Archive for the ‘countryside’ 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

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

Scottish Birds photography and the white sands of Jervis Bay

January 22, 2019

As a member of the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club, albeit as only an occasional bird watcher, I receive the journal Scottish Birds – see latest cover ( and some content) here. For serious birders – do not use the pejorative term twitchers – there are many well researched and peer-reviewed articles in the journal. My main interest is in the photography. Through the help of Harry Scott of Pica Design and with the permission of the photographers, I am able to reproduce three aesthetically pleasing examples here.

The first is of a honey-buzzard (below) which was captured in flight, showing its magnificent wingspan. This bird is a living creature but also a work of art. It is beautifully symmetrical – look at the outer wing, finger-like feathers and the Australian aboriginal-like painting patterns on the wings. The bird’s tail could be a Japanese fan, used to display status and cool down its user, as opposed to being part of this superb hunter’s killing machine. The eyes and the beak look small and insignificant in comparison, but they too are part of the hunter’s toolkit. I see many more common buzzards as I cycle around the countryside than I did a few years ago and buzzards often sit on fences next to a dual carriageway in our county. They look in control of their territory and their elegant flight is something to see.

Honey Buzzard – Copyright John Anderson (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The second photo is of avocets (below)which have the superb Latin name recurvirostra avosetta, which translates as having a curved back and beak. The avocet really is a most elegant bird, with its long straight legs like pillars holding up an earthquake threatened building, an upright stance and that beak which is turned up at the end, giving the bird a haughty look. There’s an excellent video of avocets here (scroll down to the video) where you can hear the birds chitter-chattering and watch their non-stop action in preening and feeding.

Avocets Copyright Ron Penn

The third photo (below) is a new bird to me, the kildeer (good photos) – the charadrius vociferous – which has a distinctive call and is a rare visitor to the UK. This photo was taken in Shetland and was only the 5th sighting in 50 years. This is a small bird but the shapes formed by the colours of the feathers around the eye, beak and neck give it a rare elegance. The subtle brown of the feathers on its back draws your eye to the black stripes and up to the slightly darker brown around its alert eye.

Kildeer Copyright Donna Atherton

While staying with our friends on our last stop in Australia recently, they took us down the coast to the idyllic beaches at Jervis Bay (good photos). We have a beach called Whitesands not far from Dunbar and it is a beautiful beach. In terms of being white however, Jervis Bay beaches are a long way ahead. The photo below shows one of the white beaches through the trees next to the road above the beach and you can see the brightness of the beach and the delicate turquoise of the sea.

Once you were down on the shore, there were big waves rolling in. The water was not as warm as we enjoyed in Port Douglas, but it was still very pleasant for a paddle. You can see in the photo below the whiteness of the collapsed waves, the bluey green sea behind and the slope of the beach. There was a considerable drag each time a wave performed its diving act and turned back to meet the next wave.

As we walked through the bush at the edge of the beach, we came across this friendly gecko, which was completely undisturbed by my close-up photography and seemed willing to pose for the camera. In the first photo below, the gecko catches your eye first but then you see the huge spider-like split in the tree trunk, as you follow the gecko’s tail to the leaf-laden floor of the bush.

In the next photo, the gecko’s ability to camouflage itself is apparent and when it climbed further up the tree trunk, it was hard to spot against the darker wood. I loved the rough curves and lines of the gum tree trunk, which had cast off the bark it no longer needed. There is a plethora of Australian geckos which you can see here. If you have more time and patience than me, I’m sure you might be able to identify this particular type of gecko.

Lucy Newton exhibition and back to Wagga Wagga

January 8, 2019

We recently visited Lucy Newton‘s superb exhibition of wildlife paintings at Waterston House, Aberlady. The exhibition runs until 16 January and it really is worth a visit. I last reviewed Lucy Newton’s work on the blog in 2017 and I did wonder if this new exhibition could be a as good as the previous one. The new exhibition is not just as good but better than the previous one, with the artist’s intelligence, skills and brilliant technique on show to even greater effect. Lucy Newton kindly sent me examples of her work.

