Archive for the ‘books’ Category

Surgeons as writers and Americana by Ray Davies

May 9, 2017

The Saturday edition of The Guardian comes through the letter box and thumps on the floor, as it contains a variety of sections – the main paper, sport, review, travel, family and food. I keep the Review section  for Sunday mornings and I enjoy reading the main article, as well as the non-fiction, fiction and poetry book reviews. On Saturday, the main article was by William Boyd and entitled “A matter of life and death: The rise of the surgeon memoir”.  In the article, Boyd looks at the works of surgeons such as Atul Gawande, Henry Marsh and Gabriel Weston. Gawande’s Complications describe what Boyd calls “significant” procedures e.g. “We made a fast, deep slash down the middle of his abdomen”. Boyd quotes Gabriel (in Direct Red) “We cut the woman open from breastbone to pubis and cleared her gut out with one deep sweep.” Boyd then goes on to wonder “.. how anyone can do this as a matter of course on a near-daily basis and remain a happy, functioning human being”. The author is obviously enthralled by surgeons and notes that he happens to know four surgeons with international reputations and he elicits from one of them, Brendan Moran, what is need to become a top surgeon – a lack of squeamishness, strength, knowledge, skill and experience. It is an interesting article, with some detailed outlines of procedures that some people e.g. the squeamish, may wish to avoid, and it gives an insight into the working lives of top surgeons. I also found it a rather obsequious article in that Boyd seems to think that because these top surgeons are making life and death decisions (and they admit to making good and bad decisions), they must be on a higher plane than other professions and he finishes by referring to “the extraordinary profession they [surgeons] share and the phenomenal life they lead”. This raises the question of whether Boyd should be so amazed by the surgeon/writers. Would Boyd be so in awe of top researchers who have made major discoveries in science, medicine, history, psychology or chemistry i.e. people who have no physical contact with others? I think not and perhaps society as a whole has tended to treat people in the  medical profession (mainly doctors) as being cleverer than the rest of us. A surgeon has great responsibility but so has a bus driver or train driver or airline pilot. Read the article and see what you think.

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Direct Red by Gabriel Weston

I don’t buy much music these days but, having heard Ray Davies’ new album on Spotify, I bought it today.

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Americana by Ray Davies

Ray Davies has always been more than just a writer of pop songs. In his days with The Kinks, Davies wrote songs with a socially cutting edge e.g. Dead End Street (YouTube link) – “Out of work and got no money/ Sunday joint of bread and honey” or Lola  (YouTube link) about a young boy meeting a transvestite in a club. The new album also has a cutting edge and is based on Davies’ time in America – with The Kinks in the 1960s and 1970s, but also on more recent visits. The recurrent theme in the album is The Great Highway, both in the physical sense of travelling on the roads in the USA, but also life as a journey. There are many intriguing tracks on the album and almost all demonstrate Davies’ critical look at modern society, particularly in the USA, but also globally. In Poetry, he sings ” .. the great corporations providing our every need/And those big neon signs telling us what to eat” but he asks “Where is the poetry?” in the blandness of shopping malls and other aspects of today’s society. In A Long Drive Home To Tarzana, he finds that “.. there’s nothing there except/that space/ Beautiful space” and this seems to be the dream, to be away from the crowded cities. Davies is accompanied by the fabulous Jayhawks band, including Karen Grotberg, who duets with Davies to great effect. If you listen to the album, you’ll hear echoes of the Beatles in some tracks and Neil Young in others. In the first track, which you can listen to here (YouTube), the first lines are “I wanna make my home/Where the buffalo roam”. In Neil Young’s Far From Home (YouTube), the chorus starts “Bury me out on the prairie/Where the buffalo used to roam”. So, a superb album of country/rock with Davies’ ironic lyrics adding to some wonderful tunes.

No blog next week, as we are off to Bordeaux for a week’s holiday.

