Archive for the ‘culture’ Category

Donal Ryan’s All We Shall Know and Autumnal sunset

November 12, 2018

I have just finished reading Donal Ryan‘s excellent novel All We Shall Know. It has a dramatic opening – “Martin Toppy is the son of a famous Traveller and the father of my unborn child. He is seventeen. I’m thirty three. I was his teacher”. The book’s chapters follow the weeks of the pregnancy – 12 to 39 and introduce some very interesting characters. The narrator is Melody Shee – a troubled woman and at the start of  the novel, I thought this might end up being a misery lit novel as Melody is depressed and angry. This does not last however and although we do hear about Melody’s failed marriage, there are incidents from her childhood and  school days. Melody then meets Mary, a traveller girl who seeks refuge with Melody from her family. Mary is barely literate but is lively and has a sharp wit. Another key character in the novel is Melody’s father, who supports her through thick and thin. He is a charming, quiet man and a devout Catholic. He also has some Irish phrases that many will not have come across before. When Melody visits, he says “You’re as welcome as the flowers in Spring”. This reminded me of the Robert Burns song “You’re welcome Willie Stewart” which has the lines “There’s ne’er a flower that blooms in May, That’s half sae welcome’s thou art!”. Here is Eddi Reader singing that song.

Ryan is an often poetic writer – “As she turned away again and I admired the sway of her, the queenly straightness of her back, the sceptred sureness of her step”. He also gives an insight into the culture of the travellers in Ireland – their extended family ties, their  disrepute (often undeserved) in the general community, and their feuds, in one of which Melody and Mary become involved. The ending is plausible but not convincing, whereas the rest of the book is well plotted and full of well-developed characters. Ryan manages to capture the Irish humour with some captivating dialogue, but he never lapses into cliches. I will be reading more of Ryan’s work in the future and I encourage you to do so as well.

Donal Ryan’s captivating novel (Click on all photos to enlarge)

In the UK, the clocks have now gone back and it is now dark by 6pm and much colder, although this does not stop us getting rugged up, as the Australians say, and going for a walk after our evening meal under a bright, starry sky. Just before the time change, we had one brilliant sunset which turned the partly cloudy sky into a stunning array of pink. This photo  shows the still blue sky scattered with pink-ribbed clouds, in contrast to the dark landscape of the town, with scaffolding on the church at the bottom left, while the sea at the bottom right is also turning pink. The sky changed as you watched it, as the light faded. What I like about this photo is that the clouds appear to be moving upwards – away from the town, as if they had been released into the sky from a canon.

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Autumnal sky above Dunbar

In this photo, you can see more of the reflection of the pinks clouds on the sea  and the dramatic swirl of the cloud above the town, which is tiny in comparison. I also like the variety of colours in the sky – the different blues, reds and pinks.

Autumnal sky over Dunbar

In the final photo of the sky only, the sky was darkening and there is quite a contrast between the left and right hand sides of the photo, as it was still quite light in the west but as your eyes went east over the sea, the light was in shorter supply, although this does not diminish the stunning patterns made by the clouds.

Darkening pink clouds over Dunbar

 

 

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Seville: Archivos des Indias and Esplanada d’Espana

October 30, 2018

In the centre of Seville, just along from the cathedral is the Archivos des Indias or General Archive of the Indies. The huge archival collection, which covers 300 years of Spanish colonisation in the Americas, is housed in a strikingly attractive building (see below) which has superbly crafted ironwork on it many balconies and eye-catching tiles around its upper sections.

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Archivos des Indias, Seville (Click on all photos to enlarge)

While many scholars visit the archives for research, most people go to see the interesting interior of the building. In the building’s many rooms, there are displays of examples of the archival material held there, such as Columbus’ letters to his son or a catalogue of fabric samples. What is most remarkable is the design of the interior with its delicately crafted wood and sculpted ceilings, which are worth taking time to look at closely. As you see in the photo below, there is a variety of symbols carved into the wood and these may represent the trades of the merchants who first used the building to carry out their trading.

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Carved wooden surrounds in the Archivos des Indias, Seville

As you walk down the marble stairs, there is an impressive array of carvings around the sign for the archives. In the photo below, above the name, there is a crown and carved crests and on either side of the sign, and there are beautiful marble pillars and star-shaped carvings. This symmetrical design – at once simple and complex – makes you stop on the staircase and look at the carvings. This is clearly the work of expert craftsmen.

