Archive for the ‘literature’ Category

Scrublands by Chris Hammer and The Gripps at Dunbar Harbour

May 21, 2020

I was particularly keen to read Chris Hammer‘s debut crime novel Scrublands (review) as it is set in the Riverina in New South Wales. The area is familiar to me from my time teaching with Charles Sturt University for 8 years in the noughties, partly in Australia and partly from Dunbar. This novel has been lavishly praised by reviewers and, on the book itself, by other crime writers. It is a very well plotted novel which keeps the reader interested and intrigued, as a good crime novel should. The atmosphere Hammer creates around the fictional NSW town of Riversend is very well done, from the run down shops to the blistering heat of the rural Australian summer. The novel is not without its flaws however, and I agree with my friend John who wondered if there was some sort of “you scratch my back…” amongst some of the crime writers featured on the book’s cover (photo below) and inside pages.

The protagonist of the story is a journalist (like the author) Martin Scarsden, who is sent to the small town of Riversend to investigate how the town is coping one year after a multiple shooting by the local priest. Scarsden himself has been a victim of violence himself, kidnapped by terrorists in the Middle East and there are flashbacks to this. The story revolves around the multiple murders – why did the priest do it? – and the discovery of murdered German tourists in the Scrublands – a wide area where little grows – outside the town. The plot is unrelenting and and sometimes overwhelmingly so. There is a road crash, a bushfire and the rescue of a young boy all happening in a short space of time and you wonder why an editor did not advise the writer that this may be too much.

As the novel progresses, we do find out more about a range of characters and the reader is kept going until the end of the book, when we find out the most plausible explanation for the multiple shooting. Hammer does not fall into the trap of many crime writers and have a melodramatic ending. So this book, while not as good as some of the reviews – in my opinion of course – is one I would recommend, especially for the rural Australian background, with its unique sounds e.g. of silver crested cockatoos screeching, its Australian dialogue which is not overdone, and its portrayal of the harsh environment in which much of the action takes place.

Crime novel set in the NSW heartland (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

If you were approaching Dunbar Harbour by boat, on your left hand or port side, you would see a concreted area on the cliff face and this is called The Gripps. It has been restored recently with the addition of the railings (photo below) but was put there as an aid to boats entering the harbour. It is also known as the Sandstone Bar. My Dunbar and District History Society colleague Gordon Easingwood told me that “Dunbar is known as a sudden death harbour” and that boats are safe once they are past The Gripps, but previous to its being built, there was only natural rock and boats could get into difficulties. Gordon continued “It is bad enough counting the breakers coming in from the west side of the rocks but to have another set of waves just where the Bar is can be frightening. Especially under sail or low powered engines as the early fishing boats were”. The Gripps was therefore built to prevent waves coming through a low gap in the rock formation and putting boats in danger.

The Gripps at the entrance to Dunbar Harbour

The photo below shows the edge of The Gripps from the north side and if you look to the right hand side (Gordon’s west side above) you can see the swell hitting the base of Dunbar Castle (good photos). What you cannot see is that there is a similar, fast moving swell just below the rocks on which I was standing. It is still a tricky entrance to the harbour and you can often see sailing boats coming into the harbour looking as if they might get into trouble and some occasionally do. You can imagine the sailors perhaps gritting their teeth, closing their eyes and just going for the harbour – and breathing a sigh of relief as they pass the dangerous part.

The photo below shows The Gripps looking north from the harbour. On the right hand side, there is a semi-circular feature made of sandstone blocks which stops the tide coming in from the east side of this area. At the top of the enlarged photo, you can just see North Berwick Law (good photos) and at the top left is the promenade above the sandstone cliffs.

I took this video on my Lenovo mobile phone, so not the best camera but it will give you an idea of what it is like standing near The Gripps.

Views from The Gripps

The Wall by John Lanchester and this year’s bluebells

May 6, 2020

I bought a copy of John Lanchester’s novel The Wall (review) before the lock down started, not anticipating that it might have relevance – potentially of course – today. It is a dystopian novel, set in a future where The Change – an undefined environmental global catastrophe – has transformed the UK into a totalitarian state which has built a wall all around the coast of the mainland. The wall is meant to keep out The Others whom we are led to believe are refugees trying to get into Britain for a better life. There are several echoes of Orwell’s 1984 here, especially the terminology e.g. some people – often refugees – are allowed to stay in Britain as The Help and those who are Defenders i.e. those who work as guards on The Wall, are given The Help as servants.

The novel’s protagonist is Kavanagh who is a young man doing his compulsory two years on The Wall. The story begins with Kavanagh’s dread of working 12 hour shifts on The Wall where it is often cold, sometimes wet and always boring. As a reader, you wonder where Lanchester is going with this tale e.g. will it be a detailed description of the post Change society? There are references to this such as the allocation of some people as Breeders but as the novel develops, it becomes more of a roller-coaster ride with refugee attacks and the consequences of this – not revealed here. It is a shortish book – the 276 pages in my copy being in fairly large print – and while it is extremely well written and continually tense and intriguing, I found myself wanting more depth to the characters and more explanations of what life was like in such as heavily controlled society. The control in the present pandemic is nothing like that of the novel but Lanchester cleverly suggests – in a very subtle way – that a country like the UK could slip into totalitarianism in a much worse situation. I would certainly recommend this book highly.

