If you need to see more, make a return visit. As you would expect, there were many memorable paintings and pieces of sculpture but the first one  that stood out for me was Rodin’s St John the Baptist Preaching. This presents you with a tall, imposing, muscular figure with one arm outstretched. The detailed bearded face and the strong body show why Rodin’s sculptures are so widely admired, not just as craft but also as art.

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Rodin’s St John the Baptist Preaching

The second piece was a painting by the French artist Andre Bauchant entitled Canal in Alkmaar. What attracted me to this painting  was the clarity of the depiction of the canal. The photo below can’t capture the stunningly clear canal, trees and boats. This is one of these paintings that when you stand really close, you can see the myriad daubs of paint on the canvas, and it is only when you stand back that you appreciate the way the artist has captured the view and the brilliant reflections in the water.

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Andre Bauchant Canal in Alkmaar

I would highly recommend both museums to visitors to Tokyo and on a hot and very humid day in Tokyo, they were not only a haven of culture but also an escape into welcome air conditioning.

Parma ham dishes and East Lothian Life

March 21, 2016

We bought some Parma ham which is defined in the OED as “A strongly flavoured Italian cured ham, eaten uncooked and thinly sliced”. Parma ham can only be reared from pigs in selected farms around the city of Parma. There are numerous recipes available which used Parma ham and I’ve followed some of them to an extent and then added my own variations. The first dish was chicken fillet with Parma ham and I used the Jamie Oliver recipe as the basis for my dish. There is a video version of this but it’s 7+ minutes long and I’d rather just read a recipe. One key difference between this recipe and others using Parma ham is that you do NOT wrap your chicken in the Parma ham – I find that it won’t crispen up under the chicken. Instead, you lay the ham on top of the chicken breast and pound it with a rolling-pin to flatten it out. Mr Oliver uses parmesan cheese and thyme leaves. My own version goes like this. Lay your chicken breasts on a chopping board and gently score the top of the breast. Cover the top with grated parmesan cheese and then add 2 heaped teaspoons of crème fraiche on each one. Add one teaspoonful of wholegrain mustard to the crème fraiche – or mix both ingredients together in a bowl and then add them. I then lay two slices of Parma Ham on each chicken breast, cover them with cling film and bash them flat. I brush an enamel dish with olive oil and lay the chicken in, adding cherry tomatoes in some balsamic vinegar. Into the oven at 180 degrees for no longer than 25 minutes. If you cook them for longer, the chicken will dry out.

The second dish is cod with Parma ham and again, I laid the ham over the fish, after adding the parmesan cheese, crème fraiche and mustard ( half a teaspoon this time). Obviously, you don’t bash your cod. Cook the fish with the tomatoes for no longer than 15 minutes – or again it will dry out. I served both dishes with a packet of Ainsley Harriet’s cous-cous (yes, yes, I should make my own) on to which I added grill-panned peppers, with green beans as well. A bit too much on the plate for some tastes I would think – see below and judge for yourself – but we enjoyed it.

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Cod with Parma ham – straight from the oven

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Cod with Parma ham, cous cous, peppers, cherry tomatoes and green beans

When I retired, I promised myself that I’d continue writing. I write a full page in my diary each day and this weekly blog. I’ve also been writing up my local history research. The other writing I intended to do was of a more journalistic nature and – aye, it’s taken quite a while – but this week, I had an article published in a local journal East Lothian Life (my home town of Dunbar is in the county of East Lothian) which contains an eclectic mix of articles on local housing, farming, gardening, cooking and history. My article was about Dunbar Harbour and it is to be published in two parts. The article is my personal reflection on the harbour and while it contains aspects of history and nature, it also has my own images – and my interpretation of these images. For example, I always notice the still manual nature of the work done by the fishermen and this has changed little in hundreds of years. While the boats themselves have modern equipment such as radar, when a boat brings in a load of prawns, the shellfish are sorted by hand in the boat. The initial article looks at Dunbar Castle (good photos), the fishing boats and the kittiwakes, which have just arrived back on to the castle walls. I know I might say this and I would certainly have said it whether I had an article in the magazine or not, East Lothian Life is a very well written and extremely well produced journal which is enjoyed not only by local people but by many people who have emigrated (e.g. to New Zealand). The editor and publisher Pauline Jaffray makes a great contribution to the county in keeping this quarterly magazine going and maintaining such a high standard. Two photos similar to those in the article are shown below.

