Archive for the ‘gardening’ Category

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

 

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Scottish Colourists’ Exhibition and home grown new tatties

August 3, 2017

The exhibition of work by the Scottish Colourists at The Granary in Berwick Upon Tweed (good photos)  had been on our list for a while. On a very wet Sunday morning a couple of weeks ago, we decided to go and it turned out to be a really pleasurable and enlightening visit. We had seen some of the work of the group who became to be known as the Scottish colourists – Peploe, Fergusson, Hunter and Cadell – in previous exhibitions at the National Gallery of Scotland. As often happens in art, the group members became most well- known after 3 of them were dead – in the 1940s, with only Fergusson living on until 1961. The exhibition’s paintings are shown in chronological order and this gives the viewer and idea of how the styles and ideas of the painters developed over the years. I was allowed to take photos and the following were works that stood out for me personally.

The first painting is “Peonies in a Chinese vase” by Leslie Hunter. The painting itself is more distinct than this photo but even here, you can see the range of colours used by Hunter. The painter wrote “The eye seeks refreshment in painting. Give it joy not mourning. Give everything a distinct outline. Avoid over finish – an impression is not so robust but that its first inspiration will be lost if we try to strengthen everything with detail.’’ In this painting, there is a mixture of realistic outlines of objects but also an impression of these objects. So I think that this makes us appreciate the form of the painting and asks us to use our imagination.

 

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“Peonies in a Chinese vase” by Leslie Hunter (Click to enlarge)

The 2nd painting is “A vase of pink roses” by S.J Peploe. While the roses are painted in greater detail than in the previous work shown, this is still not an attempt to portray the roses photographically. What attracts me to this painting are the range of shapes and lines, which give it an abstract quality. The mix of colour – ranging from the dark at the top left and bottom, to the delicate pinks and orange of the roses and the light background – provides a contrast and this makes you look at the work more closely. At first glance, this is a fairly simple picture, but when you start to look at the detail, it ends up being a very busy one.

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“A vase of pink roses by S.J. Peploe

The final painting is “Loch Creran, Argyll” by Francis Cadell. When you first see this work, it certainly is the colours that draw it to your eye. There is a superb range of colours here, with subtle changes of shade. You are almost tempted to take do a child-like exercise and spot how many shades of green and blue are here, but this is not about quantity. The loch and the surrounding mountains are depicted in what was for me a very gentle and calming flow of colours. The real Loch Creran (good photos) is a stunning location. Cadell is not aiming to replicate the real-life views. He is perhaps trying to give us an alternative view, which has a more dream-like quality.

Overall, this is an outstanding exhibition. It’s on until October, so get to see it if your are anywhere near it.

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“Loch Creran, Argyll” by Francis Cadell

From the artistic to the more practical and a different kind of taste. In an earlier blog post this year, I promised to include a picture of my emerging tattie (potato) shaws, but it slipped my mind. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been harvesting the early tattie crop and here is the result. In Scotland (as elsewhere) we have two crops of tatties each year – early and late. The early ones have much thinner skins than the late tatties and tend to be much more tasty. You would never peel early tatties. To do this would be the act of a philistine and make you susceptible to the wrath of the tattie gods. Now, there is a certain psychological element to planting, feeding, watering and then harvesting your own tatties. When you dig under the shaws and reveal the oval packets of flavour and nourishment, there is definitely an element of  achievement, of pleasure and a harking back to times when people grew their own food out of necessity. These tatties have a distinct flavour – you must be careful not to boil them too hard to ensure this. I could eat these on their own with just some butter.

One of my favourite poet Seamus Heaney’s most famous poems is “Digging” (Heaney reading the poem) and it contains the lines “The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft/ Against the inside knee was levered firmly. / He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep/ To scatter new potatoes that we picked,/ Loving their cool hardness in our hands”. That last line is brilliant and you would need a whole paragraph to describe what the poet is saying here. Heaney has a very enviable facility with words.

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Early tattie crop in my garden

 

Dirleton Castle and gardens

July 21, 2017

The attractive village of Dirleton (pr Dirril – ton) lies 15 miles (25K) along the coast from Dunbar. I’ve featured the village on the blog before – here. We’ve been to Dirleton many times and I’ve cycled through village but we had never been to the magnificent castle and exquisite gardens before. The castle and gardens are now owned and maintained by Historic Environment Scotland. After you pay at the entrance, immediately on your left is a stone gazebo (1st photo), which houses a small museum and from which you get a very good view (2nd photo) of the gardens which stretch out around an extensive lawn.

