Archive for the ‘books’ Category

Book of Kells exhibition and Two Dublin cathedrals

September 26, 2018

An aesthetic slant to the blog this week with a focus on design and architecture. On our recent trip to Dublin, we visited Trinity College Dublin to see the Book of Kells exhibition. The Book of Kells has uncertain origins but it is thought to have been written around 800 CE by monks from Iona, an island off the west coast of Scotland and Kells, a town in Ireland. The monks fled Iona after a Viking attack and settled in Kells. Where exactly parts of the manuscript – a bible – were written is uncertain. The Book of Kells is wonderfully illustrated and the exhibition contains blown up pages which are shown on the walls, as in the photo below. This page shows in detail saints, angels and demons interspersed with Celtic designs. This demonstrates the superb skills of the monks who completed these lavish and extremely time-consuming illustrations. In other pages, there are beautifully designed letters by one of the artists who was ” capable of ornament of such extraordinary fineness and delicacy, that his skills have been likened to those of a goldsmith”

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Page from the Book of Kells (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The exhibition also looks at the technical aspects of book production as in the photo below, showing that the manuscript was written and illustrated on vellum. In some cases, the treating the vellum could not have been a pleasant experience. Thus the preparation of the vellum as well as the composition of the book was laborious. As the Book of Kells was written in Latin and in the early 9th century, very few people would have been able to read it, apart from monks. These early religious works reflect their historical era i.e. the contents of the book were to be read to the mainly illiterate population, not read by them.

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Information from the Book of Kells exhibition

You can see more of the illustrations from the exhibition in the video below.

The exhibition then leads visitors upstairs to the Long Room of Trinity College Library and an impressive sight it is. The first photo below shows the high ceiling, packed book stacks and busts of famous philosophers and scientists. This room houses the library’s rare book collection and we passed a nearby room where scholars wearing gloves were examining some of the old books.

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The Long Room in Trinity College Dublin library

The 2nd photo shows the high book shelves and one of the many ladders needed by the library staff to retrieve the books. The natural light coming through the window might be seen as a metaphor for the enlightening knowledge contained in the books. The library is one of the UK and Ireland’s legal deposit libraries and thus holds a copy of all books printed in the UK and Ireland. I’m proud to know that the library contains all of my academic books and my recent local history book.

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Bookshelves and ladder in Trinity College Dublin library

Following lunch in the excellent Fallon and Byrne food hall, we headed to see two cathedrals, which we assumed were Catholic (capital C). We then entered a world of semantics. Both cathedrals are Church of Ireland. A leaflet in Christ Church cathedral noted that while it was Catholic, it was not Roman Catholic i.e. it did not owe allegiance to the pope. Having established the present day status of both cathedrals – both of which were originally Roman Catholic before the reformation – we could admire the architecture and internal design.

St Patrick’s Cathedral has well-groomed gardens and lawns outside and there is an outstanding sculpture, The Liberty Bell shown below. There were many people enjoying the sunshine in the cathedral grounds on the day we visited.

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Liberty Bell outside St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin

Inside the cathedral, there is a highly ornamental lectern made of brass, with a fierce-looking eagle at the top, seen below.

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Lectern in St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin

One of the most attractive features of Christ church Cathedral is the floor tiling  (scroll down to Medieval Floor Tiles). Some of the tiles are the original medieval ones laid in the 13th century, while most are 16th century reproductions, using  the same design. The circular patterns in the wide aisles are most impressive. The photos below show the flooring in front of the main altar and a close up view of one of the circular features.

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Flooring in Christ Church Cathedral Dublin

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Intricate flooring in Christ Church Cathedral Dublin

The visits to the exhibition and cathedrals were both a learning and an aesthetic experience. If you are in Dublin, go and see them.

