Archive for the ‘literature’ Category

The Millihelen and seafood dinner on Lifeboat Day

August 18, 2017

The new Choice book from the Poetry Book Society is On Balance by Sinead Morrissey and the book opens with an outstanding poem. You can read the poem here and listen to the poet reading it here (video). I first read the poem without having seen the Notes at the back of the volume. We are told by the poet that a Millihelen is ” the amount of physical beauty required to launch a single ship” – a brilliant concept. The poem is about the launch of The Titanic (YouTube with photos of actual launch) in Belfast in 1911. The poem begins:

“It never looks warm or properly daytime
in black-and-white photographs the sheer cliff-
face of the ship still enveloped in its scaffolding
backside against the launching cradle
ladies lining the quay in their layered drapery
touching their gloves to their lips”
There is no punctuation in the poem but you soon get into its rhythm and appreciate the images and the poet’s view of what certain images  portray e.g. in the black and white photos, it’s not “properly daytime”. There is superb movement to the poem which mimics the launch of the ship:

 

“….. it starts
grandstand of iron palace of rivets starts
moving starts slippery-sliding down
slow as a snail at first in its viscous passage
taking on slither and speed gathering in
the Atlas-capable weight of its own momentum”
The deluge of images continues as the ship is an “iron palace”, the snail has a “viscous passage” and the ship is “Atlas-capable”. You need to read this poem a number of times to appreciate the density of the images and to imagine the ship sliding into the water through the eyes of the poet, who notes that, once in the water,
“the ships sits back in the sea
as though it were ordinary and wobbles
ever so slightly”
So this magnificent piece of engineering becomes “ordinary”-like once it regains its balance in water. What an amazing start to a book of poems. I’m still reading it and will return to it.
Morrissey

On Balance by Sinead Morrissey (Click to enlarge)

I’ve been saving this one up since last month. Our older son came down to Dunbar for his birthday. We were hoping to go the wonderful Creel Restaurant but couldn’t get in, so we decided on a seafood dinner as it was a sunny day and we could eat outside. Earlier in the day, the annual Lifeboat Fete took place at a packed harbour. As we sat having our dinner, we could see the lifeboat out at sea, along with a coastguard helicopter. Unknown to us, a diver had gone missing in a wreck off the coast. As far as our meal was concerned, we had (photo below) smoked salmon, dressed crab and smoked mackerel pâté ,with lemon segments and salad for starters.

IMG_1732

Seafood starters

 We also had some fresh langoustines. I always think that shellfish like this are very fiddly and a lot of work for what you end up with, but these  were very tasty, as well as being colourful. These oddly shaped creatures with their rows of pink false teeth under the claws and their gnarled, ridge-backed, curled up bodies are a strange mixture of angles and curves.

 

IMG_1733

Fresh langoustines

For main course, our son cooked a whole sea bream in the oven and we had whisky and honey flavoured smoked salmon from our local trout farm shop with peaches and salad.
IMG_1735

Whisky and honey flavoured smoked salmon from Belhaven Smokehouse

All this accompanied by a delicious Provençal rosé, so a touch of luxury on a warm and sunny evening. When your luck’s in, it’s in.
IMG_1734

Dinner for three on a summer’s evening

Advertisements

Darktown and summer evenings

August 11, 2017

I’ve just finished reading Darktown by US author  Thomas Mullen. The setting for this novel is Atlanta in 1948. While it can be described as a crime novel, as it involves the police and the solving of a crime, this book is no mere run-of-the-mill thriller. The main focus of the book is the inherent and ubiquitous racism that pervades the city and in particular, its white police force. The book uses the word Negro from the start and the N-word is used repeatedly by white officers. So many people might find it an uncomfortable read, but that should not put them off reading it, as it is a very well plotted story with interesting characterisation. As an experiment, the city of Atlanta has appointed its first 8 black police officers but they are very restricted in what they can do e.g. they can attend a crime but not investigate it further, as that must be done by white officers. The main story revolves around the murder of a young black woman who had earlier been seen with a white man. The two black officers, Boggs and Smith discover that their report has been altered and the murder case is not to be followed up. Against all orders, Boggs in particular seeks to solve this mystery. The two main white officers are Dunlow, a vicious racist with sadistic tendencies, and Rakestraw, a troubled young officer who is more sympathetic to black people. All the characters – even Dunlow – are shown to have good aspects to their characters and this is not simply a good guys versus bad guys book. The racial attitudes and the politics of race are shown to be complex in this riveting, often very tense and supremely well-paced novel. Go and buy it.