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Kittiwake chick on Dunbar Castle walls

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Fishing boats in Dunbar Harbour

Six little terns, wintry St Abbs harbour and green shoots

December 16, 2015

I’m reading the new Poetry Book Society ChoiceLes Murray‘s Waiting for the Past. Murray’s poems are dense with images and he has the poet’s knack of reducing into a few words what the rest of us would need a paragraph to explain. One of the early poems in the book is entitled Dynamic Rest:

Six little terns

feet gripping sand

on a windy beach

 

six more just above

white with opened wings

busy exchange of feet

 

reaching down lifting off

terns rising up through terms

all quivering parallel

 

drift ahead and settle

bracing their eyes

against the brunt of wind

So we have four short verses and like all the poems in this book, you need to read and re-read to gain an insight into the depth of what the poems is about and what happens in the poem. The title is an oxymoron in that dynamic and rest appear to be contradictory. My English teacher at school, Mrs McKie, would be impressed that I remembered the term oxymoron. The terns are “resting” on the beach and in the air, and in the last verse, they “settle”. Murray imagines the birds – I assume that you cannot see birds “bracing their eyes” – perhaps narrowing their eyes in the face of a strong (and cold?) wind. The last phrase is “the brunt of wind” i.e. not the brunt of the wind, suggesting a forceful and unpleasant wind for the birds. The wind also affects the birds on the ground as their feet have to grip the sand. So the poem is dynamic, with “terns rising up through terns” and there is constant movement in this attempt at rest. Murray’s white terns are common in Australia and have striking blue/black beaks and black eyes.

White tern (Public domain photo from http://www.ozanimals.com/Bird/White-Tern/Gygis/alba.html)

White tern (Public domain photo from http://www.ozanimals.com/Bird/White-Tern/Gygis/alba.html)

We drove down to St Abbs Head on Sunday on a cold and damp winter’s day. It was grey all day and dark in the morning until 8am and dark again at 4pm. Despite this, we were well rugged up for a short walk, there was still plenty to see. The harbour, which still contains the now defunct lifeboat station, has fewer boats, with some on the shore for maintenance (see photos). The sea, of course, never stops and the waves were gently caressing the sea walls – the wind was light and south westerly, so no dramatic coastal scene on Sunday, but the sea still looked cold. There were some people about but you felt an absence – of tourists, divers and fishermen that throng the harbour in the summer.

St Abbs Head harbour in winter

St Abbs Head harbour in winter

St Abbs Head harbour in winter

St Abbs Head harbour in winter

St Abbs Head harbour in winter

St Abbs Head harbour in winter

Before walking to the harbour, we parked at the Nature Centre and visited the excellent Number Four Gallery. On the way to the gallery, I remarked that it would not be long until we saw snowdrops here. Looking down at the leaf strewn ground, there was no sign of growth, but when I pushed back some leaves, the green shoots of the snowdrops were well above the ground – see photo. I pushed the leaves back over the stems for protection. I remembered the final lines of Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind – “O Wind, / If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?”. Apparently not, as the snowdrop growth looked strong and healthy and the green provided a good contrast to the ever-fading leaves from the trees, although some ivy leaves were still green.

Emerging snowdrops at St Abbs Head

Emerging snowdrops at St Abbs Head

Guardi painting and William McIlvanney

December 7, 2015

In a collection of essays on art – Keeping an Eye Open, the novelist Julian Barnes urges us to go to an art gallery and study one painting in detail and perhaps write down our thoughts. I took his advice recently on a visit to the wonderful Scottish National Gallery and studied the painting Santa Maria della Salute, Venice by Francesco Guardi.

Santa Maria della Salute, Venice by Francesco Guardi

Santa Maria della Salute, Venice by Francesco Guardi

So, here’s what I ask you to do. Click on the painting to enlarge it and then, before reading what my interpretation below, think about what you see in the painting.

This is what I wrote down on my viewing of the painting. There is 3/5th sky and 2/5th water, with the sky lighter than the water. The viewer sees a contrast between the hard working and poorer gondoliers and fishermen in the larger boats, and the grandeur and opulence of the large church. The people outside the church appear to be more wealthy and some may be clergy. The gondolas appear to be transporting goods or people, in enclosed cabins, as opposed to the normal view of tourists in gondolas. The gondoliers all have red hats and they all wear trousers which stop below the knee. The building next to the church looks to be in poor condition and there appears to be washing hanging from one window. The bell tower dominates the right of the picture as the mast of the fishing boat dominates the left hand side. This is a busy painting, depicting everyday life, and while the church is magnificent and imposing, it is not (for me) the main focus of the painting, despite the title, as it sits in the background with the other buildings. There are vertical lines on the ship’s mast, on the church front and on the bell tower. There are horizontal lines in the motion of the gondolas. The gondoliers appear to be straining to push their crafts along. There are statues on the church, and some appear to be pointing, as is the woman in one of the gondolas. So, my interpretation is about the content of the painting and not the style.