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Lincoln in the Bardot and the Danish National Art Gallery

August 9, 2018

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

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

Lincoln in the Bardo

Click on all photos to enlarge

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

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The Danish National Gallery’s extension

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

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

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

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Harvest by Laurits Andersen Ring

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

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Michael Ancher’s The Lifeboat is Taken through the Dunes

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

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

July 10, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Glaucous gull on the front cover of Scottish Birds

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

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Raven flying on its back by Jim Smith

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

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Siskin by Harry Scott

The Ice and the Guardian Country Diary at Barns Ness

May 16, 2018

I’ve just finished reading The Ice (Guardian review) by Laline Paull. The book comes with high praise on its cover – “An important and powerful novel … strikingly prescient” according to The Independent. The novel is set in the (not too distant?) future as the Arctic ice has melted and opened up new shipping lanes, and it focuses on the friendship between relatively poor boy made rich Sean Cawson and the more wealthy radical environmentalist Tom Harding. After Tom’s death in an Arctic cave, his body disappears but is resurrected – still frozen – by a glacier calving. Much of the book is set during the inquest into Tom’s death and this is intersected with flashbacks to the scene where Tom died. Throughout the book, the reader is given more and more insight into what happened, so there is a tension as more details are released. Who is telling the whole truth? In the background, a luxury lodge has been developed in the Arctic circle and again, Paull gives details about possible uses – legal and illegal/immoral – of this lodge. For four fifths of the book, I thought that this was a well written novel which highlighted key aspects of climate change and its effects on our planet. Unlike the Guardian reviewer, I thought that the final part was overly dramatic, with the author desperate to have a multi-faceted conclusion. The descriptions of the Arctic environment provide an interesting and at times beautiful background to the story. A range of key issues relating to climate change are highlighted in the book but the author does not preach. The book also raises issues relating to capitalism, international trade and possible arms trading. I would not praise this book as highly as several reviewers have, so you will have to judge for yourself. I would urge people to buy it and read it, as it is well plotted, with some good characterisation.

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The Ice by Laline Paull (Click on all photos to enlarge)

I featured the Guardian’s Country Diary recently on this blog here but I am returning to it now as the subject of the diary on 5th May was Barns Ness, which is about 2 miles from my house. The lighthouse (photo below) is the outstanding man-made structure at Barns Ness but the coastal environment is what firstly interests the writer.

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Barns Ness Lighthouse

As with all the Diary entries, this one is very well written e.g. “The pools themselves seem empty on first approach, but after a minute’s silent watch they come to life: periwinkles inching almost imperceptibly along, shore crabs sidling from under rocks with a suspicious air, and – best of all – tiny hermit crabs in their pilfered shells, peeking shyly out, antennae waving”. There’s poetry in here, with crabs having “a suspicious air” and the hermit crabs’ “pilfered shells”. This entry is by Cal Flyn and you can see all her Diary contributions here. Not far from the lighthouse is the Whitesands beach (good photo) and on clear sunny days, the beach almost looks white, so pale is the sand. The author comments on the limestone pavements (my photo below) which lie at the east end of the beach. These are a rich source of fossils and when you walk across their pockmarked surfaces, it is like looking down on a huge archipelago from a plane.

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Limestone pavement at Whitesands Beach

Flyn notes that she stayed at the cottages next to the lighthouse and ironically, the haar – known to us as a sea mist but originally (see link) an easterly wind – came in while they were exploring. It was only when the lighthouse loomed out of the mist that they knew they were home. Flyn comments “Who knew we’d need a lighthouse to navigate the land?”. The cottages can be seen in my photo below. If you are ever in the area, Barns Ness is a great place for walking, with an ever changing shoreline. At this time of year, you can hear the skylarks singing joyously above you, although they may be hard to spot.

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Barns Ness cottages and lighthouse

Homegoing and a brief visit to the Botanic Gardens

April 14, 2018

I have recently enjoyed reading Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel Homegoing. For most of this novel, you would not guess that you are reading an author’s first book, so assured is Gyasi’s writing. The book’s early chapters are focused on slavery in its African setting and Gyasi paints a vivid picture of the mechanics of the slave trade e.g. tribes capturing men and women from villages and selling them to the British, who live in a white fort. There are also some gripping scenes where slaves are captured and kept in the castle’s dungeons in horrible conditions. The key characters at this stage are Effia who is sold to a British captain and slave trader as a wife, and her half sister Esi who is captured as a slave and taken to the castle’s overcrowded dungeons. The chapters that follow tell the stories of seven generations of these two women, firstly in West Africa and subsequently in the USA. There are further harrowing scenes of the mistreatment of slaves in the cotton plantations in the southern states of the USA. This is contrasted by the stories of how the characters meet their future husbands and wives, and Gyasi’s writing is vivid and moving, but never sentimentalised. The later chapters on the lives of black Americans in more recent times are less convincing, with Gyasi’s lack of experience as a novelist showing through at times. Despite this, Homegoing is a brilliant book and well worth reading. Some of the characters will live in your memory for quite a while.