 

Darktown

Darktown by Thomas Mullen (Click to enlarge)

We’ve had a very mixed summer, weather-wise, in Dunbar this year, with more rain than normal and very few noteworthy sunsets. We had a short spell of interestingly coloured and shaped evening skies and here are some examples. This photo shows the town of Dunbar’s east beach shoreline houses with the High Street in the background to the right. Ominously looming above the town is what looks like an anti-ballistic missile on its way from Donald Trump to Kim Jong-un or vice versa? As of today, we are unscathed.

IMG_1650

Evening sky above Dunbar

The next photo shows two of the ships which are parked out to sea. These are oil or gas related vessels which are waiting for business and park on the horizon (or so it seems) looking out from the back of our house, as they can park there for free. I like the delicate pinks next to the deeper blues of the amorphous clouds, which constantly change shape before it gets dark.

IMG_1652

Ships on the horizon and the evening sky

The final photo shows another evening sky above the town. This photo was taken just after we Dunbar folk launched our own anti-ballistic missile as warning to Trump and Jong-un. The bold Donald has been strangely silent on this issue but don’t worry – he knows. I would tell you more but I’m sworn to secrecy.  It was a beautifully coloured sky with a multiplicity of shades of pink, blue and purple – perfect for a glass or two of pale pink Provence wine – and a missile launch.

IMG_1657

Evening sky above Dunbar – interesting streaks

 

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.

 

IMG_1772

“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.

IMG_1775

“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.

IMG_1780

“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.

IMG_1793

Early tattie crop in my garden

 

Aberdeen trip and James Sheard’s Blackthorn

June 29, 2017

We went  to Aberdeen recently to see our nephew before his graduation from Aberdeen University. We stayed at the excellent Chesters Hotel where we had a superb (but pricey) meal in the evening at their 1X restaurant. My starter was ravioli of crab and scallop, with celeriac puree, shellfish bisque and langoustine beignet. It was the beignet that I didn’t know about but it turned out to be a small prawn done in a very light batter. It was very well presented – alas no photo – with both the ravioli and the bisque being light and tasty. It looked like the one pictured here. Earlier in the day, we went to the extensive Hazlehead Park and were particularly impressed firstly with the range of rhododendrons on show.  There were several different colours with a pink one shown below. My new mobile phone has a better camera than my last one, which came to a watery end when I was out cycling and got soaked. The phone was uncovered and basically drowned. The man at the phone repair shop took one look at it and told me to buy a new one. Although the camera is better, it is not good at close-up shots but not bad from a short distance as the photos below will show. As you guessed, it’s not an expensive phone.

IMG_20170617_164050

Rhododendrons in Hazlehead Park (Click to enlarge)

We then went into the huge rose garden and although not many of the roses were in bloom, there were some stunning examples, such as these shown below. There is a lack of clarity here (mobile phone) but the colours and the delicate folds of the rose are remarkable.

IMG_20170617_165048

Hazlehead Park rose

IMG_20170617_165251

Hazlehead Park rose

In the first section of the rose garden, there is a large memorial to those who lost their lives in the Piper Alpha Disaster in the North Sea in 1988. The memorial lists those who died and the sculpture shows three oil rig workers. The figures look as if they may be calling for help and many visitors may recall the horror of the photos of the oil rig on fire. The contrast with the beauty and calm of the rose garden and the disaster is  poignant.

