Archive for the ‘Flowers’ Category

Walk up the country and book podcasts

May 24, 2018

On a recent walk, we left the car at Wester Broomhouse, a farm at the top of a hill from which you can look back over the town of Dunbar. We then walked past Oswald Dean, scene of the first Battle of Dunbar in 1296 and on up towards the foot of Doon Hill, scene of the second Battle of Dunbar in 1650. Doon Hill is also famous for its Dark Age Settlement (good photos) which is worth visiting if you are near Dunbar. Unlike on New Year’s Day  (blog post) our walk did not take us to the summit of the hill, but we walked around the base of the hill and back to Spott Farm.

From the base of the hill, we looked down newly planted tattie (potato) fields. In the first photo below, you can see the elegant, flowing dreels (rows) of potatoes. In Scotland, if someone gets lost or takes a wrong turn or is looking in the wrong place, we might say that s/he is “up the wrong dreel”. I love seeing the smooth bare dreels, as in a short time, little green shaws will start to emerge, grow large and the field will be a mass of green. The brown dreels are like newly-formed and unpainted pottery, admirable in themselves. At the end of the field, you can see the group of houses known as The Doonery and one still has the large chimney, which would have formerly been part of the farm buildings here. When some farm machinery was steam-driven, chimneys were needed. To the right of and above The Doonery, before the sea, is my home town of Dunbar. To the above left, you can see Belhaven Bay (good photos) and the Bass Rock on the other side of the Firth of Forth.

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Looking towards Dunbar and Belhaven Bay from the foot of Doon Hill (Click on all photos to enlarge)

In the second photo below, you can see how the farmer has planted groups of tattie dreels side by side. I like the juxtaposition of the dreels going in different directions. I’m sure that there is a practical reason for the farmer doing this e.g. to increase the productivity of the field, but I like to impose some aesthetic quality on to the farmer and imagine that s/he might have seen the artistry in these patterns. The little hump that you can see in the middle/right of the photo, above the dreels and the green fields beyond, is North Berwick Law (good photos).

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Dreels in two directions

Later in our walk, we went through Spott Farm (good photos) which is a  very well maintained farm , with a beautiful clock below a turret on one of the buildings, as well as the magnificent Spott House, with the present façade done in the 1830s. We then went back down past the Doonery, and on the road towards Oswald Dean (known locally as Oasie Dean), we could firstly smell and then see the extensive clumps of wild garlic.

In the first photo below, you can see the emerging flowers which shoot up from the mass of green leaves on the wild garlic plants. Intriguingly, the photo also captures the shadows of the flowers on some of the leaves. Here is a joyous burst of brilliant white amongst the plethora of lush green leaves. The flowers have delicate white petals and thin stems, which are of a more delicate green than the leaves. If you look closely at the middle of the photo, you can see a spider – an industrious web maker seeking live prey which might venture into the garlic.

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Wild garlic leaves and flowers

The second photo is a close-up of the spider and the wild garlic flower. Look how the flower head seems to mimic the spider’s legs and how silk-like the nascent web is. When the garlic flowers are fully open, there are swathes of green and white lining the countryside road verges and that, along with the hawthorn bushes and trees breaking into white, transforms the previously dull road edges into rivers of dazzling white.

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Spider and wild garlic

While out on my bike, I listen to downloaded podcasts. I make sure that I can hear the traffic OK while I am listening. So far, my main podcast has been the BBC Radio 4’s Books and Authors. This is made up of two programmes – Open Book which features the mellifluous tones of Mariella Frostrup – and A Good Read which is presented by Harriet Gilbert. The programmes feature new books by a range of authors, as well as two guests discussing books which they recommend to others. More recently, I have been listening to interviews with authors on the The Guardian’s Books Podcast and soon I will be listening to an episode featuring the newly announced winner of the Man International Booker Prize Olga Tokarczuk. The 3rd book podcast certainly worth listening to is from The Free Library of Philadelphia and it features insightful interviews with contemporary authors such as Jesmyn Ward. Another podcast which I found recently is the Irish Times Books Podcast and I enjoyed the interview with Irish writer Adrian McKinty, who was talking about his new novel Rain Dogs which I will buy and read soon.

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A final podcast but not related to books is Death in Ice Valley. This is a fascinating series of podcasts – I have only listened to the first two so far – about the mysterious death of a woman who was found in a remote valley near Bergen in the 1970s. The two reporters look back on the evidence and slowly provide more clues as to who the woman might be and how (or whether) she was murdered. I am hooked, so another episode tomorrow as I tackle some steepish hills on my bike.

