Archive for the ‘culture’ Category

T S Eliot Prize readings and Inside the V&A

January 18, 2018

We are just back from a long weekend in and near London. On Sunday evening, I went to the Southbank Centre at the Royal Festival Hall for the annual T S Eliot Prize readings. The ten shortlisted poets are each allocated 8 minutes to read from their book published in 2017. The evening is hosted by the inimitable Ian McMillan who, before introducing the poets, launched into a very funny riff on how people were trying to get him to leave poetry for prose e.g. he had been offered 350 million words a week to leave poetry. For those outside the UK, this was a take-off of the truly awful  leave campaign in the referendum in 2016. This event is both a collective and a personal experience, as each poet comes to the stand and reads maybe 3 or 4 poems. The collective clap and then each persons listens as if the poem is addressed to them personally. There were a range of delivery styles on show, as some read their work carefully and slowly, while others recited by heart and produced lively performances, such as Caroline Bird (check Performances). A poet I’ve long admired is Douglas Dunn, now 75 years old and his classic book Elegies, which was published in 1985 was a moving evocation of his wife’s dying. Dunn recited Cognitive Disorders in which he described seeing  “.. the snails on their silky pilgrimage / Over the slippery slabs of a garden path./ I’ve heard ants’ martial marching songs/Their tiny tambourines, trumpets and gongs. Too-whoos of the nocturnal polymath”. Although the ten poets all read their poems, no winner is announced. This is not some TV show at the end of which one of the presenters looks deadly serious and tells us what we already know – there can only be one winner – and then proceeds to announce the winner only after an annoyingly long pause, which is supposed to increase the tension but only induces yawns amongst viewers. The winner was announced the following day and it was Ocean Vuong with his book Night Sky with Exit Wounds . His performance had the audience gripped with the intensity of his reading. One of the poems he read was the intriguingly titled “Someday I’ll love Ocean Vuong” including “Ocean,/ are you listening? The most beautiful part/ of your body is wherever/ your mother’s shadow falls”. Chair of the judging panel stated that Vuong’s book “.. deals with the aftermath of war and migration over three generations. It is a compellingly assured debut, the definitive arrival of a significant voice.”

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Winner of the T S Eliot Prize 2017 (Click on all photos to enlarge)

A visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum is always rewarding. In fact, you could spend most of the rest of your life going around the museum and always finding something new. The hanging sculpture at the entrance (below) quickly catches your eye. This radiant splash of colour and anarchic shapes contrasts with the more traditional – yet magnificent – dome above.

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Sculpture at the entrance to the V&A.

Just along from the main desk is the room containing material from the “Medieval and Renaissance [period] 1350-1600”. What strikes you first when you enter the room is the vast array of sculptures on show, but then your eye goes upward to the very modern ceiling with its row of tubes and the line of central windows which let the natural light flood the exhibits.

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Medieval and Renaissance room at the V&A

I wandered through the Europe 1600 to 1815 galleries, which are one of my favourite places to visit in the V&A, and I came across a new creation – The Globe (check out the video). Sitting inside The Globe (photo below) is like being in a wooden igloo, with gaps, and your eye is drawn around the smooth wooden walls and up to the central hole in the “ceiling”. It’s very peaceful to sit and appreciate this beautiful creation. One of the curator’s comments is “The structure refers to several images from the Age of Reason. It can be viewed variously as a hemispherical map of the world, a bookcase, an interior from a great library classifying all human knowledge, a symbol of the universe, or an architectural model”. So, despite this being a 2015 installation, it fits in well with the 1600-1815 objects on display in the various rooms. I thought it was a brilliant idea, creation and space.

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The Globe at the V&A in London

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Re-reading Thomas Hardy and walk to Seafield Pond and West Barns Bridge

December 17, 2017

Recently, I’d come to the end of the new books I’d bought and, looking along my bookshelves, I picked up a copy of Thomas Hardy short stories (cover below). I bought this book in the mid 1970s and opening the book and starting to read the first story The Three Strangers, I was immediately taken back to Hardy’s eloquent and flowing style. The story begins “Among the few features of agricultural England which retain an appearance little modified by the centuries, may be reckoned the long, grassy and furzy downs, coombes or ewe-leases, as they are called, according to their kind, that fill a large area of certain counties in the south and south west”. What struck me was the length of the sentence – typical of nineteenth century writers like Hardy – and the local words used by the writer. “Furzy downs” are stretches of rural land covered in what we might call gorse and a “coomb” is a deep valley. More explanations here. In his excellent introduction to the short stories, the novelist John Wain wrote that Hardy once said that a short story “must be unusual and the people interesting”. Wain also notes that Hardy’s short stories are unlike more modern versions, which tend have a single theme around which a tale is told. In Hardy’s stories, such as “The Withered Arm” or “The Distracted Preacher” the reader is presented with different characters, some of whom have their own intriguing tales to tell. It is the context of the stories – rural Dorset in the early to mid-nineteenth century – that distinguishes them from even contemporary short fiction. The isolated cottage in “The Three Strangers” or the village in “The Grave by the Handpost” where ” a lane crosses the lone straight highway dividing this from the next parish” and where “the whispers of this spot may claim to be preserved”. There are also echoes of Hardy’s novels in the stories such as the character William Dewy of Mellstock and the town of Casterbridge. Hardy is a superb story teller and in each story, the reader is given an early indication of what might be to follow. In “The Withered Arm”, the setting is “an eighty cow dairy” in the early evening and, with most of the cattle milked “there was opportunity for a little conversation. “He do bring home his bride tomorrow, I hear. They’ve come as far as Anglebury today”. Hardy continues “The voice seemed to come from the belly of the cow called Cherry, but the speaker was a milking-woman, whose face was buried in the flank of that motionless beast”. The reader knows the setting and is intrigued by the conversation. I have enjoyed reading these stories again after many years and I encourage you to try them.

