Archive for the ‘books’ Category

Kathleen Jamie poem and trees and ewes at Smeaton Gardens

February 5, 2019

In the latest Poetry Book Society Bulletin (Winter 2018), there is a poem from the well known poet Kathleen Jamie. It is from her latest book Selected Poems and is entitled Skeins O Geeese – a poem written in Scots. It begins

Skeins of geese write a word / across the sky. A word / struck lik a gong / afore I was born. / The sky moves like cattle, lowin’.

I found two interesting aspects of this poem. Firstly, the dramatic images and secondly, that it reads as well in English as it does in Scots, although the poet herself (and others) may not agree, of course. We often get skeins of geese above us in the autumn (going south) and in the spring (going north) and it is a wonderful sight – a moving V across the sky. I had never thought of the onward skein as words being written in the sky, but I do like the image. The second image here – of the sky moving like lowing cattle – is also eyebrow raising and the next time you see clouds slowly moving across the sky, you might think of cattle. The poem is not just about the sky. On the ground,

Wire twists lik archaic script/ roon a gate. The barbs / sign tae the wind as though / it was deef. The word whustles / ower high for ma senses. Awa.

Only a poet as perceptive and lyrical as Jamie could see twisted wire on a farm gate as archaic script, but it is an apt simile if you picture hieroglyphics on a stone. The image of the wire using sign language to the deaf wind is also striking and the poet accepts that, as a mere human, she cannot hear the words of the wire. Again, if you read this in English, it loses none of its effect. Whustles or Whistles? Is one better than the other? Jamie obviously prefers the Scots. You can read the whole poem, as published in the prestigious Times Literary Supplement here.

New book by Kathleen Jamie (Click on all photos to enlarge)

Another cold winter’s day but with a brilliant blue sky and we parked the car at the bottom of the hill and walked up to Smeaton Gardens (good photos). Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a fascination with trees and on this walk up to the garden centre, there are a variety of kinds of trees, tree shapes and tree silhouettes. The first tree below is an evergreen but despite searching for a similar tree, I do not know what type of tree it is, but it could be a Scots pine. It stands out in the winter as most of the other trees are bare. This tree is obviously quite old as it has grown separate trunks above the base. It is an untidy looking tree, with its floppy branches and gaps everywhere and yet it stands in its own magnificence and looks warmer than its naked neighbours.

Evergreen tree at Smeaton Gardens

The second tree is a polar opposite to the first one. This tree looks as if it has suffered a lightning strike to its top and an electric shock to its branches, which although static, appear to be waving about. In the background, to the bottom left, North Berwick Law (good photos) can be seen above the distant forest.

Damaged tree at Smeaton Gardens

As you enter the grounds of Smeaton Gardens, there is a sign saying “Pregnant ewes” and warning dog owners to keep their beasts on a lead. We saw the ewes at the top of the drive. These are no ordinary ewes and the photo below shows their thick woollen coats and muscular looking bodies. The ewes were feeding amongst the horse jumping arena near the garden centre and you half expected to see one or more of them leap over one of the obstacles on the course.

Ewes amongst the horse jumps at Smeaton Gardens

On closer inspection (photo below), some of the ewes appeared to be small brown bears which had stolen in to the ewes’ enclosure to feed on the lush looking grass. The ewes were at first curious and came near us but, maybe working out that we were not going to provide them with extra food, they meandered off, looking none too pleased at our potential intrusion. It’s now February, so lambing cannot be far off for these expectant mothers.

Brown bear looking ewes at Smeaton Gardens
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James Lee Burke’s “Robicheaux” and countryside frost

January 29, 2019

I have just finished reading Robicheaux by the noted US author James Lee Burke. This book is classified as a crime novel and indeed, there is much crime and many criminals to be found in the book, but Burke is such a lyrical writer, especially when describing the bayou settings in the novel, that it should be a novel first and a crime novel second. The titular hero Dave Robicheaux, has featured in many of Burke’s novel and is now semi-retired – officially – but he becomes fully involved in an investigation of a series of murders which involve police on the take, corrupt politicians, gangsters and a terrifying psychopath. Burke has always been a social commentator in his novels, although he never preaches. The book highlights the social tensions in US society between rich and poor, black and white, moral and amoral. One of the key characters in the book is Jimmy Nightingale, a populist politician who plays on the racist and anti-immigrant prejudices of many of his constituents, and is running for the senate, with hopes of higher office. Sounds familiar.