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Gazebo at Dirleton Castle (Click to enlarge)

 

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Dirleton Castle gardens

There are hundreds of different plants in the gardens and there was a brilliant range of colour in the shrubs on the day we visited. Many of the shrubs had flowers which contrasted well with the green leaves, such as this feathery specimen, whose name I didn’t know, but should have noted as there are many signs in the garden denoting the plants. Our good friend Sandra enlightened me as to the name- Astilbe.

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Flowering Astilbe at Dirleton Castle Gardens

I also took some close up photos, firstly of a thistle, and with its purple, pineapple-like, studded  head and dancing arms, it has a look-at-me appearance to attract the bees.

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Thistle in Dirleton Castle Gardens

I managed to capture a close-up of a bee on a thistle, in the photo below. This bee, with its gossamer wings and delicate colours on its hairy body, must have stopped for a second to allow me to capture it so well. I was going to crop more of the background but I like the surreal look of the flower head, as if parts of it are trying to fly off or are whirling like a dervish.

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Bee on a flower in Dirleton Castle gardens

You can walk around the gardens many times and always see something different – a newly seen peachy rose or a startlingly purple poppy, of which there are many varieties in the garden, such as the one below. I noticed this on the way back from the castle and was struck by its dark purple interior, the yellow starfish centre and the curving pale purple of the petals, parts of which were white in the sunlight. The gardens are strikingly beautiful collectively and individually and form a wonderful start to the visit.

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Purple poppy at Dirleton Castle gardens

The castle itself is only partly visible from the village green but once you turn the corner at the end of the gardens, it looms into view above you. As a show of strength and power, and architectural skill, the castle cannot but impress. What first strikes you is the thickness of the walls, designed to keep out the enemy and keep in the heat. As the photo shows, the walls were about 6ft in width and, given that some were built in the 1200s, they are still in remarkably good condition. Working on castle walls in those days was often a perilous occupation, with little thought to health and safety.

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Stone walls at Dirleton Castle

For the aristocratic families which owned the castle over the centuries, the de Vaux, the Halyburtons, the Ruthvens and the Nisbets, this was mainly a place of refuge where they could rule the lands around them and impress their guests with the huge dining hall aka the Great Hall. The 1st photo below is of one of the guide boards at the castle shows an impression of the hall with its high, ornately beamed ceiling. The 2nd  photo shows the remains of the hall as seen today. When you stand in the hall, you get an idea of just how big this space was and how many people might be entertained. Less fortunate were those who worked as servants in the castle, with the searing heats of the kitchens below and the cold, cramped accommodation in winter.

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Great Hall at Dirleton Castle

 

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The Great Hall at Dirleton Castle

There is much to see in this well preserved castle and there are many informative guides in the different rooms. The final photo shows the castle from the newly formed gardens which border the castle. The trees in the foreground are well established and you can see their height by the man captured in the far right corner. The castle imposes itself on the landscape above, another show-off, just like the thistle above. For another blogging cyclist’s view and photos of the castle and gardens, see here.

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Dirleton Castle from the west

Deputy weatherman’s deputy and rain on flowers

July 12, 2017

My pal Kenny Stanton reads the weather station at Winterfield in Dunbar every day and sends his results off to the Met Office. He was on holiday recently and his deputy Ronnie took over. Then Ronnie was on holiday and I took over and became the Deputy Weatherman’s Deputy, something that not many people achieve in their lives, and surely ranks alongside positions such as Vice President of the USA or Steve McQueen’s stuntman in The Great Escape. It is an intriguing post to hold, particularly in relation to the use of language. The first task is to enter the weather station (photo below). For security, the station is fenced in with iron railings, so you go in as a prison warden with your keys jangling, in the style of Mr Mackay (video).

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Dunbar Weather Station (Click to enlarge)

Once inside, you open the Stevenson Screen   which is not a screen but a white, wooden, slatted box, which could be mistaken for a beehive, seen on the left of the photo above. It is called after the Edinburgh born engineer Sir Thomas Stevenson, the father of the author Robert Louis Stevenson i.e. the father had the novel idea first. Inside, the Stevenson Screen looks like this.