IMG_20170617_164859

Piper Alpha Disaster memorial in Hazlehead Park

James Sheard’s collection The Abandoned Settlements is a Poetry Book Society Choice and therefore highly rated. I thought that the early poems, which harked back to different places and different people were very well constructed and poignant. The title poem ends “For love exists, and then is ruined, and then persists” and this turns out to be the theme of the book, a series of reflections and memories of love and lovers, of beginnings and endings. I enjoyed November which begins “Let me tell you how, in this long dark/ I list the ways in which the leaf of you/ furled and unfurled around me”.  However, as the book progressed, I as the reader could only take so many doleful reflections on love gone bad, no matter how elegant the poems were and how well constructed they were. Others obviously disagree and he has been widely praised. One poem that I did connect with and which was to me the most lyrical poem in the book is entitled Blackthorn: “For two weeks I drove/ through tunnels/ of March blackthorn/ … and liquid growing white/ then full then falling/ in the wind rising/ each overnight and becoming bridal/ blizzarding across/ the quiet early morning/ whipped up by my wheels …”. Last year in this blog, I mistakenly identified blackthorn as hawthorn, with these photos below. You can see the link with “becoming bridal”.

IMG_0276

Blackthorn near Stenton village

IMG_0274

Close up of blackthorn blossom

 

Bordeaux visit (1) and The Black Eyed Blonde

May 24, 2017

We are not long back from a week’s holiday in Bordeaux, the beautiful city on  the river Garonne in the south west of France. It’s only a two hour flight from Edinburgh and we got through customs quickly. The hotel recommended that we get the Lianes 1+ bus, so we got that. We hadn’t realised that this bus stops everywhere and it took us 1 hour 10min to get to where we changed for the tram, because of rush hour traffic. So we just had to thole it. There is always an element of uncertainty when you travel to a new place and you never quite relax until you get to where you are staying. Where we did stay – the Hotel Vatel – was excellent in terms of comfort, staff and location.

From our hotel, we could see the River Garonne which flows around the city. It’s a wide river and some cruise liners (not the huge ones) parked on the quayside. There are a number of bridges across the Garonne, with the oldest being Le Pont de Pierre (good photos) which was ordered to be built by Napoleon and opened in 1822. It is a very impressive piece of engineering, with 17 spans, most of which you can see in the first photo below. You can walk or cycle across the bridge or cross it by bus or tram. Bordeaux has an excellent tram/bus service and you can get a ticket, which you can use on the tram and/or bus for 1Euro 50cents – this takes you anywhere you want in the city and lasts for an hour. There is a new bridge in Bordeaux, Le Pont Jacques Chaban Delmas (good photos) down river from Le Pont Pierre and it is a stunning example  of modern design, engineering and architecture. Unusually, the bridge has a vertical lift (see website) to allow the larger ships to pass under. You can see the bridge’s elegant towers in the second photo below and also, in the background, in the drum band photos below. The towers reminded us of the modern architecture we were used to seeing in Dubai when our son, daughter in law and twin granddaughters lived there.

IMG_1484

Le Pont de Pierre, Bordeaux (click to enlarge)

 

IMG_1571

Le Pont Chaban Delmas in Bordeaux

Another feature of the riverside is the promenade or quayside (good photos) where hundreds of people walk, cycle, roller blade and run every day. You have to watch carefully as some of the cyclists and roller bladers go at high speed, weaving their way in between walkers and runners. On the Sunday morning, we could hear the sound of drums further up the river, away from the centre. The drumming got louder and louder and the first of the drum bands approached. All the bands were brightly dressed and drummed with passion – it looked very hard work, so they must have been very fit to do the drumming.  This was a great addition to our Sunday morning stroll and very much appreciated by the many people on the quayside. Two of the bands are shown below.