Robicheaux himself is a complex character, who is a recovering and occasionally lapsing alcoholic and Vietnam veteran. His fight is against criminals and the corrupt, but also against himself and his sometimes violent tendencies. His best pal is Clete Purcel, another complicated man whose view is that injustice is best served via violence against the perpetrators. Robicheaux tries to help Purcel and Purcel tries to keep his friend sober. Burke’s dialogue is one of his great strengths and it can be humorous. The pair meet in a bar and it looks like Purcel may be on a bender. Robicheaux asks “Why not put your brain in a jar and give it to a medical school”. The reply is “I did that five years ago. They gave it back”.

This is a mainly male-dominated novel but some of the female characters are well developed, such as Robicheaux’s female boss. Burke has always been a superb story teller and he keeps a complex plot moving and provides the reader with intriguing possibilities as to who might be behind the crime wave that is emerging in the county. Another character is the bayou itself and Burke has many poetic descriptions of the environment in which Robicheaux has his home. For example: “The coastline was a heartbreaking green inside the mist. Flying fish broke from the bay’s surface and sailed above the water …. The salt spray breaking on my bow was cold and fresh and smelled of resilience”. Reading Burke’s novel, you get a sense of the beauty and the danger (e.g. crocodiles) of the natural world, as well as the human world. This is a pacy thriller – but much more than that.

James Lee Burke’s captivating novel (Click on all photos to enlarge)

We now go from the heat and humidity of the Louisiana bayou to the cold and frost (but beautiful blue skies) of south east Scotland. On a recent Sunday morning, we drove 2 miles up country and parked the car at Oswald Dean, locally known as Oasie Dean and went on a circular walk. There was a heavy frost at our house and it was even thicker up the country, but there is a startlingly bright beauty about a frosted scene, such as this one, looking over the bridge at Oasie Dean. The trees, bushes and grass are all whitened and make the blue of the burn more outstanding than normal. The burn interrupts the imposed stillness of its surroundings.

Frosted meadow at Oswald Dean near Dunbar

Just across the road, on the wall above the neighbouring field, I spotted the frozen ivy leaves. The leaves and grass on this side of the wall remained white and stiff, while the leaves at the top and the yellow moss on the right of the photo below, had been restored to suppleness by the sun.

Frosted ivy and sun restored moss on the wall at Oswald Dean

On closer inspection (photo below), the ivy leaves appeared to be delicately dusted with frost, which served not to conceal, but to emphasise the delicate patterns of the veins on the leaves. Some were completely iced over and prickly-looking, while others were only fringed by ice and displayed what looked like a huge river, with tributaries on either side.

Frosted ivy leaves at Oswald Dean

We continued our walk up past The Doonery, now a collection of houses but formerly a farm, with an impressive chimney. Looking back at the Doonery (photo below) the edge of the path which was sheltered from the sun, was still frost-bound. I like the long straight lines in the photo, leading your eye to the bare trees and the former farm buildings.

Frosty pathside leading to the Doonery

Further up, this path has some magnificent trees which glowed in the bright blue winter sunlight. In the photo below, you can see the shadows cast by the trees. It looks like a man or woman is reaching up to pick something off the branches. The tress maybe leafless in January but they still impress with their sturdiness and shining trunks. Above the darker blue sea in the background, the sky goes from pale to a similar dark blue.

Trees on the path up to Doon Hill cast interesting shadows

We came back down the hill via Spott Farm which now appears to be open to walkers and runners, having been closed off for a number of years. The farm has many solid sandstone buildings and as you turn one corner, you see the farm clock (photo below), with its small campanile above. The roof had been partly in the sun, but the frost was still thick on the unwarmed sections.

We were walking down the driveway from the main Spott House building, when 3 deer leapt the fence to our right and bounced across the road into the next field. Seeing deer dash away from you, with their white rumps disappearing into the field, is always a pleasure to see. I managed to catch one of the deer (photo below) as it crossed the tree-lined driveway and the still frosted grass. Again, the trees cast shadows which left sunny rectangles on the road and the grass. A fine end to a very enjoyable walk.