The first portrait below is an exquisite depiction of a curlew – my favourite bird – which I regularly watch through my scope on the rocks near our house. The actual painting is much more effective in terms of the quality of the bird’s features and background, but I do like the way the artist has portrayed the elegance of the curlew with its long beak, strong upright stance and delicate colours in its plumage. There is a slight haughtiness but not arrogance in the curlew – it knows that it is bigger than other birds and can delve further under the rocks than the others also. I recently watched a curlew twist its head and push its beak under a rock. The beak emerged with a good sized crab wriggling in it. The curlew nonchalantly tossed the crab in the air, opened its beak and swallowed the crab whole.

Curlew by Lucy Newton (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The second painting below is of a grey wagtail and again, this reproduction of the work does not do it full justice. The colours of the wagtail immediately catch your eye, the delicate greys and the striking yellow contrasting very well with the more Impressionist depiction of the rocks behind. The detail in the bird’s feathers is very impressive and Lucy Newton captures the tense awareness of the bird – ever alert to what might be happening in its environment. The artist catches the softer elements of the wagtail’s plumage, but also the sharp lines of its beak, legs and tail to very good effect. I looked at this painting for quite a while, forever noticing some new detail.

Grey wagtail by Lucy Newton

The third example from the exhibition is of a red squirrel and here Lucy Newton’s artistry shines out. Look at the bristling tail of the squirrel, its soft ears and nose and very keen eye. Again the sharp portrait of the animal contrasts with the softer background of the tree trunk, with its gnarled features and lichens, which are so softly painted that you feel that if you reached out, they would be delicate to your touch. Few artists have the ability to draw and paint the squirrel’s fur in such beautiful detail, but Lucy Newton has the imagination, skill and remarkable technique to produce such an outstanding piece of art. Get to see this exhibition if you possibly can. Unsurprisingly, many of the paintings had been sold.

Red squirrel by Lucy Newton

In the 2000s, we lived in the New South Wales town of Wagga Wagga for 3 years, when I worked at Charles Sturt University. I then taught from my home in Dunbar for another 6 years, going back to Wagga (as the locals call it) for 6 weeks every year. We returned to see many friends at Wagga Wagga Road Runners on our recent visit to Australia and stayed with our very good friends Paul and Sonya – superb hosts. The Murrumbidgee River (good photos) flows through Wagga Wagga – designated as an inland city – and there are some lovely walks along the river close to the centre of town. The photo below shows some of the beautiful gum trees along the riverside. The gum trees of course shed their bark, not their leaves and then they reveal smooth trunks. I like the reflections in this photo – of the trees, the riverbank and the cow on the far side.

Gum trees on the Murrumbidgee in Wagga Wagga

One of the remarkable features of the river at dusk is the arrival of very excited and very loud sulphur crested cockatoos – photo below. If you check the link and scroll down to Calls, you will hear the screeching noise these birds make. Imagine the racket you will hear if you go down to the river at dusk and maybe 200 birds arrive to roost, but not before they produce a deafening cacophony. They are attractive looking birds with their distinctive yellow crest and white plumage and will land quite close to you.

Sulphur crested cockatoo

We also made a nostalgic visit to the Pomingalarna Reserve (good photos) to walk around one of the many tracks. When we arrived in Australia we quickly discovered that you cannot run (my wife) nor cycle (me) in most country areas as you can in Scotland, so you need to go to designated areas. The reserve is well known as the home of two mobs of kangaroos and it is unusual for a visitor to the park – runner, cyclist or walker – not to see a kangaroo. We only saw some of these amazing animals from a distance, as the photo below shows, but we did see a large group bounding across the grass and into the forest – a fascinating sight. The second photo is from 2011 and shows the kangaroos on the golf course at the entrance to Pomingalarna. When conditions are very dry, the kangaroos will venture on to the course to find water. Note the flag on the green in the background.

Pomingalarna is a very interesting and attractive part of Wagga Wagga as it features a wide variety of trees, animals and birds, so it is well worth a visit if you are in the vicinity.