Dystopian novel (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

Another visit to Foxlake woods to see this year’s crop of bluebells. Depending on what time of day you visit and whether the sun is shining through the trees or not, you always see something different. The photo below shows the sign for the bluebells. It’s an interesting sign in that it uses the Scots word mind, not meaning to remember but meaning to watch out for or to be careful with. In the background are some scattered bluebells and the large, solid trunk of the tree.

Advisory sign to walkers at Foxlake Woods

The maturing of the bluebell flower heads coincides with the appearance of the new green leaves on the trees, so you get double the pleasure when you walk along the path. So the scene in the photo below has gone from an uninteresting bed of green – bluebells without their bells – and bare, sometimes forlorn looking trees, to a visual delight with the purple of the bluebells and the delicate greenery in the tress, particularly the saplings on view here. Although it is early May and only 12 degrees, there is a warmth about what you are looking at and it is also a very cheering sight.

Carpet of bluebells

The next photo shows the canopy of tree branches that soar above the path as you look along the woods. On the left, you an see the still bare branches, extending like grotesquely overgrown fingernails, of some of the trees. The new greenery may block out the sun more but it is a very welcome splash of colour, giving the trees back their graceful elegance which they lost in the autumn. It is tempting, when looking at the bluebells, which you know are going to be temporary, to forget to look up to the fresh green leaves. You should always do so as this gentle green on the leaves is also temporary.

Canopy of green at Foxlake Woods

Close up, you can see how the flowers got their name and these bells below look as if they may be ringing, with some invisible ropes making them sway and peal. I like the way the sun on the flower heads changes the colour, depending on the angle of the light hitting the bluebells. Also, in the photo, you can just see that inside each bell are yellow stamen which attract the bees. There is a playful look to these bells, with their upturned ends suggesting dancing.

Hanging bells

I took this video on my Android Lenovo mobile phone so the quality is not as great as with say, an IPhone (which I am continuously told to get) but it still captures this glorious display of colour.

Bluebells at Foxlake – with commentary

The Hoot and SPLIT: Poems by Juana Adcock

April 28, 2020

Members of the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club (SOC) receive a seasonal online newsletter entitled The Hoot which is put together by Rosie Filipiak, the Communications Officer at SOC. The Hoot’s heading shows a different bird each season and this is the one for this Spring.

The Hoot edited by Rosie Filipiak (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

On of the birds featured in this issue is the bullfinch (link includes bullfinch song) which has the wonderful scientific name of Pyrrhula Pyrrhula. Rosie Filipiak’s description is “Bullfinches are such lovely birds, both sexes with their smart, clearly defined colouring and the male with his gloriously-coloured chest in a difficult to describe bright red/pink/orange hue” and that is as good as I could do. The photo below – Rosie Filipiak gave me permission to download her photos – shows a bullfinch with perhaps some nesting material in its beak – or a captured insect? This is a very graceful looking bird which looks comfortable in its own elegance and I like the contrast between the delicate pink of the chest and the dark blue of its head. The female bullfinch (video) also has different shades on its plumage but the colours are less pronounced.

Bullfinch by Rosie Filipiak

The Hoot includes brief articles and photos by a range of authors. The second one featured here is the eider duck which has the rather serious sounding scientific name of Somateria Mollissima. The name comes from the Greek for body and wool, so the eider duck is seen as having the softest wool. The photo below shows both male and female eider duck and there are no prizes for guessing which is which. We regularly get sets of eider duck in the water at the back of our house and sometimes, when you walk along to Dunbar Harbour, there will be up to 30 male and female eiders in the harbour water. From the harbour side, you can clearly hear the clucking of the females and the whoo-whooing of the males, the latter being quite a comical sound.

Eider duck by Rosie Filipiak

Male eiders have a beautiful light green colour on their necks and this is quite visible when they swim away from you. The photo below hints at this colour but when the sun is on the bird’s neck, the green becomes lighter and more prominent.

Eider duck by Ross Elliott and produced here under the Creative Commons Licence.

The Poetry Book Society’s (PBS) Winter 2019 Choice was Juana Adcock’s debut collection Split. The Guardian reviewer found this collection “unnerving, moving and engrossing” and I would agree with that statement – in parts of the book. Adcock can be a beautifully lyrical poet. In a poem about the Italian Cinque Terre, the land describes itself as “cut into terraces my earth/ hugged together by roots my water/ inking through gaps my stones/ holding together neatly my walls/ tidy in vineyards and olive groves”. The poem – no punctutation – regrets that this pristine land has become a tourist destination in modern times. One of the themes of the book is migration and Adcock adds a very modern aspect to today’s Cinque Terre – “And as the dinghies sink/ and those fleeing from war drown/ wordlessly in my picturesque sea” the Tourist Board is examining how to increase visitor numbers – of tourists that is, not refugees.