 

Sebastian Barry’s “Days Without End” and Spring flowers (1)

March 17, 2017

It’s not often that you come across a novel that is absolutely riveting and makes you want to write down a quote from every page of the book, but the new novel by Sebastian Barry –  Days Without End comes into this category. You can listen to an excellent Guardian podcast featuring an interview with Barry about his novel and this adds further insight into the book. The novel tells the story of Thomas McNulty, who was among thousands who fled from Ireland when the potato famine struck. McNulty briefly tells us of his arrival in Canada on a ship where “I was among the destitute, the ruined and the starving for six weeks”. The Irish who reached Canada “were nothing. No one wanted us… We were a plague. We were only rats of people”. When McNulty subsequently meets a fellow teenager “handsome John Cole” who becomes his life-long friend and lover, he tells us “I was a human louse, even evil people shunned me”. This feeling of McNulty’s – that he and his kind are worthless – continues throughout the book, and McNulty explains that his and John Cole’s ability to withstand the horrors they see, comes partly from this. The book tells of the boys’ and subsequently men’s lives as dancers dressed up as women to entertain miners, then as soldiers engaged in “cleansing” the frontier of Indians and then as regular soldiers in the American Civil.

Barry’s writing is described by reviewers of the book as “vibrant”, “beautiful and affecting”, “exhilarating” and “vivid”. He is one of these writers with an enviable ability to produce descriptions that make your read them again. Open the book anywhere and you’ll find them. The soldiers eat with “the strange fabric of frost and frozen wind falling on our shoulders”. Other soldiers, sent out to meet an Indian chief and his followers “rode like chaps expecting Death rather than Christmas”. There are detailed battle scenes in the book, but also moments of tenderness and humour. Barry does not shrink from describing mass killing – of Indian men, women and children and of rebel soldiers – but he manages to focus on the personal. In the heat of the battle with the rebels, McNulty reflects “Other things I see is how thin these boys [rebels] are, how strange like ghosts and ghouls. Their eyes like twenty thousand dirty stones”. I am two-thirds through this astonishing novel already and I know that when I get near the end, I’ll want it to continue for another 300 pages. Go and buy it.

 

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Sebastian Barry’s stunning novel

Spring really has sprung around here and there is now an abundance of colour in my garden, with much more to come. The first photo is of a tulip from a vase in the house – my own tulips are biding their time, letting the daffodils have their spot in the sunlight, before they upstage them with a glorious display of colour. As readers of this blog will know, what fascinates me in particular is the insides of flowers and their often surreal appearance. I love the symmetry in this tulip as well as the vibrant colours and the central feature, which could be a creature from a sci-fi film or something inexplicable found by archaeologists in a 3000 year old grave. What do you see here?

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Close up of a tulip flower head (Click to enlarge)

The 2nd photo is of violas on the side of our hanging basket at the front door. The cyclamen in the body of the hanging basket has passed its best. The violas, planted last autumn wore plain green coats all winter and shrivelled in the frost at times. In the past 2 weeks however, they are transformed and show us purple and yellow dresses in a display of sartorial elegance. They are delicate little flowers but have eye-catching, mascara like centre patterns. As the title of this blog post indicates, there will be more Spring flowers to follow.

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Violas in a hanging basket

 

 

Whales stranding and The Store

February 13, 2017

Just before I went to bed the other night, I got an email from my brother-in-law in New Zealand to tell me that there had been a huge stranding of pilot whales at Farewell Spit in New Zealand. This is of particular interest to me, as many of you will know, as I wrote a book about a mass stranding which took place at Thorntonloch, near my home town of Dunbar in 1950.

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My book on the whales at Thorntonloch

One of the things I noticed about the above email was that, when I clicked on the link I’d been sent, I saw that the news was only 20 minutes old – and it included video footage of the stranding. This got me thinking. If my brother-in-law Jim had been in New Zealand in 1950 and wanted to tell me about this mass stranding, how would he do it? His only option then would have been to write me a letter, which I would have received maybe a few weeks later, given that there would have been a very limited air mail service at that time. In my book, I analysed the social aspects of the stranding in 1950, including communications. In 1950, most people heard about the whales locally and most often by word of mouth. There was no television in Scotland then and of course, no internet.

When I was nearing completion of my book, I wanted to refer to recent strandings and did a search for that. Spookily, I found a report of a mass stranding which had happened four hours earlier – also at Farewell Spit and I included this photo from there in the book.

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Mass stranding at Farewell spit in 2015

At Thorntonloch, there is a lovely stretch of beach and it is a very peaceful place to go for a walk. Farewell Spit is next to Golden Bay – another beautiful spot – so it is ironic that these attractive and peaceful beaches were – and continue to be – the scenes of such dramatic carnage, as hundreds of whales died when they stranded as a group. There was some better news overnight, with reports that 200 whales had been re-floated at Farewell Spit after a third mass stranding in as many days.