 

Kangaroos at Pomingalarna

The Illegal Age by Ellen Hinsey and Karangahake Gorge Walk

December 17, 2018

There are very few books of poetry that make you feel uncomfortable while reading them. You admire the versatility of the poet, the striking imagery and the immaculate construction of the book, but the content is disturbing. Ellen Hinsey‘s The Illegal Age (review) is one of the these books. The subject of the book is totalitarianism across the world and what she refers to as “political illegality” as seen, many would argue, in regimes such as that in Turkey today. So this is not poetry for the faint-hearted and it may be seen as very different from lyrical poetry dealing with nature for example. On the other hand, it is not so different, in that the poet is using imagery to allow us to examine the subject of the poems. The book is highly structured, with 3 sections, each with 7 sub-sections and the reviewer above suggest that the poet may be trying to replicate the bureaucratic structures of oppressive regimes – something I had not thought about.

The first section beings “Nothing happens quickly; each day weighs on the next -/ Until the instant comes -” when someone walking “along/ The foggy lane in innocence”  disappears. This suggests the gradualism of oppression. Another section deals with The Inconceivable which again creeps up on society until it is too late. This reminded me of Germany in the 1920s and 1930s when most people would have seen the consequent rise of Nazism as inconceivable at the time. Hinsey then writes “.. the Inconceivable seeps forward, mastering territory with the unpredictable sleight of a storm’s stealth” – a frightening but beautiful image. In The Denunciation, subtitled East Germany 1979, a woman reflects on her husband/lover’s betrayal, asking when it began e.g. “when you sat together by the braille of a restless lake” or when he kissed her “by the prying iridescent eye of the butterfly”. Both these images – of the lake and the butterfly – are very imaginative and in another context would be uplifting and Hinsey does this throughout the book, to great effect. 

This will not be the most comfortable read of you life, but it does stress how important it is to record the rise of oppression and to remember it. Hinsey’s imagery will stay with you for a long time. 

Ellen Hinsey’s powerful book of poems (Click on all captions to enlarge the images)

On our trip to New Zealand, our niece took us to Karangahake Gorge (good photos) which is the site of an old gold mine. There are a number of different walks and we chose one of the longer ones which took us to the top of the hill which housed the mine. There are many interesting boards along the way and the one at the start of the walk (below) gives you an insight into what you might be encountering along the way. 

Karangahake Gorge in New Zealand’s North Island

It was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that gold mining was undertaken by large British companies at Karangahake and there is a good history here. As you go up the mount, you come across the remains of the mining infrastructure and equipment. Working in these gold mines was a hazardous occupation, as cyanide was widely used to extract the gold. The information board below shows some of the machinery used to crush the stone and then to mix the ore with cyanide. The ore/cyanide mix was made into bullion and on the bottom right, you can see a photo of a man pouring the molten liquid into a barrow. Health and safety regulations were unheard of in those days and other boards told of the fatalities that occurred in the mines. 

The use of cyanide in gold mining at Karangahake Gorge

As you climb to the top of the Mount Karangahake you pass many of the railway lines used to transport the stone down to the processing plant near the river. You also go through dark tunnels (phone torches needed) and you get the feeling of how claustrophobic it must have been in many parts of the mine. The walk is steep in parts and tricky in others but it is worth climbing to near the summit to get the views down to the river, as in the photo below. 

View from one of the lookouts down to the river at the Karangahake Gorge

One of the most fascinating features of this walk was the variety of ferns which we encountered along the way. The ferns themselves were of a multiplicity of greens and very attractive in themselves. What was more striking were the fronds which emerged from the ferns. The photo below shows the fronds emerging from a silver fern  and the stem is called a koru. 

Silver fern with fronds emerging from the korus

A close-up view (below) shows the delicacy of the frond which looks as if it could have been knitted or woven and the design might be used as the figurehead of a walking stick. With its delicate hairs on display, it also resembles what might be a curled up millipede, waiting to strike the next unassuming insect. This is nature as sculpture and a strikingly beautiful example of it. 