I found some of the writing self-indulgent and was not as impressed by the opening section, which is a dialogue between a woman and a snake, although other, and I am sure much more qualified, reviewers raved over this part. The book is also overtly political in parts – and none the less effective for that. In Letters to the Global South, the richer northern hemisphere tells the South “Thank you for sending us your choicest foods/ …. In exchange, please receive these trade agreements/ you never agreed to/ These weapons for small and large-scale kills”. This is of course, a generalisation of the whole northern hemisphere but it is certainly relevant to some countries.

There is also humour in the book and Adcock, who is Mexican and has lived in Glasgow since 2007, amusingly but tellingly compares different languages – Spanish, English and Scots dialect. The poet reflects “Reading Scots on the page, to me/ a non-native of these lands/ is a bit like trying to read an architect’s plans”. The poet listens to Scottish people talking with ” their ars rolling around the muirs/ their els liltin and birlin over the water/ … their ees stretching my face bones higher/ … their liquid ues in the muine-moon” – very clever. It reminded me of living in Australia and doing timing at Wagga Wagga Road Runners, with people mimicking my accent and asking “Where’s the booook James?” as they came to sign in. So I would recommend Split – just don’t believe all the hype.

Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea and Sheila Sim’s garden photography

April 20, 2020

I have just finished reading Joseph O’Connor‘s outstanding novel Star of the Sea (review) The book was published in 2002 and there is a fascinating 2019 introduction to the book by the author. In this, O’Connor compares the starving Irish population of the village of Letterfrack (good photos) in the 1840s to people starving in Africa today. He writes “Down at the very bottom [of Irish society] were the nobodies of Connemarra: white Ethiopians of the Dickensian world”. The novel takes the form of the story of the vessel The Star of the Sea and its journey to America. On board are the poor in steerage and many of them are ill with disease or starvation. There is a first class area of the ship and this holds the wealthy passengers, among them is David Merridith, Lord Kingscourt who is intriguingly called The Victim early in the book. O’Connor cleverly has the narrator of the story being an American journalist Grantley Dixon who is also in first class.

On the face of it, this could appear to be a story of misery, violence, poverty and wealth with a range of stereotypical characters, as the ship progresses and the poorer passengers suffer and die, while the rich enjoy fine dining. O’Connor is too subtle a writer to allow this to happen. As one reviewer wrote “As with much Irish writing, there is a telling contrast between the bleakness of the materials and the opulence of the treatment”. Characters of all classes are allowed to be developed and they are all interlinked – before and during the voyage. There are also sections on London and Charles Dickens makes an appearance, with O’Connor cleverly suggesting that Dickens found the name Fagan from one of the novel’s protagonists Pius Mulvey. This is a long novel – 405 pages in small type in my paperback – but the author manages to keep the reader both interested and fascinated by the developing story. The plot goes right to the end and there are many turning points where the reader can be taken aback by certain revelations. I cannot recommend this novel too highly. I heard Joseph O’Connor speak at the Edinburgh Book Festival (alas cancelled for 2020) last year and he is a brilliant raconteur as well as an accomplished writer.

Star of the Sea – an outstanding novel (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

Sheila Sim is a photographer who is based here in Dunbar and she has kindly allowed me to download some of her photos to feature in the blog. Sheila’s photography ranges from the UK to Russia and Portugal and she has been invited to contribute to journals such as The English Garden and Gardener’s World. There was an exhibition of her work recently at Dunbar’s John Muir’s Birthplace but this was unfortunately halted due to the closure of the birthplace under current government rules. Examples from the exhibition are available online.

The first example of Sheila Sim’s photography from this exhibition in the photo below, shows the beautiful garden at Humbie Dean and this is the work of Frank Kirwan over 7 years. The exhibition notes that he ” has almost single-handedly created an ornamental and woodland oasis out of dense thicket and challenging terrain”. The scene below will now have passed this year and the daffodil heads will be shrunk and looking forlorn. In the photo, however, the daffodils are at their prime and perhaps they are singing joyfully, their heads like open mouths, but we cannot hear the sound. There are superb contrasts in this photo, between the yellow heads and white with yellow centre heads, the different coloured green stems of the flowers and their grassy surrounds. What makes this photo stand out to me is the silver birch at the top of the slope, with its graceful, dappled trunk taking our eye towards the sky.

Humbie Dean garden by Sheila Sim

The next photo below is of the garden at Greywalls Hotel (good photos) in Gullane (pr Gullin) – c16 miles/25K up the East Lothian coast from Dunbar. This is a more formal garden which may have been designed by the famous Gertrude Jekyll. We’ve gone from the Spring in Humbie to the summer at Greywalls. The photo has captured the manicured lawn areas very well – both in the sun and in the shadows. The large bush at the forefront of the photo takes our eye up through the garden to the house, with the large tree on the left. This is a shapely garden and like the Humbie daffodils, the red flowers are reaching up to display their colour to attract the bees.