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Thermometers inside the Stevenson Screen

My instructions were to record the air huidity by looking at the left hand vertical thermometer and this is recorded not as air temperature but as dry bulb as the thermometer is “not affected by the moisture of the air”. The right hand vertical thermometer reading is recorded as wet bulb. “By combining the dry bulb and wet bulb temperature in a psychrometric chart or Mollier diagram the state of the humid air can be determined”. Are you still with me? So, dry and wet bulbs are not planted in the autumn and dug up in the spring, they record humidity. Wouldn’t it be good if you had something similar for humans e.g. bright bulb and dull bulb which recorded stupidity? You could do this surreptitiously and avoid people with high dull bulb reading.

There are many other readings but, at the risk of losing you, I will focus only on the sunshine element. The Met Office state that “A glass sphere focuses the sun’s direct radiation on a graduated card and the length of the burn trace on the card corresponds to the duration of sunshine”. The photo below shows the Campbell-Stokes sunshine recorder and if you’re feeling nerdy about sunshine recorders, check this out. My task was to replace the card which showed the previous day’s sunshine, with a new one.

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Sunshine recorder in Dunbar weather station

The next photo shows the distorted view of part of the weather station through the glass orb and you get a weird sensation looking through the orb, which is 10 feet above ground.

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Looking down the sunshine recorder at Dunbar weather station

The weather has inspired song writers and poets for many years. The Beatles (video) sang ” When the rain comes they run and hide their heads/  They might as well be dead … When the sun shines they slip into the shade/ And sip their lemonade..”. The first song heard on Radio 1 was “Flowers in the Rain” (video) by The Move. The Russian poet Anna Akhmatova wrote “Sunshine has filled the room/ with clear golden specks of dust”. In An Autumn Rain Scene, Thomas Hardy wrote “There trudges one to a merry-making/ With sturdy swing,/ On whom the rain comes down”.

We’ve had a lot of rain here recently, with heavy skies often moved along very slowly by a distinctly cool north easterly wind. One joyful aftermath of the rain is in the garden where raindrops on the flowers and leaves are a sight for sore eyes. I took these photos yesterday, to capture the ephemeral nature of the rain. An hour later, the raindrops had gone, extinguished by the sun. It’s a short existence if you’re a raindrop.

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Raindrops on a gladiolus leaf

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Raindrop on flowers and leaves

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Raindrops on begonia flower

 

 

 

Smooth tattie dreels and bluebells

May 3, 2017

My home county of East Lothian is often referred to as “the garden of Scotland” because of its rich arable soil. In the past two weeks, several fields around Dunbar have been transformed from being roughly ploughed and not very interesting areas, into mesmerising rows of tattie (Scots for potato) dreels (Scots for drills). The first photo was taken at a slight angle to the dreels and I love the curvature of the shaped soil and how one set of dreels leads on to another further up the field – and the 2nd set appear to curve in a different direction.

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Tattie dreels on the edge of Dunbar (Click to enlarge)

The 2nd photo is taken more or less straight on and the regimented dreels look like an endless set of brown piano keys, which might play a song such as (appropriately for this blog’s author) Tatties and Herrin. This song claims that the “natural food” of the Scots is potatoes and herring – and the video shows the reaping, gutting and barrelling of the herring (aka Silver Darlings). In the 1920s and 1930s, tatties and herrin’ were indeed the staple diet of many Scots people. Of course, in the 1920s and 1930s, before the advent of tractors, tatties would be sown by hand or by an early potato planter and they would be sown in much smaller fields, compared to the huge fields we see today. I have planted tatties in my own garden this year – the first time for over 30 years and yes, my dreels are smooth. When the first nascent shaws appear on my crop, I’ll post a photo

 

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Tattie dreels and the Lammermuir Hills

It’s May, so time for the bluebells to make their annual appearance and, for a brief time, be the dominant flower in woodland areas. A fellow blogger – Bookish Nature – has an excellent post on bluebells and she includes a lovely quote from Gerald Manley Hopkins and a clip from a Robert MacFarlane video, based on his excellent book The Wild Places. I ventured to the woods at Foxlake Adventures – as I did last year, to try to take better photos of the bluebells. The first two photos show the extensive bluebells among the trees at Foxlake. In some ways, the trees enhance the bluebells, emphasising their colour and showing how they cover the ground around the trees. The bluebells also enhance the tall, erect trees which are just coming into leaf, showing their mottled bark and their reach towards the light. In the 2nd photo, the sunshine has lightened the colour of the bluebells and strengthened the green of the new leaves. The bluebells will soon fade away but the leaves will get bigger and change colour to a darker green, so you have to appreciate the light green shapes that have emerged from the buds while they last.