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Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (Click on all photos to enlarge)

Our visit to Edinburgh’s Botanic Gardens was cut short by heavy rain but in the short time we were there, we saw some exquisite spring flowers and shrubs. There is so much to see in the gardens – and entry is free except for some special exhibitions. You can get a flavour of the gardens and the myriad of plants to be seen all year round in this short video. What first attracted my attention were the large buds opening on a variety of trees. In the photo below, this close up of a bud bursting into leaf seems to show the tremendous energy that the tree has to exert to produce this new elegance. There is also a beautiful range of colours on display here, from the vivid purple at the bottom to the delicate greens and yellows at the top. You also get the impression that once the leaves open fully, the emerging kernel – partially hidden by the leaves at present – will expand and provide another show of colour. Unfortunately, I did not take a note of which this tree this is from. Any arborists (ahem) budding or otherwise out there who can tell me?

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Bursting bud in the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh

Then it started to rain. It looked like a shower, so we sheltered under trees. The one I took cover beside was chamaecyparis lawsoniana aka Lawson’s Cypress and a very impressive tree it was. Looking up – photo below – there appeared to be multiple trunks to this tree, with a plethora of branches appearing further up. Also, look at the all the different colours in the tree trunks. You do not see these colours until you look closely. A magnificent specimen.

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Lawson cypress tree in the Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh

The rain stopped for a while and then we saw the first rhododendrons,  some which were in bud while others had put on their full, glorious display. In the photo below, the blossoms are crowding each other, desperate that their pink flower will be seen by the passers-by. There is an elegant shape to the tree/bush and the pink is shown off to good effect by the greens of the trees behind.

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Rhododendrons at the Botanic Garden in Edinburgh

Closer up, you can see how delicate the rhododendron flowers are. In this photo, the individual cells of the flower are still compact in little pink bells, with the stigma protruding from the circle of anthers in side. Again, there is a complimentary contrast with the beautifully structured green leaves above and below. You can also see the later buds which are still to open.

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Rhododendron flower at the Botanic Garden in Edinburgh

At the next rhododendron bush, which was much more low-lying than the one above, I took a close up photo of a flower. The compact bells have gone and the flower is displaying its petals in a flourish, showing off the purple dots and dashes normally hidden and taking the eye away from the attention-seeking stigma.

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Rhododendron flower at the Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh

When the rain started to pour and the sky was completely grey, we gave up but this brief visit was still memorable and it leaves so much more to see in the next visit.

Crocuses in the snow and Rita Bradd’s poems

March 26, 2018

In many towns and villages in East Lothian at this time of year, the crocuses – planted by East Lothian Council – have emerged, bringing a welcome splash of colour as you walk or drive into the areas. I’ve featured local crocus spreads on the blog before e.g. here. I was biding my time this year until we got the full display of these welcome early spring flowers, but sometimes you have to take an opportunity to photograph something that you are pretty sure will not be there if you come back tomorrow. Recently, we had a brief covering of snow in  Dunbar and we were driving through the next village of West Barns when I saw the crocuses on their bed of snow. It was a bitterly cold day but I got out of the car to capture the scene.

Firstly, the orange crocuses, making a brave show of themselves in the snow. You’ll see in all the photos that the crocuses are keeping their flowers firmly shut. These may be delicate little flowers but they are not daft enough to open up on a freezing cold day in March.

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Crocuses in the snow at West Barns (Click on all photos to enlarge)

Then the white crocuses. It may be that there are more of these plants to come but, as you see in the photo below, the white specimens on show sit by themselves and not in small groups as the orange ones above. Are these more individualistic flowers which like to display their beauty – see the delicate purple lines below the flower heads – on their own, with no competition from others? A search for “crocus” on the RHS  website   produces 695 different types of crocus on 70 pages, so identifying the ones shown here would be a large task – but do not let me stop you.

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White crocuses at West Barns

The purple crocuses below appear at first sight to be of a uniform colour. However, when you look closely, they are all individually marked. Searching for “purple crocus” on the same site reveals the delightfully named crocus tommasinianus, although it is not clear that the ones below fall into this category. The other feature of all the photos is of course the greenery attached to the stem of the plants and this is also very attractive. The sharp leaves are partly hidden by the snow but they reminded me of the wooden stakes that used to be used in medieval battles to trap advancing cavalry and impale the horses on the partially hidden wooden spikes. I cycled past the same spot a day later and the temperature had risen by a few degrees, melting all the snow. Some of the crocuses had opened up, but not many.