Greywalls garden by Sheila Sim

The final photo from the exhibition comes from the garden at Archerfield (good photos). This garden is attached to a cafe/shop and behind it there is a fairy trail for children. It is a very pleasant garden to walk round and this photo cleverly shows the crossroads of the paths. In the summer, there is a riot of colour amongst the flowers and the vegetable sections are sumptuous. I like the variety in this photo, with different elements on view – flowers, paths, greenhouses and of course the magnificent sandstone walls that surround the garden, as well as the huge trees looming above the walls against a blue sky.

Archerfield garden by Sheila Sim

When this pandemic is over, I hope that this exhibition – of the work of an expert photographer – can still be available for people to see in person i.e. to see the photos as a collection and not just as individual photos, as good as they are.

Hyacinths and tulips in the sun and in poetry

April 13, 2020

My annual attempt to capture the essence of the beautiful tulips now at their resplendent best in my garden carries on. In addition, this year I have hyacynths as last year, my sister bought us some hyacinth bulbs in a small pot and, having stored them over winter, I planted them out again in a much larger pot. The photo below shows three plants already in full bloom and two others just emerging. I like the way that the flowers change from a dark blue when they are maturing to this graceful light purple colour when fully grown, and there is a contrast between the strong green of the leaves and the delicate shades in the flower heads.

Hyacinths in a large pot (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

Hyacinths have an easily recognised scientific name Hyacinthus and are part of the Asparagales family. Hyacinths have a long history and in Greek mythology, a dispute between the gods Apollo and Zephyr led to the death of Hyakinthos, a young Greek. From his wound, a flower grew and it was named after him. The photo below shows that the hyacinth is multi-headed, with each elements of the flower having its own dark centre. I like the movement apparent in this flower and it seems to be swirling around while being, in fact, motionless. If you cast your eye up and down the flower, each segment extends its petals as a ballet dancer might extend her/his limbs.

The swirling hyacinth

This year’s tulips have been a sight for sore eyes and have lasted well, due to the absence of strong winds. Those in the photo below are new bulbs I bought last autumn. There is a gap in the pots in front of the tulips and there should have been variegated pansies on show there. Unfortunately, all the pansies I planted died as a result of pansy sickness, for which there is no cure.

Tulips by the seashore

Taking a closer look at the tulips, as in the photo below, you get a better appreciation of the colours in display. What appear to be yellow tulips also have other colours on the outside and inside of the flowers. I like the shadows on the leaves of this group, as they appear to be creeping up the plants towards the tulip heads, which are opening to the sun and increasing the quality of the display. Tulips are bigger and bolder than daffodils and take over from their still beautiful, but mono-coloured neighbours. You get the feeling that the tulips enjoy this superiority of colour.

Tulips and shadows

Taking an even closer look at the tulip heads, there appears to be another world inside. In this photo, the petals are giving us a glimpse of what might be inside. The petals are unfolding like clues in a crime novel in which the plot is revealed slowly. I also like the way some of the colours darken as the shadows move across the flower head, while other colours are revealed on the outside of the petals.

Almost revelatory tulip

So what is shown inside, what happens when the clues build up and there is a tense ending to the novel? The tulip opens up further and there is a strange looking six-limbed , one-eyed creature surrounded by flames on display. Is it a murderous or a benign alien, or just a dancer in a surreal costume at street festival in Rio?

Energetic inside of the tulip

The final close up shows the dancing beastie in all her/his finest attire and flaming backdrop.

Spring dance

Both flowers are cited in some famous poetry. In his poem Charmides, Oscar Wilde recalls the origin of hyacinths – “The stealthy hunter sees young Hyacinth / Hurling the polished disk”. In Milton’s Isabella, the lovers “..All close they met, all eves, before the dusk / Had taken from the stars its pleasant veil, / Close in a bower of hyacinth and musk”. In Tulips, A E Stallings writes “The tulips make me want to paint….. The tulips make me want to see“. Sylvia Plath’s poem Tulips has the opposite effect on the poet, as she writes “The tulips are too excitable.. The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me…. Upsetting me with their sudden tongues and their color”. Plath, I am sure is in a very small minority of tulip non-admirers, as the sudden tongues are surely a delightful description of the flaming red in the tulips. We still have more tulips to come out in pots and in the ground, so I am looking forward to finding out – in Stallings’ terms – what the tulips will make me do i.e. in addition to smile and admire.

Eden’s Hall Broch and An Orchestra of Minorities

April 5, 2020

Following on from last week’s post , this week’s focuses firstly on the broch itself. The Dictionary of the Scottish Language defines a broch as “A prehistoric structure, found in Orkney and Shetland and the adjacent Scottish mainland, consisting of a round tower with inner and outer walls of stone, and popularly supposed to have been built by the Picts“. So the broch we visited in the lowlands of Scotland is very unusual. Historic Environment Scotland’s Statement of Significance – a pdf dowload – states that “Edin’s Hall is of significance primarily as one of the best-preserved examples of a broch (or at least a broch-like structure) in southern Scotland. This location sets it outwith the main distribution pattern of brochs and it gains additional importance by virtue of being sited within an earlier hillfort“. The report also notes that Eden’s Hall Broch differs in form from most other brochs e.g. the central area is much larger. Despite what I say in the video below, it is unlikely that the whole central area would have been covered over.