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Short stories by Thomas Hardy (Click on all photos to enlarge)

There’s a good 2 mile (3.2k) walk from our house to Seafield Pond (good photo)  and West Barns bridge. The most picturesque route is firstly to  Dunbar Harbour (historical photos), then along Winterfield Promenade and on round part of the picturesque Winterfield Golf Club. I was headed for Seafield Pond first, to try to get some more photos of the pond and its birds. A previous attempt can be seen here. When I got to the pond, it was frozen over and not a bird to be seen, just some bits of wood from the nearby trees stuck to the ice. There was however, a nice reflection (see below) from the adjacent caravan/mobile home park, where you can now hire a “Deluxe running water wigwam with WC” – what next?

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Seafield Pond at Belhaven, near Dunbar

The birds were all on the beach over the wall but firstly I walked along to West Barns bridge, which spans the Biel Burn (small river). It was a very sunny day and the previous night’s sharp frost can be seen on the entrance to the bridge here.

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West Barns bridge and the Biel Burn

Because of the position of the sun in the early afternoon, there was a superb reflection in the water below the bridge, with the brilliant blue water becoming paler and paler as the sun caught it fully on the bend of the river. This part of the Biel Burn is where the fresh water meets the incoming tide.

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West Barns bridge

I know a few people – of a certain age – who spent quite a bit of their youth on the Biel Burn guddling for trout, and they each have their own secret method. This is a form of fishing in which the potential fish catcher does not use a rod or a net, but his/her fingers to catch the trout. I’m assured by two former poachers that it is an art and not a science, and that an expert guddler is born with a gift. There’s a PhD in there somewhere for a dedicated scholar e.g.  “Guddling: A phenomenological analysis”. Guddling was – and probably still is – carried out in shaded areas, such as at the tree line end of this photo.

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Guddling spot near the trees on the Biel Burn

It was on my way back along what is known as the Dump Road as there used to be a council tip nearby, I tried to capture some of the birds on the beach and on the water on Belhaven Bay. I was using my zoom lens and it’s difficult to get very clear photos without a camera stand. The two best were firstly, a redshank on the move, with some nice reflections of the rocks and the vegetation.

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Redshank amongst the rocks and grass at Belhaven Bay

I’m more pleased with the second photo, which is of a curlew flying off across the water. While the beak is not all that clear, I do like the light on one wing and the shadow on the other, plus the reflection in the water. I used my Sports setting for this one.

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Curlew flying over Belhaven Bay with the tide in

So a very rewarding walk on a cold but bright day and on the way back I reflected how lucky I am to live in such an entrancing environment.

Darren Woodhead exhibition and Pascal Petit’s Mama Amazonica

December 10, 2017

The latest exhibition at Waterston House in Aberlady is by Darren Woodhead, a very well known and respected wildlife artist. This is a stunning exhibition, with the visitor impressed and intrigued from the first painting of Long-tailed Tits in Hawthorn (reviewed below) , to butterflies, geese landing over Aberlady Bay (good photos) and bee-eaters in Nottinghamshire (includes video). There is so much to see that a second visit will be necessary. I contacted the artist and he kindly allowed me to download two of his paintings. The first painting is a riot of colour, with the pink and red hawthorn berries immediately catching your eye – and the berries are depicted as lush, juicy and a feast for the birds. Then you see the bird themselves, nestling in the branches, well-camouflaged in their more subtle colours, but no less attractive for that. I really do like and appreciate the rather hazy parts of the painting – this is not photo-realism, but Darren Woodhead’s exquisite interpretation of what he sees when painting this busy scene.

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Long-tailed tits in the hawthorn by Darren Woodhead

The second painting features birds seen in this part of the country in winter – the fieldfare and the waxwing with the latter often seen in flocks (good photos). This is another very active scene with the birds, in particular the resplendent fieldfare, busy feeding on the buckthorn, which is called “the baked bean tree” around here. The painting also captures the very spiky nature of the buckthorn bush and it is this spikiness that can protect birds from predators. So, another rush of colour which takes your eye across the painting, with the spots on the birds not unlike berries. The artist also captures the elegance of these birds very well. The exhibition is on until mid January, so if you can get to see it, you will be wonderfully rewarded by a show by one of our finest wildlife artists.