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Bluebells beneath trees at Foxlake Woods

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Bluebells and trees in the sun at Foxlake Woods

Taking close-up photos of bluebells is something I find quite difficult but I keep trying. The first photo shows how the bluebell petals curl up when open and when you are looking down on stretches of bluebells, you hardly notice this feature, which is like women’s hairstyles in the 1960s. The vibrancy of the blue in the bluebell comes out very well here and you have to crouch down and look closely to appreciate this. So, next time you are in a bluebell strewn wood, hunker down and take a close-up view.

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Bluebell close up

For the 2nd photo, I had to hold the stem of the flower and turn it upwards. Bluebell flowers droop down, as if the flowers are too shy to show off their attractive pale cream anthers which hold the pollen. Only the creatures that scurry in amongst the bluebells, e.g. the beetles or perhaps a curious little wren, will appreciate the aesthetics of the underside of the bluebell. Seeing the bluebells in full colour and spread is a heart-warming sight, as you can feel the warmth in the colour of the flowers and know that Spring is well underway and soon the sun will have real warmth as well.

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Bluebell close up, showing pale cream anthers

Redhouse Castle, walls and daffodils, and honeywort

April 11, 2017

Sometimes you get to places by accident. Recently, we were visiting the Carol Barrett exhibition and there was a huge queue of traffic going into Aberlady (good photos), we headed west, through Longniddry  and ended up at Redhouse Castle (good photos). There is a new garden centre next to the ruin of the castle, which is a late 16th century building originally standing 4 storeys high. The first photo shows the ruin from the edge of the garden centre. It is perhaps not one of the most attractive castles which have survived but, given the technology available in the late 16th century, it is an impressive site.

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Redhouse Castle., East Lothian (Click to enlarge)

The 2nd photo shows the arched entrance into what would once have been an impressive courtyard of the Douglas family who built the original castle. It was acquired by the Laings (good photos) in 1607.

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Entrance to Redhouse Castle, East Lothian

The final photo is a close up of the doorway into the castle. Above the wooden door, on the pediment, can be seen the Laing family coat of arms and the initials MIL for Master John (Ioannes) Laing and RD for his wife Rebecca Dennistoun or Deenistoun. The motto on the lintel is Nisi Dominus Frustra – one translation being without the Lord, all is in vain, although like many Latin mottos, other translations exist. The stonework around the doorways is smooth, unlike the rougher – but more attractive, sandstone of the building itself.

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Doorway into Redhouse Castle, with the Laing family arms

On to stonework which is on a much lesser scale but, as I built most of it myself, remains attractive and has been enhanced by the array of daffodils now in flower above the walls. The first photo is of the first wall which I built with much advice and help from former stonemason Ian Sammels. This remains – unsurprisingly – the most impressive wall.

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The Sammels/Herring all and Spring flowers

The 2nd photo is of the latest – and final(?) stonewall, which I built myself. The mixture of daffodil types – white or yellow petalled – with the different shades of red sandstone, plus the shadows of the bushes behind, make this – I think – a well composed photos.

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The Herring wall with a variety of daffodils

A new plant in my garden is honeywort, given to me by my lifelong friend and fellow blogger Tam Bruce and his wife Sandra. Tam gave me two cuttings from their impressive garden in Edinburgh. This plant, shown below, has the wonderful name of Cerinthe major “Purpurascens”. It is a long established plant which attracts bees – thus its name – and one source quotes Virgil as ” using this plant as an offering to swarming bees in order to entice them into a new hive”.  As the photo shows, the plant has very colourful  tubular bell flowers, and at the moment, the leaves are starting to change colour and will develop into brilliant blue leaves or, more precisely, bracts which are defined as “leaf like structures”. So there is more to come from this plant, which seeds itself vigorously and has to be controlled. Tam and I had some fun in email exchanges, suggesting a modern update of the Beatles’ song Honey Pie, with a new line of “Honeywort, you are driving me crazy..”. I like the shadow of the plant against the stone and its intriguing shapes.