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Purple crocuses at West Barns

I have to admit some interest in reviewing Rita Bradd’s book of poems entitled Salt and Soil. Rita is, like me, from Dunbar and lives near the town. Her husband Alan was in my class in school. I am thanked in the Acknowledgements for my advice on publication. I will hope to be as objective as I can. This is a poetry pamphlet – 15 poems in total. In the title poem, there is an intriguing image of photographers on the rocks by the sea “They’re fishing for life at the edge of the world”. There are some fine lyrical lines in many of the poems, such as “Dawn sneaks her breath into seams/ that constrict the day’s fresh garment” from Day Break or “When the North Sea finished throwing up/ over Siccar point..” from Salt of the Earth, My Mother. Not all the poems are successful but there is enough in this wee book to make you appreciate the poet’s obvious talents. Rita Bradd may well not end up as a Poetry Book Society Choice author but very few poets do. If you would like to buy the book, you can order it here.

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Salt and Soil – poems by Rita Bradd

Winter Flowers exhibition and Word of Mouth

March 17, 2018

On a recent visit to Edinburgh, I stopped at the National Gallery at the bottom of The Mound, to visit the Winter Flowers exhibition, which is organised by The Royal Scottish Academy. This is an impressive and varied display of current and past artists who have approached the depiction of winter flowers and woods in a fascinating variety of ways – watercolour, oil, woodcut and lithograph. The first picture below is a collagraph by the Scottish Artist Frances Walker. Using the collagraph technique, the artist gives the impression that this print may in fact be a collage when you first look at it. What attracted my eye in particular was the use of colour in the water in the painting, as it contrasts with the black/grey and white of the rest of the print. You really get the feeling of winter when looking at this print, which gives the impression that this scene, while beautiful to look at, is not somewhere you’d want to venture. When I was looking at this print, outside the gallery there were regular snow flurries sweeping along Princes Street.

RSA 1 Frances Walker RSA, Winter in Achnasoul Wood 2, hand tinted collograph o...

Winter in Achnasaul Wood by Frances Walker (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The second choice from the exhibition is Elizabeth Blackadder’s stunning watercolour entitled Orchids and Bananas. Unlike the print above, it’s not quite clear why Blackadder’s 1989 painting should be in an exhibition of winter flowers. No-one was quibbling when they came upon this work. It’s quite a large painting – 69cm x 102cm – and what you first notice is that the leaves, flowers and stems are portrayed horizontally. Maybe the artist wants us to look at the various flower parts as shapes, rather than actual greenery and flower heads? There’s a real delicacy in this painting, with each stem, leaf or flower perfectly portrayed. There also appeared to be movement win the painting when I continued to look at it, as if the constituent parts were flying past in a storm, and the artist had caught them in a snapshot. The orchid flower heads at the top right are so faintly painted that you hardly see them at first, but the closer you look, the more beautiful they become. This was for me the standout painting in the exhibition.

 

RSA1 Elizabeth Blackadder RSA, Orchids and Bananas, watercolour, 1989 69 x 10...

Orchids and bananas by Elizabeth Blackadder

Orchids and bananas by Elizabeth Blackadder

The final choice from the exhibition is Honey by Ade Adesina. The artist states that he sees his work as ” a visual commentary around the ideas of ecology and our ever-changing world” and how humans are affecting the planet in a deleterious way. This linocut is very unusual, beautifully constructed, visually intriguing, but also very hard to categorise. I’m not sure that I understand what the print represents. What is the panda pulling – a cortege of flowers e.g. representing the environment under threat? Are the temples on huge stone structures or the remains of mountains? Is the panda happy or sad or just indifferent? Suggestions please.

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Honey by Ade Adesina

The exhibition has now closed in Edinburgh but I’m sure that it may well surface in other galleries, so watch out for it and check out other works by the artists mentioned above.

**** Update: I’ve received a comment from Ade Adesina, who states “I started working on the idea for Honey after Edinburgh Zoo acquired a panda from China. I learnt the amount of money that they have to pay yearly to have the Panda at the zoo. I just started playing with the idea of how China send pandas all over the world in return for millions of pounds. I also added my signature comments on climate change and global warming”.