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Fieldfare and waxwing among buckthorn by Darren Woodhead

From nature at its most colourful and joyful to a portrayal of nature which is both beautiful but also savage. Pascale Petit’s Mama Amazonica is a PSB Choice and it is one of the most intriguing and disturbing books of poetry I have ever read. The setting of the poems is a psychiatric ward where the poet’s mother is a patient. This is accompanied by a second setting – the Amazonian rainforest – and the poet’s interpretation of her mother as being transformed into a range of animals that inhabit the rainforest. We also learn of the mother’s trauma at the way her husband viciously treated her before and after the marriage. So, it is often a painful read but at the same time, it is often astonishingly beautiful in its depiction of the  rainforest’s animals. For example, in the title poem which begins “Picture my mother as a baby, afloat/on a waterlily leaf”. The mother is transformed into the flower in the jungle and, as a representation of her mother’s illness, “She hears the first roar/ of the howler monkey,/ then the harpy eagle’s swoop,/ crashing through the galleries of leaves,/ the sudden snatch/ then the silence in the troop”. Further poems outline how the mother was initially raped by the father and further mistreated, and when I read the poems – only a few at a time – I wondered if I should continue, but there is relief in many of the poems, which celebrate the wild. In My Mother’s Dressing Gown, the poet writes “Her face was an axed mahogany./ Her hands emerged from emerald sleeves/ to meet on the table, talons tensed,/ like a puma challenging a tayra”. We are presented with a superb metaphor but also – and this happens often – sent to the dictionary to identify an animal. A tayra is a large weasel. In a subsequent poem, in trying to describe  her mother’s illness, mania is seen as a side effect – “Imagine a mother with a mind/ hyper as a rainforest,/ the ward echoing with/ whoops of titi monkeys”. A new species of this monkey was recently discovered. In short, this amazing book of poems can delight, disgust and educate and while it is a challenging read, it often rewards the reader with spectacular images. Try it – even the cover is intriguing.

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Mama Amazonica by Pascale Petit

 

 

Art in Florence and autumn in Binning Wood

November 24, 2017

So on to Florence for culture and an exciting football match at Fiorentina‘s stadium, with the home team winning 3-0 against Torino, having survived a potentially calamitous first 20 minutes. When you say to people that you’ve been to Florence, their eyes light up and many tell you how often they’ve been. It’s a culture-stuffed city to visit, with numerous art galleries, museum and public sculptures. This was my second visit to Florence – previous visit here. I hadn’t been to Florence’s most famous art gallery, the Uffizi, so I booked tickets in advance (a wise move, given the queues even in late October) for my pal and me. The Uffizi gallery is, like the Prado in Madrid, huge and has multiple rooms – 101 shown on the floor plan, each with many stunning paintings. If you started at the beginning and worked your way through, it could take weeks. The gallery helpfully provides a free “highlights” brochure and we followed this. The Uffizi is, again like the Prado, heavy on religious paintings, many of them dark and fairly morbid, although the artwork is unquestionably superb. One of the key themes highlighted is how artists over the 14th to 18th centuries portrayed the Madonna and Child, with Giotto’s interpretation (see below) being one of the most famous. Giotto was praised for making the figures appear more human than had been seen in previous interpretations and this was seen as a new style in painting.

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Giotto’s Madonna and Child in the Uffizi Gallery (Click to enlarge all photos)

The gallery’s best known work of art perhaps is Botticelli‘s exquisite Birth of Venus (below) and it is a stunning work of art. There is myth and fantasy in this painting as Venus is shown being carried on a shell to an island. There is so much to see in the painting that you can stand for a long time, admiring the colours, the figures, the sea and the trees. Venus herself is portrayed as a beautiful young woman and Botticelli’s use of nudity was controversial at the time, as eroticism was not approved of in many artistic and political circles.

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Botticelli’s Birth of Venus in the Uffizi Gallery

The 2nd major gallery we visited was the equally extensive Palacio Pitti which houses the massive collections of the Grand Dukes of Florence from the 15th to the 17th centuries. As well as the many works of art on display in the various museums, the Royal Apartments are lavishly decorated (check website) with ornate carpets, curtains, wall hangings and beautifully made furniture (good photos). Once again, religious paintings predominate, as was the main style of the times but there are also some eyebrow raising works, such as Marina by Salvator Rosa. The photo below does not do justice to the impact that this very large painting makes on the viewer. It is full of intriguing elements, from the light house on the right, to the ships in the middle, to the people at the bottom of the painting and the brilliant effect of the sun shining across the scene.