IMG_1562

Sunday morning drum band on the quayside in Bordeaux

IMG_1565

Drum band on the quayside in Bordeaux

On the plane home, I finished reading Benjamin Black’s (aka John Banville) The Black Eyed Blonde, given to me by my good friend John. The book is written in the style of Raymond Chandler (podcast by John Banville) and features Chandler’s world-weary detective Philip Marlowe. It is a wonderful read, with a well-paced plot, interesting and believable characters, sharp dialogue and Marlowe’s accurate and often witty observations on people he meets and the world in general. Like the Chandler novels, this is one of these books that you can open at random and find something quotable. Marlowe is asked by a Miss Cavendish to find a man called Nico Peterson. Miss Cavendish is (like many women in Chandler novels) beautiful and Marlowe reflects on “.. the tip of her nose – and a very nice tip it was, to a very nice nose, aristocratic but not too narrow or too long, and nothing at all like Cleopatra’s jumbo snozzle”. This is typical of a Marlowe reflection – detailed and often containing wit. It turns out that Peterson was found dead but, on Marlowe’s second meeting with Miss Cavendish, she claims to have seen him alive. Marlowe follows a number of leads and meets a range of flawed (and sometimes unsavoury) characters and is subjected to serious violence at times in the story, like many detectives in novels. The ending is neat and not melodramatic. My (very literate) friend John argues that many crime novelists lose their nerve when it comes to ending their books and go for wildly dramatic and often violent scenes. Neither Chandler nor Black is ever likely to do that. This is a memorable novel, so get a hold of it any way you can.

Scan_20170523

The Black Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black

 

Surgeons as writers and Americana by Ray Davies

May 9, 2017

The Saturday edition of The Guardian comes through the letter box and thumps on the floor, as it contains a variety of sections – the main paper, sport, review, travel, family and food. I keep the Review section  for Sunday mornings and I enjoy reading the main article, as well as the non-fiction, fiction and poetry book reviews. On Saturday, the main article was by William Boyd and entitled “A matter of life and death: The rise of the surgeon memoir”.  In the article, Boyd looks at the works of surgeons such as Atul Gawande, Henry Marsh and Gabriel Weston. Gawande’s Complications describe what Boyd calls “significant” procedures e.g. “We made a fast, deep slash down the middle of his abdomen”. Boyd quotes Gabriel (in Direct Red) “We cut the woman open from breastbone to pubis and cleared her gut out with one deep sweep.” Boyd then goes on to wonder “.. how anyone can do this as a matter of course on a near-daily basis and remain a happy, functioning human being”. The author is obviously enthralled by surgeons and notes that he happens to know four surgeons with international reputations and he elicits from one of them, Brendan Moran, what is need to become a top surgeon – a lack of squeamishness, strength, knowledge, skill and experience. It is an interesting article, with some detailed outlines of procedures that some people e.g. the squeamish, may wish to avoid, and it gives an insight into the working lives of top surgeons. I also found it a rather obsequious article in that Boyd seems to think that because these top surgeons are making life and death decisions (and they admit to making good and bad decisions), they must be on a higher plane than other professions and he finishes by referring to “the extraordinary profession they [surgeons] share and the phenomenal life they lead”. This raises the question of whether Boyd should be so amazed by the surgeon/writers. Would Boyd be so in awe of top researchers who have made major discoveries in science, medicine, history, psychology or chemistry i.e. people who have no physical contact with others? I think not and perhaps society as a whole has tended to treat people in the  medical profession (mainly doctors) as being cleverer than the rest of us. A surgeon has great responsibility but so has a bus driver or train driver or airline pilot. Read the article and see what you think.

images

Direct Red by Gabriel Weston

I don’t buy much music these days but, having heard Ray Davies’ new album on Spotify, I bought it today.

Scan_20170508

Americana by Ray Davies

Ray Davies has always been more than just a writer of pop songs. In his days with The Kinks, Davies wrote songs with a socially cutting edge e.g. Dead End Street (YouTube link) – “Out of work and got no money/ Sunday joint of bread and honey” or Lola  (YouTube link) about a young boy meeting a transvestite in a club. The new album also has a cutting edge and is based on Davies’ time in America – with The Kinks in the 1960s and 1970s, but also on more recent visits. The recurrent theme in the album is The Great Highway, both in the physical sense of travelling on the roads in the USA, but also life as a journey. There are many intriguing tracks on the album and almost all demonstrate Davies’ critical look at modern society, particularly in the USA, but also globally. In Poetry, he sings ” .. the great corporations providing our every need/And those big neon signs telling us what to eat” but he asks “Where is the poetry?” in the blandness of shopping malls and other aspects of today’s society. In A Long Drive Home To Tarzana, he finds that “.. there’s nothing there except/that space/ Beautiful space” and this seems to be the dream, to be away from the crowded cities. Davies is accompanied by the fabulous Jayhawks band, including Karen Grotberg, who duets with Davies to great effect. If you listen to the album, you’ll hear echoes of the Beatles in some tracks and Neil Young in others. In the first track, which you can listen to here (YouTube), the first lines are “I wanna make my home/Where the buffalo roam”. In Neil Young’s Far From Home (YouTube), the chorus starts “Bury me out on the prairie/Where the buffalo used to roam”. So, a superb album of country/rock with Davies’ ironic lyrics adding to some wonderful tunes.