Making yet another slow and fairly tortuous comeback on the bike this week, I was listening (safely) to the Word of Mouth podcast. This week’s episode featured Haggard Hawks a blog, tweet and books about obscure words and you can listen to the podcast – anywhere in the world – here. The podcast is presented by the erudite and amusing Michael Rosen, best known as a children’s author, one of whose books is shown below. The programme featured a number of words and phrases, the meaning of which is not always clear. The first word was fribble which means to “work feebly or aimlessly or to waste your time on pointless things”. So, we could say that most use of Google is fribbling? The phrase “to let the cat our of the bag” may originate in a scam in which people who bought a pig at the market and paid for the said pig, only realised the deceit when they opened the bag in which the pig was carried, and found a cat. The origin of “to raise your hackles” comes from hackles meaning the hairs on an animal’s back, which stick up when it is angry or frightened. Lastly, a schnapsidee is an idea that sounds wonderfully realistic when you are drunk but totally foolish when you are sober. Sounds familiar? Word of Mouth has many informative and entertaining episodes about the words we currently use or used to use, so put it on your list.

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One of Michael Rosen’s many books for children

SWLA exhibition in Aberlady and Sasha Dugdale’s “Joy”.

March 1, 2018

The latest exhibition at Waterston House, home of the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club, is a stunner. The quality bar has been raised for this exhibition as it is organised by the Society of Wildlife Artists and contains an outstanding selection of paintings by the cream of British wildlife artists. I chose to contact two of the artists which I have not featured here on the blog and they both responded immediately, sending me samples of their work at the exhibition. Firstly, Brin Edwards is a painter, illustrator and teacher who is based in Suffolk. In the first painting below, your eye firstly goes to the brilliant range of colours – of the different parts of the ducks, of the water and of the vegetation. Then you see the various patterns on the ducks’ feathers and in the water. This is a group of individual wigeon, which have the delightful scientific name of Anas Penelope. Each bird has its own slightly different colour and feather pattern but, as you can see by the open beaks and staring eyes, they are definitely interacting. This painting really does stand out in the exhibition and shows the artist’s superb technique in capturing the colour and the movement of the ducks.

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Wigeon Interactions by Brin Edwards (Click on all photos to enlarge)

In the second painting by Brin Edwards below, we see the artist taking a different approach. When you first see this painting, it is the blossom and branches that catch your eye, as they are depicted in a bright but slightly hazy manner. Then you see the bird, with its sharp features and looking happy to be camouflaged by the foliage behind it. The Pied Flycatcher, which has the less romantic  scientific name Ficedula hypleuca, and comes to the UK in the summer, is shown here in what is an almost abstract setting, as if the viewer is looking through gauze. It is a startling effect and makes you look closer. The two selected paintings from the exhibition show what a high quality artist Brin Edwards undoubtedly is.

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Spring Pied Flycatcher by Brin Edwards

The second artist I chose was Richard Johnson, originally from the north east of England and now based in Cambridge. He is a bird painter and book illustrator. The first Johnson painting below shows that he is a more naturalistic painter of birds than Brin Edwards, so has a different approach. You cannot compare the two artists’ style i.e. one is not better than the other. What you can say is that Richard Johnson’s paintings show the same high level artistry as that of his fellow SWLA member. This watercolour is of a male cuckoo, with the amusing sounding scientific name of cuculus canorus. It is an intriguing painting, as there appears to be some motion on the bird’s part. Has it just landed or is it about to take off? Johnson has a great ability to show the detail of the cuckoo’s feathers, with their contrasting patterns and I liked the way that the tail feathers were shown as sharp-pointed to the right and fan-like to the left. You also have to admire the colours, shapes and patterns in the branches and tree trunk next to the bird. There’s a mesmerising entanglement here and it is to the artist’s credit that he draws our eye to the detail of the woodland setting.

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Richard Johnson Male Cuckoo

The second painting is of a broad-billed sandpiper aka Limicola falcinellus. At first, this looks a simple painting but this view is to underestimate Richard Johnson’s ability to draw our eye to the lines – dotted and straight – in the painting. Everything is sharp about this sandpiper – the beak, what looks like a shaved line on its forehead which some modern footballers have, the flowing marks on its breast and the neatly constructed feathers. The back of the bird reminded me of a shell e.g. on a tortoise or armadillo. The thin but sturdy looking legs again suggest movement and there is concentration in that keen eye. Richard Johnson’s birds show his amazing skills and will always delight the viewer.