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Marina by Salvator Rosa

Back home and a walk through Binning Wood to delight in the autumn colours and experience the splendour of the leaves still on the trees, although they were falling as we  walked. If there was colour, contrast, light and shade in Florence’s museums, then there is an abundance in this East Lothian wood, which lies just over 6 miles (c11K) from Dunbar. I had cycled past the woods two days before and was determined to take my camera before this autumnal outpouring of colour, shape and texture would disappear as quickly as it appeared. We began our walk on the west side of the woods and walked through to a point where the paths diverge (photo below). In the winter, my pals and I cycle through here on our mountains bikes and would follow the path on the right of the picture. On our walk, my wife and I took the left path, which goes deeper in to the woods. This reminded me of Robert Frost’s great poem “The Road Not Taken” which begins “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,/ And sorry I could not travel both/ And be one traveler, long I stood/ And looked down one as far as I could/ To where it bent in the undergrowth;”.

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The path divides in Bnning Wood

Frost’s “yellow wood” could be Binning Wood at this time of year, with trees still holding on to leaves of different shades of green and yellow, as in the photo below. The path at this point in the wood was covered with fallen leaves, providing a contrast in colours, with the fresh yellow leaves on the trees and the now orange/brown of the fallen leaves, as well as the various colours on the tree trunks.

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Trees and a leaf strewn path in Binning Wood

The wood continues across the road which leads to nearby Whitekirk (good photos) and I crossed to try and capture the thinner trees here and their shadows on the floor of the wood. The sun was still high enough to hit the smooth and elegant trunks of the trees and cast shadows, which appear to be fallen trees on the ground. Passing the same woods yesterday – 10 days after taking these photos – I could see more branches and much fewer leaves. Another 10 days and they’ll all be gone, so it’s good to be able to capture this fleeting burst of colour.

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Tall trees and shadows in Binning Wood

Called for jury service and Piazza dei Miracoli

November 20, 2017

Note The previous post has been fixed, using Google Chrome, which I am maybe being forced to use for editing?

I was recently called  for jury service at the Sheriff Court in Edinburgh and, although I was not actually selected to serve on the jury, it was a strange experience. Firstly, I arrived at the court to be sent to the Jury Room. Here sat about 50 people, all in a strange environment. Few people spoke to each other and most either checked their mobile phones, read books or stared into space. This was a formal setting, not a social one and it was clear that no-one had any idea how long we would be there, as little information was forthcoming. After an hour, a clerk appeared to tell us that there might be two trials on today and that she would be back in 10 minutes. Half an hour hour later, the clerk reappeared and took us through to court ten, shown here. After another 10 minutes, the phrase “Court rise” was heard and we all – the potential jurors, the court staff and lawyers present – stood up and sat down again. The judge/sheriff talked to one of the lawyers and we could just about her the lawyer say that the trial could not go ahead. The judge thanked us for our attendance and our patience and said that normally, lunch was 1-2pm but there was good news. We all looked up expectantly. The good news was that we could go for lunch early and come back at 2pm as there was definitely another trial to be heard and a jury was needed. This was beginning to appear like the crime novel I’d taken along – too much padding and too little action.

So we all returned at 2pm. Another clerk said that she would be back in 5 minutes to take us through to court 12 for a jury to be selected. One advance in the tale was that there was now only 15 jury members to be selected from the 50 of us and not 2 x 15. The chances of being selected was reduced by 50%. As no-one in the jury room knew how long a trial would last or when we could start making plans again for the next few days, I got the feeling that few people wanted to be selected. 25 minutes later, the clerk took us in to the court and the ballot began. As each name was called out, the picked juror went forward and a collective sigh could be heard amongst the rest of us. Eventually 15 were picked. People started looking at their watches, as in it’s 2.30pm so we’ll be released soon. Hopes were dashed when one juror recognised the accused and was excused. Another selection, another collective sigh. The judge ordered that the clerk read out the charges – sexual assault with details given – again. Then another juror said he could not hear the judge and this man was excused, to whispers amongst the still potential jurors that he might be trying it on. The final selection was made and final sigh of relief uttered, and the great unpicked left the court room and the court. What was interesting was that, by the time the ballot was taking place, I was ready to be picked, having earlier hoped that I could not be. So, an odd day spent in an environment where I had very little control over what I could do, apart from the lunch break.

Edinburgh Sherriff Court (Click on all photos to enlarge)

My pal Roger and I went on our annual trip to a European city to a) see the sights and b) go to a football (aka soccer) match. This year’s holiday started in Pisa, where we stayed 2 nights before going on to Florence to see the game (next blog post). While Pisa is best known for the leaning tower – La Torre Pendente – I think that the other buildings in the Piazza dei Miracoli (includes video), the Square of Miracles in English, are more fascinating. There’s no doubting the uniqueness of the Tower but its attraction is mainly because of a mistake. It is, of course, worth seeing.

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La Torre Pendente, Pisa

Also within the Piazza, is the magnificent cathedral, seen below. It is famous for its marble exterior, Giovanni Pisano’s intricately carved pulpit (close up photos) and high, vaulted ceilings which are brilliantly decorated. Whether you have religious leanings or not, you cannot fail to appreciate the superb artwork and interior design on display.

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Pisa Cathedral

You can also visit the  hugely impressive Battistero (Baptistry), with its high dome and a balcony from which you can look down on the large baptismal font and exquisitely carved pulpit, photo below. The official website refers to the “women’s balcony”, so perhaps women were excluded from the ceremonies below?