The photo below is of one the guide boards near the broch. It shows that the broch itself was part of a larger area in which there was a nearby settlement and another guide board at the site itself suggests that the broch may not have been – as in Orkney – a house with a roof but more of a “small stone-walled fort”.

Guide to the area and the broch (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

It is nevertheless a very impressive site, given its age. The photo below shows the intricate placing of the stones – collected from the hills nearby – in a wall which is 1.5 metres thick and there is an admirable solidity to the structure. We often admire late 19th century dry stane dykes (dry stone walls) around the UK but these Iron Age builders were equally adept at producing something which has its own kind of graceful flow to it.

The thick walls of the broch

The next photo shows one of the walled off spaces in the broch. These may not have been traditional rooms e.g. bedrooms as in the Orkney brochs, but could have been storage spaces. You can see the construction of the walls with the interlinking stones and this is a very skilled task, especially getting the smooth looking effect of the stones which form the “room”.

One of the “rooms” in the broch

I took this video and it probably gives you a better idea of the broch and you cannot fail to be impressed by the fact that this stone structure was built by hand, with no modern machinery, mortar or measuring equipment. Stone age people were obviously much more sophisticated than they are often given credit for.

Eden’s Hall Broch as seen by a 21st century man

I have recently finished Chigozie Obioma’s novel An Orchestra of Minorities (review). I had previously read Obioma’s outstanding novel The Fisherman (my review) and found him to be an excellent storyteller. His new book is a much more challenging read but none the less rewarding for that. Chinonso is a Nigerian chicken farmer who falls in love with Ndali, a woman from a wealthy family and she returns his love. Ndali’s family reject him because of his low status and this begins a tragic tale which follow Chinonso from Nigeria to Cyprus, where he is to study for a degree. He is then the victim of a scam. Further humiliations follow – no spoilers here – and Chinonso’s story takes on a Thomas Hardyesque tragic hue. The story is narrated by Chinonso’s chi (pr chee?) which is his spirit in Igbo cosmology, which Obioma defines as “a complex system of beliefs and traditions” in Nigeria.

Many sections of the book begin with the chi representing his host Chinonso to a greater being which has several names e.g. Edubidike and asking the being for forgiveness for his host. We do not find out the justification for this until near the end of the book. The story has some comical elements also and Chinonso’s misfortunes are often portrayed in a wry manner. Obioma is also a poetic writer with some wonderful turns of phrase and use of images. Examples include:

And in the silence, he heard the sound of nocturnal insects emptying into the ear of the night.

He was almost asleep, anchored like a wind-born leaf between sleep and awakening

In its [thunder’s] aftermath, lightning struck the face of the horizon, shaped like thin branches of phosphorescent trees

Overall, I found this an absorbing book although I think it would have benefited from some editing in the sections dealing with aspects of the Igbo cosmology. I would certainly recommend it to anyone who appreciates fine literature and I leave the final comment to the Guardian review (link above) “Few contemporary novels achieve the seductive panache of Obioma’s heightened language, with its mixture of English, Igbo and colourful African-English phrases, and the startling clarity of the dialogue”.

An absorbing novel

Walk past Biel House and Burns at Bolton

January 26, 2020

Following on from a recent blog which featured a walk on the Biel Estate, which is 4 miles/6.5K from Dunbar, this post extends the walk past the very impressive Biel House itself. Walking up from the Biel Burn, I passed what could have been a still life painting. The photo below shows the fallen trees, one of which appears to be still umbilically, but lifelessly, attached to its jagged trunk. There was no wind in the trees behind and they also looked statuesque, with the sun coming through them. I think that this would make a great painting, in the right hands.

Fallen trees wood sculpture near Biel House (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

So on to the still muddy the path to the top of the hill and a left turn into the gates going into Biel House itself, where the path down the hill is of tar. The large grassy slope in the front of the house contains some very old and impressive trees, including this one – partially seen – in the photo below. The house today has been turned into flats but it was was once one of the major country houses in Scotland. In a few weeks’ time, the grassy area on view here will be filled with daffodils in full bloom, and that is a wonderful sight in itself on a sunny day.

Looking down to Biel House

The photo below (from this Wikipedia site, which needs to be checked with another source) shows the house about 1900, with its extended buildings. The house is described here as “Biel is an 18th-century mansion incorporating a 14th-century tower house.” The house has a long history and part of the building was demolished in 1952. It is still a grand house to look at but the demolition greatly diminished the magnificence of the early 20th century castellated house.

Biel House c1900

After you walk past the main building, you come to (photo below) the entrance, known architecturally as The Gatepiers, were built in the 18th century, and still stand as solid to day as when they were built 200 years ago. You could be walking out of a castle. The stonemasonry shown here is very impressive, with the carved stone blocks, the small mortar gap between the stones, and the elegant arch. You can imagine horse drawn carriages passing through the gates, bringing the Hamilton-Nisbet family, prominent in the local aristocracy, back home to their dominant structure.