On Tuesday evening, I’m giving another talk to Dunbar and District History Society (new website imminent), of which I am a committee member. I’ve been looking at the social history of Dunbar (where I’ve lived for 60% of my life) in the early 1950s. I started with the whales at Thorntonloch and went on to look at rationing, new council houses and entertainment. I’ve now moved on to shops and shopping. On Tuesday, I’ll be concentrating on The Store, which is what the Co-operative shops were called at that time in this part of Scotland, although not elsewhere. The talk will start with an overview of the SCWS (Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society) which provided the hundreds of Co-op shops across Scotland with most of their goods to sell. The Co-op was the largest retail  organisation in the UK at that time, with over 40% of the non-independent trade.

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SCWS in 1950

This was a time before supermarkets had arrived in any numbers in the UK and the Co-op shops offered an attractive dividend to its customers, most of whom were shareholders – on a very small scale. It was also a time of rationing, so goods were restricted in availability, and of retail price maintenance i.e. prices of good were fixed, no matter where you bought them. The Co-op factory in Glasgow was a huge enterprise and the next two photos show some of the work done there.

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Women sew on buttons in the Shieldhall factory

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Women making rock in the Shieldhall factory

I’ll also be including interviews I did with local people who worked in The Store in the early 1950s. A very interesting interview I did was with Jimmy Combe, a very sprightly 84 year old, who began working for The Store as an apprentice grocer in 1947, aged 14. In the early 1950s, being a grocer was to be recognised as a skilled tradesman, like a plumber or joiner/carpenter. Jimmy went to night school in Edinburgh to do exams in a range of subjects, including bookkeeping and salesmanship, as well as subjects related to departments such as butchery, grocery and dry goods. An advert for such classes is shown below.

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Co-operative education in the 1950s

My talk will then look at the introduction of self-service in the mid to late 1950s. This move – accelerated by new technology and the end of rationing – in many ways deskilled the workforce and was the beginning of the end for the apprentice grocer. Before self-service, everyone was served individually, with all goods behind the counter.

 

V&A exhibition and TS Eliot Prize readings

January 19, 2017

A delay in the blog this week as we were in London for a few days. We both went to the outstanding Victoria and Albert Museum to see the exhibition entitled You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966 – 1970 . This is a fascinating exhibition, particularly for people who remember the 1960s and the bands such as The Beatles, The Animals and The Who, amongst many others. When you go into the exhibition, there is a free audio provided. This is not your usual audio guide to exhibits, but is a soundtrack  (list of songs here)of the music of the middle and late 1960s. Some people found this distracting e.g. looking at John  Lennon’s written lyrics to Help while the soundtrack is playing Barry McGuire’s Eve of Destruction. The exhibition covers the 1960s revolutions in music, protest, fashion and consumption. It has a vast number of exhibits, perhaps too many to take in during one visit, including photographs, letters, TV coverage, film, clothes and consumer items. It is a very stimulating exhibition, taking in the trivialities of some pop music to the horrors of the Vietnam war and civil rights violence. The V&A of course is always a pleasure to visit, with its numerous rooms and hallways full of statues. Even if you only visit the ornately decorated tea room (good photos), with the William Morris room adjacent to it, you are assured a superb aesthetic experience. No photos were allowed in the exhibition but I took one on my mobile phone’s (not very good) camera of the entrance.

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The Beatles’ at the entrance to the V&A

My treat on Sunday evening was to go to the Royal Festival Hall for the T S Eliot Poetry Prize readings. The competition for the best collection is worth £20,000 to the winner. One of the best things about this event is that, while the 10 poets read from their collections, the winner is not announced until later – no annoying Masterchef  pauses here. The readings were compered by the irrepressible Ian McMillan whose amusing but very perceptive introductions to each poet added much to the occasion. In one introduction, he referred to his Uncle Harry who had “sticky-out false teeth  – like a pub piano”. He also summed up the quality of the evening by pointing out that despite the vast hall and the hundreds of people in the audience, when each poet spoke, it was like being in a small room with only a few people. Two of the poets, J O Morgan and Alice Oswald (the favourite to win) recited their poems from memory and made a substantial impact on the audience. The winner, announced on Monday, was Jacob Polley’s collection Jackself which the judges called “a firecracker of a book” in which the main character can change into different shapes and things. I intend to buy this book, so more on this later.