 

 

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John Threlfall exhibition and more spring flowers

May 9, 2018

The latest exhibition at Waterston House in Aberlady features the work of John Threlfall who is a very well-respected wildlife artist. I included John’s work in a joint exhibition on the blog in 2016. This is another display of the work of a high quality artist and the variety of colours are quite stunning. I contacted John and he kindly sent me some photos of his work in the exhibition. The first example is Summer Finery (shown below) which has a dazzling array of colours on the glittering water, the serene duck and the vegetation. My ceramics teacher sister-in-law thought that John Threlfall’s style could be described as Impressionist or Fauvist. I put this to John and he replied “As to a description of my painting style I have to confess it is not something I ever think about. Others have described it is as Impressionist and as my use of brighter colours develops perhaps Fauvist maybe used increasingly”. I was unfamiliar with the term Fauvist but on looking it up, I discovered that the Tate Gallery defined it as “… the name applied to the work produced by a group of artists (which included Henri Matisse and André Derain) from around 1905 to 1910, which is characterised by strong colours and fierce brushwork”. My eye was attracted to the purples in this painting – in the water and on the duck’s back; and also to the white Sydney Opera House style white water lilies.

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Summer Finery by John Threlfall (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The second painting below is Swanlight and I think that this is a very clever title of this classic Impressionist painting. When you look at it, you can indeed see a light emanating from the swan’s plumage, as they huddle together, perhaps for safety or maybe just for a neighbourly get together. There are a number of flows to this painting – in the vertical background and patches of green, but it is the elegant flow across the plumage of the huddled swans that is particularly eye-catching.

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Swanlight by John Threlfall

In the exhibition, John Threlfall also includes many paintings of animals such as seals, hares and elephants. The exhibition is open until 23rd May, so get to see it if you can, as it is a superb collection of this most impressive (as well as Impressionist) painter.

In my last post, I noted that this year has produced a very healthy crop of spring flowers, with polyanthus and pansies much bigger and more colourful than in previous years. The daffodils and in particular, the tulips have also been magnificent. Daffodils were originally brought to Britain by the Romans according to this source but were not recognised as a garden flower until the 1600s. This year I have had, like other people I’ve talked to locally, more white daffodils than normal but I do not know why. I do like the great varieties of colours in the daffodils  I have, and depending on whether the sun is out or not, the daffodils appear to take on different shades. The photo below is one from a bowl of daffodils given to us by my sister. This flower has elegant shapes, a range of colours and shades of colour and the centre appeared to me like a piece of origami you might see in an exhibition. It gave us continuous pleasure for more than a week.

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Yellow and orange hybrid daffodil

While the early stars of the show in the garden were the daffodils, polyanthus and pansies, the tulips are now out in all their magnificent pomp. It’s as if the tulips know that – unlike the pansies and polyanthus that last much longer – their time as the centre of attention is limited. In some parts of the garden, there are only tulips and it is like a fashion show and I liked the elegant, almost aloof look of the three shown below.

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Elegant tulips on show in the garden

I took the 3 close-up photos after a heavy rain shower this afternoon. In the first photo, the flowing lines (a la Threlfall) on the petals, with their delicate shades of purple, draw your eye down the flower, which looked to me like hands being held out, perhaps in celebration.

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Close-up of a shapely tulip just after the rain

In the 2nd photo, I make the same comment as I did when I last posted on tulips. Can you see the tarantula? There is also as dazzling light coming from the centre – like Threlfall’s swans – and the raindrops are captured on their way down to this hydra-like centre.

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Spider-like centre of a tulip after the rain

The 3rd photo is the undoubted individual star of the show this year and this beautiful, multi-petalled tulip has been widely admired by neighbours and visitors. There is a lushness and an abundance in this flower, with its plethora of petals, whose colours are enhanced by the raindrops, which seem to be protecting the centre. When looking at the photo of this tulip, I wonder what an Impressionist/Fauvist painter would produce in making a representation of the flower?

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Multi-petalled tulip after the rain

 

Guardian Country Diary and spring flowers

April 30, 2018

I read the Guardian’s Country Diary most days, because of the quality of the writing about the rural environment. A recent one particularly caught my eye as it featured wild primroses, which can be seen on slopes near streams not far from Dunbar. The author of this piece is regular contributor Phil Gates. Like the other contributors to the Country Diary, Gates has an enviable lyrical flow to his writing e.g. “Had I not strayed from the footpath around the fields and explored its slopes, I might never have stumbled across a hidden, wild population of wild primroses”. Although primroses in the wild have the name primula vulgaris, there is nothing vulgar about these pretty flowers, especially in the wild setting of this article (see photos). Gates notes that primroses hybridised with the cowslip to produce the ancestor of the modern primulas, which are “now mainstays of municipal spring bedding schemes everywhere”. Gates also comments that the occurrence of wild primroses which are not yellow but salmon-pink, may be the result of cross-pollination with garden primulas. The Country Diary is a short read – like a poem – but it often provides welcome relief from the litany of heinous crimes reported in The Guardian.