Eastern entrance to Biel House

As I write, it is the 25th January – the birthday of our country’s bard Robert Burns – and noted as Burns Day. For my many readers in Australia, it is already Australia Day with a holiday for most people tomorrow. The poet will be celebrated across Scotland tonight at Burns’ Suppers which involve piping in the haggis, addressing the haggis, eating a meal of haggis, neeps (swedes/turnips) and chappit tatties (mash potato) and drinking whisky. These events can be stimulating – short, amusing speeches and music – or extremely tedious – long-winded, self-satisfied men going on far too long. It is better not to ask what the exact contents of the haggis might be and it is always better to have a dram (or good red wine)before eating.

While the Burns Mausoleum (good photos) is located in Dumfries in the southwest of Scotland, a little hamlet 14.6 miles/24K from Dunbar named Bolton, is the site of the graveyard of Burns’ mother and some of his family. The photo below shows the plaque outside the graveyard. I have always thought that the phrase mortal remains can sound contradictory. It means the remains of what was a living person, but the word mortal implies a living person who is subject to death, so logic might suggest that mortal remain are living remains.

Burns’ family plaque

The gravestone itself is carved with the names of Burns’ brother Gilbert, his children, and Burns’ mother and sister. The photo below shows the gravestone and the next photo – taken from the nearby information board – shows what is written on the stone. The stone is interesting historically because of its association with Robert Burns, but also because it shows the common occurrence of child/teenage mortality at this time. The first 3 of Gilbert’s children died aged 7, 15 and 18 and Gilbert saw all his children die in his own lifetime – a continuing tragedy for the man. Burns’ mother Agnes lived to the age of 88, which was very uncommon in the 19th century. The stone also indicates that Gilbert Burns was the factor at Grants Braes, which is a farm just down the road from Bolton. A factor was a farm manager in the 19th century, hired by a landowner to run the farm profitably and Gilbert would have moved from the southwest of Scotland to East Lothian to gain this fairly well paid job.

Gravestone in Bolton Parish Church
Information on the stone erected by Burns’ brother

Darren Woodhead exhibition and Dazzling Blue on Xmas Day

January 8, 2020

The current (ends on 15 January 2020) exhibition on at Waterston House in Aberlady, home of SOC, is by the renowned wildlife artist Darren Woodhead (video). I reviewed Darren Woodhead’s previous SOC exhibition on the blog here. This new exhibition is no less stunning than the previous one and shows the artist at the height of his powers. Woodhead has a very distinct style and a key feature of this style is shown in the example below. Our eyes are attracted to the sunflowers – the complicated structure of the flower heads and the vivid yellow petals. If you hadn’t seen the title of the work, you might pass on to the next painting without seeing the tiny, almost elusive but very elegant birds. The goldfinches’ yellow, black, brown, white and red patches then catch your eye. So the artist’s skill is in making us look closely at the whole painting. As with all the examples here, the photos of the paintings do not do justice to the actual paintings, many of which are quite large.

Goldfinch on Sunflowers by Darren Woodhead (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

The second example below shows that Darren Woodhead’s range is not confined to birds. This is a different painting altogether, with the strong colours of the butterflies standing out, as opposed to the lighter shades used in the picture above. So this could be seen as a heavier and darker composition, but there is a lightness about the butterflies which appear to be in motion. Anyone who had tried to photograph red admirals will know that they are creatures of almost perpetual motion, stopping only briefly on flowers to feed. As with all his paintings, the artist here captures the variety of colours on display and I like the contrast between the strong blues, oranges and blacks of the butterflies and the lighter purples and yellows of the flower heads. Look at the butterflies and you will see that each one has its own individual – and fascinating – colour scheme.

Red Admiral Butterflies by Darren Woodhead

The third example is the lightest of the three and, like the goldfinches’ painting, is a very delicate portrayal of these small birds. Tree sparrows differ from house sparrows (of which we have an intermittent population nesting in the eaves of our house) in appearance, in that they have ” a solid chestnut-brown head and nape, whilst house sparrows (males at least) have a light grey crown”. Darren Woodhead has captured the solid heads of the birds and he has also shown how well camouflaged these birds can be by showing the similarities in shape and colour of the birds’ plumage and the leaves on the branch where the birds are perched. The two tree sparrows look as if they might be enjoying a warm summer’s day, with the sun showing off the white face of the bird on the right. They look at ease with the day and with each other.

Tree Sparrow Pair by Darren Woodhead

If you can get to see this exhibition or another display by this artist, do not hesitate to go, as you will be in for a visual treat.