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Jacob Polley’s collection entitled Jackself

 

 

The Clematis and the Bee; St Armand Canal Paper and Cornflower seeds; and The Patient Who Had No Insides.

November 14, 2016

Before checking my email this morning, I turn the page on my poetry calendar – still the one from 2013 as there appears to be no replacement. One day (next life?) I will do my own poetry calendar which will probably have to be online, but don’t hold your breath. Today’s poem is called The Search by Eamon Grennan and it begins “It’s the sheer tenacity of the clematis clinging to/ rusty wire and chipped wood-fence that puts this/ sky-blue flare and purple fire in its petals”. It’s an interesting concept that “tenacity” rather than natural growth is what makes the clematis grow. The poet praises the plant for “lasting and coming back” despite the autumn weather. There’s another poetic observation “.. the way the late bee lands/ on its dazzle, walks the circumference of every petal” before “.. drinking/ the last of its sapphire wine”. You can easily envisage the bee as it skirts the petals before feeding on the “sapphire wine” – a startling combination of words. Next time you see a clematis, think about its tenacity.

An enchanting birthday present last month from my sister in law and brother in law. They had visited Gilbert White’s Garden in Selbourne, Hampshire and brought me 2 presents. The first is a book of poetry by the Canadian Julie Berry. The poems are based on the diaries of Gilbert White who was the local parson but also a very keen gardener and naturalist. The little book is beautifully produced.

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Cover of “I am, &c.” by Julie Berry

The cover is of soft paper and made of St Armand Canal paper for which the makers use “fibers left from clothing industry offcuts, white tee-shirts, blue denim and flax straw from farmers”. The book cover has a lovely soft feel to it. At each end of the book, there is a flyleaf which is made of Thai Tamarind paper which is tissue like. As you see in the photo below, this delicate paper contains dried (and dyed) tamarind leaves and bits of grass which makes it very attractive. This small, 24 page book is an artwork in itself.

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Flyleaf in Julie Berry’s book “I am &c.”

Along with this beautifully produced book was this.

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Cornflower Seed packet

The packet of seeds is inside this creamy coloured and very attractive wrapping. I will sow the seeds in the Spring and get an eye-catching display of what the packaging tells me will be “Dark blue flowerheads born from late Spring to Early summer”. I like the use of the word “born” here.

I am still working my way slowly through Denise Riley’s remarkable book Say Something Back. There is a five-part poem in the book entitled The patient who had no insides and this relates to the author’s illness and hospitalization – not a subject which you think might be expressed poetically, but Riley does this with aplomb. Part of the poem shows her acquired knowledge of terminology which all hospitalised patients pick up, due to repetition by clinicians. For example “Enzymes digesting tissue grind/ In rampant amylase and swollen lipase counts” send the reader to the dictionary but to patients suffering from liver disease, these are everyday words. Riley’s description of parts of our insides are both graphic and imaginative. The liver is “A plush nursery for the vegetal spirit”. The spleen is “sole-like” and “roughened, its shoe-shape/ Splayed into an ox tongue”. The poem also covers the potential thoughts of doctors about the disease they treat. The patient is released from hospital even though “Your liver tests are squiffy Mrs R..”. Once outside, the patient reflects “A smack of post-ward colour shoves us back to life”. This is a very impressive book of poetry which covers topics which can be unsettling for the reader, but you cannot help being full of admiration for Ms Riley’s poetic talents. Still another 20+ poems to read.

 

 

Lisa Hooper exhibition and Milan (1)

October 14, 2016

It’s 2 years and 11 days ago since I posted a review of an exhibition by the artist Lisa Hooper. Interestingly, Lisa calls herself “a printmaker, specialising in wildlife/bird art” and I’m sure we could have a long conversation about whether she is primarily an artist (her talent, her chosen profession) who uses print techniques or a printmaker (her craft and an aspect of her chosen profession) who produces works of art. I recognise that I may be belittling printmakers here – not the intention. Lisa’s new exhibition at Waterston House in Aberlady, HQ of the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club is an outstanding collection of prints, mainly of birds but it also includes some rural landscapes. I contacted Lisa and she kindly sent me examples of her work, shown below. What attracts me to these prints are the shapes and the patterns which the artist/printmaker produces to such telling effect. When you first look at a Lisa Hooper work, you can see that there are a series of patterns which are repeated. However, when you pay more attention, you see that the patterns (and indeed the shapes within the patterns) are not exactly repeated. The first print below portrays my favourite birds – curlews. I’m lucky enough to live by the sea in Dunbar and I can watch the curlews land on the rocks through my scope. Curlews have a great ability to poke their beaks under stones and seaweed to feed. What I particularly like about this work is that the beaks have been slightly exaggerated by the artist and are black. This gives an abstract quality to the work and I think that it makes the curlews look even more magisterial than they are in real life. I also admire the way that the artist has reflected the shapes of the birds in the rocks on which they stand.