A deer crosses over the road up to Spott House

“Mountains: Epic cycling climbs” and Whakarewarewa Maori village

January 1, 2019

At the moment, on my little easel in the room where I write, there is a book which one of my sons gave me for my birthday this year. It is (cover below) entitled “Mountains: Epic cycling climbs” by Michael Blann. Each day, I turn over the page and see and read about some of the stunning looking, but often exhausting (for cyclists) roads, often with multiple bends, leading into the mountains. The book covers the mountain climbs in Le Tour de France but also the Vuelta a Espana, the Giro d’Italia and Swiss and Austrian cycle races. There are many beautiful photographs in the book of the landscapes through which the cyclists pass at various times of the year, so the photos can appeal to those interested in cycling but also to those who have no interest, but enjoy seeing very different mountain views in European countries.

M Blann’s superb book (click on all photos to enlarge)

I picked out two photos from the book to show contrasting views of the mountain climbs. The first view (below) shows the twisting route on the Luz Ardiden which is an HC climb – the toughest on Le Tour. HC means hors categorie i.e. beyond categorisation. This area is in the Haute (High) Pyrennees and the climb lasts 13.1K with some very steep parts included. The website notes that the descent from the top is the best of all descents in Le Tour. As you can see in the photo, the 25 hairpin bends would make this quite a spectacle on Le Tour with riders either straining every sinew to get to the top or risking a crash coming down the road at top speed, which can mean well over 100kph for the top riders. When you look at the enlarged photo and follow the bends, it can be quite hard to stop your eyes drifting down the side of the mountain. There is a building – looks like a house in the middle of the bottom 3rd of the picture. The house must have amazing views but, even in a car, this would be dizzying ascent to get home.

Luz Ardiden in the south of France

The second photo (below) is by way of contrast to the first photo and many of the views we get on the TV coverage of Le Tour – the castles, the forests, the fields of barley or sunflowers. This view shows that cyclists have to traverse some parts of the mountains which are not viewed as picturesque. This route is part of Le Cols des Champs  and is called the grey shale summit. As you can see in the top left of the photo, the areas is mixed and there are some very attractive parts of this ride on Le Tour. While this part of the race may look uninteresting because of the road going through what may be a disused shale mine, there is still a fascination in the potentially vertiginous descent in which the riders are engaged. There is also a stark beauty in the layering of the shale on the slopes.

Le Col des Champs – the grey shale summit

From France to New Zealand and a complete contrast in landscape. On our trip to the north island of New Zealand, we visited the town of Rotorua which is famous for its geysers. Our aim was to see the Maori village of Whakarewarewa (good video). The village’s name is pronounced Foka -rewa-rewa as our guide told us and she also gave us the full name of the village- in the photo below. The village is still owned and inhabited by local Maori people. On the tour, we were given the history of the village which dates back 300 years to a gathering of troops by a chief named Wahiao and the full name refers to this conflict between tribes.

Maori village in Rotorua

The photo below shows part of the village, which was built on geothermal land so the people could benefit from heat generated. The guide explained that this was potentially dangerous as a new geyser could erupt under any house. There were early warning signs and some houses had to be moved. It is a strange sensation when you first look across the houses, but as you walk through the village, you soon become accustomed to this new, steamy environment. What you do notice at the end of the tour, is that your feet are deliciously warm.

Whakarewarewa village – steam rising from geysers

The next photo below looks across one of the larger pools in the village. While it looks inviting – and the smell of sulphur was not very strong here – you could not bathe in these waters because of the temperature of the water and geysers which shot up at irregular intervals. There is an attractive reflection of the bushes and the houses in the water and you can see some of the more modern houses above the water. The village is a mixture of traditional bungalows and recently built 3-storey houses.
The “most volatile” of the geysers according to the map we were given is called Korotiotio which means grumpy old man and the temperatures can reach 120 degrees Celsius.