Silver fern frond in Karangahake Gorge

The Karangahake Gorge/Mount walk is an exhilarating one from start to finish and I highly recommend it to anyone visiting the area. Near the end of the walk, I took this video at the side of the river.

Visit to Peebles and Dawyck Gardens

November 5, 2018

It’s 3 years since Peebles featured on the blog here and 4 years since I highlighted signs in Peebles here. This was a coldish but sun-filled day and the autumnal colours were having their annual beauty contest in the trees by the river and on the river paths. This is the view from the main road bridge in Peebles, looking along the river Tweed.

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Looking down the river Tweed from the Tweed Bridge in Peebles (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The next photo is taken from the other side of this bridge and looks over the town centre towards the hills in the distance. The Leckie Memorial Church spire is prominent and there is a range of colours in the trees.

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Looking over the park and town towards the hills in Peebles

What we did not know at this point, was that the colours seen from the bridge paled into insignificance compared to what we were about to experience. Our main purpose for the day was to visit Dawyck Gardens which is an offshoot of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (good photos). The name “gardens” is rather a misnomer for the Dawyck experience as it consists mainly of woodland, but this is extremely well nurtured woodland, with labels helping you to identify the many variety of trees. The site changes with the seasons, with swathes of snowdrops and daffodils in spring,  and beautiful azaleas in summer. We were treated to the autumn spectacle. Having paid to enter at the well-stocked shop, you can follow a variety of paths through the woods. In addition to the splendour of the scenery, this is good exercise as you walk to the top of the gardens and through the different areas. We were alerted to the domed acer (photo below) near the start of the walk and a stunning sight it is. The acer or Japanese maple is relatively common in the UK but we had never seen one as eye-catching as this sudden splash of deep pink in the midst of evergreens. It is also a very shapely tree.

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Domed acer in Dawyck Gardens

There is also a magnificent range of impressive Douglas Fir trees, named after the Scottish botanist David Douglas, and many of the trees here were grown from seed, whose descendants were brought to Scotland by David Douglas. The one shown below is an excellent specimen and it is only when stand underneath one of these trees that you get to appreciate their height, solidity and what looks like bubbling growth. These trees dominate their surrounds and while the other trees may appear smaller, you appear very small indeed.

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Douglas Fir at Dawyck Gardens near Peebles

There are a number of benches in the woods and taking a seat in one of the benches at the top of the forest, you are rewarded with stunning views. The photo below shows one such view, looking at a wide variety of trees and the hills above Peebles in the background. As your eye wanders across the scene, you go from the multi-coloured and multi-patterned deciduous trees to the larger and smaller fir trees, with the smaller ones making elegant green triangles on the leafy ground. You can sit for quite a while here and always catch something different as you survey this aesthetically pleasing landscape.

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Dawyck Gardens looking over the hills near Peebles

There is a huge variety of trees here and some are quite unusual, such as the sorbus munda belowWhat was fascinating about this tree was that, as you approached it, you feared for its survival because it was covered in lichen. However, another visitor with good knowledge of trees told us that the lichen was a sign of a very healthy sorbus munda, despite the fact that the lichen was making the attractive berries quite hard to see.

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Sorbus munda at Dawyck Gardens near Peebles

In contrast, the sorbus commixta, a similar tree of Chinese origin, had little lichen and a beautiful display of berries as shown below.

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Sorbus commixta at Dawyck Gardens near Peebles

I took many more photos of the trees, the paths and the carpets of leaves – too many to show here. I leave you with a video of part of this wonderful forest, to which we shall return in the spring. We are off to Australia and New Zealand for 3 weeks in a few days time, so blog posts may be more intermittent than usual.