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Curlew by Lisa Hooper

The second example of Lisa Hooper’s work shown below is her impression of a short eared owl. This bird has eyes to make small mammals shiver and humans to note the presence of a fierce intelligence. Again, the shapes are exquisite and intriguing, individual but collective, both in the bird and in the representation of the stone wall behind. I also think that there’s a surreal quality to this print – the black round the eyes, the misshapen nose and the stripes on the head.

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Short Eared Owl by Lisa Hooper

Two years ago, my wife bought me Lisa Hooper’s book First Impressions for my upcoming birthday and last week, while at the exhibition, my wife bought me Lisa’s new book  Printing Wildlife. So I’m looking forward to putting the new book on my little easel and turning a page every day. If you are able to get to this exhibition, you cannot fail to be impressed by the quality of the work on show here. Lisa Hooper’s prints should be viewed and then looked at more closely.

My pal Roger and I make an annual trip to a European city to see a top class football (aka soccer) match, to see the sights and enjoy the food and wine in the restaurants. This year, we went to the impressive city of Milan, with its wide streets, stunning piazzas with elegant statues, monumental architecture in the cathedral and many churches, and balconied buildings. We went to an excellent match where A C Milan won 4-3 against Sassuolo in the magnificent San Siro Stadium (scroll down for photos). Milan, as other cities, is best seen by walking through the streets, laid out on a grid system. On many occasions, you look up (as you should always do in cities) to see statues on the buildings, like this one near the arch in Porta Venezia, one of the gates into this formerly walled city.

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Statues in Milan’ Porta Venezia

The most famous building in Milan and the one to which tourists throng in their thousands, is the Duomo (good photos) – the breath-taking cathedral in the city centre. There are always long queues, so it is better to book online in advance, which we failed to do, so no inside view. The Duomo sits in a large square and you are reminded of St Mark’s Square in Venice. The cathedral is so big that you need to walk around it to appreciate its true size. When it was being built in the 14th and 15th centuries, the peasants living in the area nearby would have been amazed to see this huge structure rise from the ground. The Duomo would have been hundreds of times the size of the peasants’ houses and it would have struck awe and fear into the local population. The two photos below show this multi-spired, multi-statued work of architecture/art which remains an inspiring sight today for people who take a religious or a secular view of life.

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The Duomo in Milan

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The Duomo in Milan

Just off the square is the Gallery Vittorio Emanuele which was built in 1877 and named after a king of Italy. It has a striking glass roof, beautiful murals and a wonderful mosaic floor. It now houses upmarket shops, cafes, a hotel and the very helpful Milan Tourist Office. The photos below show the entrance and interior of the Gallery. This area is always crowded with tourists but it is certainly worth seeing.

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Arched entrance to Galleria Vittore Emanuele

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Murals in the Galleria Vittore Emanuele

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Balcony, statues and mural in the Galleria Vittore Emanuele

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

 

 

 

Guardian article and the Quirke novels

August 8, 2016

I’ve been reading The Guardian newspaper for many, many years. I’ve had the occasional letter published but what I’d always wanted to do was to have an article in The Guardian. I’ve finally succeeded and although I was disappointed not to have the article in the printed edition, the online version may well get more readers nowadays. There’s a feature in the Guardian Magazine called That’s Me in the Picture which I see every weekend. I decided that one of the photos from my new book on the whales at Thorntonloch in 1950 would make a good feature, so I contacted The Guardian and sent them the picture below along with an interview I’d done with one of the people in the picture.