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Honeywort in my garden

 

Back to St Abbs and Spring flowers (2)

March 26, 2017

On Sunday, another visit to one of our favourite places, St Abbs Head (good photos), featured many times on this blog. It’s a small village but you can vary your walks and views nearby and always see something just a bit different from the last time. We parked at the National Trust car park and walked down past the farm on our left, which had a shed full of sheep just about to lamb. We saw some lambs in a nearby field and I managed to capture them amongst some shapely reflections of the trees.

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Lambs at St Abbs (Click to enlarge)

We went up the first part of the cliff top walk – going west to east – but only wanted a short walk, so we didn’t go any further. On the way back, you look across the to village of St Abbs Head, past the ragged shaped outcrop of rock (Photo below). It made me wonder whether, in a hundred or two hundred years, that rock column, sculpted by the weather, will still be there. It’s a superb view, taking in the harbour and all the houses built on the once empty cliffs above. There was only a gentle swell on the sea that day, with the waves edging slowly around the rocks, and not crashing over them as they often do.

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Rock column and St Abbs Head village

The next photo is from an angle I don’t think I’ve taken a shot from before. It is looking back across the edge of the harbour towards the clifftop walk, with the impressive Northfield House prominent on the cliff. The rock column in the photo above is just to the top right of this photo. Behind the house on the left with the red roof, with chimneys at either end (like the house to its right), there is a wooden staircase which leads you up to the impressive St Abbs Visitor Centre, which is well worth a visit.

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View across St Abbs Head arbour to the cliff walk

We walked back to the car park and, at the end of the farm buildings, I came across a trailer load of neeps – see photo below. In Scotland, we call them neeps or turnips. In England, they are called Swedes. What people in other parts of Britain call turnips, which are much smaller than neeps, we call white turnips. Around Dunbar, you will also hear people referring to Tumshies, another name for neeps/Swedes/turnips. Very confusing? For your amusement, but maybe not illumination, read this excellent Guardian article on the subject.

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A trailer load of neeps at St Abbs Head.

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Close up of neeps at St Abbs Head

And so to the second reflection on Spring flowers. In many towns in Scotland, councils in recent years have greatly expanded the planting of Spring flowers and it is not unusual to see great swathes of bright yellow and white crocuses at the entrance to these towns. Councils also planted thousand of daffodils and it is they which now take centre stage, as the crocuses have faded. There is something uplifting about seeing large groups of daffodils and I think Wordsworth had something to say on the topic in two versions (see website). I took a photo of daffodils on a banking at The Glebe in Dunbar. This small park overlooks the sea and the harbour entrance. The photo looks towards the remains of Dunbar Castle(good photos).

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Daffodils on a banking The Glebe, Dunbar

My aim every year is to take very clear close-up photos of flowers, to get to the heart of them and look at them as abstract shapes as well as attractive flowers. In the first photo below, I took two contrasting daffodils, one with white petals and one with yellow petals. They are both enchanting flowers but maybe the white petals emphasise the yellow, choir boys’ ruff of the flower’s centre more. Both have delicate stigma which thrust out to attract the pollen seekers. They are like mini corn on the cob with extensions.

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Two daffodils in my garden

In the final photo, I like the delicate folds in the prawn cracker petals and the ragged edge of the flower is similar to the rock face above at St Abbs. Also, the colour in the flower is not uniformly yellow but contains various shades, making it even more attractive.

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Yellow and white daffodil in my garden

 

Sebastian Barry’s “Days Without End” and Spring flowers (1)

March 17, 2017

It’s not often that you come across a novel that is absolutely riveting and makes you want to write down a quote from every page of the book, but the new novel by Sebastian Barry –  Days Without End comes into this category. You can listen to an excellent Guardian podcast featuring an interview with Barry about his novel and this adds further insight into the book. The novel tells the story of Thomas McNulty, who was among thousands who fled from Ireland when the potato famine struck. McNulty briefly tells us of his arrival in Canada on a ship where “I was among the destitute, the ruined and the starving for six weeks”. The Irish who reached Canada “were nothing. No one wanted us… We were a plague. We were only rats of people”. When McNulty subsequently meets a fellow teenager “handsome John Cole” who becomes his life-long friend and lover, he tells us “I was a human louse, even evil people shunned me”. This feeling of McNulty’s – that he and his kind are worthless – continues throughout the book, and McNulty explains that his and John Cole’s ability to withstand the horrors they see, comes partly from this. The book tells of the boys’ and subsequently men’s lives as dancers dressed up as women to entertain miners, then as soldiers engaged in “cleansing” the frontier of Indians and then as regular soldiers in the American Civil.