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Part of the staircase in the Archivo des Indias, Seville

I took a wee video of the inside of the main room in the archive – see below. There was also a 15 minute video – in English and Spanish – which tells the history of the building. What is intriguing about this video is that the narrator is the building itself, telling how “I” began as a merchants’ building , fell into ruin and eventually became the archive we visit today.

On the trip to Seville, we made the fatal mistake of not booking online for fabulous Alcazar Gardens and were faced by a huge queue in 30 degrees of sunshine, so we moved on. We were rewarded not far away with the spectacular Esplanada de Espana (good photos), a magnificent crescent of connected buildings, with 2 huge towers at either end. This splendid edifice was built in 1929 but it looks much older. The photo below shows one of the towers which rises above the canal, which goes round part of the square. Looking at the towers, it makes you think that this might be a tribute to traditional Spanish architecture and design, with the layers to towers rising to a peak, suggesting a Moorish influence at the top.

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One of the towers bookending the Esplanada de Espana, Seville

An outstanding feature of the area is the ceramics, starting with the array of pillars which go around the perimeter of the entrance and around the canal. As you see in the photo below, there are ceramic figures on the pillar and tiles at the top and bottom of the ceramic pillars. The tiles are known as azulejos and have been made since the Romans were in Spain. The coloured tiles are thought to have been introduced by the Moors and there are definite signs of Moorish/Islamic influence in  all parts of this building.

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A pillar/lamppost at the entrance to the Esplanada de Espana, Seville

On the walkway above the canal, there are large areas of mosaic tiling and at regular intervals, there are large tiles depicting all the different regions of Spain. The example below celebrates the province of Huelva, which lies to the west of Seville and stretches to the Portuguese border. The colours in each of the squares are vibrant and it is interesting to see the different coat of arms for each region. The Esposicion Ibero Americana noted in the tiling was a world fair in 1929 to enhance trade particularly between Spain and South America.

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Coat of Arms of Huelva province in the Esplanada de Espana, Seville

There is so much to see in the Esplanada that you can easily spend an hour or more looking at the building from different perspectives e.g. there are balconies on to which you can climb to look down on the square and the canal and across to the two towers. You must not miss this out in a visit to Seville.

I took a video of the Esplanada de Espana and I hope that this gives you a flavour of the uniqueness of this very joyful building and square.

The late poet Matthew Sweeney and Seville Cathedral

October 23, 2018

A delayed blog due to your blogger’s significant birthday celebrations. I was shocked to read an obituary in the Guardian about the death of the poet Matthew Sweeney, who was only 65 years old. He died of motor neurone disease, a terribly debilitating illness of which one of my school friends died. I looked in my collection of Poetry Book Society choices on my bookshelves and found Sweeney’s 1989 collection Blue Shoes. Sweeney was an imaginative and often humorous poet . The Lighthouse Keeper’s Son from Blue Shoes, reads after the title “got arrested/ as he wobbled home on a lightless bicycle, after a late drink/ and he asked the cop/ if the pockmarked moon/ wasn’t light enough/ not to mention the Plough’s/ seven stars/ and his dad’s beam/ lighting the road/ twice a minute/ then searching the sea/ the umpteenth time/ for nothing”. While this is a humorous poem, maybe set in the Irish countryside, about a drunk man, a bike and a policeman, it is also one that contains intriguing imagery. The moon is “pockmarked” and the lighthouse “searches” the sea for “nothing”. The last word is ambiguous – does it mean that the light normally does not reveal anything in the sea, or is the light doing it for free? It is of course, not the light that searches but maybe the keeper. You can hear Sweeney reading his poems here and they are certainly worth listening to.

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Matthew Sweeney’s 1989 collection of poems (Click on all photos to enlarge)

On a recent trip to trip to the beautiful city of Seville with my pal, the main impetus of the visit was to see the football (aka soccer) match between Sevilla and Celta Vigo on a warm October evening. Those not interested should skip the next bit and go to the next paragraph. Here is the inside of the stadium just before kick-off.

We were there of course to also enjoy the city and its magnificent architecture, excellent restaurants and its culture. To say that Seville Cathedral is massive is a gross understatement. Some of its chapels are the size of cathedrals in other parts of the world. It was built on the site of a 12th century mosque and it took over 100 years to build, so both religions wanted something impressive to represent their faith. The outside of the cathedral is so extensive that you cannot photograph it all at once. The first photo shows the magnificent bell tower and the 2nd photo shows the exquisitely ornate main entrance to the cathedral.