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Pisa Battistero

My own favourite building in the Piazza was the Camposanto (good photos). This is the cemetery and inside there are many statues to famous university teachers and members of the powerful Medici family. The most fascinating part of this huge complex are the frescoes which line the walls, as in the photo below. Some of the frescoes are still quite fresh looking, even though they date from the 14th century. The frescoes are of course, mainly religious although there are some battle scenes. A common theme in the range of frescoes is the battle between going to heaven or hell, and you can see why 14th century people might be terrified by the depictions of hell, where the devil is seen as eating humans amid  a scene of torture. It was the violence in so many of the frescoes that intrigued me – designed to inspire but also to threaten. As works of art, these are impressive in their range of colour and detail and well worth a visit.

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Frescoes in the Camposanto, Pisa

Robert MacFarlane’s “Lost Words” and the Thyssen-Bornemisra Museum

October 21, 2017

In a recent Guardian Review article, Robert Macfarlane – the well known writer on the British landscape – argues that children need to be reacquainted with the natural world. In the article, Macfarlane cites a Cambridge University study that showed how children aged 4 to 11 were much more likely to identify Pokémon characters (80% accuracy) than common plants and animals in the UK (50% accuracy). One of the conclusions of the report stated “What is the extinction of the condor to a child who has never seen a wren?”. Other studies cited show that adults’ knowledge of wildlife is not much better but 9 out of 10 adults wanted children to have much more knowledge of plants and animals. Macfarlane’s reaction to the reports was that he wanted to write a book for children which might increase their appreciation of the living world, as opposed to the digital world of Pokémon. The reasons for children’s lack of experience and knowledge of nature is well known – more children live in cities and more children spend more time online than out of doors.

The result is what looks like a beautiful book, written by Macfarlane and illustrated by Jackie Morris.

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New book by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris (Click to enlarge all photos)

The article concluded with “The bird which became the guiding, gilding spirit of The Lost Words is the goldfinch. Goldfinches flit across its cover and gleam from its pages”. Macfarlane notes that the collective word for goldfinch is a charm which can also mean the singing of a group of children. Below is a close up of a goldfinch, taken by Harry Scott. This book would make a wonderful present for anyone – adult or child – and if you can combine this with a trip to the countryside or the seaside for the children, Dr Macfarlane would be most pleased. I have just come back from the beach near our house where my nearly 6 year old twin grand daughters saw oystercatchers, plovers and redshanks on the shore, feeding on what was coming in on the tide. So, I’m doing my bit.

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Goldfinch by Harry Scott

One of the highlights of our trip to Madrid was the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum which can be found opposite the more famous Prado Museum. The Thyssen-Bornemisza has much more modern painting and is less focused on religious painting. It is a very extensive art gallery, with numerous rooms and would take more than one visit to do it justice. I have always been impressed by the American  painter Edward Hopper and there are four of his works here. The first of my selection is Hotel Room (below) and what strikes you is the rather lonely looking woman, sitting on the bed, in her underwear, reading a book. Then there are the colours – the green chair, the black hat, and the white bed which contrasts with the woman’s undergarment. The museum has a short video on this painting which is well worth viewing.

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Hotel Room by Edward Hopper

The 2nd Hopper painting is The “Martha McKeen” of Wellfleet  which is intriguingly named after someone who took Hopper and his wife sailing i.e. there is no yacht with this name. Although the sandbank looks rather fanciful, this is a painting with delicate shades of blue, white and cream, with the movement of the boat emphasised by the undulating waves. I see a spirit of freedom and enjoyment in this painting, on the part of the humans. The seagulls look away, unimpressed and the small, bubbly clouds on the horizon are dominated by a clearer sky above, suggesting a warm summer’s day.

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The “Martha McKeen” of Wellfleet by Edward Hopper

I’ve seen Hopper’s lighthouse paintings before, but Martin Johnson Heade is a new artist for me. His painting Orchid and a Hummingbird Near a Mountain Waterfall was one of the highlights of our visit. It is a stunningly original painting, with its combination of dark and light and the colours of the orchid are reflected in the hummingbird. There is so much to see in this work – shapes, patterns, the real and what I see as the surreal combined – that you can find yourself standing in front of the painting for quite a while. The detail on the plant and the bird are superb.

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Orchid and Hummingbird near a Waterfall by Martin Johnson Heade

So an exhilarating visit to this museum in Madrid which is not to be missed if you are in the city. No blog next week as I’m off to Pisa and Florence with my pal to take in the sights and a football (aka soccer) game.

More Sinead Morrisey poems and Madrid’s magnificent architecture

October 12, 2017

 I have just finished reading Sinead Morrisey’s remarkable book of poems entitled On Balance”. In a previous post, I focused on the first poem in the collection The Millihelen which has been widely praised. For the rest of the book, Morrissey maintains this high standard with telling insights and memorable phrases. In Nativity which is about parents watching children in such a play, has these lines:

“mums and dads on loan from their workaday offices;/ littler brothers and sisters crashed out in pushchairs/ and parked along the aisle like outsize baggage”

The imagery continues later in the poem “… we are left/ with a row of just-licked-by-a cow-looking boys/ in dressing gowns, Mary in a dress, Immanuel/ in his cradle, low-key and ineffable …”.