Barry’s writing is described by reviewers of the book as “vibrant”, “beautiful and affecting”, “exhilarating” and “vivid”. He is one of these writers with an enviable ability to produce descriptions that make your read them again. Open the book anywhere and you’ll find them. The soldiers eat with “the strange fabric of frost and frozen wind falling on our shoulders”. Other soldiers, sent out to meet an Indian chief and his followers “rode like chaps expecting Death rather than Christmas”. There are detailed battle scenes in the book, but also moments of tenderness and humour. Barry does not shrink from describing mass killing – of Indian men, women and children and of rebel soldiers – but he manages to focus on the personal. In the heat of the battle with the rebels, McNulty reflects “Other things I see is how thin these boys [rebels] are, how strange like ghosts and ghouls. Their eyes like twenty thousand dirty stones”. I am two-thirds through this astonishing novel already and I know that when I get near the end, I’ll want it to continue for another 300 pages. Go and buy it.

 

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Sebastian Barry’s stunning novel

Spring really has sprung around here and there is now an abundance of colour in my garden, with much more to come. The first photo is of a tulip from a vase in the house – my own tulips are biding their time, letting the daffodils have their spot in the sunlight, before they upstage them with a glorious display of colour. As readers of this blog will know, what fascinates me in particular is the insides of flowers and their often surreal appearance. I love the symmetry in this tulip as well as the vibrant colours and the central feature, which could be a creature from a sci-fi film or something inexplicable found by archaeologists in a 3000 year old grave. What do you see here?

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Close up of a tulip flower head (Click to enlarge)

The 2nd photo is of violas on the side of our hanging basket at the front door. The cyclamen in the body of the hanging basket has passed its best. The violas, planted last autumn wore plain green coats all winter and shrivelled in the frost at times. In the past 2 weeks however, they are transformed and show us purple and yellow dresses in a display of sartorial elegance. They are delicate little flowers but have eye-catching, mascara like centre patterns. As the title of this blog post indicates, there will be more Spring flowers to follow.

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Violas in a hanging basket

 

 

The Clematis and the Bee; St Armand Canal Paper and Cornflower seeds; and The Patient Who Had No Insides.

November 14, 2016

Before checking my email this morning, I turn the page on my poetry calendar – still the one from 2013 as there appears to be no replacement. One day (next life?) I will do my own poetry calendar which will probably have to be online, but don’t hold your breath. Today’s poem is called The Search by Eamon Grennan and it begins “It’s the sheer tenacity of the clematis clinging to/ rusty wire and chipped wood-fence that puts this/ sky-blue flare and purple fire in its petals”. It’s an interesting concept that “tenacity” rather than natural growth is what makes the clematis grow. The poet praises the plant for “lasting and coming back” despite the autumn weather. There’s another poetic observation “.. the way the late bee lands/ on its dazzle, walks the circumference of every petal” before “.. drinking/ the last of its sapphire wine”. You can easily envisage the bee as it skirts the petals before feeding on the “sapphire wine” – a startling combination of words. Next time you see a clematis, think about its tenacity.

An enchanting birthday present last month from my sister in law and brother in law. They had visited Gilbert White’s Garden in Selbourne, Hampshire and brought me 2 presents. The first is a book of poetry by the Canadian Julie Berry. The poems are based on the diaries of Gilbert White who was the local parson but also a very keen gardener and naturalist. The little book is beautifully produced.

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Cover of “I am, &c.” by Julie Berry

The cover is of soft paper and made of St Armand Canal paper for which the makers use “fibers left from clothing industry offcuts, white tee-shirts, blue denim and flax straw from farmers”. The book cover has a lovely soft feel to it. At each end of the book, there is a flyleaf which is made of Thai Tamarind paper which is tissue like. As you see in the photo below, this delicate paper contains dried (and dyed) tamarind leaves and bits of grass which makes it very attractive. This small, 24 page book is an artwork in itself.