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Seville Cathedral’s bell tower

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Entrance to Seville Cathedral

Inside the cathedral, the high vaulted ceilings and the perfect stonework of the pillars lead you into different areas and altars, such as the beautifully crafted and imposing silver altar. This video which I took in the main part of the cathedral, gives you an idea of the cathedral’s grandeur, including the superb sculpture of the tomb of Christopher Columbus, although there is some doubt as to whether it is Columbus or his brother that is in the sepulchre.

The cathedral is always busy with tourists, religious people and humanists, and each person will take their own view of this utterly stunning building and its variety of interior decoration, which displays an amazing range of craft skills and artistry. It is certainly a must visit to this enchanting city.

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.

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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.

A Day in Dun Laoghaire and it’s the Time of the Season for … gladioli

October 4, 2018

On our trip to Dublin, we went by train to the bonnie seaside town of Dun Laoghaire (good photos). It was only 20 minutes on The Dart train and it is a very pleasant trip down the coast to Dun Laoghaire (pronounded Dun Leery), passing the famous Lansdsdowne Road rugby and football stadium, and the seaside towns of Blackrock and Salthill and Monkstown.  Having arrived in Dun Laoghaire, we headed straight for the east pier which is 1.3K long and takes you out to the lighthouse. It’s a very enjoyable walk, with (photo below) the little yachts swaying gently in the swell as you make your way to the end. This is one of the town’s exercise spots as we passed, and were passed by, runners and speed walkers. There are also excellent views back to the town and out to sea when you reach the lighthouse, which still has some of the original military accommodation, such as the guard house on view.

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Dun Laoghaire East Pier and Lighthouse (Click on all photos to enlarge)

From the harbourside on the east pier, you look across to the west pier, which is almost as long. Looking back into town, one of the striking features is the relatively recent library building (photo below). As well as the library, there is a theatre, art gallery and cafe. The building is somewhat confusing for the first time visitor as it has several levels and different entrances/exits. Despite this it is a fine library, with much natural light and open spaces for study or relaxation. It is also an excellent addition to the architecture of the town, with the funnel like shapes on the top and the elegant use of glass at the end facing the sea.

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Library building from the harbourside in Dun Laoghaire.

While in the town, we visited the National Maritime Museum which is housed in an old church and this adds to its attractiveness. One of the museum’s most spectacular objects is the Baily Optic which is a huge light taken from the lighthouse in the seaside town of Howth. In the photo below, you can see how the light dominates that part of the museum, and how the natural light from the old church’s stained glass windows compliment the lighthouse optic.

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Baily Optic in the National Maritime Museum in Dun Laoghaire

Looking across the museum (photo below), you can see a variety of collections which the building houses, including the Great Eastern ship, a section on submarines and a small section on The Titanic. We learned much about ships over the centuries as well as aspects of navigation, and also the social aspects of travel by sea.

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Collections in the National Maritime Museum in Dun Laoghaire.

Dun Laoghaire is a busy town with a range of cafes, pubs and restaurants and there are a number of enjoyable walks in the town itself as well as by the sea.

People of a certain age reading the heading of this blog post will immediately recall the wonderful Zombies’ track Time of the Season on their iconic LP Odessey and Oracle (note the deliberate misspelling of Odyssey). Here it is for you to luxuriate in.

In my garden, just as most of the summer flowers are beginning to show signs of exhaustion, having bloomed vigorously for 3 months, the gladioli now come into their own and stand imperiously above the rest. My gladioli are the Burj Khalifa  of the flowers, towering over the others and they have been particularly tall and colourful this year. The first photo shows a purple example, the delicate folds of the flower protecting the scorpion-like stigma, the pollen holder. I also like the shadows on the sun-touched petals and the emerging flowers above.

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Purple gladiolus at the back of our house

The next photo is of a more showy gladiolus, vigorously projecting its multiple shades on to the viewer. This flower could be a filmstrip of the colourful dresses worn by the can-can dancers of the folies Bergere. The stigma are more pronounced here and resemble a bee’s antennae. The delicacy of the colours on this gladiolus make it very attractive to the eye.

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Flashy gladiolus

We recently had an extremely stormy day, with gusts reaching up to 60mph at times. During the day, there was a tremendous rainstorm and the wind temporarily eased. This prompted the appearance of a rainbow over the sea and Dunbar harbour, and I managed to catch the rainbow behind the gladioli, which we have staked up securely against the wind.