In Meteor shower, “..and the stars in behind/ shining steady as lighthouses/ and yes, not once but twice/ – there and then there -/ dust on fire at the edge/ of Earth’s flaying atmosphere,/ scoring its signature”. The word “flaying” makes these lines, suggesting chaos. There are a sequence of poems entitled “Whitelessness” which looks at how different scientists might view Greenland. The Geologist finds ” .. the ridges of human teeth:/some early Palaeolithic adolescent caught/ grinning at the moment of death/ in a stone photograph”. The Photographer observes: “The red earth holds up/ a rainbow in its outstretched hands”. As The Geographer studies the earth, “Ridiculously/ overdressed, two musk ox trundle past. / We must sound enormous – / …. but they blank us nevertheless”. These are just a few examples from the book, which rightly won The Forward Prize for Poetry in 2017. It also has a beautiful cover. Get a hold of it if you can, preferably by buying it from the Poetry Book Society.

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On Balance by Sinead Morrissey (Click to enlarge all photos)

Where to begin with Madrid’s magnificent architecture? I’m concentrating on the older buildings and monuments, but there’s an excellent slide show of modern architecture here (good photos). Our apartment, with its high ceilings and cornices, beautiful parquet flooring in different designs, had two large windows, each with a small balcony which looked across the to Palacio Cibeles. You can sit in the outside bar at the top of the building for 4 euro per person and we enjoyed a glass of wine there one evening, as well as the stunning views across the city, in the photos below. The first photo looks down on the Casa America (good photos) and on to one of the modern art deco influenced buildings behind.

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Looking across Madrid from the Palacio Cibeles

The 2nd photo looks down on the extensive army headquarters, known as the Buenavista Palace and we were unfortunate to miss the Changing of the Guard (good photos).

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Looking towards the Buenavista Palce and woods from the Palacio Cibeles

Not far from the Palacio Cibeles, you come across one of the many puerta or gates to the city of Madrid. The photos below show the Puerta de Alcala, a magnificent structure ordered to be built by Carlos III, King of Spain in 1778. Carlos was obviously not a man to do things by half and the puerta dominates this part of the city. On the right of the puerta is the Retiro Park, featured here last week.

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Puerta de Alcala, Madrid

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Top of the Puerta de Alcala, Madrid

Madrid city centre is teeming with stunning buildings, from the apartments on the Gran Via (good photos) – 2 photos below – to the umpteen churches and palaces – too many to mention here. The Gran Via is Madrid’s busiest street, best avoided at weekends.

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Apartments on the Gran Via, Madrid

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Apartments on the Gran Via, Madrid

The Plaza Major is often described as being at the heart of Madrid and it certainly is beautiful square, comparable in terms of the buildings/apartments, to St Mark’s Square in Venice. Again, if you go at weekends, you might never see the square properly, as there are so many tourists, but go midweek and you’ll be able to appreciate its grandeur to the full.

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Plaza Major, Madrid

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Plaza Major, Madrid

Trip to Durham: the Cathedral and the Cellar Door restaurant.

September 30, 2017

I forgot to say at the end of the last post that we were off to Madrid for a week, so no more posts for a fortnight. At the beginning of September, we went to Durham for a couple of days. We had been before but only for the day. The cathedral city of Durham (good photos and short video) is in the north east of England, so for us it was only a 2 hr drive. We stayed in a hotel next to the River Wear, a short walk from the city centre. Durham has a famous castle, with a fascinating history but we did not have time to visit as we went to the coast as well. We did go to Durham Cathedral (good photos) and it certainly is an impressive sight, both from the exterior and interior. The first photo below shows part of the outside walls of the cathedral and there is a fascinating array of structures here – the round towers, arched windows and varied stonework. As I  have said here before, it must have been strange for the local inhabitants to see the construction of something so huge on their doorstep, as they worked in the fields. Also, the workmanship is astounding, given that the cathedral would have been build using, by modern standards, fairly basic tools. Imagine being a stonemason working at the top of one of the towers, standing on wooden scaffolding, with no thought given to health and safety.

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Part of the exterior from outside the cathedral (Click to enlarge all photos)

The interior of the cathedral has cloisters (good photos) and the next 2 photos show part of the cloisters and more of the cathedral’s exteriors. Cloisters were important to the monks who lived in the cathedral and as you walk along the cloisters, you can see how such an environment would provide a peaceful and contemplative atmosphere.

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Looking up from the cloisters in Durham Cathedral

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Looking across the green from one part of the cloisters to another in Durham Cathedral

We visited the Open Treasures exhibition (good video) which provided a fascinating insight to the lives of the monks, as well as showing some intricately carved stonework from the cathedral and elsewhere, and examples of manuscripts and jewellery. You can’t take photos inside the exhibition or inside the cathedral but you can see some excellent photographs here.