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Flyleaf in Julie Berry’s book “I am &c.”

Along with this beautifully produced book was this.

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Cornflower Seed packet

The packet of seeds is inside this creamy coloured and very attractive wrapping. I will sow the seeds in the Spring and get an eye-catching display of what the packaging tells me will be “Dark blue flowerheads born from late Spring to Early summer”. I like the use of the word “born” here.

I am still working my way slowly through Denise Riley’s remarkable book Say Something Back. There is a five-part poem in the book entitled The patient who had no insides and this relates to the author’s illness and hospitalization – not a subject which you think might be expressed poetically, but Riley does this with aplomb. Part of the poem shows her acquired knowledge of terminology which all hospitalised patients pick up, due to repetition by clinicians. For example “Enzymes digesting tissue grind/ In rampant amylase and swollen lipase counts” send the reader to the dictionary but to patients suffering from liver disease, these are everyday words. Riley’s description of parts of our insides are both graphic and imaginative. The liver is “A plush nursery for the vegetal spirit”. The spleen is “sole-like” and “roughened, its shoe-shape/ Splayed into an ox tongue”. The poem also covers the potential thoughts of doctors about the disease they treat. The patient is released from hospital even though “Your liver tests are squiffy Mrs R..”. Once outside, the patient reflects “A smack of post-ward colour shoves us back to life”. This is a very impressive book of poetry which covers topics which can be unsettling for the reader, but you cannot help being full of admiration for Ms Riley’s poetic talents. Still another 20+ poems to read.

 

 

Say Something Back, A Spool of Blue Thread and autumn flowers

October 8, 2016

I am just back from Milan and the city will feature in the next posting. I was aware that the last 4 posts have been on cities I/we have visited, so I thought that the blog might be turning into some kind of Trip Advisor, thus the break from travel. The latest Poetry Book Society Choice is Say Something Back by Denise Riley. The first part of the book features a long poem A Part Song (podcast of the poet reading the poem) which is Riley’s sometimes candid, sometimes emotional reflection of the death of her adult son. I read this poem, which has different voices, and tried to take in the poet’s shock and wonder at how her son could die and some of the lines nearly brought me to tears. For example: “Each child gets cannibalised by its years./  It was a man who died, and in him died/  The large-eyed boy, then the teen peacock”. In other parts of the poem, the mother attempts humour in speaking to her son: “O my dead son you daft bugger/  This is one glum mum. Come home I tell you/  And end this tasteless melodrama – quit/  Playing dead at all”. There are also some beautifully constructed lines which accompany the mother’s grieving: “Ardent bee, still you go blundering/ With downy saddlebags stuffed tight/ All over the fuchsia’s drop earrings” – imaginative imagery here. I am still reading this superb book – two poems each day.

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Say Something Back – poems by Denise Riley

I’ve just finished reading Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread and I enjoyed its quirky humour and its ability to tell a family story in a deceptively simple way. Tyler has written about the Whitshanks – a middle class family in Baltimore – and has told tales of similar families during the course of many novels. The story highlights the present day complications of the family – the errant son, the bossy daughter and the ageing parents Abby and Red, along with their grandchildren. There are a number of strands to the novel such as family holidays at the beach; Abby’s growing forgetfulness and Red’s increasing deafness. Tyler tells this family story with ease and you are drawn into the tale by her apparently straightforward prose. This is interspersed with telling comments about a character’s past or attitude. The novel then goes back in time to detail the romance and marriage of Red’s father and mother. Tyler is sometimes classified as being a “light fiction” novelist but this novel was on the Booker shortlist for 2015, so this is a harsh judgement on a fine writer.

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A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

Now that we are into October, some of the flowers in my garden are starting to change colour, especially the hydrangeas. As the photos below show, some of the flowers have gone from bright pink to a more delicate pale pink with veins and red spots but they are no less attractive for that.

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Semi-fading hydrangea flowers

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Fading hydrangea flowers

The fuchsia plants are now flowering well although I have not spotted bees amongst them as in Denise Riley’s poem above. However, when you see the fuchsia flowers, you appreciate Riley’s metaphor of drop earrings. The fuchsias will last for a few more weeks without fading as the hydrangeas do.

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Dangling fuchsia flowers