 

Peter Carey’s A Long Way From Home and the National Gallery of Ireland

October 11, 2018

I have just finished Peter Carey’s remarkable novel A Long Way From Home which features two very distinct voices of the main characters in the book. Peter Carey is one of Australia’s best known novelists and has won the Man Booker Prize twice, once with his truly original novel The True History of the Kelly Gang, which featured the remarkable voice of the semi-literate Kelly. In the current book, there are two distinct voices which dominate the book in alternate chapters. The first voice is of the feisty and diminutive (in height only) Irene Bobs who gets married to her car salesman husband Titch. Irene is determined to succeed and has refined humorous descriptions of events and people down to a fine art, for example in her dealings with her rascally father in law Dan. The second voice is of Willie Bachhuber, a very intelligent and thoughtful teacher, who is accident prone in life and love. He is dismissed for hanging a pupil, the son of a local villain, upside down outside a classroom window. He moves next door to the Bobs family and ends up being a navigator for their car in the famous Australian Redex Trial, a hair-raising race around Australia in the 1950s. You can get a flavour of the race in the video below.

This is the adventure story part of the book but the novel is much more than a rip-roaring tale. The family tensions within the Bobs family deal with love and emotion. The other major part of the novel deals with Australia’s history of ill-treatment (and earlier genocide) of the aboriginal peoples who once owned all the land. The story of Willie Bachhuber and his family background is often moving but never sentimental, and his teaching of aboriginal children – and learning from them – is inspirational. Carey carefully intertwines the stories of his characters, both white people and aboriginal “blackfellahs”, a term used by both races. This compulsive novel is by turns hilarious and heart-wrenching and contains Carey’s often poetic but always immaculately structured sentences. Some examples: “Mrs Bobs piloted with her nose just above the wheel, checking her mirrors left, right and centre. I was reminded of a sparrow eating”. “Clover was about my own age, tall and slender as a flooded gum”. “Doctor Battery [an aboriginal man] sang softly, with sufficient authority, it seemed, to lift the sun up from the sand, suck the shadows out across the plain”. Go out and buy this novel and the voices of the two main characters will remain with you for a long time.

Carey novel

Peter Carey’s enthralling new novel (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The final experience of our trip to Dublin was a visit to the impressive National Gallery of Ireland which has an excellent range of Irish artists, as  well as works of the more famous such as Monet, Vermeer and Turner (click on links for examples of their work). My main aim was to learn more – and see examples of – Irish painting and portraiture, and I was not disappointed. The first painting which really caught my eye is The Sunshade by William Leech. The colours in the painting range from vivid to subtle and the sunlight on the woman’s top contrasts with the shadows created by the umbrella. The woman’s top veers from green at the top to bright yellow at the bottom. There is delicacy everywhere in this most attractive painting – in the fine lines of the umbrella, in the woman’s elegant neck and in her fine hands. What is she thinking as she stares into space and her fingers touch on the umbrella’s handle? I think that the artist would leave that for us as individuals to interpret.

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The Sunshade by William Leech

The second work of art is Carting Seaweed on Sutton Sands by Joseph Malachy Kavanagh. The information beside painting – done in 1895 – tells us that collecting seaweed on beaches near Dublin “for food, medicine and fertiliser” was a common practice, as it was elsewhere in Europe. There is so much to admire in this painting – the doleful horses waiting patiently to haul the ever-heightening load of seaweed; the ominous dark clouds, which may be moving away from their lighter and fluffier counterparts – or approaching them; the wet sand with puddles reflecting the wheels and the horses’ feet; the waves which make little impact on the shore; and the man who is busy collecting the seaweed in his rough clothes, with a tear in his waistcoat at the back. Part of the scene echoes Philip Larkin’s lines in To the Sea – “the small, hushed waves’ repeated fresh collapse”. As I live by the sea, paintings of beaches always intrigue me and this painting was no exception.

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Carting Seaweed on Sutton Sands by Joseph M Kavanagh

The final painting is by Sir John Lavery (many examples) some of whose works I have seen in the National Gallery of Scotland (example)The one I have chosen from Dublin is Return from Market, painted in France, as was the Leech example above. This impressionist work shows a mother and daughter returning from the market in a small rowing boat, although the girl is using the oar like a punt. This is quite a large painting, so you can stand back and admire the gentle reflections of the woods and the boat on the water. The leaves at the top and the beautiful water lilies at the bottom of the painting give the work a calming and perhaps dream-like quality. It is a rustic and timeless scene. I like the way the artist captures the serenity of the water lilies, just as they are about to be swept aside by the boat.