One of the larger pools in Whakarewarewa

At the end of the tour, there was a performance by Maori singers Te Pakira and the show included the traditional Haka war dance, some Maori songs and a demonstration of Maori stick games. Sometimes when you watch so-called “cultural” performances, you have the feeling that either you are patronising the performers or they are patronising you. However, there were no such feelings amongst our audience as this appeared to be a reasonably genuine recreation of Maori songs, dances and war dances. It was a lively and colourful performance as you see in the photo below.

Whakarewarewa performance

This was an excellent visit – educational, informative, entertaining and reasonably priced. If you are in the Rotorua area, you should not miss this. You can get an even better flavour of the village and the performance in this video.

Benjamin Black’s Holy Orders and Mount Maunganui

December 10, 2018

Holy Orders by Benjamin Black  (good video) is the 6th book in the 1950s Dublin-based series featuring the clever but self-doubting pathologist Quirke, his daughter Phoebe and his detective ally Hackett. Like the other Quirke novels, this may be classified as a crime novel, but this is a very well written novel, with a superb sense of place, an engaging plot and excellent characterisation, which has a crime as its centre. Benjamin Black is the pen name of Booker prize-winning author John Banville and this shows in some of the lyrical phrases which Black uses in the book to very good effect. You don’t read Benjamin Black for a page-turning potboiler, but you do read him for a story which will intrigue you as to which way it will turn. You also read him for his engaging characters, particularly Quirke who is often troubled by thoughts of his school days when he was abused by Catholic priests. In this novel, Black also fleshes out the character of his daughter Phoebe, whose journalist friend Jimmy Minor has been beaten to death and dumped in the Dublin canal. Quirke and Hackett set out to identify the killer(s) and there is a gradual build up to a satisfactory conclusion for the reader – no spoilers here. 

Black – like Banville – has some outstanding phrases in the book which stand out in the memory e.g. “In the fireplace, a dolmen of turf logs was smouldering sullenly”. A dolmen? The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as ” a group of stones consisting of one large flat stone supported by several vertical ones, built in ancient times “. Once you know the meaning, Black’s imagery is even more powerful. In describing Sally, Jimmy Minor’s sister, Black writes “Her hair shone like coils of dark copper”. Another powerful simile – “In Baggot Street, the trees shivered and shook like racehorses waiting for the off”. This is an impactful book in many ways and as the plot develops, more social issues in Ireland emerge and become part of the story. If you like well-written, well-plotted and sometimes drolly humorous novel, then this is definitely for you and it would make a great festive season gift. 

The 6th book in the Quirke series (Click on all captions  to enlarge photos)

On our trip to New Zealand, we visited my sister and brother-in-law in Tauranga (good photos).  Tauranga has a huge harbour with extensive docks which regularly house cruise liners and large container ships, such as the one below, heading for the harbour.

Container ship heading towards Tauranga harbour.

Mount Maunganui  lies on the other side of the harbour and is described as a “holiday paradise”. It has a beautiful stretch of beach and on a sunny summer’s day, with the white waves easing themselves ashore from a deep blue sea, you can see why. Here is the beach with the Mount at the end. 

Mount Maunganui beach and The Mount.

Originally a separate village from Tauranga, “The Mount” as local refer to it, is called after Mauoa which is the remaining top of an extinct volcano. You can walk up and over the Mount or around it and the 360 degree views are spectacular from the top, from where you can see the harbour,  Motuotau (Rabbit Island) (good photos), out to the ocean and along the beach. Below is a photo taken from the top of The Mount and looking over Mount Maunganui and the beach. It is quite a strenuous walk to the top of The Mount but we did it in 30 min as we are pretty fit. The track is quite rough in parts and there are some very steep inclines. So it is a good workout as well a rewarding walk, given the views from the top. 

View over Mount Maunganui beach 

There is also an excellent walking track around the base of The Mount. It is a much easier walk but it gives you time to appreciate the surroundings more – the trees, the sheep and the vegetation. I mentioned the many tankers going into Tauranga Harbour as well as the cruise liners. On our last visit in 2011, we were walking around The Mount when we were passed by this huge liner. You can see the size of the vessel by looking at the people on the track. We had seen this same cruise liner docked at Circular Bay in Sydney just a few days earlier. 

Cruise liner heading for Tauranga Harbour

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.

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