As you leave and pass through the magnificent external doors of the cathedral, you can see the dramatic Sanctuary Knocker (photo below) which could be used in the past by those seeking protection in the cathedral from the law. It looks more frightening than welcoming and maybe it was meant to. My thoughts on seeing it were of masks worn by South American tribes or carvings on totem poles. Whether you are religious or humanist, the cathedral is an inspiring building and well worth a visit.

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The Sanctuary Knocker on Durham Cathedral.

One of the highlights of our visit was to the exquisite Cellar Door restaurant and it turned out to be a real treat. It is an exquisitely furnished dining room, as the photo below shows. The service was helpful, attentive and unfussy and customers were made very welcome.

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The Cellar Door, Durham dining room

The restaurant offers a varied and interesting menu. For starters, I had the “Courgette flower, yellison goat’s cheese, Yemeni wild flower honey and hazelnuts” and my wife had “Mushrooms on toast – cep parfait, shemeji, girolles, mushroom ketchup and sourdough”. Both looked and tasted exceptional and my wife’s comment was that this was the best mushroom starter that she’d ever had. The courgette flower was delicately cooked in a light batter, with the goat’s cheese inside. For main, I had “Sea trout, avocado, heritage tomato, crab and potato crisps” and this was a generous serving of fish, cooked to perfection, complimented nicely by the light crab meat. My wife had “Scottish halibut, beans, grapes, elderflower and verjus”, and again the fish was perfectly cooked with a crispy skin. I contacted the restaurant and they gave me permission to download the photos of the restaurant above, one of their desserts and the halibut. For dine dining of this quality, we both thought that the meal was excellent value and would recommend the restaurant to anyone visiting Durham.

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Mouth watering dessert from The Cellar Door, Durham

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Crispy halibut from the Cellar Door, Durham

Meeting Richard Ford and summer flowers

September 1, 2017

As a follow up to last week’s blog on the Edinburgh International book Festival, I struck lucky on the last day of the festival. I looked up to see who was on and, to my surprise and delight, Richard Ford was in conversation with Kirsty Wark. There was a Sold Out sign next to the listing but there was advice to check for returns on the day. I did so – by phone and email – and got a ticket for the afternoon session, which started at 3.15. By 2.30, people were queuing up, eager to get good seats. I am not queuer, so I waited in the bookshop tent – reading part of Richard Ford’s memoir of his parents, of which more below. My luck continued as I was one of the last people in the tented theatre but, when I asked a young man if there were seats up the back, he removed a Reserved sign from a seat 4 rows from the front and gave me that one. Ms Wark talked to Richard Ford about contemporary USA and they covered a range of aspects, including of course Donald Trump. Ford is a wonderful writer but also a highly articulate and amusing speaker and he had some caustic comments on the current president, as well as on the weaker side of the USA press and on race relations.

The writer was then asked about his latest book, which is his recollections of his mother and father. It is entitled Between Them – Remembering My Parents and you can hear the author reading the beginning of the book here. Richard Ford told the audience that writing this memoir – about his mother 30 years ago and his father recently – was an attempt to portray his experience of his own childhood, but also of his parents’ lives. It’s a small book and has some very poignant moments in it. Ford is a high quality writer and his descriptions of his father coming home on a Friday from working away encapsulate a boy’s wonder and admiration superbly. I mentioned my favourite quote from Ford’s books in the last blog post and I included it in a question I asked at the session. My question was “In one of your novels, Frank Bascombe [protagonist of 4 Ford novels] refers to ‘the normal, applauseless life of us all’. Do you think that this applies to your parents’ lives?”. Richard Ford agreed that it did and added that this did not mean that they did not have mostly happy, full and successful lives. I met the author briefly as we all left the tent and I told him that it was my favourite quote from his work. “It’s one of my favourite quotes also” he said, patting me on the shoulder “thank you for reminding me of it”. My new claim to fame. The not too clear photo below, taken on my phone, shows Ford being interviewed by Kirsty Wark.

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Richard Ford being interviewed by Kirsty Wark (Click to enlarge all photos)

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Richard Ford’s memoir of his parents

It’s now late summer and as I write, today (31 August) is the last official day of summer in the UK. Many of the flowers in my garden are now at their peak or e.g. the lobelia are showing signs of fatigue, with fading colours and drooping stems. In this photo, you can see the lobelia struggling to match the burgeoning of the gladioli and geraniums.

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Plants on our decking

At our back door, from late spring we have an ever expanding hydrangea which is now covered in large pink flower heads and I captured a close-up of this one just after a rain shower. The bunches of 4 petalled flowers nestle into each other to form a perfect ball and the petals are like little fans, ready to protect the delicate centre at any time. The flowers’ pink colours develop and change over weeks, from pale pink to brighter pink and then back to pale, almost pallid pink as late autumn and cold nights take their toll. This is a much admired plant.