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Return from Market by John Lavery

The National Gallery of Ireland is in an impressive, modern building. The lay-out can be confusing but the staff were friendly, helpful and informative. It was a pleasure to visit.

Prague Nights and the Food Programme on seeds

September 10, 2018

I have just finished reading Benjamin Black’s intriguing historical novel Prague Nights. Benjamin Black is the well-known pen name of award-winning Irish writer John Banville and in this novel, which could be described as crime fiction also, we get a mixture of the lyrical writing of Banville and the more playful writing of Black. The novel begins “Few now recall that it was I who discovered the corpse of Dr Kroll’s misfortunate daughter thrown upon the snow that night in Golden Lane” – a good crime novel starts with a body. Further on we read “Such stars there were! – like a hoard of jewels strewn across a dome of taut black silk” and this is more Banville than  Black. I got the impression that Black/Banville was having fun in creating the characters in this novel. Firstly , there is the protagonist Christian Stern, a by turns over-confident and fearful young man who comes to Prague in 1599 and finds a dead body in the street. Stern is fortunate that the emperor Rudolf II, whose dead mistress Stern has found, sees the new arrival as an omen for good and adopts Stern as his protégé. He also demands that Stern finds out how murdered the young woman. Secondly, there is the lascivious seductress Caterina  Sardo with whom Stern has a torrid affair. Stern quickly finds out the machinations of Rudolf’s court and discovers that he can trust no-one, including Sardo – a partly comic character. The city of Prague in winter is another character in the novel – this is really a novel with (no spoiler here) more than one murder, rather than a crime novel – and Black gives a detailed account of the abject poverty and  lush richness at both ends of the social spectrum. For those hoping for a fast-moving plot, this is not for you. The author’s plot is meandering but gets there in the end. What you remember is not so much whodunit but where it was done, who was involved and what will happen to Christian Stern, who at times has a seemingly precarious existence. Black/Banville is always worth reading for the quality of the prose and the laconic wit. Highly recommended.

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Benjamin Black’s engrossing historical novel (Click on all photos to enlarge)

A recent Food Programme podcast caught my ears to good effect. The topic was seeds and the programme covered a range of different aspects of the grain which humans have used over the millennia for food and drink. The programme begins with an interview with Noel Kingsbury, the author of Hybrid: The History and Science of Plant Breeding who states that today’s “natural” foods which people increasing seek out, are in fact the results of “selective breeding and hybridisation over thousands of years”, although that does not make them less healthy than processed food. Another interviewee notes that legislation has meant that many varieties of seeds are now privately owned and that some “traditional” seed varieties are not covered and cannot be sold. One organisation trying to preserve seed varieties in the UK is the Heritage Seed Library at Garden Organics in Ryton, Coventry and the work of the library, which encourages people to grow and swap unusual varieties of vegetables, is discussed in the programme. There are now a range of programmes across the world which seek to preserve seed varieties threatened with extinction and some of these programmes research the quality of wheat and barley seeds before giving them to farmers to grow. I found this a fascinating programme, so give it a go. This issue of the Food Programme coincides with harvest time here in East Lothian and it is a real pleasure to cycle around the countryside past fields where the farmers have left bales to stand and be admired. I think that it should be compulsory for farmers to do this, as an aesthetic contribution to the countryside, rather than removing the bales immediately. This year, I have noticed more square bales, such as these taken at St Abbs head recently.

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Square bales, farm buildings and sheep in the field at St Abbs Head

 

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Horses, trees, square bales and hills at St Abbs Head

Finally, a photo of round bales first featured here in 2014. This was a field of barley from which beer is made and in Dunbar we have our own Belhaven Brewery, the oldest in Scotland.