No blog next week, as we are off to Bordeaux for a week’s holiday.

 

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.

IMG_1341

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.

IMG_1328

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.

IMG_1334

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.

IMG_1336

A trailer load of neeps at St Abbs Head.

IMG_1337

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).

IMG_1347

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.

IMG_1354

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.

IMG_1358

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.

 

IMG_1322

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?

IMG_1305

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.

IMG_1310

Violas in a hanging basket

 

 

Falling Awake and birds at Belhaven Pond

March 3, 2017

The Poetry Book Society Choice for Autumn 2016 was Alice Oswald’s  new book – Falling Awake. This is an astonishing book of poems and has won some literary prizes. In the book, Oswald is not just close to nature, but inside it, and she demonstrates how elements of nature are interlinked, and how nature affects our lives , but also has a life of its own. The first poem A Short Story of Falling begins “It is the story of the falling rain/ to turn into a leaf and fall again/ it is the secret of a summer shower/ to steal the light and hide it in a flower”. These dramatic images – a shower stealing the light – continue in all the poems. In Fox, the narrator hears ” a cough” in her sleep and it is ” a fox in her fox-fur/ stepping across/ the grass in her black gloves/ [which] barked at my house”. In other poems, we hear of a badger “still with the simple heavy box of his body needing to be lifted” being “hard at work/ with the living shovel of himself”. In “A Rushed Account of the Dew”, there’s an amazing image of water on a plant, as the poet imagines the dew “descend/ out of the dawn’s mind”, and affix “a liquid cufflink” on to a leaf. In Shadow, the poet describes the shadow as having ” a flesh parachute of a human opening above it” – as you see, there’s a vivid imagination at work here. There are many more images of falling in the subsequent poems. I’m only half way through the book and will return to it in the blog. I agree with the Guardian reviewer that “I cannot think of any poet who is more watchful or with a greater sense of gravity”.

cover_jpg_rendition_460_707

“Falling Awake” by Alice Oswald

This week, we’ve had cold, but very bright days, especially in the morning. Having cycled past Seafield Pond (good photos) on Monday and seen a gathering of ducks on the grass verge, I ventured back there on foot on Tuesday – in the morning sunlight. The ducks were gone, but over the wall on Belhaven Beach, there was a scattering of seagulls, some oystercatchers and curlews, but also 2 little egrets (photos, video and bird call). As I got my camera ready, there was a sudden squawking, a brief flurry of wings by both birds, and one took off for the pond. I managed to get two photos of the constantly moving little egret. They are not the clearest of photos and maybe, I should have used a sports setting on my camera. However, they do show the elegance of this bird, with its long beak, tiny eye and large yellow feet, which help them to steady themselves on the slippery sand below the water.

img_1258

Little Egret on Belhaven Beach (Click to enlarge)

In second photo, I like the shimmering reflection of the bird’s body in the water, its shadow (with flesh parachute of a bird opening above it, as Oswald might have put it) and the corrugated sand.

img_1279

Little Egret and reflection on Belhaven Beach

While the egrets and oystercatchers are nervous birds and will fly off if you get anywhere near them, the swans on Seafield Pond simply float towards you. OK – they are looking for food, but I also think that swans are narcissistic birds. They glide toward you, inviting you to photograph their haughty serenity. They move slowly, like elegant models on a catwalk, then dip their heads in the water. The first photo shows 2 swans coming towards the bank, where I’m standing at the water’s edge. There are other birds, such as coots, but these have swum away in panic and have hidden behind the tall reeds (2nd photo). See the causal elegance here, with the swans more interested in their own reflections than the presence of a would-be photographer.