The article provides a nice link with spring flowers now at their peak in my garden. I plant a few hundred bulbs in the autumn and intersperse them with polyanthus and pansies. When I do this, the ground or pot looks fairly bare and interesting. So the contrast with what can be seen now is amazing, as in the photo below, where the proliferation of flowers is added to by the reflection on the glass of the balustrade.

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Spring flowers on the decking (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The polyanthus have prospered this year. They are bigger, with brighter flowers, greener leaves and longer stems. What exactly caused this success is unknown to me but it is presumably some combination of the right amounts of rain and sun. Taking a close look at the plant, as in the photo below, shows their wonderful structure as well as the vibrant colour. You can see how pollinating insects such as bees are drawn invitingly to the centre of the flower by the flowing lines, which become more colourful as they approach the nectar pot.

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Close up of a yellow polyanthus

I have different varieties of primula in the pots and I prefer the yellow one above to the dual coloured type below, although they are still attractive. This version may attract the pollinators more directly because of the yellow heart of the flower might be seen as more enticing because of the contrast with the pale purple.

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Dual coloured polyanthus flowers

The other stars of the spring flower collection at the moment – I will leave the daffodils and tulips for another day – are the pansies, which have also been quite prolific this spring. There is a multiplicity of different pansies which you can buy and grow from seed and you can see a selection (with photos) here. Taking a close-up look at the pansy – in the two photos below – you see similar lines to the polyanthus but the heart of the flower is much more bold and it is as if a butterfly or moth has been painted on the flower. Again, this is a bold statement by the flowers, as in “Come and see what is on offer here”. The flowers are obviously in competition to attract the insects and this bravura show of colour reminds me of some birds which emphasise the colours of their plumage to attract a mate.  The second flower below is particularly attractive I think as the imposed butterfly or moth takes up almost the whole leaf of the flower. Pansies last much longer than daffodils or tulips, so the joy to be had from seeing them as I open the curtains in the morning is equally extended.

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Yellow pansy in the spring garden

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Pansy in the spring garden

Homegoing and a brief visit to the Botanic Gardens

April 14, 2018

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

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

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

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Bursting bud in the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh

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

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Lawson cypress tree in the Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh

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

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Rhododendrons at the Botanic Garden in Edinburgh

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

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Rhododendron flower at the Botanic Garden in Edinburgh

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

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Rhododendron flower at the Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh

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

Crocuses in the snow and Rita Bradd’s poems

March 26, 2018

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

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

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

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

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White crocuses at West Barns

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

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Purple crocuses at West Barns

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

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Salt and Soil – poems by Rita Bradd

Winter Flowers exhibition and Word of Mouth

March 17, 2018

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

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

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

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

 

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

Orchids and bananas by Elizabeth Blackadder

Orchids and bananas by Elizabeth Blackadder

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

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Honey by Ade Adesina

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

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

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

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One of Michael Rosen’s many books for children

The Ultimate Good Luck and a small, beautiful orchid

February 21, 2018

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

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

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

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Small orchid and its shadow

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

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Orchid on our window sill

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

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Newly opened orchid flower on the right

Doon the herber and snowdrops at Pitcox

February 3, 2018

In local parlance, going to or down to the harbour in Dunbar is known as going “doon the herber”. I was looking out to sea last week and saw 2 fishing boats approaching the harbour, so I went along the road with my camera. I saw only one boat, which was unloading prawns. The boat itself was covered in at the sides, presumably for protection, but for a photographer, this is disappointing as you can’t get a shot inside the boat. The prawns were on the quay in boxes. As the photo below shows, these prawns are heaped together in what some might think is an unseemly fashion. They are orange on the top and pink on the underside, with tails which fan out and they have spindly legs. If you did not know what a prawn was, you might look at this and imagine them to be an invasion of maggots or an underground nest of newly merged orange caterpillars.

 

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Newly landed prawns at Dunbar harbour (Click to enlarge all photos)

As ever, when a boat comes in to Dunbar Harbour (good photos) and to harbours the world over, the seagulls are out in force, looking for an easily accessible meal. In our harbour, the majority of gulls in winter are herring gulls. In the first photo below, you can see both adult and junior gulls. The juniors are rather drab looking, with dull necks and spotted grey outer wings. In comparison, the adult gull (2nd photo)  is sparkling white and has the distinctive orange spot on its yellow beak. It also has rather spindly, arthritic looking legs and feet. Herring gulls can be nuisances in inland towns when they tear open food bags. They also occasionally steal ice cream cones from unsuspecting tourists who have come to see the sights in Dunbar. When they are at the harbour, they are more in their proper context, as in the 3rd photo, coming in to land on the fishing boat, hoping to find food trapped in the nets or trawls. These big, bold birds are opportunists at work.