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Loading whales at Thorntonloch in May 1950

In the photo above, the boy standing on the left hand side of the lorry is Sandy Darling who was 11 years old at the time. The paper wanted more information, so I re-interviewed Sandy who has a vivid memory of the event. The article was accepted and was due to be printed but the editor with the final say decided that it could only go online. The article has now appeared. Unfortunately, it has been edited and not very well in places and I think it’s a more clumsy read than my original. Despite this, I’ve enjoyed seeing it and even more now as above my article is the latest picture which has The Beatles in it! The photo is interesting not only because of the whales but the way people are dressed. In 1950, people of all social classes dressed much more formally when they were in places where others would be gathering. If a similar event occurred today, people would be much more casually dressed.

I’m nearly finished reading A Death in Summer by Benjamin Black which is the pen name of the well-known literary author John Banville. The book, like others in this series e.g. the outstanding Christine Falls, features the pathologist Dr Quirke who gets involved in the cases of the bodies he analyses in his laboratory. Quirke is curious by nature and he becomes a sleuth almost by accident and sometimes to the annoyance of his colleague Inspector Hackett. The books are very well written and well plotted but these are crime novels which take you languidly from scene to scene and interesting character to interesting character. Quirke is middle-aged widower whom women find attractive and he is romantically involved in all the novels. This is not your usual crime novel although there are murders, there are elements of police and medical procedure and there is a mystery to be solved. The books are very well written and Quirke’s reflections on himself and others are often quite humorous. The novels are set in Dublin in the 1950s and reading the novels means you get a sense of the city at that time e.g. everyone smokes and often they smoke untipped cigarettes – which also appear of course, in the Sandy Darling photo above. I would highly recommend these novels – they are much more than crime novels – to everyone, and in particular people who tend to shy away from “crime” novels. Finally, do read John Banville’s “interview” with his alter ego Benjamin Black – very clever.

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Death in Summer by Benjamin Black

Richard Allen and Jan Wilczur exhibition and lifeboat exercise

July 13, 2016

Another dazzling array of talent on show at Waterston House, Aberlady at the moment, in the form of an exhibition by Richard Allen and Jan Wilczur. The show includes Allen’s paintings and linocuts and Wilczur’s paintings of birds in a wide variety of settings. Both artists kindly sent me photos of their work. Richard Allen’s linocuts are smaller pieces than his paintings but no less effective for that. As can be seen in the portrayal of the curlew below, the linocuts in the exhibition draw your eye to the flowing lines in the picture and the almost abstract quality of the way the lines make shapes e.g. the curlew’s eye. Although the linocuts present us with birds, the flow of the lines reminded me of Australian Aboriginal drawings and paintings.

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Curlew by Richard Allen

In contrast to the linocuts, Allen’s paintings are full of colour. Some of the bird portraits have a lightly surreal feel to them, such as the Drake Goldeneye which clearly shows the ducks but includes a variety of areas in light and dark blues which are not naturalistic. One of my favourite birds, alas not seen as much around here as when I was young, is the lapwing aka peewit because of its call. Allen’s painting of the lapwing, shown below, was for me one of the highlights of the exhibition. The natural setting, the dignified portrayal of the bird and the range of colours on the bird and in the flora all combine to very good effect. Look at how the lapwing’s crest bends as do the reeds.

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Lapwing by Richard Allen

Jan Wilczur has provided visitors to the exhibition with a stunning range of paintings. For me, the most striking and one I went back to several times is Bullfinches – shown below. When you first look at this painting, you see the birds, especially the striking red breast and piercing eyes of the top bird. The lower bird – a female? – seems to be a little shy, as if aware that she is being painted but the colours on the head and the wings are delicate and draw your attention. Come back to the painting and you see the branches and the berries. the little globules of berries hanging precariously, it seems, from the branches, which seem animated with their hand-like twigs waving in the air. So – that’s what I see – what do you see?

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Bullfinches by Jan Wilczur

The second painting I noted down on my phone Memo was Long Eared Owl which is a fascinating work of art. Central to the picture is the imperious looking owl, a beautifully manicured bird without a feather out-of-place. It looks dressed to go somewhere. I like the subtle colours on the bird’s feathers and face and those penetrating eyes. Then you see the trees with their irregular notches, some of which could be small owl feathers that have drifted off and stuck to the trees. I think that the trees may be silver birch, one of my favourite trees.