One of my all time favourite writers, William McIlvanney, died at the weekend, aged 79. He was perhaps best known for his crime novels featuring the enigmatic Glasgow detective Laidlaw but in literary circles, McIlvanney was recognised as one of Britain’s finest novelists. I remember reading his 2nd novel Docherty when it came out in 1975 and it had a profound effect on me as a reader. Here was a novel about a working class man in the west of Scotland and the rigours of his and his family’s life but it was McIlvanney’s style of writing and use of striking metaphors that separated this novel from others of its kind. In fact, it can be argued that Docherty was an innovative novel which challenged existing perceptions of the Scottish novel, although to class it merely as a Scottish novel is to ignore its universal themes and the book was widely admired in many different countries.

Docherty by William McIlvanney

Docherty by William McIlvanney

He was also an accomplished poet and when I got him to talk to my students at The Robert Gordon University in the mid 1980s, he told me, over lunch, that few people appeared to know that he was a poet. One of my favourite extracts from These Words: Weddings and After (1984) is his reflections on cats. “Indoors they are connoisseurs of sleep/Contortionists of ease…. Poses appear/ To melt into each other. They present/ A show of peace, are sculptors of content”.

 

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

Munich visit: BMW Museum and Deutsches Museum

November 14, 2015

My pal Roger and I went to Munich last week. We were hoping to get tickets to see Bayern Munich play at the Allianz stadium, but tickets were like hens’ teeth so we watched the game with other local (but likewise ticketless) supporters in a pub. The stadium (photo below) is an interesting structure as it’s made out of “2,874 rhomboidal inflated ETFE foil panels” and is the largest “membrane shell” in the world.

Allianz Stadium in Munich

Allianz Stadium in Munich

Munich has a wide range of museums and, as we were there for 4 days, we had to be choosy. My pal is a retired engineer, so we went for 2 technology related museums, with the hope of squeezing more in. The first visit was to the BMW Museum where we saw a wide range of cars and motor bikes made by the company since the 1920s. You don’t have to be interested in cars or motorbikes to enjoy this museum as much of the information relates to social history as much as technical developments. Another reason for visiting the BMW museum is aesthetic and I was fascinated by the smooth curves on the BMW building as well as on the cars. There are two buildings, one containing recent cars and bikes and another which houses the museum. The 1st photo is of the initial building you visit and the 2nd is the museum.

BMW building in Munich

BMW building in Munich

BMW Museum building

BMW Museum building

The cars which appealed to me in terms of design included the 1939 BMW 328 and the 1930 BMW 3/15 which was based on the British designed Austin 7.

BMW 328 in BMW Museum in Munich

BMW 328 in BMW Museum in Munich

1930 BMW 3/15 in BMW Museum in Munich

1930 BMW 3/15 in BMW Museum in Munich

The museum is very well designed and leads the visitor through the history of motorbikes and cars, including a new section on the Mini (includes video tour) which BMW now produce.

The second museum we visited was the extensive Deutsches Museum which is described as “a museum of masterpieces in science and technology”. The museum is on 7 floors, so it would be impossible to visit the whole museum in one day. We spent some time in the shipping section which contained some superb examples of sailing ships as well as impressive models of modern ships. The sailing ship below was a fully rigged fishing boat from the days before steam power. It was aesthetically pleasing to look at but you were also aware that being in this boat in bad weather would have been a hazardous experience.

Sailing ship in Deutsches Museum in Munich

Sailing ship in Deutsches Museum in Munich

The next section on the initial generation of electricity was also very interesting, in particular the 2 steam driven machines below, one of which drove a threshing machine in the fields of Germany. The first machine was based on Stephenson’s steam engine – another British invention. It was interesting to look at what would now be regarded as fairly clumsy and crude technology, but when it was invented machines such as these were revolutionary.

Early electricity generation using a steam engine in Deutsches Museum in Munich

Early electricity generation using a steam engine in Deutsches Museum in Munich

Early electricity generation using a steam engine in Deutsches Museum in Munich

Early electricity generation using a steam engine in Deutsches Museum in Munich

The most fascinating part of our visit was the section on mining. When you enter this part of the museum, you see photos of mining technology over the centuries but then you descend into the lower depths of the museum. Here you are confronted with a recreation of actual mines, with low ceilings and examples of miners working with pickaxes in incredibly narrow spaces. In parts it can feel very claustrophobic, with the walls getting ever narrower. It certainly showed how hazardous an occupation mining was and, to a lesser extent with huge cutting machines, still is. This was very much a physical experience as well as a visual one and it is a magnificent achievement on the part of the museum curators. You can see a range of photos from this section here. You could easily spend a week in the Deutsches Museum and not see it all and with more time in Munich, we would certainly have gone back. The museum is located on the banks of the River Isar and we walked along the river in 17 degrees of sunshine on a November day in Munich. There are paths on either side of the river and these attract many walkers and cyclists. Here is a view looking down the river.

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