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Herring gulls on the Dunbar Harbour quayside

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Adult Herring gull on Dunbar harbour Quayside

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Incoming seagulls in Dunbar Harbour

I’ve featured the early snowdrops at Pitcox Farm, which is about 4 miles (6.5k) from Dunbar, on the blog before but it is two years since I did so. On a cold winter’s day, the spread of snowdrops under the trees is a welcoming sight, when you see their white and green patches on the grass, part of which is streaked yellow by the afternoon sun in this photo.

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Snowdrops and trees in the afternoon sun at Pitcox Farm

Alice Oswald’s now famous poem Snowdrop was chosen by the Council for the Protection of Rural England in 2016 to celebrate National Poetry Day and you can hear Sir Andrew Motion reading the poem here (video). The poem (words here) views snowdrops as “pale pining” girls with their heads bowed, and “with no strength at all”. Looking at the snowdrops close-up below, you might agree with Oswald and see the flowers as similar to the downtrodden women in The Handmaid’s Tale (see picture). On the other hand, these flowers emerge in the depth of winter and withstand snow, ice and frost, so maybe we should view them as the Terracotta Warriors of the winter flower world, as they stand strong together in ranks.

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Snowdrops at Pitcox

The final photo shows the snowdrops, along with the elegant birch trees beside the newly roofed cottages which are being renovated. Pink clouds in the afternoon sky can be seen through the trees – a beautiful setting.

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Snowdrops and red roofs at Pitcox Farm

PS The blog is likely to be less than weekly this year as I’m starting a new writing project, of which more later.

Planting bulbs and the East Lothian Banking Company scandal

December 4, 2017

I’ve just finished planting the last of my spring bulbs. Now, for many garden experts, this is a bit late in the day but I like my daffodils and tulips to appear in the Spring as far as possible and not in midwinter, as is happening due to climate change. There’s a certain degree of creativity in planting bulbs, as you know that the combination of what is a rather dull looking object – a daffodil bulb – will combine with the earth to produce firstly a green stem and then a piece of sculpture as the head opens up. Also, you know that when you plant the bulbs and the pansies and polyanthus, a rather bare and forlorn section of the garden – brown earth dotted with plants – will be transformed into an eye-catching and neighbour-praising object looking like this.

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Spring garden (click on all photos to enlarge)

So there is a great deal of satisfaction – and anticipation – to be had in planting bulbs and I always feel better when I’ve emptied out the last bulbs from the previously filled old shoe boxes I have in the garage over summer. I’ve completed one task and can look forward to the transformation in the garden in a couple of months, from bare earth to this.

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Tulip bulbs in Spring

When you are doing research of any kind – academic or personal – there’s a kind of serendipity that ensures that at some point you will come across material that is not relevant to your current research, but is very interesting. As an academic researcher or PhD supervisor, my advice was to leave this well alone, but with personal research, you have time to meander down some alleyways for a while. Recently, I was interviewing the daughter of the owner of a shop in Dunbar in the 1950s about her youthful memories of the shop and she produced a folder that her parents had left with her. Inside the folder were two nineteenth century Scottish bank notes – not your regular Bank of Scotland or Royal Bank of Scotland notes – but notes from the East Lothian Banking Company.

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One pound note (front) issued by the East Lothian Banking Company

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Five pound note (front) issued by the East Lothian Banking Company

The bank notes’ design reflected the county of East Lothian’s farming and fishing communities. To the modern eye, these notes look like cheques, where the name of the recipient is to be entered, along with the date. These notes, like other 19th century bank notes, were not circulated as bank notes are now, but were issued from a book of notes. The East Lothian Banking Company was set up in 1810 here in Dunbar and its funds came from local merchants and farmers. The records show that the bank did good business for some years and it appointed William Borthwick a very young man at 22 years old as cashier – the equivalent of chief executive today. Borthwick turned out not only to be relatively inexperienced, but to be an embezzler of the banks’ funds and he took off, probably to America, in 1822 with the bank in serious debt. Thus the scandal of the county bank.

Another interesting feature of the bank notes is that (see below) on the reverse of each note, there appears “Five pence” on the one pound note and “One shilling three pence” on the five pund note, which may have been a tax to be paid, although I’ve found it difficult to find out exactly what this represents. Also, the designs on the back of the two notes are different. One the one pound note “GR IV”, presumably referring to King George IV can be seen. As George IV reigned from 1820 to 1830, this note must have been issued in the last years of the bank’s existence. There’s no reference to royalty on the back of the five pound note. As we approach a (mainly) cash society, these notes are a reminder of different times. It should of course be remembered that very few people in East Lothian society in the early 19th century would ever have seen, never mind handled, a five pound note. This was a rich man’s (and it was men in control then) business.

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Back of a one pound note issued by the East Lothian Banking Company

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Back of a five pound note issued by the East Lothian Banking Company

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.