Wilczur Owl, Long-eared a

Long eared owl by Jan Wilczur

The two artists have set up an exhibition which is a must see for anyone in the area and the quality of the linocuts and paintings transcend what might appear to some people as a narrow subject. Richard Allen’s book of linocuts Coastal Birds is available at the exhibition and is superb value.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, the sound of a helicopter close by attracted my attention and it appeared to land in a nearby park. I then saw it hovering above two RNLI lifeboats outside Dunbar Harbour. I went to the harbour which is just along the road from my house and took photos from the harbour wall. I’ve been having problems with my camera lately – just got the normal lens repaired – so I put on my longer lens. The photo below is perhaps not as sharp as it might have been but it does capture the helicopter and lifeboats, which were on a training exercise. There are many more photos – and better ones I think – here (scroll down to see photos). The 2nd photo below is of the lifeboat returning to harbour at the end of the exercise.

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RNLI/Coastguard exercise

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Dunbar lifeboat returns to harbour

 

Poppies poem and Dunbar High Street in the 1950s

June 18, 2016

I’m working my way through this year’s Forward Book of Poetry and of course, as this is a selection of some of the best poems published in the UK and Ireland in 2014/15, there are many superb poems. I limit myself to reading 3 poems each day. Today, a poem leapt out and demanded that I read it three times and review it on this blog. The poem is Poppies in Translation by Sujata Bhatt and as the poppies are out in may garden, it’s topical. The poem starts “You tell us how in Romanian,/ the wild poppies growing everywhere/ are a living flame of love” (poet’s italics). The poet sees poppies as “a wildfire/by the roads” and in the countryside around here, you often see lines of poppies edging the road. “Wildfire” is apt description. The poem continues with the poet able to “simply feel/ the way their wild redness/ burns and reels” and she relates this to the fire of first love. Describing the poppies’ texture, the poet writes “I have seen crepe de chine, chiffon,/ how their sheerest silks glisten in the sun” – an imaginative view of poppies apparently made of silk. Another striking image comes next “They could be Hindu brides,/ ripening in their red saris”. The poet goes on to argue that while in Romanian, poppies are seen as “a living flame of love”, in English the word “love” would not be used. Instead “In English, we say the poppies speak to us” and it is “their call that moves us”. This is an interesting interpretation, so the next time you see a vibrantly red poppy, is it calling to you or is it reminding you of first love – or something else? I’m an inveterate photographer of poppies especially the inside of the flower, what Bhatt calls “whorls of black filaments” and here are two examples. Inside the first one looks like a sea anemone and inside the 2nd one looks like a small tarantula.

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Poppy flower head

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Poppy flower head

I’m on a Facebook site called Lost Dunbar which deals with the history of my home town. I was always a reluctant Facebook member and I only use the site for my research i.e. I have turned down many requests to be friends, not because I don’t like the requestors but because I don’t have time to look at any more than the Lost Dunbar site. Recently, people have been posting pictures of Dunbar High Street in the 1950s and my local history research deals with the early 1950s period. The first photo below – click on photo to enlarge it – is interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, it shows shops that are no longer there such as Nelson’s the grocer’s (as it was always called). Secondly the cars on the street would now be vintage cars. The most interesting aspect of this photo is the appearance of the message bikes, the one on the bottom left is emerging probably from Lipton’s shop on the corner and has boxes on it. In Scotland, shopping is often referred to as going for the messages with messages meaning the good bought while shopping. Thus delivery bikes were called message bikes and those on the bikes were called message boys. I was a message boy for the Buttercup Dairy shop in the High Street when I was 12/13 years old.

Dunbar High Street 1950s

Dunbar High Street 1950s

In the second photo, what is most striking is the absence of cars on the High Street. Today, it is very difficult to park at any time on this same street. In the early 1950s, very few people owned a car in Britain – only 7% overall and in working class areas, this would have been much less. It may be hard for people today to understand but many people in the early 1950s had no expectation of travelling in a car, never mind owning one. Cars were very expensive and owned only by business or professional people or farmers in the Dunbar area. In my new book, there is a chapter on how people travelled in 1950 to see the whales stranded near Dunbar and one of the most interesting interviews I did was with a man who was 6 years old at the time and was taken to see the whales in the farmer’s car. He told me that going in the car – the farmer’s car! – was even more exciting than seeing the 147 whales on the beach, as they saw very few cars near the farm where his father worked.

High Street Dunbar 1950s

High Street Dunbar 1950s