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Rainbow over the sea and Dunbar 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.

The Seamus Heaney Archives Exhibition in Dublin

September 17, 2018

We were in Dublin last week for 4 days. The main impetus for our going was to see the Seamus Heaney – my favourite poet – archives exhibition in the Bank of Ireland Cultural Centre on the city’s famous College Green. We had heard the excellent preview of the exhibition on a Front Row podcast which is well worth listening to. As you enter the building, you see the poster for the exhibition which shows Heaney looking contemplative.

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Seamus Heaney Exhibition in Dublin (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The first section deals with Heaney’s childhood and features 2 famous poems by him relating to his mother and father. The first is the 3rd sonnet from Clearances and here is Heaney reading it. Listen out for ” Like solder weeping off the soldering iron” and “Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives”. It is a very moving poem.

At my own mother’s funeral, I wrote a eulogy for her and included another Heaney poem in which he refers to “the cool clothes off the line” and folding sheets with his mother. They held the sheet and either end and “flapped and shook the fabric like sail in a cross wind”. The sheet then made “a dried-out, undulating thwack”. I am sure many people remember such happenings.

The poem in memory of his father – Digging – is even more famous. Below is a compilation of BBC clips of Heaney reading this poem. The poem begins “Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests; snug as a gun”. You can imagine a “squat” fountain pen in the poet’s hands. He then looks out of the window to see his father digging and he remembers his father digging potatoes 20 years before. The children picked the potatoes “Loving their cool hardness in our hands”. Heaney then reflects on his grandfather, who ” cut more turf in a day/ Than any other man on Toner’s bog”. This is a very physical poem but the poet also reflects on his own trade, stating that “But I’ve no spade to follow men like them./ Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests./ I’ll dig with it”. The repetition of the first lines are made more effective by the statement that Heaney will “dig” with his pen and be creative in another, less physical way.

The exhibition also covers Heaney’s poetical reflections on The Troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s. In his poem Punishment, Heaney describes – graphically but also lovingly – the skeleton of a woman found in an Irish bog. At the end of the poem, he makes a subtle comment on the tarring and feathering of women in Ireland during The Troubles. Listening to Heaney reading the poem at the exhibition was a very moving experience. Here it is.

The final poem that sticks out in my memory from the exhibition is The Rain Stick which is a hollowed out cactus branch into which small stones have been put. These were used by tribes in South America to bring rain. Heaney’s take on the stick is that it sounds like rain when shaken. This poem shows the musicality in much of Heaney’s poetry and when you hear the poems read, as in the clips above, you can hear the melodies in Heaney’s language. The poem begins

Upend the rain stick and what happens next
Is a music that you never would have known
To listen for. In a cactus stalk

Downpour, sluice-rush, spillage and backwash
Come flowing through. You stand there like a pipe
Being played by water, you shake it again lightly

And diminuendo runs through all its scales
Like a gutter stopping trickling. And now here comes
A sprinkle of drops out of the freshened leaves,

Then subtle little wets off grass and daisies;
Then glitter-drizzle, almost breaths of air.

I urge you to read this poem out loud to yourself or get someone to read it to you. Then you will hear the rain in the “Downpour, sluice-rush, spillage” and “glitter-drizzle”. We came away from this exhibition uplifted by Heaney’s words and voice and also regretful that this Nobel Prize winning poet only lived until he was 74. If you can get to see it, then you must do so. If not, this introduction will give you a flavour of this entrancing exhibition.

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

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.

Woolf and Cox exhibition and the other side of St Abbs Head harbour

July 18, 2018

We were late in going to see the exhibition by Colin Woolf and John Cox at Waterston House in Aberlady, but I was so impressed by both artists’ work that I wanted to include it here. The exhibition closed last week but the work of these two fine painters will be on show elsewhere. Both wildlife artists generously responded to my requests for photos of their paintings.

Colin Woolf is an experienced artist with a wide range of paintings and he is a superb stylist. In the first painting below, which is a large and very impressive work of art when you see it in the exhibition, Woolf shows that his skills are not limited to birds. The depiction of the mountains over which the eagle is soaring is excellent and you get a real sense of height. What impressed me most was the way the artist painted the swirling clouds above the mountains. I was reminded of the paintings of Frederic Edwin Church I saw at an exhibition in the Scottish National Gallery a few years ago. The exhibition noted how difficult it was to paint clouds. The eagle may look small up in the thermals above the mountain but there is an elegance in its flight which Woolf captures.