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Richard Johnson Broad-billed Sandpiper

This really is a must-see exhibition, so please spread the word and if you are anywhere near East Lothian, make your way to Waterston House and be amazed and delighted.

Sasha Dugdale’s book of poems Joy is the latest PBS Choice. The title poem Joy features Catherine, the widow of the poem William Blake. She is distressed by his death and feels isolated. Her memories are more positive and she remembers “The walls are wordless. There is a clock ticking./ I have woken up from a dream of abundant colour and joy/ I see his face and he is a shepherd and a piper and a god”. This long poem is presented as if Catherine is sitting on a stage, giving a monologue. She is angry at her husband for dying – “What right did you have? …. And here I am. Your helpmate… your Kate … Bonded to nothing./ How I ache, how I ache”. The poem is a powerful reflection on her marriage and how she feels abandoned by those who once feted her husband. Despite the book’s title, many of the poems involve people looking on the dark side of life. In Canoe, the people who set out on the canoe are never seen again and there houses are vandalised. Dugdale has some striking images  e.g. “.. there was nothing to see except white fog/ and the white sun which reflected itself in every droplet”. In Kittiwake, the poet begins “Your jizz, little gull is the traveller’s / jizz, the wanderer, who sees the black, flecked ocean/ barren like the steppe”. In this context, jizz is a birding term for the characteristic of a bird. This is an intriguing books of poetry and highly recommended by the PBS and by me.

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Joy by Sasha Dugdale, PBS Choice

The kittiwake poem neatly gives me an excuse to repost a couple of photos of kittiwakes nesting on the walls of Dunbar Castle (good photos).

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Kittiwakes at Dunbar Castle

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Kittiwake family at Dunbar Castle

The Ultimate Good Luck and a small, beautiful orchid

February 21, 2018

In the past week, taking a break from my local history project, I’ve determined to spend more time reading the novels I’ve recently bought and I read Richard Ford’s The Ultimate Good Luck (1981 review). I’ve long been an admirer of Richard Ford and have read most of his novels, especially the series featuring the enigmatic Frank Bascombe (interview with Ford). This is a much earlier work, written in 1981 and a different kind of Ford novel. The book is set in Mexico and the protagonist is Harry Quinn, a Vietnam veteran who feels alienated from the world, and who goes to Mexico to try to get his wife’s brother Sonny – a drug dealer – out of prison. It’s a very tense tale and the normal laconic humour you find in Ford’s more recent novels is absent. Quinn gets involved with some very nasty people involved in the Mexican drug trade – lawyers, police, the army, strong-arm men and their rich bosses. There are action sequences which are quite violent but Quinn is a reflective kind of man, who looks at the world with suspicion. There also some passages which demonstrate that Ford would go on to be a leading American novelist. One of  the aspects of this book you will remember if you read it, is the ever-changing light in Mexico and Ford’s descriptions are superb e.g. “A mist had burned off the hills and been borne up, leaving the south end of the valley in a Levantine light… It was like a National Geographic ..” In another passage, the lawyer passes a truck repair yard and “Acetylene smacked in the thick air and made the night appealing”. Later, “Quinn could hear .. the low sibilance in the street, the soft ventral suspiration of any city..”. This fairly short book will keep you interested in the story and entranced by the enviable felicity of Ford’s writing, so get it if you can.

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Richard Ford’s 1981 novel (Click on all photos to enlarge)

A friend of my wife gave her an orchid last summer, as a present for my wife’s help and concern during her friend’s illness. It was put on to the kitchen window and remained static for most of the winter. Then a green shoot appeared but faded. Then another shoot appeared and this one continued to grow and in the past week or so, the buds which formed at the top of the shoot have opened. It’s a small plant but a miniature beauty. I came through one evening and noticed the orchid and its shadow against the drawn blind. So now we had the delicate flowers and their pale, but beautifully formed shadow behind, as in the photo below. I like the way the delicate flower, with its shapely petals and purple spots, contrasts with the rather menacing looking unopened buds, which appear to be ready to repel any attackers. The shadows of the flower on the left and of the buds are gentle, light grey reproductions, but the shadow of the flower on the right looks misshapen and ugly.