We awoke on Xmas Day in Dunbar to a cold, bright, sunny morning with a big Australian sky i.e. cloudless, above us. I went for a walk to the shoreline next to Dunbar Golf Club (good photos), taking my camera with me. I went along the side of the course, where quite a few golfers were out, no doubt trying out their Xmas presents. I then went down on to the little stretch of beach just beyond the 4th green. It was a very still day and the sea was flat calm, with only the gentlest of surf i.e. what Philip Larkin observed, with wonderful onomatopoeia, as “the small hushed waves’ repeated fresh collapse”. It was the colours that enthralled me. The photo below shows a smallish rock pool which reflected the clear blue sky and if you look carefully, you can see the small reflections of the little rocks in the pool.

Blue rock pool to the east of Dunbar

The next photo shows the larger pond, the sea beyond and the sky, which is of a lighter blue than the pond. Not long after I took this photo, a single greylag goose appeared at the far side of the pond. If I had taken my long lens, I could have had a close up shot. I could clearly see its pink beak as it glided nonchalantly across the pond, keeping its distance from me.

Large pool on the shore at Dunbar Golf Club

Looking at the pond reminded me of Paul Simon’s excellent song Dazzling Blue and this superb video shows him singing the song.

Back on the beach, there was a scattering of seaweed of various shapes, textures and colours.The photo below shows an example of the smooth, leathery seaweed which you could imagine might be made into belts. I liked the way the sun caught parts of the shiny surfaces and cast intriguing shadows across the myriad shell sand. It is a natural piece of abstract sculpture abandoned by the sea on the beach and waiting for rescue on the incoming tide.

Seaweed and shadows on the beach

The final photo looks back across the town of Dunbar. If you enlarge the photo, you will see the buildings of the Old Harbour on the right, the top of the modern swimming pool and the multi-chimneyed skyline of the High Street, with the white golf clubhouse on the left and the church behind it. In the foreground are the rocks at low tide and the dazzling blue of the pond taken from the side, half way up from the beach. So an enchanting walk on a dazzling Xmas Day.

Dunbar skyline from the east

William Boyd’s Love is Blind and frosty Gifford

December 30, 2019

William Boyd’s 15th novel Love is Blind (review) is the stylishly written and entertaining tale of Brodie Moncur, an expert piano tuner, who leaves his home in the Scottish borders at the end of the 19th century to work in Edinburgh. He leaves behind a tyrannical father – a foul-mouthed (in his own home) clergyman who makes money from his sermons by attracting visitors. Malky Moncur, the irascible clergyman, is both ludicrous and funny and Boyd has other characters in the book who enter Brodie’s life, and provide the reader with entertainment. Boyd is above all an excellent story teller and this tale takes in love, adventure and fascinating places – Edinburgh, Paris , St Petersburg and the Andaman Islands. Brodie falls in love with an opera singer Lika Blum, the partner of the famous pianist John Kilbarron and much of the book is about Brodie’s attempt to get away with Lika and avoid the Kilbarron brothers. William Boyd keeps us guessing at various points of the book about whether Brodie will be successful and how his pursuers manage to follow him to different parts of the world. There are some convenient happenings in Brodie’s life e.g. his unfair sacking from the Channon piano company, but the author takes the reader along with him as the story unfolds.

Boyd is particularly good at describing places at the end of the 19th century and we get glimpses of the wealthy parts of Edinburgh, Paris and St Petersburg but also the poorer and inevitably seamier side of these cities. The author takes us with him along named streets – George Street in Edinburgh, the “avenue de Alma, just of the Champs-Elysees” in Paris and Petrovsky Park in St Petersburg – and this gives the locations a real sense of place. Brodie Moncur is a memorable character and his story is highly recommended.

William Boyd’s superb novel (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

On the very frosty day referred to in the blog recently, we went up to the historic village of Gifford (good photos) for a walk. The village’s most famous son is John Witherspoon, one of the signatories to the USA’s Declaration of Independence. On the day we visited, the frost was much heavier than in Dunbar – Gifford is 13 miles/21K inland, so away from the salty sea air. This meant that the village took on a fairy tale look, with everything – roofs, gardens, trees and grass – turned into glorious white. The photo below shows a garden at the edge of the car park next to the village hall. You can see the heavy frost but also the evergreen tree at the top which has been in the sun. The sage-like green leaves on the plants look both limp and rigid at the same time.

Frosted garden in Gifford

Just around the corner, there is a bridge overlooking the burn/river that runs through the village. This photo shows the fast flowing burn, the whitened grass and fence on one side and the white, bare branches of the tree overhanging the water, which appeared to be running as fast as it could to get away from the frozen earth.

Gifford burn rushing onwards

A little further on, you are looking into a sizeable back garden and driveway which leads up to a substantial stone house. I like the variety in this photo, with the iced over greenhouse next to the mosaic of chopped logs. To the left, on the ground is what we would call a saw horse on which timber would be cut before being chopped for logs. It is also called a sawbuck in the USA. My Scottish brother in law said he would call it a cuddy which is a Scots word for a horse. The berries on the trees to the left and right add colour to this archetypal winter scene.