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Eagle Sky by Colin Woolf (click on all photos to enlarge)

In the second painting, the birds take centre stage, although there is huge competition from the beautiful silver birch. At the bottom of the painting, the artist has included 2 pin feathers and writes that the scene is “Painted entirely with this pair of pin feathers from the same bird”. If you want to read more about this unusual technique, check out Colin Woolf’s beautifully illustrated and very educational article, as a guest blogger. In the blog post, Woolf explains the joys and the difficulties of painting with pin feathers. The birds featured here are woodcocks which have the magnificent Latin name of Scolopax Rusticola, and Woolf depicts them in motion, perhaps in a ritual display. The detail and symmetry of the birds’ wings and tail feathers is intricately painted and you can almost feel the whoosh in the air. The silver birch (Betula pendula) is one of my favourite trees and Woolf shows the elegance of this tree and its magical bark. Woolf is a cosnummate painter of wildlife and these paintings were a joy to behold.

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Pin feather painting of woodcocks by Colin Woolf

John Cox is also a highly respected wildlife artist. At the exhibition, he displayed many fine bird paintings showing an array of species and settings. John Cox sent me four photos of his work and the two I have chosen show the breadth of his skills and two different environments in which the birds are displayed.

The first photo shows a pair of oystercatchers and they have the rather unattractive sounding Latin name of Haematopus Ostralegus, which sounds like serious disease or an operation you might get. I love the way the light blue colours on the birds’ undersides match those on the rocks and in the water, as if there could be a reflection on the bird from the water. The oystercatchers are very well captured, with the strong colour of their beaks matching the strength of the actual birds’ beaks. The birds look reflective in the painting, as they often do in the evening on the rocks near our house. The more you look at this painting, the more patterns, shapes and colours you see and this reflects the artist’s skill.

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Oystercatchers in rocky pools by John Cox

Oystercatchers – which do not catch or eat oysters – are one of my favourite birds and we regularly get them on the rocks near the back of our house. Through my scope, I have seen a determined oystercatcher poke away around the sides of a large limpet and finally move it off the rock. The bird then used its beak to ease the flesh of the limpet from the shell, picked up the flesh and washed it in a nearby pool before swallowing it.

In the 2nd of John Cox’s paintings below, a completely different environment is depicted. Here a short eared owl (Asio Flammeus) hovers hungrily (for itself) and menacingly (for its prey) above some bushes. I really admire the artist’s use of light in this picture e.g. how the setting sun’s rays eke through the owl’s outstretched wings and the evening sky can be seen above the trees and the town in the distance. The trees, bushes and wildflowers are delicately and expertly captured by the painter, as are the green fields behind. The urban setting to the upper left, with the church (I assume) dominating the skyline, reminded me of some of Constable’s paintings such as The Vale of Deadham shown below and downloaded with permission of the National Galleries. John Cox’s contribution to this wonderful exhibition, showing his exquisite skills, matched that of Colin Woolf. If you can get to see either (or preferably both) of these artists, do not miss the chance.

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Short eared owl in a countryside setting by John Cox

 

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Vale of Dedham by John Constable

Another trip to St Abbs Head (good photos), one of our favourite places and a site that makes a regular contribution to this blog, on a warm and sunny Sunday afternoon. The harbour was busy with visitors and, looking out to sea, we could spot four  boats taking divers around the coast to special areas. For a change, we walked across to the other and quieter side of the harbour. Looking back at my many and varied photos of St Abbs Head, I noticed that there were none taken from this part of the harbour. What I discovered were some beautiful reflections in the clear blue water in the harbour. The first photo shows the lifeboat station and some small creel boats, and their shimmering reflections in the water. The solid stone walls built around the harbour to protect the boats are impressive.

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St Abbs Head Lifeboat station from the east side of the harbour

The 2nd photo is one taken from a new angle for me. Again, there is an eye-catching reflection of the wall and the boats. Above left, you can see part of the village and above right, you can see the coastal walk and the cliffs where thousands of guillemots nest. On the harbourside, the lobster creels are stacked in readiness for another trip.

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Inner harbour at St Abbs Head

The final photo looks across to the entrance to the main harbour on the left. A diving boat had just returned from a trip and the divers were unloading their gear from the boat, using the mechanical hoist you can see above the boat. Two seagulls kindly posed for a photograph in front of me. The village, the harbour and the surrounding countryside looked resplendent on the day we visited.

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