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Small orchid and its shadow

The next photo is a close up of the flower on the left and, like all orchid centres, has a surreal look, with the petals appearing to be multiple bat-like ears of some weird creature with a protuberance at its centre. The splattering of reddish purple spots are more appealing. Sam Hamill’s poem “The Orchid Flower” begins “Just as I wonder/whether it’s going to die,/ the orchid blossoms/ and I can’t explain why it/moves my heart, why such pleasure/ comes from one small bud/ on a long spindly stem, one blood red gold flower/ opening at mid-summer, / tiny, perfect in its hour”. Hamill’s flower is different from this one and there are many varieties (good photos) of orchid, but I’d agree with him that our one is “perfect in its hour”.

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Orchid on our window sill

Today, I saw that a third flower had appeared and taken in the daylight, the new orchid (on the right) appears to have a creamier colour to its petal than its older sisters. This is a plant that is giving us some joy on cold February days. Outside, in the garden, the daffodil and tulip bulbs are nervously emerging from the ground, ready to hold fire again if another cold snap comes (and one is coming next week). In the warmth of the kitchen window, where it’s not too warm, the orchid presents a show in instalments, with each new opening well worth waiting for.

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Newly opened orchid flower on the right

Reading Raymond Chandler and the Lynn Rocks at East Linton

February 14, 2018

Looking through my bookshelves recently, I came across a novel by Raymond Chandler entitled Playback. It’s one of these books I can’t remember buying and at first I assumed that I’d read it, as it’s been on the bookshelves for a long time. It turned out that I had not read it, so I knew I was in for a treat. As an author, Raymond Chandler is better known for the crime novels which were made into films, such as The Big Sleep. The novel I have just read – Playback – was Chandler’s last and some reviewers saw it as his lightest novel in terms of plot. While this may be true, as it’s a simple story of the detective Philip Marlowe seeking out and then protecting Miss Betty Mayfield against evil men who want to exploit her fortune, the Marlowe dialogue shines through. The least successful Chandler novel featuring the wise-cracking Marlowe is still way above most other crime novels, in terms of style. Marlowe is often nowadays seen as not being very PC, in his descriptions of women but these are often insightful, from a woman’s point of view. On the 2nd page of this novel, Marlowe reflects “She wore a white belted raincoat, no hat, a well-cherished head of platinum hair… [and] a pair of blue-grey eyes that looked at me as if I’d said a dirty word”. Marlowe then finds Betty Mayfield coming off a train. Chandler writes “There was nothing to it … the subject was as easy to spot as a kangaroo in a dinner jacket”. Throughout the novel, Chandler has Marlowe using the idioms of the time e.g. “He stuck a pill in his kisser and lit it with a Ronson”. Another investigator called Noble criticises Marlowe as a detective. Marlowe replies that they might get along if “you didn’t act like you thought you could lick your weight in frogspawn”. “Lick” in this contest means to beat in a fight. There’s a rather sentimental ending to the book but Marlowe’s final words are for a lawyer offering him more work. “I have a suggestion for you Mr Umney. Why don’t you go kiss a duck?” Raymond Chandler may have written his books in the 1950s, but they are still as fresh and stylish as they were then. You can find out more about the green Penguin books here.

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Playback by Raymond Chandler (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The bonnie village of East Linton (good photos) is 6 miles (just under 10K) from Dunbar and one of its most historic and enduring features is the Lynn Rocks, which can be seen from the bridge across the River Tyne at the entrance to the village. This bridge was built in the 1500s and transformed East Linton into a staging post on the main roads going west to Edinburgh and east towards the English border. The bridge (photo below) itself is a magnificent structure, with its mixture of red, brown/yellow sandstone blocks.

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The bridge at East Linton

The river flows gently under the bridge and then turns into a torrent as it approaches the gully between the rocks, seen below.

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Lynn Rocks in East Linton

There’s a drama about rushing water that fascinates us – the movement, the speed, the sound, the ever-changing colours seem to entrance us into gazing, rather than looking, into the gushing water. In the photo below, you can almost feel the movement of the water and there are a million shapes being formed and lasting only for a split second. This image reminded me of some of Ruth Brownlee’s paintings of  not just swirling waves, but swirling skies

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Fast flowing water at the Lynn Rocks in East Linton

Once the water passes the gully, all is peaceful. It is as if the water got into a furious argument with the drop in height, fumed and spumed, shouted and screamed, raged and struck out in all directions for a few seconds, and then calmed down, as the in the photo below.

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A calming river past the Lynn Rocks in East Linton

If you are ever passing through East Linton e.g. on your way to the famous Preston Mill, then you should stop and walk down to the Lynn Rocks.