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Round bales in a North Belton Farm field, near Dunbar

Arild, Sweden and summer flowers

August 16, 2018

On our recent trip to Denmark and Sweden, we drove across the famous Oresund Bridge. When you drive on to the bridge, you are under the water for a while and this doesn’t become clear until you see it from the air. It is a magnificent piece of engineering. Our destination was the very pretty seaside village of Arild and we stayed at the excellent Hotell Rusthållargården. It is a tiny village but has a very attractive harbour and pleasant walks along the rocky shoreline. We saw many people going swimming there and the water is much warmer than you might expect for Sweden – much warmer than in the UK. One surprising local custom is for people to go swimming and walk back up the road to their house or hotel in the their dressing gown. This could be seen all day and in the evening i.e. not just in the morning. The harbour (photo below) was once the preserve of the local fishing fleet, but today it is mainly leisure craft, with only a couple of fishing boats to be seen.

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Arild harbour (Click on all photos to enlarge)

There is still evidence of fishing in the village as seen in the nets which were hung up to dry next to the harbour (photo below). A local told us that these were eel nets and he hinted that fishing for eels may not be legal.

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Eel nets in Arild

I took a video of the harbour.

We visited the local church, known as Arilds Kapell which has origins in the 15th century and the modern Lutheran church dates back to the 18th century. It has an interesting interior, with its austere seating brightened up by the decoration on the side of each pew (picture below).

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Inside Arilds Kapell

At the back of the church is a collection box which, as you can see below, was very well protected from thieves by 3 large locks. Whether this reflects on the honesty of the local population over the centuries or a “take no chances” attitude of the church authorities was not made clear.

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Arilds Kappell collection box

What was more impressive were the model ships hanging from the ceiling – a reflection of the village’s past fishing history and one of the ships is shown below. In 1827, this must have been a magnificent sight just off the coast of Arild, as a ship of this size would not have been able to enter  the harbour.

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Model ship in Arilds Kapell

The church is hardly used now but remains a striking building, which is obviously well looked after by the locals. Arild is a busy little village in the summer and there are a range of walks along the coast. Not far from Arild is the Kullen Lighthouse which we visited after walking along the  high cliffs nearby and enjoying the spectacular views. The countryside around Arild is very much like that of East Lothian with fields of barley, wheat, oats, potatoes and cabbages to be seen, so we very much felt at home.

It’s summer flowers time on the blog, as the garden is probably now at its peak. The weeks of warm and mainly dry weather this summer has meant a lot of watering of plants and my hose has never been out of the garage as much as recently. The lavender in front of our house has been particularly prolific this year (photo below). Lavender’s botanical name is Lavendula and the plant has an interesting history. The name comes from the Latin lavare to wash and lavender has been used in perfume and soaps for thousands of years. Leonardo da Vinci wrote that to make good perfume, use rose-water and then “take a lavender flower and rub it with your palms, and you will have the desired effect”.

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Lavender in our front garden

The lavender has attracted hundreds of bees each day and, in the never-ending pursuit of close-up bee photographs, I managed to capture this bee on a lavender flower.

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Bee on a lavender flower

We’ve also had a better show this year of agapanthus flowers. In the photo below, the white, bell-like flowers of the white agapanthus are interspersed with the lavender. This happened as the agapanthus grew up beside the lavender bush. Agapanthus or African Lily have delicate flower heads, which are stunningly beautiful when they appear, but they do not last long particularly if there is a strong wind. When we lived in Australia in the 2000s, agapanthus was seen as a weed – an alien species from South Africa – in some states, as it spread rapidly and often replaced local plants.

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Agapanthus with intruding lavender.

This was the first year we had white agapanthus, having only had the blue variety since we bought 2 plants, and this is evidence of how they can spread. The blue flower heads (see below) are a delight. The head appears slowly and then reveals a multitude of blue raindrops which develop into delicate trumpets in a few days.

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Blue agapanthus flower head

I will return to our summer flowers in the blog in due course, but this is definitely the best display of flowers we’ve had for many years, due to the continuing warm, dry weather we’ve had for weeks.