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Close up of hydrangea ball

At the front of the house this year, we have three different colours in the gazania plants I bought in the spring. The one shown below has intriguing shades of purple, yellow, brown and white. It is a celebratory plant which opens in full sunshine and might be yelling out how wonderful it is to be alive. I like the cluster of Sydney Opera House type petals which brandish their bright colours in contrast to the more reticent yellow of the centre.

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Gazania daybreak

One of the welcoming appearances in the past few days have been brightly coloured butterflies which feed on the gazanias. The first one I managed to photograph was a peacock butterfly  shown below. Butterflies are like bees – playful. They wait until you think you have a perfect photo and just as you are about to click, off they flit and land on a nearby flower. The markings on the seemingly ragged wings are surreal and multi-coloured, spread out from the slim, curved body with its twin antennae constantly checking the environment. In this photo, there is a lovely contrast between the realist flower heads and the surreal marking on the butterfly.

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Peacock butterfly

The second one is a small tortoiseshell butterfly. I find this one more restrained in its colours than the peacock. I love the symmetry of this butterfly. If you (metaphorically) sliced it in half and folded it over, there would a perfect match. The colours appear to have been daubed on to the wings and the body shaped from a mould. The twisted hat-pin antennae are both a warning to the butterfly of approaching danger and a warning to potential predators. So we now have new arrivals to join the bees which are still feeding on the lavender but having to work harder, as the lavender is fading also.

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Small tortoiseshell utterfly

 

Edinburgh International Book Festival and The Bow Bar

August 25, 2017

It’s the same every year, I’m afraid. I get the catalogue for the Edinburgh International Book Festival about a month before the tickets go on sale. I go through it and mark the ones I’d like to go and see. Then I forget all about it. In the blink of an eye, it’s six weeks later and I’m reading about an author who will be appearing at the festival. I check up and – you guessed it – all the authors I was hoping to see are sold out. I was in town yesterday for lunch with my pal and I went along to the festival at Charlotte Square in Edinburgh. The book festival is thronged with people of all ages, as retirees peruse the bookshelves at their leisure, side by side with uniformed schools students of both genders, who appear to be in more of a hurry. At the entrance, classes of primary school children make a chatterbox entrance, lining up in pairs, with a teacher at the front and back of the bendy, snake-like body of kids.

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Entrance to the Edinburgh International Book Festival (Click to enlarge all photos)

Once inside, you see an open space with tables where people sit and read or talk about books. Around this, there are a series of marquees which host the talks by authors. If I had been alert (and early) enough to get tickets, I would have gone to see Colm Toibin, Sebastian Barry, Stuart MacBride , Bernard McLaverty, and Coulson Whitehead. There’s also a large bookshop and browsing the shelves, I came across a book by one of my favourite authors – Richard Ford – of which I’d never heard.

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Richard Ford books amongst others

It’s a 1981 novel, entitled The Ultimate Good Luck and I’m looking forward to reading it. One of my favourite phrases from Ford’s novels is “the normal, applauseless life of us all”, a reflection by Frank Bascombe, Ford’s brilliantly enduring character. There is still over a week to go of the book festival, so I might get lucky and hear an author who intrigues me.

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Richard Ford’s 1981 novel

And so to lunch, (via the National Library of Scotland for a wee bit of research) at The Last Drop in Edinburgh’s famous Grassmarket. The pub’s name refers to the last hanging in the area. Nowadays, people go there to eat, drink, indulge in gallows humour and catch up on all the noose. From there, we went to the zenith of real ale pubs in Edinburgh (and most other places) The Bow Bar.

This is an enchanting pub, partly for its array of old mirrors and signs advertising beer, whisky and cigarettes from past ages, partly for its unreconstructed interior, but mostly for the excellent range of beers it offers and the knowledgeable and friendly staff who serve you. The first photo, which I took, shows different beers and whiskies, and while some e.g. Boddingtons are still with us, Mackay’s Edinburgh Pale is long gone.

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On the walls of the Bow Bar, Edinburgh (mobile camera photo)

I gained permission of The Bow Bar’s staff to download two photos from their website. The first shows the sign outside the pub, with drayman, his horse and beer barrels on the cart. The bar is in the intriguingly named West Bow where one of the city’s medieval gates would have been.

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Bow Bar sign

The second photo shows the inside of the pub. No modern, cushioned seats, plain wooden tables and hard chairs – the clientele love its traditional (do NOT say old-fashioned) décor. If you are a whisky enthusiast, then the 300+ malt whiskies on display will make you think that you’ve found nirvana. For us real ale drinkers, this pub is fantastic as I don’t think I’ve ever seen the same selection of beers on offer. On this visit, we had pints of Odyssey which is brewed in the bonnie village of Kippen (good photos) in Stirlingshire. The bar staff here are very up to date with where the beers come from, what they taste like (and they’ll always offer you a wee taste) and how they compare to others. I commented to the young woman behind the bar that there was an album that came out before she was born – Odyssey and Oracle by The Zombies. To my delight, she had heard of both the LP and the group. Some things just endure. If you are ever in Edinburgh, The Bow Bar is a must-visit.

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Inside The Bow Bar, Edinburgh