img_1263

Elegant swans at Seafield Pond

img_1267

Coots behind the reeds at Seafield Pond

The first swan pushed its head under water a few times and after several attempts, I managed to get a shot with water dripping from its beak. Look at the perfect outline of its body, the giraffe like neck and its body like a small iceberg. You can watch swans all day.

img_1270

Swan with dripping beak at SeafieldPond

Back on my bike, John Clare podcast and crocuses

February 23, 2017

I had my first cycle on Saturday after being off the bike for 5.5 weeks with very painful sciatica i.e. intermittently, you get a sharp pain in your side and shooting pains going down your leg – and this can happen during the day or night. Okay, it’s a fairly minor complaint but it’s very annoying and frustrating, particularly with the knowledge that cycling will make it worse. When you look up sciatica on the web, the first thing your told by all the websites I looked at is: There is no cure for sciatica. You just have to wait until it calms down and do warm up and warm down exercises before cycling. So, on the bike – tentatively. When you come back to cycling, especially when you get older, there is a change in the environment. What used to be inclines are back to hills, and what used to be small hills are now biggish hills and as for the big hills – forget about them for a while. However, I know that after a few longer cycle rides, the inclines will return to their former status, as will the little hills and the big hills can be conquered – maybe at a painfully slow rate at first.

On Saturday’s bike ride and on today’s, it was refreshing to be out looking at the countryside again, passing clumps of snowdrops now at their peak and also emergent crocus and the odd daffodil in flower. Plus, many of the fields are going green again, while others, newly ploughed, have a sheen on the turned earth which the sun catches. So it was appropriate today that, while on the bike, I listened (safely, able to hear traffic behind me) to a podcast from Melvyn Bragg’s educative and informative series In Our Time on Radio 4. This podcast ( you can listen from anywhere in the world) was on the poet John Clare  and there was a fascinating discussion by three academic experts on Clare’s childhood. He was brought up in relative poverty in the village of Helpston in Northamptonshire, where his father worked on a local farm. Clare left school at 11 and was introduced to poetry by fellow farm labourer, who showed Clare a book of poems about landscape. Clare was published in his 20s and was marketed as a poor farm labourer (a la Robert Burns in Scotland) with a gift for poetry. The podcast reveals how Clare became a poet of the countryside – from the countryside’s and its animals’ point of view i.e. Clare on his walks delved into elements such as the Nightingale’s Nest. As one of the panel observed, Clare did not observe the rural landscape “from over a 5-barred gate” as other rural poets did, but included details – such as the composition of the nightingale’s nest. Clare’s fame did not last and he ended up in a lunatic asylum, but he still wrote poems which have endured until today, later in his life. Clare’s style fell out of fashion but there has been a revival of interest in Clare by poets such as Seamus Heaney and Tom Paulin, who admired Clare’s use of local dialect words. I would recommend this podcast to everyone, not just those interested in poetry.

We are two-thirds of the way through February and the crocus flowers have added a welcome splash of early Spring colour across the UK. Here in Dunbar, the local council have planted hundreds of crocus around the town. The photos that follow are from the council-planted crop just up the road from my house. It was very windy when I took the photos but the sun was out and the crocus glittered and swayed in the wind, which is not cold today. Tomorrow, however, the temperatures are to plummet and we may get gales and snow, which means a battering  for these attractive but flimsy flowers. In this photo, I like the combination of colours, yellow, purple and different shades of green.

img_1242

Crocus on Spott Road, Dunbar

In the next photo, a close-up (difficult to do in the wind), the crocus appear to be reaching up to the sun and opening their flowers to ingest the sun’s rays.

img_1245

Close up of crocus on Spott Road, Dunbar

In the final photo, which includes both yellow and purple flowers, the crocus are like open-mouthed choir boys, singing at the top of their voices.

Crocus on Spott Road, Dunbar

Crocus on Spott Road, Dunbar

John Clare refers to the crocus in some of his poems, such as this from Early Spring “The Spring is come, and Spring flowers coming too, The crocus, patty kay, the rich hearts’ ease;”. The patty kay is the hepatica flower and the photo below is included under the Creative Commons licence.

Hepatica flower

Hepatica flower