Woodshed, saw horse, greenhouse and berries in Gifford

While the previous photo has several elements to it, which makes it an attractive picture, the next photo is relatively simple. This magnificent copper beech hedge is enhanced by the white frost, while still retaining its own brown colour. Twelve hours later, this hedge would have resumed its normal colour as the temperature rose in the evening. It would also look less rigid than it does in the sub-zero temperature.

Frosted copper hedge in Gifford

This photo shows the entrance to Yester House (good photos) which stands at the end of the park. The driveway and gardens used to be open to the public but since it was bought by the son of an oil tycoon, the gates have been refurbished – and firmly shut. Only paying guests are welcome now. It remains an impressive gateway to the house and the frost on the trees, roofs and pillars give it the look of something out of a Gothic horror film. What terrors lie behind the locked gates?

Gates to Yester House in Gifford

The final photo looks over the empty oblong of grass which used to be used for grazing sheep and holding a market for sheep and cattle in former days. On the left is the row of trees which line the avenue to the park. The frost highlights the normally unremarkable (in winter) bare trees, which now stand out. The village hall (good photos) is the most prominent building in Gifford and is in the main street, along with the Goblin Ha’ pub. The original Goblin Ha’ (good photos) was part of Yester Castle which was built by Hugo de Giffard – purportedly a wizard, whose army of goblins built the large hall (ha’ pr haw in Scots) for him. The castle is now a ruin.

Gifford market area and village hall

Jericho Brown’s The Tradition and boats in the Old Harbour

December 23, 2019

The Autumn Choice of the Poetry Book Society was Jericho Brown’s The Tradition (review) . Brown is an American poet and there is a strong focus on race in the modern day USA. The first poem, entitled Ganymede and ostensibly about the Greek myth of a boy abducted by Zeus, ends with a reference to slavery – “The people of my country believe/ That we can’t be hurt if we can be bought”. The poet reflects that being a black man in the USA is to be constantly aware of danger and anonymity, with black people referred to as “they”. In Bullet Points, there is an air of defiance “I will not shoot myself/ In the head and I will not shoot myself / In the back…… In a police car while handcuffed”. The poems are sometimes shocking and difficult to read for a white person but this does not make them any less powerful. The book also shows Brown’s lyrical side and in Peaches, he writes “…..I hand you/ Fruit like two swollen bulbs/ Of light you can hold on to,/ Watch your eyes brighten as you eat”. In another poem “My mother grew morning glories that spilled on to the walkway/ toward her porch”. The later poems which reflect on the poet’s sexuality are less successful, I found, although the flow over the page with ease. This is a book of poems to be read over a long time, to appreciate Brown’s art. Ilya Kaminsky – featured on the blog here – writes “His [Brown’s] lyrics are memorable, muscular, majestic …[and] living on the page”. I agree.

An intriguing book of poetry. (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

On a cold and sunny day last week, I took a walk along to the harbour in Dunbar and stopped at what we call the Old Harbour. This is the smaller of the two harbours, with the Victoria Harbour much bigger. The Old Harbour is officially known as the Cromwell Harbour although its antecedents are much earlier. Originally, there was a natural harbour at what was called Lamerhaven and the new harbour, with a protective wall, was built in the 1570s. The harbour became known as the Cromwell Harbour after Oliver Cromwell occupied the town before the Battle of Dunbar in 1650.

The photo below shows the boats packed into the relatively small space of the Old Harbour and the calm reflections of the boats in the water. What this does not show is the high tide just over the wall, where huge waves were battering the sides of the harbour. In the main harbour, the waves were coming over the high wall, so this tranquil scene shows how well the Old Harbour is protected from the elements. In fact, the boats are here to keep them out of the main harbour as the high swells could cause damage.

Boats in the Old Harbour in Dunbar

The next photo shows the boats at the town side of the harbour and the protective stone wall which was damaged and repaired many times since the original build in the 1570s. All the boats have names such as Katie-Anne, Lona M and there will probably be a Selina May in every harbour in Scotland. Archie Fisher was one of those who sang the song Fareweel tae the Haven, which includes the lyrics “My faither went fishin’, my grandfaither tae/ My brother’s a skipper, on the Selina May”. Beyond the wall can be seen the Lammermuir Hills and the chimney of the local cement works.

Old Harbour in Dunbar

Looking back along the harbourside to the cottages and beyond, the photo below shows the houses at the Old Harbour and the sequence of red-roofed houses along the sea front. Up until the 1960s, this area was dominated by large sandstone barn-like buildings, which housed whisky and grain. Dunbar Parish Church can be seen to the left of the photo.

Looking towards the town from the Old Harbour

I walked around the harbour where more boats were parked but not so tightly and the sun produced some nice reflections in the water. On the left of the photo below is McArthur’s Store, formerly known as Spott’s Granary or Spott’s Girnell – a Scots word for granary. The building was refurbished in 2007 and is used as a store by local fishermen.

Old Harbour in Dunbar

The final photos show a not very Health and Safety fisherman aboard the Girl Jean using a cutting tool and producing huge bursts of sparks which leapt over the boat and on to the walkway at the harbourside.

Cutting steel on the Girl Jean
Sparks on the Girl Jean